Chapter 20 : The Life and Soul
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“It’s a toff evening, is what it is.”
“It’s not a toff evening, Cal. It’s a perfectly good party.” Tobias rolled his eyes with exasperation as they made their way down the corridor, he dressed in his navy dress robes, Cal relaxed in jeans and a sweater.
“Am I invited?” Cal sniffed.
“Then how can it be any good a party without me?” The Welshman smiled a broad, slightly devilish smile. “A silly, selective evening with a bunch of Slughorn’s favourites. It’s elitism, that’s what.”
“Elitism?” Tobias raised an eyebrow at his friend incredulously. “You honestly care about that?”
“I do when it excludes me from a shindig.”
“You know. Shindig. Hoot-nanny. Ho-down. That sort of thing.” Cal shrugged to himself.
Tobias continued to stare at him. “You get weirder and weirder, you know that?”
“I do. I do.” Cal nodded sagely, smirking quietly as they turned the final corner to bring them to the corridor leading to the Gryffindor common room.
By the determinedly unattractive portrait that allowed Hogwarts’ bravest entrance to their private domain waited Annie, leaning against the wall with a rather casual air, and Tobias couldn’t stop the slightly silly smile which tugged at the corners of his lips as he saw her. She wore a dark green dress of a simple cut, but the colour brought out the shine of her eyes and hair, and for a few long seconds, he couldn’t take his eyes off her.
She looked up, smiling her own unstoppable smile as she saw him – only hers didn’t look silly, at least not to him, but rather made his heart soar. She crossed the distance between them in quick, rather un-ladylike strides, and leaned in to give him a peck on the lips. His hands came to her waist as she stepped in, stopping her from escaping and lengthening the kiss beyond what was originally intended but was by no means unwelcome.
When she finally pulled back, her smile was even broader and there was a slight flush to her cheeks, and the two just stood grinning at each other for a moment until Cal gave a small harrumph of false irritation.
“You don’t greet me like that,” he muttered wryly, elbowing Tobias and fighting down his own smirk.
“It’s true, Cal, I have left you for a woman,” Tobias replied, turning his grin on his friend. “It’s the breasts, you see.”
Cal raised an eyebrow as Annie rolled her eyes. “Really? They’re that good? I must find this out for myself!” he declared, then turned his attention to her and reached out with grasping hands, which she slapped away as expected.
“I should let you, really,” Annie laughed. “You probably wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t stop you!”
“Sure I would!” Cal said defensively. “Get hexed in the face by Toby!” He grinned as they laughed, then clapped Tobias on the back. “I should get going. You kids have fun, you hear? And don’t do anything I wouldn’t do?”
“Oh, so we’re allowed to get drunk and dance on the table?” Annie said, with wide-eyed innocence.
“You can. In fact, I endorse that.”
Annie chuckled, leaning forward to kiss Cal on the cheek. “Good night, Cal.”
Although Cal had never been one to let his head be turned by just any woman, and reputably already had his Ravenclaw-coloured bit of skirt around school for his own distraction, there was a definite hint of colour that rose to Cal’s cheeks. “Good night, you two.” He slapped Tobias on the shoulder again, then carried on the way he’d been going down the corridor.
“I hope he’s got plans and you’re not abandoning him for the evening.” Annie nudged Tobias reproachfully, though she wore a soft smile.
“Oh, he’ll be fine. I think he’s saying goodbye to Lockett before the holidays.” Tobias grinned at her, then reached down to take her hand as they started off in the direction of Slughorn’s office.
“Are they a… thing?” Annie tilted her head curiously.
“I don’t know,” Tobias confessed. “They’re definitely friendly. Cal hasn’t said one way or another. But, then, I think he’s trying to dodge the gossip train.”
“Can’t blame him.” Annie nodded. “I mean, there’s been enough insanity floating around over the last few weeks just over who’s going with who to this party. If I have to hear one more wistful sigh about who might be taking Harry bloody Potter to this bloody party, I’m going to hex someone.”
“Oh, so this Potter fellow is popular, is he?” Tobias grinned. “Can’t say I’ve heard of him.”
