Chapter 35 : The Last Time
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Tanith stopped in the doorway of the Slytherin common room, shaking rain from her hair and her cloak and taking a moment to just dry off and warm up. This time of night the room was empty, the dim green glow of the lake only very mild against the torches and candle-light without the sun to bring the emerald hues of the water this far down. She’d heard some first-years describe the room as ‘creepy’, but it had never been so to her. Just closer, more intimate, than the probably-boisterous or overly sappy common rooms of the other houses. It wasn’t warm, but it was inviting. Tantalising. Like secrets lurked in corners waiting to be discovered, and whispered hints of their presence.
She suppressed a shiver as water dripped down the back of her neck, and shrugged out of her cloak, letting the warmth of the fires wash over her. Then she turned towards the nearest armchair –
And almost jumped out of her skin when she nearly walked into Tobias, who was standing just to the left of the door, tall and dark and mostly in shadows from the gloom this time of the evening. To his credit, he took half a step back when she jolted, looking intensely surprised himself.
“Bloody hell, Grey!” she snapped unthinkingly, lowering the cloak she’d briefly, pointlessly raised before her as a shield. Internally she cursed her reflexes this time; at the very least she could have whipped out her wand at the surprise.
Is that how you want to live your life? Each surprise is a threat?
“Sorry! Sorry.” Tobias lifted his hands both defensively and apologetically, expression sheepish. “I didn’t mean to make you jump, I was just up and waiting and saw you come in, and… I didn’t realise I was being so quiet.”
Her shoulders sagged, and Tanith shook her head. “You weren’t,” she conceded at last. “I’m just… tired. I didn’t expect to be out so late.” She glanced around quickly for somewhere she might be able to deposit her sodden cloak.
He reached out to take it, and she had to resist the urge to jerk back when, through grasping the material, their hands touched. But she let him take it, him still wearing the sheepish smile of before, and he carefully folded it over the back of the nearest armchair.
“I know, you’re usually back sooner,” Tobias said softly, looking down at her. “But I suppose if Mister Ritter’s giving a lesson…”
“…he likes to finish it. Tonight was a bit of an exception on timing, though.” She brushed water from her hair, and rubbed the back of her neck ruefully. “At least he got me some food at the Hog’s Head. Though it sort of denies me an excuse to come back.”
“And curfew isn’t good enough?” Tobias pointed out, a little guardedly, and she realised the mild agitation about him she’d noticed when he’d startled her remained. “You don’t want to be wandering around after dark.”
“I have permission for the Hogsmeade trips… and besides, I’m a prefect,” Tanith said, finding a sore spot on her neck which, she could feel, threatened to run down her spine beyond her reach.
“Even prefects can’t run around ignoring rules, whatever additional rights you might have.”
“I think the Head Boy might get me out of trouble. He’s a friend of mine, see.” She grinned at him at last, then gave a mild grimace as she stretched to find the knot of the muscles and failed.
Tobias frowned. “Let me see that. Sit down.”
The tone of voice permitted no argument, and she was exhausted enough to move to the nearest sofa and perch on the armrest without opposing his instruction. He moved behind her smoothly, brushing her hair away from her neck with a gentleness which made her shiver.
“You don’t know anything about massages,” she protested, but didn’t stop him when he set to work.
“Rub the sore spot ‘til it’s not taut and sore. Isn’t that about the gist?” There was wry amusement in Tobias’ voice, a wry amusement she hadn’t heard in a long time, and so the will to argue faded even further – even despite the faint tingling in her skin at his touch.
“That’s about – oh…”
“There?” Again, the tones of being dryly entertained, and she allowed her head to droop, shoulders to relax, and just mumbled something inconsequential and incomprehensible.
For long moments there was nothing but the crackling of the fire to break the silence, and she closed her eyes, lulled towards almost sleeping with the peacefulness, her raw fatigue, and the sheer comfort of Tobias’ presence that could not only come from the neck rub.
You told yourself this wouldn’t start again…
“How does that feel?”
