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Chapter 17: The Exception that Proves
She didn’t know how long she’d been in the dark. Day and night had become irrelevances when she couldn’t see the sun. All she knew was time to sleep, time to eat, and then the times He was in here. She’d tried, the first few days, to put together something of a routine. To identify a pattern so she had something to cling on to, some concept of the passing of time.
They had intentionally abused it. At first she’d thought she would be brought food - to be generous in describing the watery gruel that was pushed through her cell door - about once every eight hours. But soon enough that had changed; once being brought food twice in fairly quick succession, then not being fed for what she guessed could be as long as twelve hours later. And even then she wasn’t sure, as every time she tried to drift off to sleep, curled up in the corner of the cold, dank cell, something happened.
Slamming of doors. Loud footsteps. Shouting and wailing from those next to her. The door being thrown open with light, so bright as to be blinding, then closed again. It was intentional, she guessed. Sleep deprivation wasn’t the sort of punishment she put past Him.
So she was hungry. She was tired. She’d received no care for her shattered left hand, and the pain had become a rhythmic pounding, a pulsing agony that racked her body. Even moving it in the slightest brought deeper aches, and at first she’d thought she’d never be able to rest through the pain, even in the cold and the dark when she was alone.
But being alone in the dark was better than being with Him in the dark.
She didn’t know how often Robb came to conduct his interrogations. After the first, swift bouts of Legilimency where he’d clearly expected to break through her defences quickly, he had let the sessions draw out. Clearly, he was expecting her environment to crack her concentration, and she’d thought for the longest time that it would work. She still wasn’t sure it wouldn’t.
But she hadn’t lasted so long for her own sake. She knew what Robb needed. If he had proof Tobias was stealing Ministry secrets, that would be all the legal excuse he needed to go to Russia after him. International judgement would not condemn an exile writing critical reports of the British regime, but they would have no legal leg to stand on to protect him if he was committing the active crimes of espionage and of coercing a government official to commit treason.
If she cracked, they would have him. And then he’d be dead.
The knowledge was all she needed, it turned out, for her to cling on long beyond what she thought she was capable of.
Even if it meant she’d die here.
But all the determination in the world didn’t stop her from shrinking back as the door to her cell swung open. She uncurled despite herself, forcing herself to get out of the corner and stand, get to her feet in the face of the burly figure silhouetted against the prison corridor light. Robb hated defiance. But defiance was all she had.
It wasn’t Robb’s voice, though, and for a moment she thought it might have been a trick. But then the figure stepped forwards, and her eyes adjusted to the light better, and she realised they were too broad to be Robb, too burly.
It was Cal.
He hurried over, and when he wrapped his arm around her she collapsed against him, giving a sigh that was more of an incoherent sound of relief and a release of stress - along with garbled confusion. His grip was warm, though, and strong, and as she sagged he kept her upright. ‘It’s all right. We’re leaving.’
Then she heard raised voices from down the corridor, and struggled to straighten. ‘What...’
‘This is on Drake’s orders, Idaeus!’ She managed to not flinch as she heard Robb’s name, and he and the burly figure of Brynmor came to a halt outside of the cell door. ‘It was a long shot that you were going to get anything out of her after the first day.’
‘I will get something. I have all of the evidence I need -’
‘You had all the evidence you needed to bring her in for questioning. Merlin knows if she was a nobody you could have kept her, but she’s got family. Of course her father’s a little shit-stain but you need proof. Drake’s right, we can’t look like we’re turning on just anyone who looks at us funny, or even the old families will begin to lose faith. We’re here to make them feel safe.’
‘I am making them actually safe, Thanatos. Or have you become more obsessed with how it looks, rather than how it is, since you became Bacchus Drake’s lapdog?’
Cal let her stand upright, but he tightened his grip on her shoulder. ‘It’s all right. It’s - come on.’ Gingerly he led her to the door, and gingerly she followed.
