Chapter 25 : The Tables Turned
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Christmas would come and go without much ceremony.
The Cole household's was a sombre affair, one of a distant family forced together despite disconnection and disinterest, where the warmest words exchanged through the dim cloud hanging over tended to refer to passing food across the dinner table.
The Greys' was quiet, an awareness of a family fractured, and thoughts of dark times unable to be kept at bay by two conscientious individuals, thus casting a shadow over the entire affair.
The house of Will Rayner and his ward was cheerful and pleasant - but eminently brief before reality sank back in, and routine would return, celebrations limited when a family was so small and practically-minded.
As for the Doyle household... well. Nobody was ever sure what happened in that family.
In fact, Tobias reflected as he surveyed his company in the Leaky Cauldron three days after Christmas Day, they almost never heard from Gabriel outside of Hogwarts. And with his increasingly distant attitude at school of late, knowing what was going on with him at all was next to impossible.
But even still, Gabriel was not at the forefront of his thoughts. Even his companions were out of his consideration, as Cal and Miles bickered over the quality of the pub's draught ales. Not even Annie, for as wondrous as their time together during the holidays had been, could quite rise to a position of utmost import. No, his thoughts were not quite so pleasantly focused.
"...bit quiet here, isn't it." Bletchley sniffed a little derisively as he glanced around the admittedly empty pub. "Usually a lot busier around Christmas. I'd guess."
"You'd think," Cal conceded with a shrug. "Still. Diagon Alley's dead, too. Loads of businesses have shut down. People don't want to come out of doors."
Indeed, the Leaky Cauldron did seem to be suffering from the state of the world. They had noticed most shops keeping business hours short even at Christmas, and the Cauldron looked like the only place a wizard could catch a drink this far south of Hogsmeade. Even then the clientele were a dour lot, the most determined of regulars or the most cautious of individuals. No families could be seen, no children. A few old bickering wizards sat in a corner; a group of off-duty ML Enforcers being boisterous clamoured around a table, obviously aware that, between the eight of them they could eat most trouble for dinner. Aside from that and a few confident opportunists making the most of low prices grabbing a quick drink, the place was quiet.
"What, in the million to one chance that when they go down the street the Death Eaters will kick off?" Miles said, and had Tobias been paying more attention he would have been quite upset at the notion of agreeing quite so thoroughly with such a man.
"Yeah. People aren't so fond of risking dying. Funny, that." Cal took a large gulp from his pint.
"They do know they're letting You-Know-Who win, though, right?" Miles shook his head. "Curling up and crying at the idea of a Death Eater?"
"While you, a wizard still not finished his education, would of course stand bravely before them." Cal rolled his eyes.
Miles gave him a look. "If I saw one?" he said. "Nah, I'd run a mile. But I'm not going to sit indoors just because there might be a Death Eater on the prowl ready to zap me."
"Don't know if that makes you brave or stupid." Cal shook his head as he sipped on his pint.
"Then why are you down here, hm?" Miles said a little imperiously.
Cal looked up from his drink, blinking. "I was thirsty."
"...and you're wondering if I'm stupid," Miles scoffed.
"I don't suppose either of you have spoken to Tanith." When Tobias interrupted, it was rather abruptly, and in the disconnected manner which suggested it made complete sense for his own train of thought, if not their conversation.
Miles raised an eyebrow at him. "Not since the day after the party, mate." There was something of a smirk hovering about his lips. "Why?"
Cal stiffened a little, eyeing Miles suspiciously, but this did not catch Tobias' notice. "She was just... er, a little displeased when we last spoke," he said carefully.
The smirk broadened. "She definitely wasn't last time we did."
"Miles-" Cal leaned forward, but the stewing Tobias' brain had done seemed to be denying him the power to observe the subtle.
"So she wasn't upset?" he asked obliviously.
"There wasn't any screaming and crying." Miles paused, then waggled his eyebrows. "Well. No crying, anyway."
Tobias opened his mouth to speak, then he saw the pointed look he was getting off Cal and his mind caught up with the situation. He blinked at Miles. "Wait. What?"
"I know, right?" Miles leaned back, cockily taking a gulp of his pint. "I didn't figure Tanith would be the type to wail like a banshee in bed, so I must have been doing something right."
