Chapter 36: The Hair of the Dog
Melanie Larkin's jaw dropped as she opened the door and stared at the sight before her. 'Oh, good grief.'
'What? What?' Ariane Drake's voice came from inside, squeaky and panicked. 'It's those damn street singers, isn't it? I knew they'd -' She emerged in the corridor behind Melanie, hair askew, fingernails threatening to drip with newly-adorned varnish, and gaped. 'Holy fuck.'
Tanith swayed on the spot, squinting at them with some confusion at their reaction. She lifted the bottle in her hand. 'I brought whiskey.'
The other two exchanged glances, before Melanie stepped forward to usher her in. 'It's raining, Tanith...'
'Yep. And I walked. Don't drink and apparate, kids!' She weaved as she staggered into the hall of the house her former roommates shared, and leaned heavily on the wall for support.
'Melanie, get into the kitchen. This is an emergency. You know what to do,' instructed Ariane curtly, and went to steer Tanith into the living room as Melanie shut the door and shot off as directed. 'Tanith, dear, it's so nice to see you...'
'No, it's not. I am the portent of doom.' Tanith waved a finger in her face dramatically. 'I only come here when things are wrong.'
'You've only been here for our housewarming party!' Ariane squeaked, crestfallen.
'Montgomery vomited on my boots. That was pretty wrong.' She sat down on one of the armchairs heavily, shoulders stooped. 'But I found the place again! I was impressed.'
Ariane squinted at the bottle as she took a swig from it. 'What are you drinking?'
'I can see that, what sort?'
Tanith peered at the label. 'Um. "Hairy Heart".'
Ariane made a face, and reached for it. 'Give me that!'
'Hey, that's -'
But Tanith couldn't hold on for long as the two struggled back and forth, and Ariane triumphantly yanked the Firewhiskey from Tanith's grip and looked over her shoulder. 'Melanie!'
Melanie emerged a few seconds later, flustered. 'I'm done! I'm done!'
'Good!' Ariane turned an accusing glare on Tanith. 'Look at you! You're a state! You come in here, drunk, with bad whiskey! You can't have any more!' Then she reached to take one of the glasses of gin and tonic from Melanie's hand and passed it over. 'You need this!' The other she claimed for herself.
Melanie looked down forlornly. 'I thought those were for us.'
'This is an emergency,' Ariane reminded her. 'Go make another.'
'But we're out of lemon.' Melanie might have said 'I have one month to live' with the same severity.
'Oh...' Ariane made a face, then reached down towards Tanith, who was just about to take a gulp, and plucked the slice of lemon from her glass. 'She won't know the difference.'
'Oh, be quiet and drink your gin,' Ariane snapped, and sat down on the sofa to take her own genteel sip of the important beverage. Melanie went back into the kitchen, grumbling, but within another few minutes all three women were sat in the comfortable living room with full glasses.
Or nearly full, anyway.
'So what's wrong?' cooed Ariane, looking across at Tanith.
'Wrong?' She hiccuped. 'What makes you think anything's wrong?'
'Oh, well...' Ariane played with a lock of perfect golden hair. 'It's just that you never come by, so we just assumed that... you know... something was amiss.'
'Yeah,' said Melanie. 'That, and you're shit-faced.'
'A minor clue,' Ariane conceded. 'But you don't have to tell us if you don't want to.'
'I mean, it must be pretty bad. Considering you didn't even get like this when we all thought Grey was dead.'
Tanith had sunk over while they talked, her head in her hands. 'It's... complicated.'
'Have another drink,' Ariane suggested.
She did so, and drew a deep breath. 'There was a... a thing. Something that happened to me. A while ago. Like, eighteen months ago.' A pause. 'With a guy.'
The other two exchanged astonished looks, and then Melanie's settled down into something particularly apprehensive. 'It was Howlett, wasn't it. Theron Howlett. You tried to hide you had a thing with him. But we all knew,' she said, speaking too fast.
