Chapter 19 : The Day Is Gone
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“Let’s take a break,” Ritter said at last, and with relief, gasping for breath, Tanith collapsed onto the stool in the corner.
Although it couldn’t have been going on for very long now, she’d already lost track of how many weeks it had been since the Hogsmeade trip, and how many weeks it had been since her father had sent the man who’d taught her the alphabet up to instruct her in the art of self-defence. And navigation. And psychology. And anything that seemed to occur to Altair Ritter as useful.
So far, he’d shown her the ins and outs of moving about Hogwarts and Hogsmeade speedily and without using any of the most common routes. If she wanted to, Tanith knew exactly how she could make it from the Slytherin common room to the Great Hall and probably not run into anyone in between, even at mealtimes or in between classes. The school was a veritable warren of corridors, staircases, and little, discreet passageways, to the extent where she dimly wondered if the Founders had been fond of mazes, or perhaps intoxicated when drawing up the plans for the castle.
Then they’d moved on to slightly more practical matters, such as how to read body language. The idea behind this, Ritter had said, was that it would allow her to see the truth behind words, and evaluate whether someone in front of her was an actual threat.
“Wizards,” he’d said, with that small note of superiority in his voice which crept up whenever he would address the limitations of magical folk, “tend to accept whatever is in front of them as the absolute truth. And they never know anything about people. A wizard will tell you lies with his words, but he won’t have the faintest clue how to lie to you with his eyes, with his face, with how he stands. And most wizards won’t have any idea how to identify those lies. You’ll be different, when we’re done.”
And already she could see the difference. Already she was beginning to note greater subtleties in the behaviour of her fellow students, with rather enlightening conclusions. How Tobias not making perfect eye contact when he said he’d come in from going to the library meant he had, instead, been out to see MacKenzie. How Gabriel hunching up slightly when he told Cal he’d gone to Madam Pomfrey meant that he blatantly hadn’t. How Ariane tilting her head in a certain way and her voice taking on a certain lilt meant that she hadn’t had half as much luck with Theron Howlett behind the Quidditch changing rooms as she’d like them all to think.
Simple ideas. Obvious gestures. And yet so few people thought to look for them – so even fewer thought to try and hide them.
The instruction became more physical from there, and it was that which had Tanith now out of breath and staggering away from the centre of this room in the Hog’s Head which had been repeatedly hired for these training sessions.
How to win a wand without a fight was not something Tanith had ever given very much thought. If there was no violence occurring, her wits and her tongue were both sharp enough for her to usually emerge victorious, or to sidestep hostilities. If a fight did break out, her wand was quicker than most.
But Ritter had demonstrated how over-confidence could be a killer in their first training session, where he’d demanded she try to Stun him. She’d rolled her eyes, lifted her wand, and then found he’d closed the distance between her before she could blink and twisted her wrist until instinct had seen her releasing her grip. It was, he had pointed out, that easy to take on even the most experienced duellist. Because no wizard expected a physical fight.
He’d taught her those tricks to begin with – getting rid of an opponent’s wand. The various places to apply pressure on the arm, the various grips and twists and chops. Even, sometimes, brute force. And then he’d begun to show her how to survive a fight once both contenders were unarmed.
Victory, Ritter had impressed upon her, was not the intention. He was not showing her how to beat opponents, how to win fights. The training was geared towards allowing her to hold her own in combat long enough for either backup to arrive, or for her to get the chance to run.
This would also be the part of the training which would take longest. Everything else was intellectual, and could come through her own practice outside of their sessions. These aspects of physical self-defence, he explained, could take years to perfect, and he himself continued to study the arts in-depth. Muggles had apparently established literally hundreds of forms of physical combat, all with their various strengths and focuses, and the idea of perfecting them all was almost the same as the concept of perfecting all forms of magic: a life’s work for a genius.
Tanith was just glad she’d been continuing with the physical fitness training for the Auror candidacy, which meant she could practice knocking Ritter to the ground for quite a while before needing to stop for a breather. Like now.
