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Chapter 6 : The Way We Live Now
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“This way, Grey.”
Tobias was tall, but even he had to step up to a rather frantic pace in order to keep up with the speedy gait of Professor Snape as they wound their way down the corridors of Hogwarts. It was dark outside and the halls were empty, but there still seemed a warmth about the place, as if the school knew that once again it had been filled with the bustle and life of a new year.
“Professor? Where are we…?”
“No time for that.” Snape cut him off quickly with a curt wave of the hand, and Tobias fell silent; he had never felt as if he shared the favour the professor seemed to hold for Slytherin House, and it seemed he should not try to push his luck.
The banquet had finished about half an hour earlier, and a very tired and overfed set of prefects had set about ushering first years into the common room and ensuring they were settled into the dorms. The very second this arduous task had been complete, the head of Slytherin had appeared as if from nowhere, and instructed Tobias in no uncertain terms to come with him.
He almost jumped out of his skin as they turned another corner sharply, the torch-light flickering to provide only erratic illumination, and found himself face to face with the shadowy form of the Bloody Baron, hovering in the air motionless, as if it had been waiting for them.
“Professor,” the low, grating voice rattled from the ghostly lips, “McGonagall is still in her office, and Flitwick has not left the Ravenclaw common room. You are the only one on the move.”
Snape didn’t stop, simply carried on striding down the corridor, the Bloody Baron falling into step beside him, leaving Tobias having to be cautious in avoiding stepping through his house’s ghost. “Sprout has not selected a new, ah, champion?” The trademark sneer tugged at his lips, but without a crowd, there was little enthusiasm.
“There are whispers of Summerby, Professor,” the Baron stated coolly. “But I do not think others share your agenda.”
“Good.” Snape gave a curt nod of the head. “It’s the least Dumbledore can do, considering…” Another scowl. “Don’t flag, Grey. We don’t have time.”
Tobias gave a heavy sigh, moving up the other side of Snap to flank him so he was no longer worried about treading on incorporeal chains. “Professor, what’s going on?”
“I’m offering you an opportunity at achieving that which you have desired since you came to this school. You failed once; pray, for the sake of your House, that you do not fail again,” Snape said, not looking at him as they rounded another corner. This one brought them to a dark hallway facing a large, intricate golden statue of a phoenix.
“For the sake of…?”
Snape waved a hand curtly at the statue, urging him forward as he approached it. Tobias looked around for the Bloody Baron, but the ghost of Slytherin House was already gone, fading through a wall.
“Slytherin House will need representing this year. With Slughorn’s ridiculous machinations we can hardly rely on him to ensure we are heard at the highest levels of the school’s authority,” Snape said vaguely, looking about a little furtively before he leaned towards the statue, and whispered something Tobias didn’t even try to overhear.
There was a rumbling from underneath the statue, then it began to rotate slowly, rising as it did so and bringing up a spiral staircase leading through a hole upwards Tobias hadn’t noticed originally.
“Won’t you be representing the House, professor?” Tobias frowned at Snape curiously, expecting him to go first up the stairs.
But Snape didn’t move, instead gesturing upwards. “Knock once, then step in,” he said, his voice a little softer now. A little. “I will always champion Slytherin House against the miscreants that seek to besmirch our name. But I shall not have the time to be a constant defender this year.”
Tobias blinked. “What? You’re going to be here all the time…”
“I have many new responsibilities as teacher of Defence Against the Dark Arts, Grey, not to mention interests of my own which are hardly your business or even within your comprehension. Now go, the headmaster’s waiting for you.” Snape pointed again up the stairs.
“The headmaster…” But Snape had given him a little shove now, and despite his outright confusion and increasing nervousness, Tobias headed up the steps, knowing better than to argue with the old Potions Master.
So he padded up the stairs, doing his best to keep his mind clear, because he knew he was very much in danger of turning and bolting if he stopped to particularly think about what he was doing. Instincts of self-preservation didn’t seem to be taking into account the wrath of Severus Snape.
The door at the top of the steps was heavy and oaken, and as instructed he gave a couple of brisk nods before turning the handle and stepping inside…
…to find himself in possibly the most remarkable room in the whole of the school. Although the back of his mind identified it as the headmaster’s office, with Professor Dumbledore himself seated behind the desk in front of him, his eyes and attention were drawn to the curios in the room, not to mention the extensive bookcase packed with volumes that already he suspected were not available in the library – or at least, in a more common, rudimentary edition.
But this time the instincts did kick in, and brought his attention to the very real fact that he had been dragged to the headmaster’s office by the head of his house and had absolutely no idea why he was there. That, and Professor Dumbledore was looking at him, and Tobias had never quite trusted the headmaster’s kindly smiles. They always seemed to be hiding something.