Cal made a small, grumbling, slightly distressed noise in the back of his throat. "I didn't notice the two of you leaving the party together," he mumbled. If it was an effort to change the subject, it failed abjectly.
"Not surprised. You had Lockett. Grey had MacKenzie." Miles' smirk broadened, if that was possible. "Speaking of which, Grey, rumour has it that you got your end away with her. I'd ask you how she and Tanith compare, but of course you got shot down before you could get that -"
Looking back, Tobias wouldn’t be entirely sure what had happened, or even necessarily why. He did know he leapt out of his chair, knocking it over and rocking the table enough to spill their drinks. He did know that Cal was on his feet also, and so was Bletchley, but neither of them reacted fast enough to stop him from curling his hand into a fist and planting it inexpertly in Miles’ jaw.
Pain ran along his hand at the impact, for he’d never been shown how to throw a punch, but he was not alone in such a sensation as Bletchley reeled back, clutching at his face. But before either of them could continue, Tobias following this up at the urging of the red mist sinking over his vision, or Bletchley retaliating, Cal was in between them, shoving them apart before wrapping his arms around Tobias and dragging him back.
"You want to get us banned?" his friend hissed in his ear. "Not to mention I reckon he could take you, wands-away?" 'Wands-away' was the term they had coined an age ago, back in the days of their Gryffindor vendetta, for any contest - usually a brawl, and usually deferring to Cal for such matters - where magic was not employed. It tended to minimise punishment and maximise satisfaction.
Miles was laughing as he lowered his hand from his jaw, which looked like it would soon see a merry bruise but not much worse, though the inkling of other patrons were staring at them and his fists were clenched in readiness. "Oh, so it does piss you off I got there first. Well, isn't that just a bonus."
"Drop dead, you shit-stirrer," Cal snapped eloquently, though he tightened his grip as Tobias made another move forwards with a noise of aggravation at the back of his throat.
"After the suck-up does." Miles nodded at Tobias, relaxing as he saw Cal had him thoroughly restrained. "He didn't have to crawl back up Dumbledore's arse so enthusiastically when the old bastard was back in charge. You know what my keeping that prefect badge for seventh year would have looked like to potential employers?"
"That you still came second place to me for two years?" Tobias tugged at Cal's grip, lip curling. "Let me go, Cal, I'm not going to flatten him. Merlin, where did you learn a body-lock like that?"
Cal did, reluctantly, release him, though continued to eye him cautiously. "I was the one who had to scrap with McLaggen and Wilson at once while you and Doyle were useless or elsewhere." He rubbed his upper arms a little.
Tobias hadn't been listening for a response, still glaring at Miles. His fists clenched and unclenched, and he shifted his weight, seeming to be weighing matters up. Then he shook his head abruptly. "Just... just stay away from me, Bletchley,” he spat. “And her." Without waiting for a response, he whirled on his heel and strode for the door.
"If she can keep her hands off -" Miles' antagonistic response was cut off as Cal grabbed him by the shoulder and shoved him back down into his chair.
"You're paying for those drinks, boyo," Cal declared firmly, but whether Miles subjected himself to this would remain unknown to Tobias, who by then had burst gratefully out of the door and into the back yard of the Leaky Cauldron.
Last time he had been there, his stomach had been flittering with anticipation. Now there was just an almost painful knot in his gut as he paced back and forth, trying to work the shake out of his hands and clear his head. Apparition when jittery was a bad notion.
She... with Miles... to get back at me? It was the only explanation that made sense in that whirling nonsense that was his thought process, this maelstrom of confusion and emotions, and damningly, it was the best one. Why else would she be interested in such a man? Was there anyone who would be better at incensing him so?
And just why was he incensed?
"It's a manipulation. That's why," he growled under his breath, reaching for his wand, closing his eyes and turning on the spot. Images rose before his mind, of a copse next to a field of winged horses; then the air rushed in around him, his guts twisted even more from an unsteady, emotional apparition, and when he opened his eyes he was there.
There was ice on the ground and he could see his breath in front of him, but he cared nothing for the picturesque scene of frozen, crystallised leaves in absolutely still woodland, or the disturbance he made as his feet crunched on solid grass, past the paddocks empty in winter, towards the great house of the Cole family.
