Chapter 42 : The Long and Winding Road
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"...I don't know, I think the Beatles influences are a bit too heavy for me. I mean, if I wanted someone who sounded like the Beatles, I'd listen to the bloody Beatles."
"I see your point, but they've just got a lot more excitement to them than Blur."
"Excitement? They sound like they're going to drop dead from boredom in Wonderwall."
"...and yet I'd say Wonderwall is one of their most Beatles-esque singles? Surely that's a good thing?"
"Not until they bring back Lennon."
Comfortable silence fell after this determined proclamation from Cal, perhaps because it was difficult to argue with the notion that the world of music would be improved with the resurrection of John Lennon.
It had been a long time since Cal had held a decent conversation about music. Will had been a Muggle-born wizard in the sixties, and so had grown up on the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the like. He'd infused his foster-son with this similar love of music, but a Hogwarts education and very few peers who shared this appreciation for Muggle culture meant that Cal's tastes hadn't really progressed to the 90s.
Until he'd met Nat, and had spent Christmas and Easter holidays being introduced to modern pop. Funnily enough, he'd found most of it hadn't progressed a great deal since the Beatles.
Well. Except for the Spice Girls. But he tried to not think about the Spice Girls.
But as the war loomed, as every issue of the Daily Prophet brought with it a tightening of the throat and a twist of the gut in worry, as every time they sat down in the common room they couldn't but be keenly aware of Tobias' absence, music was a welcome escape. Having someone to share it with was even better, and had stirred parts of his mind and heart that had been dormant for a long while. He'd even picked up his dusty guitar over Easter, brushed it off and begun to file the rust off his skill.
And it was something he could enjoy with Nat. Like he was enjoying this, the first of the truly hot summer days, lounging by the lake and basking in the sun on the grass. Most of Hogwarts were in lessons, and the only other individuals dotted around the field were other seventh years, freed from their timetables and desperately revising or just unwinding after the Herbology exam, the first NEWT exam that had been scheduled.
But despite the work, despite the stress of exams, Cal undeniably felt better than he had in months. Maybe years.
His past was not going to catch up with him. It was not.
"Did you hear back about the Potions Research post?" he asked, breaking the comfortable silence of waves lapping at the shores, crickets chirping in the long grass.
"Hm?" Nat stirred weakly, seeming to have drifted off, using his chest as a pillow. "Oh. Yeah. Conditional acceptance. 'O' in Potions and Herbology. 'E's in Astronomy and Arithmancy."
"Need to understand the construction of the spells one's trying to imbue in the potion." She suppressed a yawn. It had long been a source of ironic amusement to Cal that Nat, allegedly helping Tanith with her Potions NEWT - not that Tanith needed much help, at least not academically - was studying for the job Tanith had lied to her parents about pursuing.
"Sounds fascinating," he instead said drolly.
"Better than managing accounts at the Department of Magical Transportation," she chuckled, poking him in the side and prompting a squirm.
Cal made a face. "It's just - that's a placeholder until I can get something better. It'll pay the bills and put food on the table until Caerphilly Catapults need a new Beater."
Nat laughed, but it was a laugh which sobered quickly. "I'm sorry that agent didn't make it to the Hufflepuff game after all. You guys were really on top form."
He waved a hand dismissively. "It's fine. I'll find some amateur team to play in, the Ministry have loads. Not everyone's drawn directly from Hogwarts. And besides, professional Quidditch? It's mostly just a pipe dream."
Nat shifted up to rest her head on her elbow, looking down at him. "Don't you have any real dreams?" The question came gently rather than accusingly, a far cry from Tanith's pointed comments that she'd want a roommate who worked and wasn't just a layabout.
Cal drew a deep breath, staring into the deep blue of the sky as he thought. "I don't know," he admitted. "Maybe music, maybe I should hit some of the bars and pubs and play something live, if only for the fun. And... well, I love Quidditch, but maybe playing it professionally is a bit too much. I'd pondered... training. Physio work. That sort of thing."
"Coaching?" Nat raised an eyebrow with genuine surprise, surprise which softened after a moment's thought. "You'd be good at that."
"Most coaches are former professionals," Cal pointed out in the mumble of one who thinks, no, it's not that good an idea, really, just something he'd idly considered once and had stuck...
"Not all. The Thunderers' isn't."
"It might just make me look like some second-rate bugger who couldn't make it professionally," Cal lamented.
"You're never second-rate."
They both jumped at the new voice joining their discourse, a warm and familiar one Cal hadn't heard in a long time. He looked up sharply, then a broad grin split his face. "Tobias!"
And, indeed, standing by the lake in rumpled robes that were a far cry from the neatly-pressed school uniform he was accustomed to seeing him wear, stood the lanky form of Tobias Grey.
Only he wasn't so lanky any more. Three months had passed since he'd left, and in that time Tobias had filled out a little. He would always be long-limbed, but was no longer so gangly, and cut a far more wiry figure. His blond hair, that had been left uncut for so long, was now cropped short in a rather severe, functional style which made his features and his bright eyes stand out. It was with a stab of guilt that Cal noticed the broken nose had never been straightened; it made for a more angular profile, and with a rough-and-tumble air that softened the features of arrogant academia so often associated with Tobias.