“Uh… Professor Dumbledore? Professor Snape said you were expecting me…” He tentatively padded forwards, hands now clasped behind his back to appear officious and presentable, and to stop them from shaking.
“Mister Grey, please have a seat.” Dumbledore extended his good hand forwards, gesturing to the chair facing the desk. His other hand was out of sight, though Tobias had seen it at the feast, blackened and dead. “I apologise for requesting your presence at this hour of the night. I’m sure it’s been a very long day.”
‘Request’ wasn’t exactly how Tobias would have phrased Snape’s conscripting of his company, but he wasn’t about to argue with the headmaster as he padded over to the chair and sat himself down a little gingerly.
“The First Years are off to sleep and there are enough other Slytherin prefects to keep an eye on things for the evening,” he assured Dumbledore, stifling a yawn and neglecting to mention that he would only really consider two of the prefects left to be worth their salt. And one of them was new.
“Yes, apparently you do run a very tight ship in the common room, according to Professor Snape,” Dumbledore said, nodding.
Tobias gave an exaggerated shrug, a degree of heat rising to his cheeks. He was cursed, he knew, with the fact that he blushed incredibly easy, killing an awful lot of his hard work on deadpan expressions and non-committal phrases. “I wouldn’t say run… I’m hardly the only prefect, and I wouldn’t dream of ordering Tanith Cole around…”
Dumbledore watched him for a few long seconds as Tobias did his best not to squirm under the piercing blue gaze. Then he sat up a little straighter. “You’re taking a NEWT in History of Magic, are you not, Mister Grey?”
Tobias nodded. “I am… I’m the only one in my year. Probably at all now. Possibly ever.”
A ghost of a smile tugged at the headmaster’s lips. “Certainly the subject has not proven itself to be very popular. But Professor Binns is quite determined.”
“He’s not really…” Tobias frowned, and cleared his throat. “He’s an excellent historian. But not necessarily the best person to bring history, uh, alive.” He felt the words slipping away with him even as he spoke, and fixed his gaze on a point somewhere above Professor Dumbledore’s head for safety.
But the headmaster just chuckled. “No – yet there are some staffing decisions even I do not have control over. Professor Binns shall be in the office and the classroom, if we like it or not.”
“I’m sure there’d be someone else out there who could teach the subject… and a word with Professor Binns… maybe he could…” Tobias’ voice trailed off as he realised he was giving staffing advice to the headmaster. He grimaced, and cleared his throat. “I’m sure something could be done to raise NEWT interest.”
Dumbledore gave a wry chuckle, leaning back in his chair. “I had a somewhat similar conversation with a young Ravenclaw some twenty or so years ago, Mister Grey. But your father went so far as to accost me in the corridor with papers of research into possible new History Professors and a few methods of gently ‘encouraging’ Professor Binns to leave the post.”
Tobias felt a twist in his stomach at the mention of his father. It hadn’t even occurred to him after this morning that Robert Grey would have left his own mark upon Hogwarts, that the older teachers would know him. Professor Snape, of course, was too young, but Dumbledore…
He managed a small, not very enthusiastic smile. “I confess, sir, that it was through his book collection that I found my own love for magical history. I didn’t think that you knew him, sir.”
Dumbledore gave a slow nod. “Hardly well, but he was Head Boy in his time, as you know, so we had the occasional conversation. His was a remarkable intellect – reputedly like your own, Mister Grey – but it seems you are a good deal more cautious than he.”
The smile turned wan. “I’m a Slytherin for a reason, Professor Dumbledore.”
“Indeed. It’s for that, in fact, that I actually called you up here.” Dumbledore stood, walking away from the desk and over towards a small chest, sitting on the top of a tall table. As Tobias looked, he reached into his voluminous robes to pull out a whole ring of keys, shuffling through them before inserting one of the smallest into the lock, and opening the small chest.
“Professor Snape speaks quite highly of you,” the headmaster continued, blocking the contents of the chest from view with his back to Tobias. “Declares you diligent, intelligent, and with a true sense of House spirit which you nevertheless do not permit to blind you.”
Tobias hadn’t the faintest idea that Snape could always even remember his name, so this was coming as a bit of a shock.
“He also said that you are hardly paid the amount of respect by your housemates that you are, perhaps, due. But Slytherins have always been a varied group, from the fiercest isolationists to the most devoted pack mentalities. It is easy to fall afoul of all such elements,” Dumbledore said.
“I… suppose that’s true,” Tobias said, frowning. “Sir, what’s all of this about…?”
