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Chapter 24: The Back of Beyond
Chapter 24: The Back of Beyond
A hand across his mouth was the first thing Gabriel felt when he was jerked into consciousness, and for a moment he struggled in the dark, limbs pinned down only by the thick blankets in his bunkbed, before he realised the figure leant over him was Riley.
She lifted a finger to her lips, and when he nodded, pulled her hand from his mouth. 'Someone's out there,' she breathed, so quiet as to almost be inaudible, and drew back.
Gabriel sat up, keenly aware he was only in his boxers, and slid out of bed to try to, as discreetly as possible, find a pair of trousers in the empty bunk room of the men's tent. 'Is it them?'
Riley shook her head, finally seeming to remember to politely look away. 'They're not back yet,' she whispered. 'It's too early, and whoever's out there has been bouncing off the defence wards for the past fifteen minutes. I thought it was a deer at first, but...'
'I didn't hear anything.' Gabriel carefully pulled on a t-shirt, slipping his boots on without bothering with socks.
'Because you were asleep.'
'It's four in the morning. Why weren't you asleep?' He peered at her. 'I know we're the only ones in camp but with Bell's protective wards, it's not like anyone's going to break through. Or, if they do, they'll be so powerful hearing them coming won't save us.'
Riley looked to the half-open flap out into the woody night. 'I can't sleep when they're out there.'
'They shouldn't be back for hours yet,' he told her, grabbing a jacket. It was still, after all, winter, in the depths of January. 'You can't stay up all night waiting for the team. They're good. They know what they're doing.' His gaze turned critical. 'And we were meant to stay behind so we could get some rest, you know.'
She ignored that, pointing into the darkness. 'It's definitely not a deer. Come on, Doyle.'
Gabriel rolled his eyes, but he grabbed his wand and followed her out into the campsite. It was a miserable corner of some woods in the Midlands they were staying at, and right then even he'd lost track of their movements. They'd not been staying anywhere longer than a night, now, after several close run-ins with Death Eaters Percival Anderson had insisted were hot on their trail.
Normally this might have made Gabriel more worried about someone possibly sniffing around the charmed defences of their camp, but if it had been going on for fifteen minutes there was probably nothing wrong anyway. It was probably just a particularly determined badger.
Still, he kept his grip on his wand firm as they padded out into the darkness of the campsite. At this time of night the fire had gone dead, and there was nothing but an eerie silence all around. Riley stood by the glowing embers of the campfire that weren't enough to make her more than a silhouette in the gloom, and stilled.
'I don't hear anything,' Gabriel said unhelpfully, beginning to feel the punishment of being woken up in the middle of the night. It wasn't as if he slept well at the best of times, these days.
He fought the urge to roll his eyes, but stayed put for long moments, while nothing but the silence and the distant creaking of the woodlands around them filled their ears. It took several minutes before Riley shifted her feet. 'I did hear something.'
'It was probably a badger.'
'Don't badgers hibernate?'
'I don't know. I didn't stop to care.' Gabriel shuffled around the campsite irritably. 'I get that you feel useless when you stay behind and the others are on a mission, but that doesn't mean you have to jump at shadows.'
'I'm not jumping at shadows.' Riley frowned. 'Or feeling useless.'
'Because you're not. Intercepting this shipment was your idea. Your intel contacts. The plan was yours.'
'You're only not going because you spent all last night on the surveillance and in the meeting with... your contact.' Gabriel had been told off once before for using names unnecessarily, even in the middle of their own camp. The logic there was less that the enemy might overhear, and more that members of the Lions for whom information was being compartmentalised might learn something compromising they didn't need to know.
Since Gabriel went where he pleased when it came to the Lions' planning meetings and had more often than not accidentally had a vision of delicate information anyway, Riley had stopped bothering trying to keep him out of such business. But he'd still been told off for blabbing it.
She didn't seem to notice, let alone approve, of his discretion, even at a time when it served no purpose. She just glared at the gloom. 'I know.'
'I don't think the others would get by without you. In general, I mean. And the prep-work you did for this job will be invaluable.' He was babbling, he knew, but the silence had been growing oppressive.