'Oh, yes,' said Ariane after a moment's pause. 'We all knew.'
Tanith looked up at Melanie, who could not have been gurning more frantically at her to get her to play along, and realisation sank in that Ariane was just bluffing and had no idea what was going on - and it had to stay that way.
Because even in her inebriated state she realised it was poor form to come in and talk about a negative sexual encounter she'd had with Ariane's current boyfriend.
'...Howlett. That's right,' said Tanith. 'But you better keep quiet about it. I've... sat on it for a while. I don't want anyone to know, and...' I should have picked someone who's dead.
'We've kept our lips sealed so far, haven't we?' said Melanie with a sickly-sweet smile - and took a gulp of drink.
'So... this sounds like it wasn't so good,' coaxed Ariane.
Tanith wrapped her hands around her drink and stared at the floor. 'I was - it was - you know, I'm really not used to talking about this.'
'We can tell,' muttered Melanie.
'This is what you get for being friends with boys. You've missed valuable life lessons.' Ariane paused, then sobered a little. 'Sorry. You can take your time, you know.'
Tanith wasn't used to feeling grateful towards Ariane. But there was a reason she'd come here, after all. She took another drink. 'It was... awful. I don't - I mean, it was my own fault, I initiated, I entirely went along with it and didn't stop him, and... yeah. Awful. Awkward. Unpleasant. Even... painful.' Another drink.
'All... right.' Ariane looked like she desperately wanted to help but didn't know how. She set her drink to one side, flapping her hands a little as she got to her feet and crossed the room to perch on the armrest of Tanith's chair, resting a hand on her shoulder. 'We all do silly things we regret. Emotionally or, you know, physically.'
'Let me make sure I'm on the same page,' said Melanie, leaning forward with a frown. 'About a year ago you had shitty and painful sex?'
Tanith squirmed as it all felt rather silly when put so bluntly. '...yes, Melanie. Thank you.'
'Melanie.' Ariane hissed her name as she squeezed Tanith's shoulder gently. 'Was this... I mean, around the time Grey was seeing MacKenzie, or... after, when he was so upset? I imagine that was all rather messy and complicated.'
'After,' Tanith lied easily. To say otherwise would come too close to the truth, and she didn't dislike Ariane enough to set her up for that. 'I was... it was dumb. I was pretty messed up myself, and I was... stupid.'
'Not that we don't want to help,' said Melanie, the soul of compassion, 'but why's this coming up now?'
She made a face. 'I'm sort of seeing someone.'
'Really.' Tanith could almost hear Ariane's eyes light up. 'Who's the lucky boy?'
'I don't want to say, and it's not the point,' she said as firmly as she could. 'But, as you can imagine, it's... come up. We haven't talked about it, but there was a moment, and...' Why was putting it in words so difficult? Perhaps Ariane was right, perhaps this was a consequence of not having the stereotypical 'girly' conversations with others in her childhood. '...and I basically freaked out and had to leave.'
Ariane wrinkled her nose. 'That's not good.'
'I'm getting another drink,' said Melanie, and left. 'Tell me if something actually happens.'
Normally, Tanith much preferred Melanie's company to Ariane's, but normally she didn't turn to them for emotional support and sympathy. If one didn't need something complicated, but did need buoying up, they could do a lot worse than Ariane Drake.
'Have you spoken with him about it?' she was saying, voice tremendously attentive.
'No. I don't know where to start. Because I don't know what's wrong. It was ages ago, and David's different...' She winced as the name slipped out, but it was too late and a first name wasn't absolute condemnation anyway. 'He's nice. He's kind. I'm sure he wouldn't want to do anything to hurt me, and I'm sure he'd be much more... attentive...' She almost cringed as she used the word.
'You need to relax,' Ariane said. 'Not just now. But with him. You would be surprised what good talking can do. And there's all sorts of things you can do to build up some trust first.'
