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Shade to Shade by Slide
Chapter 17 : The Masks We Wear
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 3

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Chapter 16: The Masks We Wear


“There. See? Isn’t this much more civilised?”


Tanith wasn’t sure if she wanted to agree or cry as she was half-carried towards the Quidditch stands, flanked by Ariane and Melanie who were linking arms with her in a most girly and, in her opinion, most undignified fashion. All around them bustled the rest of the Slytherins, everyone with at least a scarf demonstrating House colours, some bearing larger flags and banners, everyone with their focus on one thing.


For today was a Quidditch day.


“Civilised? Maybe. Moderately scary? Definitely. We look like a coven of evil,” Tanith muttered, wishing she could pull her arms free so she could tighten the scarf around her neck to guard against the chill of the wind. Unfortunately, any effort to free her arms would immediately be interpreted as an effort at escape, and Melanie for one had an iron grip on her.


“All the better to scare the Gryffindors,” Melanie said with a small cackle. “If they think we’re actually evil incarnate, we might as well make the most of it.”


“Now, now, Mel, we have to demonstrate a degree of… restraint. Superiority.” Ariane smiled superciliously. “Just to remind them who’s better.”


“I thought you said this was going to be a fun morning, not a morning of proving that we’re so much better than the Gryffs,” Tanith bemoaned. The fact that, before Ariane had ambushed her at the breakfast table when Cal had gone off to get ready, she’d been anticipating spending her day doing exactly that was irrelevant. Before, the plan had been to hurl insults and maybe the odd bit of debris from the stalls at Gryffindors. Now she was going to have to practice looking down her nose at them, and when you weren’t very tall that just tended to give you a crick in your neck.


“And that’s not fun?” Melanie grunted, grinning.


“We’ve got to at least rescue Doyle. Otherwise he’ll be stuck with Montague all morning, and that might drive him to dashing his brains out in search for something more exciting than any conversation that could foster.” Tanith sighed, glancing up and down the crowds as they drew closer to the stands. By now, the masses had blended into an array of all of the Houses, and so they seemed trapped in a sea of golds, silvers, reds, and greens, before the pupils filtered off to their own sections.


“Is it me,” she wondered at last, frowning as something began to tug at her mind, “or is there a lot more green than usual?”


“Aside from us, Tobias and the aforementioned Gabriel and Edmund are going to be the only Slytherins in the stand who actually remember the last time Slytherin beat Gryffindor,” Ariane said with a sigh suggesting that their lot in life was so very cruel.


“So no bugger’s going to be seen dead not pushing snake pride to the limit.” Melanie nodded.


Well. There are exceptions, of course, Tanith noted darkly as she saw Tobias and Annie ahead, by the steps up to the nearest stand, being far friendlier than was acceptable. Certainly far friendlier than was acceptable between a Gryffindor and a Slytherin on match-day.


It was Melanie who noticed the death-glares this little scene prompted, and so she didn’t slow down, instead steering the little committee on towards the next set of steps, far away from something that could prompt an explosion. “We’re not thinking about that today,” she said, firmly but not unkindly, as they continued.


“Thinking about what?” Ariane, quite often not as sharp as she was beautiful, asked before her mind finally finished its marathon sprint to the conclusion everyone else had reached and she gave a despairing sigh. “Oh, Tobias Grey, really. Salazar Slytherin must be rolling in his grave,” she murmured to herself as she glanced back.


“That? That’s a lack of not thinking about this,” Melanie said sharply as the three of them ascended the steps to join the masses of Slytherin House in their stand.


“I’m just saying that it’s rather unfitting for a Slytherin prefect, Head Boy to boot, to be fraternising with someone from an opposing House on Quidditch day, even if he does happen to have a regularly scheduled fumble behind the Herbology houses with her,” Ariane continued obliviously, by now quite clearly lost in her own little world of self-righteousness as she steered the three of them through the masses, running over small first-years and knocking aside anyone else with sheer estrogen in the hunt for the best seats.


Tanith idly wondered if the fall from the stalls to the ground below would kill her, and a quick glance in Melanie’s direction suggested the other girl was wondering something similar – or, perhaps, whether the fall would kill Ariane.


They let the taller girl witter on about the impropriety of it all until they found seats right near the front, pushing aside some sulky fourth-years so there was enough space. From this vantage point they could see the whole of the pitch spread out before them, and were perfectly positioned to see the glorious Slytherin victory.


