Chapter 30 : The Stars Above
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It was disturbing how easy it had been to avoid people for the last week. Like they expected him to be isolationist and secretive, like anti-sociability were the norm for him. He'd thought it was a trait more associated with Gabe. He'd thought he'd have to work at it.
But they left him alone, lost in their own pains and unobservant of his own distractions, such that it had been easy to slip away in the dead of night from the dorm-room. So now his footsteps thudded across the wooden floor of the Astronomy Tower to the beat of his thumping heart, and each step was a word.
Traitor. Traitor. Traitor.
Over and over, burning into his brain. Guilt for who he was, for what he’d done. For just how much pain he’d brought down upon others. For just how stupid he’d been, how believing… how naïve…
‘Hide our words and these thoughts from your friends, for they will surely not understand your curiosity. They will be as closed-minded as you once were.’
Innocent questions. Innocent curiosity. So easy to just ask. So easy to just be told.
Who wouldn’t want to know? Who wouldn’t want the mystery of family unravelled, when it had been lost for so long? Morality took a back seat when it came to that kind of burning need – though he should have listened to it nevertheless, used the communication for good, to find him, rather than to satisfy his own childish wants.
Traitor. Traitor. Traitor.
When he’d answered the very first letter he'd been angry, sanctimonious. He wasn't sure why. He wasn’t sure what good he thought he might be doing. Did he think he could change them? Change him? With pen and paper, make him see the error of his ways? A path other than hatred?
He didn't know when he'd given up. The second letter? The third? When it had stopped being a battle and become... contact?
Contact with blood. Contact with evil.
Traitor. Traitor. Traitor.
He'd never meant for this to happen. Never meant for them to learn so much and turn it upon him, turn it upon his loved ones.
Traitor. Traitor. Trai-
His pacing stopped, the accusations stopped, and for half a moment his heart stopped as he heard the soft voice from the stairway and whirled around to see Nathalie's head popping up from the floor.
"I got your letter," she babbled obviously, hurrying up to the top, her small form silhouetted against the moonlight. "Are you alright? I've been worried about you, I've been wanting to talk to you - how's Tobias?"
A myriad of questions, all sensible and thoughtful and real. And completely innocent of the truth.
You're not a traitor, a dark voice whispered in his ear with sensuous temptation. You were lost, confused, you've never known your father. You just wanted to reach out, you didn't know this would happen... go to her, she'll make it better...
He flinched as she approached, and the voice died, the guilt returning in its wake. He took a step back, trying to broaden the gap, keep her at bay, for, as he'd worried, if she approached he'd be weak again.
You don't want to endanger her. This voice was firmer, if angrier, and had smatterings of his foster-father in it, albeit in his more judgemental moments. You don't deserve her.
"It's over," he blurted out, and that voice died too, now just leaving him with a wrenching emptiness where once the angel and devil had sat side by side.
Nat looked at him calmly. "Why?" she asked. Her voice had a no-nonsense edge he hadn't expected, but there was still a patient, collected tone – almost as if she was speaking to a child throwing a tantrum.
He opened and closed his mouth, working it a little before he found words to stammer. "It's not working between us."
"That's because you've been avoiding me, Cal," she said with surprising calm. "That's okay. You had a rough Christmas. Your best friend's in an awful place right now."
He's your best friend and you did that to him, the angry voice whispered, and Cal wished he were empty again.
Nat's voice took on a softer edge, with a small hint of hesitation. "I just want to help. I can... I can wait, if you want. Give you the time you need. But you can... I can just be here. Listen. To anything. What's wrong. Or Quidditch. All the time you need. Here or somewhere else. It can be better."
"It can't." There was a harshness to his voice which wasn't quite his own, and it tore at his throat.
There was a pause, then Nat took a deep breath, her gaze hardening. "I know what this is," she said, still with a hint of patience. "Lots of purebloods have been worrying about any Muggle-born girlfriends or boyfriends they've got after what happened to Mac. It doesn't make us a target, Cal, honestly. I've got a higher chance of being hit by a bus than I have of being attacked by a Death Eater." She frowned a bit. "Well, maybe not when there are no buses here at Hogwarts, but..."
"It's not that." Cal looked away, misery twisting his gut. It wasn't entirely a lie.
"It's something else."
"And you're breaking up with me over it."
"But you're not telling me what it is."
Cal closed his eyes. "I'm sorry."
He paused. Then he looked at her. "What?"
Nat met his gaze levelly. She had to look up quite a height to do so. "I reject your break-up."
He blinked. "You can't do that!"
"Just did. I'm not being dumped when I don't know why. So you're stuck with me." She shrugged and smiled that impish smile which lit up her face and usually left him tongue-tied.
