Chapter 37 : The Long Goodbye
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"...so I'm really most hopeful you'll maintain the high standards the school has grown accustomed to that you've reached this year," Tobias told the assembled prefects, quiet voice nevertheless echoing off the walls and reaching the furthest depths of the crowd. For once, with the volume of his voice, the acoustics were helpful; the prefects were not gathered around the comfortable chairs in the corner of their meeting room, but on the first occasion in Tanith's memory, seated at the great table.
"It is also my fervent wish you grant my successors - as Head Boy and as seventh-year Slytherin prefect - all the chances to earn respect you gave me, and all the support they will need in taking over the jobs at this unhelpful time of the year." Tobias' eyes swept the table, from Riley at the foot opposite him, all along and lingering briefly on Tanith, before finally landing on Tom Everard, who flanked him.
"Hopefully I have a smidgeon of respect already," said Everard, in that gruff manner of his suggesting he was deflecting too much sentimentality, but he wore a wry smile. "You know we'll keep the home fires burning, Grey."
Tobias returned the smile wanly. "Ideally, nothing will burn."
"We'll make sure of that," said Riley, from down her end of the table. Then she flicked her wand and the bottle of Firewhiskey, which rested on the centre of the table, took to the air and ran down the length of the seats, charging each of the twenty-four glass tumblers set before the prefects.
She snatched hers up the moment the liquid hit the bottom, and lifted it before her. "Let's not speechify too much. What needs to be said has been said. Anything more and we'll just get overly emotional." Riley nodded firmly to the assembled. "To Tobias Grey."
Tobias himself looked more than a little uncomfortable as they toasted him, scratching the bridge of his nose in a manner exactly the same as that of his portrait, on the wall behind him. When everyone else lowered their glasses, he raised his and drained it quickly, then coughed a little. "Was the Firewhiskey really necessary?"
"Special occasion, isn't it?" Everard said with almost forced jocularity. "You're a Head Boy, Grey, we have to send you off in style." He a mock-glare at any and all who were seated at the table. "Anyone reports that my first act in the job was supplying underage wizards with alcohol, I'll..."
"Lose the badge," Riley said wryly, then tilted her glass, with its last drops of Firewhiskey in it, at her compatriot. "Our lips are sealed."
Tobias gave another small grimace of a smile, then got to his feet. "I ought to go; it's nearly dark out." He turned to Everard as the other prefects got to their feet, then lifted his hand to the badge pinned to the front of his robes. There was something of a hushed silence as he removed it, as if the room held its breath, before he extended the symbol of office towards his successor. "Good luck, Tom. Keep it well-polished."
Everard took the badge with his left hand and shook Tobias' with his right in a firm grip. "As far as I'm concerned I'm just keeping your seat warm for the rest of your tenure. You’ve been the real Head Boy this year.”
Tobias moved down the gathering of prefects, bidding each of them an individual farewell in that easy, reassuring manner of his which had long been absent but had won their respect in the first place. He got a firm handshake from Sharpe, and even an unenthusiastic handshake from Malfoy. Talley and Yates got definite words of encouragement to keep up the good work as trustworthy Slytherin prefects, while he had even a kind, if somewhat forced word for Parkinson, the only person in the room not so much as pretending to be respectful.
From Chang and Grahams, who'd been much friendlier since their argument on the train at the beginning of the year, he got a hug; from Granger too, Tanith observed wryly, in a final meeting of Geeks Anonymous.
Then he was at Riley. Jennifer Riley, who was about to move on to her third Head Boy; who had lost a best friend when he'd lost a girlfriend, and was still here, head held high. They'd been, Tanith had to grudgingly concede as she ambled in Tobias' wake, a good team, and now too soon – far too soon – it was coming to an end.
"I'm not leaving you in the lurch, am I, Jen?" Tobias’ voice was quiet, but there was, for the first time in this room, a genuine hint of worry, a genuine hint of concern and of guilt.
She waved a hand quickly, dismissively, with a forced air that Tanith could see was covering her disappointment. "It's school, Tobias. It's not the end of the world." She looked him in the eye a little reproachfully. "You take care of yourself, you hear?"
"Of course." Tobias stuck out a hand for her to shake; she raised an eyebrow at him, then gave him her own firm hug.
Then he was gone, out the door, with Tanith in his wake, and as they let the noise of the prefect's meeting room fade behind the closed doors and descended the stairway slowly, silence reigned. Just their footsteps, their breathing, and the sense of dread spilling over her.
Gabriel and Cal waited in the corridor at the bottom. Cal sported an impressive bruise on his cheekbone, still; Tanith had not asked what happened when Tobias had returned to the common room the other night looking like his nose had been broken and badly repaired. He'd point-blank refused all suggestions to go to Madam Pomfrey, or offers to straighten his nose, claiming he 'deserved it'. But the last two days had seen clearer air between Tobias and Cal, albeit with a somewhat hesitant touch.
"Don't need your stuff?" Cal asked at last as all four of them fell in to step down the corridor, heading for the main entranceway.
"I sent it on ahead," Tobias said quietly. "I didn't want the delay of waiting for Filch to go through everything. He's cleared it already, it'll be at home."
