The first time he'd been up these stairs, it had been with trepidation and anxiety. Now, Tobias approached the headmaster's office with firm steps of determination and, in the background, a small simmering flame of anger.
So when he knocked on the door, he hardly waited for the summoning before pushing it open and striding in, back straight, eyes fixed in the direction of the desk where Professor Dumbledore sat with a mild, curious expression.
"Mister Grey. Please, have a seat," the headmaster offered politely, gesturing forwards with his good hand towards the comfortable armchair opposite him, the only hint of confusion given being his slightly raised eyebrows, and the slight tilt of his head.
"Professor." Tobias nodded stiffly, before taking a seat. Whatever his plan, it didn't do to get disagreeable with the headmaster. "Thank you for seeing me, sir."
"Professor Snape seemed to think that you were quite determined to have this conversation. I am sorry I have not been able to make time for an appointment any sooner." Much to Tobias' surprise, Dumbledore sounded legitimately apologetic.
"When I requested the meeting on Wednesday I didn't think it would be right away. Thanks for being able to make it by the end of the week," he replied honestly. Lunchtime on a Friday was probably not the easiest time to slot in a meeting with an irritable Head Boy.
"Well, it seems like you and I have not discussed perhaps as much as we should have done, Mister Grey," Dumbledore said with a slight nod.
"Yes... and that is partly what I wish to discuss with you." Tobias leaned forwards a little. The easier bits first, he told himself, just to ease in. "I don't feel as if there has necessarily been much direction given as to... what to do with the school this year. With the prefects."
Dumbledore did raise an eyebrow at this. "Direction?"
"The school was turned upside-down in your absence last year, sir. Professor Umbridge's policies changed how people acted, how discipline was enforced. What the prefect's roles were." Tobias shrugged. "Since your reinstatement, I can't really say... well, you've had something of a laissez-faire attitude."
"It has never been my intention to tread on your toes, or those of Miss Riley, Mister Grey. The two of you were selected because your judgements were trusted to be sound," Dumbledore said, each word sounding careful and deliberate.
Tobias frowned. "The prefects are being too soft," he said slowly. "They are uneager to exercise their powers for fear of being compared to the Inquisitorial Squad. They are being lenient, and discipline is suffering."
Dumbledore took off his glasses and polished them on the sleeve, a gesture which was familiar to Tobias as he did it himself so often when thinking. "I am sorry to hear that," the headmaster began. "But not to put too fine a point on it, Mister Grey, is that enforcement not your job? Giving warnings and reminders to the prefects... taking their badges if necessary?"
The student's expression darkened further. "Theoretically, yes. Which would be easier with the assistance of my counterpart, but Jennifer doesn't want to take harsh action without your permission. Doesn't want us threatening to carry through with things we... can't do."
"As I said," Dumbledore replied, "I have been told to trust your judgement by people whose judgement I trust. I will back your decisions."
"But not advise me on them. Not tell me how you wish this school to be. Not tell me if you want us to be harsh on discipline in these times of trouble, or if you want us to take the approach of a softer touch to those who do wrong so as not to foster division or resentment," Tobias spat back, irritation blossoming into him despite his own efforts to maintain control.
"I have not been here as much this year, or as much last year, as you," Dumbledore confessed. "You know the prefects better than I. You know the pulse of the school better than I."
It was, by all accounts, true. Dumbledore didn't seem to have actually been in school quite as much as Tobias would like a headmaster to be, even after one took his laissez-faire attitude out of the equation.
It still didn't appease the increasingly angry Slytherin. "Would you have given Connor O'Neal more guidance than this, sir?" he asked tersely at last, hands gripping the armrests tightly.
"Excuse me?" Dumbledore raised his eyebrows, looking mildly curious.
