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Falls the Shadow by Slide

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Format: Novel
Chapters: 44
Word Count: 192,497
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong violence, Scenes of a mild sexual nature, Substance abuse, Sensitive topic/issue/theme, Spoilers

Genres: Drama, Horror/Dark, Romance
Characters: OC, OtherCanon
Pairings: OC/OC

First Published: 12/15/2010
Last Chapter: 07/26/2012
Last Updated: 07/26/2012

Summary:



Everyone expects their lives to change when they leave Hogwarts. This group of schoolmates never anticipated the changes which came when the Ministry fell to the forces of Voldemort. Exile. Oppression. Imprisonment. Friends are cast to the far side of the world, families are destroyed through bloodshed and loyalty, and making the right choice between light and dark proves harder when there is so much to lose. The third in the Anguis series.


Chapter 1: The Golden Age
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‘Hold the baby.’

Tanith Cole hadn’t spoken to her sister in some time, but even that wasn’t the greeting she’d expected.

It was a warm summer’s day, the sort of day where the sky was the deepest shade of blue, where it was impossible to ignore the birds singing from their perches in the trees that lined the roadside of this particularly idyllic street of the rural Midlands. The sort of day where all the woes of the world could only look brighter, just because the sun was out and the air was warm.

It made no sense. Then again, neither did Tanith’s visiting her sister, but nevertheless, here she was.

And here she was getting a baby shoved into her arms.

Technically, Tanith knew of little Leah’s existence. She’d received the letters from her mother informing her that Evadne had given birth, and wasn’t Amulius proud, and shouldn’t she visit. Which, yes, she should have. But first there had been Hogwarts and her exam revision, then there was moving house, and now Auror training, so it had taken her a while to get around to it…

‘I’ll drop her,’ Tanith warned as she held her niece with a wariness one usually reserved for high-yield explosives.

‘Of course you won’t. She’s your niece. Come on in.’ Evadne gestured for her to step inside the house without any further aplomb or niceties, and before Tanith knew it, they were in the comfortably and yet traditionally furnished country cottage of her sister’s family. Amulius Sprague was a, in her opinion, rather mediocre and uninspired man, but he made a not irrelevant amount of money from his middle management job at the Ministry, and that meant his household was well provided for.

‘…blood ties do not mean an increase in my dexterity,’ Tanith mumbled, wandering in and tightening her grip on Leah. The baby blew a spittle bubble before regarding her with a sombre, brown-eyed gaze of rather unsuitable intensity, she thought, for a six month-old.

Evadne turned to her, one eyebrow raised. When they had been younger, she had been considered the ‘pretty one’. Taller than Tanith, more aristocratic of feature, she was far more classically beautiful where Tanith was much more slight in build, her face much sharper, but married life had softened this. She had not recovered her figure after childbirth; contentment with her husband seemed to have prompted more time focusing on a comfortable home than the preening she had done for hours when a teenager. And it seemed to suit her. No more was there that aura of constant control, but rather, much more relaxed satisfaction.

‘Hold her to you. No, not like that. Look, she’s fine,’ Evadne instructed rather impatiently. ‘See? She likes you.’

‘I wasn’t aware blowing spit bubbles was a sign of appreciation,’ Tanith said, but nevertheless adjusted her hold to be a little more comfortable and close. For Leah’s own comfort, of course. Of course.

‘She’s just had breakfast, so she’s pretty happy.’ They wandered through the wood-panelled hallway into the kitchen, with its polished surfaces and windows angled to catch the optimal amount of sunlight. The scent of toast and bacon lingered in the air, though all was already squeaky clean.

‘Amulius not around?’ Tanith asked casually, leaning against a cupboard and absent-mindedly rocking Leah, who was by now reaching for a stray lock of dark hair and winding it around a tiny fist. Upon eventual extraction, this would likely hurt – but for now, it was hard to worry about such a problem with those wide, dark eyes seeming rather fascinated.

‘He had to pop into the office this morning. Tea?’ Without waiting for a response, Evadne bustled towards the kettle.

Tanith narrowed her eyes. Before marriage, never had her sister bustled anywhere. ‘On a Saturday? He really is a hoot.’

A tea mug came down on the counter with a sharp thump. Little Leah flinched a little in response to the noise, but to Tanith’s infinite relief didn’t react much more than that.

‘Don’t.’ Evadne’s voice was cold, but also intensely tired. ‘Don’t do that.’

Tanith blinked. ‘Do what?’

‘Put him down. Put my life down…’ Evadne lifted a hand to her brow, rubbing her temples.

‘All I did was point out going to work on a Saturday…’

You go to work on Saturdays. And Sundays. You barely take time off your work,’ her sister pointed out, staring at the empty tea mug and not looking at her.

Tanith straightened up. ‘I’m an Auror,’ she pointed out. ‘Amulius works in… which department does he even bloody well work in?’

Evadne turned sharply. ‘The Floo Network Authority. You know that. It was mentioned in my last letter. For the third time.’

‘He’s a Floo maintenance supervisor.’ Tanith waved a free hand, ignoring the last pointed comment. ‘I’m sure the sky will fall in if some wizard can’t travel by Floo! It’s not as if we don’t have Portkeys or apparition! Such an important job, and obviously requiring weekend shifts!’

Don’t.’ This time, Evadne’s voice held every inch as much steel as any of the drill instructors in Auror training Tanith had come across. ‘I didn’t invite you here to disparage my life and my husband!’

‘Then why did you invite me here?’ Tanith challenged, straightening up.

‘Because I thought we might try to actually talk, like a family, now there’s a war on!’

Silence rang across the kitchen at those last words in a raised voice, hanging between them. Then, Leah gave a small whimper, the initial shock of her mother’s shout finally wearing off, and before Tanith knew it she had a tiny bundle of wailing in her arms.

And just like that, the tension of the argument was gone, Evadne was pulling her daughter into her arms and rocking her, and Tanith was rubbing her temples with new layers of guilt she wasn’t accustomed to. Upsetting her sister was no novelty. Hell, upsetting her family was no novelty. Insulting her brother-in-law was, it seemed, habit. But making her newfound niece cry delivered a twist to the gut that was particularly unwelcome.

‘I’m sorry,’ she mumbled as Evadne moved away, Leah calming a little at the comfort of her mother. ‘I didn’t mean to upset her…’

‘I shouldn’t have shouted, it’s alright, mummy’s sorry…’ It took Tanith a moment to decipher which words were for her and which were for the only slowly calming infant. ‘I didn’t want this, this was exactly what I didn’t want…’

‘I just thought… Mum goes on about how happy you are, I figured Amulius would be here at the weekend…’ The excuses seemed increasingly weak and desperate.

‘He just went to do some bloody paperwork, Tanith, I’m not a widow to work!’ There was a dose more strength in Evadne’s voice at last, along with exasperation. ‘And just because his work isn’t so preciously important as yours doesn’t mean he’s not allowed to take time off to finish it. There, there…’ By now, Leah was quiet, sniffling but composed, nestled against her mother.

Tanith looked at her feet. Since being out of Hogwarts, gone were the strict uniforms, the flowing robes. In their place were boots, sturdy and completely unfashionable, and padded trousers, and a coat in the dark green of the Auror Department. ‘I’m sorry,’ she repeated weakly.

‘You always do this,’ Evadne admonished. ‘You always act like we’re… beneath you, in some way. When we were at home you kept acting like I was being petty, and superficial, when… when I wanted to be happy, when I was working for a good life with a good husband and a good home! And now I have that, you keep acting like this is all… too shittily domestic for you and your exciting life!’

Tanith almost rocked back on her heels at the wave of words, blinking in complete confusion. ‘…you just invited me over for a cup of tea…’

‘Because I thought that, now you were out in the real world, you’d be a bit more realistic!’ Evadne sighed, still rocking Leah and turning to face her sister. ‘But you just… you have to keep trying, don’t you.’

There was a pause, and Tanith blinked. ‘Trying? Trying what?’

‘I worry about you, Tanith.’ Evadne’s gaze had lost its previous frustration, fading now for a tired concern. ‘You work, and you work… and I don’t think you even know what you’re working for.’

‘My Auror work is…’

‘I don’t mean that.’ She straightened up, shaking her head. ‘I mean for you. You’ve always been chasing something. I don’t think you’ve ever let yourself enjoy what you’ve got.’ Evadne stroked her daughter’s hair, the child by now quiet and seeming contented in being comforted. ‘And I don’t mean settling for what’s in front of you. I mean appreciating when you’ve got it good.’

Tanith blinked owlishly, then her eyes narrowed to fix a suspicious gaze on her sister. ‘You don’t even know what I’m up to…’

‘You became an Auror. Tell me you didn’t do that to upset Dad.’ Evadne met her gaze perfectly levelly.

‘I became an Auror because it’s important, not…’ Tanith stopped, the half-truth choking in her throat. There was a pause as she scanned the room as if it could provide her with an escape, but no such opportunity seemed to be presenting itself, and her shoulders sagged. ‘Once. Yes. I never liked the way he behaved.’ The way I thought he behaved. You don’t know, do you, Evadne? You don’t know how much he risked for what was right…

Her sister tutted. ‘That’s a bit low of you, Tanith.’

‘I know.’ She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Demonstrating that she was no longer frustrated with their father would probably just prompt questions. ‘Then I did more reading. And decided to do it for me, not for anything quite so immature.’

‘It’s long hours. Even when you’re out of training. Especially when you’re out of training. I remember talking to Jacob about the sort of schedule he had…’

Tanith blinked at the abrupt change in tack, and so only barely processed the fact that her sister had ever spoken to Jacob Van Roden, an old mentor from school and her current mentor and partner in the Aurors. ‘He still has it. And I know it’s long hours. I prepared for this.’

‘So you don’t have to think about anything different? So you don’t have to focus on anything other than work?’ Evadne seemed to be changing her tactics rapidly, an aggressive skill that Tanith hadn’t known her sister was even capable of, but it was definitely working to her advantage, keeping her off-balance.

'I have things other than work,' Tanith said defensively, moving across the kitchen to take over the preparation of tea. It gave her something to do with her hands instead of gesturing anxiously, and it meant she didn't have to look directly at her sister.

'I thought most of your friends had left the country?' Evadne went to put little Leah in her tall baby chair at the kitchen table, her daughter more settled now, babbling happily to herself.

Tanith grimaced at the accusation there. 'Two,' she correct stiffly, and she sure as hell wasn't going to acknowledge that this was two-thirds of what she considered her friendship circle. 'That's all. Besides, I'm living with Cal Brynmor now...'

'Oh?'

Tanith paused, the kettle in her hand. She knew that “oh”. Knew that tone of mock-innocence. For too long Tanith had been accustomed to dealing with duller girls, like Melanie Larkin or Ariane Drake, or ones who didn't want to deconstruct every part of her life, like Nat Lockett. She'd grown clumsy in the face of her sister's sharp interest.

'...and his girlfriend seems set to spend half her time there,' she continued deliberately. 'And I'm getting to know her.'

Evadne seemed somewhat mollified by this, accepting the mug of tea pushed into her hands with an expression that did border on sheepish. 'I am glad,' she said, and it was probably the closest thing to an apology that Tanith was likely to get from her sister.

That was fine. It wasn’t as if her suspicions of Tanith being alone weren’t right.

'I imagine you're supposed to be busy at this point in Auror training, and with everything that's going on,' she continued.

Tanith nodded. 'This new on-the-beat training regime isn't making life easy,' she accepted. 'And it's not like I've been at it for long. But I have more responsibilities, not just for myself but people around me. At least right now the trainees are just doing very minor jobs.'

Evadne frowned. 'Is anything going to be minor while there are Death Eaters around?'

'...not for long.' Tanith grimaced. 'I'll be fine, Eva. Really. If you're worried about me working too hard, then - well, that just means I'll be more ready for when trouble comes along...!'

Evadne looked down, stirring her tea unhappily. 'I just don't want you having chosen this way of life because of Dad.'

'I haven't,' Tanith said. It was only half a lie. The rest would take explaining too much. 'This is me. This is what I want to do.

'Just so long as you don't kill yourself doing it.' Her sister sighed. 'You keep people too far away from yourself, Tanith.'

There, her expression flickered. 'I wouldn't say "too far".'

'I don't know if it's my fault, or Mum and Dad's fault, but it's a bad time for that. Family should be close together. And friends should be close together.' Evadne's frown deepened. 'I don't know if I approve of those friends of yours who left the country.'

'Well, Doyle was always weird,' Tanith mumbled. There was no way she was going to begin to try and explain what was going on with Gabriel Doyle. That would require her understanding it. 'And Grey - he's not got any family in the country anyway, and he's... he's doing important work.'

'With the DIMC, isn't it? Amulius has some friends in there. I suppose he's lucky; most new applicants have to wait years before they get to go abroad. Where is it? Warsaw?'

'Moscow.' Tanith flinched a little. 'And... well, Tobias Grey's not most applicants.'

She didn't like how her sister looked at her then, and so she hid her expression behind another gulp of tea. 'I don't really know what he's up to there.'

'Weren't you two close?' Evadne stroked her daughter's hair gently as the little girl reached out at her for some attention.

'Once.' Tanith straightened up to try to throw back the onslaught of memories. She remembered her hands covered in Tobias' blood. She remembered the sound he made in utter despair as if his soul had been ripped in two. She remembered the twist of his smile, the glint in his eye when he had a bright spark of an idea, the taste of his lips...

'He left Hogwarts for the Magical Law Enforcement Squad last April. I've barely seen him over the last few months.' She did her best to sound dismissive. 'Grey will go wherever he thinks he needs to be, and to hell with anyone else.'

There she failed to keep the bitterness out of her voice, and so quickly she drained her tea mug. It was a little too hot for that, but Tanith just made a face and set the cup down lightly on the kitchen counter. 'I should... get going. Cal's getting a new bed delivered today and there's no way he's got the charms to get it up the stairs.'

'Didn't your flat come fully furnished?' Evadne frowned. 'What happened to the old bed.'

'I'm quite sure I don't want to know.' Tanith reached to pull on her long robe-coat, draped across one of the high kitchen stools. 'Look, I... we should do this some more. Maybe you should come down to London and we can do lunch.'

'With this little one?' Evadne smiled fondly at Leah.

'You could bring her down. Or get someone to look after her.' Tanith paused, and frowned. 'Get someone to look after her. I don't - I mean, London's safe, but...'

She could cope with the idea of risk to herself, or even her friends, or even her family. In reality there wasn't exactly a high risk to sitting down for some tea in the middle of Diagon Alley. It wasn't as if the Death Eaters were going to maraud those having a shopping lunch.

But the idea of little Leah being thrown into the potential line of danger made any ideas of seeing her for lunch in London turn sour quickly.

'Or you could come here,' Evande said gently.

Tanith hesitated as she pulled up the collar of her coat, before giving a short, curt nod. 'Yeah,' she said thickly. 'I mean, I could do that. When I've got the time.'

She straightened up to face her sister, but was still startled when the older woman crossed the distance between them to pull her into a hug.

The Coles were not known for being an especially demonstrative family. They had lived quite comfortably with the presumption that they all knew how the other felt about them, and so making grand gestures was thought to be, if not beneath them, then rather unnecessary.

There was a reason they didn't talk much in general.

Still, Tanith fought through her surprise to return the hug, and when she pulled back she turned to the little bouncing form of baby Leah.

'And don't you give your mummy too much trouble, hmm?' she said, fondly but with the awkwardness of one who's not used to dealing with children however much they might be sincere in their affection, and she stepped forward to give Leah a kiss on the top of the head.

Her niece gurgled happily, and Tanith found herself grinning despite herself as she was let out of her sister's cosy Midlands home.

Her coat wasn't really needed in the middle of July. But it was a distinctive cut, a distinctive colour, and there were still more people out there who saw an Auror as someone to not mess with rather than a target.

If a Death Eater knew their business, they'd know the Cole family to be targets anyway, courtesy of Daedalus Cole's work. If they didn't, then maybe they'd think twice about causing trouble for Amulius Sprague's household if they'd had a visit from an Auror.

So Tanith wasn't discreet as she made her way to the big oak at the foot of the front garden, though she did then glance around to make sure nobody was in the area. This was a heavily wizarding street, one of those parts of the world where the magically inclined tended to congregate, if only so they didn't have to be subtle and so they had someone else to borrow some Floo Powder from if they ran out.

But it didn't do to not make sure there weren't any Muggles around when you turned on the spot and disappeared into thin air with a sharp crack.

Her thoughts had been on the living room of her flat, the cramped little affair she'd managed to wrangle, just above a solicitors and opposite Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes. The banging and noises went on into the night, sometimes, but it meant the rent was cheap. And after one particularly bad night, the brothers had knocked on the door to sheepishly deliver them a free sample pack of their products in apology.

Tanith had quickly taken all of their Peruvian Darkness Powder while Cal was still giggling over transforming wands. The brothers Weasley would never know just how useful their products had proven to be to her over the years.

It was in that tiny room that she finally appeared after she disappeared into thin air, by now mostly used to apparition in general and her own nuances in particular. Her stomach might churn on occasion if Van Roden was whisking her along with his usual care-free ease, but she had worked hard to make sure she wasn't disoriented after a Disapparition.

It wasn't exactly good to be a nauseous Auror in a danger zone.

If she hadn't had such practice, then she probably would have been smacked in the face of the bed that was being charmed through the air towards her the moment she appeared just inside the flat's front door. Fortunately, she had just about enough time to stagger back, tripping and falling into a roll, instinct honed by training bringing her to the side and in a kneeling position.

She at least managed to bring down her wand, which was raised in anticipation of a threat, before either of the two responsible for the bed noticed her. It wouldn't do to appear jumpy.

Even if there was little reason to be calm.

'Bloody hell, Tanith!' The burly shape of Cal Brynmor exploded around the side of the bed, which began to waver in the air as he outright abandoned his concentration of keeping it suspended. 'What were you doing?'

