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Chapter 33: The Life of Riley
Chapter 33: The Life of Riley
‘It was a trap.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ said Will, swallowing his sandwich. ‘Rodolphus Lestrange is dead. From all accounts he didn’t have a chance; the Lions swarmed his team. If it was a trap, they’d have had more people waiting.’
‘Maybe it was a botched trap,’ said Tobias with a frown, drumming his fingers on the patio table. ‘Maybe Brynmor was meant to be there earlier.’
‘Or maybe Brynmor decided to be an interfering pillock. That’s not beyond the realm of possibility.’
‘But it’s unlikely.’
‘More likely than a trap where the Ministry lost one of their top men. That’s a catastrophe by any definition of the word.’
‘Is it still a catastrophe when they’ve killed two freedom fighters?’
Will frowned at him. ‘You’re not going to get me to agree that it’s your fault, Tobias. Besides. We pass on the information. It came from a legitimate source. It was accurate. It’s not as if reinforcements was something the Lions couldn’t have possibly foreseen. Sometimes bad things don’t happen because of some massive conspiracy. Sometimes bad things happen because good people have shoddy luck.’
‘I’m not trying to blame myself -’
‘I’m just trying to think if there was something different I could have done.’
‘So you can beat yourself up about it.’
Tobias finished his drink with a wince. ‘All I know is that if I hadn’t sent that information on, Wilson and McLaggen wouldn’t be dead.’
‘They wouldn’t be dead if they stayed at home, but they chose to go out there and fight. We’re in a war, and in a war, there are casualties.’
‘Thank you.’ Tobias’ voice turned icy. ‘I wasn’t familiar with death in war.’
The older man ran a hand through his hair. ‘This is the first time some of our intelligence went sour, I grant you. But it was going to happen, sooner or later. It’s astonishing that the Lions have had this much good luck; they’ve clearly got some sources other than us or some killer recon skills, because we have given them information before which did not include threats they encountered, and they either anticipated it of their own accord or they dealt with it. I didn’t hear you complaining about the gaps in our information then.’ Will jerked a finger across the table at him. ‘Now, I saw you wince when you shifted your weight then. Is your leg acting up?’
‘No.’ Tobias paused. ‘Yes. I’ve been pushing through the recovery therapy that Hypatos recommended. It aches a bit afterwards.’
‘Only if you do it too quickly.’
‘I may not have a choice.’ He leant forwards. ‘I can’t run, Will. I can’t even walk properly, and it’s a bad idea for me to try to walk without help. What am I supposed to do if the security here fails and they come for me again?’
‘Many fine wizards have managed despite injuries,’ said Will, though he sounded a little worried. ‘Take Alastor Moody, for example.’
‘I’m not Alastor Moody. He had years of Auror experience under his belt before he lost an eye and a leg. I only survived as long as I did at Christmas because I ducked and ran for cover. If I were in that same situation again, now, I would have probably slipped on the ice and died.’
Will frowned. ‘This is something we can work on,’ he said, straightening. ‘Though you know that, so long as that leg injury remains with you, you’ll never be as good as you were?’
‘I think I still have a way to go in developing my not-inconsiderable magical talent,’ said Tobias with wry pride. ‘So I’m sure I can work around it. But right now I am at a disadvantage, and that disadvantage could get people killed.’
‘Continue with the therapy, then,’ said Will, picking up some paper from his stack and beginning to scribble some notes. ‘Let’s consider what we can do in the meantime. Practicing and developing your protective charms would be the first step, so you can stand your ground without needing to physically dodge so much.’
‘Another issue is getting at my wand. With a stick in hand and hobbling about, if someone takes me by surprise it’s harder to draw it. I might have to shift around where I keep my wand, but then I’ll have to practice the new draw. I kept my holster from the Enforcers, but when I’m hobbling my left arm is usually pinning my wand against my ribs.’ Tobias couldn’t help but give a rather disgruntled sneer of frustration as he said “hobbling”.
‘We can rearrange the holster. Something low-slung on your right side would be easier, even if it’s a little less discreet. Or...’ Will reached out and, ignoring Tobias’ yelp of objection, plucked up his walking stick from where it was resting next to the table. ‘Are you planning on keeping this?’