They hoped.


“I wonder if Potter will get some debilitating injury again. He’s good for that, at least,” Melanie said wistfully, with no small dose of hope in her voice.


“I’m sure Draco will be able to best him.” Ariane paused, her perfect nose crinkling after a moment. “One of these days.”


“Draco’s not playing,” Tanith said, trying to rub circulation back into her arms now she’d been released. “He’s ill, or can’t be arsed, or something.”


Melanie looked over sharply. “What? Since when?”


She shrugged. “I don’t know. Cal mentioned it at breakfast. Apparently Urquhart’s furious, but Harper’s subbing for him.”


There was a stunned silence that met this, before Melanie looked down at the large brooch of a snake on the front of her coat. It was huge and garish, and thus had no place anywhere other than in displaying Quidditch fanaticism, but she took it off with a sigh. “Well. We’re fucked.”


“Oh, have a little bit of stamina to you, Mel, really,” Ariane scolded. “I’m sure Jack’s picked a wonderfully talented substitute who’s been perfectly well trained. Potter’s not unbeatable.”


“The only guy who beat him is dead.” Melanie paused, then snorted as a thought occurred. “Hey, do you think it wasn’t You-Know-Who who offed Diggory at all, but Potter for that time he got the Snitch first?”


Tanith rolled her eyes, finally reminded of the reason why she and Melanie weren’t better friends: the utter banality that often came out of her mouth. “Urquhart kind of saw this coming. He’s expected Harper to have to first-bench a few matches this year, what with Draco being as reliable as four day-old milk. It’s been planned for.”


“More pearls of wisdom from Cal?” Melanie said.


“Miles, actually. Draco’s been skipping loads of practices, apparently. Harper’s practically first Seeker anyway.” Tanith shrugged.


Ariane raised an eyebrow, looking at her curiously. “So you’ve been having discussions with Miles about Quidditch, have you?” she asked, with the worst attempt in the world to cover up her interest.


Tanith narrowed her eyes as she scanned the stalls. “I know I asked this earlier… but, really, there’s a lot more green than usual,” she observed in a desperate bid to change the subject.


Gryffindors were resplendent in their house’s colour, and the same for Slytherin, as expected. But Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws kept their banners for their own matches, and pupils of non-participating Houses tended to just root for whoever they fancied on any given day. For the longest time, especially in the wake of Slytherin’s unbroken cup record before Saint Potter, this meant that three-quarters of the stalls would be brandishing red and gold.


This time was different. This time it was only slightly more than half.


“You’re right,” Ariane said, frowning as she looked around. “There’s an awful lot more Slytherin colours than normal. Mostly from the Ravenclaw stands, look.”


“Well, bugger me. A war’s going on, and even though they think we’re bad to the bone they still root for us in Quidditch,” Melanie observed eloquently.


“I suppose nobody likes a winner who keeps on winning. Chang and Summerby have been talking about how the seasons are getting rather dull with Gryffindor taking the Cup year after year,” Tanith said, scratching her head in recollection. “And, well, scuttlebutt has it Urquhart’s put together the best team to beat Potter’s.”


She glanced at the other two, pausing as she realised they were staring at her with mixed expressions of horror, fascination, and confusion.




“‘Scuttlebutt’?” Melanie made a face.


Tanith sighed. “I’ve been spending too much time with Cal. The grapevine. Rumour mill. You know.”


“I know, just… never say that word again.” Ariane shuddered melodramatically, but seemed to get over it rather quickly as a girlish squeal escaped her mouth and she clapped her hands together excitedly. “Ooh, here they come!”


The stands erupted into a roar – and Tanith could swear she heard an actual roar from somewhere in the direction of the Ravenclaw stands – as the two teams jogged out onto the pitch, gathering in the centre before Madam Hooch and lining up before one another.


“Come on, Cal. Give us a win,” she murmured under her breath, praying to whatever forces of magic were out there that the winds of change were at their backs.


“Rip his little scarred face off, Jack!” Melanie shouted with much less composure next to her as the two team captains, rather small even from this distance but with the difference in size plain to see, stepped up to shake hands.


“Now, now, Mel,” Ariane said soothingly, calm even as the whistle went and the match began on the pitch and all around them. “We don’t shout and rave. We sit, we watch, we are superior. We are above all of this petty screaming and ranting. We are austere in victory, and even in defeat.”


