Chapter 43 : The Witching Hour
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When she looked back, the final NEWT exams didn't seem that bad. Of course, this was very likely recollection coloured by everything that came after them. They weren't just the end of an academic career; they were the end of childhood, the end of whatever innocence had been left to them all.
But at the time, they were indeed as Nastily Exhausting as expected. NEWT exams came sooner in the year than most tests, so as to grant seventh years a bit more freedom in the library and in revision, and so they could use the last few weeks at Hogwarts, if they so wished, finalising career choices. It also meant that by the time the school year finished, NEWT results were available, spring-boarding them into the world of work.
Tanith's exams were over in just under two weeks, and the time had passed in a whirlwind of last-minute revision, desperate sleep and food, and whatever snippets of social contact she could grab just to sustain her sanity. There was Lockett, of course, whom she still met regularly in the library even when Potions was over, and Cal and Gabe, and... and Tobias.
Tobias, still down in the common room working when she got up in the morning as if he hadn't been absent for months. Tobias, sterner and quieter than ever before, but still able to motivate her, still able to help her through a problem with one simple suggestion she hadn't even considered as they revised together. Tobias, still... him.
He'd relaxed more as the days had drawn on, seeming to be eating better and sleeping better away from the madness of the MLE Squad. As expected, he was unfazed by the exams, not appearing to have suffered at all from his independent study - and as Tanith recalled the mind-numbing revision lessons, she wasn't sure she wouldn't have been better off doing it alone herself.
The last exam was Defence Against the Dark Arts, and the night before most of the Slytherins were up in the common room practicing their hexes. Mostly on the lower-years. It didn't take long before this broke out into open warfare as Urquhart and Harper marshalled the defenders, and soon enough the practice session was a free-for-all, an experimentation of tricks and curses rather than true preparation for an exam.
But there was, oddly, no Snape to come down on their necks, and before Tanith could haul herself into the fray to break it up, Talley had come hurtling in to say all prefects were wanted to pull patrol shifts that night. Something had, apparently, spooked Riley.
This was unusual. Riley's usual paranoia had ebbed a little with the exams distracting her, but Talley couldn't give a better explanation than a babbling of coins, and Katie Bell, and Potter. That was enough for Tanith to roll her eyes and make for the door.
Astoundingly, she'd been caught up by Tobias at the entranceway, who had previously been studiously avoiding the scrap. "Fancy some back up?" he'd offered. "For old times' sake?"
So they were, the night before their last exam, wandering the outer ring of the courtyard. Talley had gone off to pair up with Yates, and they'd already come across some others - MacMillan and Abbott, Shepard and Sanders, Chang and Sharpe - to suggest the prefects were out in force.
But all was quiet. Whatever had disturbed Riley wasn't showing itself to them, and so they fell into old, familiar patterns, dating back to the days when they'd first been prefects. She'd missed this, Tanith realised. Patrolling with Cal - wherever he was - wasn't quite the same. There were more jokes, yes, more Quidditch and more talk of pranks, but less understanding, less... confidence. She felt safe with Tobias. Physically, intellectually, and... emotionally.
Of course, they'd not allowed any conversations since he was back to so much as sniff about his... departure. But that was fine, too.
"Do you think you're ready for tomorrow?" Tobias asked amiably at last, hands in his pockets. He wasn't in his school colours, but he'd grabbed the dark blue robe of his Enforcer uniform, perhaps instinctively, before heading out.
"If I'm not ready, and you're not ready, then everyone else is fucked," Tanith said philosophically. "I've spent every Sunday for the past eight months being trained for this. Or at least for things I can make use of in Defence. I should be fine."
Tobias grinned a little as he had to have heard that slight hint of worry in her voice. "You will be," he said firmly, and once again they fell into companionable silence.
It was strange, Tanith reflected, how she had no urge to break it. There was nothing awkward about wandering the perimeter with Tobias and not saying a word, just enjoying the walk and the company.
