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Chapter 19: The Ace of Spades
Winter had come, and winter in Moscow was unlike anything Tobias had ever felt. He'd thought Hogwarts, nestled in the Scottish Highlands, could be cold, but the chill in the air that smacked him in the face the moment he ventured out the door sank straight to the bone.
He didn't know how the locals put up with it. Not going outside a great deal seemed to be the first and best tactic, along with wrapping up warmer than his grandmother. So he'd been surprised when Dimitri had asked to meet him after lunch in the park.
It was one of the better days, bright and clear and crisp, but footing was still a bit treacherous, and snow hid any sign of greenery. He'd been sure to find his moleskin gloves, woolly scarf, and thickest coat before venturing out.
Dimitri never asked to meet him outside of work. This wasn't even an unsociable issue - the two men spent so much time together, and the 'work' Dimitri needed to do was just simple supervising and helping out. They spent enough time sitting around on the sofas of the makeshift press office while Tobias wrote and Dimitri concocted office games using enchanted bits of scrunched up parchment. And perhaps a few times the four of them had gone for a drink after a hard day, but despite the fact that the Russian was closer to his age than the other two - both old enough to be his parents - they hadn't become especially close.
The bigger man was stood just a little way in past the gates, a pair of insulated paper cups in his hands, and he lifted one in greeting as Tobias wandered up. 'It is a chilly day, no?'
Tobias took the cup and sniffed experimentally. Coffee. That had become an acquired taste abroad, where a good cup of tea was to die for. 'I'm surprised this isn't a block of ice.'
'It is a mild winter. Your nose is not about to drop off. That is good.' Dimitri gave a smile Tobias thought was a bit nervous, and nodded for them to break into a meander down the path.
'You mean it gets worse?'
'We are used to it. You are not. It may turn out to be a shock. It is best a foreigner like you stays inside. We would not want a Brain Box icecube.'
Tobias frowned, sipping the by-now lukewarm coffee. 'Then why are we out here?'
Dimitri glanced around, his broad features shifting into a frown. 'To enjoy the atmosphere. And the park. It is a beautiful park, we should see more of it.' He gestured further in.
Tobias was suddenly acutely aware that one of his hands was occupied, holding the coffee cup, and that his wand was not as close to his grasp as he'd like, under the layers of warm wrapping. He fiddled with the buttons of his coat, and did his best to down the coffee. 'Yes. I've not... done much of the tourist thing.'
'You have been busy,' said Dimitri as they rounded a corner, the outskirts of the park gone from view behind bushes and trees, and at this time of year, this far in, this time of day, there was barely any sign of life or of people. If Tobias hadn't been so suspicious he would have been mesmerised at how they could walk a few hundred metres and then be in their own winter haven, as if the bustle of a city were hundreds of miles away.
Sound clearly didn't carry. He tossed his half-finished coffee into the next bin by the path.
'All of that work,' Dimitri continued. 'Your Midnight Press is going very well. Very, very well. Though it is not so much a secret any more.'
'That was never going to last,' said Tobias. 'The British Government clearly knows we're out here. I hope it's not making too much trouble for the Federation?'
Dimitri's lips twisted, though his usual mirth was gone from his eyes. 'No. The people here do not want to give you up. London has not made many efforts to get you extradited. Everyone knows that it would fail and they still wish... to stay as friendly as they can.'
'So long as our illegal information gathering stays quiet,' Tobias muttered.
'So long as. The Federation will not be able to protect you so easily if London has evidence. But you know this.' He came to a halt and turned to face him. 'It is not the Federation officials that you need to be worrying about.'
Tobias tensed, his hand slipped inside his coat as discreetly as he could manage under the pretense of bundling himself up more closely. 'No?' he asked gently. 'Who do I need to worry about?'
Dimitri made a face, and turned to the nearest bin to deposit his coffee cup. 'Russia is not as free of Dark Magic as we would like to be thinking,' he said, still with his back to him. 'The government is... safe. I think. But there are still people who are agreeing with your Voldemort in the country. Old memories.'
Tobias flinched despite himself. It was a cultural oddity that foreigners didn't think twice about saying You-Know-Who's name - they had never lived in everyday terror of him, and the name 'You-Know-Who' abroad was less self-explanatory. Normally Dimitri deferred to British sensibilities, but it had slipped out once or twice when he was being thoughtless.
Normally he wasn't thoughtless. But he was doing something with his back to Tobias, getting something out from inside his coat, blocked from view...
'For now, ideological similarity is not enough for them to risk themselves. At least... that is... not openly.'
