Under her spell

"What are you thinking about?"

"It's nothing."

"You're Anne Lister. If you're not doing something, you're pondering something."

"Mmm." Anne twisted to dip her quill in the bedside ink pot and begin adding to the day's journal entry.

Her companion wasn't deterred by her apparent indifference.

"Unless…" Tib mused. "…instead of something, it's someone."

"It's nothing of the sort."

But she'd taken a fraction of a second too long with her riposte.

Tib seized Anne's forearm, and used it to tug herself upright on the mattress. "I hope you're not still mooning over Mariana. She's done enough damage."

"To us?"

"Well, yes of course. But most especially to you, Anne."

"I really do not need a reminder, thank you."

Her snark-loaded words made no difference. Tib had found a foothold and was scrambling to the apex of her righteous indignation.

"That's what you get for falling for a pretty little Ravenclaw, and Muggle-born to boot. You should have known how cold and calculating she would be –"

"You introduced her to me."

"–reneging on her promise because of better prospects with that ruddy wretch Charles Lawton. Just because he has a vault full of gold and comes from one of those blasted Ministry-favourite families." Tib spat. "So nicely set up is Marianna. It's repug –"

"She had her reasons."

Tib shook her friend. "Why are you still apologising for her? She broke your heart, saw you stall your studies and scuttle off to Europe with your aunt."

Anne shrugged. "I get into scrapes with girls. It keeps happening."

"If you're talking about Eliza, that wasn't your fault. She was always porridge-minded, likely to end up at St. Mungo's at some point."

"I'm not talking about Eliza. You're starting to make me very cross."

A sly smile was the response. Tib folded her arms behind her head and flopped back on the bed. "One day you'll tell me what happened this past year in Paris."

Anne ignored her; ignored the heat spreading across her own cheeks. She returned to the original topic. "What happened with Mariana, how things turned out, it's for the best."

"I suppose I should thank providence that you're back here with me. I've missed this." Tib reached out and stroked the exposed skin at the nape of Anne's neck.

Anne stiffened at the familiarity. This wasn't a conversation she wanted to have. Yet, swerving from the path of right for comfort's sake would only lead to miserable entanglement later on.

"Tib, you know I can't give you what you want," she stated simply.

"Come now, my sweet, who else is better for you than me? Slytherins, alike in appetites." She flicked her tongue. "And unlike your dear M., I am a Pure-blood, from a long, proud line of witches and wizards. Far longer than yours, may I add."

Although even more fallen in fortune.

Anne turned to her companion. "I have always appreciated your friendship, Tib. From my first day at Hogwarts, when you were the only Second Year to even deign to speak to me, and later, when you took me under your wing."

Tib smirked.

"But it is as you say," Anne continued. "We are too similar." She hated the slur so often hissed around her, but she used it anyway. "Two jacks."

Their masculine manner, their peculiarity, had pushed them to the outskirts of the school eco-system, much like the provincial nature of their ancestral homes. Anne knew she was held in esteem by her professors but that was not the case with others.

Tib had the expected rebuttal. "Our association opened doors to you."

"And slammed others."

At one stage Anne had dreamed of becoming a professor at Hogwarts, glutting herself on knowledge and imparting her learnings to future generations of English witches and wizards. Those hopes were dashed when her Head of House sat her down and explained emphatically that no parent would ever be comfortable with Anne teaching their daughters.

Despite her brilliance in the classroom, and admired drive, she hadn't even been selected as a prefect. She suspected it was a symptom of the same ridiculous social malady. Despite the predominant belief that their kind was superior, Anne recognised that, in many ways, the Wizarding World was no different than the Muggle one. The same stifling norms and judgements existed.

After her dual disappointments, she'd been taunted by the blue devils for weeks. Even in the present instant, she still felt unlike herself – weighted with persistent low spirits.

Tib was blissfully unaware as usual.

"Blast them all,' she declared. "We would be happy together." She groped for a goblet on her bedside table, and gulped two mouthfuls of Firewhisky without flinching.

Speaking of fundamental incompatibility…

Anne arched a brow. "You shouldn't drink so much."

"If it was so bad for me, the Room of Requirement wouldn't have provided it." Tib chuckled and held the cup out to her companion.

"No thank you. It destroyed my mother."

"Suit yourself," Tib muttered.

The pair sat in silence for some minutes. Anne returned to her diary. She'd jotted down another two paragraphs before becoming absorbed in a new theory: an incantation that would transcribe her thoughts automatically, freeing her from ink's nail-staining tyranny.

"So what are we?" Tib piped up behind her.

"The best of friends," Anne sighed at the distraction.

"Who sneak out of the Dungeon whenever opportunity presents for the occasional grubble?"

"If you wish us to stop?"

"No. This arrangement is considerably more comfortable than the Shrieking Shack."

Tib's arms circled Anne from behind.

"Truly, I missed you this past year," she murmured. Anne tensed but otherwise resisted her gut reaction: to pull away at the acrid stench of Tib's breath.

The older girl continued, "As much as I looked forward to your owls, they were never the same as having you here. I'm glad you're back at Hogwarts."

Shabby, backwards, change-the-staircases-but-never-really-change Hogwarts.

"…even if you persist in chasing wishy-washy English roses, like Ann Walker."

"What?!" Anne spun to face her friend.

"How many crosses has she tallied up so far? Hmm?"

Four since the start of term.

