Chapter 29 : The Day After Tomorrow
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The prefects' tower was awash with curiosity as Tanith attempted the perilous gauntlet from the door to the tea table. The stairs had been hard enough, her back by now screaming in painful protest from the climb, but limping across the crowded room promised to be even worse, albeit for less physical reasons.
"I'm not going to answer that," she mumbled, again and again as questions were thrown at her, until she could avoid the issue entirely by gratefully gulping down on the cup of tea passed to her by Hufflepuff prefect Lisa Fletcher. She was one of the few in the room not haranguing her with questions, no doubt recalling the fallout from O'Neal's death, and the only one silent but still in the crowd. Those not ruled by curiosity lurked in the corner, otherwise.
Most of the school had reacted little to Annie MacKenzie's death. Enough pupils had suffered as of late of dead parents, or cousins, or aunts and uncles, that a quiet girl known by few was not missed. Nor had she been the only casualty; a second year Ravenclaw boy had also not returned from the holidays. But the prefects had been a captive audience of the year's inter-House politics, and Annie had undeniably played a role in those.
And with Tobias nowhere to be seen even ten minutes late for the meeting, so did the vultures of gossip turn to Tanith for answers. She, on the other hand, tried to ignore the babble, ignore the pain in her back, and delicately picked out a biscuit, considering it a better alternative to dignifying the questions with a response.
"Enough! What's wrong with you all?"
Jennifer Riley's voice cut through the crowd like a knife. A sharp, angry knife, and the tall Head Girl stormed in to the room with a presence enough to make even Tanith flinch. "What's happened is a tragedy," she snapped, striding to the centre. "Not a freak show for your amusement and to indulge your curiosity over."
Silence fell, perhaps contributed to by Tom Everard looming over Riley's shoulder and glaring at everyone, until the Head Girl gave a satisfied nod. She glanced over at Tanith, raising an eyebrow. "You alright, Cole?"
Helpful, Riley. Real helpful. Tanith nibbled delicately on a biscuit, trying to pretend like her spine didn't feel as if it was going to snap in half. "Did they change the biscuits? Bloody good."
Riley chewed on her lower lip, seeming to recognise her mistake, and turned back to the rest. "Well. Yes. We had best be started." She clapped her hands together with more enthusiasm than the first prefect meeting after Christmas really, in Tanith's opinion, warranted. "Welcome back, everyone. It's good to see you all here again."
Except we're not all here, are we, Tanith thought darkly, perching herself against the snacks table. Standing hurt, but so did getting up after sitting down, and she wasn't going to show off her pain to half the school if she could avoid it. If she sat in the Common Room, she didn't tend to get up again until it was quiet, and meal times had become their own hilarity, of leaning so heavily on Cal he was almost picking her up again. But she had no allies here. Nobody she could show she was weakened.
They'd said at Saint Mungo's she was lucky to be alive - that the slashing curse would have severed her spine if it hadn't been for the Shield Cloak. Tanith had calmly pointed out that planning, then, not luck had kept her alive, because she'd expected to be hit with a curse when she'd charged in to the room and that was why she'd brought the cloak. Her cockiness hadn't been entirely approved of, and the Healer had gone on to argue that, then, she was lucky she didn't need major magical aid to walk, as would have been the case if the curse had been a few inches to the left. She hadn't had an answer to that, and had just let them try to patch it up.
She'd been told to give it a month of rest. After a week she was going mad. One more and she'd start her jogging again, to hell with what the Healers said. Tanith had already abandoned the stick at school, but a limp was more respectable than a walking aid.
So she coped. And was, at least, overlooked compared to Tobias. Except for when Tobias wasn't there.
"I don't know where Tobias is," Riley was saying, "but I'm sure I can handle you horrible lot myself without him, and I'm sure he knows we're all thinking of him. But we've got job allocations to worry about, responsibilities to hammer out."