'Coming home,' she said, standing and dusting herself off. 'I didn't expect to have such bad timing.'

'We almost hit you!'

'I did notice that.' Tanith walked carefully around the bed, now hovering unstably halfway through the door, and pulled off her coat to toss it onto the stand in the corner.

'Er... Cal?' A voice wavered uncertainly from back in the hallway. 'Little help?'

Cal swore, turning and lifting his wand back up to stabilise the furniture, and slowly it continued its floating into the flat. 'Sorry! Just making sure I'm not braining a government official!'

Tanith chuckled to herself as she watched the bed hover in the room, followed by the diminutive figure Nathalie Lockett, who was looking supremely unimpressed with having been left to suspend furniture on her own.

'You don't have to stop supporting the bed to do so. Or am I going to have to do this on my own?' Nat asked dryly as Tanith hurried around to open up their bedroom door before them, the other two fighting to navigate the large double bed.

'I'm sorry I wasn't back sooner,' Tanith apologised. 'I know I said I'd help...'

'You're getting doors. You're helping.' Nat grinned at her as Tanith then lifted her wand to contribute to the levitation charm, and the bed's progress through the lounge became faster and smoother. '...that helps too.'

They managed to get the bed in position without too much difficulty between the three of them, though Cal came awfully close to getting pinned against the wall by it, before Nat declared she wasn't making Cal's bed for him.

'I'm not bloody well changing the bedding now,' Cal huffed with a smirk, heading over to the kitchenette and pulling open the fridge. 'I'll do it before bed.'

'You'd better,' Nat admonished as she and Tanith sank onto the sofa. 'As you know you can't come round to mine tonight. Emily has Healer admission tests to do and wants the place to herself.'

'How's she doing with that?' Tanith asked, leaning back with a sigh and putting her feet up on the coffee table. She had seen where Nat Lockett lived, in a cosy London house alongside some of her former Ravenclaw housemates. It was a true den of girls, determinedly clean and with everything belonging in a proper place. Boots on the coffee table would be an absolute no-no.

Here, however, the cleaning routine seemed to be that Cal made a mess while she worked, and they eventually shouted at each other about the state of the flat until they worked together to scourgify the entire place.

'It's hard. But still, it's Healer admissions, and they need all the help they can get. Thanks.' Nat grinned at Cal as he returned from the kitchen, passing each of them a bottle of beer before he sat down, slipping an arm around his girlfriend's shoulder.

'Bit early for a beer, isn't it?' Tanith commented, but she took a swig of the cool, refreshing drink anyway.

'It's a hot summer's day and I've just done manly work lugging furniture up the stairs,' Cal said with a smirk. 'I want a beer.'

'Manly work. Helped by two women better at charms than you,' Nat pointed out, poking him in the side.

'Hey! Watch the beer!' Cal admonished, but his smirk only broadened as she settled down. 'It's not like you don't benefit from the bed.'

'I don't,' Tanith volunteered. 'And I'll thank you kindly for not elaborating.'

Cal laughed, Nat chuckled despite the pinkness in her cheeks, and the three of them fell into a comfortable silence, tired by their various trials and enjoying the break and the drink.

Eventually, though, Cal gave a sigh, looking over at Tanith. 'Seen the post today?'

'Yep.' Tanith grimaced as she took a swig of beer. 'Nothing.'

Cal scowled. 'Is he ever going to write to us?'

'I'm sure he's busy,' Nat interjected soothingly. 'It can't be easy, moving to another country.'

'Two lines by owl wouldn't kill him,' Cal grumbled. 'We're busy and we've written to him.'

'You're not busy.'

'Fine. Tanith's busy and she's written to him!'

'Once,' Tanith said quietly. 'Just to make sure he's settling in.' She straightened up a little. 'I'm sure he's busy. Which is fine. So am I. Training is picking up, and this is likely to be my only day off this month.'

She didn't need to spot the exchanged glances between Nat and Cal to know they were there, and she gritted her teeth. 'How's the job, Cal?'

It was an unfair change of tactic, but her flatmate had to know he'd earned it, because he sighed. 'Boring. Boring, boring, boring. I process the post.'

'I'm sure it'll turn into something,' Nat said soothingly, sounding like this wasn't the first time she'd said this.

'...if Gabe had told me that the job he could get me in his Dad's office was going to be this dull - this monkey work - I'd have told him where to go,' Cal grumbled. 'I'm worth more than this.'

'Then get another job,' Tanith said quietly.

'Like what?' Cal's expression twisted. 'I've got no NEWTs anyone else from the last graduating class doesn't have in spades. Which other talent should I have recommend me on my CV, my half-baked guitar skills, or my on-and-off Quidditch skills? It's easy for you two, I don't know what I want to do!'

Tanith held her tongue, but it sounded like Nat had heard this rant a few too many times to listen to it in silence. 'Easy. Yeah.' She drained her beer, getting to her feet with a scowl. 'Potions research is easy. I get paid less than you, Cal, as an entry-level flunkey, and work more hours. And you know I needed to work really hard to qualify for this post, and it's not going to pay off for years yet!'

And my Dad wonders why I didn't want to be a Potions Researcher, Tanith thought dryly to herself, but mostly tried to pretend to be fascinated by her beer bottle label instead of listening to the argument.

'But it's what you want to do!' Cal said defensively, sounding like he knew he'd crossed a line but too proud and irate to step back. 'And you knew you were getting in to this when you started!'

'And maybe, if you'd spent half as much time at Hogwarts thinking about what you wanted to do and working towards it and applying for it, instead of obsessing about Quidditch, maybe you wouldn't be in a job you hate now.' Nat made a face, before getting to her feet. 'You know what? I don't have time for this. I'll see you tonight,' she mumbled, starting for the door.

Tanith frowned. So you could put a beer label on upside-down if you didn't rip it off too badly, the condensation sticking it back on to the glass...

Then the door closed - not slammed, but definitely closed firmly - and she looked up to see Cal on his feet, running his hand across his dark, bristly hair.

'...women!' he exclaimed in exasperation.

'I'm not saying a word,' Tanith mumbled.

'Good.' Cal frowned. 'I'll go see her later,' he decided after barely a moment's thoughts. 'Flowers?'

'Chocolates. And take her out for dinner. You might as well make the most of getting paid well. And you know she's been ridden hard at work.' Tanith wasn't usually one to wade into such scenarios. She wasn't even one to usually have to deal with much more than boys. Nat Lockett was the first girl in many years, though, she would readily call a friend, and though Cal had her first loyalty she had no qualms about calling him an idiot in the pursuit of his own happiness.

'...yeah.' Cal's shoulders sagged, and he threw himself onto the beaten-up sofa next to her with a sigh, reaching for his beer.

Silence prevailed for a few long moments, until he took a deep breath and glanced over at her. 'You know Toby's going to be fine, right?'

Tanith tensed a little. 'I know.'

He took a swig of his beer. 'And you know he's just going to be really busy, rather than avoiding you, right?'

She made a face. 'I know.'

'Because we both know he's crazy about you.'

Tanith sighed. 'Cal?'

'Yeah?'

'...shut up.’


Chapter 2: The Odyssey
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It was a strange and unusual city, Moscow. Standing on the cusp of east to west, it was definitely not London - and yet, Tobias was acutely aware that he was in danger, walking down these streets, of falling into the disregard that came with familiarity, even though he had no reason to be familiar.

He'd only been here a matter of hours, hours in which all he'd done was have a mangled discussion with the international Portkey supervisor and make it to the streets. And make an effort at some lunch, pawing through his Muggle phrasebook like some sort of tourist idiot.

This was not the beginning of a gleaming career in the diplomatic arena that he'd hoped for. And yet he was surprisingly comfortable.

Perhaps that was because, if he kept his head down, if he just focused on navigating the route nerves had burned into his memory, he was walking the streets of a city much like any other. With people just like any other, cars just like any other. Enough that, if he didn't concentrate, he could just be in some part of town he didn't recognise, far from Canary Wharf and the MLE office.

Then something would catch his eye as professionally-trained instincts kicked in and he became observant again. The lettering, not just in a foreign language but in foreign symbols; the short whiff of gossip of his neighbours on the streets he'd overhear but couldn't remotely understand. Those little nuances of architecture that he couldn't so much as place.

Tobias Grey wasn't the most well-travelled man in the world, but he'd seen enough of Europe and had read enough books to find Moscow disconcerting. It was not the gloomy Gothic architecture of some western cities, or the renaissance curves of others. Nor was it the twists and tumbles of the Far East, that he'd seen pictures of but never before espied. No, Russia was somewhere in between, somewhere that his rather westernised mind could only consider to be a hybrid rather than something whole, in and of itself.

It was a strange tingle in his spine that greeted this ignorant thought. Because he knew it was ignorant, and his curiosity was begging to be educated. And he lived here now. He would have weeks, months - maybe, maybe even years to throw himself into this culture so utterly foreign to him.

In between doing his job, of course. And if he did his job right - if he could secure help from the Russian Federation of Magic to send trained witches and wizards to aid the war against You-Know-Who - then he wouldn't need to be here very long at all.

The mild regret at such a prospect was met only with a twist of guilt. People were dying. He was hundreds of miles from his friends, from his family, from... It was no time to be excited about museum tours.

If nothing else, he had a job to do.

The Federation of Magic's offices for its Department of International Affairs - and thus the location of the international embassies - was located not far from Izmaylovsky Park, making for an even more pleasant walk. Ideally, he would have Portkeyed in with his boss, but there had been a mix-up of his paperwork, with his last minute hiring, and so he'd had to go through the standard security checks for international travel at the Federation's main office.

It was an innocuous building - or would have been if he thought the tall office block was actually his destination. Instead, he headed around the side, for the alleyway, where - conveniently and oh-so-pleasantly behind a few overflowing dustbins - a small set of stone steps led to a heavy metal basement door.

He tapped his wand three times against the brick above the electronic keypad on the wall, as he'd been instructed, and was rewarded with a click of the lock.

Inside was a far cry from the grubby corporate world of above, as a short corridor lead him to an open, wood-panelled lobby, classical music - likely some Russian wizard composer Tobias didn't have a hope in hell of identifying - spilling from an unknown source. The room was large, circular, various ornate doors leading off with signs next to them stating the different governments in cyrillic and latin texts. At this distance, he couldn't see the Ministry of Magic's.

At the centre of the room was a large, wooden, circular reception manned by a rather severe-looking gentleman surrounded by several piles of parchments and books. Occasionally, these parchments would, with a flick of his wand, form themselves into small folded humanoid shapes that would march off for the doors. Folding over to slip under the doors once they arrived, he assumed they'd then reform and be on their way.

Well, it beat the paper airplanes of home.

He hurried up, clearing his throat discreetly to get the man's attention even though it was impossible for his arrival to have been missed. ‘Excuse me...’

The man looked at him beadily for a moment, with the brief glint in his eye Tobias vaguely recognised as a lack of comprehension before he straightened up. When he spoke, his English held little accent. ‘Do you have a meeting?’

‘What? Oh, no. My name's Tobias Grey, I'm a senior assistant to the counsellor of the British Ambassador? Newly hired?’ He offered a hopeful smile, having learnt enough from his time in the MLE Patrol that just being polite could get you far.

Instead, the receptionist only looked mildly disinterested. ‘Then why aren't you heading inside? You should know the routine.’

Helpful. ‘As I said, sir. Newly hired.’ He just managed to keep sarcasm from his voice. It wouldn't help.

Though it would be satisfying. Tobias frowned, trying to push the internal voice - which sounded treacherously like Tanith - from his mind.

‘Then you should have Portkeyed in with your superior to be processed here.’ He began to form another origami memo with surpassing disregard.

‘There was a mix-up of paperwork. I had to go through the Federation's main offices. I was told to just come straight here... look, can't you just send a memo to Aurora Marlowe?’ So politeness was fading as Tobias folded his arms across his chest.

The receptionist looked scandalised. Or, rather, he looked like he was enjoying appearing scandalised in order to make Tobias' life more difficult. That was his read on it, anyway. ‘And interrupt her work? Surely -’

‘Ah, Brain-Box Grey!’

Tobias flinched reflexively at the new voice from behind him as, emerging out of one of the doors, came a familiar and rather unexpected individual. He turned sharply, brow furrowing. ‘Radimir. I didn't expect to see you here.’

The burly Russian hurried over, hand extended to grasp his in a shake where he did his best to break knuckles. Once upon a time, Tobias would have hissed in pain, or at least flinched. Months of Enforcer training meant that, though he'd never out-grip the beefier man, he could at least pretend to not be in pain.

‘I am here to meet you,’ Dimitri Radimir said with a toothy grin, his accent present but English notably better than Tobias remembered. ‘Ms Marlowe sent me out here to see Piotr did not give you any trouble.’ He waved cheerfully to the receptionist, who actually smiled at his countryman.

Tobias was beginning to feel like there was some sort of conspiracy going on. ‘You work here?’

‘Senior liaison to the British Embassy.’ Radimir gave a mock-bow, then jerked a thumb towards the door behind him. ‘Come in. Your room is ready, Ms Marlowe waits for you...’

‘Senior liaison?’ Tobias repeated, blinking a little owlishly as he allowed himself to be ushered from the somewhat opulent lobby towards the door he could now see was labelled as leading to his Ministry's embassy. ‘That's awfully high for your age.’ He managed to keep bitterness out of his voice.

‘For my experience with the British, yes?’ Radimir said with a smirk.

‘I would have thought plenty of Durmstrang candidates had as much experience as you following the Tri-Wizard tournament,’ Tobias said, internally cursing whoever had decided that hiring this Russian for the job was a good idea.

It had been two years since he'd last seen Dimitri Radimir, and the man had changed quite a bit. If possible, he was broader, his natural build honed from determined work, and much more clean cut, wearing well-fitting, officious robes. His strong jaw was clean shaven, dark hair cropped closely. Now he looked less like the burly foreigner who'd tried to charm Tanith under Tobias' withering eye.

He looked like... well, a professional.

Not that this made him any less of a toss-pot, in Tobias' opinion.

‘Not many go into diplomacy.’ Radimir shrugged. ‘And in new world with spirit of cooperation, the office was keen to give my job to someone who did not learn the ropes during the Cold War, da?’

‘Da,’ Tobias muttered bitterly as they turned a corner and entered their own embassy lobby. There was no warm browns and reds of wood panels and carpets here; whoever had decided on the decor of these offices had done so with black stone and dark emeralds in mind, presenting a gloomy, close effect that reminded Tobias not unpleasantly of the Slytherin common room. Radimir just waved cheerfully at the Blonde reception girl - Tobias felt her appearance deserved the capitalisation - and led him through a door just beyond the desk.

As was common with many underground magical locations, the walls bore windows enchanted to show them images of the outside world, perhaps to stop all wizarding kind from going mad with claustrophobia. The British embassy seemed to sport a park view, which Tobias found hard to complain about, especially as he was led into an office with floor-to-ceiling windows across the entire far wall.

And inside, locked in a loud argument he was surprised he hadn't heard from outside, were both his bosses.

Aurora Marlowe he recognised immediately. Tall and raven-haired, her usually austere features were currently twisted in absolute frustration, her strong and educated voice ringing loudly with anger across the room.

He didn't recognise the portly gentleman seated at the desk, but he could read, and the name placard read 'Antonius Clint'. It didn't take racking his brains to recognise the him. After all, the British Ambassador's name had been on pretty much every piece of paperwork Tobias had needed to fill in.

Radimir skidded to a halt and swore under his breath in Russian as he realised he'd walked into an argument without knocking.  Tobias' Russian was not very good, but he'd spent enough time with the Durmstrang students over the Tri-Wizard tournament enough to know rampant cursing when he heard it.

Unfortunately, Radimir had never specialised in subtlety, and the two looked up.
Ambassador Clint was a reedy man with a mop of greying hair already in full retreat, years of his experience lining his face. Tobias had read a lot about him; he had been the Ambassador to Russia even during the Cold War, and apparently nobody knew Moscow in and out better than him.

Aurora Marlowe had to be confident in her job security to take him on.

Her expression split into a broad, measured smile the moment that she saw him, though, the tension dissipating immediately. 'Tobias, it's lovely to see you; I'm glad you made it here in time. Piotr didn't give you any trouble?'

'Oh, no. Not at all,' Tobias lied - he'd be damned if he admitted he'd needed saving by Radimir, who fortunately just smiled cheerfully.

Marlowe gave a self-satisfied nod before turning back to the desk, and gesturing broadly. 'Ambassador, this is Tobias Grey, my new senior assistant.'

Tobias stumbled forward, extending a hand. 'It's an honour, sir.'

Clint looked at the hand before he stood up, reaching out to give it only a perfunctory shake. 'I'm sure,' he grunted, then turned back to Marlowe. 'You're not going to have him pursuing your insane project, are you?'

He hadn't known Aurora Marlowe for very long. But there was nevertheless something familiar about her, about how she acted, and so even Tobias' fleeting acquaintance recognised the bristle she tried to hide. 'As I said, sir, we've been making significant progress with the Federation's law enforcement,' she said, and it sounded like they had been at this for some time. 'They are talking even about searching for volunteers from their ranks to form a task force.'

'We don't want them in Britain.' Clint's lip curled. 'You might have the go-ahead from the Minister of Magic on this, Marlowe, but I don't want to see Dark Magic practitioners who've only been half-rehabilitated coming to help in Britain. They'll make things worse.'

'Perhaps.' Marlowe stiffened. 'But as you say, my project has the backing of Rufus Scrimgeour. He thinks that the expertise of the Russians who have fought against Dark Magic in the past will help in the war.'

'And when it goes wrong I'll have your head.' Clint muttered something under his breath, sitting down heavily. 'Fine. Go show your boy the ropes.'

'When -' Marlowe looked like she was going to argue the point for a moment, before falling silent. She grimaced, then turned to the door, gesturing for the two young men to follow her.