‘No, I want something made properly for my height. Also, which doesn’t make me look like my grandfather. Can I have it back?’
‘Custom-made would be a good idea.’ Will ignored him, turning it over in his hands. ‘There’s a fashion trend which some wizards use, usually when the cane is simply for style, where the the head is actually the base of the wand. You can then draw the wand from inside the stick.’
‘Two problems with that. I actually need the stick to rest my weight on, not simply to look pretentious. So I’m going to be putting a lot of pressure on the head, which means the design will need to make sure I’m not resting my weight on my wand. The second is that I still need to be able to use the stick even when I draw my wand, so we can’t remove the handle.’
‘We can have something commissioned to work around that,’ said Will, returning the stick and setting about making more notes. ‘Perhaps some sort of compartment where you slide the wand out from the side. This has the disadvantage that it’s easier to lose your stick than it is your wand, so if you lose your stick before you can draw your wand...’
‘Which is a likely tactic the moment enemies know that’s where I keep it. If I were them, I’d expelliarmus me as a very first move; you can’t normally disarm a wizard before they’ve got their wand out. I’d be totally defenceless.’
‘But you would probably have a quicker draw on your wand than most, which helps if you’re otherwise at a disadvantage. There’s another option, though.’ Will looked up. ‘A staff.’
Tobias wrinkled his nose. ‘Staff magic? Incredibly clumsy.’
‘Yes, but look.’ Will shifted his chair around the table. ‘We’re talking about something you’ll be using in a fight. There’s no need to get rid of your wand entirely. And no, a staff is nowhere near as effective when it comes to complex or delicate spells; that’s partly why they’re so obscure. That and nobody wants to be carrying around a big block of wood needlessly.’
‘But I have a need,’ said Tobias thoughtfully.
‘And the strength of staves, their popularity, stems from the fact that they pack a punch. What they lack in delicacy they make up for with power. You’ll occasionally find a Hit Wizard who’s trained up with a staff for that reason, though again it’s a pain for them to swap between a staff and a wand and Aurors don’t usually get the luxury of enough warning to know when to bring the big guns, so to speak. But all of these points against its popularity, as you say, don’t apply to you.’
‘I’ll be carrying a stick around anyway,’ Tobias agreed. ‘And this way I always have my weapon in my hand. And it means I’ll have a backup weapon since I’ll be carrying my wand on me anyway for everyday purposes.’
‘Best thing of all is that your wand’s a Dupont, correct?’ Will smirked as Tobias looked confused. ‘It’s always best for a wizard’s staff and their wand to be compatible if they have both. There’s nothing stopping us from sending messages to Paris to get you something appropriate. It’s not as if we need to find or resurrect Ollivander.’
‘No, my Ollivander wand is very likely at the bottom of a lake in Moscow,’ said Tobias with a frown. ‘Let’s try with the staff. It sounds a little inelegant for my tastes, but we’re probably at the stage of adapt or die, really...’
‘Ten sickles on Brynmor,’ said Katie Bell as she flopped down on the warehouse floor on the blanket next to Jen.
‘Déjà vu,’ mused Jen, ‘but this time, no bet.’
‘You just like to shake things up to be awkward, don’t you. No faith in Tom?’’
‘I have a bit more faith in Cal.’
Cal and Tom Everard faced off against one another in the centre of the warehouse. The diminished numbers of the Lions of Britain had been lethargic for the past week in the aftermath of the memorial. While Jen had kept herself more or less isolated, Tom had tried to keep the group together, but it had been Cal Brynmor who’d raised spirits, who had kept people motivated, perhaps even in spite of themselves.
A broad smile did more wonders than a brave face, it seemed. And after a week of doing little, the Lions had jumped at his suggestion that they get some sparring practice in en masse.
‘He’s been working out like crazy. Physically, magically. It’s like the million-galleon-man or something. Since he got here,’ said Katie.
‘He’s had a lot of time to make up for. Remember, we’ve been doing this a while longer than him.’ Jen looked up from her papers. ‘Any word from Richard and Diana?’
‘They’re on their way back. Looks like everything went fine. They didn’t mention any trouble.’
Jen frowned as she looked back down. ‘I want a bit more than “looks like” next time. If we’re going to the risk of sending messages back and forth, they need to be concise, yes, but they need to be useful and precise. I don’t want you chatting about the weather.’