"O'Neal. Your first option. Would you have given him more guidance, or would you have left him to swing like you're leaving me?" Tobias stood up angrily. "A firmer hand is needed, sir. I've just told you this, and you've basically said that I need to fix it myself. And without the support of my counterpart, because you won't give us your direct backing, won't give us the direct orders." He began to pace, hands clasped behind his back, having something to grip onto keeping him calmer. "So I get to look like the bad guy. I get to be the one who makes threats, takes badges. The job gets done, you still get to play benevolent grandfather, and the Slytherin becomes the bogeyman. Sir..." Tobias turned to face the headmaster, brow furrowed. "Why do you hate Slytherin House, sir?"
Dumbledore looked genuinely surprised by this as he straightened up, putting his glasses back on and peering at Tobias over the rim. "Hate?" he echoed quietly, frowning a little. "I think you had best have a seat, Tobias."
The anger didn't fade from him, but was settling back into a dull simmering, allowing him to keep control enough to return to his seat, expression still dark.
"What has prompted you to believe," Dumbledore began, his voice low and well-measured, "that I hate a quarter of my school?"
Tobias took a deep breath, and looked the headmaster in the eye. "The marginalisation of members of the House. The fact that I'm the first Slytherin head boy in nine years, nine years in which every other house has been represented at least once, nine years in which there were plenty of viable Slytherin candidates. The fact that, just over five years ago, you ripped a victory of the House Cup from our hands to give it to your native Gryffindor. The fact that you have never made an effort to encourage an inclusive attitude in the school. The fact that most Slytherin prefects picked are students who are often the least popular with the rest of the school."
Dumbledore did appear to be genuinely listening intently, but he raised his good hand slightly at this. "The selection of the prefects is mostly down to the decision of Professor Snape," he pointed out mildly.
"Mostly. You get the final say. And Professor Snape is an issue of his own. When there are other staff members who have been members of Slytherin, you have picked the most disliked man in the entire school to be the Head of our House," Tobias continued briskly, hardly missing a beat. "I would wager that there are none that like him, myself included. I do respect him, but even then I am rather in the minority."
He leaned back in his chair, the anger beginning to tire, rather than fuel him. It was as if bringing these issues to bear with Dumbledore was draining him, for these issues had burnt within him for years and were, for the first time, being let out in a place they might do something. "So the most public representation of Slytherin House, by your decisions, are the most despicable people we have to offer.
"And then we are condemned even further when we show no loyalty to you, or the school. We were criticised and attacked when we joined the Inquisitorial Squad, even though that was presented to Slytherin House as the first chance to do something and not be marginalised," he snapped.
"You, yourself, did not join the Inquisitorial Squad," Dumbledore pointed out mildly, eyebrows raised with a slightly curious air still.
"Because I disagreed with what it stood for. I would not enforce a totalitarian status quo. And it cost me dearly - not just my prefect badge. By the sheer fact that I was in the same House as those who had joined, I was tarred with the same brush." Tobias' expression darkened further. "And that still continues, sir. Not three nights ago I had to comfort a crying first year because other people in the school hate him because he's a Slytherin. Not for anything he has done. But association. An attitude prevalent across the school... which you have done nothing to fight. Never in my time as a prefect have you told us to stand stronger against House prejudice. Never have you set an example. You've just... done nothing."
He fell silent at last, chest heaving after an effort he hadn't realised he'd exerted, and the clear, piercing eyes of Professor Dumbledore that had remained fixed on him throughout his rant finally becoming disconcerting.
"These are dire charges indeed that you lay at my door," Dumbledore said, his voice still mellow and level. "And I confess that I cannot defend myself from all of them. But I shall explain as best as I can.
"The appointment of Professor Snape was an act of... forgiveness. And not just of the Professor himself. In the aftermath of the war, many were suspicious of Slytherin House, for the number of followers of Lord Voldemort it produced was unquestionable. And at the time, Professor Snape was seen as being a whole-hearted supporter and integral part of the pride of Slytherin House... even its less appealing parts. His appointment was a demonstration that the entire House would not be ostracised, not be cast out, and that its strong heritage would be respected, and accepted. The personal qualities of Professor Snape were, admittedly... irrelevant in my decision." Dumbledore watched him closely as he spoke, blue eyes fixed on blue eyes, as if searching to see if his words were getting through any cracks. "And I am sure you understand how hard it is to remove someone once they are firmly entrenched."