'That cantankerous old git,' she snapped the moment Radimir had closed the door behind them, and she began to lead them down the rather small offices of the British Embassy. 'He still thinks we're in the damn Cold War!'

'I didn't realise that we had opposition from the inside to this project,' Tobias stumbled, scurrying to keep up with her.

'We don't. Just today he decided to be extra-difficult. It's easy for Clint - you know he hasn't lived in Britain in twenty years? - he doesn't have to worry about the war. And yet he still sees Russians as the enemy. No offence, Dimitri.'

'None is taken,' Radimir said cheerfully. 'The International Liaison Office, we see him as the enemy still, too!'

'I'm sure that thrills him.' Marlowe grumbled under her breath until they reached another door, which she pushed open. This was a pen of offices, at this point all empty, with space for three desks at the front and then a larger one at the far end which had her nameplate on it. 'Here we are.'

Tobias squinted. 'This is it?'

'There's your desk. Dimitri keeps a desk here as well as with his people.' Marlowe gave a grandiose gesture before she walked past to her desk, perching against it. 'Pick any of the other ones.'

'We're not fully staffed?' Tobias asked, choosing the one which hadn't been used as a dumping ground for dirty coffee mugs as Radimir collapsed into his over-stuffed office chair. It looked like he'd drawn the short straw on those, too, as his squeaked as he sat down.

'International relations are not Britain's biggest concern,' Marlowe admitted. 'And until this project starts to see results, I think it'll only be you and me.'

'And me!' Radimir reminded them, beginning to spin languidly on his chair. 'I think it is a good plan. We have many specialists in fighting dark magic. Some even fought Grindelwald. The rest were taught by those who fought Grindelwald. It makes your Voldemort wars nothing in comparison.'

They both flinched, and Radimir winced. 'Oh. Sorry - I forget. Here, he is just dark wizard. Not a man with a scary name. Grindelwald did not hide his name. He wanted everyone to know who he was. Perhaps it is British modesty?'

'Modesty is not one of You-Know-Who's traits,' Tobias mumbled with a frown, then he glanced up at Marlowe. 'So. I'm here. Where do we start?'

She tilted her head at him. 'We have a flat for you around the corner. Well, actually, in the block above. Most of the international officials stay here, but if you want your space we can arrange somewhere else.'

Tobias shrugged. 'Great. Is that where my stuff was shipped off to? I'll take a look later.'

Marlowe exchanged an amused look with Radimir. 'He wants to get straight to work. Think that'll get beaten out of him before too long?'

Radimir waggled a finger. 'You under-estimate Tobias Grey. Very determined when he wants to be.'

'Oh, I think I know what I'm dealing with.' Marlowe looked back at Tobias, giving him a warm and slightly apologetic smile. 'Alright. You can settle in later. In fact, we'll hit the League Bar after work. It's a real favourite, just round the corner. First drinks are on me then we'll move you in.'

Radimir grinned more at his apprehension. 'You do not need to look so worried. We do not only drink vodka here. But when we do, it is usually very good vodka.'

'I'll take your word for it,' Tobias said, leaning back on the squeaky chair. He'd expected a certain amount of hazing. He hadn't anticipated it from a large Russian man he'd once spent several months planning the gruesome demise of.

'And not too much. As the world doesn't stop in the morning for a hangover because Dimitri gave you too much to drink.' Marlowe turned back to her desk and picked up a large stack of papers, which with a flick of her wand danced in the air across to Tobias' desk. 'So, until then? We need to streamline our expectations of what we'd want from any Russian aurors coming across to Britain. What they can reasonably be expected to provide, and what support we can give them.'

Tobias flipped the file open. 'And what kind of deals do we have the authority to have?'

'Well, Clint can technically overrule this, even if I have been given the go by Scrimgeour. But Scrimgeour wants these Russians pretty damn badly, so I don't think Clint will be a problem.' Marlowe straightened up, the sunlight from the illusionary windows behind her casting a faint glow into the rather dull and undecorated office.

She smiled. 'So I think we can get away with pretty much anything. After all... we're trying to save the country.'



Chapter 3: The Great Fire
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Crawling on your elbows. Truly Auror-like.


There were still sparking spells and explosions going on from outside of her cover, all participants too well-versed in combat magic to need to utter their incantations loud enough that she might hear. That made it difficult to judge by sound alone what was going on, but the fizzing of magic from her left - and a quick, cautious glance over the edge of the crate - made it clear that Jacob was still up, and still fighting.


So if she didn't do something it would be two against one and she didn’t like those odds. At least, not when she was the one.


But then another spell whipped just inches past her face, and with a hissed curse Tanith slid back down behind the crate. These two were good. Really good.


She slid off her coat, wrapping it up in a bundle as best she could while staying lower than three feet off the ground, then rose onto her haunches. It was clear what the tactic of these two Death Eaters had been. Incapacitate the weaker of the two Aurors quickly, so they could then focus their combined firepower on the more seasoned individual.


Unfortunately for them, Tanith Cole had one more take-down of a Death Eater under her belt than any other of the new trainees in the Auror programme. Bringing her grand tally up to... one.


It sounded more impressive when she told people how she'd hit him with a car.


But now wasn't the time to think about her reputation. She was trapped in a dingy cellar, a large, heavy crate thrown in front of the stairway she and Jacob had come down through, and this routine confiscation of some Dark Magic contraband had turned into a firefight. Clearly the warehouse owner upstairs had been coerced into drawing them here for what was likely meant to be a meat-grinder of a trap.


Tanith had always been fond of solving such scenarios by simply springing the trap. It seemed a less wise tactic, in hindsight.


She bundled up her coat more tightly, then suddenly hurled it to her right, letting it be a flurry of movement from behind the crate, and rose enough to see with her wand outstretched over the crate a split-second later.


As anticipated there was a spark of a curse flying through the air - but directed at the coat, not at her, an instinctive shot from the Death Eater which gave her his position.


He had just enough time to bring up a protection spell against her hex, but it was a languid, inelegant one, and so she pressed the assault, throwing attack after attack at him.


Then a spell hit the Death Eater from the side as Jacob switched targets, and the man slumped behind the crate to not rise.


Just as his companion sent a hex at the crate her partner was hiding behind that had it explode in a mess of splinters and sparks of fire, and sent Auror Van Roden flying back to smack into the wall behind him. He slid down and didn't rise.


Shit.


Tanith had no time to do anything other than throw herself behind her crate, tossing hexes over the edge to try to keep the Death Eater pinned down, but one against one like this with nothing to break it up promised to be a stalemate until one of them got lucky.


And, as her instructors told her repeatedly, there was no such thing as luck. Only planning, ingenuity, and skill. And the Death Eater probably had enough years under his belt that he was more likely to hit her before she hit him.


So this was going to take lateral thought. Something, allegedly, she was good at.


Some of the darkness powder? No, that would just have her being shot at in the dark. Trying to close to hand-to-hand combat? Terribly dangerous in getting across the distance, and the figure shooting at her looked bigger than her. She only tended to be successful in a melee fight if she employed the element of surprise. So it would have to be more magical than that.


Her eyes landed on some of the crates in between them, before she dismissed that idea. Too clumsy. Too likely to make the fight go wild and out of her control, if he dodged a flying crate and she lost track of him.


Then she saw the canvas draped unsecurely across one of the crates in the centre, useless now it was no longer needed to protect against the rain.




When it was sent hurtling through the air at the Death Eater, it was too big and billowing for him to avoid it entirely. It smacked into his upper chest, beginning to wrap around him and pull him down, even as he brought his wand up to try to send it flying away.


Then Tanith rose from behind her crate, wand extended, wry smile on her lips. 'Hey. Incendio.'


She put him out, of course, the moment she'd incapacitated his flailing, flaming form. Besides, his mask and his robes had ensured only superficial burns.


Still, it was worth it, if only for the look on Jacob Van Roden's face as the older Auror was brought around by the Healers the Magical Law Enforcement Squad backup brought with them, and as they bound and secured the two Death Eaters with rather more conventional methods.


'You set him on fire?' he exclaimed, squinting at her with no small amount of dubious shock.


'I know. I'm going to get a reputation,' Tanith commented, leaning against one of the crates and massaging her aching shoulder.


'After setting fire to the Ravenclaw Quidditch stands? I'd bloody think so!' Jacob folded his arms across his chest. 'What were you thinking?'


'That he could beat me in a one-on-one mundane fight, considering I'm not even rated to fight Death Eaters yet and this was supposed to be a milk run. And my experienced, fully-qualified mentor had already been dropped by an exploding crate.' Tanith shrugged at him dismissively. 'I didn't have much of a choice. And Ididn't set fire to the Quidditch stand, by the way. I just burnt some of the drapes. The stand is fine.'


Van Roden threw his hands in the air. 'I'm going to assume we'll have to revisit those policy discussions about "appropriate force".'


She tilted her head at him accusingly. 'You mean how, if I judge lives to be in danger, I can employ any force short of outright lethal or the Unforgivables? He's got some burns. I can guarantee you I wasn't going to take him down by trying to hug him into submission.'


There was a pause as the two stared at each other, then Jacob gave a short, sharp snort despite himself, and within seconds the two of them were chuckling those dark, throaty chuckles which were born of nerves. 'I'd pay good money to see that, you know.'


'I'll just have to work on the lethality of my hugs,' Tanith muttered dryly, running a hand through her hair, and she finally looked up at him. 'You okay, anyway?'


Jacob nodded. 'I've had worse than be thrown at a wall. You did good, kid.' He stepped forward, clapping her on her uninjured shoulder.


'"Kid". You just love that, don't you. What are you, two minutes older than me?' Tanith asked wryly, as the two of them began to make their way out of the tiny cellar, now increasingly crowded by Healers and Enforcers, and back up into the bright daylight spilling in through the warehouse's large windows, the upper level also bustling by now with Auror activity.


'Try three years. That's three years on the beat more than you.'


'You're a regular veteran, then.'


Van Roden rolled his shoulders as he drew a deep breath of what turned out to be rather murky London air. 'If you weren't an Auror the last time around, really, you're no more experienced than anyone else in what's going on here. And we don't have so many veterans as we'd like.' He glanced over at her. 'Hell, coming in having taken down one Death Eater put you ahead of some Aurors who'd been doing this for years.'


'The car helped.'


'You were ill the day they taught subtlety, weren't you?'


'Cole! Van Roden!'


Both looked up to see, moving through the bustle of the law enforcement officials beginning to search the warehouse from top to bottom on the hunt for the Dark Magic contraband which had lured them there in the first place, the large, austere figure of Cassius Vaughn approaching them.


Tanith had first met Vaughn in her interview for the Auror training programme. His manner then had left her unsurprised when she'd learnt he supervised the field training itself, as despite his grey hair and lined face he was still tall, broad, and vital.


'You two still upright?' he asked gruffly as he stopped in front of them.


'It's not the first crate to explode in my face,' Jacob said. He wasn't the tallest of men, but he had to crane his neck even more than usual in the face of the large Vaughn.


'I won't ask what you got up to in your training regimes, then, Auror Van Roden. But you're still breathing, so I will consider that sufficient.' Vaughn scratched his bristly beard.


'Your concern is just... blinding in how touching it is, sir,' Tanith couldn't help but observe dryly.


He squinted at her. 'I heard you got set on fire.'


She sighed. 'No, sir. That was the Death Eater.'


'You set him on fire?'


'Yes - why does everyone have a problem with this, he's fine!' Tanith scowled.


'Is he?' Vaughn squinted, then sighed. 'Pity. I set fire to a Death Eater's boots, once. I didn't put them out until he was in a cell. Still wearing them, too.'




Jacob threw his hands in the air. 'I'll just be over here, sir, ignoring the massive procedure violations.'


Vaughn snorted. 'Don't be such a hippy, Van Roden. They'd kill you if you had the chance.'


'I like to think, sir, that I'm better than them,' Jacob said with a grimace of a smile, and in that moment Tanith was acutely reminded of the fact that her partner had once been a great mentor to Tobias Grey.


'Really?' Vaughn grunted. 'Then learn to duck exploding crates better.' He turned to them both as Jacob faltered, gobsmacked, before the older Auror pressed on. 'Good work, anyway. Two Death Eaters down is better than any contraband you could have rounded up. Though we'll find out if that was real, or just bait for you. They meant to kill you, I've no doubt, and turning the tables on them like that tickles me.'


Tanith blinked. 'Then we're glad to have... tickled you, sir.'


'Aren't you just.' Vaughn gave a broad twist of a dry, self-aware smile. 'Healers tell me you two should have the rest of the day off. Stress recovery, or some hippy bullshit like that. I just think Cahill forgot to get me my morning coffee sohe should do the paperwork processing the arrest, and I don't care if you write your reports in the office, at home, or in the goddamn Leaky Cauldron so long as I have it by nine.' He looked between the two of them beadily. 'Deal?'


Jacob sighed. 'It's a deal, sir,' he mumbled, then rolled his eyes as the burly senior Auror disappeared off into the crowd. 'You senile lunatic.'


Tanith grinned. 'I like him.'


'To explain that, see your joint interests. Namely, it seems, being obnoxious and, of course, fire.'


'You're getting fixated.'


Jacob laughed, looking like the gesture sucked a lot of the tension out of him, and his shoulders slumped. 'You have any plans for what you're going to do with this glorious day off?'


'Day? It's 3:15. A couple of hours off, at best. So I think I'm going to write up my statement at home. If I'm really good, I give myself a beer.'


He nodded. 'That's the best plan I heard all day.' He paused, then smiled and looked back at her, the amusement fading for a more relaxed satisfaction. 'You did really well. I mean, you know that, you took him down. But I reckon anyone else in the tuition programme had been with me... we'd both be dead.'


'Apparently I'm not like anyone else,' Tanith said, with a hint of wry self-consciousness.


'You're not.' Jacob smiled to himself, shoving his hands in his pockets, a self-conscious gesture he'd never managed to shed when it made people take him less seriously as a prefect, and apparently even into life as an Auror. 'I think we're turning this tide. It might be... one little bit at a time, but there's no sign the Death Eaters are receiving a massive influx of members. If You-Know-Who has a plan, then it's cloak and dagger.'


'That doesn't reassure me, you know.' Tanith awkwardly brushed a lock of hair behind an ear.


'Still. His cloak and dagger business isn't our problem.' Jacob forced his smile a little bit, then sighed. 'It really is all work for you, isn't it.'


'Isn't that meant to be the Auror's lifestyle?'


'You still never come down the pub with the guys,' he pointed out. 'Work hard, play hard, that's what we're supposed to aim for. Not work hard, disappear at home under a pile of stress. After over-time.'


Tanith shrugged. 'There's just not so much I fancy doing with my free time. I can worry about that when the war's over.'


'You know the last one lasted... oh, five years? I mean, it's debatable when itstarted, but... something in that region. So your life's going to kick off when you're twenty-three?'


Tanith sighed, looking up at her partner. 'They say this one's going to be worse. So maybe twenty-eight.' She flashed him a wry smile. 'I'm going to head off, then and disappear at home under a pile of stress. I'll see you in the morning, Jacob.'


He sputtered, a little with surprise, a little with guilt, but didn't stop her as she walked past him and towards the pile of crates the MLE had designated as an apparition zone.


Her flat was warm when she appeared, bathed in the afternoon sun. Cal had to be out at work, not back for at least an hour or two now, and she wasn't so used to having the place to herself during the day. Only if Cal went out to see Nat of an evening did she get much solitude, and so she let out a deep sigh upon realising she was alone, relieved at the prospect.


Then she heard a footstep on carpet behind her.


She whirled around, wand in hand only for her wrist to be caught and for the half-muttered spell to shoot harmlessly over the intruder's shoulder. The assailant twisted her wrist, hard, and Tanith let out a yelp of pain but let herself be disarmed rather than find a broken wrist.


They were bigger than she was, but she nevertheless stepped in closer, placing a foot behind their heel as she planted her shoulder into their chest, trying to pivot them off-balance.


It worked, but his iron grip on her didn't weaken, and they both went spinning down onto the carpet. The intruder, though, braced her weight against his forearm before pushing back, and up close it became a wrestling match where his greater strength was against her, and before she knew it he had hauled her onto her back, pinned down, unable to move.


Except she didn't need to, as in the roll she'd retrieved her fallen wand and it was poking most pointedly in the man's gut.


'Wands do win some fights, old man,' she managed to gasp, abruptly breathless at the unexpected tussle.


Her mentor looked down with a twist of the lips. 'If this had been a real fight, I'd have snapped it.' Then he pulled back, letting her go and clambering to his feet, extending a hand to help her up.


Tanith took it gratefully. 'I thought you said there was no such thing as practice?'


Altair Ritter, family tutor of the Cole household whose two daughters had ceased living at home some seven years ago, straightened his coat with a derisive sniff. 'I doubt your Aurors would be happy if I broke your wand, though. Aside from paying for a new one, the period of adaptation would set back your training unnecessarily.'


She sank onto the overstuffed sofa, rubbing her aching wrist ruefully. It was not, though, anything she wasn't used to; her tutor had been training her in hand-to-hand combat for the better part of the last year. It sometimes made Auror training look minor in comparison. 'How did you get in?' she asked at last, nodding at the door. 'That thing's enchanted up solidly.'


Altair raised an eyebrow at her, before he opened his coat. It was a comfortable, long black leather affair he had worn for as long as she'd known him, perhaps a bit too small for him but full of interesting pockets and straps. On the inside was what she remembered - leather strips sown into the lining onto which were attached all sorts of the devices he tended to favour.


After all, a Squib needed every little edge he could get when he was gathering intelligence off, and sometimes fighting, Death Eaters.


She caught a glimpse of a Muggle gun under there, something she was confident he didn't used to carry - or at least had never brought to Hogsmeade - before he gestured to the small leather wrap she knew would contain his various different lockpicks.