Katie looked surprised, briefly, before a small smile tugged at the corner of her lips, and she threw her a finger-salute. ‘You got it, Captain.’
‘Do you have to call me that?’ Bloody Ga- Doyle.
‘It’s catchy.’ She glanced around the warehouse, gaze roving over the remaining members of the Lions of Britain. She sighed. ‘We don’t have to get back to work, you know.’
‘Yes, we do. The war doesn’t stop because of me.’
‘The war can wait a little because of you. Until we’re ready. Really ready, so we’re fighting at our best. You know. Being sensible.’
‘Sensible, perhaps. But it’s not necessary.’
Katie drew a hesitant breath. ‘I know you took losing Annie harder than anyone else. I know she was your best friend. And I know I was... in hospital for most of that time, so I know I wasn’t around to see what it was like. But I know that ate at you, and I don’t think Nick really understood how badly it did. About the only person who could have known was Grey, and, well... I mean, I know you’ve had a lot of crap with losing people. And not having people to help you with that.’
Jen lifted her head suspiciously. She had often underestimated Katie - playful, outgoing Katie, who liked sports and people and moved through social groups like a chameleon, liked wherever she went and so never seeming to settle down with one crowd. Certainly, she had underestimated how insightful someone who seemed to have such fleeting friendships could be.
Most of all, she had probably underestimated how much closer the two of them had got since they’d gone on the run together. Besides, you didn’t live with someone for seven years without getting to know them fairly well.
‘Katie. I do... appreciate your concern. Really. But I’m doing okay. I’m taking it a day at a time, but I... want to get on with things. I don’t think I could forgive myself if I found a little hole to curl up in, and I don’t know if I’d come back out again if I found one.’
Katie chewed on her lip for a moment, but nodded. ‘Okay. Good! I mean, really. We don’t want you just going to pieces, got to keep el commandant going, but we don’t want you just shutting down, either.’ She gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘I guess none of us know what makes a good reaction right now.’
‘Thank God I’m not alone in that, at least,’ Jen said wryly.
‘We like seeing you happy. We like seeing you smile. Crazy, I know. And I know you’re not going to be happy for a bit, but, just so you know, you have been spotted smiling recently. Nobody thinks you’re a bad person for daring to smile.’ Katie tried her own smile, but it was a little nervous and uncertain, and she glanced around the warehouse. ‘So you don’t need to look so guilty whenever you talk to Doyle.’
‘I don’t - do I?’ Jen wrinkled her nose.
‘He’s making a bit more of an effort. Being a bit friendlier. I think -’ Katie stopped, and waved a hand. ‘We’re all in this together. And we do what we have to in order to be okay. And everyone understands that. You know?’
What you were going to say, Katie, was: “I think Gabriel has an easier time fitting in without Nick and Cormac treating him like an outsider, and everyone else either picking up on it or not thinking he’s worth standing up to the two of them over.” And you’d have been right.
Jen just gave a wan smile. ‘I know, Katie. And... thanks. We are all in this together. And with you guys... we’ll get through it. I’ll be okay.’
Then there was a loud whump as Tom’s feet were yanked out from under him with a particularly deft wave of Cal’s wand, and the four watching burst into good-tempered jeers, cheers, congratulations and ribbing.
Once, Jen reflected, this would have been harsher, more competitive. Winners got sportsmanlike accolades, and losers rubbed their bruised egos as they swore to get better. Once, Cal wouldn’t have received such warm or sincere congratulations.
Was this better? Was this going to give them a better esprit de corps, a stronger morale and team mentality going forwards? Or was it going to make them soft, make them lose their edge as they lost the same burning drive to succeed?
Or was it simply different? They’d had all of one mission in the field since Nick and Cormac’s deaths, and while she’d led it, she’d had Cal backing up her words. He’d done so with gentle comments and wry jokes, where when Tom had tried to play second he’d done so with dour, earnest sincerity. Certainly Cal’s way didn’t have anyone listening any less, and made people more relaxed.
