Chapter 34 : The Road Ahead
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The door to Professor Snape's new office was unfamiliar to Tobias. He'd gone to visit the head of Slytherin House plenty of times when he'd been the Potions Master, knew those dungeons well, as a prefect and a student. But he had hardly seen Snape during this final year, and he had never been close to any Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers. Mulready had been uncommunicative, Quirrell twitchy, Lockhart a complete waste of time, Lupin a dishevelled weirdo, Moody's impostor so madly unpredictable, and Umbridge...
...well, the last time he'd been to this office was when he'd refused to be part of Umbridge's goon squad and he'd had his prefect badge taken off him. It was almost ironic that he was coming here again to, ultimately, try and lose his badge. Just this time it would be willing.
Snape's curt tones instructing him to enter came almost the moment he'd rapped his knuckles against the wood, and Tobias turned the handle to step inside the dark, oppressive office.
Still. Dark and oppressive was much preferable to pink and full of kittens. And even Snape was preferable to Umbridge.
"Grey." Snape's dark gaze locked on him the moment he stepped in, the head of Slytherin house seated behind his broad, wooden desk. "I did not expect you at this hour. Sit."
The instruction gave no room for argument, and Tobias had to resist the urge to be scurrying for his chair as he sat down abruptly opposite the teacher.
"What brings you here, at this time of the evening? I thought you had patrol responsibilities."
"I passed them on to MacMillan. He agreed to cover for me; I knew you didn't have detention to supervise this evening, and in all honesty, sir, this isn't a discussion I'd like to cram in at lunchtime." Tobias clasped his hands together, eyes roving briefly about the room. There were no pictures, but the bookshelf at the far end caught his eye, and the names of books on Dark Magic theory and defence emblazoned along the spines sent a shiver up his own.
"I can spare a little time," Snape said in his clipped voice. "I suppose it is the least that can be done; you have admittedly done a... remarkable job with Slytherin House in the past four months."
Tobias bobbed his head, unused to praise from Snape. "Thank you, sir. But I... well..." There was nothing for it. He'd just have to take the plunge into the gloom, and pray the darkness wouldn't throttle him. "I need to leave Hogwarts."
"You have the authority yourself to issue such permission slips; if you did not wish to abuse your power you could have asked Riley -"
"Not the grounds. The school." Tobias inhaled sharply, deeply, as if he needed the breath to go on and wasn't sure it would come as easily as he’d like. "I need to leave school."
Snape stopped. Until that moment he'd had papers in front of him, littered across the desk and had been making minor notes on what looked like insignificant classroom paperwork. At this, though, he finally set his quill down and leaned forwards a little. "Because of Miss MacKenzie?"
Tobias swallowed and nodded, words failing him at this point.
Snape's dark eyes continued to peer at him, glittering in the gloom, and there was an evaluating air there which showed him just how delicately he balanced on the edge of falling into the head of Slytherin house's derisive pity. "I imagine the stress must be... remarkable."
There it was - that slightly mocking hint which made Tobias ball his fists.
"I'm not quitting," he said firmly, anger dislodging the ball of anxiousness in his throat. "I've been offered a place with the Magical Law Enforcement Squad, they have a training session beginning at the end of February. I want to join them."
Snape did lean back at this, realisation beginning to dawn - though there was no hint he regretted his misjudgement of Tobias' behaviour. "Enter the front lines," he said carefully.
Tobias nodded quickly. "I can't stay here, sir. Not while there's a war on. Not while they need everyone they can get. Not when I can..." He stopped short of his usual argument of making sure his tragedies befell nobody else; such sentimentality and compassion did not seem compelling arguments to use against Severus Snape.
"But why," Snape said, not seeming to care for the lost end of the sentence, "would you wish to abandon such positive prospects before you? Superb NEWTs. A position within the Department of International Magical Cooperation."
"The DIMC will send me somewhere else to pick up an ambassador's paperwork - at best. At worst I'll be locked in the Ministry doing absolutely nothing." Tobias shifted in his chair, now approaching the true crux of the matter. Leaving school was of no consequence to anyone but him; he was of age, he could do as he wished on the matter. This next was where he'd need support.
"I don't want to abandon my NEWTs," he said hesitantly. "I want to sit them in June with everyone else. But I don't think I need to be here between now and then to be able to pass them."
Snape raised an eyebrow, and Tobias realised that it was rare to see the man surprised. "And how do you expect to do that?"
