Chapter 32 : The Simplest Game
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The Great Hall hummed with energy, a vibrant enthusiasm and charge which bounced from wall to wall. The mood of the school had been slow to recover from blows of Christmas but today, a few weeks in, was a Quidditch day. Green and Blue vied for dominance across breakfast tables, and with a trickling of the early risers amongst the students ambling towards the pitch already, gloom of darker days appeared to be fading.
For the majority, at least.
Tanith forced some spring into her step as she wandered down the Slytherin table, obligatory emerald and silver scarf already stifling her with the heat of the crowded hall. "You all look like… shit," she declared cheerfully as she reached her destination and peered down at her three friends.
She'd almost said 'you look like someone just died', before recalling the accuracy of such a statement. The moods of her three friends had been rather challenging of late. Tobias' was understandable, and astoundingly he had been the easiest to deal with. Getting on with life. Improving, one day, one step at a time. Enthused to be distracted.
Gabriel had clammed up on his visions since she'd brushed him off to Firenze the week before, but if she was honest with herself, mystery from Gabriel Doyle was no novelty or surprise. She knew that he'd talk if he wanted to. And she wasn't sure she had the energy to support anyone else.
That left Cal. Cal, who had nothing to complain about and yet was left the most miserable and distant of them all. Who didn't seem to know if he wanted to cheer or cry if Lockett was around, and spent the rest of the time in gloomy silence.
And Tobias wasn't talking to him. And as nobody spoke to Tanith on the subject, she had even less of an idea of what was going on.
Cal didn't so much as look up as she sat herself down next to Tobias, who just gave her a small, tight nod. Gabriel managed the weakest smile she'd seen offer him yet.
"Quidditch. Nerves," Gabriel explained with a short, sharp shrug.
That would explain Cal if he hadn't been sick as a dog for weeks already. But why the other two would care was still beyond her.
"We'll trounce Ravenclaw," Tanith predicted firmly, digging into the food which nobody else was touching. "That's a given. So, see? There's nothing to worry -"
"Owls." Tobias passed her a sealed envelope with the MLE logo emblazoned across the front of it.
Her guts went cold as she snatched it up immediately, only barely registering the unopened one in his own hand. "Why didn't you say?" she snapped, suppressing a shake in her grip.
"You were too busy haranguing us. I didn't want to interrupt," Tobias said. He managed a small smile which didn't quite reach his eyes but was definitely more genuine than Gabriel's weak effort.
"Let me have my fun while I dangle over the edge?" she muttered wryly.
"Something like that." He met her gaze a little hesitantly, and she gave him a smile back, that small one of reassurance she'd been using on him so often. But it seemed to work. Made him better. So she'd do it as often as it took.
"How do we want to do this?" Tanith asked, looking back at the now-ominous envelope and drawing a deep breath.
Two years. Two years of reading, preparation, training, studying. Of lying to her parents. Of training from Altair.
Of the dull ache in the scar across her back which sparked up, it seemed, only when it was very cold.
And it was here. Her fate, sealed in wax.
"Opening them is the traditional method," Cal grumbled suddenly, before getting to his feet. The agitation and downright annoyance in his voice were unmistakeable. "I'm going to the team."
Tanith watched him stomp off, and it took a few seconds before she remembered to pick her jaw up off the floor. There was another familiar, uncomfortable, bitter feeling at the back of her throat, and this one wasn't apprehension. It was hurt. "Did he just..."
Then she looked back at the others, saw the dubious raised eyebrow of Gabriel's pointed in Cal's direction, and the glare on Tobias' face. A glare holding a level of venom usually reserved for when McLaggen or Wilson had done something particularly offensive. Never something he'd thrown at their best friend.
Even when their best friend had casually dismissed what might possibly be recalled as a major turning point in their lives. For, of all things, a bad mood and a Quidditch match.
Gabriel grimaced, leaning forward. "Go on, then," he said with uncharacteristic quietness.
"I'm trying to divine the contents without actually opening it," Tobias said wryly when he looked back at his envelope. He didn't notice Gabriel's twitch at the word 'divine'.
"Open each others'?" Tanith suggested weakly, her own gaze torn back to the wax seal, eagle imprinted upon it seeming to be taunting her.
"No!" Tobias sounded shocked, and she looked over in confusion. He paused for a moment, opening and closing his mouth, then shook his head. "If it's bad news... I don't want to be the one to tell you!"
That was fair, and she should have considered it. With all that had happened to him, if he had been rejected, she didn't want to be the person to deliver that blow.
"On three, then," she said, and he gave a short nod.
Gabriel looked between the two of them as they counted under their breath, bodies stiff, faces white. "Bloody hell, it's like I'm foreseeing what NEWT result day is going to be like," he said - then sagged as he seemed to realise the irony of his words, burying his head in his hands.