Again, normality was inverted as Ariane gave one of her teasing smiles and Tanith found it reassuring rather than asinine. She gave a small, wan nod. 'I guess you're right. It just took me by surprise. It's been so long - I mean, I didn't think about it, I tried to not think about it...'
Ariane patted her on the shoulder. 'Trust me,' she said. 'A little communication goes an awfully long way. Why, Miles was all over the place when we started to go out - clumsy, utterly inattentive, acted like it was a race...'
Melanie's disappearance into the kitchen was no longer so resented, because at that point she came back with a jug to refill their glasses and Tanith drank deeply, gratefully as Ariane wittered on about her sex life with Miles Bletchley a little more and she tried to block her out.
'...but yes, you must be honest about what you want,' Ariane was saying when she resurfaced. 'And not just with him, but with yourself! And remember that he's not Theron.'
'Quite,' said Melanie, sitting back down. 'And he must be quite impressive, after all, if he's lured you away from Tobias Grey.'
Tanith knew a trap when she saw one - Melanie suspected that Tobias, himself, somehow, was her secret consort, and was trying to trick her into an admission. Fortunately she didn't even have to lie. 'I don't know what Tobias and I are,' she sighed. 'It's not as if we've been able to talk about it, and I don't even know if I'm ever going to see him again.'
'Daddy says he's been trying to rile up the European governments against us,' said Ariane with a frown. 'They're furious.'
'I know, it's knocked him back up to Undesirable Number 2 - though I bet Shacklebolt will upset Yaxley again, sooner or later, and drum him back down.' Tanith took a gulp of gin and tonic. 'But it's not as if it makes any sense for me to still be mooning over him.'
'True,' said Melanie, 'but when did you mooning over Grey ever make sense?'
There was more than just an accusation of silliness there, and irritation mixed with alcohol to form a dangerous cocktail. 'It's not as if I've been holding out on a wing and a prayer,' Tanith snapped. 'He did tell me he loved me!'
One thing Tanith Cole clearly wasn't good at was handling was admissions of love. Especially not when she had quite a lot of whiskey and a glass of gin in her.
'Really.' Again, Ariane turned her gaze to her. 'And when was this?'
Tanith buried her face in her hands. 'In my flat,' she mumbled. 'Before he went to Russia.' It wasn't strictly a lie.
'You didn't mention this,' said Melanie with a smirk.
'It didn't come up,' Tanith groaned. 'We were going to be apart for a while. I guess it was a bit emotional.'
'Did anything else happened?' asked Ariane, and this time the teasing smirk was annoying.
'No. He kissed me. He said he loved me. And then he left.' Despite the fact that she was skirting on dangerous ground, she did have to admit it felt good to actually let the words come out. There was no reason for the two of them to suspect this had happened when he'd been recruiting her for illegal international espionage.
'And now you have a new fancy man? You are more active than we gave you credit for.'
'I know it's weird,' Tanith sighed, and wondered if this conflict made her a bad person - and then promptly decided that her two companions, while perhaps helpful to go to for advice on emotional issues, would not be the best sample group for advice on moral issues. 'But my life can't stop during this... during all this.'
'Are you sure that's not the issue?' wondered Ariane. 'That you might like this... David... perfectly well, but it's not so unreasonable that you're being a bit clumsy, a bit tense, a bit apprehensive, if you've still not reconciled your feelings for a wanted criminal who'll be arrested the moment he so much as sets foot on British soil?'
'I don't... know...'
'It can be both issues, of course,' she continued. 'Issues and feelings are like that. So I'll just say again - honesty is the best policy. Talk to your David. Communication!'
Melanie scoffed at her friend. 'Listen to you. "Honesty is the best policy". You bloody hypocrite.'
Ariane drew herself up to her full height, and sniffed indignantly. 'I don't know what you mean!'
'I mean you like to pretend to Miles that there's been nobody else, but I know you and Derek Cadwallader did more than just flirt...'
