Chapter 9 : March 29th, 1996 - Sixth Year
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“Are we throwing the little twerp out of a window?” Cal Brynmor asked quietly from where he was lounged across a sofa in the corner of the Common Room he and his friends had claimed upon the end of classes. “Because that’s beginning to sound like it’s what needs to be done.”
Tobias fixed him with a glare as he straightened up in his armchair opposite, not with much enthusiasm but still with sincerity. “Don’t insult the prefects, Cal.”
Tanith, who was perched on the armrest of Cal’s sofa, slapped her friend lightly around the head, her expression one of disapproval. “Even if they are little twerps.” She hopped to her feet, still leaning against the couch but becoming more noticeable in the room as she turned to face the commotion. “What’s happened, Draco?”
Cal reasoned to himself that Tanith had to play nice due to constant family and business connections the Coles had with the Malfoys. It still didn’t stop him from making a mocking expression which was, mercifully, hidden from all but Tobias, who threw a screwed-up wad of parchment at him pointedly.
Malfoy seemed quite oblivious to the lack of respect he was receiving in the corner as he moved to hop onto a low table in the middle of the room. Now the Slytherins were actually waking up somewhat, roused by such activity. “As of tomorrow, the balance of power in this school amongst the students shall be changing. No more shall Dumbledore’s hand-picked lackeys be running around with almighty power as prefects!”
“Yeah, because you’re a lackey of Dumbledore, aren’t you,” Cal mumbled disparagingly under his breath. Tobias gave him another look, but it was clear his interest was waning with Malfoy’s ranting, because he raised his copy of The Clarion again and resumed reading the newspaper.
“Our new headmistress is implementing new changes to move with the times. And one of these important changes, putting the power back in the hands of those who are loyal to the vision of Hogwarts’ future, is going to strengthen that future…”
Cal groaned audibly, still staring at the ceiling, then took a deep breath. “Just get to the point and stop blathering, Malfoy!” he called out, before closing his eyes and pretending to be asleep.
Malfoy gave the couch that had addressed him a surprised look, clearly knocked off balance for a moment, and took a brief moment before gathering himself. “Anyway…” he continued at last, glaring in Cal’s direction, then looking back at everyone else, “I would like to introduce you all to the Hogwarts Inquisitorial Squad, now the new disciplinary and authoritative intermediary between the Head and the students.”
A stunned silence greeted this statement, until Tanith stepped forward, her expression as impassive and controlled as always – though those who knew her well could sense her confusion. “What’s it going to do? What’s going to happen to prefects?”
“Prefects will remain,” Malfoy said dismissively. “But they’ll be a second class of authority compared to the Inquisitorial Squad. Of course, all loyal Slytherins are welcome to join! I’ll be drawing up a list presently that will be submitted to the headmistress for her confirmation. Speak to me to express your interest. Thank you.”
And, with all the aplomb of a politician who had just made an election-winning speech, he descended from the table and began to swagger about the room, talking with various Slytherins, doubtless trying to recruit for this new endeavour.
“What the hell is this?” Cal asked incredulously, sitting up at last. “Is Umbridge utterly nuts? We don’t need more authoritative students. Prefects work perfectly well!”
Tobias didn’t make a reply, merely grunted from behind his newspaper, but Gabriel, who had been lurking silently by the window until now, grimaced faintly as he glanced over. “That they do, but they’ve been appointed by a regime Umbridge is just trying to wipe out, forget. She wants a new powerbase here.”
Cal glared at the table, as if Tanith’s Transfiguration notes were responsible for their plight. “See, I bet Hufflepuffs sit around talking about playing Gobstones or something, not discussing in-depth the political plight of the school. Lucky bastards.”
“No, just fools with low aspirations,” Malfoy’s voice penetrated their gloom, and made Cal’s temples thump with something approaching a headache. “They don’t understand what’s going on here. Leave them to their games. They’ll understand, eventually.”
Cal lay back down on the couch again. “Oh, I don’t doubt it. It must be very encouraging for you, Malfoy. Because once the Hufflepuffs begin to understand what’s going on, you’ll just be one step behind them in achieving such enlightenment, surely. Maybe you can ask them to help you work out what’s going on?”
Malfoy ignored him. It was not the blank face of someone who had been insulted and wasn’t going to dignify it with a response. It was the almost-genuine expression of someone who simply hadn’t heard any response, and Tobias couldn’t help but being grudgingly admiring of how the younger student had just shrugged off the slur. After all, here in Slytherin Common Room, he had the power.
“I’ll assume you’ll be signing up for the Inquisitorial Squad, Tanith, Grey, Gabriel?” Malfoy looked at the three of them, still ignoring Cal utterly, his expression one of presumptuous disdain at this point. “After all, you’re just the sort we’re looking for?”
“I thought I saw you talking to your lackeys Crabbe and Goyle? And Montague and such? I never thought we fit in such categories,” Gabriel commented quietly, picking up Tobias’ paper as the other boy let it drop on to the table, too concerned with Malfoy as he was to focus on any stories about Ministry funding for Muggle Protection being cut a few days before.