'I'm almost disappointed you didn't take further precautions,' he said, but his smile was warm and genuine.


'Yeah, I didn't expect to be attacked by a deranged Squib. Everything you taught me is wonderful, but at the end of the day Death Eaters believe in magical supremacy. That's sort of their raison d'etre. I'm not convinced they're going to pick the locks to my door. Have a seat.' Tanith gestured to one of the armchairs which rarely saw attention in the flat.


Altair's smile broadened a little. 'How have you been?'


'Fine. Busy. Listening to Cal bellyaching about a job he hates while I'm at home, and working my fingers to the bone in the office.' She gave a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. 'Did you break into my house just to have a catch-up?'


'I came over to have a catch-up. I broke into your house because I wanted to make sure you weren't getting soft.' He inclined his head a little. 'You're not, you know.'


'I know.' Tanith's expression flickered. 'Is there any news?'


'About?'


She sighed, leaning back on the sofa, and let her gaze drift around the flat. It was rather bare, still. Neither she nor Cal had had their own living space since before Hogwarts, and so much of what they owned at home was the kind of thing an eleven year-old might like. Now they were both eighteen they were just about learning how to have personal tastes in decoration again.


So far the only nod to it was a small picture on the mantelpiece, framed and on a stand. One of their enterprising classmates had taken it the New Year's before last, down at Hogsmeade. Her, Cal, Tobias, and Gabriel Doyle all sat around a bench, Cal with his broad arms around them all so they couldn't escape, each looking various degrees of amused, sheepish, and annoyed.


And, in the background, not in the shot but looking on from the outskirts, stood the ghost that was Annie MacKenzie.


Was that the last time we were all happy together, the four of us?


Or do I have to go back even further than that?


'Everything,' she said with a sigh. 'They don't tell us a thing in the Auror office.'


'That's because they don't know anything,' Altair said, shaking his head. 'And, to be honest, I cannot be arrogant about this. I cannot employ the same tactics I did in the First War; your father is no longer respected amongst those families who would discuss their Death Eater business at a dinner party, or in front of a delivery boy.' He gave a modest incline of the head. 'I have to be far more physical in gathering my knowledge.'


'And have you found anything?' Tanith raised her eyebrows.


He hesitated, and she straightened a little. It was not like her old tutor to be uncertain. 'I think there is a spy in the Magical Law Enforcement Department,' he said at length. 'And this will not come as a surprise to you, I know. But I fear it is someone close to Thicknesse.'


Tanith leaned forwards, scrubbing her face with her hands. 'Ominous,' she said. 'And yet, of course, of very little use without more information than that.'


'I know.' Altair grimaced. 'And yet here we are.' He glanced over at her. 'Your father would like you to visit,' he said at length.


'Did he send you here to tell me that?'


'No. I came of my own volition. I just know he'd like you to. I know he's glad you visited your sister. How is she?'


Tanith gave a smile despite herself. 'Fine. And so's little Leah...'


'She is a gem.' Altair nodded softly. 'Children are the future.'


Tanith laughed. 'It's a little early for that, Al.'


He smirked. 'That was not a pointed comment.' There was a moment where he looked at her, and she squirmed under his examination. 'But family are important. More so in a time of war like this.'


'I know you're looking after them.' She looked up as he rose to his feet, suddenly unsure of what he was getting at.


'I am. Though I am, after all, just a Squib.' Altair gave a mock bow of even more modesty. 'But I am not the only family you have.' She frowned, and he nodded at the picture on the mantelpiece. 'You miss them.'


I miss him. Tanith swallowed. 'Yes.'


'That's why we do it, you know. I sometimes wonder if you got that memo, working so hard, trying for... the sake of trying?' Altair sighed. 'The people we love. That's why we fight.'


'I know,' Tanith lied.


Altair straightened up, and nodded again. 'I had best be going,' he said at last. 'I was on my way to some business, after all.' He gave his usual evasive shrug. 'You will take care of yourself?'


'So long as you take care of them.' She got up too, heading with him over to the door.


'That is what I do.' Altair smiled at her, before pulling her into an affectionate hug. For a moment she wasn't sure how to take it, and was even less sure when he kissed her on the top of the head, but then he let her go and turned for the doorway.


As she closed the door behind him, Tanith reflected on how he'd never done that before.


And how, for her, it was much easier to fight so she didn't have to think about the people she loved.





Chapter 4: The Getaway
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'See? Beer. Not all Russians drink vodka.' Dimitri set the bottle down on the counter in front of Tobias with a smug grin. 'That would suggest serious addiction!'


'Because drinking lots of beer doesn't also lead to alcoholism,' Aurora commented from the other side of Tobias, dryly taking a sip of her drink. Even dressed down, in Muggle clothes to better blend in, and holding a beer bottle, she still managed to look poised, aristocratic.


'It is a stereotype. Very unfair,' Dimitri protested, settling onto his stool with a grumble.


'I recall,' Tobias said slowly, 'that you inflicted not a small amount of alcohol on the Slytherin Common Room, smuggled along with you for the Tri-Wizard tournament.'


Aurora raised her eyebrows with broad smirk as she heard this, her head turning deliberately towards their liaison officer. 'I hope you paid import tax on that vodka, Dimitri.'


He grinned. 'It was a gift! A gift from the students of Durmstrang to our gracious Hogwarts hosts.'


'All of whom were of age, I'm sure,' Aurora said, grinning into her beer.


'It would have been a great affront to question the honour of our hosts.' Radimir nodded wisely.


'I think they learnt their lesson the next morning. You should have seen the detentions Snape gave out. He never found the vodka but the hangovers spoke for themselves.' Tobias chuckled, though it was still hard to recall his school days without the faintest hint of wistfulness. But this was from, at least, before his life took its more difficult turns.


'Either way, we are adults and I think we have earned these drinks.' Aurora inclined her beer bottle towards the other two. 'So. Cheers! To our new team-member, and to the success of the new project.'


The bottles rang out with their enthusiasm before they all drank deeply, and Dimitri sighed as he rested his on the counter with a thunk. 'Though I can only stay for this one. I have places to be.'


Tobias raised an eyebrow. 'Places?'


'Dimitri here actually has a real life, unlike you or I,' Aurora said wryly.


'In Russian International Liaisons,’ he explained, ‘it takes a little longer before I will be sent somewhere abroad and exciting. Maybe if this project works out.'


'I think we're making serious progress,' Tobias said earnestly. 'The meetings have been going well, and they've been really responsive to the new programmes we've been drawing up.'


'You've been drawing up,' Aurora corrected. 'Don't think less of yourself, Tobias, I don't think we'd be able to communicate with them half as effectively if we didn't have your MLE experience to hand.'


He shifted his weight, pleased but uncomfortable. 'It does seem as if cops talk cop wherever they are. So at least I only have one language barrier between us.' He smiled uncertainly.


'You'll pick up the Russian,' Aurora reassured him with a dismissive wave of the hand. 'It's not an easy language, but sheer exposure should do the trick.'


'My little phrase book didn't do me much good in getting a sandwich,' Tobias recalled in lamentation.


'It was probably accurate,' Dimitri said, nodding slowly. 'They just probably saw you as a tourist and wanted to cause hassle.'


He looked over at the larger man. 'I have just found my welcome to Russia... so warm.'


Dimitri grinned. 'Stop complaining! You have a drink, no, and somewhere to stay, and live just next to the park! It is not so bad as all that.'


'He has a point.' Aurora smirked.


The Russian's smile broadened as he finished his beer and set the bottle down loudly. 'I do. And now I have to take my wisdom and bring it with me somewhere else. A more exciting place with louder music.' He turned to Tobias. 'You should come with me some time.'


Tobias shook his head. 'Maybe when I can say more than "yes", "no", and "vodka" in Russian,' he said with a sigh.


'But those are the important words! Well, "no" is less useful. "Yes" is good for many things. Not just "vodka".' Dimitri’s 's grin looked like it was splitting his face by now, and he clapped Tobias on the shoulder. 'I will be seeing you tomorrow, then! Have a good night!'


Tobias sighed, rubbing his temples as Dimitri waltzed out of the bar and into the night, and he slouched against the bar. 'Does he actually have a drinking problem?'


'He's nervous,' Aurora said more gently, sipping her drink.


He blinked. 'Nervous?'


'You.' She pointed her bottle at him. 'He was nervous about you coming here. He said you two had history when he learnt you were my new assistant.'


Tobias grimaced, but shook his head. 'Old, old history.' He shrugged under her curious eye. 'Girl history.'


'He got the girl?'


'Nobody got the girl. I managed to fail to get the girl perfectly well without his intervention.' Tobias took a swig of his beer. 'My luck, as you can tell, is excellent.'


'I don't have much grounds to argue with that,' Aurora conceded with a sigh. The bar was filling up by now, though most of the patrons she had pointed out as they'd come in as being officials of the other magical embassies. Apparently the bar staff weren't entirely in the know, but the various foreign wizarding representatives had done a good job over the years of claiming this clean, bright, modern establishment for themselves.


'It's strange,' Tobias continued, frowning at his beer bottle. 'I suppose if everything had gone... well... then I wouldn't be here. And, I mean, I like being here, but I'd probably be in some desk job in London for the department if I didn't have my Enforcer experience.'


'Probably,' Aurora agreed with a short nod. 'I find it is best to not over-think "what ifs". Because then you realise that so many of the best and worst things in your life can be sourced to one moment, one small decision, and if it had gone the other way the chain reaction would be... incalculable.'


'You don't believe in fate?' he asked curiously.


She gave a wry shake of the head. 'I think that we make our own paths. Certainly we can't blame our failings on anyone but ourselves.'


There was a silence after this, long and loud, and Tobias chewed uncertainly on his lower lip before he glanced sideways at her. 'It's not sounding like success brought you to Moscow for an indeterminate period of time, sitting out in a bar with a kid from work instead of... somewhere better?'


She glanced sideways at him. 'You're not a kid, Tobias. The things you've been through, you're not a kid.’


'I suppose not.' He sighed. 'Though I can't say I feel like - to sound pretentious - a man.'


'I don't think there is a point where you suddenly feel like a grown-up. To be cynical, perhaps about the time your hopes and dreams die.' Aurora finished her drink, pushing the empty bottle across the counter deliberately. This had to be a practiced gesture, because within moments there was a fresh one set before her.


'No,’ she confessed eventually, after delaying her response with another gulp of beer. ‘Living abroad and moving from place to place was not my first idea of an excellent life. But then that dream disappeared about twenty years ago.'


Tobias didn't look at her, not quite daring to lift his gaze from the bar counter. Then he took a long drink, finding the bottle empty sooner than he'd really like, and straightened up.


'You loved my Dad,' he said at last. It wasn't a question.


When he looked over at her the expression she wore was more sad than guilty, and she gave a faint nod. 'And he loved your mother. And she loved him enough to alienate herself from her whole family, from her whole way of life.' Aurora took a long gulp of her drink. 'You have to be quite something to try and come in between that. Either callous or stupid. And I'm not that stupid.'


Tobias frowned. 'Did he know...?'


'If we were going to be, we'd have been by the time he and your mother fell in love. She knew, of course. Women are a bit sharper about this kind of thing, especially about other women their husbands are particularly close friends with.' Aurora's expression turned wry.


'No, she... never mentioned you.' And went somewhat quiet when I mentioned I would be working for Aurora Marlowe in Moscow.


'She wouldn't. When your father died, I stayed away. From her, from you. If I ever made her paranoid, ever made her worry he hadn’t been hers, utterly - I didn't want to do that when she'd thrown away everything for him and then he'd died.' Aurora lifted her bottle to her lips. 'I left the country. And I didn't look back.'


'But...' Tobias hesitated, not sure what his objection was, and even less confident of how to phrase what was nothing more than a gut feeling. Instead, he said, 'You're a tremendous woman, Aurora. You should have - you should be happy, have a family, or - whatever makes you happy.'


'I enjoy my work.' Aurora nodded, wry smile going sad. 'I'm doing good. I get to see interesting places and deal with interesting people. You are absolutely forbidden to feel sorry for me.'


'So noted,' Tobias said, his smile returning a little as hers did. 'I don't mean to pry.'


She sighed. 'You don't. I'm sorry if I was overly frank. At the risk of sounding like a magnificent creep, you do - well, you remind me a lot of Bobby. You're easy to talk to, like him. And you're insightful.'


'I never heard anyone else call him "Bobby",' Tobias observed.


Aurora smiled a little more, some genuine strength behind it. 'He hated it,' she confided. 'But I called him that to tease him, and it sort of stuck. I suppose I'm being an arrogant jerk to keep referring to him as "Bobby"; only I could get away with it.'


'Bobby Grey. It's not a great name.'


'Hence the hating.'


They chuckled to themselves, before Aurora finished her beer and looked at the empty bottle with a sigh. 'I should go. There's still paperwork for tomorrow, and if I stay I'll have another drink, and I think a third might turn into a fourth at this rate. Then you'd have to run the meeting tomorrow.'


'In a foreign language I don't speak? Easy,' Tobias said with a snort. 'Alright. I'll see you in the morning.'


His own departure was not long after. He nursed his beer rather more slowly, and sat and watched the bar. Watched the patrons and tried to determine which were Muggles and which were wizards, those living abroad tending to be better than British wizards at hiding their magical nature. Not all magical cultures were as isolated as Britain's, and though Russia seemed just as divided, ambassadors tended to need to be ready to mingle wherever they were.


So he watched the different styles of clothes, listened to the babble of different languages, and watched the bar staff to see if he could tell which of them was in the know and which wasn't; if any of them were witches and wizards or if they were just all Muggles.


It was a harder game than when he played it in Muggle establishments wizards frequented in London. The divides were usually starker there.


But the game didn't last too long. He pulled out his book - Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, just to be pretentious and because it had been amongst his father's book collection, and he'd never read it - and settled down with a third drink. War and Peace could come when he'd got to the 'peace' part of his own life.


That only lasted a drink before the hubbub of the bar had him deciding to read at home, so he slouched out of the doors and onto the street. It was a warm night, at least, and he only needed his light jacket as he sauntered the distance from the bar to the embassy building.


He could go in through the front door this time, taking him just to the lobby of this high-rise block of apartments. From the outside it looked more likely to be offices, and apparently there were some in the building, but Tobias' destination was a room on the top floor.


It was a small flat. Cramped and dark, and barely worth what it cost him in what was taken out of his pay package. But it was secure for a wizard, and everything he needed from luxuries to laundry were provided.


Besides, it wasn't as if he'd be entertaining while he was out here.


He turned the light on to show the single room that was his living space, kitchen space, and bedroom. A door to his right let him through to the tiny bathroom, and the entire affair was more reminiscent of a large hotel room than somewhere one might be expected to live long term.


He'd only had a cursory glance around the place before going down the bar with Aurora and Dimitri, though, so he took his time to look over the room, familiarise himself with its nuances. Partly just to be comfortable, but training as an Enforcer died hard, and he knew deep down he was making it secure. Making sure that he'd know when he came back if anything had changed from when he left.


Like the letter on his bed.


Tobias came to a halt, frowning at it. Had that been there when he'd left? Was it possible he'd had something delivered while he was out, perhaps additional papers from either the Ministry or the Federation's Portkey services?


Carefully he pulled out his wand, and used it to slit the envelope open from a distance and tug the paper out. He didn't unfold it, instead pulling up a chair and sitting down in front of the bed.


It took him ten minutes to run through all of the curse and hex detection spells he knew until he was confident that the paper wasn't charmed, nor would the writing itself do him any harm.


In fact, it was probably just an entirely mundane piece of paper.


Gingerly, Tobias reached out and unfolded it, to reveal just a few short lines written by an unfamiliar hand.


'Mister Grey,


Do not trust Clint. He is one of the Dark Lord's creatures.


Be careful. Someone important to us both would be most upset if harm came to you.


~ A.R.'


And that was it. No more identifiers. Nothing else written, on the letter or on the envelope.


Tobias stared at it for a few moments more. Then he got to his feet and walked into the white starkness that was the bathroom, just cold ceramics, bright lights, and a mirror showing him to look older and more tired than he especially remembered appearing.


The pile of ash the letter burned into washed down the sink without leaving a trace.








'Abusing the international mail system again?'




Tanith looked up from her tiny, cramped cubicle in the Auror office to see a familiar face she hadn't expected to be around this corner of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. So, rather than a pleased smile, her reaction was a confused frown. 'Riley?'




Jennifer Riley, former Head Girl of their year at Hogwarts, gave a lopsided smile as she leaned against the cubicle doorway. 'Don't look so pleased to see me, Cole.'




Tanith folded the letter she'd been scribbling rather abruptly, turning in her chair. 'I'm just - what're you doing here?'


'Those four alchemists arrested last week. I'm part of their defence team.' Riley nodded at one of the newspaper clippings on the wall. Only a month and a half into her time with the Auror department, Tanith hadn't exactly acquired a rogue's gallery to shock and awe, but the few cases she'd been in which had received media coverage were up there, including the late July's capturing of a team of, if not Death Eaters, then Death Eater-affiliated wizards brewing some illegal potions.




'You're already getting cases like that? Congratulations,' Tanith said begrudgingly. 'You know they could do with someone like you down in legal counsel to help prosecute cases like this.'


'This isn't my first case. Those two brothers who the MLE accused of smuggling last month? They were found not guilty. The Hogwarts drop-out accused of attacking an elderly witch in Hogsmeade? When examined the evidence was purely circumstantial and the charges were dropped.' Riley folded her arms across her chest.


Tanith shrugged. 'Mistakes get made. These four? You know what they were brewing? Poisons. Elixirs of dark mutations. We have the actual potions, we confiscated it.' She reached over for one of the files stacked up in the corner of her desk. 'I assume that you're here for our official releases, anyway.’


'That's right.' Riley shook her head. 'Some are good. Some are bad. Maybe these boys did it, but that's not for you and me to decide, that's for the courts to decide.'