And then the two descended into the rampant bickering that marked any occasion when they weren't ganging up on someone, and Tanith let herself sit there, the whiskey and gin - a foolish combination to mix at the best of times - fizzed and whirled around her head, spinning and entwining with her thoughts and feelings and none of them coming remotely close to emerging strong, front and centre.
In some ways, as she had hoped, going to an unusual source for help had cleared up a lot of problems. Even just voicing issues she'd hidden from even herself made them less daunting - once quantified, they could be understood, and tackled.
And then they'd gone and dredged up something new...
Or, at least, stirred something old which had long been dormant.
The clearing in the Forbidden Forest was as dark and still as it had been a fortnight ago. But this time it was far from empty. All around the edge of the waters of the pool stood the centaurs, tall and imposing and with nothing welcoming about any expression or stance.
Gabriel gulped before he stepped forward, leading the small procession. There had been much argument about who would come here. Jen had insisted, pointing out that she was the biggest figurehead of the human resistance against the Ministry, and that if the centaurs cared about such things, her presence was a big indicator that they were taking matters seriously. He wasn't sure if they would care, but he hadn't dared push the issue too hard.
Then there was Cal, whose idea it had been - Cal who had come along leaps and bounds in his training, Cal who had, with such more grim seriousness than he usually showed, become more hardened and dedicated in the fighting they did than anyone. The shoes left to fill by Nick Wilson and Cormac McLaggen were no longer empty - but they were reshaped, redefined, to something which left Gabriel a little uncomfortable. Just as vicious, but colder.
He didn't understand it.
Katie was there, again to bolster their defences, and then Richard Keating, her classmate who had proven best at more unconventional curses. Tom had been infuriated by Jen's refusal to let him join them, for he had been correct to argue he was a magical powerhouse in his own right - but if this went south, and Tom was with them, that would be the whole command squad and heavy hitters of the Lions gone in one night.
Not that Gabriel thought, if it went south, Tom Everard alone could carry on the fight. But again, he hadn't dared push the issue with Jen.
So overall, he had to make sure it didn't go south. This scheme, which hadn't even been his, which had been suggested by Cal and leapt on by Jen but which had proven to land almost exclusively in his hands. Because he was the only one they might remotely listen to.
He cleared his throat as the five of them approached, and his voice sounded rather quiet and subdued in the gloom. 'To who should I be speaking?'
As the centaurs exchanged glances, he couldn't help but overhear Jen muttering to herself. 'Whom.' He ignored her.
One of the centaurs - and now Gabriel thought he was the biggest, his coat and skin dark, his form broad and muscular - straightened, and he was so large it was like he might block out the moon just by flexing. 'I am Bane. You are the Prophet?'
'Seer. I go with... seer,' said Gabriel, awkwardly stepping down the rocks towards the water's edge. 'But I am, yes. Thank you for, er, agreeing to meet with me. Us. My name's Doyle.' For some reason that seemed safer. 'This is -'
'Your escort. They are irrelevant. Speak, Seer. You had a vision of us.'
Oh, crap, they took that seriously. 'You know the state of affairs in Britain,' he began, voice a little stumbling. Public speaking had not been his forte. 'Things are pretty bad. Oppression. Murders. They're trying to wipe out and kill humans of non-magical-birth.'
'This does not concern us.'
'They won't stop with us,' blurted Muggle-born Keating, pale and indignant in the moonlight, and Gabriel winced at the outburst.
Bane's dark gaze turned between the two before settling on Gabriel. 'Is this one a Seer too?' His voice rang with mockery.
'No, he's nobody, look - shut up,' Gabriel hissed this last at Keating, and squared his shoulders. 'But he's right. When they're done with the Muggleborns they'll come for the elves, and the centaurs, and the giants, and... and all of you other non-humans.'
'You have foreseen this?'
'I don't need to foresee it; it's true, it's clear.' He clenched and unclenched his hand, feeling his right knee shake like it sometimes did when he was nervous. 'If you just sit in these woods until the day it happens, you won't be ready, and they'll be strong.'
'Our forests protect us,' said Bane. 'It is the best course of action.'