It was customary for family and friends to use the back door, closer as it was to the best local apparition spot. Formal visitors would have to troop around to the front, but it was through a lack of caring than a sense of welcome that Tobias made his way towards the kitchen door.
His rap on the solid oak was firm and heavy, and enough to make his knuckles sting if he cared. It was dark now, though it had been light when he'd headed for the Leaky Cauldron, the earliness of the evening creeping up on him in this winter darker than most. It made it hard to peer through the slightly warped large panes of glass in the door, but it was obviously gloomy inside, with no signs of movement.
There was a long silence, long enough that he knocked again, this time with the side of his fist and thumping more politely than might be expected. Daedalus and Gaia Cole being out was not an oddity; that there would be no Tanith, no staff, or even no Altair Ritter was peculiar.
Eventually, though, there was a ripple of movement through the glass, then the door did swing open to show the Squib himself standing there, bundled up in a greatcoat against the chill of winter. He blinked as he saw Tobias.
"Mister Grey. How long have you been there?" His voice was cautiously polite.
"Longer than I would have liked." Tobias grimaced. "Is Tanith in?"
Ritter glanced over his shoulder, seeming briefly confused. "She is in the study, I believe. I was just getting ready to go out and did not hear the door. I apologise." He stepped outside, but pushed the door open to allow Tobias in.
He didn't spare more than a grunt and a nod in gratitude as he darted inside, leaving Ritter to close the door and grumble off on his way, doubtless to find a Portkey with his lack of ability to apparate.
The Cole residence was as musty and old as he remembered, though it had been some years since he had visited. Nevertheless, he recalled where the study was - recalled that it had a view of the back garden and was easily close enough to hear a knocking at the door - and made his way there promptly.
He barged in this time without bothering to knock, and immediately felt plush carpet under his feet and a warmth to make him regret his coat and scarf. The study was a room to escape to, and the moonlight glittered in through large windows, the estate's holdings stretching out beyond.
Tanith sat before a table in the centre of the room, peering at what looked like a crystal ball that he paid no attention to. She looked pale and worn and tired, but started as he entered and her expression twisted to irritation quickly enough.
"How did you get in?" she snapped.
"Back door." Tobias jerked a thumb behind him in an aggravated manner. "Where Ritter happened to come across me and let me in. Despite my knocking. Which you heard."
Tanith gave a small sniff, looking back down at the orb and waving a hand over it briefly. The faint babbling he could hear emanating, but wasn't listening to, diminished in volume. Not inaudible, but not intrusive. "I thought Altair would have figured I was ignoring it on purpose. Damn him."
"Yes, damn him for... for keeping me out? As you hide away?" Tobias went to fold his arms across his chest, then made a small noise of irritation at the heat and unbuttoned his coat.
"It's my own house, Grey. I can do what I like. Or, at least, I don't have to answer to you for it." Tanith paused, straightening up and arching an eyebrow at him. There were bags under her eyes, though, and her glare lacked its usual strength. "Though I don't recall having to answer to you for anything."
"Though I still have to answer to you? Still get your judgement and your anger about what I do in my own private time?" He stalked forwards, the uncomfortable twist in his gut now prompting anger in his uncertainty, and he silently willed her to fight back - to cease this quiet reproach.
Tanith dropped her gaze. "I was wrong. It doesn't matter." Her voice was quiet and dull, and had he been thinking more clearly he would have read more into her lack of fire.
"It does bloody matter if you're still at it, just switching tack!" Tobias threw his hands in the air in aggravation.
She looked up again, obviously confused. "Switching...?"
"I spoke to Miles. He was bragging." He folded his arms across his chest, glaring at her levelly.
There was a stiff pause, then Tanith stood slowly, body language very careful, very precise and controlled. "I don't believe," she began, her voice holding a suggestion of a shake, "that's any of your business."
"When you're screwing... around to mess with me? I think it is." He couldn't quite bring himself to spout the coarseness the sentence had begun with, adapting to fit. The anger by now was a swirling nausea, a sense of being sickened with himself more than her.
She looked sharply at him, and there was a split second where her eyes began to fill with tears, and the twist in his gut tightened to defuse the anger, make him immediately apologetic - make him want to reach out for her, soothe her, make it all better.