'Actually, that is for me to decide, because I have to make the call to arrest them. And yes, there's good and bad, but why do you find yourself defending the real scumbags, Riley?' Tanith sighed with frustration, picking out one file and handing it over to her. 'We could do with you on-side in putting people like this away.'


'Unlike you - unlike the media at large - I don't happen to think that a war is a reason to unquestioningly fall in line with the establishment and the government. Because they make mistakes. The MLE Department make mistakes.' Riley accepted the folder, opening it up. 'Someone has to keep an eye on you people.'


'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes,' Tanith muttered under her breath, earning her a squint. 'Yes. I'm familiar with Latin. Try to not faint.'


'It'll be hard work when I'm hearing Latin from the most pure-blooded of pure-bloods who's not an utter moron,' Riley said, still frowning in some confusion.


'I'll take that as a compliment, and as proof you don't really know me.' Tanith leaned back in her chair. 'Just you know this will stink to high heaven if these boys get let off on a legal technicality.'


'Then just make sure your case is built so well that it doesn't. Because what stinks even more is an innocent man going to jail because the MLE were just so determined to close a case and prove to the media that they're not toothless,' came the cool retort.


'Oh, it's so much easier to stand on the outside and throw stones than come in and build the house, isn't it!' Tanith chuckled as she exclaimed this, more amused than genuinely irate.


'Just making sure the clunk of your jack-boots isn't heard across the land. Can't have us emerging from a war with You-Know-Who to just find the Ministry now have the authority to control everything.' Riley shrugged, closing up the file and putting it under her arm. 'The new surveillance laws are beyond ridiculous.'


'It's been leading to more arrests,' Tanith replied, reaching for the letter she'd been writing, by now hoping that making it clear to Riley that she had things to do would make the other woman leave. 'Come complain at me after we've won this war.'


'You know I will.' Riley smirked, then nodded at the letter. 'How is he?'


Why does everyone assume... Tanith made a face, not looking up. 'He's fine,’ she said, rather brusquely. Then guilt sank in because, after all, Tobias had liked and respected Riley. ‘Still working hard. Making some headway in securing a task force of Russian Aurors - or whatever they call them there - who are particular specialists in fighting dark magic. It's looking like it might just be aid in training so far, but it's progress.'


Riley nodded, looking completely at ease with Tanith's frustration at her assumption. 'Good. Tell him I say "hi" and that I hope he's back soon. Though I guess you've already told him the latter.' She grinned.


'I'll... tell him,' Tanith said awkwardly.


'Good.' Riley hefted her folder. 'What're you doing tonight?'


If you're about to ask me out socially then I think the world might end. 'Nothing.' Tanith frowned. 'Why?'


She shrugged. 'It's a Friday night. I was just curious.'


'It's the first of the month, which means I have evaluation reports due in, and half of the key members of the department seem to be off work today for a damn Weasley wedding,' Tanith grumbled.


Riley tilted her head. 'So you pulled the cover shift this evening?'


'No, I - I'm just busy,' Tanith conceded. She did not, officially, have any need to be in the office later than five. She'd just assumed she was going to get paperwork done.


The other woman paused, then shrugged again. 'Alright. Just don't go mad, Cole. You're one of the good ones,' she said, before waving and turning to go.


Tanith scowled at her letter once Riley was gone. Why did everyone assume she was working herself to insanity? It was Auror training. It was meant to be gruelling, and she would hardly be the first of her peers to say her social life was practically non-existent as a result. It wasn't like she was a complete recluse. She spent time with Van Roden. Cal usually tried to make sure they did something fun in the evenings, or when she had weekends free. She even had a meeting due the next week for coffee with Ariane and Melanie...


...even if she'd cancelled it several times before.


She made a sound of frustration, finishing her letter quickly. It was just the sign off anyway, which she had been staring at and over-thinking before she decided to do away with anything like 'Regards' or the dreaded 'Love' and had just simply put her name at the bottom of it after a sincere 'Take care'.


Fine. She'd go home instead of starting on those evaluation reports. But then it would be a quiet night in.








'Mmm... that was... nice.' Nat gave a self-satisfied sigh as she flopped down on the bed, sinking to rest her head on Cal's bare chest and curl up next to him closely.


'Nice?' He spoke a little sluggishly, but still managed to lift his head to look down at her with some indignation. 'Is that all I get? Nice?'


She moved up a little, stifling his objection with a quick kiss, and made another small sound of satisfaction. 'Better than nice.'


'An actual word would do,' Cal said, still speaking with some mock-outrage. 'Like "wonderful". "Unforgettable". I would also accept "magnificent".'


'Heh.' She chuckled. 'Cal the Magnificent.'


'Tell your friends.'


'The walls of my house aren't that thick. I think they know.'


Cal grinned toothily, all jokes of outrage faded as he lay back on the pillows, utterly disregarding of the sheets twisted around them - or the fact that sunlight still crept through the gaps in the closed blinds, since it was only early on this summer's eve. 'That'll explain the expressions of awe I get when I come down in the morning.'


'Especially since nobody's heard Emily and Craig.'


'Maybe he hasn't drugged her yet. 'cos that's the only way I see Craig Sharpe getting a shag.' Cal chuckled to himself.


She slapped him on the arm without much resolve. 'We're only a month and a half out of Hogwarts,' she pointed out. 'And it's not like it was easy to secure much private time there.'


'You and I managed it.'


'And even so, I didn't fancy my first time being under the bleachers of the Ravenclaw stand or in the greenhouses after curfew.' There was a pause as she mentioned the Ravenclaw stands, and the both of them sobered despite themselves. Nat's breath caught. 'I'm sorry.'


He frowned, pulling her closer. 'Don't be. It's a Quidditch stand. It's silly to over-think it.'


Nat nuzzled his cheek gently. 'Has there been any word?'


When she'd been getting to know Cal Brynmor, she'd just thought he was a nice guy who tended to distract people from knowing him better with jokes and a boisterous manner. Even she hadn't anticipated what was going on underneath, though. It had taken a while before he’d volunteered the truth about his father, and she'd respected his privacy. But it had been impossible to not piece things together herself, and so she hadn't been so surprised when he had finally told her the story of Thanatos Brynmor, loyal Death Eater of the Dark Lord.


'He's just disappeared off to whatever hole the Death Eaters on the run go down,' Cal mumbled. 'I imagine he'll show his head when ready.'


'Do you know what you're going to do?' she asked quietly.


'Me?' He frowned. 'There's nothing for me to do. I'm just a blood relative in this. From a criminal investigation perspective, unless I can lure him out I'm more of a liability than a bonus. Especially since it's not like I know him better than anyone else. One conversation in my entire adult life doesn't count.'


Nat bit her lip. 'I'm sorry I couldn't be there that night.'


'You saw the Dark Mark and you went back inside. It would have been crazy for you to go looking for me in that.' He looked over at her, both reproach and reassurance in his eyes.


'Tanith and Tobias did.'


'Tobias is a trained Enforcer. Tanith ended up having the Cruciatus turned on her and got stuck in the Hospital Wing with a broken arm and three cracked ribs. Along with other injuries. And you had no reason to think I'd been running so early that I got down there before the Dark Mark went up.' Cal's voice was low and firm, and despite her guilt, despite her endless helplessness in the face of this most important of issues to him, Nat couldn't help but still feel warm and reassured in the face of his argument.


'I...suppose you're right,' she managed at last.


'I know I'm right.' He gave a grin, and she knew this was his signifier that dark conversation topics were to be dismissed. 'I'm just glad that you seem more turned on than turned off by this whole "son of a Death Eater" thing.'


She snorted. 'I'm impressed at your overcoming it. Women have standards, Cal.' She stuck her tongue out at him, earning a quick kiss on the nose in retaliation.


'Obviously not if Emily's going out with Sharpe,' he said. 'But then not every woman can be lucky enough to secure a stud like me.'


She laughed - and it was definitely an amused giggle more at his expense. 'Yes, Cal. Stud. That's you.'


Then he rolled over to pin her under his weight, and all of a sudden she was again acutely aware of how close they were, of how warm he was, of the beating of his heart and the intensity in his dark eyes.


'You didn't seem to disagree so much earlier,' he murmured with a teasing edge, before lowering his head to give her a kiss at the corner of her jaw which made her shiver.


'Wait,' she mumbled, despite herself, despite his hand at her hip which was sliding across and making thought and argument both increasingly difficult. 'Won't Tanith be back... soon?'


'She'll be at work,' he managed to say, voice muffled as he began to litter a trail of kisses from just under her ear down her neck, along her throat. 'You know she's never back this early...'


'I... suppose...' she murmured back, just about ready to abandon all protest...


...then there was the definite sound of the flat door being slammed shut loudly behind someone.


Nat froze. 'What was that?'


Cal raised his head with a start. 'I didn't hear anything,' he said, clearly lying.


'Hello?'


That muffled voice was definitely Tanith's, and Nat swatted at Cal's shoulder. 'Bugger. Get off me!'


'What?' Cal nevertheless rolled over, looking discontented as Nat sprung out of bed and went on a search for her clothes strewn about the bedroom. 'It's Tanith! She knows what we're like.'


'And she works hard and it's not fair for us to lock ourselves away to shag all evening and leave her on her own. She'll go mad!' Nat lifted a t-shirt, then squinted at it uncertainly before throwing it at Cal. 'Get dressed!'


It was a hurried affair, Nat fussing at him all the way, until they eventually hurried - or, rather, Nat hurried, Cal slouched uncaringly - out of the bedroom and into the lounge of the flat.


'Oh, for - Cal, your shirt's on back to front.' Tanith rolled her eyes as she looked up from the sofa, having only just got in through the door, taken off her coat, and sat down.


'I... oh.' Cal's shoulders slumped, and he seemed to give up on presenting an objection or excuse. However, he also had no qualms about just pulling his shirt off there and then to put it the right way around.


'How was work?' Nat asked, sitting down on the armchair, feeling her cheeks colour. She'd like to think it was embarrassment and that she was too charitable to be annoyed at Tanith for her untimely interruptions.


'Fine. What's going on tonight?' Tanith leaned forwards to rifle through her post on the coffee table somewhat irritably.


'Er... not much?' Cal blinked, sitting down.


'We should do something.'


Who are you, and what have you done with Tanith Cole? Nat looked sideways at Cal with suspicion, only to see him looking just as confused as her.


Tanith gave an annoyed sigh. 'Yes. I know. But I had a run-in with that bitch Riley and she made a dig about my social life.'


Nat doubted that this was what had happened. Jennifer Riley was an infamously even-handed goodie two-shoes, which meant she was so nice she was generally deeply annoying. And that was definitely going to be deeply annoying to someone like Tanith.


She'd probably invited her out and Tanith had refused her, taking it as a dig. According to Cal, Tanith being even more prickly than usual wasn't so abnormal when under a considerable amount of stress. Apparently she'd been downright horrible throughout the time Tobias had been going out with Annie MacKenzie.


Nat wasn't sure how the girl had coped with only the oblivious Cal and the obtuse Gabriel Doyle for emotional support during such a time.


'So now you want to go to the pub?' Cal squinted, obviously not understanding.


Tanith frowned thoughtfully. 'No,' she said at last, and looked back at them. 'You mentioned this rock club that's just started up. Let's go out.’







Chapter 5: The Beat of the Drum
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It was somewhat generous to name this place a club. Living above a rather dingy pub that seemed to favour real ale and live music, it seemed like the kind of establishment that would have been set up in an atmospheric cellar or empty warehouse with a lot of industrial decoration but was lacking the budget. The compromise thus seemed to come in with music, loud; lights, dim; and drinks, cheap.


 

They'd been there for two hours by now and Tanith had been long wondering whether this impulse of hers to go out had been her brightest ever idea. Jacob Van Roden had been rounded up - she suspected as a kind gesture to try to make her feel like less of a third wheel, and to also avoid Nat and Cal feeling as if they weren't allowed to go off and dry-hump on the dance floor.


 

Truthfully, Tanith would have been quite content if they'd felt they couldn't do that. The two of them were clearly at ease in the environment, and she dimly recalled that they had snuck off together during the last Easter holidays off Hogwarts, actually broadening their horizons beyond a pint down the Leaky Cauldron.


 

That was one thing she had to give Muggle society. Wizards didn't have anything like this.


 

She wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not. Wizards didn't have densely packed rooms of flashing lights and thumping music and a whole menagerie of people close together in their wild enjoyment. At a glance it just seemed invasive, repetitive, and annoying, but there was clearly something to it, clearly something to the collective enjoyment, the mass of people feeling the beats and hums of music together.


 

Tanith was well-versed in Muggle art, but Muggle music, however, was still likely to always escape her.


 

Cal and Nat didn't look like they'd be peeled off the dance floor any time soon, and Jacob had - unbelievably - been cornered by some dark-haired young thing within the second song. Tanith wasn't sure if he was genuinely enjoying the attention or if he was just too polite or confused to be able to shake her off. It wouldn't be too surprising if even he wasn't sure.


 

So she'd made her way to the bar, and was mostly set on exploring what different drinks the Muggles had that were unfamiliar to her. They had strange names, both as concoctions and as brands, and yet almost all of them went down more smoothly and with less burning than Firewhiskey.


 

She'd expected to blend in less. There had been a small council at her wardrobe consisting of her and Nat at the Muggle-born's insistence they find something for her to wear. Tanith had pointed out a few pieces of casual clothing which Nat had dismissed for a night out, before going straight to the two corners of her wardrobe Tanith would have looked at last.


 

The first was her work clothes. The second was a variety of formal clothes that had been inflicted upon her by her mother.


 

'Are you kidding me?' was Nat's reaction to Tanith's dubious expression. 'These things are gorgeous. Black velvet? There's a whole fashion movement in Muggle society that would give their eye-teeth for this thing.'


 

Tanith had blinked at her, then pointed at her work clothes. 'And large, hob-nailed boots?'


 

'Well, not together, obviously. One's very gothic, the other's pretty metal. You seem more metal to me.'


 

'Thank you?' Tanith had squinted in confusion.


 

'It probably has a different name by now,' Nat had mused. 'I never did keep track at the best of times.' She pushed Tanith's work boots into her hands. 'These. Your dragonskin trousers, those are to die for.'


 

'They're flame-retardant, hard wearing, and give a little magical protection, they're not to look...'


 

'Trust me.'


 

So Tanith had, and she'd been surprised to see that Nat was right. Black was the predominant theme, but Tanith was practically dressed for work, barring a rather more revealing top that had been loaned to her by Nat, and she looked like she'd been doing this for years.


 

Nat had been right about the black dresses, though. They weren’t an oddity. Though the frocks would have made her mother and sister roll their eyes and insist the girls prancing around in them go find themselves a better tailor.


 

Either way, none of it was, in her opinion, something to wear when going out dancing.


 

She slumped against the bar, nodding for the bartender's attention and waiting for him to get to her just before a man stepped up next and lifted a hand. 'I'll have a-'


 

It wasn't the first time this had happened to her tonight, but irritation was building and Tanith leaned forwards. 'Hey, there is a queue.'


 

The man straightened up and looked at her. He was dressed a bit more normally - by Tanith's idea of what the Muggle standard was - than the others in the room, just jeans and a t-shirt of some band she didn't recognise, but looked tired and worn enough that his surprise at noticing her seemed genuine.


 

'Oh. Sorry. I'll have a cider, and... what do you want?'


 

It seemed like an apology as he gestured to her. But it was so matter-of-fact and presumptuous that Tanith couldn't help but be taken aback, and for a moment she blinked. 'Oh. I'll have a...' Her voice trailed off and she squinted at the bottles. What was she up to trying? 'Jack Daniels?'


 

'Sounds good. Scrap the cider. Two of those.' The man pulled a note out of his wallet and Tanith realised with some relief she wasn't going to have to take part in the complicated process of deciphering Muggle money. He gave her a lopsided smile as the bartender went off. 'In apology for my poor manners.'


 

'Why two?' She frowned.


 

'Nobody ought to drink Jack Daniels on their own.' He shook his head as if this would be some sort of crime. 'I'm just glad you didn't ask for it with coke, then I'd be in a real moral dilemma.'


 

Tanith tilted her head in genuine confusion. 'Why would I do that?'


 

'Exactly!' He chuckled as if she'd made a joke, then slid the note across the counter as their drinks were deposited in front of them. 'You're not a regular,' he observed.


 

'No, I'm here with... friends,' she said a little cautiously.


 

He looked her up and down, an evaluating gaze that wasn't intrusive enough to be unpleasant. 'This was their idea?'


 

'Do I stick out that badly?' she asked, somewhat defensively. She'd thought she'd been doing a fair job of blending in.


 

He laughed. 'You just got out of school, right? And this is the first time your friends are dragging you somewhere like this?' There was a shake of the head. 'You don't seem to know the dances. And when the favourites are played you don't seem to react to them.'


 

Tanith looked at him, frowning a little. 'You've been noticing?' He couldn't have determined all that just from one brief conversation.


 

Instead of answering, he tilted his glass towards her. 'I'm David.'


 

'Tanith.'


 

David paused, glass half-lifted to his lips. 'What, really?'


 

She frowned. '...yes. Really.'


 

'Huh. Pleased to meet you, then. Tanith.'


 

Bloody Muggles. She forced a smile. 'So you're a regular?'


 

'Every other Friday it's live music here. That's more my thing. But I have to fill the other nights somehow.' David took a swig of his drink.


 

'Live music. You mean bands?' She was working hard to not sound like a complete idiot and make him suspicious, but he didn't seem too surprised at the notion that she was a bit clueless about everything.


 

'Actually it's just me and my guitar when I'm up there, but there are bands.' He leaned against the bar, looking sideways at her. 'So if this kind of thing isn't your scene, what is?'


 

Tanith blinked, a brief stab of panic. 'Oh. You know. Pub. Staying in. I spend a lot of time working, to be honest, this is my first night off in a while.'