Malfoy lightly kicked the feet of Cal, who grudgingly shifted to allow the rat-faced fifth-year to perch on the sofa, his eyes lighting. “Of course we need them. Muscle. Intimidation. But I’ll also need someone with brains –”
“…because heavens know you don’t have them yourself…”
“– to help me with this.” Again, Malfoy’s blank dismissal of Cal’s comments. “The balance of power in the school is changing. It’s not Dumbledore and his blasted Gryffindors getting everything, every year, all the time. Aren’t you sick of that?”
Cal sat up now. “I guess Umbridge isn’t going to take the House Cup away from us at the last second,” he commented, looking thoughtful. “And we bloody well deserve it. It’s all because of his favouritism towards Potter, you know.”
Finally Malfoy acknowledged him with a thin smile. “You see my point. Umbridge isn’t going to turn a blind eye towards other houses breaking the rule. You know that we’re undermined every single time we do something well.” His expression turned a little bitter. “This Inquisitorial Squad is a chance to change that.”
“Will people from other Houses be there as well?” Tanith asked, listening attentively.
Malfoy shrugged. “Some. Some are suitably… devoted.”
“Some?” Tobias looked sceptical. “Won’t that be unbalanced if there are loads of us…”
“In our favour. That’s the beauty of it. We’re not going to be stamped on any more.” Malfoy’s hand curled into a fist. “It’s the right time to be a Slytherin. We don’t have to look at the rest of the school with shame any more.”
Tobias wasn’t sure Malfoy had ever shown shame for anything, but if he wanted to pretend that he’d been downtrodden for five years and was just getting payback, he wasn’t really going to press the issue in case the crazy little nut-job attacked him. “What about –”
“I like this,” Gabriel interrupted, calmly folding the paper up and tossing it back on to the table. “It looks like we’re going to win the Quidditch. Dumbledore’s not here to allow the Gryffindors to magically take away House Cup victories which are rightfully ours.” Slytherin had not recovered from the slight five years ago. “Maybe it’s a time when we can actually achieve on our own merits.”
“Instead of being labelled as the black sheep of the school and horribly overlooked every single time we do something well.” Cal looked thoughtful at last, a little swayed. “Because, you know… we’re evil. Didn’t you get the memo?”
Malfoy smiled slightly. “You understand. I’m sick and tired of our every achievement being put down to cheating, and every time we’re beaten, fairly or unfairly, it’s a ‘long-awaited put-down’. Whereas Gryffindor can do no wrong.”
“Because they’re Dumbledore’s favourites,” Cal muttered bitterly.
“And they’re so good and pure and brave and righteous and – oh, God, kill me now.” Tanith rolled her eyes in absolute agreement.
“These are all valid points.” Tobias straightened up, raising his hands slightly to calm down the vitriol flying about freely. “And the loss of Dumbledore is likely to correct this. In a year when we win the House Cup fair and square he can’t give it to Gryffindor because of bloody Potter. The fact remains that I’m not sure I understand why we need an entirely new authoritative regime.”
Malfoy shrugged. “The prefects about the school are saturated with Dumbledore’s perspective. They’re anti-Slytherin, biased against us, opposing fairness within the school.”
Even through the sense of indignation Malfoy had successful swept Cal into, he could easily recognise the blatant manipulation of the younger student’s words. If he believed equality within the school was a worthy aspiration, then he, Cal, was a niffler. That said, the boy was making valid points, even if he didn’t believe them. “You think Dumbledore’s antiquated and bigoted style of leadership can fade if his pawns are still in place?”
“Why don’t we just replace the prefects?” Tobias challenged.
“Umbridge would,” Malfoy agreed, “but that requires a level of bureaucracy and an extent of valid reasons to do so on an individual basis that there isn’t truly time for. And under the system Dumbledore’s similar predecessors introduced, there has to be proof of active unsuitability on the part of a prefect to remove them; it cannot be done at just the flick of a finger. Defiance against the Head, repeated insubordination to professors, breakings of the rules – one by one, it can be done, but massively?”
“It’s just a mess. The prefects will just have to have their duties downscaled for it to work.” Tanith sounded thoughtful rather than agreeing. “And you want us to sign up?”
Malfoy nodded. “You’re all good, solid Slytherins. You have… brains, compared to Montague and Pucey. You’re clearer thinkers than Bletchley, though he is a strong candidate in his own right.” He smiled. “Think about it. The chance to let the Gryffindors who’ve mocked you pay for what they’ve done.”
Tobias straightened up. “Wait, this shouldn’t be about vengeance, it should be –”
“The chance to rip house points of out McLaggen for being such a hypocritical little self-righteous turd.” Cal was staring off into space, his expression one of almost hypnosis as he considered just how wonderful such a prospect could be. Teaching the Gryffindors a real lesson.
Malfoy smiled. “So it’s decided, then? All four of you will be signing up for the Inquisitorial Squad? I do know you would be a valuable addition to our constantly-swelling ranks. Equality shall return to Hogwarts.”
Tanith shrugged. “Don’t see why not.”