There was a nod, then silence again. Gabriel had his hands shoved into his pockets, head bowed and dark hair falling into his eyes; he wore an uncharacteristic frown as they strode down the corridor.
Then they were in the main entranceway, and confronted with two familiar shapes, standing waiting. The first was the tall, willowy form of Snape, who approached them curtly and stopped before Tobias, handing him a folded piece of parchment.
"Your pass to get out of the gate," he explained curtly, with no other ceremony or pleasantry.
Tobias blinked, then took the paper gingerly. "Thank you, Professor." There was a pause, and he looked up into the Head of House Slytherin's dark eyes, before opening his mouth to speak again.
"I wish you fortune in your work, Grey," Snape continued abruptly, cutting him off, and still no trace of warmth in his voice. "I trust you will not prove me wrong to have recommended to Professor Dumbledore that you still sit your NEWTs in June; I would hate for Ravenclaw House to play host to the top student in this year."
Then he was gone, striding down the corridor, and Tanith wondered if she'd ever heard a more backhanded encouragement in her life. Before she could ponder this, however, the second individual approached: Slughorn.
"Tobias, m'boy," the Potions Master greeted him enthusiastically. "I know we said our goodbyes yesterday, I won't linger over it, best leave what's been done as done, no?" He grabbed Tobias' hand in his own meaty grip for a shake. "But I was speaking to my old friend Percival McGowan - you might have heard of him, Editor of the Clarion? - and mentioned you'd be in London on this frightfully brave business of yours... anyway..."
Tanith glanced over at Cal with a raised eyebrow in this briefest of breaks in Slughorn's tirade; Tobias hadn't even had a chance to speak, and Cal was visibly suppressing a smirk.
"...he's having a little get-together in the end of March, and as I mentioned just what a promising young man you are, and how you'll be away from all your friends while you work, he insisted you go along. Little get-together of the old boys, you know, friends I introduced to each other who stay in touch after school, you might have met some at my party..."
Tobias grinned and drew a breath deeply. "Thank you, Professor," he interrupted at last, freeing his hand from the continuous shake. "I look forward to Mister McGowan's owl."
"Hm? Oh, of course, I'll have him write to your properly. But it's good to stay in touch with people, Tobias, you can't be an island. And old Sluggy's boys know how to look after each other." Slughorn declared this last with a note of amused self-awareness, though not quite as much self-awareness, thought Tanith, as he perhaps needed.
"Anyway," said Slughorn, "I'll let you get going, and say your goodbyes. Many safe travels, my boy, and may luck be with you."
Then he, too, was gone, leaving the four of them standing in the entranceway. The doors were open, letting in the mild wind of late February, and only the last, desperate rays of sunlight fought their way into the hall at this time.
None of them said anything, Tobias looking uncomfortable, Gabriel still frowning, and Cal distinctly uncertain. But it was finally Gabriel who broke the silence, with a quiet curse and a sudden raising of his head.
"This is it, isn't it. Nothing's going to be the same after this." His words came balefully, though the ire sounded like it was directed at the world in general rather than Tobias in specific. "No more sitting around in the common room. No more - it's all over."
Tobias drew a deep, regretful breath. "Yes," he said. "It is."
Cal shifted his feet. "You better look after yourself, you great lug," he muttered, eyeing his friend cautiously. "And you better write. I don't want to have to hear about your exploits in the Prophet."
"There won't be exploits. But... I'll take care." Tobias lifted his head in the direction of the doorway, then sighed again and turned back, now facing Gabriel. "You all better take care of yourselves. And write to me, as well; make me jealous of all I miss."
Gabriel reached out for Tobias' hand, giving it a firm, definite shake and clapping him on the shoulder. "We'll make you mad with envy at how the Gryffindors give us shit."
"At how we inevitably lose at Quidditch, and how unfair Dumbledore's being this time," Cal said, wearing a lopsided smile as Tobias turned towards him. They shook hands much as Tobias had with Gabriel - then Cal gave a small snort, stepping forwards, and pulled Tobias into a back-slapping hug.
Both grunted briefly in protest of their injuries, but there was still genuine affection, and an almost visible apology in the hug, lingering even when Tobias stepped back.
Then he turned to Tanith, whose breath caught in her throat. Behind him, Cal and Gabriel exchanged their own glances, then made some mumbles and turned towards the corridor, slinking away, their own farewells said.
“So.” Tobias shoved his hands in his pockets, looking at the floor, at the open doorway leading to the gloomy grounds of Hogwarts – at anything but her. “Here we are.”
“Not for long.” Tanith gave the smallest of small smiles, attempting to summon something in her gut – anything – other than the sensation of being in danger of vomiting.
Tobias flinched, then gave a short, jerk of a nod, visibly steeling himself. “I should thank you. For all that you’ve done. For keeping me sane throughout this. I would have… I wouldn’t be here…”
“Grey, if it weren’t for you, I’d be… I don’t know. Some pointless fool of a pure-blooded debutante, out for some irrelevant Ministry job and with no concept of the world we face. Still a prejudiced bitch.” She did look up at him at last, expression flickering as she fought for control. Then the hint of the smile turned a little wry. “Well. I’m not prejudiced anymore, anyway.”