At last Riley looked away from her scanning of the undergrowth to frown at him. 'I know all this. Why do you think I need reassuring?'
'Because...' Gabriel hesitated, and ran a hand through his messy hair. 'I suppose the others seem to take you for granted. Sometimes.'
Something shifted in her expression. He should have taken it as a warning. 'For granted.'
'And I guess Wilson condescends you sometimes, like he's the big damn hero and you're just some bit of skirt on his arm. Instead of not just being the brains of this outfit, but you pack more of a magical punch than him, and you keep us going, keep us focused. You're the brains and, I guess, the heart.''
It was a compliment, but she didn't seem pleased, folding her arms across his chest. 'Nick doesn't condescend me.'
Now he did notice the defensive tone in her voice and took it as a warning, lifting his hands. 'All right. You'd know him better than I. I suppose I'm just misreading him.'
'Because I know he sometimes gets big-headed. But you're just seeing him like the little kid he used to be back at school.' She turned to face him fully. 'He's changed, you know.'
Gabriel blinked. 'I don't. But. You'd know better.'
'And anyway, he doesn't think he's the big damn hero. And he doesn't think I'm just a bit of skirt. He knows I planned out most of the operations.'
'And carried out most of them.'
'And can take him in a duel.' Riley frowned. 'Though we're not doing this for credit. It doesn't matter who gets the credit so long as we get the job done.'
'Quite.' Gabriel forced a smile. This was a can of worms he hadn't intended on opening.
'So you're wrong.'
He lifted his hands again. If you say so, love. 'Guilty as charged.' He looked around. 'I don't think anything's out here.'
'I heard it.'
'Then it's gone.I don't think -'
Then a rock came flying through the undergrowth and bounced off the invisible forcefield made by their protection charms. Gabriel yelped, flailing for his wand as Riley turned, cool as anything, wand extended in the direction she judged the rock had come from. 'I told you so,' was all she muttered before she advanced.
'Death Eaters don't throw rocks,' he hissed, following in her wake and trying to concentrate. But, much as he'd had a lot more fortune in the past few months with his dreams granting him the most useful visions to guide the Lions, he still couldn't do it on cue. Foresight when it would be really handy never did come.
'Neither do badgers.'
'What do we do? Wait?' He found himself standing over her shoulder, even though she was shorter than him, and she threw him a derisive glance before stepping to one side so he was using her as a human shield a little less.
'No. They know we're here. Or now they do. That rock was enchanted.'
'Someone just threw a magic rock at us?' Gabriel squinted, then went scurrying after her as she stepped through the barrier, out into the gloom of the night-time forest. As he followed over the threshold the sounds, light, and colour of the camp behind him faded almost immediately - muted, but not gone, for he knew they were there and was covered by the spell to be supposed to find it.
Their rock hurler, on the other hand, was not. But as he looked around the undergrowth surrounding the camp, he saw nothing. Just the caress of the cold, winter wind whistling through the shrubbery and -
Riley snapped her wand out to shoot a bush.
'Woah!' Gabriel jumped. 'Is it an evil shrub?'
She lowered her wand grimly. 'It's where the rock came from.'
Gabriel squinted. 'No, it's not.'
'Yes, it is!'
But that retort wasn't Riley's. It was the bush's. The leaves shook and twitched, and Gabriel snapped his wand up level with Riley's as, uncomfortably, a figure emerged. Covered in frost and twigs and dead leaves and mud they were a horrendous sight to behold, though the man wore good boots and thick clothing and had clearly come prepared to tromp through the wilderness.
Riley frowned as Gabriel's face split into a broad grin. 'Cal!'
For it was Cal, bedraggled and looking tired, a bruise forming under one eye and in a hell of a state, but nevertheless Cal - a very surprised looking Cal. 'Gabe? What the hell are you doing here?'
'I could ask you the same thing!' Gabriel went to step forward, before Riley planted a hand on his arm.
'And I very much am. Don't be an idiot, Doyle, just because your best friend has miraculously shown up inches away from our camp in the dead of night,' she said tensely.
