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Chapter 23 : The Importance of Being
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“Beer?” Although it was phrased as a question, there seemed to be no actual choice about the matter as Cal placed a pint glass in front of Tobias and slid onto the stool opposite him in this small table in a corner of the Leaky Cauldron.
“No, no beer. Beer’s horrible.” Tobias grinned wryly as he lifted the pint and took a gulp. “Alright, just the one, though. Can’t get too silly; I’m off to see Annie later.”
“Oh, that reminds me.” Nat looked up from her butterbeer, smacking herself on the forehead in recollection and glancing eagerly at him. “Theron Howlett’s party tomorrow. You’re both coming, right?”
Tobias blinked. “Howlett’s throwing a party?” It wasn’t the only question on his mind. The other was: Why would a guy I’ve hardly exchanged two words with invite me?
“Christmas Eve’s Eve party. I know, true Ravenclaw wit there.” She scratched the back of her neck a little sheepishly. “He has a free, large house, and a lot of drink he needs the help of Hogwarts’ finest to finish off. And told us to invite anyone so long as they’re not complete pillocks.”
“You won’t be shot for bringing Slytherins?” Cal exchanged a wry grin with Tobias at this.
“Funnily enough, you guys aren’t persona non grata any more. Somehow, Toby here’s made being a Slytherin cool.” Nat paused, rubbing her nose. “Well. He’s made it not a hanging offence, anyway.”
“Good, I was going to say. I thought I made it cool.” Cal smirked.
“Sure, you did, Cal. Sure you did.” She patted him on the shoulder reassuringly. “Everyone’s digging the green-and-silver because you made it the ‘in’ thing.”
Tobias chuckled as his friend straightened up to mock-preen. “Where and when?”
“Just pop over to Cal’s at about six tomorrow. We can all apparate together. It’s only going to be seventh years – maybe a few Quidditch contacts. Just don’t bring any of the knuckle-draggers?”
“No Montague, no Pucey. Check.” Cal nodded.
“Though I think Bletchley, Drake, and Larkin will be there. Considering Theron’s still trying like mad to get into Drake’s knickers…” Nat tilted her gaze upwards thoughtfully. “I think he had to find a way to invite her without incurring any suspicion.”
“And they say romance is dead,” Tobias said dryly, lifting his pint to take a large, soothing gulp.
“They say chivalry is dead, too, but those Gryffindors just won’t die.” Cal sighed melodramatically.
“Evidently you two are drifting into a spot of fantastical daydreaming,” Nat commented as they both developed exaggeratedly far-away expressions, “so I’ll leave you to have your manly chats. With lots of back-slapping and lager-drinking.” She grinned, finishing off her butterbeer and leaping to her feet energetically. “Oh, and bring Cole along, will you? She’s been looking like she could do with a party.”
There was a pause as Tobias’ expression soured and Cal just looked questioningly at him, until Nat scratched the back of her neck. “Or, um, don’t. That’s cool too.”
“No, no. We’ll be inviting Tanith. Won’t we, Tobias.” Cal’s voice was rather pointed as he almost glared at his friend, who sighed and waved his pint glass vaguely.
“Okay.” Nat glanced between the two of them, then straightened up and gave a broad, infectious grin like nothing had happened. “Then I’ll see you two likely lads tomorrow. Try to not pass out in here, old Tom doesn’t like that very much.”
It was with a detached interest that Tobias nodded and waved and said his goodbyes, then settled down to watch the farewell between Nat and Cal. It was a bizarre sort of ritual, a kind of half-hug which was friendly and intimate without actually giving him any particular clues as to where boundaries lay – or, indeed, if there were any at all.
So he raised an eyebrow at Cal as Nat bounced out of the door, tilting his head curiously. “So what’s going on between you two?”
Cal grinned sheepishly and shrugged. “We’re friends, you know?”
“No? Friends? What’s that?”
Cal rolled his eyes. “Witty. We’re just seeing how things go. Don’t want to rush into anything. We don’t even know each other very well yet. But I like her, and… yeah. Could go somewhere.”