Thanatos Brynmor and Idaeus Robb looked in the middle of a full-on row in the corridor which had the Enforcer guards of the prison hanging back a few steps in apprehension. She made herself not flinch at the sight of Robb, kept the tilt of her jaw defiant, even if she was drawing more from Cal’s strength by now than any of her own.
‘You are altogether too obsessed with this boy,’ Brynmor was saying. ‘It’s not worth alienating the families over. You had your chance to get her to crack, and... ah. Miss Cole.’ Her superior straightened, and frustration was covered with that veneer of savage civility which hung about him in the office. ‘You should be pleased to hear you’re free to go.’
She looked between the two of them dubiously. ‘No charges?’
Brynmor gave a smile that didn’t reach his eyes while Robb looked surly, a contradiction to their usual roles. ‘No charges. You go straight back to work.’
‘Straight?’ Cal echoed. ‘Don’t be ridiculous - look at what you did to her.’ There was a shake of anger in his voice, and his grip on her shoulder tightened.
Brynmor made a noise of irritation. ‘Two days. That’s all. Don’t push your luck, boyo. If there were any justice she’d have been left to rot here.’
Robb’s lip curled. ‘If there were any justice I’d have her given the Kiss as a traitor.’
‘If there were actual justice, it’d be the two of you in there,’ Tanith said. ‘I’m so glad you identified this miscarriage of justice and corrected it.’
Robb’s eyes narrowed. ‘Don’t worry, Miss Cole,’ he said, his voice cold. ‘Evil goes punished. Actions have consequences. Don’t think that you’ve got away with this. Don’t think that there’s no price to be paid for what you’ve done.’ He waved a hand quickly, irritably. ‘Now, off with you.’
Cal steered her down the corridor before she could answer, shaking his head until they had stumbled their way through the dark, towards where she faintly remembered the stairs were, to be out of earshot. ‘Don’t push it,’ he murmured. ‘Give them half an excuse and you’ll be back in there.’
Tanith drew a deep, shaking breath as they clambered up the stone stairs. Ahead she could see light, and a neat wooden door leading to the Canary Wharf offices, and the return to warm, illuminated civilisation.
Or the facade of it.
‘What happened?’ she croaked. ‘How come they...’
‘Ariane,’ said Cal, helping her up the stairs. ‘I went with her to her father and we explained the situation... he agreed it was untenable that someone of your bloodlines be kept without charge or evidence for so long. I think he really can’t stand Robb.’ He glanced cautiously over his shoulder. ‘Thanatos he seems to view as a brute on a leash, but Robb is... dangerous. Can’t be controlled.’
She repressed a shudder as the pieces came together. ‘I wouldn’t have thought Ariane would have stood up for anything other than her father’s next hand-out.’
‘I think the reality of the situation is beginning to set in,’ said Cal. ‘And her dad clearly dotes on her, even if he is a bloody Death Eater; it was obvious he wasn’t going to punish her for asking. But she did take... nudging, shall we say, before she went.’
Tanith glanced up at him as they went through the corridors of the Canary Wharf HQ to the Apparition Zones. A glance at the clock said it was almost eleven o’ clock, and it had to be at night - fortunately hardly anyone was around. ‘...thank you,’ she murmured. ‘For that. And for coming to fetch me.’
‘Drake took me with him to go see Thanatos,’ said Cal tensely. ‘I think he thought my presence would help or something, but once he agreed to make Robb let you go I said I’d come with him. Get you out of here.’
Tanith nodded as they passed the Enforcer on the door to the Apparition Zone, who gave them wary glances but let them pass with just one look up and down of Cal. ‘Home?’
He wrapped his arm around her shoulder more firmly, pulling out his wand. ‘Not quite. But better. Hold on tight.’
It was cold when she was hit in the face with fresh air, cold and wet, and Cal muttered apologies as he led her through mud towards the light spilling through leaves and across grass. She didn’t fight him, didn’t even question him, and so it wasn’t until a big door was being opened for her and she was bundled inside that she realised where she was.