“You’d have reached those conclusions on your own,” Tobias mumbled, hands burrowing further into his pockets. “You’re a smart girl. And you’re going to be a great Auror, you know that?”
She laughed. It was that or vomit. “Merlin, Grey, we’re talking like we’re never going to be seeing one another again. With you going off to the MLE Squad, we’ll probably be working together come July.”
He managed a smile, managed the slightest glance in her direction, then his gaze dropped again. “I guess so.”
There was another pause, then she rummaged around quickly in her pocket, grateful for the fact that at this time of evening, the entranceway was all but abandoned. Curfew was looming, and nobody was eager these days to be caught out after hours; the detentions were hellish.
Then she found it, her hand wrapped around a small box. “I got you something,” she stumbled. “It was… it was going to be a birthday present, but I wasn’t really feeling up to being nice to you last November… partly for my own sanity…” She rubbed the back of her neck.
“I thought that book on Goblin Rebellions was a bit dry for your usual tastes,” Tobias commented, now looking mildly, suspiciously curious.
“Well. Yeah. So I know it’s meant to be for your seventeenth, but I know you didn’t get one, because you were after those tomes of incomprehensible Arithmantic knowledge off your mother, but… here.” She shoved the box in his unsuspecting hand, though it was only about the size of a clenched fist. “Go on. Open it.”
He raised an eyebrow, then flipped the box open, eyes widening. “I can’t… you can’t…”
“I can, you can, and it’s right there. Goblin-crafted; those are Egyptian emeralds set in around the edge. Small, though, so it’s not meant to be too… you know, ostentatious…” Her voice trailed off, finally nervous, finally feeling the edge of uncertainty in this gesture.
Tobias blinked, then pulled out the solid silver pocket-watch that had lain in the box, opening it up and peering inside. “This is… tremendous,” he stuttered. “It’s far too much…”
“It’s a birthday present, Grey. A proper birthday present. You’re not allowed to refuse it.” Her smile tried to return despite herself, and she was more than happy to let it.
He turned it over in his hands, letting the last rays of sunlight creeping through the window glint off the silver. His gaze noticeably landed on the engraving on the inside of the case, before his expression went wistful and he closed it, looking her in the eye at last. “Thank you.” His voice was quiet, but the two words shook very slightly with the weight of his gratitude.
She shifted her feet. “You’re welcome. It’s… it’s the least I can do. For keeping me sane.”
Tobias hesitated, voice thickening when he responded. “I hurt you.”
Tanith drew a deep breath, and willed her own voice to sound steady. Fortunately, it did, without any waver to show just how hard her heart was thumping in her chest. “Anything that’s worth it… hurts.”
Tobias looked away at this, his eyes going to the open doorway, and the dying rays of the sun. “I should be going. I have to be at Canary Wharf in the morning…”
The two stood there for a long moment, the ticking of the clocks looming between them, before Tobias’ shoulders sagged and he stepped forwards, pulling her into a fierce hug. “Be careful. Be safe.”
“I should be saying that to you,” Tanith whispered firmly into his shoulder, arms wrapping around him. “Don’t you dare get yourself hurt or killed. Don’t you dare.”
“You know me. You know that I’m careful.” There was a wry, cocky note in Tobias’ voice which she recognised as that which he used to deflect any concern, for himself as much as for anyone else. Then he pulled back, hands on her upper arms, giving a lopsided smile. “Take care of yourself.”
He squeezed her arms quickly, then turned to go, footsteps ringing across the entranceway. She watched him; watched his willowy form pad towards the door, silhouetted against the dying sun, robes flapping in the breeze breaking into the castle. He stood tall, determined, marching off to the future, and she wanted to freeze this moment, never let it pass – both remember him like this forever, and never have to merely remember him…
His name escaped her lips unbidden, holding all of the urgency and desperation she’d kept in. She’d sworn she wouldn’t call him back, sworn she would let him go and not say anything, not do anything, not let him know the slightest suggestion of how she felt, because he’d walk away anyway, and all she’d have done would be chip away at her own walls…
But he stopped as she spoke, froze for just a fraction of a second before turning on the spot and storming back towards her. For the hint of a moment she thought he was angry that she’d called him, angry that she’d stopped him – then he grabbed her by the wrist, pulled her to him sharply, and kissed her fiercely.
Time stopped. Her breath caught in her throat, and for what felt like years she was frozen in place, shocked out of all concept of action, all sense of anything apart from his warmth, the strength of his grip, his lips on hers.
Then suddenly she could move again, and her hands snaked around his shoulders as his slid around her back to pull her closer to him. Her fingers were in the hair at the nape of his neck, the breathing of them both was coming raggedly, and though it felt like they had been standing there for an eternity it was too soon, far too soon that he finally pulled back.
There was a moment where they hovered, lips inches apart, words on the tips of their tongues, gazes locked on each other – and then she let go. Let him pull away, let him turn his back on her after one last, lingering look, let him walk with renewed vigour and renewed reluctance out of the door and let him disappear into the darkness of the grounds.
Let him go.
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