Late night patrols were a perk of being a seventh-year prefect, apparently, and Tanith was ever swift to volunteer for them. Better than supervising first years or watching over the chess club. This time was no exception, though she could not help but note Riley allowed Fletcher and Everard to partner up even though the last thing those two would be doing together would be patrolling. And letting Hooper supervise safety in the Herbology club when she was liable to fail her OWL in it was perhaps not the most sensible option.
But then, Tobias had always been the one who'd known his prefects. Known what they were good at, where to place them. Riley's strengths lay in the organisation, in making sure the schedules were up to date and everyone knew what they were doing.
Where is he?
They were into the next Hogsmeade trip supervision by the time that question was answered, as the door flew open and in strode Tobias. He'd looked pale and drawn since Boxing Day, underfed and scrawny and just generally tired. But now, with his arms full of stacks of paper, he finally seemed to have a bit of a spark to his eye again, a bit of energy to his movements.
"Sorry I'm late. I was Floo-ing with London from Professor Slughorn's office." He sounded a bit more like his old self as he hurried to the front, shoving papers in to folders and giving an apologetic smile.
Riley blinked. "London?"
"We'll have to rearrange our talk with Professor McGonagall on Saturday," Tobias said, almost dismissively. "I'll be at an interview with the Department of Magical Law Enforcement."
Tanith frowned. "But the Enforcer interviews aren't until the end of the month," she said in confusion.
Tobias looked over at her, nonplussed. "I know."
"The only MLE interviews this weekend are Auror interviews..." Tanith's voice trailed off, and she stared at him. "The application date closed months ago."
He shrugged. "It was reopened."
Anger saw her forget that they were in a crowded room, forget the pain in her back as months of writing and rewriting the application form, reading and exercising and getting ready for interview, and painstakingly working for years to meet the prerequisites flashed before her eyes, and Tanith leapt to her feet. "You spoke to Professor Slughorn."
Tobias didn't even look apologetic. "I did."
"We have a meeting," Riley reminded them very quietly. She spoke low enough to make it clear she took no pleasure in venturing to the ring that was the by-now familiar battle between Tobias Grey and Tanith Cole, especially in recent months, but it was enough to have them fall silent.
Tanith straightened up, and ignored the slight grinding sense in the small of her back. "You have my responsibilities already sorted," she snapped, and stormed to the door. She knew Riley wouldn't dare call for her back, and that Tobias probably wouldn't think to. She was right, and made it unimpeded to the door and down the winding staircase that had her hobbling by the time she reached the bottom.
In the corridor lurked Gabriel, pacing to and fro and checking his watch every few seconds. He was another upon whom the holidays had taken their toll, though Tanith had no concept as to what his price had been. He didn't look as skeletal as Tobias, or as battered as Tanith knew she looked. But he was tired, and for once looking anything but immaculately presentable, dark hair wild, robes scruffy.
He started with surprise as she emerged in the corridor. "I thought you had a while longer."
"I did, but..." Tanith shut her mouth abruptly. It wouldn't do to complain about Tobias. It just seemed... awfully unforgiving, even if he had just subverted through favouritism a system she had danced to the tune of for years. "I don't need to be there the whole thing."
"Oh. Good." He fell in to step with her as she hobbled down the corridor, not seeming to notice her difficulty walking. "Listen, I've been trying to grab you for the last few days..."
"I've been busy. Sorry," she said, and meant it.
"It's fine. Tobias comes first. I know that." Gabriel shrugged, waving a hand dismissively. "But I... I've had a few breakthroughs. On you-know-what." She glanced up to see him tapping his temple.
"Oh?" Her interest was not feigned, but had to fight through the aching in her lower spine. She glanced up and down the corridor to make sure it was empty this time of the evening, then came to a halt and leaned against the wall. They could probably talk here - and she could rest.
"The funeral. MacKenzie's funeral. It was the one I saw." Gabriel spoke in a low, agitated voice that was entirely unlike him. The unflappable Gabriel Doyle was flapping. "Only I saw it through Wilson's eyes. With Riley crying on my - er, his - shoulder, and he was glaring at Tobias..."
Tanith pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to will thoughts and recollections into coherency. "You're sure?"