“A break? We’ve been at this most of the afternoon,” Tanith murmured resentfully, rubbing a bashed elbow.
“And training will continue to focus more and more on this as the weeks continue,” Ritter said, ambling over to the table and taking a swig from the bottle of water there. “You know most of Hogwarts inside and out, and you have enough maps to figure things out for yourself now that you know the basic principles. Your people-watching skills will improve with time and, of course, your own practice. But for this… for this, you need an instructor. And as our time together is so limited, I have to make it count.”
Tanith looked up at him, raising an eyebrow. “What about the toys?”
She suppressed a grin as a slightly pained expression crossed her tutor’s face. “They’re not toys.”
“You get them from Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes. They’re prankster’s toys. Your trunk looks like that of a travelling Zonko’s salesman.” She did smirk impishly at this, distinctly enjoying the discomfort that her words extracted in retaliation for her bruises.
“And they’ve saved my life many times.” Ritter sighed, looking over at her with a fond smile. “Fine. We’ll go over more equipment issues. But it’s a bit superfluous. I use these when I know I’m going out into the field and need to be ready. I very rarely carry much with me on an everyday basis. I’m not preparing you to go looking for trouble, I’m preparing you for when it goes looking for you.”
“It’s still more fun than being thrown around like a rag doll,” Tanith pointed out ruefully. “And I could begin to keep a few on me.”
He tilted his head at her, then reached down beneath the table and lifted the aforementioned trunk up. It was a large, worn and battered affair, having obviously seen many years of hard use, leather-bound and as well-loved as luggage could be.
She took discreet note of which pocket he pulled the small key which opened the lock from, just for practice, and observed keenly as he returned it to the same safe haven before lifting the lid.
Inside did, indeed, look like a small warehouse of Weasley products – and it was definitely enchanted to be larger within than without. There were several shelves for easy access to the variety of gear inside, all meticulously arranged and laid out.
At the top were the small black orbs which Tanith knew contained the Peruvian Darkness Powder she had seen her tutor make use of in Derbyshire. Below it was a rack of trick wands, most of which simply did nothing but a few were the more standard transforming joke objects. Further down were more trinkets and toys, some of which she recognised from a hard previous year as a prefect while the Weasley twins had peddled their wares around school, some of which were more obscure.
She peered at the wands this time, the items she’d usually overlooked. “Why do you have these?”
Ritter pulled one out and gave it a short wave, whereupon it promptly did nothing. “Usually just for show. I don’t want to carry a real wand on me, they can occasionally act oddly around Squibs. Strange sparks, bizarre magics. Nothing useful or controllable, and so entirely counter-productive to my needs.” He handed the fake wand over to her. “But it looks exactly like the real thing. And not everyone knows of my little magical problem. Again, wizards trust what they see. They see a man with a wand, they assume I’m a wizard. I know I don’t need to explain to you the importance of bluffing.”
She turned the wand over, and indeed, even on close inspection she couldn’t tell the difference between this cheap toy and one of Ollivander’s finest. “Then why the rubber chicken ones?”
Her tutor actually looked a little bashful at this, taking the wand back and putting it away briskly, clearing his throat. “Ah… they have little to no actual use, except for occasionally as a distraction – and, to be honest, I have better tools for purposes of distraction. But sometimes a little humiliation of one’s opponents can be useful.” His fingers lingered over the rack before he picked up one at the end which looked as unimportant as all of the others.
“This one is excellent if I get the chance to swap a wizard’s wand. When waved, a large mallet emerges from the top and beats the user about the head. Not particularly painful, but deeply confusing and enough to stun someone for a few seconds as their own wand attacks them.” Ritter gave a small, brisk chuckle, and his eyes went distant for a moment as he drifted off into what looked like fond recollections.
“I thought none of this was supposed to be fun?” Tanith asked wryly, watching his expression.
“It’s not. War isn’t. So we have to gather up whatever enjoyment we can from the affair, and make the most of it.” He looked up quickly, dark eyes suddenly going quite serious. “Remember that, Tanith. I know I’m showing you how to fight and how to stay safe, but there are more important things than… surviving. You have to be alive, too.”