'Oh. Yeah. Sorry, mate.' Gabriel lifted his wand again, and frowned. 'When we last met, what did you say we'd be doing around this time of year?'
'We last met on the platform at King's Cross,' Cal said, smile going wry. 'And you said you'd be back from Brazil and we'd be drinking tequila.'
'Actually, you said we'd be drinking tequila, and I pointed out tequila doesn't come from Brazil, but...' Gabriel looked at Riley. 'It's him, anyway.'
She didn't lower her wand, gaze locking on Cal. 'So why, Brynmor, are you wandering around our camp late at night, and how did you find us?'
Something went cold in Gabriel's gut as he saw the tension in her eyes, and realised that not only was she not going to let this one go, but that his relief at seeing his friend probably shouldn't overwhelm his own good judgement. He turned to Cal unhappily. 'The lady's got a good question.'
'You always did, Riley.' Cal sighed, running a hand over his bristly hair. 'I found you from this.' He reached into a pocket and pulled out a roll of parchment, which he threw to Gabriel. 'It's a map from my father's office, detailing how they've been chasing you. I've been tearing through each of the last few locations for hours on end trying to trace you.'
Gabriel unrolled what, indeed, was a map of the localised area pinning down several predicted possible locations for the Lions' next hiding places. Some of them they'd used. Some of them they were just considering. It was a worryingly accurate list. He showed it to Riley, grimly.
She went pale. 'If you found us this easily...'
'They won't. I altered the other copies. Besides... there's only one person in the Task Force chasing you who'd know to look for Bell's signature Embelisho charm on top of the Protective Charms, and she's not going to tell them. That's how I got the rock to look for it. Simple magical tracer charm.' Cal shrugged sheepishly. 'Hey, I didn't do too badly in my Charms NEWT, try to look less surprised.'
Gabriel grinned and turned to Riley. 'He's on the level,' he said, and without bothering to wait for her to respond, went forward to embrace his old friend in a warm, bear hug. The two of them had never been ones for much open or physical affection, but the embrace felt good, and Cal clearly seemed to need it. But their British sensibilities meant it wasn't more than a brief back slap before they pulled back, still grinning like idiots.
'Then why are you here?' asked Riley, still not looking entirely convinced. 'Other than for this heartwarming reunion?'
'What do you think, Riley? I came to join up. I came to fight. And actually, I didn't even know Gabe was here until you two stumbled across me.' Cal clapped him on the shoulder.
Gabriel gestured for them to head back towards the camp, steering Cal in the appropriate direction. 'What, Tanith didn't tell you?'
He narrowed his eyes. 'She knew?'
'Sure.' Gabriel frowned. 'She sided with us when we busted Wilson out of the prisoner transfer and I was there... she didn't tell you?'
Cal was looking particularly crestfallen, and so barely seemed to register when he went from standing in a shadowed woodland to in the middle of a campsite with just a couple of steps. 'No,' he said, a little weakly. 'She didn't say. She didn't even say until tonight that she'd even been helping you guys out...'
Riley sighed noisily. 'You all are really hot on communication,' she said, then turned to face them. 'One more person might be great, Brynmor, but we're going to have to think this through. You found us, and that's impressive, and I remember you in DADA; we're not going to turn you down. But there are going to be a lot of the others who aren't going to trust you.'
'They didn't trust me at first, either,' said Gabriel, quirking an eyebrow.
'But I vouched for you.'
He jerked his head to Cal. 'Then vouch for him.' She hesitated, and he looked her in the eye. 'I have never steered you wrong, Riley. I have never given you a bad answer, poor advice, or dangerous judgement. We can trust him.'
Riley drew a deep breath, but looked like she was about to nod - but before she could, Cal had darted across the campsite and lunged at Gabriel to embrace him in another, this time considerably more shameless, hug.
Gabriel yelped and staggered, trying to return it as best he can, flustered. 'Hey! Hey, mate, it's good to see you too, you know...!'