“I never thought you’d be the more cautious of the two of us,” Tobias said, sighing and taking another gulp of his beer.
“Yeah, well, look where it got you.” Cal waved a hand a little dismissively, glancing towards the door as if he could catch one final glimpse of Nat’s disappearing figure, though his slight frown suggested it was a quest in vain.
Tobias straightened up. “What’s that supposed to mean? I have a girlfriend, things are stable, I’m happy.”
“Yeah, how’s that going?” Cal turned back, having a generous swig from his own, half-empty pint glass.
“It’s going… fine.” Tobias blinked, almost surprised to find that he wasn’t lying with that statement. It wasn’t the whole truth, but technically, anything that wasn’t ‘fine’ had nothing to do with him and Annie. Nothing at all. “As good as last time. But with less stupidity.”
“That’s assuming dumping you is stupidity.” Cal said this with a broad smile to demonstrate the potentially perilous joke. “Good to hear, anyway. Was afraid of it going pear-shaped like last time.”
Tobias scowled. “Why is everyone worrying about that?”
Cal paused, peering at him a little curiously and setting down his beer. “Because… she screwed you over quite horribly and we don’t want to see that happen to you again?” He said this slowly, like explaining something to a child.
“Funny nobody mentioned this until recently,” Tobias snorted.
There was another silence as Cal scratched the back of his head. “Sorry, Toby, but you aren’t exactly the best guy in the world at listening to something you don’t want to hear.”
Tobias looked sharply at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Cal blinked. “Means you’re getting defensive right now just talking about it. I’m your mate, I’m just looking out for you.” He paused, looking down at his pint glass as if it could give him the answers he sought or the strength for his next question. “Is that why you and Tanith aren’t talking again? You argued about Annie?”
Yet another pause as Tobias tried to keep his slightly guilty expression under control. “Something like that.”
“Something like?” Cal raised an eyebrow, now looking honestly curious. “You two having spats isn’t exactly unusual, but it normally takes something pretty big to drive in a wedge this large. Haven’t seen one this massive since the Yule…”
His voice trailed off as his brain reached a conclusion before the sentence did, and Cal looked up, tiny light bulbs seeming to be almost visibly lighting up behind his eyes. “Oh. Reverse?” He sighed, not waiting for a response before he nodded slowly. “That would explain a lot.”
“I wish people would stop talking like this is something that’s been going on forever. It makes me sound dumb,” Tobias snapped irritably, drumming his fingers on the table. “It’s nothing, okay? She’s just being unreasonable again.”
“Like she always has been about Annie and me.”
“Oh. Unreasonable like suggesting that it might all go up in flames between a Slytherin and a Gryffindor? When it, um, did? Unreasonable like suggesting history might repeat itself?” Cal said this quietly rather than provocatively.
“It’s more than that, Cal, and you know it.” Tobias slammed his pint glass down, contents spilling a little across the table in front of him.
“How much more serious?”
“She said that she…” Tobias just about managed to stop the words spilling out in anger, as unprepared to hear them from his own mouth as he had been to hear them from hers. He shook his head firmly. “Never mind.”
As always, the words ‘never mind’ failed to resolve a conversation. Cal’s eyes widened to the size of saucepans. “You’re shitting me,” he declared flatly as two and two were added up and did not reach an underestimating three.
“I wish I were. She’s just being overly emotional, she’ll get over it.” Tobias waved a hand angrily.
“Yeah, because she’s a right ray of sunshine and coping these days,” Cal pointed out. “What happened? I mean, did you let her down gently?”
A long silence met this as Tobias’ expression now turned rather sheepish as well as guilty, and he failed to slip the appropriate mask over this. It was not helped by Cal’s own face darkening somewhat in response.
“What did you do?” his friend asked quietly, firmly.
“I was clear. I was honest. I did not leave her with any false impressions of hope.” Tobias said this carefully, well aware that he was trying to present his response in the best possible light, and feeling a small twist of self-loathing in his stomach as he said it.
“So you crushed said hope with a ten-tonne jackhammer,” Cal concluded.
“Maybe.” Tobias frowned. “What’s one of those?”