Tanith blinked at this sudden change of pace. It wasn’t that she wasn’t accustomed to her tutor giving such emotional advice; he had often counselled her through problems when she’d been younger. But for the past few months he had been so stern, so business-like, that this sudden shift back to being as she remembered him from when she was all of four years old took her aback briefly.
“I’m okay. You don’t need to worry about that,” she said, and she kept eye contact, made her stance remain just as relaxed as it had been seconds earlier, and kept her voice exactly as casual as it needed to be.
Ritter snorted, and the glint in his eye showed he wasn’t fooled by her well-taught efforts in covering up deception, but he let the matter slide.
“Then I’ll worry about your survival,” he said. “And having mentioned distractions, perhaps we should take a look at another one of my favourites, the Decoy Detonators…”
The rest of the session passed with relative ease and no more bruises, a simple discussion on the various uses of Ritter’s various gadgets in self-defence. They had enough time to touch briefly on the concept of making use of one’s environment to achieve similar aims before he deemed their time was up, and then set her the personal challenge of making it back up to Hogwarts ten minutes under the expected travel time by using a different route.
She would have refused to ‘cheat’ by running, but fate had a slightly different idea in mind when, not two minutes out the door, the rain began. It was only light, but standing in light rain for long enough will still drench you, and so it was in low spirits that Tanith squelched through one of the side entrances to the castle, a little-used door that nobody would notice her slipping in through. Especially as it was a late Sunday afternoon, and especially as this entrance connected to a corridor which only led to one other place of note: the library.
Fate clearly decided to give her a firm kicking again as, when she shook rain drops from her hair and began to wring out a slightly damp robe, the lanky shape of Tobias Grey trotted down the staircase next to her, cheerfully brandishing a small pile of Arithmancy books.
She scowled at him. “What are you doing here?”
Tobias blinked at her, seeming stunned by her presence, before he looked down at the books and back up again. “Um. Library?”
Of course you’d be using the library at this time when no other bugger in the school would…
“What are you doing here? You’re soaking!” It took a second for Tobias to take in her appearance, but he promptly reached for his bag to put the books away and stepped forwards, starting to shrug off his coat.
“No, no. I’m fine.” She backed away, hands up to ward him off. The last thing she needed was for him to be close, and the second-to-last thing she needed was something warm that smelled of him around her shoulders.
“Okay…” He peered at her curiously. “What are you doing here?”
“I went for a jog. It wasn’t raining when I left.” The lie came easily. Tobias hadn’t been engaged enough with her and her life for so long that she didn’t expect him to even look for deception.
“I see.” He glanced out the window. “Heading back to the common room?” Tobias gestured down the corridor, the invitation of company obvious.
Tanith hesitated. On the one hand, she’d been trying to keep away from him while she figured out what she was going to do with herself and these pesky feelings. On the other, she was having a distinctly hard time summoning the word ‘no’ in the face of that slightly hesitant, but nevertheless genuine smile hovering around his lips.
Then something clicked in her head, and a split-second later something twisted in her stomach, and it was with a sinking heart that she looked him in the eye. “Actually… I fancy a walk. Coming?” She forced a levity into her voice that she didn’t feel as this sudden determination continued to creep over her, and she knew what she needed to do.
Tobias looked back out the window dubiously. “In the rain?”
“It’s not that bad. It’s actually quite refreshing,” Tanith lied. But the last thing she wanted was an interruption, and right then she didn’t trust the castle to not begin to sprout students from every corridor if she tried to hold this conversation indoors. At least nobody would be stupid enough to run around in the rain.
Except her, and as her brain raced through the discussion ahead, she confirmed to herself that running around in the rain would be the least of her matching criteria for stupidity.
Tobias took a deep, hesitant breath, then looked over at her, and seemed to recognise that this wasn’t just a little meander in the fresh air in the name of one’s health. “Alright, then.”