"Absolutely. Absolutely." Gabriel jigged up and down a little with stress. "So that means... d'you think it was Annie I bumped into and saw get killed? I think it adds up, there were two people, I thought there was a third person on the floor - Tobias? I mean, if you could get me a picture of what the place looked -"
"No." Tanith's voice dropped to sub-zero levels. "I'm not getting pictures. I'm not drawing you pictures. No. Just... no."
Gabriel rubbed the back of his neck, not seeming to notice her own upset. "It'd be really helpful... I mean, it might have been someone else's death. These are coming true, Tanith. We have to do something."
"Do?" Tanith asked, even though the real question bouncing around her pounding brain was 'we?'.
"Talk to someone. Warn people. Stop them." Gabriel waved his hands vaguely and a little desperately.
Tanith stopped, drawing a deep breath. "I never did Divination," she began slowly. Now was not the time for her to try and concentrate on such a problem. "I have no idea if the future is mutable, if you're just crazy, or what. I think, Gabe... I think you need to talk to someone who knows about this more than me."
Gabriel straightened up. "I'm not going to that old coot Trelawney."
"Then go to the centaur."
He paused at this, expression thoughtful. "Firenze. And the centaurs do have a somewhat... sensible attitude to foretelling. At least he won't think I'm mad."
He might. But nobody will listen to him. He can't get you committed. "He'll know more than you or me." Tanith shrugged.
Gabriel stayed silent for a moment, stroking his chin. He hadn't been shaving lately, she noted with a start. Even Tobias had been shaving, though the cuts on his cheeks suggested not with too much concentration. But Gabriel's dishevelment was beginning to reach worrying levels. "You're right," he mused.
"I know I'm right." Tanith managed a wan smile. "Expert advice, Doyle. We'll get through this."
"Yeah." Gabriel nodded, gaze going thoughtful and distant in a manner completely unlike him. "Yeah." Then he patted her on the shoulder, and walked off distractedly.
She glared at his disappearing form incredulously. "Bye," she muttered venomously once he was out of earshot, then straightened up with a wince. "You crackpot."
Her progress back to the common room was slow with the throbbing in her back. Even though she took a shortcut, exercising her memory of the various Hogwarts corridors, the journey was still longer than she'd anticipated. And, with all of her luck, she had only minutes left before she'd best set off for dinner by the time she staggered in to the common room.
Cal sat over by a window, staring out of it with a dark frown on his face. He'd been scowling a lot since Christmas, but odd behaviour from Cal this year was, at least, not a novelty to her. She hobbled over and collapsed on to the overstuffed armchair opposite him with a groan. "Hey."
He grunted in response, and the apathy sparked a flare of bitter anger in her, fuelled by pain and aggravation. "Oh, what's wrong with your life? Does Lockett give a shit blowjob?"
His gaze turned sharply on her, and she couldn't help but darkly note that this, at least, had gotten his attention. "Because I couldn't possibly have problems which were worse than your burdens, Tanith."
No, people do. But I think they've used up all the woe that's left. I hope.
"Sorry," she said, then wondered why she was apologising. "Just seems the world and his wife has trouble these days. What's up?"
"Nothing." Cal turned back to the window, but before Tanith could find something to throw at him, he drew a deep breath. "You think it's safe for purebloods and muggle-borns to mingle right now?"
Tanith watched him for a moment, her heart sinking as she put two and two together. Perhaps there was a little woe left over. "Are you making Lockett a target, you mean."
Cal's expression flickered. "Tobias made Mac one," he said, not with accusation but with sadness, and a hint of guilt which made her frown with confusion.
"You don't have the profile Toby does," Tanith pointed out with an effort of reassurance. "And hardly anyone knows for sure what's going on between you two."
"The party wasn't exactly low profile."
With all that had happened that night - and Tanith winced and pushed back memories of pain, both emotional and physical - she'd forgotten about Lockett throwing herself at Cal. "Still... she's as likely to be attacked for being a muggle-born as she is for going out with you."