Cal smiled a little. Of course she didn’t. It was something to do. She’d always thrown herself into her prefect duties with extreme competence, ruling with a slightly more stick than carrot technique than Tobias, but more fairly than most Slytherin prefects. Tanith also knew more of Slytherin politics than any of them; was more aware of how to play the game, was the most involved. She knew what she was getting herself into and how it could work for her.
He, on the other hand, just wanted to see Cormac McLaggen and his cronies pay for acting like they had. And he didn’t care how petty it was. “Count me in.”
Gabriel also looked up from the newspaper. “Sure. I’ll mastermind, don’t expect me to have to actually talk to any idiots from other houses.”
Malfoy looked a little surprised at Doyle’s statement, but didn’t question it. He just blinked for a moment, then turned to look over at Tobias, the only remaining member of the quartet and the only one who hadn’t given his answer. “Grey?”
“Nope.” Tobias looked almost bored as he stared off into space pensively.
Malfoy blinked again. “No?”
“I’m a prefect. Why do I need to be a member of the Inquisitorial Squad?” Tobias finally glanced over, his expression suggesting that this proposal was on a par with the concept of wearing two pairs of trousers at once.
The younger boy bristled a little. “Moving with the times, Grey. Realising that Hogwarts is changing is important. Shrugging off Dumbledore’s old regime. Stepping up and being ready to do what is needed for Slytherin.”
Tobias waved a hand dismissively. “I can do that as a prefect. I’d rather not be a member of a private army, if that’s all the same to you.”
Malfoy stood up, looking now a little affronted. “Grey… do you understand what you’re saying?” His voice suggested he believed Tobias to be a simpleton. “You’re rejecting the ways of Umbridge in favour of the ways of Dumbledore.”
Tobias fixed him with a cold look. “I’m actually sticking with the old Muggle adage: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It makes more sense.”
Tanith’s eyes flashed, but more with concern than anything else, and she stepped forwards to grab Malfoy by the elbow and tug him away from the brewing confrontation. “I’ll talk to him. He’s just in a mood,” Cal heard her hiss, and was pretty sure Tobias heard too from the way he looked fairly put out. Regardless, this seemed to placate Malfoy enough to get him to saunter off with his scrap of parchment, now looking a little disgruntled.
Tanith turned back to face Tobias, her jaw clenched as she fixed him with a look. Cal rejected the urge to leap under the couch and hide there until the explosion was done. Their relationship had been much more tense in the whole three months of this year than ever before – and Cal was certain that this had in no possible, conceivable, imaginable way anything to do with the events that had taken place at New Year’s. And, yes, there Cal was, about to turn into that niffler again if he believed that.
But as such, even minor arguments between the pair had been much more heated, corresponding neatly with times that Tanith discovered new particular information about Tobias’ relationship with Annie MacKenzie, which stubbornly refused to die. The fact that neither Cal nor Gabriel would never dream of telling Tanith the snippets that filtered through from Tobias, that Tobias wasn’t stupid enough to tell her himself, and that Tanith didn’t exactly move in the same circles as Gryffindors who could provide her with information of the other side of the affair meant that the knowledge she did gain was sparse and often full of holes. Regardless, when she got a snippet, she got snippy.
When she didn’t get a snippet, she snapped. For any other reason she could possibly find under the sun.
This latest reason was even a good reason to snap. As such, Cal expected nuclear holocaust any time soon. He mentally braced himself for explosions as Tanith opened her mouth to address Tobias.
“That wasn’t wise, Toby.”
Cal unclenched a shade, full of suspicion. Okay, no last names. First name, in a familiar form. Was this a sneak attack?
Tobias didn’t seem to notice as he shrugged uncaringly. “I’m not particularly bothered. I refuse to sign up to that old toad’s personal bully squad. I’m a prefect, I’m here to keep the peace, and I can do that perfectly well without joining any new regulatory group. The prefect’s badge allows me to do exactly what I aspire to do, so I don’t need to go further.”
“I said it wasn’t wise, not that it wasn’t practical. You’ve rejected Malfoy, but more important, via proxy, you’ve rejected Umbridge. Umbridge embraces Slytherin – I assume she was a snake herself at Hogwarts, or she just recognises that we were always to be her most loyal allies against Dumbledore…” Tanith began to pace slightly, another sign of her irritation. It still confused Cal that this irritation wasn’t being used to physically, emotionally and verbally pummel Tobias into submission.
“Yeah, imagine that. Dumbledore marginalises us for decades and we turn out to have bugger-all loyalty to him.” Gabriel was clearly either more foolish or more brave than Cal to dare intrude into the conversation.
Tanith didn’t kill him for interrupting this private discussion being held in public. Cal wondered now if the apocalypse was already happening outside of their windows.
“Point, Gabe. The prefects are Dumbledore’s institution. They were appointed by him, they enforced his rule.”