She nudged him playfully. “Problem is, there aren’t actually that many Gryffindors invited. Maybe four or five of us. Cormac and Jennifer are the only seventh-years Slughorn’s paid attention to. So people have been latching on to anyone they can to get themselves an invite.”
“All the better for you that you’re going out with the highly-esteemed Head Boy, then.” Tobias gave a smirk of mock-pompousness, which was received with yet another elbow in the ribs.
“Well, Slytherins are fewer and further between. There’s only you and Zabini, isn’t there?” Annie said.
Tobias nodded, stepping forward slightly to open the door to a stairway for her, waving her in first. “Slughorn seems pretty leery about having anything to do with anyone associated with Death Eaters. Which eliminates about half of the older students. And most of us who don’t have Death Eater associations are smart and keep our heads down to avoid too much attention.” Tobias paused, stroking his chin in mock-consideration. “Or so they say. I never got the memo on that…”
“Still, it’s a surprisingly small number of Slytherins.”
“Well, Cal has Death Eater associations, as do Ariane and Montague. Pucey’s an idiot, Bletchley’s screwed up a few too many times, and Gabriel and Melanie make a point of keeping their heads down.” Tobias shrugged. “Our year’s pretty remarkable in how, well unremarkable it is.”
Annie hummed, nodding. Then, “What about Tanith?”
Tobias stumbled on a step, then swore and righted himself. “What about Tanith?” he asked, forcing himself to keep his voice even and internally cursing his lack of subtlety, not to mention balance.
He could feel Annie’s eyes on him as they ascended the stairway, though he was focusing more on not falling flat on his face again. “I mean, why don’t you think she’s in the Slug Club?” Her voice was light, and calm, but there was a definite undertone of tension in there he could just about hear.
He forced himself to shrug. “I don’t know. You’d have to ask old Sluggy.”
“Old Sluggy.” Annie made a face, then snorted, and the tension dissipated almost as quickly as it had settled upon them. “You sound like Cormac.”
Tobias looked at her in horror as they rounded the next corner, the door to Slughorn’s office now in sight at the far end and the sound of revelry just about reaching their ears. “You take that back.”
“Touched a nerve?” Annie chuckled.
“Seriously. Either never say that again or kill me now.” Tobias stared at her, eyes wide.
“Oh. Really?” Annie tilted her head at him, then sighed and waved a finger in his direction. “If you say so. Avada Kedavra.”
“It’d be better than being like McLaggen.” Tobias repressed a shudder as they reached the door, then he leaned forwards and opened it, again gesturing for her to go first. “After you.”
She grinned at his chivalry, then stepped inside. As he followed her in, he was immediately hit with the wave of colours of the decorations for this Christmas party. Slughorn had to have magically enlarged his office, or perhaps wrangled something of unusual size, for they had come expecting some sort of cosy gathering and were instead accosted with a large tree, many drapes in emerald and crimson, a crowd larger than anticipated and including various adults who were definitely not students.
“Huh. I thought this was a Christmas party, not the shoulder-rubbing event of the year.” Tobias gaped at the assembled, noticing a few people he recognised, such as a vaunted columnist from the Daily Prophet and even a couple of members of the Weird Sisters.
Annie glanced down at the house elves bearing over-burdened trays of vol-au-vents and other snacks, so weighed down that they almost seemed more like mobile food dispensers than actual creatures. “I feel like we should be surrounded by midgets carrying trays of crack, like at those Queen parties…”
Tobias faltered, staring at her. “The queen’s parties with crack and midgets? What?”
She looked at him curiously for a moment. “Not the queen. Queen. The band. You know. Freddie Mercury?” Annie sighed as Tobias continued to look at her with deep confusion. “For someone who went to a normal primary school, your concept of Muggle culture is surprisingly narrow.”
“I stopped being involved when I was eleven. My knowledge extends as far as great literature, and Transformers.” Tobias blinked at the house elves, now seeing them in a whole new light, and not entirely sure he actually wanted the finger food they presented to him.
“Tobias!” A meaty hand landed on his shoulder, almost making him choke on the breadstick he was trying to chow down, and the corpulent form of Professor Slughorn ambled into his vision. “Glad you could make it, my boy, very glad indeed.” Somewhere to the side, Annie seemed to take one look at the situation before bolting, heading in the direction of Jennifer Riley and Nick Wilson, over in a corner.