Less than an hour later, as the whistle went and Potter tore across the skies victoriously gripping his fifth Snitch from a Slytherin match, Ariane was practically standing on the barrier in between her and a fifty-foot drop, shaking a fist at his broom and screeching “Just do us all a fucking favour and fall off your broom and break your neck, you little shit!


Bitter defeat, Tanith reflected darkly, was starting to become a familiar taste in her mouth.



* * * * * * * * * * *



The Slytherin common room was bathed in glowing green light of the rays of the setting sun filtered through waters of the lake, giving the entire chamber an eerie, almost ethereal quality. In times of euphoria, this effect would often foster a closer atmosphere, a sensation of proximity that would only heighten collective joy.


This wasn’t such a time, and in the wake of the Quidditch defeat, the room only seemed gloomy and ominous.


Stacks of snacks and butterbeer which had been hoarded in premature anticipation of a victory party were littered about the room, students picking at them with either disinterest or solemnity. The groups of Slytherins in various corners seemed to have either firmly moved on from the day’s defeat to be talking about something completely different, or were outright moping.


And, in the centre of the room, on the biggest table, Jack Urquhart poked and prodded at his diagrams and his tactics and his little animated figures and arrows and tried, for the umpteenth time, to figure out where they’d gone wrong.


“Weasleys,” he said at last with a sigh, looking up across the table at Cal, the only other member of the team who had been stayed to indulge in this exercise in self-flagellation. “We were ready for everything but the bloody Weasleys.”


Cal sighed, scrubbing his face with his hands. “Nobody could have anticipated a Keeper on such top form. It was practically inhuman, Jack.”


“But not unbeatable,” Urquhart grunted as he prodded a piece of paper, and the little diagrams moved to display the third at goal of the match that had been blocked. “What made it unbeatable were those Chasers. Enter Weasley the second.”


“Thought we’d have an easy time of things after getting rid of those twins, and look what happens.” Cal scowled.


“They lost their golden trio. Johnson, Spinnet, Bell. Not a one of them on the pitch today. Not a single Chaser out there who had seen a match actually as a Chaser. And they ran rings around us.” Urquhart swore under his breath as he moved on to reconstruct further plays of the game, eyes running over every detail in evaluation. Cal wasn’t sure if he’d had charms to record the match, or was doing all of this from memory – either way, it looked like the game would be burned into the Captain’s mind by the end of the night.


“Same with the Beaters.” Cal sighed. “I mean, we had them under control. They weren’t game-changing.”


“But it was all you two could do to keep things even. Still, keep your chin up, Cal. I’d say our Beaters were the only guys on the pitch today who were better than their team was.” Jack’s scowl deepened. “Two people in their team playing in position. And they beat our much more seasoned team.”


“They were unknown entities, Jack. We’d never seen them play before, we had absolutely no idea what tactics the Chasers would use, what defensive or offensive patterns they would rely upon.” Cal shrugged. Though defeat rested heavily in his belly, he didn’t fancy beating himself up over the issue for the rest of the year. On the other hand, he didn’t want to watch Urquhart doing so, either.


“I’ve never seen a Chaser like that Weasley girl,” Urquhart said with a sigh, not seeming to have heard him. “I remember the old Gryffindor golden trio, I remember Flint, Montague and Pucey when they were at their best. I remember Roger Davies. But Ginny Weasley…”


He shook his head before glancing up, Cal’s words finally seeming to be sinking in. “We need to be more innovative if they’re anticipating our tactics. We need to start again from scratch, completely deconstruct our methods and build this from the ground up.” Urquhart frowned again as he looked down at the paper, but that familiar glint of thoughtfulness had sparked again in his eyes, and Cal could practically see the cogs working in his head.


“Of course,” he breathed. “I’ve been so stupid about this. I’ve been following the tactics of Montague and Flint. They kept bloody losing… no wonder.” With a quick wave of the wand, the parchment cleared, and Urquhart leaned over it again, scribbling in the air to bring up fresh markings, a clean new set of notes and diagrams. “We have to build it around this team… not around what’s been before…”


Cal leaned back as Urquhart began to work, the defeat of the day already forgotten to him as he began to look towards the next match, the next training session. Within a few minutes it became clear that his presence was no longer needed, and so with a small grin at the younger boy’s increased enthusiasm, he stepped away from the table and headed for the door.