“They enforce Hogwarts rule, Tanith.” Tobias’ own irritation finally snuck into his voice, and Cal knew for sure that, when Tobias began to push back, sudden death was near. “And have done for centuries. It’s bigger than Dumbledore. Hogwarts is bigger than Dumbledore. Umbridge can’t recognise this. I refuse to sign myself up to some power-crazed maniac’s pursuit to enforce a rule which will be fought every step of the way.” Tobias stood. “You know this is wrong,” he hissed, so just the group of them and not the entire common room would hear. “You all know this is stupid. So I refuse to sit here and listen to you try to convince yourselves that this is a good idea.”
Cal watched him stalk off towards the dorms, nonplussed. “I don’t know why he’s sulking. He could give George Summerby detention for a year if he began drooling all over MacKenzie again. He’d like that.”
Tanith snorted derisively. “I think Summerby has better sense and taste than that.” She straightened up. “Grey’s just being stupid. He likes that. He’ll see sense soon enough. This Inquisitorial Squad might be a load of bollocks, but Grey learnt at about the same time everyone did how to play the game.”
“I’d really rather not play the game. The game’s boring. Kind of like this newspaper.” Gabriel threw The Clarion back down on the table with a dissatisfied grunt. “Regardless, I’m less bothered by people in general when I play the game. Tobias knows this.”
“He’s just got his goat because this is one of those ‘principle’ things.” Tanith smiled wryly. “He’ll come around once he sees sense.”
Gabriel snorted. “You said that about him and MacKenzie. Three month anniversary tomorrow and still going strong.”
Cal wasn’t particularly surprised when this comment won a severely cold glare from Tanith, and he watched her stalk off to her dormitory in a fashion rather similar to how Tobias had stormed off moments before. “Smooth, Gabe. Real smooth.”
Gabriel shrugged. “What? I’m right. She’s just being as stupid as he is. At least he’s not so up to his neck in denial that he’s about to be swallowed by the stuff. Remember Valentine’s Day?”
“When she had us constantly finding excuses to pester Tobias for anything under the sun while we were at Hogsmeade just so we could interrupt his date with MacKenzie? Even if it was something really, really minor that could wait for later.”
Gabriel blinked. “No, Cal, the other Valentine’s Day where Tanith was pissed.” He rolled his eyes. “Though when you put it like that, it does rather point out how bloody thick he is to not realise what’s going on.”
“It’s pretty obvious. You’re right. Denial is not just a river in Egypt, and Tanith is definitely not an Africa sort of person. Ow!” Cal raised his hand to rub his head as he felt a solid and stinging swat catch him across the back of it. He looked up to see Tanith standing over him, glaring. “I thought you were pissed with Gabe?”
Tanith shrugged. “I forgot my quill.” She grabbed it from where it sat on the table, still glowering, then turned to go.
Cal laughed briefly. “Yeah, that’s it, Tanith. Try that dramatic, angry exit again. Because, you know, it has more impact the second time in as many minutes… Ow!”
“I was very surprised to see that your name was not on the list submitted to me by Draco Malfoy, Mister Grey.”
Tobias felt a little bit like a soldier being dressed down as he stood attentively before the desk of the Headmistress in her office. Though it wasn’t the Office of the Head of Hogwarts School – that had refused to let her in, something he had smirked about – but rather the office of the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher with the signs changed. It was cheap, it was a mockery, and it sorted Umbridge perfectly.
“You were?” He thought playing dumb might be safer right then.
Umbridge looked at him across the top of her spectacles with dark, beady eyes. “I was indeed. You are a fore-running prefect in your year. A prime candidate for Head Boy next year. One of the shining examples to your peers in Slytherin House. I would have thought to see you as one of the very first names on the list.”
Tobias winced. “I am, as you say, miss, a prefect. As such, I do not see that there is a need for me to sign on for the… Inquisitorial Squad, you say it is called? No. The duties I wish to perform for Hogwarts School can be aptly performed in my capacity as prefect of the sixth year of Slytherin House.”
She gave him a faint glare, though rather well-hidden. After years of growing nearly impervious to Tanith Cole’s glares, Umbridge’s were rather inconsequential. “You do not recognise that this is a great opportunity for you to prove your worth to the school? The Inquisitorial Squad is of a much higher calibre of order maintaining. I would have thought you would aspire to the next level. Like a good Slytherin.”
The schools of thought as to what makes a ‘good Slytherin’ have bickered for many, many a year. The school of thought I agree with makes me out to be an excellent Slytherin… but then, I always did tend to root for the underdog. Tobias only smiled faintly, politely, and did not answer.
Umbridge leaned back in her chair cautiously. “The other prefect of your year, Tanith Cole, apparently a good friend of yours, has signed up for the Squad.”
Tobias nodded slightly. “That’s her choice.”
“As has Caspian Warrington, Elise Yeats, Draco Malfoy, and Pansy Parkinson. You are the only Slytherin prefect to have not signed up for the Inquisitorial Squad.”
“This I know, miss.” Tobias fixed his gaze neutrally on a spot just above Umbridge’s head.
“May I ask as to why you are so different to your companions that you do not wish to be a part of the Squad? Or why you think you might be unsuited for the Squad?” Her voice was sickly sweet and the trap she’d just laid glaringly obvious. He gagged mentally.