Her sister had clearly known she was coming. Had a warm blanket ready to wrap around her, and a few careful charms to apply to her hand to reset the bones and diminish the throbbing, though she insisted she go to Saint Mungo’s the next day. But best was some warm - but not hot - stew coming off the hob, even at this time of night, which she gobbled up with unladylike relief. Then she was bundled off to a warm, cleansing bath before being put into a clean, comfortable bed in one of the spare rooms.
The half-hour from crossing the threshold of the Sprague household to passing out in bed went in something of a garbled whirl before Tanith’s exhausted senses, and even days after she couldn’t look back and make coherent sense of it. She couldn’t remember her sister’s tired reassurances, or how she insisted Cal stuck around, or the fact that Leah was already in bed so they should be quiet.
But she did remember the sense of warmth, the sense of care, and the sense of wellbeing which came from something more alien to Tanith Cole than it really should have been.
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ said Wilson, ‘I’m as pleased as anyone that she’s out. Because I’m not an ungrateful git. I just don’t think it means today is a day for singing and prayer.’
‘Nobody said you were an ungrateful git, Wilson,’ said Doyle as yet more crates Apparated in front of them in the dark tunnel. ‘Just a git.’
‘Ha. Ha ha. Who was coming up with schemes to break into Canary Wharf to get her out, then, hm? Wasn’t that me?’
‘Awful schemes. Dreadful, dreadful schemes that wouldn’t have worked, and all based off intelligence which your girlfriend gave you.’ Doyle scratched his chin. ‘That sounds like the story of your life, actually, Wilson.’
There was another crack, and the next and final array of crates appeared this time in the company of Jennifer Riley, who looked unimpressed. ‘Do you two ever give it a rest?’ she asked, as she and the others moved forward to levitate up a crate each, sending them bobbing down the dark tunnel. They had been using this tunnel network - a leftover from the Second World War, connecting the city’s schools together underground in case of emergency - for a week now, and the darkness had been getting to them all.
A raid on a Ministry Storage Facility had been more welcome than risking life and limb normally was, even for a group so accustomed to the fear of death as the Lions of Britain.
‘How did you know we were bickering?’ said Wilson defensively.
‘She’s met you. She knows you can’t do anything but gripe and moan.’ Doyle smirked.
‘And you can’t do much more than attack and snipe,’ she said, wagging a finger at him. ‘When I said I wanted you two to watch the drop-off it was to make sure nobody had followed us here. You did make sure the area was secure, didn’t you.’
‘Yes,’ said Doyle, at the exact same time as Wilson winced and admitted, ‘No.’
Doyle waved a hand irritably. ‘He might not have secured the area, but I did. It’s safe. Trust me.’ He tapped his temple and gave Riley a lopsided smirk.
‘Your visions don’t work like that,’ she said with a frown.
‘They sometimes do.’
‘They have never shown you all being well. Even the good ones show success against the odds in the face of the risk of horrible death,’ said Riley as the procession of them reached the open connection in the corridors which was where the Lions had put together a makeshift camp. Lamps, sleeping mats, and gathered supplies in gloomy lighting were all they had to enjoy when huddled together in this miserable place.
‘Bloody hell,’ muttered Tom Everard, scratching at his stubbly jaw. ‘Can’t the damn Death Eaters find us and force us to go on the run again?’
Cormac McLaggen laughed. ‘Quite, next time we can hide out somewhere nicer.’
‘It’s no coincidence that our mankiest hideout yet is also our most successfully hidden one,’ sighed Riley, lifting her hands for the dozen or so of them to fall silent. They gathered together, Wilson slinking to one side of her, between her and McLaggan, Doyle to the other side, nothing but the darkness at his flank.
‘That was good work today,’ she said, raising her voice so it echoed just loud enough around their dark surroundings. ‘In and out with a minimal amount of fuss, but we’ve covered our tracks and made off with this latest delivery. They clearly valued it, or there wouldn’t have been as much security as there was.’
