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Chapter 39: The Beat
A/N: Slow updates, I do apologise! Ought to be plain sailing from here to the end, though, so long as I'm efficient. Thank you very much all of you who've been supporting the fic so far, it's incredibly appreciated attention. Now, on with the show!
Chapter 38: The Beat
Lumos was a great spell of stupendous use in the dark, with only two notable drawbacks. The first was that its range was not altogether as far as one might wish, and for illuminating more than the immediate surroundings, it was somewhat limited.
The second was that a great shining light coming out the tip of your wand was as good as painting a target on yourself in an area with potential threats.
This was why Tobias was in almost absolute darkness as he prowled in between the tall crates and cargo containers of the London dockyard, trusting only the dim moon and the overcast sky to allow him to see his face in front of him. Steps behind, trying not to stumble, came Bailey, who had been posted as his partner for this assignment. She wasn't having quite as much luck as he in navigating in the dark - didn't have his years of experience in patrolling Hogwarts corridors - and so had been more than happy to follow in his wake. Still, Tobias knew she was a dead-eye with a Stun, and if matters went poorly - or, even, to plan - he'd be happy with her at his back.
This portion of the dockyard was abandoned at this time of night, devoid of interfering Muggles. That was why, so they'd been briefed, Death Eaters or agents thereof were using it as a meeting point for smuggling dark magic artefacts into the country from Eastern Europe, right off the boats along with Muggles. Singular Death Eaters they had to be, Tobias had thought, being willing to smuggle goods in beside Muggles and their technology, but something to be tackled nevertheless.
They'd scouted the majority of the dockyard, posted Enforcers at every physical entrance and exit, laid down a Displacement Aura, and finally come across a befuddled Muggle security guard. Clearly Confounded, and lucky to be alive, he'd babbled something about a couple of people in dark robes down near the Toyota cargo containers.
And, indeed, as Tobias poked his head around this last corner, he saw them. Mercifully - and a little as planned - the moonlight reflected off the waters of the Thames, and so through the glinting silver he could just make out twin silhouettes huddled together in between cargo containers, heads close, discoursing in such low voices he couldn't hear.
He turned back to Bailey, lifting a hand for her to halt where she was, though she nearly bumped in to him before stopping. A few quick hand gestures, signals he'd had drilled into him in training, and he was off, skulking back around the containers, Bailey no longer following.
When he was confident that, still facing the pair of traffickers, she was some one-fifty degrees to his right, he crouched in the shadow of his cargo containers, looked across the gap where his targets were, and raised his wand.
He'd like nothing more than to just throw out a Stun right then; he could go for one, and Bailey would be paying enough attention to grab the other.
Unfortunately, there were procedures to observe. Unfortunately, they meant he had to rise to his feet and silently cast a detached light spell, spilling a hugely bright beacon into the middle of the gap of the containers and right on the centre of the Death Eaters. And even worse, unfortunately, he now had to make himself a target and shout.
"This is the MLE! Drop your wands and put your hands up!"
The two - definitely Death Eaters, both in the masks and robes - started at the light falling on them, and at his voice one jerked and turned to run. He didn't get more than a step, though, before red light streaked away from Bailey's hiding space to thud into his chest. The Death Eater was knocked back flying, hitting the ground with a thud and skidding, body limp and lifeless, limbs flopping.
The other also ran a split second later, once Bailey's curse was already flying, and this one proved himself to be more cunning. In waiting for Bailey's curse he not only made it less likely he'd be hit with a spell, but it meant he now knew where both his assailants were. So when Tobias shot off his own Stun, it was clearly anticipated, and the Death Eater ducked under it, then disappeared behind a corner.
"Shit." Tobias willed his legs into action, hurtling forward at top speed. In the weeks of training he'd been pushed harder, physically, than he'd ever known - it had taken its toll, but the burst of speed he could drag from aching muscles showed him the benefits. "Get that one!" he yelled at Bailey as he passed, pointing at the Stunned Death Eater.
Then he was down in the passageway of cargo containers the Death Eater had disappeared into, and could hear the man's footsteps thudding and echoing through the gaps. He followed, wand gripped tightly and held before him, a Stunning spell at the tip of his mind in case the noises and echoes deceived him and he stumbled upon his target sooner than intended.
He forced himself to slow as they wound deeper into the makeshift passageways, forced his footsteps to be lighter so he could hear better. Now, in late March, his breath steamed in front of him, curling in the darkness he could only barely see through, and as he slowed he began to realise he could not hear his prey.
There was no way he'd escaped. Not with the security they'd set up. So he had to be here. Close. Waiting.
Tobias pressed his back to the container he was next to and edged along, gait light, ears strained for the slightest hint of an enemy. Even as he reached the corner he could swear he could hear the faintest panting of breathing, but wasn't positive it wasn't the echoing of his own, or just his imagination and the wind playing tricks of him.