So it was rather abrupt when Tobias straightened up, cleared his throat, and spoke. "I've been offered another job," he said.
She blinked at him. By now they were near the archway to lead them further into the grounds, a patrol route neither of them were eager to take; if someone wanted to wander those parts of the castle at night, they were welcome to risk their own necks. "Another job?"
"DIMC," he said, then scratched his nose. She wasn't quite used to the change in his profile, the sharper look the break had given him. "I've been offered a job as a senior aide to a diplomat in Moscow. Apparently they have a lot of good people out there who could help fight Dark Magic, we just need to enlist their help." Another pause. "Apparently I'd be good at it."
"You would be," Tanith agreed, though her stomach flipped. She'd just got used to the idea of seeing Tobias again with some regularity when they both worked in London, but Russia? "It sounds... it sounds important. From what I've heard of the war, we need all the help we can get."
"Yeah." Tobias dropped his gaze, expression briefly hidden as they wandered into a patch of shadow. "But it's... I mean, it's good work, but it's not what I left Hogwarts to do."
Tanith nodded, chewing on her lower lip. "But what you want... what you need... can change." She hesitated. "I mean, do you want to?"
"It's what I wanted... before," Tobias agreed, with a hint of difficulty. "And it's important work, and it sounds fascinating, and I wanted to travel..."
"Then what's stopping you?" Why do I always persuade him to do the things I don't want him to do?
Maybe because he ought to do them, your own wishes be damned?
It was a treacherous thought, but unfortunately she had to concede it was probably right.
Tobias shrugged, expression twisting in that way it did when he had to face an unpalatable truth. "I'd feel like I was letting everyone down. Leaving to join the MLE, then going when I'm offered something cushy..."
"Tobias, listen to me." Tanith stopped, turning to face him. "You're being ridiculous. As someone who's going to be on these front lines in a few weeks, it is not letting us down to try and bring in more people from outside. One Enforcer will not turn the tide of the war; foreign aid might. And you're the smartest guy I know, so if you think you have a chance to make a difference, then you'd better -"
A light flashed over his shoulder, high in the sky and up by the Astronomy Tower, and her voice died as the words in her throat turned to ice. Tobias started, and had to have seen the green reflected in her face and eyes, because he looked like he knew what he was going to see even before he turned.
But his voice was hollow and dry, for there could be no sense of anger, no sense of fear - just a dull, churning, creeping feel of dread seeping into you at the sight of the Dark Mark hovering in the skies of Hogwarts.
Then, without another word to each other, in silent agreement, they went.
The only time Tanith thought she'd run this fast was down the streets of a town in Surrey, but months of training since Christmas from both herself and Tobias meant they made record time in sprinting, wands out and both keenly alert, for the castle.
By the time they skidded through the main doors and into the entranceway, most of the patrolling prefects were there in something of a panic, being ill-marshalled by a rather disconcerted Tom Everard.
"Look - will you just - stop! It's fine, everything is -"
"Don't be a tosspot, Everard, everything is not fine, it's the Dark Mark!"
"How'd they get in? How could they get in?"
"Bugger how they could get in, who's dead?"
Tobias' bellow cut through the confusion like a knife, and even Tanith flinched reflexively and turned to look at him. The hubbub died at once, and two-dozen scared pairs of eyes tilted in his direction, lighting up as if he might hold the answers to their questions and fears.
"You are prefects!" Tobias snapped, arms folded across his chest. "Not scared children. The school will be counting on your steadiness! Now, where's Riley?"
"Here." The Head Girl's voice cut through the dark silence loud and clear as she came storming down the steps to the entranceway, Lisa Grahams slinking in her wake. "And I'm going to have Granger's neck for getting evasive with me when Katie's bloody coin went off..."
Everard squinted. "What coin?"
"Never mind. I ran into McGonagall," Riley continued, and just like that, control was asserted. Tobias had calmed them down, marshalled their focus; Riley could direct it. They had always worked like that, and it was no surprise that the Head Girl went to stand beside him instead of Everard.