‘A big risk on nothing but a dream,’ said Everard, arms folded across his chest. He sounded disapproving and yet grudgingly accepting, his eyes landing on Doyle.
‘I knew you only went along with it because I saw you blasting your way through five layers of security enchantments, Everard,’ drawled Doyle. ‘I’ll know to mention you doing something impressive in my vision next time I want you to actually take me seriously.’
‘It’s still us sticking our necks out,’ said McLaggan. ‘I hope it’s worth it.’
‘Bloody hell. You’re all like mice sometimes, aren’t you?’ Doyle sneered. ‘You won. You dealt a blow against the evil empire, and all you can still do is bitch and moan about whether it’s worth it? Who dares, wins, after all.’
‘It is worth it. Every time we deal a blow and get away alive and unharmed, it is worth it. Even if all we did was trip them up.’ Riley raised her wand. ‘But let’s just find out how worth it. There’s no way they’d keep nothing of consequence so heavily guarded.’
A swish of her wand brought the lid of the first crate flying off, and collective the Lions of Britain caught their breath.
Everard gave a low whistle. ‘Didn’t see that coming, did you, Doyle.’
‘I see it now.’ Doyle smirked, stepping forward and peering into the contents. ‘Are you satisfied?’ This wasn’t just to Everard, but all of those gathered. ‘There’s enough potions ingredients in this crate alone to tool up a dozen wizards with six doses of whatever in the world you’ve got the smarts to make.’
Riley moved to his side, reaching in and pulling out an piece of parchment. ‘Asphodel, boomslang skin, salamander eyes... I could make Strengthening Solutions, Reinvigorating Draughts, Wit-Sharpening Potions...’
‘Enough to give us the edge in every engagement for the next two months. And they don’t have it,’ said Doyle, looking up triumphantly.
It was a strange sense, to stand in the midst of these people he couldn’t stand, hadn’t been able to stand for years on end, and to have them looking at him like this. They’d been fearful, apprehensive, the moment he’d come here, even though Riley had tentatively vouched for him. The first time they’d realised he wasn’t a fraud they’d been perhaps more worried, but time had begun to erode the lack of comprehension, the fear of the unknown.
It had been a slow process, but this was the first time in weeks he’d looked around himself, looked in their eyes, and not just assumed it would be distrust and fear. And this was the first time ever he saw not just trust, acceptance - but respect.
Except in the eyes of Nick Wilson, whose gaze had gone baleful.
‘We’ll need apothecary equipment,’ said Percival Anderson anxiously.
‘Equipment’s easier to get than ingredients,’ pointed out Everard. ‘We can nick those easily, or I reckon I can just make do, I got an ‘O’ in my NEWT.’
‘Let’s not make-do for things we’re going to be chugging down, shall we, chum?’ said McLaggan with a nervous grin.
‘Wait.’ Riley’s voice was low, urgent, and only Doyle was close enough to hear - and it was his forearm she reached out to grab quickly, grip iron even though she didn’t lift her gaze from the parchment. ‘This was a new delivery.’
The others hadn’t noticed their leader’s change in comportment - except for Wilson, who stalked over, standing over her shoulder with furtive protectiveness. ‘Delivery?’
‘It’s when someone brings something from A to -’
‘Shipped in from abroad,’ said Riley, cutting off Doyle’s snide comment.
‘I thought most countries were putting an embargo on trade to Britain?’ Doyle looked at her with a frown, serious once again.
‘Especially those with major anti-Dark Magic attitudes.’ She turned away from Wilson, and shoved the parchment into his hands. ‘Like Russia.’
He read over the parchment, skimming the ingredients, until he noticed the shipping details discreetly penned at the bottom, including a delivery address and - more importantly - a point of origin. Doyle’s breath caught in his throat, and he glanced up.
‘We’ve got to get word to Toby.’