His voice was a low whisper, enough to prompt another shudder, and idly she wondered if grief had driven her best friend completely stupid as she straightened up and tried to will some coherency and steel back in to her thoughts.
“Great,” she said honestly, then shook her head very slightly. “It’s great. Thanks. That’s fine.” She did her best to stop there from being any edge to her voice, not wanting to drive him away as she drew a line – especially as the line was far more for herself than it was for him.
“I bet it’s tiring, whatever training he has you doing,” Tobias said, and his touch drifted away from her neck as he moved to sit down on the sofa. “What was it today? Practicing falling? Your back’s as tight as anything.”
“Breaking out of someone’s hold,” Tanith mumbled, rubbing the back of her neck briefly, ruefully, feeling the warmth there and hoping her face didn’t reflect it. “So… lots of twisting about.”
Tobias nodded, looking at her for a long moment with his bright, piercing blue eyes, and there was a silence which hung in the air for what felt like a little too long before his gaze turned to the nearby fire. “I often wonder if what he does is the sort of thing we ought to all learn.”
“I think that would be a bit extreme,” Tanith said honestly, slumping down off the armchair onto the sofa proper. Inches stretched between them, inches she was keenly aware of in a way she hadn’t been since a different night alone in the common room a lifetime ago, before death and before Annie and before she’d been so stupid as to know…
“I suppose standard spell-work ought to do most of the class,” Tobias conceded. “Then again, the curriculum wasn’t exactly drawn up to cope with an outright war.”
“Most people aren’t going to be wrestling Death Eaters,” Tanith said, suppressing a yawn. She certainly didn’t want him to think she was bored – but she was still tired, and now comfortable from the neck rub and warm from the fire and lulled by his presence – and then sat up straighter to fight that feeling.
“You’d have to be pretty stupid to do that, huh?”
Tobias’ smile was quiet, sad as he looked away at the nearby fireplace, gaze fading into the flickering flames, and she could only watch him with a wrench in her heart, watch the grief tug at the corners of his expression, whittle away at the mask of control. It was always there, that sense of loss, that sadness, and she hadn’t seen the smile which could banish it since Christmas.
Certainly, it was beyond her power to do so. At least, for now.
“When do you go?” she asked quietly, looking down at her hands now.
“A week,” he said. “So I’m – I’m trying to get everything in order with the prefects and the Head Boy job. It’s very likely to be Everard who’ll get that badge, from speaking to Dumbledore and briefly with Riley, and the Slytherin badge will go to Cal.”
Tanith looked at him, raising an eyebrow slightly. “You think? Even with how he’s been acting lately?”
Tobias gave an exaggerated shrug, one which hid the lingering hint of almost disapproval which had been perpetual when speaking of his alleged best friend for the past few months. “He’s better for the job than the alternatives. Yes, even with his behaviour.”
Her expression twisted. “You know he’s been sneaking around at night? I’ve noticed him sitting in the common room and pretending he’s been there hours when he’s blatantly just come back in when I’m coming off patrols… I don’t know who he’s been getting past, but I haven’t wanted to tackle him at the end of a shift, not with… with everything…”
Guilt crept into her voice, but Tobias shook his head; nevertheless, there was a glint in his eye. “It’s not your job to act on suspicions when you’re off-duty. But if he’s been gallivanting around at night and bypassing one of the other prefects, I’ll have to fix that.”
“Especially if he’s going to be a prefect,” Tanith agreed quietly, with the whisper of a question hiding in her voice.
Tobias nodded. “Especially.”
“Otherwise it might have to be someone else.” A cold fist clenched in her chest. “Like Miles.”
Tobias looked up sharply, eyes narrowing with more concern than suspicion. “No. I told Dumbledore not to; I think he’ll listen. It will probably be Cal. But absolutely not Miles.”
Tanith swallowed hard, not trusting herself to speak – not for what she’d specifically say, but more for what it would give away. Another heartbeat and she realised ominous silence had done its fair share of work in killing off any effort at being dismissive of the idea of working closely with Bletchley.