The rain was slightly more than the drizzle she’d anticipated once they stepped back out into the grounds, but having set her course, Tanith didn’t dare try to change whatever vague plans she had in case the screaming coward – or survival instinct – in her mind tried to take the entire thing off the rails.
“So what’s up?” Tobias asked at last as they wandered soggily by the lake, having walked in silence for several minutes while Tanith chewed agitatedly on her lip in contemplation. There was no room in Tobias’ voice for the idea that something might not be amiss.
“Erm…” Tanith glanced around wildly, anticipating interruptions leaping from around every corner, like some deranged Quidditch players not put off by bad weather. Her eyes landed on the woodland towards the groundskeeper’s hut. Trees. Nobody will be out in the woodland.
She didn’t look at him as she began to steer them in that direction, but within a couple of seconds realised he was going to need some sort of response. “I was just thinking that we haven’t caught up recently. Or talked much at all recently.”
“Well, no, I suppose not. But you’ve seemed rather busy.” Tobias didn’t look convinced, but seemed to be playing along for now. “All of this Auror training and NEWT studying and what have you. Every time I’ve seen you, you’ve been dashing off to do something seemingly important.” A small smile tugged at his lips. “You’re going to ace the Auror interviews with all the work you’re putting in.”
That would be true, if I were actually going off to study as often as he thought, instead of making excuses to get away. Tanith shrugged neutrally. “I guess. We’ll have to wait and see. At least it’s not a competition, at least it’s not about a set number of spaces. Just about who’s good enough.” She managed to look at him out of the corner of her eye. “So what’s been up with you?”
“Not much.” Tobias sighed. “Most of the NEWT courses seem to be moving into the independent study area. Which I enjoy, but I kind of wish we could cut back on lesson time so we could actually do all of this coursework. I kind of feel like the classes are becoming a bit obligatory, you know?” He shook his head, droplets of water flying off and being replaced by the rain just as quickly. “And, well, you know how the Head Boy stuff is going.”
“Three prefects replaced. Your discipline has been noted. Everyone’s running scared.” Tanith smiled tightly, a small bubble of pride rising within her at how her friend had stuck to his guns with his beliefs on this matter. No prefect dared give off the impression they were dead weight if they didn’t want to lose their badge with Tobias as Head Boy.
She took a deep, slightly shaky breath. “And, um, Annie? Things are good there?”
Tobias looked a little suspicious, but shrugged. “Yeah. Things are… fine. We have fun. It’s not going to go wrong like last time. It’s good.” He nodded firmly.
“How do you know?” Tanith asked suddenly, and just as quickly cursed herself internally as the words – words that had been bottled up for so long inside – burst out.
“What?” Tobias came to a halt, turning to face her. They had just reached the path into the trees by now, and the leaves above them staved off the worst of the rain.
She was already soaking, though, and so it didn’t matter – even if it did, she wouldn’t have been able to feel it as she repressed the urge to shake when she met his gaze. “How do you know it won’t end the same way it did last time? I don’t know, if you take another Gryffindor prefect’s badge and then you’re persona non grata again?”
“That’s not going to happen.” Tobias frowned slightly, though he did seem very slightly like he was trying to convince himself of this fact. “We’ve talked about it. I’m on much better terms with her friends. There’s no Inquisitorial Squad around the corner to set things off. It’s fine.”
“I’m sure we all thought it was going to be fine last time,” Tanith muttered, glancing away and sighing deeply. “You can be a right naïve idiot sometimes, Grey, you know that?”
He took his glasses off as the rain obscured his vision, and glared at her. “Did you just drag me out here so you could bitch at me about how you don’t approve of this relationship? As though you hadn’t already made your opinion perfectly clear?”
So he has actually paid my behaviour a degree of attention. But only barely, if he can’t see what everyone else seems to have figured out.
“Actually, no. I’ve been biting my tongue and keeping away from this situation, because I know it’ll piss me off to just watch you be stupid. Now I’m making my opinion perfectly clear.” Tanith folded her arms across her chest. Now she knew why she’d picked a fight so unnecessarily, why she’d antagonised him as an opening gambit. In a hesitant conversation she’d be more inclined to cut and run. But when the fighting started, there was no way she’d back down.