"With yours and the headmaster's blessing," Tobias said rapidly. "I would leave school and continue my study independently. You know I'm capable of it, you know my grades are all Outstanding, I'm already doing independent learning with History of Magic. We're going to just be doing revision after the April holidays anyway, so it's only going to be a month or so of actual lessons I'll have to do by myself..."
He'd rehearsed this speech a dozen times in his head, but now he was here, confronted with Snape's dark, beady eyes, all coherency was fleeing. He scowled to himself as his voice trailed off weakly, before he drew another breath. "I can do it, sir. I'd just need you to bring it before Professor Dumbledore."
Snape gave the very slightest nod, but it was a nod of comprehension, not necessarily of agreement. He leaned back slowly in his chair, steepling his fingers before him. "And you will be working in the MLE Squad."
"Yes, sir," Tobias said, hands clasping tightly again. He'd said his piece; to push it further would doubtless just annoy Snape. All he could do was hope he would listen. Snape was, at least, fair - when not provoked.
"In vengeance for what happened to Miss MacKenzie this Christmas? Were you not aware there was a war on before this?"
Again, that lightly mocking tone, and again Tobias' fists clenched under the table. "Of course I did, sir, I'm not a bloody idiot," he snapped before he could stop himself. "And I didn't say that I should go because there's a war, or I'd think each and every one of us ought to go instead of staying at Hogwarts. But I have to go. And I'll go whether I can sit my NEWTs or not."
Snape regarded him for a long time as Tobias weakly subsided, the anger disappearing as quickly as it had arisen. He forced himself to say more; enough was enough, and now the head of his House would make his decision.
"If you will go anyway," Snape said at last, not moving in the chair, "then there is no reason I should not pass on your request to Professor Dumbledore. But, Grey, I would ask you to reconsider."
Tobias jerked with a little surprise, looking up into those dark eyes in confusion.
"You are a singularly capable young man," Snape continued levelly, "and have done more good for Slytherin House in these past few months than... many have in years." There was only the faintest ghost of a pause in that sentence. "To lose the first Slytherin Head Boy in such a long period before he has completed the whole year would be a blow."
Tobias nodded. He had not expected such a request from Snape, but there was no surprise which met his words - only the determined twist in his gut not to acquiesce. That these were perhaps the nicest words Snape had ever said to him washed over, as well. "I know, sir," he said slowly. "But there are more important things than school pride."
Snape regarded him for a few more lengthy seconds, and in the briefest of moments there was a flash of something approaching understanding in his dark eyes. But it was gone as quickly as it had arrived, and the head of Slytherin House straightened up, adjusting his robe.
"I will speak to Professor Dumbledore, but have no doubt he will wish to talk to you himself. I imagine before the end of the week." Then he waved a curt, dismissive hand, and any hint of closeness between the two of them dissolved in that moment.
But Tobias would not see Dumbledore by Friday, or even over the weekend. It was not until he was found by a short-breathed first year when patrolling the corridor the following Tuesday night that he hurried along to the Headmaster's office, where the staircase was already descended to let him in.
He had been in the Headmaster's office on only the two occasions before, at the beginning of the year and in mid-November, when he had been so furious at Dumbledore for what now seemed so minor and petty reasons. Since then he'd had only passing interaction with the Headmaster; as Head Boy he tended to work more with Heads of Houses and McGonagall as Deputy. Dumbledore was ever aloof, away from it all.
And this would very likely be the last time he would be here.
Tobias stepped inside as the low, calm voice ushered him in, and he hesitated when he crossed the threshold, closing the door behind him. Dumbledore sat behind his desk, as tall and distinguished as ever, blackened hand hidden under the folds of his sleeve.
"Good evening, Mister Grey," he greeted him, peering over the rim of his half-moon spectacles. "Please, be seated. I imagine we have a lot to discuss."
Tobias wrung his hands together briefly, then padded over to the almost familiar chair and sat down. "Not that much," he said a little weakly, "if Professor Snape has spoken to you..."
"He has," Dumbledore said calmly. "And he has explained the matter. Though I would like to hear your own reasons for such an... unusual request."
"Unusual, but not unprecedented," Tobias said in a hurry, and resisted to reached for the notes he'd made and shoved in a breast pocket. It wouldn't do to help convince Dumbledore with revision papers. "Six years ago Mortimer Holt was allowed to leave Hogwarts after Easter in his final year due to a family crisis, and sat his NEWTs anyway. Twelve years ago Elizabeth Streen received an offer of a work-placement in Germany for most of her final year and also sat her NEWTs..."