“Professor. Excellent, um, shindig.” Tobias coughed on the food, clearing the airways, and silently cursed Cal for putting that ridiculous word in his head, where it appeared to have taken root.
“Shindig. Ever the wordsmith.” Slughorn chuckled, his entire belly wobbling with the motion. “How have the applications to the Ministry been going? Any word yet from any of them?”
“They’re off, Professor. All I can do now is wait, and a response isn’t likely until after Christmas.” Tobias straightened up to look levelly at the Professor, smiling honestly. “There’s only really one I’m that interested in, though, truth be told.”
“Department of International Magical Cooperation?” Slughorn asked, though there was a twinkle in his eye and it was quite clear he knew this for certain already. “Oh, of course. Well, like I said to you a few months back, I have a few friends who’ve gone on to work for the department who could give you a few pointers… in fact…” He turned, waving a hand and seeming to summon a woman from the crowd – or, perhaps, Tobias just hadn’t been paying much attention to who was orbiting Slughorn at this point.
“My boy, this is Aurora Marlowe, Counsellor to the Ministry of Magic’s Ambassador to Russia’s Federation of Wizardry.” Slughorn smiled genially, as if having such a person to hand was a mere coincidence, rather than his intention all along – though Tobias was loath to hold this against him as he saw the opportunities spilling out before his eyes. “Aurora, this is Tobias Grey, Head Boy and a lad who will probably be your boss some day.”
Aurora Marlowe was a tall, aristocratic woman about the same age as Tobias’ mother, with fiercely pinned up chestnut hair that she didn’t seem to have seen fit to let down even for a relaxed party such as this. But her sculptured features showed no hint of arrogance or reserve; indeed, dark eyes were locked on him with a curious, appraising air.
Tobias stepped forward, extending a hand politely. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”
“‘Ma’am’. I’m old enough for a ‘ma’am’. Kill me, Sluggy.” Marlowe glanced sideways, the hint of a smile tugging at her lips before she returned her attention to Tobias. “And Grey, you say. You wouldn’t be Bobby Grey’s son, would you?”
“Bobby…” Tobias blinked, having never heard his father referred to by such a nickname before. “If you mean Robert Grey, married Melissa Hart, then, um, yes. I am.”
The smile that hung around Marlowe’s lips remained, though the glint in her eyes was difficult to read. “Isn’t that something. I was a great friend of your father’s at school. His death was such a tragedy; the loss of such a brilliant mind… and a good man. Though I suppose you never met him.” Her expression held the usual hint of sympathy, but it was that of a reserved and shared pain. He could detect no trace of the pity that tended to accompany it.
“Unfortunately not.” It was always in Tobias’ habit to be rather formal around those he didn’t know particularly well when talking of his father; there was always something rather uncomfortable about the fact that he often discussed Robert Grey with people who knew him better than he ever had, when his claim to loss was all the greater.
“Such a tragedy. You do look rather like him.” Then Marlowe blinked, and that glint in her eye disappeared, and her expression became brusque, businesslike. “So Sluggy says you’re applying for the DIMC?”
She pronounced it as a word that sounded more like ‘dimk’, and it took Tobias a brief stumble to interpret the acronym before he nodded quickly. “I’d like to get the opportunity to see the rest of the world. Though I’m aware that most of the first few years would be probably spent around the Ministry doing minor work with the envoys from abroad.”
“For most applicants, yes. Though some of us are always on the lookout for up-and-coming youngsters who we think will benefit from some hands-on experience out in the field, so to speak. You don’t learn very much kow-towing to a bunch of pompous ambassadors, but being on said ambassador’s own staff is a shade more rewarding.” Marlowe smiled thinly again, amusement seeming to hang in the air around her rather than be actively noticeable by her expression.
“Then I’ll have to do my best at interview to make sure that I look sufficiently up-and-coming.” Tobias grinned, rubbing his hands together slightly to off-set his mild nervousness in the face of such a professional.