"I... I can't tell you!" Cal sputtered with confusion. This wasn't what he'd anticipated. Anger. Shouting. Tears. Cursing. Perhaps even cold, defensive detachment. But outright refusal?
Nat nodded. "I know. And that's okay. You don't have to. You can work out this stuff without talking to me about it. And I'm okay to wait until you've done that." She stepped forwards, and as her hand extended he shied from her touch.
You don't deserve the comfort.
Instead, she poked him in the chest. "But you owe me better than cutting me out of your life over it. Because I'm kind of fond of you, you great lug." Another shrug. "Also, I don't do the angsty 'oh, I must leave you to keep you safe' crap so much. I don't look good in black."
Cal stared at her, sputtering still in a hunt for words. "Nat, you don't understand..."
"...because you won't tell me," she supplied helpfully.
"I can't!" He threw his hands in the air to emphasise his point and only then did he dimly realise that gestures might not convince her. "You just have to believe me that you're way more at risk with me than any other pureblood."
Nat bit her lip, then drew a deep breath. "I know your father's a Death Eater," she said slowly. "And I know the rumours that he killed Mac. And I know that this means we should probably skip any 'meet the parents' ritual, on your side, at least. Maybe consider it if we have Auror backing. But there's one important thing: I don't care."
Cal looked at her suspiciously. She hadn’t guessed the whole truth, but it was close enough to have a bite, and he dimly wondered if he'd been covering his tracks as well as he'd assumed. "You should."
"And then maybe I shouldn't be at Hogwarts, either, since they hate Muggle-borns? Oh, but they hate Muggles to, so perhaps I ought to leave the country." Nat rolled her eyes, speaking with unusual venom. "Life's too short for that rubbish, Cal."
"It might be really short!"
"Fine. So be it."
"No!" He stepped back, anger returning with the guilt. "I won't be the cause of it. You might be okay burning up in a short blaze of glory to make a point -"
"No, I’m okay taking this risk because I want to. I don't care what point I'm making," Nat interrupted.
"But I'd rather see you alive and well than dead because of me! Do you think I want that?" He hunched up as he spoke, fear beginning to override the frustration and making his belly tangle up with his lungs for a wave of nausea and breathlessness.
Nat looked down at the floor at this, at the moonlight playing across the floor of the Astronomy Tower and suggesting a peace to the world they both knew was a lie. "...I'd hope not," she said, as ever unable to avoid the slightest note of levity. "Or this relationship kinda sucks."
He laughed despite himself, but it was a good laugh, a laugh to untangle the tension - even if that brought fear with it. Then she giggled a little, and he couldn't help but meet her gaze with a nervous edge.
"Please," he whispered. "I couldn't bear it."
He didn't know then if he wanted her to reach for him or not. To close the gap and to let him wrap his arms around her, or to stay back and let him feel the cold. No less than you deserve.
Silence fell for several long, aching moments, before she drew a deep breath, gaze thoughtful - but with that playful edge he'd grown to adore. "It seems to me," she began slowly, "that the key to any relationship is compromise..."
It was cold outside, even when Gabriel stood but a stone's throw from the front doors of the castle, and he wrapped his coat around himself a little more tightly as he padded towards the equine form of Professor Firenze. The centaur stood out in the open, silhouetted against the moonlight reflecting off the lake, and stared up at the clear, cold night sky.
"Gabriel Doyle. I hope this meeting time is not too difficult for you." Firenze's deep voice rolled across the slope between them and summoned him closer with its warmth.
"No, um, it's actually perfect." No prying eyes or ears. Demons discovered could die at dawn. He stepped up beside the centaur, his feet crunching on the iced grass, and glanced upwards. "Do they say anything tonight? The stars?"
"They always speak. The question is whether we listen."
There was a long pause as Gabriel watched his breath mist in front of him and felt his toes threaten to go numb. "...what are they saying?"
"That we must talk." Firenze looked down at him, seeming uncaring of the chill even though his torso was completely bare. "I was arrogant. I did not listen. I thought we would speak sooner."
"But one who can hear must learn to listen before they can learn. And you had not learnt to listen," Firenze said, as if this was all an obvious explanation. The wind picked up, tugging at the centaur's hair and tail, and sending dead leaves skittering across the rippling lake, briefly breaking its perfect smoothness.
Gabriel stayed silent, rubbing his hands together, waiting for Firenze to continue. When the centaur did not, he turned his gaze to the lake, and drew a deep breath. "I'm seeing things." A fresh confession, it twisted in his throat and almost didn't come - but this was a centaur. If anyone could understand, they would. In their own way.
"Moments." Indeed, Firenze did not sound surprised.
"Big things. Death, and heartbreak. Of other people. Nothing yet of myself. The future," he added helpfully, in case this wasn't clear yet.