'I'm sorry.' Cal pulled back, and for one horrid moment Gabriel thought he was dabbing at his eyes. 'It's just - it's been really shit the past few months, you know? Nat's in Azkaban, and I don't even have a job, I've been entirely dependent on my bastard of a father, and now Toby's dead, and Tanith's been... well, I don't think she trusts me, but I don't know why...'
I do, thought Gabriel. But then, he knew a little bit more than Tanith about certain things.
'Trust me,' he said, clapping Cal on the shoulder. 'Everything's going to be all right.'
Riley looked like she was fighting, at last, a fond smile, and he returned it before she covered it up. She looked much less tense now, and, he thought, even younger now she wasn't freaking out about whether or not they could trust Cal. It wasn't often he saw her in a moment where she didn't have to be the grown-up. 'I'm going to get some sleep at last, I think,' she said, and nodded to Cal. 'Welcome, Brynmor. I'll let the others know we're vouching for you when they get back. But he's right, everything will be all right. And you know you can trust Doyle's word - he is a Seer, after all.'
Gabriel winced as Jen Riley left the campsite and ducked into the women's tent, feeling Cal's wide-eyed gaze on him, and he dropped his eyes to stare at the ground.
'A Seer? You what?'
Gabriel drew a deep, careful breath. 'I think, mate,' he said at last, 'that there are one or two things I should be bringing you up to speed on from the last year...'
'You need to eat.'
Tobias is dead. I don't need anything. Except perhaps a Resurrection Stone.
Tanith slumped around her kitchen, mechanically drinking from her mug of coffee. 'I'm fine, Jacob.'
'You're really not.' He stood by the counter, digging through the cupboards and finding them to be bare. 'When did you last have something?'
'At the stand? On patrol last night?'
'One greasy bun does not make for a good meal. You look like hell, Tanith.' Jacob straightened and turned to face her. 'Please. You have to take care of yourself.'
'I've got this coffee, don't I?' She lifted the mug.
'I just made that for you.'
'Then I'm fine. You had a late shift. Go home, Jacob, and get some sleep.'
He folded his arms across his chest. 'So I'm not allowed to lecture you on eating properly, but you're allowed to lecture me on getting proper rest?'
Of course I am. You actually feel halfway alive. For you, it actually matters. She looked away, out of the flat window showing the grey sky of a miserable January morning. 'I'm sure you have better things to be doing than fussing over me. And that's not self-pitying talk, it's -'
'It's pretty damn self-pitying, actually,' he pointed out, and crossed the flat to pick up Altair's - her - coat off the stand by the door. 'Come on, then. If you've got nothing in, we'll go out for breakfast. The cafés will be thrilled to have someone eating at them.' He waggled the coat. 'My treat.'
She opened her mouth to protest, but he was by her side in an instant, slipping the coat over her shoulders. 'You don't have to talk,' Jacob continued. 'Or even pretend you're okay.'
'I am okay.'
'You're not,' he said calmly, leading her to the door. 'But that's okay. You're not supposed to be okay. I can't even tell you that it's going to be okay.'
'The word "okay" is beginning to lose all meaning.'
It also didn't apply. The tension and pain that had been locked away within her had finally been let out, but once it had exploded and faded all that was left in its wake was a dull, aching emptiness that sank right into her gut. For days she'd been able to get by on sheer self-control, on an ice wall of refusal to sink into herself and to collapse into her pain.
Then she'd wavered and her pain had got out. Now it was gone its absence was like a black hole, sucking up every lingering essence of emotion, life, and light back in her. She'd been perfectly... accepting of spending the past few days staring at the ceiling instead of sleeping, and going through the motions at work like an automaton.
She hadn't realised how much she'd been reliant upon Cal. How he'd made sure there was food in, how he'd left hot water in the kettle for her, how he'd occasionally cooked meals for them both. She'd been so wrapped up, over the past days - months? - in what was consuming her that his absence, too, had become a sucking vortex, threatening to destroy even more.
The worst part was that she didn't care if it did.
'You don't need to pay for breakfast, you know,' was all she managed to say as she stumbled out the door into the cobbled streets of Diagon Alley.