Tobias swallowed, his mouth suddenly rather dry. "And if you could, sir, and replace him with someone... better for the House," he began, forcing his voice to not falter. "Would you?"
Dumbledore seemed to genuinely consider this, leaning back in his chair. "No," he said at last, shaking his head sadly. "And I regret that my reasons for doing so would not include the betterment of Slytherin House. Though they would still be good reasons.
"Which takes me to one of your other accusations - the House Cup in your second year," the headmaster continued, straightening back up after just a beat's consideration. "Yes. I 'stole' Slytherin's victory and gave it to Gryffindor. I will not apologise for this. What had taken place, the occurrence that won those points and which the rumour mill managed to circulate far more effectively than I needed to, was something that I believe needed... congratulating."
"Then give Potter a bloody medal if he needs congratulating - don't keep making the rest of us 'mere mortals' looking bad compared to him," Tobias spat, the venom rising up despite himself.
Dumbledore shook his head sadly. "I believe that would be counter-productive on... so very many levels. And I think you can understand that yourself without my explaining it. Even if not right now." He sighed, resting his hands in his lap. "I believed that what had happened needed attention drawing to it. Needed to be lauded. And... most significantly, it needed to be made clear that what had happened was so, so much more important than simple school competition."
Tobias thought on this for several long moments, allowing the headmaster's words to sink in, fighting off the gut reaction to just reject them out of hand and continue his furious crusade. "Perhaps," he said at last, "but in that case, you shouldn't have given this event, this occurrence so much more important than school competition, to Gryffindor House as their victory."
Dumbledore seemed to take this point, eyes going a little distant briefly. "Maybe, there, you are right. But hindsight is a wonderful thing." He leaned forwards. "As for my doing nothing to fight the anti-Slytherin sentiment... that is a more complicated story in some ways, and the very simplest in others. To begin with, this sentiment is a modern beast. Non-existent before the First War. And those who were in school during the war continued to co-exist through it and after it. The troubles have only appeared with... your generation."
"Those who never lived through the war," Tobias said, nodding slowly. The anger was still tight in his belly, providing a dull nausea rather than a burning fire, but he tried to set it to one side in favour of reason.
"The children of those who did. And were... taught to be suspicious and hateful by those they respected who should have known better. Simple inaccuracies such as the idea that there were no dark wizards from any house other than Slytherin have been repeated so often they are accepted as fact, despite the numerous individuals who prove the claim inaccurate." Dumbledore drummed the fingers of his good hand on the table. "But this appeared, as I said, recently. And if you think back over the last few years of study, I have not been in much of a position to... find the time to do anything about very much at all. My removal from office. The presence of other schools and the tournament. The Chamber of Secrets. I have either not been here, or I have had far more... pressing concerns."
Tobias frowned, unable to directly argue with this. "You have the time now," he said weakly.
"In all honesty, Mister Grey, I very much do not. Which is why I have not given you the guidance as Head Boy you have wanted." Dumbledore sighed, eyes half-closing. "I have more important things to do than to worry about school politics. And I very much wish that were not the case."
Tobias half-rose. "What's more important than your job? The school you run! Unless you're running around trying to pop You-Know-Who himself..."
His voice trailed off as Dumbledore said nothing to this, but there was a slight shift of the headmaster's expression that spoke volumes. "Please, Tobias, let us not be prisoners of our fears, and let us call things as they are. His name is Lord Voldemort."
Tobias twitched. "Yes, sir, we all know how brave you are," he muttered. "You do know that it makes you sound very arrogant when you say his name and pretend it's so easy?"
Dumbledore gave a long, tired sounding sigh. "Mister Grey, please sit down. I believe you and I need to discuss matters."
Tobias made a small, slightly irritated sound, but lowered himself back into the armchair. "Six weeks before losing the badge. Not bad," he murmured, more to himself than to Dumbledore.