Certainly it made everything much less grim than when Nick and Cormac had been like dogs on a leash sometimes, spoiling for a fight, and all she’d ever done when the inevitable combat had broken out was leave them to it. This time they’d avoided a fight until the last moment, and then it had been nothing but a couple of well-placed curses before they’d been on their way.
Was an easy success worth more than causing more devastation amongst Death Eater ranks? Was a less militarised, less macho, less competitive environment going to get them all killed? Was her own more hands-on school of leadership going to demonstrate holes in her talents which hadn’t been highlighted before and which could be exploited? Jen wasn’t sure about any of it.
The future of the Lions as a whole was threatening to be a lot more complicated than simply grief over the deaths of friends and lovers.
‘You’re doing better,’ said Gabriel as he leant on the crates that permitted the men of the Lions a modicum of privacy in their corner of the warehouse floor.
Cal slung the towel over his shoulder. ‘That’s the plan.’
‘Eve- Tom. Tom’s no slouch. I’ve seen him take on trained Enforcers. That you could beat him one-on-one is -’
‘Once. I beat him once.’ Cal turned to him. ‘That’s all it means. But it’s a start - the start of a whole lot of hard work and perseverance.’
‘Merlin, Cal.’ Gabriel gave a lopsided smile. ‘For some people, this kind of progress would be Christmas.’
‘You know me, Gabe. I’m not the smartest, brightest, most powerful kid in the room. I never was. Not all of us can get by on raw talent.’
‘And you’re preaching to the choir here, remember? You weren’t the only person to get lost in the shadows of Tobias Grey’s amazing nerdy brain and Tanith Cole’s nerves of a bitch-queen.’
The two grinned, the insults of their distant friends entirely affectionate. It helped, Gabriel thought, to do that - to act like mocking them was the most natural, normal thing in the world, as if they were in the next room safe and sound instead of locked in their own trials.
‘Difference is, Gabe, that you had other things going for you. You were defined by other things - you always stood a bit alone. Even here, you’re defined by... whatever the hell is going on with you.’
‘But that’s not why you’re working so hard.’ Gabriel folded his arms across his chest. ‘You’re not here to “define yourself” or anything quite so dumb. You’re easily a match for anyone out there these days, and I don’t see them pushing themselves quite as hard as you to do better. I don’t see any of them deeming it to not be enough.’
‘Because it is enough, for them.’ Cal ran a hand across his bristly hair. ‘It’s enough for them to fight as well as they’ve been fighting, and enough for them to continue making the difference they’ve made.’
Gabriel cocked his head. ‘None of them think less of you for joining later than them - and if they did, fuck ‘em, they’re being idiots.’
‘They might not think less. But I think less.’ He frowned. ‘I have a lot to make up for. And that means I have to step twice as hard to make up for it.’
Gabriel hesitated, eyes roving over his friend’s face. He’d become leaner over the past year - not physically, physically he was still as broad and bulky as he’d ever been. Maybe a little narrower in the face, though a square jaw wasn’t going away any time soon.
No, leaner in his mind. It had started at the beginning of their last year at Hogwarts, and only worsened after Annie MacKenzie’s death. Gabriel had never known, never asked, never wanted to know for sure what had happened that had torn Cal and Tobias apart over it, even if they had come crashing back together.
But he had seen Cal kill Tobias. Even if that hadn’t actually happened.
Even if he had less than no intention of ever telling Cal this had been a possibility.
‘You’re not responsible for what your father does,’ Gabriel said instead. ‘He is not you. His deeds are not yours, his thoughts are not yours, his words are not... yours.’ He caught himself, his own words tumbling out quicker and more transparently than he’d have liked. ‘We’ve had this conversation before. About blood not mattering. And you were right. The sins of our fathers are not our sins. You’re not responsible for what he does.’
‘I am responsible for how he makes me act, right up until he casts the Imperius curse on me. Those were still my choices. My choices to sit around and do nothing. My choices to...’ Cal stopped and scowled. ‘This is my burden to bear, Gabe. And I’m going to use it to do good. If this guilt makes me make a difference, then so be it. You have to understand.’
Gabriel flinched. ‘I do?’ he asked cautiously.
‘Sure. You have this gift. I don’t get it, but I don’t need to.’ The simple trust was warming, and Cal shrugged. ‘But that drives you to make a difference.’