Then Dimitri turned, and Tobias' wand was in his hand and pointed forwards in one long, smooth notion as the burly Russian rounded on him.
But for all of his dramatic flourish, Dimitri was only holding a piece of parchment he'd had inside his coat - and was wearing a truly bewildered expression. The two of them stood there, framed in white by the snow on the ground and in the trees, the isolated silence hanging thick and heavy between them.
Dimitri went cross-eyed looking at Tobias' wand. 'What...'
Tobias hesitated. 'Um.' He glanced at the parchment. 'What's that?'
'This is...' The Russian stopped. 'Why is your wand in my face?'
'I thought -' Tobias cleared his throat, but didn't lower his wand. 'Why are we out here in the middle of nowhere?'
'I wanted us to be safe to talk. Somewhere I knew we would not be heard.'
'The press office is safe.'
'I wanted to be sure.' Dimitri frowned. 'You thought I had taken you out here to attack you?'
Finally, Tobias lowered his wand, a bit abashed. 'You were acting... peculiarly,' he said, though didn't put his wand away.
'...oh.' Dimitri shifted his feet. 'I perhaps was. And you are perhaps not wrong to be... paranoid.' He extended the parchment to him again, though his expression was a little more guarded and, Tobias thought, hurt.
'What's this?' Tobias took and unfolded it with one hand.
'The alchemical ingredients that your friends the Lions stole in England,' said Dimitri. 'I looked into where they were sent from. The embargo is very firm; no goods like that should be sold to Britain, and for certain not to the British government. Whoever did this was taking a big risk, but they could not have been doing it without influence.'
Tobias squinted at the paper. 'You don't think this is just some Dark Magic sympathising alchemical company?'
'I think that is where it is from. But I think that on their own they could not have got the crates out of the country and into Britain. I did some investigating.' Dimitri took a hesitant breath. 'There are individuals in the Commerce office who have to have allowed the shipment to make it through. The names are there.'
'We should act.' Tobias straightened. 'Tell your superiors, tell Sergeyev, get them -'
'No.' Dimitri's voice shook with determination, harsh enough to make Tobias flinch. He'd never heard the Russian sound quite so adamant. 'You are here, in this country, on nothing more than the hospitality and sufferance of Russian witches and wizards. They wish to keep you alive and in the country, and do not care about upsetting your British government by protecting you. But not everyone in this country thinks the same.'
Tobias waved the parchment. 'Evidently!'
'And for those who do not, right now it is not worth their necks to go after you! You are not affecting them. But if you do...' Dimitri's voice trailed off. 'Russia is not so free from Dark Magic as we would like to be thinking. There are those who would happily kill you for nothing, but it is not worth it yet. If you reveal their alliance with a Dark Magic government, then it will be worth it.'
'If you want me to do nothing,' said Tobias cautiously, 'then why did you tell me all this?'
'You have been investigating since your friends told you about the shipment,' said Dimitri. 'I know that you asked me to look into it but you have been doing your own investigating. If I did not find this out and then warn you, you might find it and act on it yourself.'
'...and you think that if I reveal this company, and the corrupt government officials, then they'll come for me in the night?' he said dubiously.
'I think that you may find you have not so many allies in protecting your asylum. It will not break it down, but it will give you much less protection,' said Dimitri. 'I think that you may have to watch your back at night even more than you do, and fear a Russian knife in the back as much as a British one. I think you might find, even if a Russian would not act against you, they might leave a door open for someone else to act against you.'
Tobias sighed, turning the paper over in his hands. 'This is big, though, Dimitri,' he said. 'If the British government's getting equipment, resources, from abroad? If the embargo's being flaunted? I doubt it's just this company. This strengthens the Death Eaters, this gives them even more ways to oppress and kill people, it gives them more power. I need to shut it down.'
'Even if they kill you for it?' Dimitri sagged.
'I've given enough people enough reasons to kill me that one more isn't going to make a world of difference,' said Tobias with a one-shouldered shrug. 'I didn't go into this business for my own safety.'
'You went into it to make a difference -'
'And I don't make a difference if I sit on stories and information because it's too dangerous. With this evidence, do you think that we could take down the corrupt officials in Commerce, do you think we could get this alchemist's shop shut down?'
Dimitri took off his woolly hat and ran a hand through his hair, sighing deeply. 'I think it will... work. But it would only get those people on the list. Not any other accomplices.'
'Do you reckon those accomplices could just pick up where they left off?'
