Chapter 33 : The Only Way
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"So, Mister Grey, we've been over your records. Very impressive, I must say. Would have thought someone with your marks would be going in for the Ministry." Sergeant Colquhoun of the Magical Law Enforcement Squad leaned across the cold, gloomy room which was, if anything, even less glamorous than the chamber Tobias had sat in for his Auror interview.
"I did. I had an interview with the DIMC. I cancelled it." Tobias shifted in his chair a little uncomfortably. He'd blown it with the Aurors over what they'd said were his personal issues. He didn't know if he ought to be more forthcoming with the Enforcers so it seemed like he had these problems under control, or to try to hide them in case they, like the Aurors, misunderstood.
Colquhoun looked down at his notes. He was an older man, clearly a seasoned beat officer. Where Aurors hunted down Dark Magic wielders and Hit Wizards tackled the most dangerous enemies for the final takedown, an Enforcer did everything else. Beats, investigation, dealing with any criminal who didn't prove either too dark or too dangerous for the other divisions.
But Tobias knew a wizard didn't have to use Dark Magic or be hard to beat in a straight fight to be a significant threat to the world. That was where Enforcers came in. Where he'd come in.
"Because of the MacKenzie incident?" Colquhoun asked at last, stroking a stubbly chin.
Tobias' shoulder sagged. Did everyone in MLE know about that? It seemed hiding the truth of his decision was going to be all but impossible if reports of Christmas had been circulated in triplicate. "It made me re-evaluate my priorities," he said in a low voice, trying to not betray his emotions with his tone.
Colquhoun nodded. "Seeing my girl get AK'd in front of me. That'd change my priorities," he grunted, and Tobias looked up sharply. Nobody had been quite that straightforward before. "So you want to get those bastards?"
"I..." Tobias blinked at the Enforcer. "I want to make sure that it doesn't happen to anyone else." It was a response he'd said so often, drilled into himself so much, that by now he almost believed it.
"Bullshit." Colquhoun snorted and stood up. He was a tall man, craggy of feature, and dominated the tiny room with its metal table and weak light with that simple move. "You want to kick Brynmor and Robb in the balls, or you ain't human."
Tobias' expression flickered as he looked up at the veteran Enforcer, and fought to keep his surging enthusiasm under control. "That doesn't mean it's my reason to be here."
Colquhoun watched him for a moment. "So you're just that altruistic, huh?" He folded his arms across his chest. "Listen, lad. You seem like a bright sort, so don't think you can run rings around an old dog like me. You blundered into that MacKenzie situation."
Control snapped, but not with the initial, surging hope that Colquhoun understood, and Tobias leapt to his feet. For once, his gaze was level to look another in the eye. "Blundered? Better than to do nothing like the Aurors did."
"And right you are, lad," Colquhoun said calmly, stopping Tobias in his tracks. "You weren't that smart about taking on two Death Eaters, but you're still in school. And I wouldn't expect to beat them myself. But you showed more balls than the entire Auror division put together." The craggy Enforcer gave a lopsided, deep smile. "I like that.
"Sit down." The instruction was curt, and it was instinctive of Tobias to respond to a command voiced so. Colquhoun looked down at him, hands clasped behind his back. "This is no second-rate organisation. You can't come crying to us just because the Aurors said no."
Tobias half-opened his mouth. "I..."
"It's not glamorous," Colquhoun continued, ignoring his effort to respond. "We don't prance around with dark magic or swan in at the end once other people have done the leg-work. We're there from beginning to end. From the most minor crime to the most vicious. When a husband murders his wife over a domestic, he's no wielder of Dark Arts, and it don't take a Hit Wizard to bring him down in a fight. But we're there, bagging the body and listening to him sob anyway."
Tobias watched the veteran for a moment to make sure he'd actually finished before he drew a deep breath. "I'm not lying when I say I want to stop this from happening to other people."
"And that's good. Or you'd be inhuman if you didn't feel that, either." Colquhoun gave a stern nod.
"Are... all your interviews like this?" Tobias had to ask.
Colquhoun snorted. "On paper there's no reason to not accept you. You're over-qualified. Material for Aurors or Hit Wizards or Unspeakables. So we'd snatch you up in a second, groom you for the higher ups. We know you've got the mind for it. We've addressed your testicular fortitude already." A lopsided, creased smile. "Just need to know if you've got the heart for it."
Tobias watched him for a few long moments, eyes narrowing with a hint of suspicion. The grey stone and dim lighting of the interview room were beginning to get to him, oppressive an atmosphere as they were casting. "And what hoop do I jump through to prove that?" He couldn't quite keep a suspicious tone from his voice.
"Lots of hoops to jump through. We like our hoops." Colquhoun's voice held a small note of dry self-derision. "Expect to be told what to do. When to act. When not to. And you'll be expected to do it."
"I can follow orders," Tobias said with a slight note of impatience. "I don't doubt it'll be different to a prefect hierarchy, but I'll learn."
"You want to learn? You want to be working until late at night patrolling the deadest parts of wizarding Britain? You want to be ready for days and days of intense boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror?" Colquhoun rested his hands on the table, dark eyes staring beadily at Tobias.