“I imagine you won’t have too much difficulty if you’re as bright as Sluggy says, or have even half of Bobby’s brains.” Marlowe raised an eyebrow at Slughorn, who acted all innocence before noticing somebody else he needed to accost and connect, sweeping away. “When you get your interview date, though, drop me an owl if you want any particular hints. If nothing else, I can probably figure out who the panel will be and how to play them.” Again, that air of amusement which suggested a joke – but surrounded by the Slug Club, Tobias wasn’t entirely sure she wasn’t serious about this.
“I may indeed do that. Thank you, Ms Marlowe.”
She shook her head, waving a hand at him. “Aurora, please. Ma’am was bad enough, and you’re not a child. That real world can be a great equaliser.” Marlowe glanced about the crowd, her eyes seeming to fall on a small group of older wizards with a slight hint of despair. “I should go make sure old Foggy doesn’t end up selling his soul to Palmerstone over there.” She looked him head on, fixing her gaze on his. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Tobias, and I’ll be sure to follow your progress with great interest. Please, give my regards to your mother.”
Then she was gone, though Tobias had no idea who either old Foggy or Palmerstone or whether the issue of soul-selling was literal or metaphorical, and he found himself suddenly alone in the middle of the swirling mass of the party.
It had taken off a little over the course of this conversation, and though he scanned the crowds for Annie, couldn’t see her, so instead made his way over towards the buffet table. It was a small fight with elbows to actually make it to the drinks, but he was thirsty enough that a little impropriety was the least of his troubles.
He filled a beaker and took a large gulp, glancing away from the crowd only as a familiar face appeared at the punch bowl next to him. “Hermione! I wondered if you’d make it.”
Hermione Granger gave him a briefly suspicious glance, expression suggested she was inclined to bolt at any second, then subsided as she realised who it was. “Oh, Tobias. I forgot you’d be here.”
Though she seemed moderately pleased to see him, her behaviour was also slightly odd, and she appeared to be scanning the crowd with a slightly furtive look in her eyes as she also helped herself to some punch. “Enjoying the party?”
“Only just got here and already Slughorn’s handing me over to people who could fix up my future. It’s rather surreal. But not unenjoyable,” Tobias confessed, also looking about the assembled. “Don’t suppose you’ve seen Annie?”
“MacKenzie?” Hermione shook her head. “I’ve been staying away from Riley and that lot tonight, to be honest.”
“Any particular reason?” Tobias raised an eyebrow. The two of them rarely talked about anything other than academia, and tended to be more inclined to match wits over an intellectual challenge than actually discuss their personal lives. If there was some dislike between her and Riley, it was news to him.
“They’re liable to be where my date is.” She made a face, attempting only a little to hide it behind a sip of her punch.
“Your date? Who’d you come with?” Ever since she’d appeared at the Yule Ball with Viktor Krum, he’d realised he’d be unable to guess what her ‘type’ was.
“McLaggen?” Tobias also made a face.
“You see now why I’m avoiding him.” Another grimace, another sip of the punch.
“Did you lose a bet or something?”
“Not everyone has a fairy-tale romance they can bring with them to these sorts of events, Tobias.” Although her voice was slightly challenging, there was also the slightest hint of wistfulness about it. “Could you do me a favour, though? If you see Cormac and he’s looking for me, point him in the other direction.” She drained her cup of punch. “I’ve been loitering here a bit too long…”
“These parties are meant to be fun, you know, not an exercise in self-flagellation,” Tobias said.
“Oh, there’s fun to be had. Just not here and now,” Hermione said cryptically, putting her cup down, then she visibly shrank as her gaze drifted over Tobias’ shoulder. “Bugger, there he is…”
“You’re very strange, you know that?”
“That’s a little rich, Tobias, with your love life. I’ll owe you if you distract him, though, honestly.” Before he could ask her what she meant by her first statement, Hermione was gone, disappearing into the crowd, and Tobias turned to see Cormac McLaggen heading over with a slightly searching look on his face.
He was either ignoring or hadn’t seen Tobias, and was set to continue in the direction Hermione had gone, though it didn’t look like he’d yet spotted her. So Tobias stepped up, clapping him on the shoulder in a friendly fashion. “Cormac! Good to see you here.”
“Oh. Grey.” McLaggen turned, looking rather surprised and mildly uninterested. “Well, of course I’m here. Sluggy invited me, didn’t he?”