"I am aware of the precedent, Mister Grey. As you might imagine, I granted them. However, they are irrelevant to this case." Dumbledore leaned forward, gaze still piercingly curious. "Miss Streen partook of occasional study at Drumstrang during her final year. And Mister Holt missed only two months, not four - and he did not perform very well anyway." The headmaster didn't budge an inch as Tobias threatened to fidget nervously in his seat. "They are not you. I wish to know why you want to do this?"
"I can't stay here, sir," Tobias said weakly, though it was true. "It's not the memories, but I just feel... so utterly useless."
"There is often use in biding your time to be as ready as possible to act, so long as this caution is not just an excuse for inaction," Dumbledore pointed out quietly.
"There's nothing I want to do which would require my NEWTs, sir. As I told Professor Snape, I will leave school even if I have to give up on the past eighteen months of work. This is a mere advantage, not a deal-breaker." Tobias' voice shook a little, and for the first time he realised just how much the headmaster's calm, assessing air unnerved rather than reassured him.
"But if you wish such an advantage, Mister Grey," Dumbledore continued levelly, "you could at least explain."
"I did," Tobias said a little sharply, feeling his voice threaten to shake. "I can't stay here. I have to do something now, take action now. Make a difference. Change things."
"And you couldn't bring change in the D.I.M.C?" Dumbledore did not pronounce the acronym as one word.
"From afar. With distant strings, and... and I couldn't see what I was doing myself. Couldn't make a difference myself."
Dumbledore fell silent, still watching him, and Tobias began to chew on the edge of a fingernail. "I read the reports," the headmaster said at last, "of the night of what happened to poor Miss MacKenzie. I read your statement carefully. Of how you avoided the Death Eater Sneddon to make it to the MacKenzie house."
Shame filled Tobias and twisted in his gut as the screams of the Muggles in the street echoed in his ears. There were times, late at night, that they echoed louder than his own scream when Robb had killed Annie so callously. "I couldn't stop him," he said quietly, a little sullenly and defensively.
"Probably not," Dumbledore conceded firmly. "I read what it took Miss Cole to thwart him. Lateral thinking most befitting of an Auror candidate and not tactical planning you have yet been... trained in. I am sure that the MLE Squad would provide such training."
"What's your point, sir?" Tobias twisted his hands together, and again felt the anger. Anger was always easier to deal with than the pain because it meant he could lash out, actually do something about how he felt. And anger in this office was a disturbingly familiar emotion. He wondered how many others had stood before Dumbledore and thundered at the old Headmaster with the same righteous fury he'd felt before and felt now?
"I just wonder, Mister Grey, which perturbs you more? That you could not defeat two fully-grown and well-trained Death Eaters when they took you by surprise... or that you did not attempt to engage one alone in combat when you were as-yet unknown to him?"
Dumbledore's 'wonder' felt heavy with every word, and Tobias rolled his shoulders and straightened up, expression darkening.
"There are many things, sir, about that night with 'perturb' me," he said, trying to keep his voice level. "And none of them have anything to do with whether I should be allowed to sit my NEWTs in June if I miss the final months of schooling."
Dumbledore gave the smallest of small smiles, which still shone through his face and stabbed a knife into his red-hot anger, prompting it to wilt a little. "No," he said at last, calmly. "I suppose it does not. And to deny you the chance to sit those NEWTs would probably leave you forever wondering 'what if'. Just as, if you stayed, you would be haunted by the same."
He leaned over for a piece of parchment and a quill, beginning to write on it elegantly with his good hand. "There are many regrets in this world, Mister Grey," he continued calmly, not looking up. "But few are as vicious as the road not travelled. Far better, I think, to try and fail than to not attempt at all." He looked up, folding the paper, and Tobias' gut twisted at the piercing look, Sneddon's uttered curses bouncing through his memories.
"I will allow you to sit your NEWTs in June, after independent study while you serve with the MLE Squad. I am told yours is a great academic mind, Mister Grey, and perhaps practical experience will hone you even further. But when this war is over I am sure you will have greater contributions to make to the world than those you could make in the MLE Squad, and a Hogwarts education behind you will aid in that." Dumbledore's final smile at this was one of ghostly understanding. "It is such a shame when capable young men are thwarted in achieving their full potential by the world around them."
Tobias nodded weakly, sagging in the chair from guilty relief. "Thank you, sir..."
Dumbledore's smile widened, and he also leaned back. "You look tired, Mister Grey. It seems you cannot but come to this office and feel as if I have put you through a tea-strainer."