Dumbledore turned back, holding something in his good hand that Tobias couldn’t quite identify. “The death of Connor O’Neal is a tragedy. He was a fine boy, and one who should be remembered. But he was not the first killing of this war, and by no means shall he be the last, and one of the most dangerous traps that death lays out is encouraging us to linger, rather than carrying on living.”
Tobias’ stomach tightened at the mention of O’Neal, his brain flickering back to that morning. “Yes, sir. He was a good guy, but… yes, sir.”
“As such, I had to go back to basics in examining options for a new Head Boy. Of course, traditionally a prefect is selected, but not exclusively, and my intent was to be careful to select somebody who could in themselves bring the right message to the school.” Dumbledore raised a finger on his good hand, the rest of the fist still curled around something Tobias could now see was small and round and gold and he already knew what it was…
“I have chosen you, as you have obviously guessed.” A ghost of a smile tugged at Dumbledore’s lips. “And it is partly, yes, because you are a prefect of Slytherin House. But do not think, Mister Grey, that I am considering you to be a stunt, or a gesture to appease people.” He stepped over, setting the Head Boy’s badge down on the desk before Tobias. “But you have demonstrated that you have the strength of character and intent to perform all of the tasks that a Head Boy should. Your being a Slytherin is, I believe, a mere bonus – one that should inspire students of your house and others to overcome those boundaries of being Sorted and, I hope, follow your example.”
Tobias looked cynically down at the Head Boy badge. His stomach was twisting and his heart pounding as he stared down at the culmination of six years worth of hard work and determination, a prize he’d thought had slipped through his grasp. And yet his cynicism shouted at him to not accept it all so easily, to ensure this wasn’t a dream he would wake up from at any moment. “If I may, sir,” he began, his mouth dry, looking up at Dumbledore. “If I’m so good, then… why wasn’t I selected in the first place?”
Dumbledore raised an eyebrow at this, looking genuinely, kindly, amused. “I could talk about how a Hufflepuff was also an excellent choice for unity, but I think that would be beneath us both, Mister Grey. The truth of it is, quite frankly, that you are very good – and Connor O’Neal was better.”
Tobias couldn’t help but chuckle sadly at this as he reached out to take the badge, feeling the weight of it as an electric shock seemed to run up his arm at the lightest touch. “I suppose that’s quite fair, professor,” he had to concede, a lot of the cynicism fading from him as he reached up to remove the prefect badge and gingerly replace it with the new emblem.
The rest of the conversation, of prefect organisation and further discussions of future policies passed in something of a blur for Tobias from then, and though he knew the information was in his head somewhat safely for future analysis. His legs were numb by the time he left the office, and it was in something of an automatic daze that he made his way back to the Slytherin dungeon, stuttering so badly on the password (‘Outrageous Fortune’) that it took three tries before he finally stumbled into the common room.
The sight he had expected was a low-key, quiet and tired Slytherin Common Room, exhausted from the travel and over-fed from the feast, all catching up with friends concluded on the train and ready to get some sleep before the march onwards to classes.
Instead – and his numbed brain had a lot of trouble coping with this – he was greeted with a loud roar of glee from what looked like the entire House assembled before him. All Tobias could do was blink at them for long seconds until Cal lunged out of the crowd, grabbing him. What he had expected to be an entirely bemusing hug was, instead, a grip to lift him with unanticipated strength onto the nearest coffee table.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” his best friend shouted with glee over the cheers of the room. “The first Slytherin Head Boy in nine years, and the first any of us have ever seen in our academic lives!”
Another cheer rocked the room, and Tobias just found himself staring owlishly with complete bemusement. The numbness in his head had begun to spread all over his entire body, and he wasn’t particularly prepared to deal with the new badge on his chest, let alone the sudden adulation.
“…how did you know?” he managed to say at last, his voice not sounding like his own, but rather hollow and forced.
Nobody seemed to notice, and Cal just laughed loudly. “Because I’m not an idiot, and it had to be somebody, and even if all the Seventh Year boy prefects had been taken up to see Dumbledore, you’d have kicked Sharpe and Everard’s arses with one hand behind your back, you big lout.” He gave another chuckle, which was merged with laughter and some proud cheers from the room.
“Which reminds me, Bletchley…” Cal turned to his classmate, who, grumbling, reached into his pocket and handed over a galleon.
Tobias peered at him. “You bet against me, Miles?”
“Actually, I bet for continued Slytherin subjugation,” Bletchley said haughtily, but there was a good-natured smile on his face. “For once, Grey, I’m glad to be proven wrong. Even if not necessarily by you.”
Tobias forced a laugh, but it came from his throat rather than his belly and seemed to echo around his hollow insides, not shaking the numbness.