And if she didn’t do this now, then she knew she never would.
There are more important things than surviving. You have to be alive, too.
Tobias’ scowl deepened. “Fine. You’ve made your opinion clear. You think she’s bad news. Thank you. Can I go now?” He turned to leave.
She reached out and grabbed him by the shoulder firmly, and as he stopped the contact was like electricity at the tips of her fingers. “Why are you so intent on ignoring this? On sticking your head in the sand and pretending it’s all going to be okay, when you don’t know it will be?”
“It’s called taking a gamble, Tanith,” Tobias snapped. “I know you’re not familiar with the concept of moving away from safe ground, but sometimes, you have to take a chance.” She was too busy suppressing a wry snort to get a word in before he delivered his counter-attack. “Why are you so intent on seeing just the bad in this? Can’t you be happy for me, for once?”
“Happy as you throw your heart on the line for someone who’ll drop you once it gets convenient?” Tanith rolled her eyes. “I don’t want to see you get hurt. Neither do the others.” Though it wasn’t a lie, the last sentence felt bitter on her tongue, a diversion that wasn’t entirely fair.
“Oh, no. Don’t bring Cal and Gabe into this. If they have a problem, they can speak to me themselves about it.” Tobias waggled a finger. “If not, don’t designate yourself as spokesperson for what you think that they think, just to give your argument more credibility.” He threw his hands up into the air with frustration. “What is it? Can’t you cope with seeing someone else getting their act together, getting their life together, while you still play it safe?”
“If you think that I am playing it safe right now, Tobias, then you clearly don’t know me as well as you think you do,” Tanith said, and her voice was cold and level as something icy twisted within her.
Tobias did falter at this, narrowing his eyes. “What do you mean? What’s the matter with you?”
She looked at him for a long moment, drawing on every lesson Altair had taught her in search of some flicker, some clue – but all she could see was honest confusion. “You have no idea, do you. You’re so caught up in your own world these days that you can’t see what’s in front of your nose…” She couldn’t stop herself from sounding amazed as the true depths of Tobias’ recent self-absorption began to show themselves.
“What’s in front of my nose?” Tobias folded his arms across his chest irritably.
“Me.” The word slipped out of Tanith’s mouth before she could stop it, before she could question it, and even as she flailed and panicked internally, whatever momentum she’d picked up from the argument kept her sailing on. “Why I’ve been acting like this, why I can’t stand MacKenzie, why I so desperately don’t want you to be hurt.”
There was a pause as she tried to gather herself and Tobias stared at her with a confused expression. Comprehension appeared to be dawning just around the edges, but before he could get a good grip on it, the same irritation as before resurfaced, born of frustration and confusion and all pointed at her.
“Are you going to speak plainly, or have you completely lost your mind?” he snapped. She could see the slight trace of fear within him that drove this anger onwards, and as it clouded his response, made him more volatile, she quietly and finally regretted starting this conversation with a fight. “Why are you acting like this, then?”
“Because I’m in love with you, and I shouldn’t be!”
In the months to come, Tanith would still look back on this moment with confusion. Since her conversation with Gabriel, although she’d had a better grasp of her feelings she’d still been unable to define them in-depth – and for once, it wasn’t through lack of trying. She’d considered her emotions from all angles, tried to contemplate exactly what it was driving her, and had failed to reach any conclusions.
But as the words tumbled out of her mouth, alongside the lurching horror within her at their implications was a strange internal calm. Because it was the truth, and because it explained so very much.
This didn’t stop her from taking a step back as Tobias stared, stunned, at her for a long moment, and she clasped a hand over her mouth. But even if she was trying to stem the flow of further words, it wasn’t as if there was anything she could say which could make it worse.
“You…” Tobias gaped at her, and in the silence that followed she was keenly aware of the cold seeping into her bones, and the rain bouncing off the leaves above them and trickling down the back of her neck, and the smell of the soaked woodlands around them, of pine and fallen leaves.