Tobias' mouth twisted wryly. "I bring this upon myself, sir, and I apologise. I see you so rarely I cannot help but work myself up on the few occasions something does bring me before your desk." It was unusual honesty, and he didn't know where it came from; but with Dumbledore acquiescing for the first time, agreeing to his request, for once he could see the hint of the kindly grandfather in his eyes that others had spoken of.
Dumbledore nodded, gaze holding the mildest hint of wistfulness. "Perhaps it would have been better if I had made myself a little more accessible to students such as yourself."
"Something, maybe, to bear in mind for the future, sir," Tobias said, careful to keep his inflection gentle so as to not sound so presumptuous as to be giving the great Albus Dumbledore advice.
Again, that wistfulness. "Perhaps." Another pause, then Dumbledore waved a hand very slightly to still Tobias when he went to stand. "You have my deepest regrets, Tobias, on what happened to Miss MacKenzie, and that you had to experience such a thing."
Tobias jolted a little, not having expected such a commiseration, and gripped the armrests of the chair. "Thank you, sir," he said quietly.
"It was a terrible tragedy and a loss to us all. I did not have the pleasure of knowing the young lady, but that she was brave enough to overcome the social barriers between the two of you alone speaks volumes of her character," Dumbledore continued, voice going somewhat more gentle, and actually genuinely soothing.
Tobias' expression flickered. "She was a true Gryffindor, sir," he mumbled weakly. "And I won't - ever - forget her."
"Good," Dumbledore stated firmly. "As to fade off into death, forgotten and unloved - that is the true death. I, myself, can think of little worse than to fade from this world and to have left no positive impact upon it or those I cared about."
"I suppose that's not something you have to worry about, sir," Tobias said without thinking, and blinked a little at the tiny flicker on Dumbledore's face.
The headmaster just gave another smile, this one a little tighter, before nodding. "You will need to step down, obviously, as a prefect and as Head Boy. I should perhaps discuss with both yourself and Miss Riley on who ought to be your successor for the latter."
"Everard's ten times better than Sharpe, and Jennifer can keep his pompous attitude in line better. Though you would have two Gryffindors in the top jobs," Tobias said, a little automatically; school politics came so easily to him by now that he could provide input without giving too much thought.
"I have selected first a Hufflepuff and then a Slytherin for the Head Boy job. When a Gryffindor is my third choice, I think none can accuse me of too much favouritism, no?" Dumbledore pointed out with mild amusement.
"They will anyway, sir," said Tobias with the smallest hint of wry self-awareness. "As for my replacement as a Slytherin prefect... not Miles Bletchley."
He hadn't realised he was so vociferously against the other boy resuming the post, but there was a twist in his gut as he thought of Bletchley and remembered their argument in the pub, and knew he would not retract that opposition.
Dumbledore raised an eyebrow slightly. "He performed capably enough in the role during your brief hiatus."
'Hiatus'. Tobias thought he much preferred that term in referring to his dishonourable discharge from the ranks of the prefects the previous year. "It's not his capability," he admitted. "It's the fact that you'll lose Tanith Cole as a prefect if you give him the badge. And she won't make a song and dance - she'll just quit. I promise you, sir."
Dumbledore watched him for a few long moments, before giving a slight nod. "Not Mister Bletchley. Very well. Do you have a recommendation instead?"
"Not Gabriel Doyle. Not Edmund Montague." Tobias' expression twists. "That leaves Adrian Pucey and Caldwyn Brynmor." If he was honest, with his distrust of Cal and his motivations at that point, the best thing for the prefecture would be to put Bletchley in place and give Larkin Tanith's badge. That would be the best balance of capable prefects, instead of one strong and one utterly untrustworthy.
But hell would freeze over before he did that to Tanith.
"It has to be Cal. I know you might think I say this just because he's my friend..." Tobias recognised, at least, that people would still believe this to be true.
"Your judgement has been sound and unbiased on matters of prefects before. I will trust it now." Dumbledore gave a small nod. "After consultation with Professor Snape and Jennifer Riley."
Tobias nodded, rubbing his eyes. "Then if you'll excuse me, sir... I have two weeks left in school and should write to the MLE Squad to confirm I'll be taking that place in March..." He got to his feet slowly.
Dumbledore stood also, and to Tobias' brief astonishment, extended his good hand towards him. "Good night, then, Mister Grey," he said serenely, pleasantly, as they shook hands. "And may you find the forgiveness you seek on the path you will, this time, be taking."
Tobias didn't allow himself to think too hard about those words when he returned to the Common Room that evening.
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