The headmaster gave a small smile that held amusement but certainly also an edge. "That would make things considerably easier, would it not?"
He looked up with faint confusion. "Easier?"
"If I took the badge from you. Yet another blow landed against Slytherin pride. Yet another sign of favouritism from old, mad Dumbledore. Yet another chance for you to slink off, lick your wounds, and lament the unfairness of a harsh world." Dumbledore folded his arms across his chest, leaning forward. "Am I being too unfair now?"
Having Dumbledore being sarcastic at you was unnerving, like being savaged by a puppy. It was still effective, just the brain couldn't quite recognise what was going on. So instead, Tobias just blinked again. "Sir?"
"It is true that I selected Connor O'Neal for the Head Boy position over you. Because I believed him to be a fine young man, not because of any disregard I hold for Slytherin. He was fair-minded and just, and I believe would have indeed included the sensible members of your House in decisions, and brought everyone together." Dumbledore shook his head sadly. "It is a shame that you would probably have been too bitter to accept the hand he would have reached out."
Tobias was still stunned into silence at this sudden turn of events, and by the time he opened his mouth to protest it was a mechanical reaction in the face of accusation. For as his mind caught up, and he recalled his reaction to O'Neal beating him, he wasn't entirely sure Dumbledore was wrong.
"But it was not to be, and Connor O'Neal was one of the earliest casualties of what I fear will be a long and costly war. And so the responsibility falls to you." Dumbledore sighed. "You have the power, now, to bring about the change you are so angry at me for not enacting."
"I need the support of the headmaster to-"
"You have all of my authority. It is in that badge. The only thing stopping you from doing all that you dream of, Mister Grey, is yourself." Dumbledore leaned forwards, peering at him over the rim of his glasses. "And your anger. And your resentment. I am aware that your House is much maligned, but you know very well that you give as good as you get. You are not innocent victims here. And so your options are simple: To change things for the better, or to continue blaming others for the situation."
There was a long silence at this, where Tobias' expression slumped and he sat quietly in his chair for several lengthy moments. Only the ticking of Dumbledore's clock broke the emptiness, and it was with a deep, resigned sigh that Tobias eventually straightened up, nudging his glasses up his nose. "However right you are, sir," he began slowly, "it's not supposed to be me who does all of this. This is still your school." He paused, expression turning wry. "Just as it is not supposed to be I who guides Slytherin House, but Professor Snape also seems to have... more important things to do."
Dumbledore looked regretful. "I cannot be everywhere at once, Mister Grey."
"No, sir. And I don't doubt that you have matters of paramount importance to attend to," Tobias replied with firm honesty. "Just... in an ideal world, a headmaster would have no duty higher than his school."
"Alas, Mister Grey." Dumbledore shook his head sadly. "This is not an ideal world. But you have the power, at least, to try and make this little corner of it so." He stood up, reaching for some parchment and a quill, and beginning to scribble something. "Inform Miss Riley that the two of you have full authority on all disciplinary matters outside of the classroom. If you need to coordinate with staff, Professor McGonagall shall be available for your assistance. I am also making a note permitting you to revoke prefect badges and, with the agreement of heads of Houses, reassign them." He looked up at Tobias. "Are there any other powers you need to enact the changes you want?"
Tobias stared for a few long moments, still as stunned as ever before he finally managed to stammer "N-no, sir. Is there... is there anything you wish for me to do?"
Dumbledore gave a very small smile. "Ensure that the school remains strong. It seems many students look up to you. You are well liked, and well respected, but tend to hold yourself back and stay out of the way. I would encourage you to... step forwards. For you could be a strong example to many of the pupils here."
"Yes... yes, sir." Tobias paused for a moment, then dimly realised that this was tantamount to a dismissal, so he dumbly accepted the parchment Dumbledore accepted, stood, and stumbled towards the door.
"Oh, and Mister Grey?" Tobias hesitated in the doorway, hand on the doorknob. Dumbledore was looking over him with that same assessing, hard expression of earlier. "I would appreciate it if you did not accuse me of 'hating' people, least of all my own students, again."