“If all of Slytherin were the same, it would be a very dull house.” No – a schoolyard response. Tanith thought she played ‘the game’, thought she was unrivalled. Tobias knew he had now entered a far higher level than he’d expected when he walked into this office. “It’s a simple question of time allocation.”
“You do not believe yourself to be capable of sustaining both duties while your housemates clearly seem to believe that they can rise to the challenge?” Umbridge sounded surprised.
Yes, draw the conclusion I wanted you to draw, you overgrown toad. Again, he smiled vacantly, politely. “No. Not at all. However, it is a simple matter of fact that these individuals have been fully dedicated to their role as prefects. If they have to now focus a large portion of their time to devotedly acting as members of the Inquisitorial Squad – and I know they will be acting devotedly – it simply stands to reason that they will be unable to perform as prefects to their full capacity.”
Umbridge frowned. “The Inquisitorial Squad takes precedence over prefects in matters of discipline. The prefects are merely… backups.”
“In matters of discipline, yes. But in other matters – matters of morale, matters of organisation, events such as arranging the decorations of the Great Hall on special occasions and dealing with room allocation for the societies you have deemed suitable to be reformed since Educational Decree Twenty-Four. There is more to a prefect’s duties than discipline. As all other prefects of all other houses are also not on the Inquisitorial Squad, it would cause a huge imbalance within the organisation of the prefects for Slytherin to be under-represented if their prefects have additional duties that will eat up portions of their time.”
“So you are sacrificing yourself for the good of Slytherin?” Umbridge smiled sweetly, and he resisted a shudder.
“Effectively, yes.” Tobias blinked. “Which brings me on to my next issue with the Inquisitorial Squad, a more critical one…”
Umbridge’s smile broadened as he faltered, and he knew he would have to push on or back down and lose utterly. But no – he was going to beat her on this level even if it cost him heavily. “Yes? Well-considered criticisms are always to be heard.”
Tobias took a deep breath. “The imbalance within the group. I have mentioned of how, if I joined the Squad, that would leave Slytherin at half-strength in the prefects. Yet I have not seen a single member of a house other than Slytherin appear on the list of potential members of the Inquisitorial Squad. Which is purely unbalanced and unfair.”
Umbridge leaned back. “You do know that the Inquisitorial Squad is an instrument of change. Out with the old, in with the new – removing Dumbledore’s ancient regime seeped in a corrupt past and replacing it with a shining future. Members of Slytherin can see the flaws with Dumbledore’s system, which is why they have stepped up to try and change it, and are thus suitable for the Inquisitorial Squad. Members of other houses are still misguided and follow Dumbledore’s old ways – therefore they are not suitable for directing the change to the new way which the Inquisitorial Squad represents.” She opened her hands in an inviting manner. “It is as simple as that.”
Tobias scowled. “It’s still unfair, unbalanced, and an unnecessary undermining of the authority of the prefects – a system which has worked for centuries and shall continue to work for centuries more, centuries where your Inquisitorial Squad will have been long-forgotten after it is shown as the biased failure it clearly is.”
Damn. So much for staying cool. You let her bait you there, let her lead you down the merry path to irritation and anger and you lost it. You lost this. You have two options now. Surrender, or let her pummel you into the dust.
Umbridge made a small steeple with her short, stubby fingers. “I find this sort of display unnerving, Mister Grey. Rather unsuitable for a prefect of your stature. I had always thought highly of you – Professor Snape always spoke highly of you. Compared to the lesser qualities of your counterparts in other houses, I had always assumed that it would be you who would be made Head Boy next year. But it seems that I must have been wrong about you, for you do not seem to be acting in a way which deserves even that prefect’s badge you wear. Not if you feel this way.” She paused, her eyes meeting his coldly. “You truly do not wish to join the Inquisitorial Squad?”
How quaint. She’s giving you a chance to back down. A chance to surrender and just fall into line. It would be almost touching if it weren’t for the fact that she knows perfectly well that you won’t take this chance and it only serves to make her appear benevolent.
So this is what it’s like to be beaten so badly you’re pummelled into the dust?
Tobias frowned, straightening up. “I do not. I will not associate myself with such a group.”
“Then you will not be associated with the prefects, either.” Umbridge reached out her hand. “I would like your badge, Mister Grey. Perhaps Miles Bletchley will be more suited to it, or maybe Caldwyn Brynmor. They both seem to be more aware of their place and the place of the future.”
Tobias’ frown deepened, and he reached down to slowly unpin the shiny, prominent badge with the great ‘P’ on it denoting his status. He liked that badge. He remembered the summer he’d been given that badge – now almost two years ago, back just before the Quidditch World Cup, the culmination of four years of hard work.
He’d always taken good care of it. Polished it, but not to blinding status – just so it didn’t look battered, like Warrington’s often had. It was a symbol demanding respect, and he respected it.
His hands were clumsy and slow as he unpinned the badge, almost impaling his thumb as he did so, and he twirled it in his hands for a long moment, staring at it, remembering what it represented to him and what it had given him.
“It is a shame,” Umbridge said, jerking him out of his reverie. “You would have made an excellent Head Boy.”