Tanith only barely noticed this and Tobias didn't seem to have at all as they finally, with shaking hands, opened their respective envelopes.
"Office of the Auror Department... Dear Miss Cole... you have been accepted-" Her breath caught as her eyes scanned the paper, and she tried to clamp down on the surge of excitement. Perhaps it was something else. Perhaps it didn't quite mean she was in. 'Accepted' was just a word, after all.
...accepted into the new Auror pilot training scheme, initiated in light of current troubles. Your training will consist of a mixture of classroom education and learning in the field, where you will be partnered with a veteran Auror. In this scheme you will learn on the job, both furthering your own skills and providing much-needed manpower to...
She couldn't help it; a giggle of glee escaped her lips before she clamped a hand over her mouth - then stopped. Why shouldn't she be pleased? Why shouldn't she celebrate?
"I'm in!" she exclaimed, clutching at the paper like it was a lifeline. "Not even the physical aptitude test -"
Even at her least charitable she couldn't suggest Tobias' voice was devoid of sincerity. But there was a hollow edge there which stopped her mid-flow, and as she looked across at him she didn't need to ask.
It seemed the Aurors had made their choice.
"Oh... Toby... I'm sorry..." She was briefly unsure if she was sorry for his apparent rejection or her own display of victory.
He waved a hand dismissively, face as pale as it had been all these weeks, but his expression holding that stern edge of 'soldiering on'. "I didn't have the years of prep work," he said casually.
Gabriel shifted on the bench. "Sorry, mate," he said at last, then looked at Tanith hesitantly. "Uh..."
"Oh, for goodness' sake!" Tobias exclaimed, barely stopping short of snapping. "I'm not an invalid, this was a long shot, there are Enforcer interviews at the end of the month, and even if it made me want to curl up and die that still shouldn't stop any of us from congratulating Tanith!"
He turned to her, and she was still too stunned to react as he looked her in the eye. "Well done. You truly, truly deserve this." Then he pulled her into a firm hug, the first one in what felt like years to be not tinged with mind-numbing grief.
And still she felt guilty. "I'm sorry..."
He pulled back, hands clasping her shoulders and giving that small, lopsided smile she hadn't seen in so long and was so missed she tried to ignore the tinge of sadness in his eyes. "Don't be," he said firmly. "You've more than earned this."
Tobias looked back at Gabriel, who seemed a little mollified by this turn of events. "Now, don't we have a Quidditch game to get to?"
Slytherin won. Which was a welcome change, and sparked the rekindling of Cup aspirations. They were almost guaranteed to best Hufflepuff next term; now if either the badger or the eagle could bring down the Gryffindors, it would be nothing more than points difference to see them win the day.
And they'd won a lot of points. Urquhart's Chasers had been on top form, taking the solid tactical theory Ravenclaw relied upon and expanding it ingeniously, running rings around their rather inflexible opponents. Bletchley had defended his hoops with routine robust determination, and Cal looked to have put his foul mood to good use, sending Bludgers thumping along to cast perfect formations into perfect disarray.
But perhaps most astoundingly, Slytherin caught the Snitch. Fledgling bookies in the stands howled with delight at how this would throw the odds about even more wildly – though this catch had not been at the hands of Malfoy, but Saul Harper, who seemed to have taken over as First Seeker in all but name. Perhaps Urquhart didn’t want the hassle of removing Malfoy when he could avoid it. Perhaps Malfoy was as good as removing himself with his lower attendance in class. Either way, it meant for a more competent Seeker.
The Ravenclaws were remarkably gracious in defeat, Tanith conceded as she looked back. And there were an awful lot of meaningful glances in the direction of the Gryffindor stand as Slytherin thumped in goal after goal.
Perhaps not everyone was as jubilant about continued Gryffindor victories as the lions thought?
But whatever the Cup's fate, whatever would happen, none could take this day of victory away from Slytherin, and as Tanith whooped in victory along with the rest of the jubilant stand, she couldn't help but notice the dour Gabriel, and even Tobias with all his pains, joined in the cheer.
Come on, fate. Just a few more days like this. A few more days of sunshine. And all will be as it was.
She grabbed Tobias by the arm as the cheering began to subside and the jubilant team edged their way off the pitch. "We should go congratulate Cal." Surely this victory had to have egged on his mood.
Tobias froze on the spot, looking at her hesitantly. "I'd rather not," he said a little bluntly, glancing about the crowd uncertainly.
She stopped, turning to face him, hands on her hips. "What's the matter with you two? What's going on?"
He paused again, and she could see him visibly fighting with something inside. Then he shook his head, shoulders sagging. "Nothing," he grumbled. "Let's go."
She didn't have the energy to fight to drag Gabriel along as well, not when he seemed to have no interest in moving from his spot, and so the two of them wound their way through the crowds towards the exit. There was a tension in Tobias' movements, enough to make her flinch as she glanced at him, and so it was with hesitation that she finally spoke.