"Um... yes, sir." He bobbed his head quickly, frowning with slight confusion, though there was no mistaking the guilt Dumbledore's words prompted. "I'm sorry, sir."
Then he left, stumbling down the stairway back into the corridor of school to consult his watch and see lunch was a hair's breadth from finishing, and his Charms class was pending.
The slightly numb feeling behind his eyes did begin to abate as he strode down the corridor, legs moving unthinkingly, knowing the route, mind working furiously. Professor Dumbledore had just given him a carte blanche to enact all the change he wanted. To mould the prefects into the ideal group. To work to bring further unity to the school...
His mind was swimming so much with such notions that he was hardly aware of it when someone stepped out of a corridor junction in front of him, and it was only their swift reflexes that stopped them colliding.
"Shit, Grey!" Tanith swore as she stepped back, him almost knocking a small stack of books out of her arms. "Watch it!"
Tobias straightened up, stopping immediately, and turned to face his friend. It was amazing, he reflected suddenly, how they had managed to go several days without talking and yet not making a issue of it. Since Wednesday morning they had been polite and well-measured yet not engaging, finding a bizarre line between being warm and being distant. But there had certainly been a barrier thrown up since Tuesday night, and with his head full of ideals, Tobias decided to make a shove at it.
"Sorry," he said genuinely, then fixed her with a look. “I was distracted. Just got out of the meeting with Professor Dumbledore and… well, we had a lot to say.” He frowned slightly, feeling as if he was groping around in the dark for the conversation, or how to get a solid grip on it.
“I’m sure you’ll regale me with it all at the next prefect meeting; no need to bore me twice,” Tanith replied briskly, straightening up and looking as if she was about to peel off and head down the corridor.
“No, okay…” Tobias hesitated for a second more, then finally jerked into action when she took a step forward, moving sideways so as to physically block her route, stretching an arm out to deny her the chance to skittle past him. “But hang on a second.”
There was a long pause as she stared at his chest, for that was about eye level for her, before Tanith took a deep, slightly shaking breath and looked up. “What is it, Grey?” Her voice sounded rather tired and worn.
“I… I’ve been thinking. About stuff,” Tobias said elegantly.
“Don’t push too hard; we wouldn’t want you breaking those precious brains of yours.” Tanith shook her head. “There’s nothing to think about. Or talk about. Or anything, really.”
“Yes, there is.” He looked her in the eye, brow furrowing. “There’s lots to think and talk about. I just had the crap kicked out of me by Dumbledore for not being assertive enough, for… for sitting on the sidelines and letting myself be overlooked, and then blaming everyone else when I don’t get what I want. And he’s right. I’ve done enough of that.”
“How very self-assertive of you. But I’m sure you can share the Dumbledore therapy with us all at the next meeting on Monday night. Meanwhile, I’ve got lessons to go to.” Tanith sidestepped briskly, just managing to break past him and beginning to walk down the corridor, pace fast.
“Have drinks with me tomorrow,” Tobias called out at last, feeling like something in his chest was bursting as the words slipped past his lips. When he turned to face her he could see that she’d stopped dead in the corridor, still with her back to him, not moving to return but no longer striding away.
“At The Three Broomsticks. Twelve o’ clock. I’ve got… things I want to talk about. Things we need to talk about.” He took a deep, slightly shaky breath. “And… it would be… nice.”
“I can’t do it.” Tanith turned around to face him slowly, but even as his stomach lurched he saw the expression on her face was not one of rejection. “At twelve, I mean. I’ve got… things to do. But I can do drinks at one.”
“One o’ clock. Three Broomsticks,” Tobias repeated, as much for his benefit as hers.
“Okay.” There was a heavy pause as both of them seemed slightly confused at how this state of not-unwelcome affairs had just come to pass, before Tanith gave a short, firm nod and turned away again to continue walking down the corridor, adding as a farewell, “You’re buying the butterbeer, though.”
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