So he scowled, taking a step back, and tossed the prefect badge down onto her desk. It didn’t leave a satisfying rattle like he’d hoped, but rather bounced and almost knocked over a teacup. Then, without waiting for any kind of dismissal or even response, he turned on his heel and stormed out of Umbridge’s office.
He’d run terrified about the Quidditch World Cup as Death Eaters caused havoc. He’d completely and utterly humiliated himself in front of his best friends when making a pathetic effort to win her more-than-platonic affection. He’d landed himself in a blazing fight with Gryffindor House where he’d been accused of betraying his father and of siding with murderers. He’d been forced by Dementors to relive all of his worst moments in one go.
But this… today… had to be the worst day of his life.
But even as he finished that thought, a voice echoing down the corridor interrupted him. It was lunchtime, and although he’d been hungry and hoping the meeting with Umbridge could go quickly when she’d summoned him, his stomach now just felt tight and he had no desire to head down to the Great Hall for the last twenty minutes of the hour and get some food. As such, though, he was rather surprised to hear a sign of anyone else moving about the corridors.
“Toby! Hold up!”
He paused, feeling like he was running more on automatic than actually living and breathing at that moment. With a supreme effort to try and shake himself out of this bizarre reverie, he turned to face the voice, a voice he should have recognised but really couldn’t place at that moment, with the blood rushing in his ears.
Annie was heading towards him rapidly, obviously having just detached herself from the group of Gryffindors down the far end of the corridor – Tobias was surprised at the sudden burning desire within him to fix McLaggen, Wilson and Riley with death-stares.
But before he could think on this too much, Annie had reached him, looking a little out of breath. “There you are!” she gasped, grabbing him by the sleeve a little urgently. “I’ve been looking for you all morning.”
Tobias shrugged, unable to conjure up interest or curiosity at that moment. All he really wanted to do was go back to his dormitory and try to get some sleep. Even the prospect of a really good Ancient Runes lesson that afternoon couldn’t at least jerk him into some sense of normality, of routine.
“I was… around,” he said evasively. As he saw her expression twitch – just a little, just enough to remind him of her ways, just enough to remind him that she wasn’t hugely fond of a descent into Slytherin secrecy, he sighed. “I had to talk to Professor Umbridge,” he admitted.
Annie frowned a little. “About the Inquisitorial Squad?” She spoke the words like they were a curse.
“Yeah. Listen…” Finally, with his brain beginning to work again, he wanted to try and offload this sensation of his gut twisting. She’d listen, wouldn’t she? Let him offload? Wasn’t that meant to be a part of a relationship?
“Hang on,” she interrupted. “I need to talk to you.” Her expression tightened again a little, and it was Tobias’ turn to frown. “Can we go somewhere… a bit more out of the way?”
He glanced around. His mind, still working as a prefect, insisted that empty classrooms weren’t really an option – but, honestly, what was the point in living by law and order? Prefects were gone, the Inquisitorial Squad was in, and what was a fellow Slytherin going to do if they caught him? Shrug and walk off, most likely.
“In here,” he said, leading her unthinkingly towards an empty Charms classroom. As he expected, during lunchtime, it was abandoned; Flitwick would be down the Great Hall, or in his office, or the staff room… at most, in one of the bigger, NEWT classrooms preparing for the afternoon’s block of lessons with seventh-year Ravenclaws.
The room felt about as abandoned as he did; devoid of life, odd and almost creepy without any human presence within. But it would do the job for a quiet conversation. Tobias turned to face her as he closed the door behind him, crossing his arms across his chest. “What did you want to talk to me about?” he asked, a little stiffly. He wasn’t getting the vibe of comfort from her he usually did; locked up in his own pain at that moment, all he could feel was this twisting in his gut.
“Well. Now, it’s just been blown into a much bigger thing than I’d wanted it to.” She looked genuinely unhappy, but moved back to perch on the edge of a desk. “Look… everything’s going crazy. With Umbridge, and this new Slytherin Squad…”
“Inquisitorial Squad. It’s not a Slytherin Squad.” His voice tightened a little. “Anyone with the ‘right views’, from any House, is eligible to join.” He knew he was meant to be mocking; knew that he felt no genuine respect, nor could he conjure up any genuine argument, to defend the Inquisitorial Squad. But he could feel his voice failing to catch up with his sentiments.
Annie scowled. “Right views? Views of blood supremacy, absolute rule, disciplining anyone these members don’t like? I didn’t think you’d be in with any of that crap, Toby.”
He unfolded his arms, looking at her a little sternly and somewhat quizzically. “What makes you think that I am? You’re just assuming I’m a member.”
“Are you saying that you’re not?”
He should have just shaken his head, taken her hand, and assured her that he was still the same old Tobias, still the same guy who wasn’t interested in any of the political mess of his housemates.
Unfortunately, the shade of doubt in her voice kicked the emptiness in his stomach again. “I didn’t say that. I’m just marvelling at how you’re jumping to conclusions.”
“Conclusions? The entirety of Slytherin House has just jumped up and decided to rear its ugly head, taking power and deciding to make things happen their way,” Annie stumbled, frowning.