Blurted denial. An angry accusation that Tib had been reading her diary. The scales teetered between either retort.

In the end, Anne was saved by Tib's delight at a fresh opportunity to jibe.

"I was hoping you were going to be honest and tell me yourself. I've seen the way you look at her in the Great Hall, how you always need to rush back to the Dungeon when the Fifth Years finish Potions class, and that sudden curious hunger that takes you down to the kitchens between meals. Come now, Anne. I've never known you to be speechless."

Anne swallowed. "Is – is it that obvious?"

"The way you stride around with such purpose, of course you're noticed wherever you go."

Tib picked up her goblet, but didn't drink. She peered inside while circling the rim with her index finger. The longer she stared, the more the delight drained from her features.

"Do you think this new pursuit will be worth it?" she eventually asked.

"Would you rather I was low, constantly moping around the castle?"

"Well, no."

Anne snorted her disdain. "It's all an infatuation. A distraction from the tedium of class." And the loss of Marianna. "It's nothing more," she stressed.

"Because I have to ask if you really want another Eliza on your hands? I wouldn't have the mental fortitude for that."

Anne scowled. "Ann is nothing like Eliza."

"Really? As far as I'm aware she's had at least one stint at St Mungo's already. Couldn't handle Hogwarts after First Year so home schooled until now. And here she is, sixteen and back among us for her Fifth Year."

"I'm seventeen and in Sixth."

"Because you were off gallivanting, setting yourself up for a future as a glorious adventuress and Wizarding World travel writer. You don't even need your N.E.W.T.S. for that."

If Tib was going to needle, Anne could jab back too.

"Perhaps I should go again? That's not off the cards."

The evidently noncommittal nature of her words had its intended effect. Tib's face crumpled in bitterness. "I cannot work out what you see in her. Pleasant on the eye, I'll give her that, but a pale copy of the spirited beauties of Beauxbatons. Plus, she's a Hufflepuff of all things. You might as well make love to a Puffskein."

"Like I said, it's an amusement, a personal challenge to keep me stimulated."

Tib smirked.

"Mentally stimulated," Anne added. "The greatest challenge is that Ann is shielded by a whole tribe of insufferable prefect cousins. Great big noodles, all of them."

Treating the whole matter like a sport was a better way to redirect Tib's more malicious tendencies. Anne could see by the way her friend's eyes brightened that she was eager to get in on the game, even if it was simply as a co-conspirator. She never could resist a calculated seduction, vicarious or not.

"You get on with the Priestleys," Tib mused.

"They like me well enough, and they have a lot of influence over their younger cousin."

"Only because they've never had reason to dislike you before. Typical Hufflepuffs."

"Well, I think they're my best entry point. Through them, I can make a proper introduction. After that, I'll be inside…"

"And 'Expelliarmus Drawers!'"

"Shut up."

Anne swatted at her friend but her outrage was impossible to take seriously when she was laughing along with Tib. She did eventually manage to calm herself. Then she tapped a fist against her other palm.

"Everything must be carefully managed."

"Are you going to use a love potion?" Tib asked.

"When have I ever needed to?" Anne flashed her teeth. "You know I abhor artifice."

"You'll work your magic on her, you always do. I expect you'll have your hand up under robes in a week."

"Or three."

"The two of you will be going to Italy before you know it."

There was something peculiar to Tib's tone. She sounded far away, thoughtful almost. And that was dangerous.

Anne brought her back to the present with a prod to her chest.

"Listen to me, Tib. You do not say anything of this to anyone. And no teasing, of me, nor Miss Walker. Promise. There can't be any whispers of impropriety. Otherwise that skittish little bird will take flight."

Tib rolled her eyes. "Alright. Although if at any point you want to slip Polyjuice Potion into her cousins' pumpkin juice, I am more than happy to provide some Horklump bristles."

"I – " Well, that did sound like fun.

Tib stretched for Anne's pocket watch on the bedside table, grimaced at the late hour and rolled off her side of the mattress. Anne was in less of a rush. Even if she couldn't sneak back unnoticed into the dormitory, she knew her serpent's tongue would persuade their Head of House to be lenient. Tib, by contrast, was always in trouble for her abrasive, defiant manner.

Moving forward, it was better for Anne to distance herself from that as much as possible.

While Tib pulled her robes over her underclothes, she muttered, "I still don't understand why her; why Ann? Three generations ago, the family was Muggle-born on all sides. They built their reputation on self-cleaning rugs or something. Trade, Anne."

"Mmm."

"If you have an intention of climbing in wizarding society, there's no point in climbing into bed with her."

Nor with you.

A dressed, but typically dishevelled Isabella Norcliffe held out her hand. "Are you coming?"

"In a minute. I just want to add something to my diary first, while it's top of mind."

Looking down on her housemate, Tib folded her arms.

"Just remember, when it all goes wrong, I'm here for you. I'll always be here for you. I've told you that. You may not believe we are the best match now, but you'll see. Marianna let you down, broke her promises. Ann Walker will do the same, if she doesn't crumble before then."

Anne stroked the feather of her quill over her chin. "Shouldn't you be off now?"

Tib's eyes narrowed. "Just think of this as Herbology class. Be careful what you stick your finger into."

With that, she was gone.

Anne hadn't been lying. She made a note about the pair's tolerable kiss, and how she was counting on Ann being insipid. That meant pliability, which was most important of all.

It meant potential access to the swollen Walker vault at Gringotts.