“Yes, well, I wasn’t sure you’d be able to make it. Some rumour about boils and the infirmary?” Tobias was quite astounded at how sincerely he could deliver such a bald-faced lie, and mildly confused as to where the inspiration had come from.
McLaggen frowned. “There aren’t any… boils… what are you talking about?” He shook his head, already, again, losing interest. “Don’t suppose you’ve seen Hermione, have you? She came over here for some punch, I think.”
Tobias paused, scanning the room for hints of Hermione and, thus, wherever the wrong end of the room to send Cormac would be. He couldn’t see her but, in the opposite direction to the one she’d gone in, Slughorn was holding court about something that threatened to suck in everyone around him, gathering in passers-by in a determined collection.
“Not sure,” he said slowly. “But she mentioned to me at the last prefect meeting she was looking forward to talking to Slughorn about prospects within Gringotts.” It was yet another outright lie, but it would probably do.
McLaggen glanced over in the direction of Slughorn, and Tobias realised he’d misjudged his distraction as the burlier boy balked at the sight of the small black hole their Potions professor was putting together. “I’ll… check it out in a bit,” he said, making a face.
There was a small silence, during which Tobias wondered how he was going to get rid of McLaggen whilst still remaining remotely polite, before the other boy looked up at him. “How’s Doyle?” he said.
It was such a strange question for him to ask about Gabriel’s wellbeing that Tobias just stared at him for a moment. “He’s… fine.”
“Heard he’s been having fainting fits and what have you.” There were hints of a sneer about McLaggen’s lips which made it clear there was no genuine concern, and that his intention was instead the highlighting of a perceived weakness. “Hope it’s nothing serious.”
Tobias smiled humourlessly. “He’s fine. Up to his usual antics. He was well enough to take part in some sort of incident a few weeks ago by the lake… some sort of avian antic where Cal was transfigured into a giant duck, it was apparently very funny.” He paused, then snapped his fingers with mock-realisation. “Oh! Of course! It was tackling you and Wilson, wasn’t it!”
McLaggen’s expression darkened. “Funny? They were just looking for trouble, acting thuggish.”
“Whereas you and Wilson starting on Gabe when it’s two versus one without anyone else in sight is the pinnacle of Gryffindor bravery, isn’t it.” Tobias’ voice grew cold, and he straightened up, using his height to overcome any intimidation advantage McLaggen would have with his heavier build.
McLaggen looked like he was going to retort, and as his lip curled Tobias had a very sudden, sharp recollection of having him pinned up against the wall outside the Transfiguration classroom, wand against his neck, almost a year ago. He’d deserved it then, and if he pushed any further, he’d deserve it again now.
Of course, he wouldn’t turn violent at a party like this, even if McLaggen did throw more insults at his friends like last time, even if he did make comments about Tobias’ father again…
After all, if he did, Annie would probably side with him instead of you like last time anyway.
Tobias wasn’t sure where that treacherous thought came from, but wherever in his mind it had crept from it had Tanith’s voice, and a certain ring of sincerity that twisted his gut unpleasantly. He looked McLaggen, who had still not said anything, in the eye, and folded his arms across his chest.
“I had best go talk to more interesting people. Good evening, Cormac.”
Then he pushed past the burly Quidditch player and went back to scanning the crowd, though his mood had dropped distinctly from the altercation and the recollection it brought. Eventually he spotted Annie over in a corner, laughing with Riley, but instead of heading over there, he hesitated.
This was not like last time, he told himself firmly. She had changed, he had changed. The political situation of the houses had changed. People were friendlier. Older. Wiser. The relationship was not going to make anything explode.
He balked again as his treacherous memory summoned an image of Tanith standing in the rain, and looking like he’d just chewed up her heart and spat it out in his defensive anger – in his fear to avoid another war of feelings, another rift in his way of life, which had manifested itself in a fury which had only served to make things worse.
If that wasn’t an explosion, he wasn’t sure what was. But it was not something he could deal with now. Now, there was the party – with its good food, good drink, good atmosphere, and good company, which included his beautiful girlfriend.
Tobias nodded to himself as he headed through the crowd towards her, forcibly lifting his spirits. It was not like last time. It would not end like last time.
And he knew, in his heart, that he was absolutely right.
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