“…good,” was thus all she said, when she thought she could trust herself to say that single word without wavering.
Another silence, and she just managed to stop herself from flinching as his hand, ever-so-carefully, reached out to rest lightly on hers. “I never…” Tobias stopped, and as she glanced up he looked away, scowling briefly into the fire with the expression she knew spoke of irritation with himself. “I never asked what happened,” he managed at last, voice thick.
She couldn’t help herself; she laughed. It was a short, sharp, humourless and infinitely bitter laugh, a laugh of thoughts and memories she’d rather throw to the winds. “You’d be happier if you never did.”
“And you? Would you be happier if I just let it lie? Never asked?” Their gazes met at the sudden outburst of sincerity in his voice, and she blinked briefly in surprise at his fervency as he slightly tightened his grip on her hand.
“Have you spoken about it with anyone? Your parents? The girls?” Concern rang through Tobias’ voice, and for the first time now she couldn’t see a hint of his grief in his eyes, a hint of his pain in his frown.
Great. That’s how you help him get over this. Drown him with your own problems.
She couldn’t help but laugh again, with similar bitterness, at the suggestion she might talk this through with Ariane and Melanie. “I think this would need a slightly more delicate touch, Grey.”
Tobias managed the smallest, bashful smile, and nodded very slightly. “Perhaps. But… you ought to get this off your chest. With someone. I’m not saying I’m the best person, but… someone.” His frown deepened, and the smile died a death in concern. “I’ve not been a good friend lately –”
“You’ve had reasons,” she exclaimed abruptly, firmly, for never in a million years would she want him to believe she thought he’d abandoned her.
He lifted a hand. “…but I have still seen how upset you are. How you’ve been bottling it all in. And I don’t want that; I’d never want that pain for you. I don’t think it’s good for you.” Tobias took a deep breath, and slowly went to draw his hand away. “So even if it’s not me, or even not Ariane or Melanie, I… just… talk to someone. Please. Because it’s chewing you up inside.”
Silence reigned for a few long moments, then she reached out to snatch up the hand he’d been slowly pulling away, clasping it with a grip that surprised them both. She didn’t look at him for those long moments; couldn’t, just stared at the fireplace and tried to find the will to speak from the grasp of his hand.
Because if she couldn’t talk about this with him, who could she talk about it with?
“It wasn’t… I don’t want you to think it was anything bad. That Miles did – did anything.” That had to be clear – crystal clear, or as crystal clear as such a fractured sentence could be. “He was just… he was stupid, and oblivious, and I let him be. I chose him because he would be…”
The words caught in her throat, and she felt a treacherous lump rising. Glaring into the flickering flames, she gritted her teeth and tried to suppress it. That wouldn’t do, going to pieces so early on in the explanation. He needed to understand that she would be fine, that she was fine, so he didn’t worry about her and could get back to picking himself back up…
“I was just upset. And thoroughly, thoroughly stupid. And I wanted to feel… wanted.” Guilt tugged at her now, guilt that she might inflict guilt upon him in a martyr’s circle that prompted a twisted smile she couldn’t quite fight off. “And Miles can be very biddable when you know what buttons to press.”
She didn’t dare look at Tobias, but could see the shadows playing across his face out of the corner of her eye, and felt his grip on her hand tighten a fraction with what felt more like aggravation than reassurance. “I can… understand that.” His voice was pitch-perfect in control, in sounding absolutely fine. That’s how she knew he was bothered, and Tanith had never needed lessons from Ritter when it came to reading Tobias Grey.
“He wasn’t what I wanted.” She let the words hang there for a minute, not for what they themselves said, but for gathering up the next few sentences so they might be… quick. Efficient. Over and done with quickly with the least pain administered to the fewest people possible. “Like I said. I was upset. And doing it for all of the wrong reasons. And so didn’t enjoy myself and had a horrible time and picked the oblivious man because he wouldn’t notice and he didn’t notice…”
Now the words were spilling out, and with them came tears until she choked on the explanation. She felt Tobias’ grip tighten briefly before she tore her hand out of his grasp and got to her feet abruptly, turning away and swatting at her treacherous eyes.