“Because, of course, Gryffindors have never displayed a fondness for hypocrisy or self-righteousness.” Tobias snorted.
“That’s not the point.”
“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow. “Then what is your point? Slytherin’s finally stopped being the quarter of the school everyone stamps down on and now you don’t like it?”
“You’re saying that Slytherins have been an oppressed minority? Are you mad?” Annie stood up, throwing her hands in the air. “You stamped back just as hard.”
He shrugged. “Sink or swim. You’re having problems with my house, with my classmates. What’s your point? What’s this got to do with me?”
“I just can’t believe you’re not condemning this crap.” She shook her head, looking at him with disbelief.
Tobias raised an eyebrow again. “Why bother? You seemed to decide from the very beginning that I’m in cahoots with everyone else in my house. I thought we established a while ago what my views on the Slytherin debacles were, but you’ve forgotten this.” He rolled his eyes. “Let me guess, you’re being given a hard time for going out with a Slytherin, and you don’t like it.”
“With… this squad…” Annie looked a degree more uncertain. “Obviously, I’ve had to put up with Cormac and Nick, but now Jennifer…even Diana… I don’t know."
“They’re telling you that the two of us are a bad idea, and now you’re having doubts. It’s good to know that you’re capable of making decisions of your own. Because everyone around you has suddenly doubled in Slytherin-hate, you don’t want to stand up and take the flak for being the girlfriend of a snake,” Tobias muttered, beginning to pace. The emptiness in his belly was filling somewhat – only, now, with anger.
“No. It’s not that.” Her voice found strength. “I don’t want anything to do with this Inquisitorial Squad nonsense. And I don’t want to go out with anyone who thinks that it has a point, who thinks that any of this is fair. I don’t want to go out with someone who supports a system where points are deducted ‘For being Muggle-born’, or just for looking at a member of the squad ‘In a funny way’. I’m not going to tolerate that.”
Tobias glanced up at her, pausing. “So you’re not going to tolerate me.” He sighed, and straightened up. “I’m not a member of the Inquisitorial Squad.” Her eyes widened a little with disbelief, but he carried on before she could challenge him. “I just spoke with Professor Umbridge, who wanted to know why I, a senior Slytherin, was uninterested in joining the Squad. I told her exactly what I thought of her autocratic regime and sledgehammer tool of her authority that this Squad is.” Tobias shrugged. “So she took my prefect badge away."
It sounded so petty when he said it – a badge? What was a badge, in the grand scheme of things? What the hell was being a prefect worth, really worth? But saying the words still gave him another blow to the gut, and he knew that it had been about far more than just wearing a shiny pin denoting his status.
“I… I didn’t know,” Annie admitted, her voice stumbling. “I… I’m sorry, for what I just said… about not tolerating…"
“It’s more than that, though, isn’t it,” Tobias continued, not able to look at her. “Now, with the Inquisitorial Squad being mostly Slytherin’s territory, member of the Squad or not, I’m still a Slytherin. I’m still directly associated with the people who are doing what you don’t like. So you don’t want to be publicly connected with me. Only you, Annie, being a good and decent Gryffindor, aren’t going to say that.”
He leaned against the door, arms folded across his chest. “So I’m going to make this easy for you. You wouldn’t dream of dumping me just for being a Slytherin, even though that’s exactly what you want to do.”
“I… that’s not fair,” she told him unconvincingly.
“It’s true, though.” His expression darkened, and any hints of doing her a favour left his face. “You also assumed, without even asking me, that I’d signed up to this Inquisitorial Squad piece of tripe. So I’m going to make things easy for you, because if you think that little of me, if you really think that I have such weak morals? Then you really don’t know me. Then you really don’t respect me.”
Tobias took a step away, then pulled the classroom door open. “And life’s too short for me to spend even a few months of it with someone who doesn’t respect me.”
“What are you doing?”
Tanith opened her eyes to see the upside-down face of Ariane Drake looking at her quizzically. She shrugged as best she could while standing on her head, and paused for a moment as the movement threatened to unbalance her.
Ariane straightened up, still looking rather concerned that Tanith appeared to be attempting acrobatics in the corner of their dormitory, then stepped over to her bed and began to rummage around in the chest at the foot of it. “You’re getting weirder.”
“I’ve been reading up. Auror stuff. Since the career day.” While talking at all negated something of the point of a breathing exercise, talking in a disjointed manner was far easier with the blood going to her head like this. “Exercises that they do. Techniques for focus. That stuff.”
“Ah. That stuff.” Ariane still didn’t look convinced, but apparently didn’t want to press the point as she finally, triumphantly, pulled a Charms textbook from out of her trunk. “So this is where it’s been hiding all year…”
Tanith, with an agility that surprised herself, pushed off to roll back onto her feet, staggering only briefly as her blood circulation returned. “I think those Aurors were slightly nutty, myself. I just feel dizzy. I don’t feel focused. But it was worth giving it a try, yeah?”
Ariane’s only response was a mildly amused expression. “Did Van Roden give you those books on Aurors?”
“Yeah. I reckon he was probably pulling my leg.”