Gabriel laughed despite himself, a short, sharp, bitter laugh. ‘You think I’m here to “make a difference”? Cal, I think you’re getting me mixed up with Tobias. This is me, remember? I don’t do big causes. If it were up to me, I’d still be back in Rio de Janeiro trying to figure this out and counting my blessings that I was out of the country.’
Cal frowned, confused rather than judging. ‘Then why are you here?’
‘For my friends.’ Gabriel gave a sad smile. ‘It’s a long story, but you’ll understand. I didn’t come back because I had some burning desire to fight against a deranged, powerful, autocratic government. I leave that to the heroes. I came back because... I wanted to help my friends.’
‘I think that’s all most heroes want,’ Cal pointed out. ‘To help their loved ones.’
It’s a little bit more complicated than that. But you can keep on thinking this.
‘Besides,’ Cal continued, ‘I think there’s another reason you’ve been sticking around.’ Gabriel remained silent, and his friend gave a tight smile. ‘You might not want to acknowledge it - you might want to bury it in yourself until it’s nice and ready to explode, but I’ve seen the way you look at her, the way you follow her around like a faithful hound. You have to realise you’ve got a thing for Riley.’
‘Of course I do.’ Gabriel gave a short laugh at Cal’s expression of confusion. ‘I think you have me confused, mate, for Tanith or Tobias. I don’t do ignoring my feelings simply because it makes my life ‘easier’. I did do sitting on my feelings because I didn’t fancy having my stupid head blasted off by Nick Wilson. Not to mention being on the run is hardly the time to inject a little romantic geometry.’
Cal blinked back his bewilderment - then grinned a toothy grin. ‘Well, thank Christ for that. I wasn’t fancying trying to give you therapy through your guilt.’
‘I’m not guilty I’ve had a thing for another man’s girlfriend. Even when the man’s dead. I’ve done nothing wrong. Right now she’s grieving and it’s hardly the time. It might not be the time for a while yet. But..’ Gabriel glanced over his shoulder, back towards the crowd of the rest of the Lions. ‘She trusted me. She didn’t have to; she took a chance on me when I didn’t even know if I could trust my powers myself. And she continued to trust me, back me up, fight my corner. So I’ll have her back, for as long as she needs me to.’
Cal watched him talk, his smile softening. ‘It suits you, you know. Love. I guess I’m used to seeing it chew people up and bring out the worst in them.’
‘You did all right, as I recall.’
Cal flinched, and Gabriel immediately felt guilty for bringing up the subject of Nat Lockett. All that had been said so far between them was that she was in Azkaban - and breaking in was one feat the Lions were not capable of. Until his friend opened up on his worry for his imprisoned girlfriend, Gabriel had no intentions of pushing. But there was clearly something raw there.
‘Yeah. That’s another good motivation to fight,’ Cal growled, suddenly angry, and he tossed his towel onto his sleeping mat. ‘But that reminds me. I had an idea, and I think I might need your help for it. Something we can do as a team.’
Gabriel shook his head. ‘You can bring proposals to Jen yourself, you know...’
‘I don’t need you to pitch it for me, though your backing wouldn’t hurt. I need you for this.’ Cal straightened. ‘We’re losing this war. The Lions are on the run. The Order are pushed almost underground. The Ministry are gaining in numbers as more people give up trying to fight them and just try to get on with their lives. As it stands, we’re not going to win.’
Have faith, Gabriel wanted to say, but knew it would take too long to explain.
‘So we need help. Backup. There’s a whole wealth of people out there who benefit from fighting the Ministry, and they’re not. So I thought that instead of just hitting Ministry infrastructure, we should be trying to rally up opposition.’
‘Not quite. There’s a group of people out there who will suffer, once the Ministry get around to making them suffer. And they have to know this, but they’re used to being isolated, used to not... cooperating. But I think that we should try. And I think that you’re the person they’re most likely to listen to, considering...’ Cal waved him up and down. ‘Considering.’
Gabriel frowned. ‘Who? I’m no silver-tongued diplomat; I left that to Tobias, and these days I leave it to Jen.’
‘But you’re a seer. That’s the kind of thing they might respect and listen to.’ Cal gave a grin. ‘Isn’t it obvious? I want to go talk to the centaurs.’