“And it seems the subjugation is over with you in place,” Bletchley continued, stepping up to join Cal at the front, the two flanking him like bodyguards or advisors. “Rather fitting that it also just took the death of a damn mudblood to bring it about.”
The word ‘mudblood’ felt like it hit Tobias in the face with a thump, but he was still too numb to register it. His brain did, however, wake up – even if the rest of his insides didn’t – at the reaction of the crowd. The laughter stopped at the reminder of a death, but the muttering which followed it certainly didn’t seem particularly sorrowful, and the murmur about the room was one of agreement with Bletchley’s sentiment.
Although his emotions didn’t seem to be working – glee, anger, anything – Tobias’ brain was waking up, at least, and he raised his hands, expression stern.
“We won’t have that word in here,” he said, lifting his voice over the hubbub. “Connor O’Neal was a good guy, and you’d all do well to remember that. I hope I can be half the Head Boy he’d have been.”
Bletchley looked rather surprised. “Well, I… of course O’Neal was a decent sort, if a little bit too much of a bloody do-gooder. I was just saying that it’s ironic…”
“‘Mudblood’. I won’t stand for having that word in here.” Tobias straightened up on the table. “That, right there. That’s why other houses hate us. That’s why a Slytherin hasn’t worn this badge since Titus Crockett. Attacking and belittling and hating everyone else has gotten us nowhere, and yet we persist?”
“Merlin’s beard, Toby, it’s just a word,” a mutter came from below him, and Tobias looked down expecting to be face-to-face with an irritated Bletchley. Bletchley, however, was looking admittedly sheepish, and with a small degree of surprise at Cal, who shrugged. “No need to get on your high horse,” the Welshman continued.
The numb sensation in Tobias’ brain remained even as it felt like something was clattering around his insides. “Cal, you of all people should know that this is more than just a word…” he said at last.
Cal shrugged exaggeratedly again. “Miles didn’t mean anything by it. Let’s not make a fuss.”
The two friends stared at each other, Tobias feeling a slight ringing sensation in his ears, Cal’s expression reading a casual lack of care. Silence had fallen on the common room, everyone gaping at this most unusual of events, until Bletchley stepped forwards, raising his hands.
“…and… the new Head Boy, ladies and gents! That’s it, off to bed, time for beauty sleep, we always have to be the best-looking house, chop chop…”
Tobias was sure that hell had frozen over as the common room stirred itself to the motivating words of Miles Bletchley, and he stepped off the table to continue to stare at Cal, not quite believing what he’d just said.
“Two years ago you threatened to put Montague through a wall for using that word,” he said at last, the churning in his stomach not shattering the numbness.
“That was two years ago. I’ve got bigger things to worry about than words.” Cal shrugged again.
“It’s not just a word, and you bloody well know that!” Tobias said, voice incredulous. “You know what it represents, and you’ve always hated that as much as me!”
“Yeah, well, back then it was just an old dead attitude. It’s coming back now, isn’t it.” Cal’s expression grew darker. “I’m just saying, things aren’t so black and white now. The things our parents went through are returning.”
Tobias had to clench his jaw tight to stop himself from flinching at the reference to Cal’s parents.
His friend didn’t seem to notice as he carried on, somewhat oblivious. “And, well, you keep on going on about understanding the world around you. And the world is right now full of some messy, varied attitudes. Isn’t it best to understand them, ‘specially as they’re colliding?”
“It’s bigotry, Cal, and I don’t need to understand any more than that.” Tobias shook his head. “It’s just blind hate.”
Cal looked somewhat exasperated. “See, it’s not. Hatred of Muggles and Muggle-born isn’t just something people woke up one day and decided to indulge in. You’re the history student. You know as well as I do the reason we hide the Wizarding world is because otherwise we’d be hunted down by their small minds and bigger numbers.”
“Yeah, it is.” Tobias didn’t argue, but his eyes were narrowed. “But the hiding works, to everyone’s benefit, so there’s no need to attack them, and there’s no need to hate the ones from that world who come into our world.”
“But it’s not going to be bloody ‘our world’ forever if you’ve got kids with Muggle attitudes, Muggle culture, Muggle thinking entering the wizarding world. Diluting our traditions. Pureblood houses don’t remain pure just because they like having a Squib show up every once in a while, but so that they’re still listening to Celestina Warbeck at Christmas time except of Radio bloody One!”
The common room, which had been drifting off to bed in drips, now with mostly just some lingering fifth-years and above left behind, halted in its activities at Cal’s raised voice to stare at the two of them.