Hold her, tell her everything's going to be alright...
Then her gaze hardened, and the fire came with it.
"To mess with you," she echoed, voice cold, but the temperature rising every second. "You are... unbelievable. You are beyond arrogant, Grey. To think that it had to be all about you."
He took a step back, and was almost surprised he didn't fall with the unsteadiness of his legs as his anger and righteousness began to fade in the face of this change. "You... we argued..." Suddenly, his reason for being here seemed markedly less right, and again he was in the aftermath of the argument in the Hogwarts woodlands, lost and confused and despising himself…
"I was upset. I was angry. And not just about you. About me. It was about me, you idiot, feeling hurt and... and rejected, and..." Again, her voice quavered, and she began to pace irritably to cover it up, scowling - whether at him or her emotions, now, he wasn't sure. Then she paused, a look of something approaching horror tugging at her expression. "...and Miles was bragging?"
Tobias flinched in recollection, opening and closing the hand which threatened to swell. "I don't think he'll be doing it any more." He paused, expression growing harder. "In fact, I mean to make sure of it." The anger was almost gone now, and in its place a cold, seeping guilt, again infinitely familiar, from when she’d said… she’d said…
Tanith covered her face with her hands. "...he thinks there was anything worth bragging about?" Her voice was barely above a whisper, horrified and empty as ever.
His fists clenched fully at last, and he ignored the shot of pain running up his hand. "He didn't... he didn't hurt you, did he?" The idea hadn't occurred to him before. Of boisterous, stupid Miles doing something...
"Not intentionally." Tanith straightened up the moment these telling words were out of her mouth, and glared at him. By now, at least, he knew to recognise when she used anger, lashing out, as a defence mechanism. "And why do you care about any of this? I don't have Cal or Gabe knocking down my door because I dared look at a man..."
Silence fell as Tobias straightened up, expression one of something approaching confused shock. "I..." His voice trailed off again, and their gazes met - his stunned, hers hurt and cautious. Eventually, all he could manage to say was a weak, stumbling repeat of “He hurt you?”
She turned away abruptly, shoulders stiff, posture not giving away a single hint of weakness. He knew this control well, knew usually that it was time to stop prodding, stop trying to approach her and leave her be.
But he’d left her be for months now, and the bile of self-loathing in the back of his throat was a flavour he didn’t want to taste any more.
“I am… the worst friend in the world, aren’t I,” he whispered, his voice thick, and he saw her jerk a little, though she didn’t turn. “I’ve treated you so badly, and this is… it’s my fault, isn’t it, and…” Tobias lifted shaking hands to scrub his face. “I owe you so much better than this, for all the times you’ve stood by me…”
Tanith looked back, hair falling over the side of her face as almost a curtain to hide behind as she regarded him. “I’ve abandoned you plenty. Thrown your emotions in your face plenty,” she said, but her voice was guarded, uncertain.
“Not like this,” Tobias said firmly, taking a step forward and lowering his hands. “My God. I’m sorry. I’m so… I never wanted to hurt you, but I did, and I’m so, so sorry…”
"All south-east teams respond. Death Eater apparition traced to a 21 Granary Street, Redditch, Surrey. Believed Muggle attack in progress."
The voice emanating from the orb drifted through the gap between them, and Tobias turned with a start. "What's that?" he asked, his voice cold and strained.
Tanith shrugged, a little confused at the change in topic. "It's an Auror communication orb. I just... listen sometimes. Find out what's-"
"That's... actual Aurors talking?" The colour drained from Tobias's face, and he turned for the door, yanking it open immediately.
Tanith bounded across the room, grabbing him by the elbow. "What? What is it?"
"That's not a Muggle attack." Tobias took advantage of the break and explanation to wrap his scarf around his neck. "That's Annie's house." Then he ripped out of her grasp and tore down the corridor.
He heard her shouting his name, heard her calling for him to stop, but he didn't hesitate as he strode back the way he'd come, and she didn't follow.
His grip on his wand was firm as he burst out the back door, into the cool darkness of this winter evening, before he closed his eyes, concentrated, and thought of the house of a girl with a sparkling smile that made his heart soar he would do anything for.
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