Gabriel looked at the centaur sharply. "But what does it mean?"
"Mean?" Firenze did look back down at this, brow furrowed with honest confusion. "You have been granted with a knowledge few wizards have, to be able to better understand the world."
"So... what do I do with that understanding?" Gabriel frowned. "Can I change what I see?"
"What you see is made of both choice and design. The universe has a plan, and in pursuing that plan it makes its children in such a way that they will play their part. To change it would be to change the nature of those around you, which is to say the same as wishing to change the tides or the stars themselves." Firenze spoke with a deep, calm simplicity, gesturing upwards.
Gabriel stared. "I foresaw the death of my friend's girlfriend. You're telling me I can't do anything to avert the futures that I see? What the hell kind of use is this, then, apart from to drive me nuts?"
"Wisdom for its own sake is a thing to be cherished. Wizards often forget this." Firenze's gaze was level. "Your friend, does he live on?"
"He does, but... hurt." And won't talk to anyone but Tanith about anything more complicated than the day's homework.
Firenze nods. "But he lives. Life goes on."
"He almost died trying to save her!" Gabriel almost choked on the words in frustration. "If I had foreseen his death, then I refuse to believe I couldn't have done a thing about it!"
"Why? You said it would have been in trying to save her." Firenze spoke slowly, as if explaining the matter to a child. "In that case, stopping him would have been an attempt to deny his nature. Deny his choice. For knowledge of the plan."
"Better that than him being dead!" Gabriel snapped.
"No." Firenze's voice was at last harsh, at last firm, and Gabriel took a step back in surprise. "What you see, what I hear, they are gifts. Insights into the mysteries of the world. I have heard wizard seers talking of how it is like a clock. It works, and you do not know how, but it works. A seer can open up the clock and see all the pieces inside. By doing so, you understand the clock, how it fulfils its purpose, even better. But try to interfere with how one of the parts work, and the clock will break."
Gabriel eyed him dubiously, anger fighting off any sense of intimidation. "You're telling me that if I stop Urquhart from bickering with some redhead I'll end the world?"
"I am saying it is not your place to do so. It would be wisdom from outside interfering with... inside." Firenze turned his gaze skywards. "I know it is difficult to accept. Not all that you will see will be so distressing. But pain resonates through the universe more firmly than love or joy."
Gabriel shook his head. "I don't accept that."
Firenze shrugged. "It is what it is, Gabriel Doyle. Acceptance is the only choice."
"What about prophecies?" he demanded wildly.
Firenze frowned very slightly. "Interference. But the plan continues. The stars still tell us true."
Silence fell, and Gabriel opened and closed his fists with frustration. Then, finally, the first, burning question. "Why me?"
Firenze looked over at him, dark eyes for once surprisingly comforting. "Watch, and listen, Gabriel Doyle," he said quietly. "Then perhaps you will understand the answer to that question some day."
Gabriel scowled at the ground. The answer resonated, but he could not help but dismiss the sense of Wilson's grief, Annie's terror, Tanith's pain, and he shook his head and took a step back. "No," he muttered at last.
"It is what it is. What the stars above say." Firenze seemed uncaring of his hint of anger.
"That's what they say, but I refuse to believe I can just hear it and do nothing about it." He took a few steps away, the frozen ground hard underfoot. "I have to be able to change it; that has to be the point."
Firenze turned to face him fully, moonlight gleaming off his sleek form. "That is wishful thinking on your part speaking, Gabriel Doyle. Not truth. You cannot deny what is."
"No, but I can deny that you're right." He stabbed an angry finger in the centaur's direction. "There's no point to just being able to watch. Plenty of people think the future's mutable - why should you know any better?"
"Why should they? Why listen to them simply because they say what you like?" Firenze shook his head, gaze growing sad. "I wish it were just the impetuousness of youth talking in you. But there are others who share your closed-mindedness - do not become like them, I implore you. They would twist nature for what they fear..."
"Maybe nature's meant for twisting -"
"That is what your Dark Lord says!"
Firenze's voice was thunderous on this last, echoing across the space between them and leaving Gabriel convinced this meeting would be overheard from inside the castle. He stayed still for a long moment, just staring at the centaur, whose chest now heaved and tail swished.
"I have to know more before I just accept this," Gabriel said, more quietly. But what he meant was 'I have to find another way', and Firenze's eyes narrowed slightly with the hint of suspicion.
Then the centaur sighed, nodded, and turned away. "You should return to your room, Gabriel Doyle," he said, voice now quiet, tail still with its agitated swish. "And watch. And listen. The stars above know the truth."
Maybe, Gabriel thought as he turned and walked back towards the castle, cold wind swirling around his ankles. But that doesn't mean that you do. And I'm going to find it out.
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