"I don't know about want to," was the honest response, "but I'll do it."
"Why?" The question came as quick as a thunder-crack.
"Because I want to stop those bastards," Tobias said, as levelly as he could through the blossoming, familiar anger.
"You could be a Ministry young riser. A high flier. Some big shot's assistant and protégé." Colquhoun's gaze didn't falter, and Tobias shuffled in his chair.
"That's not what I want any more," he managed to say through gritted teeth.
"Since when do you think?" came the sharp response he couldn't keep the edge out of.
"Since you screwed it up and she got killed?"
That hit Tobias like the Enforcer veteran had punched him in the gut. He stared at the other man for a long moment as nausea fought with his anger, and gritted his teeth. "I thought you said you liked that I went?" he managed to say instead of shouting. Or punching him.
Who the hell does this guy think he is?
"Stupid things can still impress me. Aurors washed you out for a reason, boy." Colquhoun leaned forwards across the table again. "You thought we'd be easier?"
Tobias gripped his armrest, knuckles white. "No," he lied.
"We're not easier," Colquhoun spat. "We have no more patience than them for some kid who's going to run off and get him and others killed for vengeance. But..."
His voice trailed off, and the twisting in Tobias' gut weakened a little in that slightest, mildest, glimmering hint of hope. "But?" His voice sounded grating, harsh, even to his ears.
"...but we've got more balls than the Aurors do," Colquhoun said at last. "So we'd actually find out if you're a lost cause, take the risk in the first place, instead of just dismissing you."
Tobias let out a long breath, head bowing very briefly as tension swam in him. "Do you think I'm a lost cause, then?" he muttered.
"Can only find that out by doing." Colquhoun sat down again. "I like you, Grey. So I'll give you a chance in the training course. Get through that and you're an Enforcer."
Tobias blinked. "Easy as that?"
"If you think it's easy," Colquhoun said with a smirk, "then you don't know our training course. One month intensive physical and professional induction. Then you learn on the beat, with some old dog like me." The smirk broadened. "Maybe even me. You'll need a big dog to keep you in line." He leaned back in his chair. "Training courses begin end of February and end of June."
"I've got my NEWTs in June," Tobias replied automatically. "I'm in school until then."
Then he thought, and made the only choice he could.
The interview didn't last much longer than that, with Tobias emerging from the room in something of a daze once he had done, sending in the victim - interviewee - after him as he stumbled down the corridor. This, like all MLE activity not requiring direct communication with the Ministry, had happened in their large, discreet Headquarters on Canary Wharf, lost in and about the warehouses of the industrial yards. So for the second time in as many weeks he made his way out of the building, not really taking in much of the sights and sounds of where he would soon be working, things which would soon be familiar for the job he was about to undertake.
There was a preferred spot around the corner once you were out of the door to use for apparition, and it took only a moment to calm his nerves. A drawn breath, a moment's focus, a turn on the spot, and the air whistled in his ears before he felt the brief, faint drop of compensating for the ground in his apparition. Snow crunched underfoot at the impact, and when he opened his eyes he was, indeed, in the copse between Hogwarts and Hogsmeade he preferred to use for his magical travel.
He wrapped his green scarf a little more firmly around his neck, shoved his hands in his pockets and crunched out of the cold woodlands towards the nearby path. He was in no mood to try the secret passageway to the school he knew was hidden around here; it was over a year since they'd made use of it to break out to Hogsmeade New Year's Festival, and the memories alone kept him at bay.
So he took the route that gave him a good view of the path up to the school, and within short order could see a figure tromping along the same route, up ahead, on the walkway. Hunched over against the cold, weary if their steps were anything to judge by, but unmistakeable to his eye; it had to be Tanith, returning from one of her training sessions with Altair Ritter.
She'd always been evasive before Christmas about these trips. Always been vague on why she was out and about. And for the tension between them, he'd never pressed; for his own distractions in Annie, had never paid enough attention to defeat her excuses. It had come up fairly shortly after Christmas, though; something had to explain how she could fight off a Death Eater and get him out of that house alive.
His hand still ached occasionally with the memory of bones smashed in anguish and agony, and on late nights, he thought he could feel the throbbing in his flesh of the Cruciatus curse. It was one thing to see it; one thing for Professor Moody to show them, one thing to read about it. But the sense of it washing over him would likely be something else from that night which would stay with him forever.
So he picked up the pace to get out of the cold and into the warmth, hurrying along the path. "Tanith!"
He was barely a few metres away before he called out, but it was enough. He had to skid to an abrupt halt as she whirled around, wand in hand and in his face, and instinct saw him draw his own, pointed at her gut.
There was a long pause as he squinted, astonished at her reflexes and more confused now why she hadn't lowered the wand. "Sorry," he said sincerely. "I didn't mean to sneak up on -"
"What was the colour of the door to the interview room at Auror Headquarters?" Tanith asked sharply, dark gaze locked on him.
He blinked. "What?"