“No, you don’t,” he said at last.
She stared at him, frowning. Out of all the responses she’d anticipated, feared, hoped, this hadn’t even come up as an option.
“You’ve just got some weird infatuation with me, like I had with you and got over. Only you’re trying to justify it and give it some bigger meaning, some bigger… weight.” Tobias waved his hands vaguely, his voice sounding a little distant, rather lost.
Tanith sagged, and wiped some water out of her eyes. “That would make it so much easier, wouldn’t it, Grey,” she murmured wryly, most of the fight gone out of her at this point. “But I’m afraid I’m not bullshitting you.” She met his gaze and felt her stomach lurch. “I love you.”
He visibly flinched and drew back. “Don’t say that,” he snapped, the fire sparking back up within him, and he began to pace in this small clearing, like he always did when tossing ideas about in his mind and trying to come to grips with them. “Did you just do this to mess with me? Shoot me down at the Yule Ball, then screw with me later?”
“The Yule Ball was two years ago, Grey. A lot’s happened since then,” she replied. Her voice was still level, that same calm remaining within her – but her placidity seemed to only incense him more.
“Yes! It has! And a lot’s going on now!” He stopped pacing, and turned to face her, colour rising to his cheeks. “I’ve got my NEWTs going on, and the Head Boy responsibilities, and I’m with Annie and I’m happy!” She wasn’t sure if the determination in that last note was to drive the point home for her… or for him.
“I can’t change the way I feel, Grey. I’ve been trying. Trust me, I’ve been trying.” She gave a small, bitter laugh.
“This isn’t about what you feel, or what you think you feel!” Tobias snapped, practically in her face by now. “This is about things not going your way, and you not being able to cope with that!”
Tanith paused, looking at him with a mixture of confusion and offence. “You think I’m doing all of this, putting myself through all of this, as some sort of juvenile hissyfit?”
“It fits your behaviour so bloody far!” Tobias shouted. “You can’t stand it when life doesn’t go as you want it to, so you act out, so you explode! You can’t stand me being with Annie, can’t stand how things are changing this year, so you try to derail everything!”
“Jesus, Grey, I’m sorry that my emotions are getting in the way of your perfect little bloody life,” Tanith said, both astounded and honestly insulted at this sudden lashing out. “I wasn’t expecting you to really do anything when I told you, but I needed to get this off my chest for my own peace of mind. Even if it ends in being shot down – which, well, is what’s happening.”
She found it rather disturbing how blasé she could force herself to be about getting her heart broken.
Tobias threw his hands up in the air again, his body language the same as it was if he was dealing with an unreasonable first year. “Yeah, it is. Because I’m not going to pander to your crazed coping mechanisms and indulge you just so you get your own way.” He glared at her, meeting her gaze levelly. She’d seen him lose his temper before, seen him honestly angry before, but it had never really been at her.
But from the look in his eyes, now she knew why even the most boisterous older students could quail in the face of his discipline.
“You say that you love me,” he continued, and spat the words out so harshly it felt he’d spat her heart out with them. “You don’t love, you can’t love. You’re too damn selfish, Tanith. I won’t be sucked into that!”
He stepped back as she stood there, just reeling from his words, and shook his head in a futile effort to dry himself. “So I’m going to go back to what I was doing. I’m going to go back to my studies, I’m going to go back to my work as Head Boy. I’m going to go back to Annie. And you’re just going to have to cope with it, and come and find me when you’re ready to live in the real world.” Then Tobias was gone, storming down the path the way he’d come.
She didn’t know how long she stood there as the rain worsened and the chill wormed its way deeper into her bones and her heart lay somewhere in the fallen leaves. She just listened to the raindrops bouncing off the leaves and landing on and around her; inhaled the smell of pine and the wet air; soaked in all of the glorious but fading colours of autumn; felt the echoes of the argument fade away into the growing mist and being eaten up by the trees.
And all in all, she marvelled at how, when her world had come crashing down around her ears, she felt more alive than she could ever remember feeling.
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