 

'So you came to listen to this racket?' He grinned, gesturing. 'Let me guess. You usually just listen to the charts? All that crap?'


 

She laughed, a little nervously. 'Something like that.'


 

'Well, this isn't the best introduction to real music.' He nodded at the speakers, set up on the walls around them. 'You should come along next week. That's got some real talented people. It's a bit more mellow, too. Some of the groups just do covers, but for most of us it's our own material.'


 

'Oh, so - you write songs?' That sounded a bit safer. It's not like she'd be expected to know anything about material he'd written.


 

'Some. Been trying to move out of the warbling and wailing that Oasis has reintroduced to rock. I'm a bit more Pearl Jam and Nirvana than Britpop.'


 

He might as well have been talking in another language, but Tanith nodded. 'I'd... like to hear that.' It wasn't an insincere expression of interest. She'd spent enough time studying Muggle art to be able to appreciate culture beyond just the wizarding, and though Cal was the man with the ear for music, she had no objections to broadening her horizons on principle.


 

And it was a distraction. This man, was a distraction. He wasn't looking at her like she was crazy for working as hard as she did, or with some thinly-disguised pity or disapproval or something else equally demeaning. Perhaps it was just because he didn't know her yet, but being freed of the sense of being judged or looked down on was more than a little liberating.


 

And why, exactly, should she feel guilty for enjoying the company of some man she'd been speaking to for all of five minutes, who was still pleasant and not taking himself more seriously and not unattractive, in a somewhat rumpled, unshaven, devil-may-care kind of way, and a good smile.


 

It wasn't like she had promised anything to Tobias, who had left the country without a word - who had kissed her and they had still never talked about it - and who still had the right to be grieving over Annie. And he'd barely written to her.


 

'Like I said. Come down next week.' David gave a lopsided smile, running his fingers through his hair and draining his drink. 'It should be good. Acoustic stuff. Not this.' He pointed upwards, just as one song died abruptly. Then another started, and his smile broadened slowly, looking distinctly more impressed. 'That's better.'


 

She blinked. Then, drew a deep breath. 'Okay. So, you've got me. I'm here because my friends dragged me here and I don't have the first clue about this kind of music.' Tanith nodded at the speakers. 'So this is a good song?'


 

'This,' David said, expression going a mixture of amused and confident, 'is Killing in the Name Of.' He turned to gesture for some more drinks from the bartender, who seemed to know him well enough to not need specific instructions, and shortly they both had fresh glasses of Jack Daniels in front of them. 'You won't have heard of Rage Against the Machine, then, but they're an American band pretty big on their anti-establishment rage...'


 

 







'Cal... what's Oyster Jam?'


 

Cal was fighting to walk straight - or, rather, fighting to keep the Nat who was leaning on him for support straight as the four of them slumped down the road towards the Leaky Cauldron. 'What?'


 

It was about 2 AM. Or, rather, it had been 2 AM when the club had shut down and kicked them out, and they'd spent some time trying to remember exactly the way back. A taxi driver outside had offered his services, but none of them were sure whether asking for a ride to the Leaky Cauldron was a good idea, or even feasible.


 

Cal was probably the most sober. Compared to his rather waifish girlfriend, Tanith who had spent the first portion of the evening drinking so she didn't have to dance and then had seen her drinks bought for her, and Jacob who'd been plied with alcohol by his pretty brunette thing all night.


 

So the Welshman was focusing a bit too much on navigating to really pay attention to Tanith's question.


 

'Oyster Clam. Jam. Something. They're a band. Or it's a song.' She was mostly upright of her own accord, walking pretty straight but her words were slurring quite badly.


 

'Blue Öyster Cult?' Cal asked, wondering where the hell Tanith had heard of them. 'They did Don't Fear the Reaper?'


 

'...that's not it. Pearl Clam?'


 

'Pearl Jam?' Cal's nose wrinkled. 'American band. Don't really know them. Why? None of their stuff played tonight.'


 

'I got talking music.'


 

Cal frowned. Had hell frozen over? 'With what? A deaf guy?'


 

Tanith giggled. Definitely drunk. 'No! With a man. He talked music, at least. I feel educated.'


 

'Educated enough to forget Pearl Jam?' Cal squinted.


 

'I got a more important question.' Jacob, Cal had decided, was a deceptive drunk. He walked straight. He talked straight. He'd just tried quite eloquently to convince them that the Leaky Cauldron was in completely the wrong direction. That was a dangerous habit.


 

But then, Cal wondered how often the rather straight-laced Auror had been lured into alcohol. He didn't know Jacob Van Roden as Tanith, or even as well as Tobias had, but either way the man was not known for being the most sociable creature in the world. The idea that he had criticised Tanith's isolationism was staggering more in what it said about her than about him.


 

'What's that, Jake?' Next to Cal, Nat giggled when she tripped, and he was just glad that by now he was more dragging her than expecting her to walk off her own steam. At least she was still as light as ever.


 

'How do you even use a phone?' He was, Cal now realised, turning a piece of paper over in his hands and squinting at it with some confusion.


 

'Give me that!' Tanith staggered over and plucked the paper out of his hands, waving it in the air. 'Is this that dopey brunette's number? Oh, Van Roden, you can do better...'


 

'You're assuming he's after her brains,' Cal pointed out, then straightened up as he saw the swinging sign of the Leaky Cauldron as they turned the next corner. The streets were notably empty, which probably wasn't so unusual at this time of night.


 

'He should be,' Tanith said a little haughtily. 'You don't want some superficial little idiot...'


 

'And who was your dapper young man tonight, then, Cole, hmm?' Jacob challenged with a smirk. 'You're allowed to play the field but I'm not?'


 

'What did you even talk about?'


 

There was a sharp silence here as Jacob squinted in effort to recall, but it was broken by Cal rattling the handle to the front door of the Cauldron. 'Locked,' he proclaimed. 'We'll have to take the gate to the back.'


 

'S'weird,' Nat slurred from his shoulder. 'Even at this time... s'rarely locked...'


 

Cal looked down at his girlfriend as he steered her around the side of the building and through the narrow alleyway that would lead them to the back yard - and the brick wall to let them into Diagon Alley. 'Oh, you're going to be a joy in the morning, aren't you.'


 

Nat smiled innocently. ''m always a joy!'


 

By the time he'd got there Tanith and Jacob, up ahead, were squabbling about the order to tap the bricks, Tanith finally getting it right first if only because she'd batted Jacob out of the way and thus had the opportunity to try more.


 

Had Cal been more sober, he might have noticed what was wrong. But in his defence, neither of the Aurors did either, slouching their way through the quiet roads of Diagon Alley.


 

And it was quiet. Not a single person out at this time of night. Not a single light in a single shop front. Any illumination creeping from the windows above was sparse, and always dim, and always from behind drawn curtains.


 

Had they been more attentive, or more accustomed to Diagon Alley at two in the morning, they might have smelled a rat. But Jacob said his goodbyes at one corner, leaving them to amble their way back towards the office they had a flat above.


 

The stairs were an interesting challenge through the haze of alcohol, and through needing to steer Nat up them. Then there was a brief drama as Tanith tried to find the key, and couldn't, and Cal looked for his in vain, until it turned out Tanith's was in the first pocket she'd looked in, and, giggling - quietly, to try to not rouse their neighbours - they all staggered into the dark flat.


 

Only, it wasn't dark. It should have been, they'd left all the lights off, but the fireplace was crackling merrily, and there was a glint of lamps in the corner.


 

And two tall figures standing by the mantelpiece.


 

Fear twisted in Cal's belly as recognition sank in, cutting like a knife through the haze of alcohol. With a start he straightened up, and turned to push Nat bodily back through the door the moment he crossed the threshold.


 

'Nat! Run! Get out of here!'


 

But a spell had gone off the moment he'd appeared, shooting under his arm and hitting the staggering, confused Nat. Instantly her limbs locked up and she fell on the floor in a stiff, crumpled heap.


 

Cal didn't have much time to react to this as he turned back to the room with a shocked expression. But Tanith did.


 

'Stupefy!'


 

There was a flash of magic in the air, from her spell flying and the magical shield that went up to deflect it, and Cal hadn't realised she could go for her wand so fast. He was still fumbling for his own when a shadow fell over him, the bigger of the two figures, and a fist was unceremoniously planted in the side of his face.


 

His vision exploded before his eyes into bright sparks as he went down, too inebriated and shocked to resist a blow like that. He hit the carpet hard, his wand spinning out of his hand and under the armchair, just as a fresh spell went off and, out of the corner of his eye, he could see Tanith being pinned up against the wall by an invisible, magical force, disarmed.


 

'Stay down, boy,' the figure above him commanded in a voice which would brook no opposition, and from weariness and from pain and from fear, he didn't move. 'We didn't come here to fight.'


 

'What did you think would happen?' Tanith tried wriggling, in vain, against the magical restraints holding her about a foot above the ground, and it seemed there was some pressure against her neck from the strangled tone of voice. 'Criminals on the run from the law and our last meeting wasn't exactly friendly.'


 

'See, that's where you're wrong.' The other of the two, the one who'd been locked in the magical fight with Tanith, wore a smile that glinted in the firelight as he corrected her. 'Do you want to do the honours, my friend?'


 

The figure standing over Cal leaned down, holding a scroll, which he unrolled and held before Cal's swimming vision. 'We've been pardoned,' he said. 'By the order of the Minister of Magic, Pius Thicknesse. As of tonight.'


 

'Thicknesse? Minister of - what the hell?' Tanith swore, struggling again, this time with a strangled gurgle.


 

'The more you struggle, Miss Cole, the more these restraints will tighten. I suggest you stop if you don't want to be strangled,' said the tall form of Idaeus Robb, by now lounging casually against the mantelpiece.


 

Cal blinked, fighting into a sitting position and looking up at his father standing over him. 'Pardoned,' he echoed weakly. Determinedly he tried to focus on the piece of parchment being held in front of him; he could see the letterhead, even see the seal of the Minister of Magic at the bottom of the command, see his father's and Robb's names on the document, but he knew too little to begin to even guess at the veracity of this.


 

'And now senior advisors to Mister Yaxley, new head of the Magical Law Enforcement Division,' said Thanatos Brynmor with a smug, if slightly cautious smile. 'We just came to give you the good news.'


 

'Your hospitality is lacking,' Robb added helpfully.


 

'Your welcome is lacking!' Tanith choked. 'I don't know what crazy lies you're spouting, but if you think you're going to get away with attacking us, hurting Nat...'


 

Cal looked sharply over his shoulder. 'Nat! If you've hurt her...'


 

'We're not here to hurt her.' His father straightened up. 'We're here to arrest her.'


 

Tanith gave another swear, another jerk, and her voice was by now sounding like she was trying to talk through a noose. 'On what fucking charge?'


 

'Simple.' Robb shrugged. 'Theft of magical power. The same crime every mudblood is charged with, for how else can they be witches and wizards?'


 

'We thought we wouldn't waste time getting her corruption away from you.' Brynmor looked down at his son with a dark expression. 'She's to be taken to Azkaban. Where she will stay unless there's some chance she can prove some magical heritage.'


 

Cal had been half-sprawled all this time, his right hand splayed out - and reaching further and further under the chair, getting closer and closer to his wand which had been just out of reach.


 

Then his hand wrapped around it, and he looked up at his father with a curled lip. 'Like hell you are!' he snarled, bringing his wand whipping up to face him, a spell on the tip of his mind...


 

Before his father again planted his fist in his temple, and this time his vision exploded only briefly into a thousand bright sparks before he sagged back, his head hitting the carpet hard, and he collapsed into blissful unconsciousness.


 


Chapter 6: The Darkest Hour
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'Not going to make this a late night, are you, son?'

Tobias looked up from his paperwork with a jerk, crumpling one of the parchments and his expression rather guilty as he regarded the Ministry of Magic's Ambassador to Russia.

The office was empty and dark except for the little den of business that was Tobias' desk, illuminated by a tiny lamp, covered in various scribbled papers. Antonius Clint stood in the doorway, looking rather rumpled, rather tired, and overall more casual than he normally looked around the office.

Tobias hadn't even realised it was dark yet. He must have been staying behind for longer than he'd thought. A glance at the clock suggesting it was past ten showed how little attention he'd been paying.

He cleared his throat. 'I wasn't planning on it, sir. I just wanted to get the minutes for this meeting written up properly.'

'Of course.' Clint stepped inside, hands in his pockets, leaning against the door frame. There was a long silence where Tobias wasn't sure what to do - was it rude to push on with his writing with the Ambassador stood there? Then the older man drew a deep breath.

'It seems Ms Marlowe's project is proving somewhat successful.'

Tobias straightened up, his expression uncertain. 'I think we're making progress, but we haven't yet managed to secure a team of Russians to come to Britain. So it's not a success yet.'

'No.' Clint nodded, hands still in his pockets, shoulders hunched. Tobias couldn't help but frown at the body language, which seemed uncertain, uncomfortable.

'But I think you're doing well.'

'Oh. Thank you.' Tobias wasn't sure what else to say. Mysterious messages of unfounded suspicions aside, he had not had much to do with the Ambassador, and even less to do with him that had been positive. Clint had been making it clear at every step that he disapproved of the project; this sudden change of tune was quite unusual.

'I know I might have been making life somewhat difficult for Ms Marlowe and her team. I suppose that if you succeed I will have to eat no small amount of humble pie.' Clint sighed, then shrugged. 'But we shall see. Either way, son, I was just heading off for the night and I saw the light on in your office. You're not over-working, are you?'

Tobias hesitated. 'I did lose track of time,' he confessed. 'I don't intend to be here until midnight every night.'

'You should head off. Get some dinner, relax. Go see a girl. Something like that.' Clint waved a hand with a certain amount of wry self-awareness at the clumsiness of his words and his ideas.

He nodded. 'I suppose you're right, sir.' Tobias made a face, and began to stack the paperwork. 'I can do a lot of this in the morning.'

'It's the weekend, son. Don't over-work.'

Tobias grimaced. 'My friends and family are a long, long way away, sir. Everyone I know is here at work. There's no reason to not come to the office on a Saturday.' He stood up, and Clint didn't argue with this as Tobias reached for his robe off the hooks and pulled it on.

'I'll let you get off, then,' the Ambassador said, backing off down the corridor.

'Good night, son.'

'Good night, sir.' Tobias frowned at the oddity of the conversation, but didn't question it, just sighing and turning out the lights behind him as he made his way to the door to the embassy.

He had made it to the receptionist's desk, looking rather alone and forlorn without the Blonde Fiona behind it, before he realised his keys were back on his desk, pulled out of a pocket because they kept sticking in his leg when he was lounging on the office chair in working after hours. He mumbled a curse word under his breath, before turning back around.

If he'd remembered his keys and left, on his return he wouldn't have seen the dim glow of green light flickering from the door of Clint's office, which was only open the slightest crack.

If he hadn't received the unhelpfully signed letter several weeks previously, then he wouldn't have thought twice about it.

Instead, Tobias padded over to the door, drawing his wand. It was just paranoia, he told himself. Clint was a doddering old misanthropic git, perhaps even being genuine in being nice and trying to make him go home, but probably back to undermining them at every turn come Monday.

This was, then, just to put his mind at ease.

He pressed his ear to the crack. For a moment all he could hear was mumbling, then he nudged the door open just the slightest more, and could finally catch snatches of voices. They were low, quiet, and so it was hard to tell how many there were, but Clint definitely wasn't talking to himself.

'...defences were collapsed just as we expected.'

That was a more muffled voice, and if Tobias was any judge it sounded like it was coming across from Floo. He crouched a little, the better to steady himself and still himself and make silent his breathing while he listened. All the time, his hand was gripped tightly around his wand.

'...stay in your job in Russia. We will need a different sort of ally in the future.'

'Of course, sir. But I will need new staff. The Federation will not look kindly on me if I am seen to be contacting our brethren.'

That was Clint, and Tobias did frown now.

'We will send some more loyal men to you. Minister Thicknesse will, of course, be taking his foreign relationships very seriously as a justification.'

There was wryness in this voice, though it wasn't the same one as from the Floo and it wasn't Clint. Tobias barely registered this, though, as something twisted in his gut. Minister Thicknesse?

'Even still, the Federation might raise objections at Britain's sudden pardoning of so many alleged criminals. I will have to keep a low profile for some time.'
'It will wait, then. Are your staff loyal?'

There was a silence, and Tobias slowly rose to his feet, wand still gripped tightly.
It was Clint who spoke next, without hesitation. 'No. They have been working intently on a project to bring down our movement.'

A pause, this one seeming more thoughtful. 'Then detain them. If asked, name them enemies of the state who need to be returned to Britain for trial and incarceration.'

'Yes, sir. And, sir? It fills me with such a tremendous joy that this day has finally a-'

'Ambassador.'

This was the other voice, the voice which was not from the Floo network and was not Clint, and Tobias realised with a start that this was somebody else in the office with the Ambassador. He had no idea whom, but there was an urgency there that made his stomach twist, and quickly he began to back off.

Which was just as well, because within three seconds the door shattered into a thousand splinters.

Tobias barely had enough time to whip out a physical protection charm, shredding the splinters into a sawdust which coated him. Only thanks to his glasses did he not have to wipe his eyes, which was just as well since there then emerged a tall, ominous figure in the doorway to the Ambassador's office who was definitely not Antonius Clint.

After all, Antonius Clint was behind him, peering from inside the office with confused, beady eyes. This man was in black robes and wore the glinting mask of a Death Eater.

Then the vase over Tobias' shoulder exploded as he had just enough time to cringe reflexively away from the spell, the flying sawdust having presumably obscured him as a target, and he bolted.

His shoulder hit the embassy door, still ajar from him turning back in the first place, and it swung open to let him stagger into the dark, abandoned lobby of the embassy. Immediately Tobias leaped to the side, out of the line of vision of the Death Eater, and his wand whipped towards the polished floor just by the door as he muttered an incantation.