Still, as he turned the corner he did so in one smooth motion, wand held before him, and all concepts of a Stunning spell flew from his mind as red light darted towards him. Only barely in time did he parry the spell away, and even then it clipped his shoulder, sending a numbing jolt up his left arm and making him stumble - but not stumble enough that he couldn't cast his own retaliation into the gloom his enemy had to be standing in, and was duly rewarded with a dull thump.
Tobias leapt forwards, ignoring the detached sensation of his arm, and rolled his target onto his front, quickly casting a spell to bind his arms and legs. His wand was kicked into a shadowy corner. That was it. Bailey would have the other, and they were done. Smuggling averted.
So he removed the Stun on the captive, reached down to yank his mask off, and grinned. "How did I do, boss?"
Colquhoun gave a short cough as the Stun wore off, but there was half a laugh in there, too. "I thought I had you at that corner," he declared ruefully, clambering to his feet as Tobias let him go and rubbing his wrists. "Didn't think you'd get a Shield Charm off so quick."
"Practice," said Tobias with a twinkle in his eye, helping his superior and partner to his feet. "Bailey got Wicks."
"I saw. We thought we spotted you as you came around, but didn't even see Bailey. Well done." The two of them began to pad back towards the clearing where they'd left the other two MLE Enforcers on this training exercise, a smug Tobias unable to make a few more passing jokes about age catching up with his partner as they went.
"Laugh it up, lad," Colquhoun growled with mock-irritation as they reached the gap in the cargo containers where Bailey and Wicks had now been joined by the others on the exercise, and Wicks was passing around a hip-flask. "This was just an exercise. The real thing starts on Monday."
"We passed?" Bailey looked up with a bright grin, cheeks flushed and enthused despite the chill of an early, wet, cold, British spring. "You got him?"
"Of course he got me," Colquhoun laughed, clapping Tobias on the back and making him almost stagger. "And even if he hadn't you two had the area sealed up tighter 'n a nun's knickers. That's a well-earned badge, the both of you."
Tobias couldn't help but beam at that. He and Bailey, paired up only for this exercise, had spent the past day planning the fictitious arrest, making sure their targets could not escape once the call went out. They'd endeavoured to secure provisions for every variable, or as much as they could with the limited resources they'd been given, and this, the culmination of a month's training, had subsequently gone off without a hitch.
"So, Constable Grey," Colquhoun was now saying, "what's your plans? Going to let us buy you a drink down at the Cauldron?"
He opened his mouth to heartily agree, before his memory caught up with him, and Tobias' shoulders slumped. "I have plans," he said ruefully. "There's a party to get to I promised I'd look in on..."
Although he sounded reluctant, and was truly regretful to miss out on the drinks with his workmates, he couldn't deny the prospect excited him. The last few weeks had been filled, dawn 'til dusk, with MLE training - after hours he had been crammed in the house he'd grown up in, alone with his mother still working in Paris, poring over his books in preparation for the NEWTs he was determined to pass even when away from Hogwarts.
Something which wasn't about work or studies would be a welcome escape.
So they made gibes, and mockeries about his fancy party, but the team of Enforcers returned to the office in high spirits. Tobias had left his robes in his locker, showering and changing and then setting off directly to follow the directions on the parchment delivered to him by a rather handsome owl a month ago.
Regent's Park was the best place to apparate to this time of night for the brisk walk to Baker Street, and though instincts and the dark saw Tobias occasionally flinching at movements in the bushes, it gave him time to bring his mind out of the routine of work, make sure his robes were neat and presentable (with the aid of some Straightening Charms), and before he knew it he was knocking on the door of a house he'd never been to before in his life.
It was not uncommon for wizards to live in central London amongst Muggles. Simple charms would make most neighbours think the household very boring - so boring that nobody would bother them by calling at unusual hours or showing too much interest in their comings and goings, not even the most determined curtain-twitchers. And so Percival McGowan had managed to secure himself a home in the heart of London, and still remain safe from piercing eyes.
Tobias recognised the man the moment he opened the front door. For the editor of a newspaper - even a paper massively overlooked by the majority, who favoured the Daily Prophet, and stomped down on by the establishment who did not appreciate its criticisms - he was not that old, maybe ten years Tobias' senior. His robes were informal, too - casual, and yet artful, crumpled but carried off with an air of confidence and uncaring that made the ensemble work. Glasses askew, hair wild, somehow Percival McGowan managed to still appear as an image of cultured anti-establishment.
"You must be Toby Grey! Come on in, come on in, Sluggy told me all about you."
He wasn't sure how he took to the familiarity from the get-go, but McGowan bore an air of confidence and friendliness it was hard to turn away from, and so Tobias nodded and stepped in. "All good things, I hope, Mister McGowan."
McGowan waved a hand quickly. "No formalities; can't abide it, especially at a party." He took a swig from his wine glass and closed the door behind Tobias, and it was evident by now the place had been decorated for the social event, and there were clearly people beyond the hallway, in the depths of the house. "Call me Val, please, or McGowan if you must. Come, let's get you a drink and I'll introduce you."