"I - I didn't realise you had an Enforcer interview, too."
Tobias grunted and nodded, sidestepping a gaggle of over-excited first years thrilled at a win. "Anything I can get."
"No more DIMC?" Tanith tried a smile, ducking into the stairway; the acronym had amused her since she'd heard it pronounced.
"Why?" Tobias grimaced. "There's a war. Why tie myself to a desk or go abroad?"
"You know international help will be-"
"It's not what I want to do." Tobias' voice was suddenly cold, and she stopped on the stairs, turning back up to face her. They were a way down the stand now, the bulk of the crowd not yet departing the pitch, leaving them far from the hum of victory. In the gloom of the overcast day and the thin trickles of light that were all which could make it this far down, he looked even moodier than ever, and his greater height on the stairs didn't help. "I want to do something. I want to take action."
A knife of guilt stabbed Tanith in the gut as she recalled what she'd told Auror Tonks back in London - but it was an easy guilt to deal with. Guilt about a justified act. For with that look on his face, this thunderous drive, could she really tell herself she'd been wrong and believe it?
She tried to find words for him, words to try to soften this edge of pain that had grown in his grief. But efforts died on her lips, and before she could find any worth uttering, he'd shrugged and pushed past her. "Let's give Cal his bloody congratulations."
The crowds were waking up and abandoning the stands by the time they made it to the changing rooms, so it was only when they were very close that they realised the teams had not gone their separate ways. Tobias picked up the pace, obviously in anticipation of some competitive fight having broken out in the aftermath of the match's result, and she hurried to keep up.
But when they rounded the corner to the entrance to the changing rooms, it was not a fight they met. At least, not a fist-fight.
"...not my fault you're too damn competitive!" Cal was practically screaming in Lockett's face, hands thrown in the air, visibly so angry that Tanith wondered if she'd be as cool right in front of him as Lockett seemed to be.
And indeed, she was standing her ground, not looking much more pleased than him. "Me? Me too competitive? You're the one who was trying to brain me with a Bludger! You're the one who was acting like he wouldn't talk to me again if we dared win, but expected me to be all lovey-dovey right after the match!"
Cal rolled his eyes exaggeratedly. A little too exaggeratedly, thought Tanith. "You're just going to make this a whole world of hassle, aren't you. More hassle than it's worth."
The combined Ravenclaw and Slytherin teams, who still stood watching, captive audience, drew back a little at this. Tanith couldn't help but notice Bletchley with them, and couldn't help but slink back a little to position Tobias between them, trying to suppress the faint sense of her skin crawling.
Lockett folded her arms across her chest. "Sorry,” she said, entirely unapologetically. “Wasn’t thrilled at the match result. Wanted an evening to get over it. ‘Too much hassle’?"
Cal gave a humourless smirk. "It won't end tonight. So, yeah. Too much hassle. Far, far more than it's worth."
"More than..." Lockett took a step back, then blinked hard, fast. Something screamed in Tanith's brain for attention, but she couldn't put her finger on what, so stunned was she. "Right. I get it."
"No, you don't," Cal spat, voice by now bitterly derisive. "But that's not my problem any more. As of this moment." Then he turned on his heel, and stormed off back towards the castle.
A long silence followed his disappearance, Lockett standing on her own in the centre of the crowd. A rush of sympathy, of pained understanding from Tanith saw her almost go to her, before the Ravenclaw shook her head and straightened up.
"Come on, Ravenclaws. Theron. We shouldn't dawdle here with snakes."
She turned towards the changing rooms at the same time as Urquhart stepped forwards, glaring at the Slytherins with a hint of embarrassment. "Hit the showers, Slytherins, nothing to see here." He turned to the stunned-looking Theron Howlett sheepishly. "Um. Good match, Ravenclaws."
There was much grumbling, but the foul mood or jubilation at the result had all been levelled out with the argument and break-up between team-mates. Nobody argued as the Quidditch players disappeared to changing rooms, leaving Tanith and Tobias standing there, stunned.
Finally, Tanith drew a deep breath. "Something was wrong there."
Tobias gave a grim nod. "That's not like Cal."
"No, I mean... there's more to this. I don't think he just broke up with Lockett over a Quidditch match." Tanith chewed on her lower lip thoughtfully.
He looked at her, eyebrow raised. "You mean, you think Cal gave a fake reason for why he might break up with a Muggle-born in these times, rather than saying the real one?" His voice held not the slightest hint of surprise and a small bite, then he snorted.
Tanith frowned. “I don’t think that’s it…” But her voice trailed off vaguely, and Tobias just shrugged.
"Doesn't surprise me,” he said. “Doesn't surprise me at all that he lied. He's not the same guy." Then Tobias set off on his own route, leaving Tanith behind in absolute, utter confusion.
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