'There is another way,' he pressed, stepping forward. 'There are humans who are fighting the Ministry, humans who mean you and your kind no harm. Join with us, and we can protect ourselves together, maybe even overthrow them. Rather than them taking us down one at a time.'
There was a ripple amongst the centaurs, and Bane glowered. 'Humans have never cared enough in the past to ally with us.'
'Times are changing. You have to know this.' Gabriel glanced up. He'd never really used the stars for anything, never used the tricks and divination techniques he'd studied. Whittaker hadn't indicated they were good for anything, but he'd had so little, so little time to develop and practice in Rio. 'We would ally with you. We've fought successfully against the Ministry. We have allies who can help. And now we will not turn down allies. And we won't, uh, forget it if we win. Won't forget your help.'
Another ripple, and this time Bane had to lift a hand to stop the muttering from the crowd. He glared at Gabriel. 'The stars told you this? You foresaw that our paths would become aligned?'
He hesitated. 'Have none of your portents indicated this... change?'
'The stars are mixed. Undecided. A great change is coming, a great upheaval. A moment where all will be determined. But the outcome is... unclear.' Bane tilted his head a little. 'You know of what I speak.'
'I know of what you speak,' Gabriel lied. Something's coming, but I mustn't have seen it. A point where it's too close. Where the future can't figure out the most likely outcome. Where it could go a hundred different ways as likely as another... or just two.
'And you have seen us in this?'
'I have... not.' He winced. Outright lying seemed unwise. 'But it is -'
Bane's nostrils flared. 'If you have no portent to bring before us, then this is nothing more than the mewling of a -'
'He is a Seer,' thundered another centaur, and Gabriel looked over gratefully to see it was the one he'd spoken to the first time he'd been here. 'He saw the reflection of the stars' will in the waters of the pool. No other human could have seen such a thing.'
'We know of their seers,' sneered Bane. 'Men and women of baubles and trinkets thinking they can trick fate to twist it to their own means...'
I can, but that's not the point. 'That's not me. That's not how I work. I know our ways are different, I spoke with Firenze -'
It was the wrong thing to say, judging from the disapproval that swam over the crowd of centaurs at the name of Hogwarts' Divination Professor. Bane hoofed at the dirt. 'He is a human lover. He is soft. Even he thinks the reading of the stars is to be done for jest and curiosity, not to understand the will of fate. Your words are wind and dust.'
The tension had changed, unpleasantly abruptly. They had been guarded but curious when he'd first approached; now Gabriel could feel the hostility in the air, see the centaurs about them reaching for bow and arrow, poised for action.
'I am telling you the truth -'
'You are telling us of the concerns of humans,' snapped Bane. 'I shall not ask you again. Did the stars send you to us, Seer, as you so boldly claimed before, and if so, what did they utter to you? What path did they lay out?'
Gabriel looked around wildly - to the dark, hostile faces of the centaurs, to the panicked gazes of his friends, all of whom had their hands on their wands by now, and Katie's lips were moving almost imperceptibly.
'I...' His voice caught in his throat, and one of them nocked an arrow. 'They did not. I have had no vision.'
Then there was uproar. Bane was bellowing in anger, though his hands were empty and he made no move forwards. Others were beginning to band together, glowering and muttering, some were reaching for bows again and others still, mercifully, were trying to shout them down, cursing for the humans to leave even as they tried to stop their comrades from breaking into violence.
'Time to go,' muttered Gabriel, stepping back as the five humans huddled together. 'Quickly, now -'
'Mass transit point-to-point; can't just snap my fingers,' cursed Katie, face screwed up with concentration as the tip of her wand glowed.
'I don't -'
Then there was a hand at his shoulder and he was yanked back suddenly, stumbling and falling as there was the unmistakable sound of an arrow swishing through the air and thudding into flesh. Then a scream, the shouts of the centaurs, and then they were twirling and winding their way to Disapparate out of the clearing and far, far away.