“I’m not sure, but it sounds heavy and, you know, crushing?” Cal shrugged. “How bad are we talking here?”
Tobias groaned a groan that contained within it a symphony of guilt as he lowered his head into his hands. “Heavy and crushing.”
“There’s something wrong with you two, you know? Can neither of you deal with problems healthily and, maybe, normally?” Cal rubbed his temples. “No bloody wonder she’s looking like someone ripped out her heart and shat on it.”
Tobias lifted his head balefully. “Thank you, Cal. Thank you so very, very much. I should know to go to you for support in the future.”
Cal pointed a finger at him. “Don’t you go bitching at me when you’re the one who’s screwed up, boyo,” he said. “I didn’t kick a puppy.”
“She’s hardly a puppy.”
“Then act all un-gentleman-like. Whatever.” Cal rolled his eyes and tossed his hands into the air. “Must I always play peacemaker here? Look, nothing’s unsalvageable. I’m sure she’s upset. So here’s the plan. Because it always has to be me who comes up with a plan for these things…”
“Yes, I’m a bad man and you are our salvation. Get to the point.” Despite his sharp words, Tobias sounded more guilty than bitter.
“I’ll get Nat to soften her up at the party and then you can go make peace. Say you’re sorry you were an arse and you two can make up. Get things to go back to normal. Bob’s your uncle.” Cal shrugged, grinning with the perceived ease of it all.
“Nat will ‘soften her up’?” Tobias repeated dubiously. “Even wondering what that means, you do realise this is Tanith we’re talking about?”
“Ah, therein lies the beauty. We have never before had an ally on our side who is actually female. So we can get someone to interact with her on her level.” Cal grinned like the cat who got the canary. “Nothing dramatic. I’ll just tell her to try and get Tanith in a good, party-like mood. She’s good at cheering people up.”
Tobias sighed. “It could work.”
“Do you have a better idea?” Cal said.
“I… no. Not really.” Tobias sagged, glancing down at his watch. “I should probably get going. Heading off to meet Annie.”
“I thought we were having drinks.” Cal stopped, looking briefly outraged and a little disappointed.
“I… we were.” Tobias shook his head, downing his pint quickly and standing up. “This was just a bit last-minute, and I’d like to see her before Christmas when it’s not a crowded party.”
“Oh. Alright.” Cal slumped in his seat, now toying with his nearly-empty pint glass. “See you tomorrow?”
“And the drinks on Boxing Day. Definitely have a good sit-down then. ‘Bye.” Tobias nodded firmly, putting his coat on and heading for the door to the back yard without much more than a faint wave of a goodbye to Cal.
The fresh air was cold and relaxing, and killed any of the faint numbing around the edges that his pint had prompted. He took a moment to make sure he had everything, then pulled his wand out and closed his eyes, considering the directions he’d been given and the place he intended to come to, then muttered a charm under his breath.
The world rushed away with that not unusual lurch of the stomach, and although Tobias – ever the perfectionist – had mastered the art of a smooth apparition, it was impossible for the process to be entirely without discomfort. So it was just as well the chill of late December had nullified the effects of the alcohol, as his stomach took a second to settle as he opened his eyes.
He was no longer in the back yard of the Leaky Cauldron – rather, in the back garden of a rather pleasant-looking detached house in Surrey. A quick glance about confirmed that he was not in a position to have been spotted appearing out of thin air by anyone standing at a window of a neighbouring house, and with a slight spring in his step, he headed across the garden and towards the back door.
His knock was answered almost immediately by a rather smug-looking Annie, who was grinning even before she saw him. She had obviously expected him – but then, really, who else was likely to come to the back door?
“You’re earlier than I thought you’d be,” she said by way of greeting, immediately grabbing him by the hand and pulling him inside. The gesture seemed to be just as much through her own pleasure at seeing him as it was to avoid the chill, though the door was closed pretty much the moment he was inside.
“What can I say? I wanted to see you,” Tobias admitted, a small smile playing about his lips. She looked more relaxed here than she ever did at Hogwarts, casual in jeans and a t-shirt bearing the logo of some Muggle band he’d never heard of. Although he hadn’t been in the house before, and his eyes did linger about to note the presentable, but stylish décor of the kitchen, he found it difficult to be interested in his environment with her in front of him.