"She's heading up there with staff and Aurors to deal with what's going on. Prefects are to secure the common rooms so nobody is wandering around. No, I don't have any answers on what's going on, so unless you have questions, get to your dorm-rooms." Only shock and dropped jaws met this statement, but Riley shrugged in dismissal of the gathered and turned to Tobias. "Good to see you back, Grey," she said, then turned with her three Gryffindor prefects - now she looked, Tanith noted the absence of Granger and Weasley - back in the direction of their common room.
The Slytherins set off without hesitation, the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws taking a few more seconds before they, too, headed back to their common rooms. There was no speaking on the way down to the dungeon, just a grim conviction and a tight grip on wands, though there was still silence through the castle. A few stray, panicking students were bumped into along the way - sharp words from Tobias sent them packing to their relevant homes, and Glenn Vaisey slunk into formation behind them.
The stares of the common room were wide and scared when they came through the wall; evidently someone had seen the Dark Mark in the sky and come back to tell everyone. The moment the patch of wall closed behind them, Urquhart stood up, face thunderous in a terrified sort of way. "What's going on?"
"We don't know details," Tobias confessed, but in a tone that gave no ground with such an admission. "Staff and Aurors are dealing with it. We are to stay in the common room where it's safe."
Comparatively, Tanith added silently. Unless Death Eaters get in, in which case we're fish in a barrel.
"I want a head-count," Tobias was now saying. "Prefects, count up your years, and..." He picked out a representative from the other years, calm, sensible types that he knew. "Gather your people and tell me if anyone's missing."
The room moved into activity then, people swarming around their representatives with a buzz of worry. Within a few moments there was a squawk from the sixth years that was Parkinson's cry of "Where's Draco?" but Tanith tuned it out to turn to the gathering seventh years, who came to her instead of the suddenly authoritative Tobias. Ariane and Melanie, Gabriel rubbing his temples, Bletchley, Pucey, and Montague...
"Cal... where's Cal?" Tanith looked back at Tobias, who was standing over her shoulder; his expression clouded over.
"...'see you Thursday, normal time, normal place'," he muttered to himself, then turned towards the fifth years, ignoring her confusion. "Talley!"
The fifth year didn't have a chance to even respond before Tobias had grabbed him by the elbow and pulled him out of the crowd, expression like a storm. "I know Cal used to bribe you to let him past your patrols; does he still do that?" he hissed, most of the room ignoring him but absolutely unavoidable to those who were aware of what was going on.
Talley struggled in the iron grip of the ML Enforcer, but couldn't break free; he looked panic-stricken. "Yes! Sometimes, yes... when it's not his turn on patrol, usually Thursdays..." His face paled when he remembered what day it was.
"Where does he go? Answer me, or you'll be in more trouble than just being bribed will get you in!" Tobias thundered. Tanith exchanged glances with Gabriel, who looked still pained, and they padded in his direction.
"The... the Quidditch pitch!"
The bottom of Tanith's stomach dropped out.
Talley finally ripped himself away. "...he's a prefect and a seventh-year; I didn't want to question; I thought he'd be fine by himself!"
Tobias seemed to have forgotten about Talley, turning back to the others and pausing as he saw their faces; Tanith hadn't even realised she looked even half as horrible as she felt, but she had to from his reaction. Next to her, Gabriel had gone a disturbing shade of grey.
"We need to go find him," Tobias told Tanith flatly.
"I'm going with you," Gabriel said in a voice that would brook no argument - before he stepped forwards and, with a hiss of pain, clutched at his forehead. He would have fallen if Tobias didn't step forward to grab him, lowering him onto a chair.
"What is it?"
"Bloody... hurts... but I have to go, it can't just be you two..." Gabriel lifted his gaze to Tanith's desperately, but her mouth had gone dry and all she could do was nod mutely.