He could have ambled towards where Tanith and Gabriel sat, reading and chatting idly, but the recent bitterness from both of them was not what his mood needed right then. He could have headed off to join Tobias, hard at work on an essay in a corner, but monosyllabic grunting from a distracted academic did not strike him as a particularly riveting way to spend his time.


A walk on his own sounded preferable, and he felt his mood lift immediately the moment he stepped out of the dungeon, allowing the stone to slide back into place behind him, blocking off the melancholy and depression of the day’s defeat.


He almost bumped into the lofty form of Tobias as he turned the corner into the corridor, but a Beater’s reflexes saw him screeching to a halt and reaching out to steady the taller, but less sturdier boy. “Woah, there, Toby. Less hasty. The common room’s not all so cool you should be running in there.”


Tobias paused, grinning ruefully, and nudged his glasses up his nose. “All fun and games and cheer in there?” he asked.


Cal fought back a bristling which threatened at his apparent disregard for the Quidditch result. He’d probably reaped the rewards of a thrilled girlfriend and the appearance of being magnanimous in defeat. Hell, for him, it was probably a better result. But it wasn’t entirely Tobias’ fault he just had no brains for Quidditch.


“I’d suggest wiping the grin off your face before you go in,” he said, not unkindly. “There’s a lot of disappointment.”


Tobias nodded, considering this. “Alright. I don’t want to really upset Jack, I guess. He worked hard.”


“Jack’s off in his own world, but it might set…” Cal clamped down on the words as they tried to spill out, fatigue harming his natural caution, but it was too little, too late, and within seconds Tobias’ expression had twisted with irritation.


“…might set Tanith off?” he finished, scowling. “For how long am I going to have to creep around like Annie and I are a crime?”


Cal blinked. For all his caution, this was not the reaction he’d expected. “I dunno, mate, but if you want to go toe-to-toe with her on the matter, be my guest. And just warn me so I can be somewhere else.”


Tobias made a short, irritated noise and looked away sharply. “I don’t want to go toe-to-toe with her. I want her to be my damn friend who I can talk to and not have to ignore the elephant in the corner…”


Cal’s breath hissed between his teeth. “That’s going to be difficult so long as you’re going out with someone she doesn’t like. And, well.. I don’t mean to pry, but she’s got a point. Mac did screw you up last time.” Mentally, he braced himself for the reaction.


“No.” Tobias, surprisingly, sounded disappointed rather than angry. “I mean, yes, she did. And I get why you’re concerned, Cal, and I appreciate it. But we’ve talked, and it’s not going to happen again. We’re getting past it. Surely that’s a good thing?”




He didn’t get a chance to respond as Tobias continued, seeming to be hitting his stride. “And I’d be a lot less bothered by Tanith’s behaviour if that was why she was being pissy about Annie. But it’s not the reason, is it.”


Cal paused. Now they were stepping on very dangerous territory. “It’s what she’s said,” he commented neutrally. “And I wouldn’t want to guess at anything else.”


“It’s not the reason,” Tobias repeated. “So, you know, I’m a bit pissed off that she’s using concern for me as a cover up for her ego.”


Cal blinked. “Her ego?”


“And her territorialism,” Tobias muttered, his voice by now venomous and his focus not seeming to be entirely on the conversation. “I’m sick of it. She’s got to be top dog, doesn’t she? She just can’t cope with it when things aren’t revolving around her. That we’re not revolving around her. I’ve got Annie. You’re… well… talking to Lockett. Kind of. Gabe is… I mean, he’s Gabe, but…”


“You think Tanith’s pissed because she’s losing you to Annie.” Cal watched him levelly for a moment, allowing the words to roll over in his head, and feeling the faintest amusement at how close Tobias could be whilst still being oblivious.


“It’s petty. And it’s selfish. And I’m not going to tolerate it.” Tobias folded his arms across his chest. “So if I want to go into the damn common room and say ‘yes, I spent the day with my girlfriend’, I’m going to, and her temper be damned!”


Cal straightened up, gaze still calm. “…are you going to?”


Tobias paused, then sagged. “No. Because I’m too tired to deal with it, not because I don’t dare or anything.”


“…alright. You do that.” Cal shook his head and clapped his friend on his back. “I’m going to take a walk. Clear my head. You know.”


“I… yeah. Alright.” Tobias grimaced. “Sorry, Cal, I didn’t mean to… I’m sorry you guys lost. I know you worked at it.”