And yet there remained the crooked smile, the twinkle in the eye that showed it was his best friend. Guilt - on so many levels, guilt that would never die entirely - faded a little as he saw no judgement there, and Cal sprung to his feet to stride over and grab Tobias in a bear hug.
"Thought you were going to miss all of the fun! Welcome to the workhouse, boyo!" he laughed.
Tobias slapped him on the back before pulling away, lopsided grin intact. "I'm sure fighting a war is going to seem like a holiday compared to NEWTs," he said, wryly, but not entirely insincerely.
Cal laughed again. "You should have seen Herbology, mate, really. But there's nothing so good as knowing I will never have to look at a plant and need to know its species again."
"Freedom, hmm? Sounds wonderful." There was a definite note of wistfulness at that, however, and Cal couldn't help but notice just how damn tired Tobias looked. Still, the smile remained, not seeming entirely pasted on, and he looked over Cal's shoulder. "Nat, how're you? Keeping this lug in check?"
"Oh, I let him lumber around and do what he likes. Keeps me amused," Nat said with a smirk, stepping up beside Cal and slipping an arm around his waist. "It's good to see you back with us."
"Only for a week and a half. I was lucky, my exams are scheduled close together," Tobias said with a shrug.
Cal wasn't sure he'd call that 'lucky'. "You're not going to stay for the Leaving Feast?" he asked incredulously.
"That's three weeks away, Cal. I have to get back to work once I'm done with the NEWTs," Tobias explained, pushing some hair back out of his eyes.
Nat looked between the two of them, then leaned upwards to kiss Cal on the cheek. "I'd better be going. I'll leave you two to catch up and reminisce."
"'course. See you on Thursday?" Cal asked her with a grin.
"Normal time, normal place. Of course." He squeezed her hand quickly before letting go, and she headed off across the lawn, towards the trees, in the direction of one of the study-in-the-sun sessions of Ravenclaw seventh years.
Tobias watched her go, gaze still wistful. "It's good to see it's still working between you."
"Yeah." Cal couldn't stop another grin as he looked back. "It's... easy. I don't mean that in that I'm copping out, or anything - I just mean things are good. We get on. We laugh. We have fun. No drama. No explosions. No politics."
A soft snort from Tobias. "I wonder what that's like," he mumbled.
"You should try it, some day. Fun without disaster. You never know, you might like it. Come on." He jerked a thumb in the direction of the castle. "Let’s go see the others. I think Tanith might be dying in the common room, she's been working like a loon to get good grades."
"She'll need them," Tobias agreed, flicking his wand with a sharper, more conservative move than Cal was used to from him, and his large trunk rose in the air to hover behind as they padded up towards the castle.
It was a wonder, Cal reflected, that Tanith hadn't collapsed, the hours she'd been burning in the library. He knew the study sessions with Nat had been as much for her sanity as her academia, and the two girls seemed to get on - Nat didn't tolerate Tanith's angry posturing, Tanith benefited from her good humour and easy manner - but there was nevertheless a lot of real study going on.
And from Gabriel, too, who still professed to have no greater life plans than to travel once he'd finished his NEWTs. But he'd been holed up in the library, surprisingly focused on his Divination exam - he claimed it was the one he was most likely to flunk, and he wanted a passing grade on all NEWTs - and overall working in a manner rather unlike him.
Cal himself had found his plate much easier since the end of the Quidditch season, even with prefect duties. At this time of year, he only had to do a few patrols, as most of the regular duties had been divvied out already. He'd subbed in a couple of times for supervising some clubs, but otherwise could focus easily on revision and, of course, more pleasantly, Nat.
"So how come you didn't win the Cup, then, even after all of Jack's promises?" Tobias asked dryly, but good-naturedly as they wound their way towards the main doors of the castle. His gaze seemed to be soaking in every step, every inch of the trip, and Cal could only wonder at the nostalgia his friend had to be feeling on his return.
"Weasleys. Of course." Cal shrugged, but couldn't keep a grimace from his face. "We were all set. We pounded Hufflepuff, absolutely slaughtered them. It didn't even matter, then, if Gryffindor beat Ravenclaw, they'd have had to have done so by a stupendous margin."
"Which they then proceeded to do? Damn Potter." Tobias shook his head. There was an odd tone to his voice as they entered the cool shade of the school's corridors, a mixture of mocking and fondness - like all of this was behind him, but he sorely wished it wasn't.
"Potter got himself in detention. I thought Urquhart was going to kiss Snape when he heard, to be quite frank." They paused to chuckle and shudder at the image in equal parts. "But, lo and behold, Ron Weasley hardly let a damn ball past him, and his sister - she's a little firecracker if ever there was one - stirred the Chasers up to score goals for fun until she snaffled the Snitch herself."
"Bitch." Tobias wore a wry, self-aware smile even as he said this. "I bet Jack took that well."