“It’s only been about three days,” Annie laughed, locking the door behind him.
“It feels longer.” Tobias shrugged off his coat, then glanced about for somewhere to put it.
She met his gaze. “Yeah. It does.”
Then the coat was dropped on the floor as Tobias closed the gap between them, reaching out and lips seeking hers to meet hungrily in a kiss that, like he’d said, spoke of a separation of weeks, not days. His hand came up to cup her chin, but before she could step in to the embrace he had pushed forwards, backing her up against the door. Their bodies pressed together, for a long moment all he knew was her warmth against him, the parting of her lips against his, her smell and her taste and the outside world was nowhere to be seen.
Some lifetimes later the kiss broke. Her hands were by now entangled in his hair, and she didn’t seem remotely inclined to argue with how he had her pinned against the door – nor, with the way both of their breathing was coming raggedly, could she necessarily have been able to.
“Sorry,” Tobias breathed once he had managed to regain control of his voice, not sounding very sorry at all and punctuating his words with another short kiss. “I just… I want to do that every time I see you. Might not be appropriate in the middle of the corridor at school, though.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Annie whispered to his mouth, her fingers moving from his hair and running across his shoulders, down his chest. “I want you to do that too.”
He hesitated, but the talk and the fact that she was no longer all he could feel and think of meant the rest of the world was sinking in, and he became again dimly aware he had her pinned against the door in her parents’ house. His cheeks coloured very slightly, and he went to draw back. “Well, we should…”
“My parents are out.” Her hand shot out with certainty and a little need to grab his wrist as she said this, stopping him from moving away. “Until late.”
Silence fell between them as their eyes met, and the look of her was a hope and a promise and a dream. Moments passed before Tobias drew a deep, careful breath, and just about dared to whisper without fear of breaking the moment. “Late?”
She didn’t say anything in reply, just nodded, looking up at him and chewing slightly on her lower lip. He didn’t pull her to him in another kiss right away, either, despite the singing in his ears and the intense awareness of the silence around them, the wonder of the novelty that was absolute privacy.
They had stolen what moments they could at Hogwarts. In summer they might have gone for walks along the lake and found what isolated patch of trees they might, but winter was an altogether less secure matter. Empty classrooms might be found, but they held their risk, and even abuse of a Head Boy’s power granted only so much freedom.
So it had been fumbles down by the Herbology greenhouses, or frantically making the most of their time in an abandoned room, where they’d been paying as much attention to not being caught as to each other. The moments had been snatches of desperation, grabbed and not savoured.
This was different. Now, he could lean forward to kiss her slowly, lingeringly, with all of the intensity he always wanted to savour but never had the privacy or time to indulge. And did, his hands snaking around her and pulling her close, her hands entwining even more fiercely in his hair.
Time lost all meaning. And place, as they somehow transported themselves from the kitchen to a bedroom, and he wasn’t kissing her up against the door, he was kissing her in a bed, with limbs entangled and clothes by some means lost and none of it mattered because all he knew was her, the feel of her, the taste of her, the sheer intimacy of flesh on flesh and knowing every, every inch of her.
Annie. Who might have caused him heartache and grief but had always been up front, always been honest. With whom he’d never needed to dance around, never needed to pretend to feel anything but what he did, who had never been afraid of her emotions. What was hurting him in one moment of weakness compared to years of denial and blame?
And she was here. Perfect. His. Wanting him.
They’d never really talked about the physicality of their relationship. And perhaps leaping in to the abyss together with such little forethought and so much reliance on instinct over consideration was not the wisest of actions. But it felt right.
What were the euphemisms? That the world had moved, that he was a man now, all of that. None of it was true, so far as he could tell afterwards, even with his head swimming and absolute peace sneaking upon him. He was no different now, no different a person, no different in thought and in feeling…
Just different in experiences. And this was one experience, one moment, Tobias thought as he lay in bed with her nestled up against him, he wished could last forever.
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