He shrugged. “Always another day.” Then he was off, quite contented to leave Tobias, potential bickers with Tanith, and the rest of the miserable common room behind him, mind singing with Quidditch more than it was singing with personal arguments.


His first match back on the team after that fateful argument with Flint about Malfoy’s ineptitude had been the one against Hufflepuff the previous term, subbed in to replace Goyle after Urquhart had staged what was practically a hostile takeover in light of Montague’s diminished brain capacity. They had won, and won big – which had been all but irrelevant in light of Gryffindor’s subsequent victory over Ravenclaw. That game hadn’t mattered, not really; they’d known that fate was out of their hands, and all they could do was set the board for a completely different match.


This had been different. He hadn’t felt like this since the match which had been his last, in his third year. And it came with it the same sinking sensation of defeat – only, this time, there was nobody on whom he could focus his anger. Nobody he could blame. No Malfoy to pin responsibility on, and no stupid Captain whose mistakes he could point the finger at.


They just weren’t good enough.


Somehow, that stung more. That for all of the hours of training, all of the effort spent… Gryffindor had still been better.


He’d just been letting his feet carry him as he wandered, robes wrapped tightly around him to guard against the chilly wind of bright but cold day as winter marched on. So it was with a not small degree of surprise that, when he stepped outside and looked up and his feet came to a halt, he was gazing back across at the Quidditch pitch.


The automatic functions of his brain clearly had to hate him.


Or not, he thought suddenly as his eyes landed on the small specks in the sky that suggested an impromptu game, and the tiny flashes of blue amongst the fliers which hinted at Ravenclaws. Which meant…


His feet carried him up the stands, to a discreet corner sheltered from the wind where he could get a better view of the training of the Ravenclaw Quidditch team. This didn’t look like much of an official session – just a cheerful play, inspired by the game that afternoon, for love of the sport rather than technical perfection.


That was something he’d have to make sure Urquhart brought back into the training. Enjoyment of Quidditch for its own sake. Sometimes they lost sight of that, so wrapped up were they in their focus on the cup, and house pride, and victory. Forgot why they played at all.


Cal looked up mildly as a figure detached itself from the unkindness of Ravenclaws and began to descend towards him. For once, his stomach didn’t twist in that not-unpleasant manner as he recognised Lockett approaching – the ups and downs of the day had exhausted him emotionally to the point where just laying eyes on her wasn’t enough to see him have a fit.


It did lift his mood a bit though.


“They sent me down here to find out if you’re a spy,” Lockett said cheerfully as she stopped, hovering about six feet away, perched on her broomstick with very little care.


“Oh really?” Cal grinned toothily. “And how are you going to find this out?”


“I have a cunning plan.” She began to lower herself slowly, until she could hop off to be standing on the bench in front of him. “Are you a Slytherin spy?”


“Um… no.” He snorted wryly. “That’s your foolproof investigation technique?”


Lockett smiled and shrugged, and sighed as the joke got her a chuckle but no recognition. “Silly, silly magic-born types. You have no appreciation for the classics.”


“We’re back to stereotypes, remember? I thought you didn’t approve of those?” Cal tilted his head, expression challenging.


“Sometimes, the generalisations are right.” She turned back to the gathering of the others, and gave a big wave. “It’s alright, guys! He’s not going to steal our super-secret-special tactics!” she shouted, then sat herself down as there was a pause before Howlett waved back in acknowledgement.


“How’re you guys doing in the dungeon? Hope you’re not too bummed out at the result, it was a hell of a match.” She patted him on the knee familiarly, comfortingly, and that was enough to spark up that small twist within him.


And yet, not incapacitatingly so. “A hell of a match, and we lost,” Cal sighed. “But we’re okay. Urquhart’s going mad. I think he’s trying to deconstruct all Quidditch tactics ever in time for our match against you guys.”


“I’ll look forward to that. We like our unexpected tactics. Keeps the game fresh.” Lockett nodded to herself as she watched the Ravenclaws bob and weave up in the sky, Quaffle flying from player to player, practicing hard passes and flying stunts. “I enjoyed that from the game today. Urquhart shouldn’t be too hard on himself, you guys were technically flawless.”


“And, again, lost.” Cal scowled a little at this, speaking slightly sharper than he meant to – but sometimes it felt more patronising than reassuring to be told how wonderful one was in the face of defeat.