Cal didn't look convinced, and opened his mouth to speak. Then he stopped, and scowled. "I guess so."
She looked at him for a few long moments, then sighed and gave up. "Where's Grey? Is the meeting over?"
"Hm? Oh. Yeah." Cal shrugged, looking back across the enchanted window. "In the dorm. Why?"
"I've got something to give him." A piece of my mind. She stood with a grunt of pain and started for the stairway without even bothering to wait for a response, but from the look of Cal's apathy there wouldn't be one. Was she the only person who recognised that the world still turned, regardless of one's woes?
Then Miles Bletchley emerged out the door leading to the dormitories and she almost jumped out of her skin. And he smiled at her.
She couldn't help but flinch. Avoiding him had been hard work when he was in her House, in her classes, in the common room and at mealtimes. But she'd managed it. And though she went to shift around him now, trying to bolt to the door, he moved to block her way.
"Hey Tanith," he said, in a voice he probably thought was flirtatious. "Hoped we'd run into each other."
It was all she could do to fight down the small bubble of panic. "Miles, I have to go see Grey..."
"Hm? Oh, he's in the dorm. Looking for some text book for something-or-other." He ran a hand through his curly hair. "Look, we should talk..."
"It's really important I get to Grey, Miles," she pressed on, eyeing the gap under his arm and wondering if she could break under it.
"...or not talk, if you know what I mean, that's good too." Bletchley's grin broadened to even more oily levels.
"Miles!" That came louder than she meant to, drawing their way prying gazes she felt itching and burning her skin with their curiosity. But it also stunned Bletchley for long enough that she could dash past him, ducking under his arm and shuddering where she brushed against him.
Don't dwell. The world keeps turning.
She cursed her gut for doing somersaults as she dashed up the stairs, heart thumping in her chest in fear of Bletchley following her. This wasn't the mood she'd wanted to be in to talk to Grey. She needed to be calm. Level. Fuelled by, but not driven by anger. And now she couldn't stop her hand from shaking as she reached for the door to the seventh year boys' dorm room, or her stomach from churning as she stepped in.
"Grey," she declared, internally cursing the mild warble she could hear in her voice, "we should talk. That you bypassed the Auror application process thanks to Slughorn is something I find offensive, and I can't believe you of all people have done it knowing how much I worked for..."
Then she stopped, for when she looked up she saw him sitting on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands. Next to him was a thick Arithmancy text book, brand new, which she didn't recognise - and he'd enthused at her enough about his new purchases that she thought she knew them all by heart by now. He was still. He was silent. And he didn’t even raise his head to look at her.
"I'd forgotten I had this," he said at last, his voice not holding the thickness of grief she'd expected, but a certain dull emptiness. "It ended up in my pile of books when I was packing after she gave it to me."
Tanith didn't need to ask who 'she' was, and wordlessly padded across to the bed to sit next to him. He didn't react, not like times in the past week when he'd reach for her hand or move closer. This was some new threshold of grief, one she didn't recognise.
"I've been fine since we got back," he continued, almost obliviously. "I've seen empty spaces in class where she sat. Places we talked and laughed. And nothing. I was waking up each day and telling myself 'It's better today'. Each day, a little better.
"Then I opened that damned book." Tobias drew his hands down to show dry eyes, but there was a distant glint to them that unnerved her. "I want to get those bastards, I really do. For her. And to make sure nobody else has to wake up in the morning and feel like this."
Idly, Tanith reached out to open the front, and immediately, on the first blank page, the small piece of paper tucked inside caught her eye. Of course she would have known better than to write in a precious textbook if it were a gift for him.
The words were simple. 'With all my love, Annie'.
Somehow, that made the sting in her eyes even sharper. There was no sonnet of love, no ode to their bond. Just short words, and that made it the worse, for there was a future in their brevity. The assumption that there would be more words, and all the time in the world to find them. Together.
Tanith didn't say anything. Just closed the book, put her arm around him, and was silently grateful that mere hard work and long hours, rather than loss and pain, had been the fuel for her Auror application.
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