He let her, staying on the sofa, and she could feel his eyes boring into her back as he added up the words she’d said and listened to the ones she hadn’t, and when he did speak it was with a mixture of understanding and quiet, simmering anger. “He hurt you.”
“I hurt myself. I just used Miles to do so.” And there would never be anything more truthful about the matter than that, never be anything more apt than the declaration that she was stupid and self-destructive and Miles was nothing more than stupid.
She kept her gaze on the fire, with its reliable flickering, which wouldn’t do anything to upset or shock or let anyone down, and she definitely didn’t move when she heard Tobias stand. For surely he was going to go, leave in disgust, now he realised she wasn’t a wilting victim, she was an idiot, and why bother helping her when he’d need to save her from herself?
Then his arms wrapped around her from behind and pulled her close, warm and snug against him and fitting there with, Tanith thought, rather treacherous ease. She didn’t fight his grasp, didn’t pull away, but didn’t let herself sink into his embrace, didn’t lean against his shoulder and let his closeness banish all the tears and the pain and the ache like she wanted to.
That way, again? That way lay madness.
“You don’t have to… bottle it up.” Tobias’ voice was low and reassuring and she felt his breath tickle the back of her neck, enough to make her again shiver. “I don’t want to see you this… this… hurt.”
And she wanted to let it out. Wanted to turn to him and cry and scream and sob and let out every inch of hurt, and send to the winds every inch of self-control she’d fought and scrabbled for. First to try and keep herself sane, then to try to help Gabriel, then to be Tobias’ foundations when he’d been so lost and hurt, then trying to juggle between him and Cal and never, ever, it felt, finding time for her own suffering, which seemed so mild and irrelevant next to death and prophecy and shattered friendships.
“I do have to bottle it up,” she whispered back, with a good ounce more resolve in her voice than moments before. “Because if I open that bottle, I’m not sure I can stopper it again. And I’m going to need to.”
“You won’t –”
“I will.” She turned in his grasp, turned to face him and found herself again closer than she’d expected, jerking back for the sake of her own sanity so they were inches, instead of only a hair’s breadth apart. “Because who’s going to pick up the pieces of me? My parents, who have never listened? Altair, who wouldn’t know what to do? Ariane and Melanie, who never understood me? Or Gabriel and Cal, who are so wound up in themselves they wouldn’t notice?”
Tobias flinched as if he’d been struck, and she knew she’d hit the nerve she’d worried she would, hit the nerve which meant he hadn’t thought her words through to their logical conclusion. “I’m here, I can pick you up, just like you picked me –”
She felt his hold stiffen, then collapse entirely as he took a step back, gaze shocked. Idly, Tanith couldn’t help but wonder if this was the moment where Tobias had realised that he wasn’t only going somewhere else, but he wasn’t going to be here any more, either.
“…in a week,” she continued in a dull whisper made emptier by his hands falling away from her. “And then it’ll be letters, and it’ll be maybe even working together in July, but it’ll never be like this again. Almost seven years, and never like this again. And I understand why you have to do this and I don’t in a thousand lifetimes begrudge you it, but you have to understand that this means I can’t… I can’t rely on you… even though you’re the only person in the world who could put me back together again if I let myself fall apart.”
And there, she’d done it. Again, she’d said too much, even when, this time, she’d been trying not to.
He stared at her with wide, shocked eyes and a dawning realisation of horror and guilt and a fresh pain, and though this was a pain he’d inflicted upon himself, the fact that she’d revealed it to him was her own punch in the gut. “Tanith… Tanith, I’m sorry…”
“I know.” She took a step back, which was in itself an exercise in self control. “And I forgive you. I just can’t… lean on you.”
Then she turned and bolted for the girls’ dormitory, leaving him alone in the cooling common room before he could respond – and before she could go back on her promises and her resolve and fall apart on him like she felt herself threatening to do every second she sensed his eyes on her.
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