The Death Eater, as expected, burst out with all speed - right onto the floor whose friction Tobias had reduced by about a half for approximately a metre squared. It was enough to send him skidding forwards, stumbling and landing flat on his face on the already quite smooth polished floor.

Tobias darted forwards, his foot coming crunching down on the Death Eater’s outstretched wand-hand, just as his opponent's free hand clutched at his ankle - part in desperation, part to try to pull him from his feet.

Enough to stop him from moving, though, so Tobias' wand moved again - this time in a sharp, downwards motion. Acting off instinct and training, the spell in his mind was one to cause as much short, sharp pain as possible to shock the Death Eater into letting go.

There was a shriek of metal as a gash was scored across the mask, then a shriek from the Death Eater as flesh was rent too. Blood trickled from the mask as the man clutched at his face, and Tobias didn't hesitate before he kicked the wand away and turned to run.

There was no sign of Antonius Clint. And Tobias had a horrible feeling he knew why.

He charged for the door out of the embassy, emerging in the gloomy alleyway and almost tripping into the bins that hid the door from sight from the street. But he didn't let himself falter, running at full speed around to the front, hurtling into the front lobby of the housing block, and falling into the lift. His wand came up behind him to press the button for the fifth floor even before he was fully inside.

Then Tobias' legs collapsed under him as the doors slide shut, and he realised his breathing was ragged and his hands were shaking. He didn't fight to stay upright, instead slumping onto the carpet of the lift, trying to slow his breathing, trying to shut out the tinny music which still emanated from the speakers even in a building owned by wizards.

It was not the first fight he'd been in. On his own, or even with the MLE; there had been raids against Death Eaters, take-downs of various other magical criminals. He'd been in a life or death situation before, and for a long moment he couldn't even figure out why this one had left him so shaky.

Only when he closed his eyes and realised that his mind was shooting back to the fight under the Ravenclaw stands, and the sound of Tanith screaming under the Cruciatus, did he realise why another Death Eater in the dark had unsettled him.

Carefully he clambered back to his feet, swallowing bile, and was more or less steady on his feet by the time the lift doors slid open. He didn't have time to be weak. Or he was dead.

It wasn't his room that he headed for, but he moved down the corridor with equal confidence and familiarity, still running until he came to the right door, not even waiting before he hammered on it.

'Aurora? Aurora! Open up! It's Toby! Open up!'

He'd probably wake some of her neighbours up but he didn't care, keeping up the hammering for what was probably a minute until the door opened and he pushed his way in uninvited.

The lights were dim, and Aurora looked as if she'd been sleeping, which made sense when Tobias remembered it was almost midnight. She'd clearly only had time to pull on a silk dressing gown, and Tobias stumbled to a halt when he was face to face with her.

'What? What is it?' She reached past him to push the door shut, and Tobias faltered for a moment, blinking in the gloom as the adrenaline and the nausea both faded, and he looked at her.

She was almost as tall as him. He wasn't used to that, especially from women, and where she normally wore her hair up in a tight, severe bun it was now let down, long and dark and with the locks playing with what he could see of her bare neck and shoulders.

He had always thought of her as old, because she was his mother's age, but now he was up close he realised he hadn't actually considered just how old that made her. She could not be yet forty, and even without her cosmetics, even with a look of alarmed confusion, she was still as striking as ever. Aristocratic.

Oh, what the hell, Toby?

That wasn't his own voice chastising him in his head, and Tobias swallowed hard as he realised whose it was, drawing a deep breath. 'We have a problem,' he said quickly, snapping right through that moment and into the next. 'Clint's a Death Eater. Or working with them.'

She straightened up. 'What?'

'It gets worse. I think the Death Eaters have taken the Ministry. Clint's been given orders on the authority of Minister Thicknesse to stay in place and to make contact with dark wizards here, in Russia.' His words spilled out in a panicked tumble, before he fell silent, biting his lip.

He realised after a moment that though she did not exactly look happy, Aurora was also not looking especially surprised, and she turned on her heel in aggravation, storming back towards the bedroom. 'Rayner warned me this might be coming. Damn it!' she swore, throwing her hands in the air.

'What's worse, he's going to have us arrested for crimes against the Ministry of Magic and shipped back to Britain. He's probably on his way to the consulate right now to inform the Federation authorities.' Tobias waved a hand frantically. 'Whatever's going on, right now they're not going to question him, they have no reason to, and it's his legal right! We're going to have Enforcers on our door in minutes!'

'Alright! Stop!' She lifted her hands to forestall his panic, and her expression was set, confident. 'It won't take long before the Federation realise that whatever's happened in Britain isn't above board - that it's a terrorist take-over.'

'That won't do us much good if we get deported tonight,' Tobias pointed out.

Aurora drew a deep breath. 'Asylum,' she said at last. 'If we request political asylum for fear of what will happen to us if we go home, then the paperwork to sift through that alone should keep us here for a few weeks. I'd be very surprised if the Federation don't figure out what's going on then, and the Federation will not - will not - ship people back to a country run by dark magics.'

'They didn't do it to Egypt in the 80s,' Tobias agreed, a little wide-eyed but nodding quickly. 'Alright. Alright. But to request asylum we need to be in the Department of International Relations. Which is going to be exactly where Clint is going right now to get the manpower to have us arrested!'

Aurora smiled a slow smile which tugged at her lips with playful confidence, as if the danger was something to be merely toyed with. 'So much the better,' she said. 'Since then we can make sure that we get there first if it's a race.' There was a pause, and she frowned at him abruptly. 'Now turn around so I can get dressed.'

Government buildings - most buildings, in the wizarding world - were enchanted so that not just anyone could apparate in and out. Generally these wardings were only lifted in emergencies, and only law enforcement officials had any power to move in or out.

Russia was no different to Britain in that way, and thus entire embassy building was under such wards, from the offices underground to all of the apartments above. It wouldn't do for just anyone to be able to magic themselves into the rooms or offices of a foreign official.

Their destination would be much the same, the offices of the Department of International Relations not liable to allow them to just apparate in. So they'd have to rely on back alleyways to apparate into, then do the rest on foot.

Fortunately, so would Antonius Clint. Unfortunately, he had a head start, having not been attacked by a Death Eater or needing to pick up someone along the way.

'It's possible he took the Floo,' Tobias said hopefully as Aurora headed to the door, now in her flowing robes of a diplomatic official.

'We can only hope,' she muttered, wand in hand when they emerged into the corridor.

He glanced up and down, then frowned. 'Why?'

'Have you ever tried the Floo system in Russia? They've got crazy security protocols since the Cold War and foreign infiltration. If he's gone that way he'll have been suspended for at least some time,' Aurora said, leading the way back towards the lift.

'How long is "some time"?' Tobias asked quickly.

Aurora hesitated, and didn't look at him as they came to a halt outside of the lift, reaching to just tap the summon button repeatedly.

'Anything from one minute's security check to an hour's shakedown,' she admitted quietly.

Tobias just frowned and said nothing, gaze flickering up to the display saying what floor the lift was on. It looked as if it had gone right back down to the ground after he'd made it up here.

All of five minutes previously.

At midnight.

Then the bell rang, the doors began to slide open, and only because Tobias was already moving did he manage to bodily tackle Aurora out of the way of the blast which had to have already been on the lips of the same Death Eater he'd fought downstairs as he emerged onto the corridor.

Searing heat scorched across his back as he realised he wasn't quite fast enough, and he hit the carpet with a thump and a scream of pain he wasn't conscious of allowing to escape his throat. Beside him he heard Aurora hit the floor too, but immediately after there was the crunch as her boot met the Death Eater's leg, snapping his knee back to lock and only just not break.

But it was enough time for her to get to her feet as Tobias rolled onto his front in agony, desperately trying to gather his wits enough to think through the pain or, indeed, do anything other than writhe, able to summon only the faintest awareness of what was going on around him.

It made the fight more than a little disjointed, from his perspective. But one thing was clear: Aurora Marlowe might have been a fine diplomat, and perhaps even a fine witch. But she was no trained duellist.

The few spells she got off once she was upright were enough to stagger the Death Eater, ensuring that she wasn't just hit with the same scorching spell that had smacked Tobias to the floor. But then the man was back on the offensive, and he could see her backing off down the corridor, only the strength of her protection charms keeping her upright.

Then one broke through, smashing into her chest to knock her down. It looked like it had been nothing too complicated, just a strong, sharp paralysis charm to sunder her defences, and nevertheless she went down like a log.

Shock and fear twisted in Tobias' belly as he saw her fall, saw the Death Eater standing just past him raise his wand to point it at her.

No. Not again.

Terror brought clarity, and clarity brought with it a spell, and then Tobias' wand was pointed at his own chin for him to mutter a charm to dull the pain. Relief washed over him as the agony faded, and he fought to get to his feet behind the other man.

Only to find himself face to face with the wand of the Death Eater, who had to have heard him and simply turned around. 'Nice try,' came the tinny voice from under the mask, then Tobias had to reel back to avoid being hit by the spell erupting from the end of his wand.

He stumbled, smashing into the wall and staggering, and then the Death Eater was on him. His wand flew from his hand and then before he knew it the man's arm had wrapped around him in a neck-lock, wand pressed hard against the back of his head.

Before he could wonder just why he hadn't been killed there and then, he saw the flash of movement from down the corridor that was Aurora, getting shakily back to her feet, and the wand was dug in a little harder.

'No closer,' the Death Eater's voice echoed. 'Or I will rip his skull in half.' He took a step back, and Tobias, bent over and still in pain from the back injury, had no choice but be dragged along with the strong grip.

'You need a hostage?' There was the faintest shake in Aurora's voice as she stopped, but her wand didn't move. 'How about me? Leave the boy.'

'I didn't figure on the boy going to get backup,' the Death Eater swore, dragging Tobias back into the lift and turning to face Aurora again. His wand left the back of his head and was turned sharply on the diplomat. 'Lower your wand. Or he's dead.'

Aurora's expression flickered, but she did as she was bid.

And that might have been fatal if Tobias hadn't been so close. As it was, he was near enough to hear the mutter under the Death Eater's voice, even through the mask, near enough to recognise the blasting curse he was going to throw at her.

Painful. Enough to kill if she wasn't protecting herself.

Tobias' hands came up abruptly, grabbing the Death Eater's wrists and shoving his aim off. The spell went off but hit the roof of the lift instead, shaking the entire contraption.

Then it listed heavily as the spell buckled not just the lift, but the cables.
Tobias abruptly found the hold on him loosened as the Death Eater looked up in shock. So he was ready when Aurora's wand snapped back up again to smash a spell into the dark wizard's chest, sending him flying back into the wall of the lift just as Tobias threw himself forwards, almost hitting her as he crashed into the corridor.

The air was filled suddenly with the almighty screech of metal as the cable snapped, and there was a moment where the lift seemed to hang in the air, the Death Eater's eyes wide with fear under the mask. Then, with another shriek, it plummeted down, down, into the gloom.

Tobias swore, picking himself up onto his hands and his knees. Adrenaline and the remains of his spell stopped his back from being more of a dull, throbbing ache, and so he scrabbled along the carpet to retrieve his wand.

'...why the hell didn't anyone hear that?' he asked, breathing coming raggedly.

Aurora crouched down beside him, helping him to his feet gingerly. She looked pale, and shaken, but her voice was steady enough. 'There are enough charms in these rooms to make World War Three go unnoticed if it's going on in the middle of the night. Ambassadors like their sleep.'

'Oh. Lovely.' Tobias blinked muggily, then looked over at the lift. Presumably these charms reached far enough for him to not hear the impact of the lift at the bottom of the shaft, something for which he was quite eternally grateful. 'I hope they like getting the stairs, then.'

Aurora grimaced. 'We're going to have to. Can you walk?'

'If it's that or die?' Tobias straightened up with a wince. 'I could sprint a marathon.'

They didn't. Not quite. But they did hurtle down the many, many flights of stairs in somewhat record time, Tobias' back throbbing with pain all the way, and he could only feel relief at bursting through the fire exit into the cool air of the Moscow night. But Aurora didn't stop; didn't even seem to have tired, just grabbed him by the wrist and he could only give a yelp of panic and pain as he was twisted and writhed through a side-along apparition.

He'd been to the Department of International Affairs. That was where he'd Portkeyed into when he'd first come to Moscow. It was a rather dingy, understated affair in the industrial part of the city, and so when Tobias fell to his knees upon appearing and retched, he did so in what could hardly be called one of the cleanest gutters in Russia.

Fortunately, though, the Russian Federation was less inclined towards the smoke-and-mirrors tendencies of wizarding Britain. They had long found simple warding around buildings to make Muggles disinterest was generally sufficient to keep themselves hidden. This also meant a lot of designated apparition zones, and higher expectations for their wizards and witches to be able to at least appear normal.

Tobias sure as hell didn't feel normal, though, as Aurora practically dragged him into what looked from the outside like a massive steel-works, and then into the blinding juxtaposition that was the utterly pristine department lobby.

During the day this wasn't just a welcome room, this was a communications hot-bed. Floos and Portkeys were going off almost constantly, and wizards were perpetually at desks with tiny fireplaces to conduct Floo conferences, and owls fluttered in with regularity.

At this time of night, enough of Russia's immediate neighbours were fast asleep that a good two thirds of the room was silent, and nobody was here to use the communications or the transport links. Over down the end furthest away from the door were a few officials bent over desks and having discussions in what sounded like Spanish, but that was all Tobias could hear.

There was one desk, though, elevated above the others: main reception. It was staffed, and it was to here that Aurora dragged the increasingly bleary-eyed Tobias.

Then she rattled off some words in Russian and Tobias was certain he didn't have a clue what was going on. He did, though, understand the urgency in her voice, and the confusion in the voice of the young man who'd been stuck on the graveyard shift. The man pointed at one of the back doors and, with the sincerest uncertainty across his expression said something else. Tobias couldn't understand it, still. But he did pick out, in the middle of it, the name 'Clint'.

'He's already here, isn't he,' he said, his gut twisting.

'On his way down to speak to Deputy Sergeyev,' Aurora said, again grabbing him by the wrist and dragging him past the hapless receptionist and through one of the doors. By now Tobias' vision was beginning to swim before his eyes as the spell to dull the pain in his back started to wear off, and he stumbled all the way.

'It's midnight,' he slurred. 'Why is anyone here?'

'Someone has to be on hand at all hours to be the point-man on matters of international dispute. Deputy Sergeyev can't officially grant us asylum, but he can give us protection until the morning when his boss can begin the proper investigation. He'll do!' Aurora exclaimed, dragging him past a whirlwind of corners and corridors that Tobias would not, in a million years, be able to identify ever again.

They stumbled to a halt only as they reached a door which looked identical to all the others to Tobias. Though at least they had latin text under the various signs, and if he squinted - and he did, once he realised it was important - he could see the name 'Sergeyev' on the plate on the wall.

Aurora didn't even wait to knock before bursting in.

Inside the rather small, cramped office, standing before the desk behind which sat a man who could only be presumed to be Deputy Sergeyev, stood Antonius Clint. As crisp and presentable as ever, and looking more than a little distraught at their arrival.

Nausea swam up in Tobias as he saw him, and by now Aurora was almost holding him upright as his vision swam before his eyes and his gut twisted.
Sergeyev looked up with some confusion. He was a severe-looking man in his forties, but Tobias didn't reckon someone pulled the night shift around here because they were popular. 'Ambassador, can you explain this?'

'I... as I was getting to, Deputy...' Clint straightened up and fixed Aurora with a gaze which was beyond withering, and she looked too stressed, exhausted, and shocked to be, right now, doing anything but trying to get her breath back.

He hasn't told him yet. Realisation exploded in Tobias' brain like a pulse, but it didn't stop the pounding in his brain or the writhing in his gut.

'Deputy-'

Aurora was cut off as Clint lifted a hand, his gaze suddenly sharp, imperious. 'Deputy, this is why I'm here. I require the aid of the Russian Federation for a criminal matter.'

It wasn't as if, once he officially asked for the help, there was nothing that they could do. But still Tobias knew he needed to distract him, divert him - give Aurora the chance she needed to interject.

He lurched forward, and Clint flinched as if he expected violence - either by genuinely being apprehensive after the night's excitement, or this was put on to make him seem more dangerous. And indeed, Tobias had to look awful - pale, wide-eyed, his wand in his hand so tight his knuckles were white, scorch marks across his back.

He did not attack Clint. He didn't lift his wand, he didn't throw a punch. He didn't even say a word.

He did, though, abruptly bend over and vomit all over the Ambassador's shoes.

As Clint reeled back in disgust and Tobias felt his vision swimming even more in front of him, the nausea from the extreme pain abating but the agony itself not subsiding, he heard Aurora Marlowe step forward.

'Deputy Sergeyev. We have reason to believe the Ministry of Magic has suffered a hostile takeover from dissident forces,' she declared with a hint of triumph. 'As such, Mister Grey and I would like to officially request political asylum from the Russian Federation.'


Chapter 7: The Abyss
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The next morning was greeted with a thumping headache. First from the alcohol, enough to make her regret having drunk it, and then from the thoughts that entered her brain along with consciousness. Dark thoughts, dark imaginings, of the impossible and unthinkable having happened...

 
Then Tanith had realised that these were memories, not thoughts, and she'd sat bolt upright in her bed.
This, too, had come with regrets. But she'd nevertheless hauled herself out of bed, found her dressing gown, and stumbled into Cal's room.

It was remarkable that his father had been thoughtful enough to put him to bed after beating him into unconsciousness. But it had saved Tanith the effort of doing that herself, with aching limbs, a burning throat, and a swimming head.

But her friend had drifted from unconsciousness to sleep. And he was probably best off that way.

So she had done the only thing she could think of doing: had dressed in her uniform and gone to work.