'I do know,' said Jacob. 'But let me. I've got to feel like I'm doing something, after all. Besides - don't forget, I'm your partner. Someone's got to do these things for you.'
She stared at the road as they walked. 'You should get a different partner.'
'Don't give me that, Tanith -'
'No, I'm serious.' She looked up, the surge of emotion unexpected and making her voice waver more than she'd have liked. 'We still go toe to toe with people who want to hurt us. You need someone who's got your back who's firing on all cylinders, and right now that's not me.'
'Then take the leave Brynmor offered you.' Jacob stopped, turning to face her in the middle of the road. 'I'll get relegated to paperwork for a few weeks and you can sort out your head.' He drew a deep, careful breath. 'I don't mind. Really. Do what you need to do to get through this.'
'What if I don't want to get through this?' The words escaped of their own volition, the sentiment sincere but one she'd kept locked away, pretended hadn't been eating at her, pretended hadn't been hissing its self-destructiveness into her ear at night. Her grieving had come, and would come forever, but fading were the days when she could, in all good conscience, remain as this curled up ball of hurt.
Some day soon she was going to be expected to square her shoulders and carry on, and Tanith couldn't find a single reason in the whole world to want to. In some ways, the idea of accepting that this was reality, this was the truth, and that Tobias was dead and instead of walking around with her heart ripped out she could walk around some day like everything was normal was more painful than the anguish of his loss had been.
But it didn't mean that she'd intended to advertise this to people who would fuss and squawk over her and ultimately be able to change nothing.
'Brynmor was wrong,' said Jacob, and to avoid rolling her eyes at him she let her gaze drift down the streets. They were almost empty at this time of morning, emptier than they would have been a year ago, with people not daring to go out unless they had to and even the Wandless staying down dark alleyways out of sight until there were people out and about they could beg from.
Her lip curled despite herself as her eyes landed on the nearest alleyway, just around the corner from her flat. The corner had been one of the dumping spots for the Midnight Press. It had cycled so the issues weren't found and destroyed, but every once in a while the release had come there, and she'd picked it up from the nondescript cardboard box she now hadn't seen in too long and smiled to herself all the way home at the prospect of news.
'The other day, when Cal left. What he said to you in the lobby,' Jacob was saying, though his words were almost like white noise and she only paid attention to them because she knew he'd expect a halfway coherent, halfway polite response. 'He said you were alone? You're not.' He drew a deep breath. 'I'm your partner, still. And drive me away, throw me out, refuse to see me, but I will continue to be your partner, and you are not alone.'
There was a cardboard box on the corner of the alley.
'Tanith?' Jacob stared at her, a little irritated and a little hurt, as she pushed past him without saying a word and started down the road, making for the box nestled next to one of the lampposts. 'What is it?'
It hadn't been there for days, weeks, because there'd been nothing to report, nothing to say, nobody to put quill to parchment and bring out the words which had brought so much hope to so many people, including her - words from him, Tobias...
The wind picked up as she reached the box, and it plucked the topmost of the leaflets stacked inside to drag it into the air. She snatched at it, almost stumbling as she did so, and with shaking hands turned it around to be greeted with a picture which covered half of the page.
Tobias Grey sat on a nondescript bench in front of a nondescript wall holding a copy of the Daily Prophet with yesterday's date. He looked worn, haggard, and tired, but he looked alive, and he was wearing that hesitantly smug smile he usually reserved for when he was particularly pleased with himself.
And above the picture, in bold lettering, was the simple headline: Midnight Press - Back In Print.
A/N: I know. I know.
On a positive note, I am more or less wrapping up in my writing of FTS entirely. Debate comes on if I cover events solely up to where DH roughly concludes - not counting the epilogue - and then write a post-war sequel to cover... well, All That Aftermath Stuff, or if I dedicate a whole chunk of FTS to the post-War issues.
I am inclined for another story, even if it will probably be very short compared to FTS and STS. But then it needs a plot to go with all the Issues and Angst...!
Either way, expect updates of FTS regularly twice a week from now on. I intend to try to get them out every Monday or Thursday, work allowing. Around That Time, anyway. Enjoy!