“You might do better practicing to be an Auror by doing Potions revision, rather than standing on your head,” Ariane agreed.
“Maybe standing on my head while doing Potions revision?” Tanith wondered, grinning to show she really wasn’t serious.
They both glanced up as the door opened and Melanie Larkin stepped in, bag slung over her shoulder, fresh back from Ancient Runes of that afternoon. Right behind her, looking a little tentative – the first time Tanith had ever known him to be so – was Gabriel.
“I come bearing Doyle,” Melanie declared, flopping down on her bed and looking ready to die for the weekend. “Said he had news for you.”
Gabriel nodded, glancing around the girl’s dorm, then gesturing to Tanith to join him in the corridor. “This won’t take a minute,” he assured her.
Tanith stepped outside, frowning with concern and shutting the door to the dormitory behind her. In the darkened corridor, her slight dizziness faded and she was only confronted with Gabriel looking a whole lot more serious than ever before. “What’s up?”
“It’s Tobias,” Gabriel said, frowning. “He’s gone to hell in a hand-basket. He talked to Umbridge – you knew that?”
“I knew he was going to. That didn’t end well?”
“He apparently got uppity at her. Refused to join the Inquisitorial Squad. Got all… idealistic.”
“All Grey-like.” Tanith winced. “What did she do?”
“Took his prefect badge off him.”
Tanith raised a hand to rub her temples. “God. Is he alright? I mean, of course he’s not alright… where is he?”
“In the common room…” Gabriel reached out to grab her by the elbow as she tried to step past him. “That’s not all. He’s not in a good way. Seems he ran into MacKenzie afterwards.”
“Oh, I’m sure she was comforting.” Tanith scowled, unsure if she was being sarcastic or not.
“She dumped him. Or he pre-emptively dumped her. Or something. They broke up.” Gabriel was looking at her with a surprisingly astute and analysing expression, clearly hoping for a hint of some kind in her reaction to this news.
Tanith wasn’t about to give him any such satisfaction. “Oh,” was all she could say, stopping in her desire to rush off and find and comfort Tobias that very second. “And… how’s he taking that?”
“Well, he’s only really talking to Cal right now.” Gabriel shrugged.
“I see.” Tanith frowned, then patted Gabriel on the arm. “Alright. I’ll talk to him later. Thanks, Doyle… thanks for telling me.”
Without waiting for a response, then, she turned around and stepped back into the dormitory, carefully closing the door behind her. Melanie and Ariane were both there, looking curious as to what Gabriel had needed to tell her in private.
“Excuse me, a moment.” Tanith stepped over to the space just next to her bed, straightened up, and then proceeded to do a very ridiculous and very undignified little dance of glee.
Melanie watched dispassionately, then glanced at Ariane. “I suppose this means that Grey was looking like a puppy that had just been kicked throughout Ancient Runes because MacKenzie must have dumped him.”
“Sort of.” Tanith smirked slightly as her brief dance came to an end, then she straightened her robes and frowned. “I shouldn’t be so smug. He’s not in a good way? He looked bad? Upset?”
“Dumped people generally aren’t happy.” Melanie rolled her eyes. “You two would be cute if you weren’t so nauseating.”
Tanith shook her head. “No. You’re just jumping to the wrong conclusions. He’s clearly better off without that Gryffindor cow. And I said this from the beginning. He’d be far, far happier with someone like…”
“You?” Ariane smirked as she flicked through her Charms book.
“I’d react exactly the same way if Cal or Doyle had been going out with MacKenzie. The girl was trouble, and I’ve just been proven right if Grey’s now gone all mope-y.” Tanith sat down on her bed a little huffily.
“Issues,” Melanie sighed to nobody in particular, stowing away her text books.
“You’re also smiling. I find that creepy,” Ariane said, looking unconvinced.
“I’m just…” Tanith paused, then scowled. “Look, the day’s gone horribly for a friend. I’m just basking in the knowledge now that it can’t get much worse?”
“That’s some screwed-up logic.” Melanie didn’t look up. “I’m rather glad you’re lying, or I’d think you were a shabby friend, instead of an insane-jealous friend.”
“I am not…” Tanith looked up at the knock on the door, and frowned. “Come in!” Not even bothering to wait and see who it was, she looked back at the others. “I’m just saying, I don’t think anything else bad is going to happen today.”
Gabriel stuck his head in. “Hey. Tanith, just forgot to mention something. Miles is the new Slytherin prefect with the boys.”
“What?” Tanith stood up, looking somewhat outraged. “Miles? What, would it kill you or Cal to try and do something good for once?”
Gabriel blinked. “Just passing on the message.” He made a rather rapid retreat after this.
Ariane snickered quietly to herself. “Nothing else bad… serves you right.”
Tanith sighed. “Fine. Fine. I’m going to talk to Grey.” She stood up, then paused at their expressions. “Because he’s my friend and he’s unhappy, not because of… God! Minds out of the gutter!”
Melanie looked over at Ariane once Tanith was out of the room, and sighed. “Issues.”
Ariane nodded solemnly. It was hard to argue with that statement.
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