The sudden silence around them seemed to penetrate Cal’s brain, and the bigger boy straightened up, rubbing his eyes. “…I don’t believe that shit, Tobias, you know that,” he said at last, his voice sounding weary. “But I’m just saying… people think these things for a reason. We want to disagree with them, we need to know what we’re disagreeing with, rather than just spouting blind one-sided half-truths. Because if you do, you’re as bad as those who hate Muggle-borns for the sake of it, without understanding.”
Tobias continued to stare at him for several long seconds. “Be that as it may… what the hell’s happened to you, Cal?” he asked at last. Logical arguments and sensible rebuttals were all very well and good, but his best friend had always been the most adamant fighter against those sorts of attitudes throughout their school lives.
“I did some thinking. You’re not the only one who’s allowed to do that.” Cal straightened up, voice gruff. “Time to grow up, Toby. We can’t be kids with Right and Wrong any more.” He stretched, stepping back. “…anyway, I’m going to bed. Congrats on the Head Boy thing. You deserve it.”
Then he was gone, heading up the stairs, leaving Tobias behind him on his own in an increasingly emptying common room, the numbness in his body not abated by the shock in his belly or the ringing in his head.
He wasn’t sure how long he stayed there, but it couldn’t have been for more than a few minutes as the large clock set into the far wall, always ticking and as tall as he was, chimed ten almost at the same time as the door to the common room swung open to let Tanith, holding a stack of books, stagger in.
“Huh… people gone to bed already…?” she asked a little groggily, before blinking at the clock and wincing. “Oh. I lost track of time. No wonder I was getting glares from Madam Pince. You’d think they’d appreciate keenness on the first day.”
Tobias looked up at her, stopping himself in the unconscious fidgeting he hadn’t realised he’d been doing with his new badge. “…reading list from Jacob?” he asked. “Oh… he says ‘hi’, by the way.”
“Seen me most of the day and you only just remember to pass on the message, but you can still give me all of the dates of the Goblin Rebellions going back at least a thousand…” Tanith’s voice trailed off as her eyes dropped to his chest, and she let out a loud, uncharacteristic squeal as the pile of books were dropped onto a sofa and she lunged across the room to wrap him in a bear hug which held as much unexpected strength as Cal’s lifting had earlier.
“I knew it! I knew you’d get it! You deserved it all along, you’re just the best damn candidate for it…”
The jolt of surprise at her reaction seemed to set off a chain of events in Tobias’ head as, finally, he began to feel something other than the horrible numbness in his belly. At first it was shock and surprise at Tanith’s sudden overt affection – but the moment a genuine emotion had crept in there, he was hit in the gut with a massive wave of almost overwhelming realisation of what had happened.
And, spearheading that realisation, was guilt.
“…second best,” he corrected her, pulling away from her embrace with a swiftness that prompted a slightly hurt expression which missed his notice. “I only got it because O’Neal… you know.”
Tanith subsided a little, biting her lower lip. “I… well… you deserve it more than Sharpe or Everard would have. And… uh… these things happen.”
“War? War happens?” Tobias realised he was beginning to sound deeply self-pitying, but after the face-off with Cal on top of everything else, he wasn’t too sure he cared. “If O’Neal hadn’t been killed…”
“…or what if you hadn’t pissed off Umbridge last year and lost the prefect badge?”
Tobias blinked at her. “What?”
“What if you’d taken Herbology or something instead of History of Magic so Professor Sprout had liked you more?”
“What does that have to do with anything?” he asked her at last.
Tanith sighed. “If, if, if. If wishes were broomsticks, then Squibs would play Quidditch. All of this happened. It got you here. Does what happened to O’Neal suck? Of course it does.” She shrugged, though her words were genuine. “Was it unfair you lost ground to the other three over the Inquisitorial Squad debacle when you were showing more spine than them? Definitely.”
Tobias stared at her for a few more seconds, then subsided a little. “I… I guess you’re right.”
“I know I’m right. You got the job. You deserve it. Enjoy it.” Tanith patted him on the shoulder, the gesture rather lacking the enthusiasm of the earlier hug. “You’ll do really well. It’ll look great for the job hunting.” She gave him an uplifting smile.
He rubbed his temples slowly. “…you win.”
“I always win.” The smile turned into an impish smirk.
Tobias groaned, and straightened up. “In unrelated news, do you know what’s eating at Cal? He’s been a bit… weird.”
Tanith shrugged. “I’ve probably seen him less than you. Ask Doyle?”
He glanced around. “Gabe… I haven’t seen Gabe since I got in. Huh. Wonder where he went.”
Another shrug. “It’s Doyle. He’s probably up to something incredibly mysterious.” Tanith shook her head. “So, what did Cal do…?”
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