Lockett seemed to notice this, and made an apologetic face. “Sorry. Just… you were unlucky. I know first hand what it’s like to be face to face with Weasley, who you could generally count on being a bit of a dead weight in the Keeper spot, but who suddenly turns into the Quidditch equivalent of Sun Tzu.”


Cal blinked. “Who?”


“The Art of War? Muggle who was shit hot at tactics?” She sighed. “Don’t they teach you anything in Muggle Studies? First no Blackadder, then no crazy eastern men?”


“Where was he from?”


Lockett paused, looking at him. “Hm?”


“This Sun Tzu guy. Where was he from?”


“Uh… Asia?”


“Asia’s a big place, you know.”


“China. Japan. One of the two.”


“You have no idea, do you.”


“Hey, at least I knew who he was.” Lockett folded her arms across her chest and gave a mock-pout. “One up on you.”


“Then if you’re so much better, how come you’re wasting time with me, instead of playing with the others?” Cal glanced up at the still cavorting Ravenclaws. “They’re rather good, aren’t they.”


“Of course they are, they’re Ravenclaws. But I’ve played with them a thousand times. I’ve only talked to you twice. Barely. If you could nose-bleeds and the latest Nimbus models.” Lockett gave a small, sly smile, glancing sideways at him.


Cal felt heat rush to his face, and wondered if he looked as blatantly embarrassed as he felt. “Well, the Nimbus 2002 could well change the entire face of… okay, yeah, I’m going to stop talking now.” He scrubbed his face with his hands, partly to wipe fatigue away, partly to hide how mortified he was.


Lockett smiled, and he couldn’t help but note how her entire face seemed to light up with that one simple expression. “You always get this flustered when talking to girls?”


“Nope,” Cal said with more honesty and straightforwardness than he’d have liked, and before he could stop himself, looking her in the eye and then wondering if it would be possible to turn back time just so he was slightly more subtle.


“So you’re scared of the brainy ones?” Lockett leaned back, her smile softer now, more quietly pleased than outright amused, and put her feet up on the seat in front of her.


“I’m scared of the nice ones with a good sense of humour. I have difficulty assuming that there’s not trouble waiting round the corner.” Cal wasn’t entirely sure what part of him was talking, being so outright honest, but thought that maybe, just maybe, he should let this automatic mind of his stay in the driving seat for just a little longer.


Another chuckle from her. “Why’s that?”


“Well, I look at my friends and their romantic lives.” Cal slumped with a small sigh of aggravation. “And I see nothing but… bickering. Dissatisfaction. Arguments. Jealousy. The whole shebang.”


“To be fair, that’s because your friends are kind of uptight.” Nat gave him a small, impish grin which threatened to be rather infectious. “Tanith Cole seriously needs to switch to decaf. And Tobias Grey… well, he’s a wonderful example to us all about crossing boundaries between wizarding and non-wizarding folk…”


“Not as good as Adrian Pucey, an even better argument for mixing with Muggles or Muggle-born. He’s a walking warning against what happens when cousins marry,” Cal mumbled.


She laughed again, and he felt his heart sing quietly in response. “True enough. But Grey’s romance isn’t just a romance, it’s a statement. That can’t be easy. That can’t even be that much fun.”


“Wait a minute, these things are meant to be fun?” Cal asked with mock-surprise, glancing about as if he had no idea where this notion had come from. In doing so, his eyes went back towards the skies, and he suddenly noticed there wasn’t a broom in the air. “Hey… where’d they go?”


Nat looked up, raising an eyebrow briefly, then shrugging. “They must have headed off – it’s getting dark, we weren’t going to be playing all night.” She straightened up, making eye contact with him and not letting it go. “And… yeah, fun. You don’t look like you get enough of that. Which is a shame… you’re a fun guy.”


“Laugh a minute when I’m around.” Cal smirked, then tilted his head at her slightly. “You seem to know me pretty well, even after such short chats.”


“Not as well as I’d like to,” Nat said, quietly and honestly, and he couldn’t help but smile more softly at this. “And, well, you hardly know me at all.”


Cal paused, and in that moment realised that the automatic part of his brain, which had taken him here and thrown him headlong into this conversation without warning and without inserting his foot in his mouth, had abandoned him. He was completely on his own, without escape route, without a plan.


Somehow, he was alright with this.


He grinned broadly, looking her in the eye. “You know what? I’d like to fix that.”


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