"You're not going anywhere like that," Tobias told him.
"He has to, it can't just be us, he's right..." Tanith drew a deep, shaking breath, then tried to pull Gabriel up to his feet - he got halfway before his body contorted in pain again, and he collapsed back onto the chair, his weight too much to handle. But he kept his grip on her as he fell, pulling her towards him.
"Maybe this is... to stop me from interfering," he hissed in a voice so low that she had to strain to hear him. "But this can't happen. You have to interfere, then. Stop it. For the love of God, stop this one, I won't see another death, I won't..."
"I'll stop it, Gabe. I promise," Tanith said shakily, trying to pull out of his grip – but he tightened it, and yanked her closer in.
His voice was tight and pained, and he had to pull her ear next to his mouth to be heard. “Look for the box. You got me?”
Then he gave another grunt of pain, slumped, and his grip on her weakened. Tanith started, but she could feel his breath, see the rise and fall of his chest. He had just passed out, which was perhaps a mercy for him with all of the pain.
But less of a mercy for her, she had to admit as she straightened up and turned to Tobias.
"What's going on?" he asked, brow furrowed.
Just by the simple act of telling her what he'd seen, Gabriel had changed the scenario - perhaps. She had knowledge of the upcoming events she shouldn't do; she could use it, stop anyone from dying. Anyone she cared about, at least. Would telling Tobias help him, arm him against what was foreseen - or bring it about? Or would he be so angry, as Gabriel had described him, that he wouldn't be thinking?
The decision was made, however, by an abrupt realisation that she didn't have half enough of the time that would be needed to explain, and she shook her head. "I'll tell you later."
Tobias grimaced, but accepted this, stepping to the front of the room and lifting his hands for attention. "Head count's done? Right. Remember who's missing. Cole and I are going to go out there and find anyone who's stuck out there, Slytherin or not, and get them to safety. When we're gone, close that door, change the password, and you don't open it up until it's a teacher or someone you know is missing."
"And make sure it's them," Tanith cut in. "Ask security questions to confirm their identities."
"And don't even tell us what you're changing the password to; if we run in to Death Eaters, they might pull it out of our heads," Tobias said. Then he paused and scanned the room. Tanith saw his gaze land on the confused seventh years, the panicking sixth years and lost Parkinson, the notably nervous Talley, before it landed on Urquhart.
"Jack. You're in charge here until we get back. See that it's done," he told the Quidditch captain with a curt nod.
"Hey!" It was Bletchley, and Tanith could tell he was stung that a fifth year had been given responsibility over him. "You're not Head Boy any more; you're not even a prefect. You can't tell us what to do."
Tobias looked at him with a gaze of utter contempt. "I don't wear a prefect badge any more, that's true," he admitted, then reached into his robe and pulled out the copper emblem of the MLE. "But I'm a fucking MLE Constable, so you can either listen to a trained law enforcement professional, or you can take your chances with someone who flunked out of the prefect's job."
This last was addressed to the whole room, and though Tanith recognised a cheap tactic to turn the room on his side against Bletchley's, it worked, as he had to have known it would. Silence met his words, and Tobias nodded as he put his MLE badge away.
They were halfway down the darkened corridor before they spoke again, their footsteps echoing in the gloom.
"Tobias," Tanith said at last, voice low as they strode quickly. "If Death Eaters catch a student, put Imperius on them and march them to the common room, they'll get through the security questions." This had occurred to her inside, but she hadn't wanted to raise the problem in front of the crowds.
Tobias just grimaced. "I know."
They both knew there weren't any better ideas which might not condemn students to being trapped in the corridor with Death Eaters roaming. And neither of them were Slytherin enough for that, even if it would ensure the safety of everyone else.
So they hurried on in silence down the corridor, officially looking for any students who might be lost to keep them safe, but both knowing their destination was the Quidditch pitch, and Cal.
And whatever - or whoever - else they might find there.
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