Tobias thus found himself yanked into a cosy wizard's house already stocked to the gills with what looked like the who's who of the discerning youth of wizard-kind. Ministry officials were thin on the ground, and those who were there - from the whirlwind round of introductions and names Tobias was sure he'd forget - seemed to be of the more progressive and less popular fields: Magical Beasts and Creatures' rights, Equality laws, trading standards, Internal Investigations. The others seemed to be progressive academics, and corners of the media the Daily Prophet wouldn't hire - Clarion journalists, freelance reporters, a small team from a formerly pirate WWN station. Anyone else appeared to have been brought by friends, or by one universal constant.
Not everyone here had been a member of the Slug Club. But those who weren’t accompanied friends who were. Slughorn seemed to have put people in high places, cultivated Ministers and heads of Government Departments. But he had also clearly been cunning enough to foster those who would become the thorns in their side.
Despite knowing nobody, within short order Tobias found he was having a tremendously good time. McGowan was the consummate host, sweeping across the room to make sure discussions were lively, keenly rearranging conversations if they were a little dry or the partners unmatched, and seemingly free-flowing wine served only to lubricate such proceedings. Much as Tobias had adored his friends at Hogwarts, for the first time he found himself thrown into an area where he was surrounded by the keenly like-minded. Academia and politics flew thick and fast, and Tobias found himself in turn invited to various pubs for future discussions; the home of Lee Jordan's self-proclaimed establishment watchdog radio station; a restaurant for more discussion with an Arithmancy academic whose stimulating conversation he nevertheless needed rescuing from within twenty minutes. And plenty were intrigued by his work, intrigued by the stress on the MLE and the real progress made, the
real situation of law enforcement over what Ministry PR and the Prophet fed them. Tobias had hardly had time to read the Prophet in the last month; the discrepancy between reality and reporting was staggering.
He was just heading for the kitchen for a third glass of rather excellent white wine, having talked more than he'd drunk, when he finally spotted a familiar face - indeed, almost bumped into them in the doorway.
"Ms Marlowe! Oh, bugger, I'm sorry," he staggered, trying to not pour remnants of wine on the tall, austere form of Aurora Marlowe.
Marlowe blinked, stepping to one side so they didn't cause a pile-up in the doorway. "Tobias! Oh, call me Aurora, I already said that... otherwise you'll make me feel old."
"Of course, of course... sorry." Tobias hastily drained the last of his wine so it wouldn't be a threat, moving to one side so others could get to the kitchen. "I didn't realise you were here."
"I didn't realise you were here. I must twist Val's ear afterwards." Marlowe gave a dry smile, then looked about the room, eyes searching for McGowan with a dark glint.
"I thought you'd be in Russia? How are matters out there, actually?" Since he'd joined the MLE, Tobias had stopped paying too much attention to the international world, a little through not wishing to torment himself with what he'd given up on.
"I don't spend all my time there. And I thought you'd be in Hogwarts, not at a party. And you cancelled your DIMC interview?" There was a note of disappointed reproach in Marlowe's voice, and a hint of confused curiosity.
"I..." Tobias hesitated, rubbing the back of his neck. "I've left school. I'm a member of the MLE Squad now."
"You've given up on your NEWTs?" Marlowe sounded dimly horrified. "I saw your marks, that's an awful lot to leave behind, even if we are at war..."
Tobias tried to not think too hard about the fact that the Counsellor to the Ambassador to Russia had seen his application file. "I'll sit my exams in the summer. Independent study until then. But, yes, we are at war." He managed to keep an edge out of his voice; a friend of his father's deserved better.
Marlowe nodded, but her eyes narrowed a fraction. "And when you have your NEWTs?"
"I'll stay an Enforcer until they don't need me any more," Tobias said, well aware that such a time might never come, even if the war ended tomorrow. The conflict would likely leave a generation of tension.
"Hm." Marlowe's gaze was thoughtful, before she gave a very short, crisp nod. "Of course. Dutiful, as ever, just like Robert. I dare say he'd approve."
He'd been told all sorts of similar things by all sorts of people on all sorts of matters. But this was the first time anyone but his mother - who was supposed to say such things - had told him so without sounding patronising. Sounding as if she knew what she was truly talking about.
So he had a hard time keeping a small smile off his face. "Thank you. That's... encouraging to hear."
Marlowe watched him keenly for a moment, hiding her expression behind a sip of the wine, then gave a short nod. "You're welcome, though I only speak the truth. Now, I'm keeping you from the party. I'll let you get a drink and get back; Mister Jordan seemed quite intent on getting an interview off you for the 'real' situation on the streets."
Then she was gone, faded into the crowd before he could say another word, and leaving him with a small twist of guilt and the inexplicable sense that, despite her words, he'd let down the only close friend of his father's he'd ever met.