'Of course not. The shop would be taken, the supply lines would be traced, there would be a full internal investigation at Commerce...' Dimitri shook his head. 'Just because nobody else could continue the alchemical smuggling does not mean they could not come for you in the night with an Avada Kedavra.'
'If they're not trying to kill me,' said Tobias, 'I'm not doing my job right.'
'You are careful, my friend. I know this. I am impressed that you did not even trust me - you should keep that up. It may save your life. But there is a reason I brought you to the middle of nowhere to talk about this. I would not even discuss it in your offices. This information is dangerous. If you go ahead with it, they will try to kill you.'
Tobias gave a dark, lopsided smile, and waved the parchment. 'Let me worry about that,' he said, and straightened. 'But in the meantime, we've got our content for our next issue.'
'Just sit down, and shut up!' Tanith hollered through the cell door. 'Quit that banging about or I will give you something to complain about!'
'We got a right to our legal representative!' came the muffled voice from the other side. 'You can't oppress us like this, you fascist bitch!'
'Your oppression right now is waiting a full two hours until someone gets sent down from Legal to talk to you. Go cry about how hard your life is to people in Azkaban. Maybe they can give you a sob story that'll upset you so badly your mums'll feel it. Now can it!' Tanith shook her head and turned to storm towards the stairs leading back up to the civilisation of Canary Wharf.
'You're just Miss Sympathy today, aren't you,' said Jacob wryly, walking in step.
'They're muggers,' she said. 'These guys would be getting just as badly punished a year ago as they will be now. If I thought they'd been driven to crime in desperation I might feel a bit more bad for them, but so far as I'm concerned, they're the same old scum as ever before.'
'It's a novelty, isn't it,' he drawled as they climbed the stairs.
'A welcome one. Actually bringing in crooks who hurt people. I forgot they exist.'
'Oh, they exist,' muttered Jacob, pausing with his hand on the doorknob when they reached the top of the stairs. 'They're just the thief-takers themselves these days.'
Tanith made a scoffing noise, but didn't contest it - or continue the complaining as they were now back in the belly of the beast. It wasn't that nobody in the MLE voiced disapproval of their bosses or the status quo, but it was worth not antagonising their superiors needlessly. Over four months into Thicknesse's regime, it was hard to imagine them going anywhere any more.
'What're you doing for Christmas, anyway?' she asked, fishing for a more cheerful change of subject.
'Home. My parents' place. Something nice and quiet. You?'
'With my sister. I think Mum'll likely come down to join us,' said Tanith with a frown as they reached their desks, pushed together in the bullpen of the task force allegedly charged with hunting down the Lions - but it had been two weeks since they'd had so much of a sniff of a lead, much to her relief.
'How's she doing?' Jacob winced.
'She's... keeping on going,' said Tanith after a moment's consideration. 'I don't think she spends much time at home, she's more often in London with my uncle. It's probably best for her to not be alone, but I wish she spent her time with Evadne. It'd be... better.'
Jacob nodded as he stacked sheafs of parchment, before leaning across the desks to her. It was quiet at this time of day, just a few individuals ambling about, and no sign of the shadowy figures of Robb or Brynmor. Still, it didn't do to be too noisy. 'Any progress on getting to see your father?'
She grimaced. 'Nothing yet. I don't... want to push it. That'll just make it worse.'
He nodded. 'Well, come on. Paperwork for that lot's done. They're Legal's problem now, or at least, I doubt Legal will need us 'til the morning. Let's get out of here before Brynmor shows up and wants us trying to chart Lions movements for the umpteenth time.'
'I really don't know where they've got to,' said Tanith honestly. Every day that passed without news of the Lions was causing aggravation for Brynmor, and relief for her. 'Do you think they could have got into some real trouble and we don't know?'
'I doubt it.' Jacob took both of their coats down from the stand, tossing hers over. 'If someone in government caught them, they'd be crowing about it for weeks. If they fell foul of someone else, surely they'd be keen to catch the reward?'
'What if they tried hiding out in some woodland somewhere and pissed off some werewolves, or some centaurs?'
'Now, centaurs I could buy, but you'd have to be pretty dumb to wander into centaur territory badly enough for them to just kill you. And I bet they wouldn't go down without a fight, and we'd probably hear about that. But werewolves? That would have got back to us through the community.' Jacob glanced around as they left the pit and headed down the corridors for the front door. 'You know what I think?'
'Something far too optimistic which we shouldn't utter in these halls?'
Jacob snorted. 'Ha. It's nothing that hasn't been theorised. I just like to think it's true. You know those envoys to Russia who didn't make it back? I don't think that was a Portkey accident.'