"I don't know." Cal scratched the back of his head. Urquhart's reaction had been odd, if he was honest with himself. "He just said it was one hell of a game, that Gryffindor deserved it to pull it back like that. And he's already training for next year. He's got Miles and me helping out in the sessions, helping him coach, and he's making plans for the new first-string to meet up in the summer for practice. And he dropped Malfoy."
Tobias's eyebrows shot up. "I bet that pleased him."
"He didn't seem to care. He's been walking around like a zombie. But Saul Harper got the Snitch against Hufflepuff, the kid's been coming along leaps and bounds since Potter rattled him in the Gryffindor game." The fifth-year Seeker had been incensed with himself for letting such a basic psychological trick work, but Urquhart had drilled the self-blame out of him and turned it into a work ethic.
There was a nod in response from Tobias, then a hesitation, and Cal knew the subject was going to change. "So... how is everyone?"
He almost laughed as the subtext was strong enough to batter him - but because he was a good friend, he didn't. "Oh, everyone's fine," he said firmly. "Just getting on with studying and such. Gabriel's been going mad at work; never knew he cared so much about Divination. And Ariane and Melanie actually have a work ethic; who knew?"
Alright. Maybe he wasn't that good a friend.
Tobias nodded. "Good," he said quickly. "Good." Then silence fell again, and he stared at his boots, and Cal chewed on his lower lip for trying to not laugh. "And, uh, Tanith?"
He considered winding him up further, then remembered he was a good friend, at least, and his shoulders dropped. "She's doing alright," he said quietly, honestly. "Working like hell, but that's normal for Auror qualifications, I guess. I think she's mostly been keeping her head down and trying to survive. Nat's been getting friendly with her, so I don't think she's been lonely."
"Yeah, she, uh, mentioned in her letters. And you two will be living together in July, huh?"
There was such a loaded note of caution in that last syllable that, finally, Cal laughed, and clapped Tobias on the back. "Yeah. Though I don't doubt I'll be spending a lot of time at Nat's," he said pointedly. He didn't know what was going on between his two best friends, but so long as they were happy and it didn't turn into another saga of a drama, he didn't mind too much. And he'd be happy to stay out of the way.
Tobias, at least, seemed nervously appeased by this.
The rest of the walk to the common room was the final catch-up - prefect updates, and then Tobias' tales in return. Of course, Tobias' work stories were much more exciting Cal had had to say.
"You read about the lycan-affecting charms intercepted by the MLE?" Tobias said at one point, after giving a breakdown of what sounded like a month of excruciating training. Cal nodded, and he smirked. "That was our one. Caught wind of the werewolves near Manchester being stirred up, so we came down on the Death Eaters messing with them. Auror-run op, of course, but even fancy Aurors can't do it by themselves."
It was enough that, despite the danger, despite the war, Cal found himself feeling eager to get out there and actually do something. Other than scribbling about how to properly care for elder Mandrakes.
"In Vino Veritas," he told the patch of wall that looked much the same as any other when they came to a halt down the corridor in the lower regions of the castle. Cal gave Tobias a grin at his raised eyebrow. "That one's my fault," he confessed as the wall slid away to admit them into the common room.
At this time of year, the summer sun played in the waves and depths of the lake, and sparkled through to the Slytherin common room, bathing the entire chamber in the warm green glow of the sun and the water. As most students were in class, only a couple of sixth years lounged about the room, and Montague and Pucey in a corner - and, surrounded by a small pile of books on protection spells on the table in front of the fireplace, Tanith Cole.
Cal looked over at her, then back at Tobias, and suppressed a smirk at the expression of intense nostalgia on his friend's face - doubtless from the sight of the whole room, the Slytherin home in all of its glory and its warmth. But he didn't give him time to soak it all in before he bounded over to the back of the sofa Tanith was sat on, leaned down next to her and whispered "Boo."
He had to jerk back sharply to avoid the sudden, reflexive swing of a heavy textbook at where his head had been, and Tanith leapt to her feet. "Cal! Damn it, don't do that..." Even as he laughed, her voice trailed off, and her face went almost white as she looked over his shoulder for her gaze to land beyond.
The man himself smiled sheepishly, giving a big shrug. "That's me."
"You're back." Tanith blinked. "I mean, I knew you'd be back, I got your last letter, I just thought... this evening..."
Cal looked between the two again, scratching the back of his head, and idly wondering if there were any words he could summon which would break this awkward silence. This had not been on the menu when he'd thought to give Tanith a shock.
Mercifully, interruption would be found that very moment as the door to the dormitory thumped open and in strode Gabriel Doyle, in a disgusting state of dishabille for a bastard who hadn't had to sit an exam that day, in Cal's opinion. He looked around, then strode over unceremoniously.
"Grey," he greeted Tobias as if he'd just come back from lunch rather than war. Then he lifted what he was holding in his hands, showing it to be a pack of cards, and as if this was one lazy summer afternoon amongst many instead of the eve of the end of their academic careers, idly suggested: "Exploding Snap?"
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