"You've just come out of nowhere outside of Hogwarts grounds. I'd be an idiot to take you at face value." Tanith squared her shoulders, and again, he could see from the ache of such a move how tired she was. "So answer the question."
Tobias sighed. Standard security practices like this gave him a headache. "Dark green. The paint was flaking. It was grey underneath."
She lowered her wand, but her eyes flashed as he went to lower his. "Don't be a fool, Grey, I could be anyone."
"But you're not," he said sharply, feeling the winter wind whistle in his hair as he spoke. "You're Tanith Cole. I know you're Tanith Cole, just by looking at you. Just by looking at how dog-tired you are. Just by the way you glare at me. Just by the way you chewed on your lower lip when thinking of a security question to ask me. Just by the way you say my name."
The words tumbled out thoughtlessly, true each and every one, but then they were there, as heavy between them a they would be if they'd thudded into the snow. Tanith stared at him, gaze hesitant and showing that wave of control all at once, before his breath caught in his throat.
"...what's my wand made of?" he asked at last, as much to diffuse the tension as to bypass that slimmest of slim chances that he was wrong.
"Which one?" The ghost of a smile tugged at her lips. "Your old one was an Ollivander's, bought when you were eleven, and it was mahogany and Pegasus-mane. Nine inches. Reliable, and good for Transfiguration. Your new one's a Dupont, eleven inches, oak and dragon heartstring. Solid. Excellent at protective spells. Bought by your mother in Paris just before the start of term." The smile solidified a little. "It came in a green box."
Tobias blinked, then lowered said wand. "Bloody hell, you do remember your trivia."
"I practice. It's good to hone your mind even on irrelevances." Tanith stepped back, and her expression opened up at last, with optimism and a hint of hesitation. "How did the interview go?"
His own grin came, with his own dose of doubt and uncertainty. "I'm in," he declared.
There was just the slightest flicker of surprise, and it was a surprise he felt himself - astonishment at the turning of his luck - before Tanith gave a genuine grin and stepped forwards swiftly, wrapping her arms around him in a warm hug. "Of course you are," she said quickly, firmly. "They weren't going to turn a genius like you down, were they?"
He returned the hug almost wistfully, holding her close for a long moment he tried to savour. Savour the feel of her, savour the warmth of her, because he knew soon he was going to be feeling the anger of her.
He wasn't sure he could cope with that. Wasn't sure he could cope with the fury of the one person who'd kept him sane in the past month - and alive. Where Gabriel had been distant, where Cal had been untrustworthy, where his mother had been a continent away and teachers not close enough to be confided in... there had been Tanith. Listening when he had something to say. Talking when he didn't. Then knowing when to just sit with him in the silent moments and let him know he was not alone.
And he was about to - had to - throw it in her face.
He pulled back reluctantly, stepping out of her grasp, and caught the flicker of concern from her this brought. "There's a training intake at the end of June, I'm guaranteed for that," he said, his voice tightening. "But... and... I'd have to talk to Professor Snape and Professor Dumbledore... I want to go into the training course starting in a month."
The flicker turned to eyes widening with disbelief. "But you've got NEWTs in June..."
"We're reaching mostly just revision time. And a lot of my courses require independent study." He was speaking more firmly now, more confident in the plan, the idea that he'd tossed over in his mind the moment Colquhoun had given him the dates. "I can work, and prepare for exams in my own time. I'm good enough to do that - you know I'm good enough."
It would be hard to argue with the straight O's he'd enjoyed in his mock-exams, or the extent to which so much of their NEWT courses had become encouraging of independent study. And if he could convince Tanith Cole of this, Dumbledore and Snape would be a...
"...you'd be leaving Hogwarts. To fight."
Her voice was cold and empty and even - was it? - scared, and his gut twisted. He hadn't prepared for this. Blind fury, yes, but... emptiness?
"To protect," he said, though the words felt a little weak to even his own ears. "To do something I can now, instead of waiting. They'll take me on my OWLs, I don't even need the NEWTs, why wait?"
Tanith looked away abruptly, gaze going across the snowy fields of the route back up to Hogwarts, and the wind whipped her hair in her face so he couldn't quite see her expression. She didn't seem to balk at this, and his question hung in the air expectantly, unanswered for long moments.
"No," she whispered at last, more to herself than to him. "Why wait indeed?"
He scratched the back of his head, taking a step along the path, as if to see if she'd notice enough to fall into step next to him. She did, but it was with a distant, mechanical gait.
"I'm sorry," he said at last, the words tasting bitter in his mouth. But he was sorry - sorry to hurt her, sorry to have to leave her, sorry she couldn't understand, because it would make the decision so, so much easier if she could. "If things were different... if none of this had happened... I wish I could stay..."
But he couldn't, and the glint in her eye suggested she knew that as she shook her head. "But it did happen. All of this has happened. And I told you before; if wishes were broomsticks, then Squibs would ride."
Her eyes turned skywards as they both fell into silence at last on the walk back up to the castle, and dimly, dimly he wondered if she was counting how many broomsticks she'd have by now for her thwarted wishes.
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