Tanith's breath caught in her throat, but she kept her expression level as they crossed the front hall. 'What makes you think that?'
'Logic.' He grinned. 'The Lions clearly have friends in Russia. And, perhaps, a bit of wishful thinking. We are still allowed that, aren't we?'
She pushed open the front doors and stepped into the cold, crisp, wintery London street. Crossing the threshold, as ever, was like she'd had some huge burden taken off her shoulders. Simply stepping out of the shadow of the building brought a feeling of near-infinite relief. 'Well, yes. But let's not get too carried away with hope.'
'Don't worry.' Jacob snorted. 'No fear of that with you around.'
Tanith went to retort - and then was cut off as she walked flat into someone.
The Canary Wharf MLE offices were just at the edge of the thickest of the Muggle financial sector, having been claimed by wizards when the area had been more dedicated dockland. In the past it had been disguised as some sort of run down warehouse area, or some barely-used shipping office, but since the financial sector in the area had grown, the best disguise had simply been to dress the building up like any other busy office building, host to a dozen companies, and slap on top of it some anti-Muggle charms.
Muggles barely paid attention to a faceless corporate building like this one as it was, not if they didn't have any specific business there. They didn't expect to recognise all the logos, or know what the business of each company inside was, or understand their purpose. Slapping on some charms made them go from disinterested to outright ignoring. Hiding in plain sight was, in Tanith's opinion, always the best tactic for Muggles.
It did mean the nearby alleyway for apparating had needed to be charmed up even more thoroughly, but that hadn't proven too difficult. It wouldn't do to be spotted disappearing into thin air by the many suited Muggles wandering the streets, leaving work or going in search of lunch or trying to get some fresh air as an escape from the clustered financial workplace.
It was home time for them, too, not just MLE officials, and normally Tanith was too alert to just go crashing into someone. But accidents happened and they both went sprawling, Jacob managing to steady Tanith by the shoulder, the taller man whom she'd ploughed into staggering back a few steps.
'Sorry! Sorry, I mustn't have been looking where I was going.'
That was the downside of the anti-Muggle charms. Sometimes they had a lingering effect on people. But Tanith didn't have long to reflect on this as she steadied herself and looked up, realising she recognised the voice - and the face. 'David?'
He wasn't in messy, casual clothes this time, but rather a sharp suit under a long, thick, winter coat, clean-shaven and tidy. But it was definitely him, the musician Muggle, and he wore a bewildered expression. 'Tanith. Hey! Didn't... expect to see you around here.'
Didn't expect to see me ever, you mean.
'No, I - I work here.' Tanith shifted her weight, then gestured between the two. 'Uh, David, this is Jacob, we work together, Jacob, this is... David.'
Jacob looked thoroughly nonplussed, but shook the taller man's hand without question. 'I see,' he said, clearly not. 'Pleasure to meet you.'
'And you,' said David, but his eyes almost immediately turned to Tanith. 'How've you been? I mean, it's been a while.'
'It has. It has,' she said awkwardly. 'I've been... er, fine. How about you?'
'You know what,' muttered Jacob, 'I need to be off home, I've got to... brush the cat. Don't let me keep you.'
He said his goodbyes and a part of Tanith's brain was convinced she had said her goodbyes in response, but soon enough Jacob was gone, swishing around the nearest corner into the designated apparition alleyway, and it was just the two of them standing awkwardly in the street.
'So, you... work around here?' Why were words so damn hard?
'Yeah - I wish I could do the music thing for a living.' He smirked, and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. 'No, I work over at the HSBC building. What about you?'
'Oh, you know...' Tanith's voice trailed off, and she winced. 'Uh. Around.'
He seemed to take continued evasiveness about her job in stride, and gave a quick nod. 'Ah, "Around". That well-known and well-respected company.' But he gave a quick, lopsided grin, and there was no offence at her refusal to answer. 'I would have thought we'd have run into each other here before.'
'I usually don't get the pleasure of nine-to-five,' she explained. 'It's just been a... a quiet week.'
They stood in silence for a moment, David wringing his hands together, before he finally glanced around. 'Look. I was going to get... a bite to eat before I went home. Did you eat?'
'No, no, it was just going to be... whatever my flatmate's cooked for dinner tonight. Which isn't as cushy a deal as it sounds.' She smiled nervously.
'Then shall we get something? I can finish my fascinating history of music, and you can Not Talk about your job some more.'
She gave a short, wry, apologetic snort, but did nod. 'You know... that sounds completely like what I need.'