A thought had idly tugged at her for consideration of the idea that she should run - hide, flee the country. It hadn't been given much attention.

But she had nevertheless almost collapsed with relief when she'd entered the lobby of the MLE Department building - not quite up to braving their offices in the Ministry of Magic itself - and had found it empty except for Jacob Van Roden.

'What the hell is going on?' she hissed as she hurried over towards him, voice holding all of her quiet panic and intense confusion.

Jacob looked pale as he saw her, having evidently been pacing to and fro across the lobby. His breath caught before he could answer, and then by the time she reached him it looked as if he'd given up on words all together, and just stepped forward to pull her to him in a rather desperate hug.

For a moment all Tanith could do was stand there numbly, not really sure of how to react - then her hands reached around Jacob to hold him closer, and as she buried her face in his chest she could feel her shoulders beginning to shake treacherously.

Even when she spoke, her voice was unreliable. '...what's happened?' she asked again tremulously.

It took Jacob a few moments to gather his own composure, but he didn't let her go, mumbling only barely above his breath. 'Rufus Scrimgeour is dead,' he told her. 'There was a Death Eater attack last night and they murdered him. Pius Thicknesse seized the position as Minister of Magic with his emergency powers, only to promptly pardon all of the Death Eaters there and then, and have them arrest anyone who attempted to object.

'Every dark wizard in Azkaban has been let out and granted clemency. Many of them have been given high ranking posts within the Ministry as the previous holders refused to cooperate, or were found otherwise unsuitable. And the order has gone out for every Muggle-born witch and wizard to be arrested.'

Tanith's breath caught. 'Nat,' she whispered.

Jacob drew back, eyes widening. 'Where is she?'

'They got her last night.' Tanith chewed on her lip. 'Brynmor and Robb, Jake, they're out, they were waiting for us in our flat last night.'

'Cal?' Jacob frowned deeply.

'We fought them, he's still asleep at home - I checked him over, he'll be fine, but I didn't want to wake him... Jake, what the hell do we do?'

Tanith wasn't unaccustomed to fear. It had become a common ally, both before her Auror training and since. What she wasn't so familiar with was the helplessness which ran alongside this fear, the utter uncertainty and vulnerability.

'There's nothing we can do,' Jacob told her emptily. 'All international travel has been stopped. And I'm not - I'm not running.' He drew a deep, uncertain breath. 'Yaxley is the new head of the MLE,' he said at last.

'Mister I-treat-Azkaban-like-it's-got-a-revolving-door Yaxley?' Tanith asked sharply, pulling back with a start.
'That ain't his official title,' a voice came from the door leading down to the Auror office, and they both whirled around abruptly to see, standing there, the tall, broad figure of Thanatos Brynmor.

Tanith's lip curled and her hand came down swiftly to her holstered wand. 'You-'

'I wouldn't do that, Missy.' It was quite surprising when Tanith realised that, out of the four times she'd met Thanatos Brynmor, this was the first time it had happened in broad daylight. And the similarities between him and Cal were all the more startling. The size, for one. The bristly dark hair. The strong jaw-line.

The smile, on Cal reserved for when he was particularly pleased with himself for some joke or achievement or another. But on his father it took an altogether more sinister, vicious edge.

'It'd be a terrible idea if you went to try and kill your boss,' Brynmor continued, stepping forward and spreading his hands.

'My what?' Tanith didn't release her wand, but she did lower it to her side. It wasn't a conscious decision. Evidently some survival instincts had remained intact, however.

'Mister Yaxley - indeed, our new head of the MLE - has appointed me in charge of the new Dissident Detection Division. DDD, isn't that an easy acronym to remember?' Brynmor clapped his hands together with some satisfaction. 'A large portion of the old Auror wing are being reassigned as Detectors.'

Tanith blinked at him, the coldness in her gut only increasing. She had expected to come here to find herself imprisoned at worst, kicked out at best. One thing she hadn't considered was the idea that she was going to be expected to stay working for the Ministry.

Suddenly Jennifer Riley's attitude of the previous evening didn't seem so outrageous. It did, though, feel like it had happened a lifetime ago.

She drew a deep breath. '"Detectors" is a silly word.' It was also a silly thing to say, but truth be told she couldn't think of anything else.

'And now you're one of them.' It was such a simple, good-natured rebuke that Tanith couldn't help but again be reminded of Cal, and she repressed a shiver. 'You and Van Roden here. And a few of the others.'

'Detecting dissidents.' Jacob's voice remained empty, and Tanith glanced over at him. It was clear he recognised Brynmor, but then his face had been plastered all over dozens of wanted posters in and arond the office. She didn't think he'd met the man in the flesh before. 'What's that going to entail?'

'Just what it says,' Brynmor countered. 'Hunting down dissidents. Those who stand against the state, against the rule of the Ministry. They are opposing the cultural and social growth of the British magical people and they bring danger and death with them. I thought you two had been Aurors?' He smiled, and this one was not a smile like anything Cal ever wore. It was altogether more unpleasant, more vicious, and it certainly didn't reach Brynmor's eyes.

Hearing him echoing the sentiment which had previously been so freely uttered about people like him was enough for a fresh shiver down Tanith's spine.

'What happens if we don't want to be members of the DDD?' Jacob asked. Tanith was not used to lacking in nerve, but she could not help but feel relieved that he was asking questions she couldn't quite bring herself to.

'In times of emergency the MLE Department has the authority to reject resignations,' Brynmor said, and the irony that the escaped convict was quoting legal procedure at them was not lost on Tanith. 'I wouldn't try to run away, either, for a Ministry official to go AWOL is a matter of serious import. It's the kind of thing we'd have to get families involved in.'

Tanith's shoulders tensed, and her head snapped up. 'You wouldn't-'

'Then don't run away,' Brynmor countered calmly. 'It really is as simple as that.'

She hesitated. 'What's happened to the Muggle-Borns? Why are they arrested?' She knew why, of course, but there seemed to actually be some pretence of legitimacy from the Death Eaters and this coup d’état. Granted, she doubted it would last, but they'd bothered to pardon their membership, bothered to keep Thicknesse as the Minister instead of just declaring Voldemort the Lord of Britain. It was probably just to keep international relations calm, but the pretence was there.

'Because they are not witches or wizards,' Brynmor said, raising his eyebrows. 'New evidence and studies have proven that magic can only be inherited. It is impossible for a child to be born with magical capability without at least one wizarding recent ancestor.'

She squinted.'...then where do you think they got it from, the Easter Bunny?'

'They stole it.' Brynmor didn't even look like he was bothering to pretend to believe this. 'They stole their power off trueborn witches and wizards. It's horrible, really, they should be locked up.'

'You think eleven year-olds stole magic?' Jacob stared at him.

Brynmor turned sharply to face him, and Jacob ended up taking a step back, so suddenly tall was the Death Eater, and even in the bright summer sunlight abruptly dark and intimidating in stature. It wasn't a spell, but with just a look Tanith could feel her spine turning to jelly, and she could only suppose that a man did not survive Azkaban for fifteen years without some serious mettle.

'I think I will do what must be done to save wizarding society,' Brynmor thundered. 'If that means removing those who stand against our very way of life, I will do it.' He scratched his nose, the anger fading somewhat, but his deep frown remained even as his voice turned threateningly flippant. 'I don't think we have much more to discuss. It's a weekend. You should both be at home. I'm a manager, I have to work on a Saturday, but how about I see you both bright and early on Monday?'

They didn't reply, either of them, just turned to go, heading for the big doors that led out into the streets of London, from where they would have to apparate back to Diagon Alley.

But before they got there, there was the squeaking of shoes on over-polished floors, and Tanith looked over her shoulder back at Brynmor, who had a certain expectant expression on his face.

'One moment, Cole,' he said, and she stopped, turning not without a small amount of apprehension.

'Yes? Sir?' Tanith had long had practice from school at injecting one single word with as much hatred and disrespect as was possible. She called on all of those Hogwarts lessons now.

'My good friend Robb is going to be working with us, but his particular priority is dealing with dissidents abroad who might be working against the government from there and would need hunting down.' He tilted his head very slightly. 'If you get any valuable information, you will be sure to cooperate with Mister Robb, no?'

Tobias. Tanith's heart thundered in her chest, and she drew a little, shocked breath before she straightened up and nodded. '...of course I would, sir.'

'Of course you would.' Brynmor's smile didn't quite reach his eyes. 'Don't worry. Any of these individuals will be brought to justice. The harshest justice.' Then his smile broke, and looked halfway pleasant in a way which was a mockery to all pleasantries. 'Have a good weekend.'

They left without being stopped, apparated to Diagon Alley without thinking. Tanith had just gone straight to the office that morning, but now she wanted to see, wanted a clearer idea of what was going on.

A lot of it she had missed in the dark the previous night. The broken windows. The scared faces hiding behind curtains. All of the shops were closed, some just with shutters down, others looking as if they had been too vandalised to even think about it. A robes shop Tanith knew had been owned by a Muggle-born witch was now just a burnt-out husk of a building.

Even Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes was shut.

Jacob came to a halt as they reached her door, turning to face her. 'Do you want me to come up and see Cal?'

She hesitated. 'I think... actually, with Nat gone? I think he'll need everyone around him right now.'

Jacob actually looked a little relieved, and she realised he had probably been asking for himself as much as for her. He lived alone, and it couldn't be a pleasant sensation to sit without company over the coming hours, days, as news and facts and changes trickled in and the future was so uncertain.

They trooped upstairs, past the doors to the solicitors' office which were locked - though that was not so unusual on a Saturday - and eventually into the familiar confines of the flat.

The curtains were still drawn, the lights still off, and all was absolutely silent. One of the small coffee tables was still tipped over, and a picture on the windowsill near where Tanith had been thrown against the wall was smashed.

She hadn't really stopped to tidy up that morning.

And she didn't stop now, not even pausing to take her coat off as she hurried towards Cal's bedroom. She waited only long enough to give a tentative knock before pushing the door open and stepping in.

It was dark, but she could see the shape above the covers, just where he'd been left the night before. Tanith glanced over her shoulder and nodded at Jacob, who padded over and followed her in; she'd administered what first aid charms she knew, but he had always been better at it than her.

The tip of Jacob's wand lit up as he ran it over Cal, from whom the only motion was the deep, rhythmic rise and fall of his chest for which Tanith was still eternally grateful. She wasn't sure what she'd have done the night before if somethin had seemed seriously wrong.

'He's just sleeping. It looks like your charms stopped him from having a concussion or anything.'

Tanith nodded, before reaching over to touch Cal's shoulder gently. That didn't elicit a reaction, and she couldn't help but be dimly amused at how, when the world was making her feel like she couldn't cope with doing anything but tentatively,  Cal would still sleep like a log.

So she shook him, as she had dozens of times before to wake him, both in this flat and when she'd wanted something from him in school. 'Cal! Cal!'

He made a small noise of protest, his eyelids fluttering but not opening, and a meaty hand reached out to bat weakly at hers. 'Don't wanna go to Potions...'

It looked like she was not the only one to feel somewhat nostalgic from the gesture. 'You're not at school, Cal...'

Then she felt guilty for having reminded him of this, as Cal's eyes abruptly snapped open, first seeing nothing, then locking on her. He sat up sharply, looking dimly like he regretted it but doing nothing more than grimacing, and his eyes widened.

'What happened? Where's Nat?' He grimaced more as recollection seemed to set in, and then he sagged, leaning forward to bury his face in his hands.

'Azkaban,' he said mournfully, the word itself sounding like a death sentence when uttered aloud. 'Azkaban, and Death Eaters, and my father, and... and holy crap.'

It took some time before Cal looked up, and when he did, his eyes were no more clear, no less afraid, no less overwhelmed than before. He gave a distraught sniff, and looked between the two of them. 'What are we going to do?'

Jacob sighed, sitting on the edge of the bed, shoulders slumped. Whatever strength he had been in possession of earlier seemed to fade, and the older Auror eventually just shrugged. 'I... I don't know.'

Tanith looked between the two of them, two of the strongest people she knew, and just the sight of their despair was enough to have her almost join them in it.

But she could not. They could not.

She drew a deep breath. 'I know what we're going to do,' Tanith said quietly, and gave a small smile with rather forced confidence as they looked over at her in confusion.

'Fight.'






'It is, as they say, home sweet home,' Dimitri said as he pushed open the door and stepped into the large apartment. Tastefully and modernly furnished, it was decidedly expansive, the floors lined with thick, plush carpets and the walls littered with artwork that Tobias didn't even begin to recognise.

Stepping into the room behind him, Aurora drew a deep breath. 'This is one of the Ambassadorial family suites,' she said, sounding somewhat reverent.

'Technically it is the suite set aside for the British Ambassador,' Dimitri said chirpily. 'But since Ambassador Clint has had his own residence for some years, and now the Federation will not be granting full hospitality to any British emissaries, then it was thought that the two of you could use it.'

Tobias wandered around the room, gaze scanning the pictures especially - old, moving wizarding portraits presumably Russian in origin - and let out a low whistle. 'That's quite an insult to Britain.'

'That we are giving two political refugees the hospitality we would give an ambassador? Yes, it is.' Dimitri grinned toothily. 'It was judged... appropriate.'

'I was surprised,' Aurora confessed as she began to pace the room, 'that the Federation took our side so effectively.'

'There were records,' Dimitri said, 'of the fight in the embassy, and the fight in the flat corridor. If the Death Eater had lived, or if Ambassador Clint had not been intercepted, then it is thought likely those records would have been destroyed. But you were fast enough, and so they were not, and so a man in a Death Eater mask trying to kill you on behalf of Ambassador Clint was enough to send him, and not you, back to Britain.'

'For which we're rather grateful,' Tobias mumbled. 'Considering reports coming out.'

It had been a few days since that desperate night. In that time the two had been put under security which was practically imprisonment as the Federation did their best to figure out just what was going on with Britain, and their ambassadorial service.

But it hadn't taken long before the reports had emerged. In dribs and drabs and with nothing substantial enough to justify international action, but it had become clear that people were fleeing Britain, and that the insurrectionists in that country had just become an illegal government.

Most of mainland Europe had welcomed refugees with open arms and begun to close its borders against wizarding Britain. Some corners of Eastern Europe, still struggling themselves against dark magic, had remained rather more neutral. Russia, somewhat further emerged from its dark history, was a little more judicious. That they would still accept foreign communication with Britain was expected, as it would appease the more traditional elements of their society, but the decision had been rapidly made that they could not hand over any political refugees.

'Your friends in high places have helped,' Dimitri admitted. 'I do not think that a message from the French ambassador hurt at all.'

Aurora glanced over at Tobias, eyebrow raised. 'I meant to ask you about that,' she said levelly. 'What did you do to make the French love you? Surrender?'

Tobias rolled his eyes. 'Funny,' he said dryly, before patting his pocket. 'No. I was as surprised as you. But it looks like I will need to send my mother a letter of thanks.'

Dimitri frowned. 'Your mother?'

'I thought she worked at Gringotts?'

'She does.' Tobias gave a lopsided smile. 'And is apparently more influential there than I figured, or at least has contacts who can write to the French Council of Magic to make a plea on her behalf.'

'The French have no love for dark magic,' Aurora mused. 'I suppose they would have welcomed any opportunity to make a public fuss against the Ministry.'

'Still!' Dimitri grinned. 'I am just glad you are not being sent back there.'

'I can't deny I'm quite chirpy myself.' Tobias nodded, looking around the room. 'This is some place.'

'Yes!' Dimitri nodded, then moved to the centre of the room. 'It has the latest in developed magical kitchens, fully stocked. The view is of the park, but it can be enchanted to give you a view of anywhere in the city. Three bedrooms - the master bedroom, the guest bedroom, and I am sorry that the third is made ready for children, though I assume that would not be too much of a problem for you.'

'I think we'll manage,' Aurora said dryly.

'Yes. I will continue to liaise with you both, too.' Dimitri nodded firmly. 'Since I am the most familiar with modern British politics in the department I have still been posted to monitor this situation and to continue to keep you and the Federation appraised of what is going on.'

'Good. I'd hate to have to get used to a whole new enthusiastic Russian,' said Tobias.

Dimitri's grin broadened. 'Everything we can provide for you, we will. We shall keep the kitchen stocked, provide laundry services, and other day-to-day support. Unfortunately anything else you shall have to provide yourselves. For now, also, you are requested to not leave the city of Moscow or your statuses as political refugees will have to be re-evaluated.'

'I wasn't planning on going sight-seeing,' Tobias agreed. 'But I have a horrible feeling the Ministry is going to have tried to seize all of our assets.'

Aurora snorted. '"Try", here, is the operative word. You think the goblins of Gringotts are going to let the government interfere with their accounts?'

'Good point.' Tobias sighed.

Dimitri nodded. 'You both know where you can find me if you are needing anything more. It seems I am here to be your... whipping boy, yes?'

There was a smirk from Aurora. 'Some things don't change, then.'

'It would seem not.' Dimitri smiled again. 'I will let you both get settled in,' he told them, before turning to leave.

Aurora sighed once he was gone, moving to collapse on one of the large, over-stuffed sofas. 'At least that part's over.'

'I'm hardly relaxing,' Tobias said with a wince. 'This could still change at any moment. I don't fancy being deported directly to Azkaban.'

She shook her head. 'The Russians aren't in the habit of bowing to dark magic-supporting governments. We'll be fine. The problem would just be if they'd have let Clint take us before they knew what was going on.'

'Ugh.' Tobias rubbed his forehead, still pacing across the floor. 'Did I really vomit on him?'

'Considering the pain you must have been in, from the state of you when we got you to hospital,' Aurora said, watching him move, 'it's not so surprising that you did. I was surprised you didn't pass out first.'

'Invigoration charm,' Tobias said, giving a lopsided smile. 'When I was down in the corridor.' He looked away, gaze torn towards the impressive vista of Moscow that was beyond the windows.

'Clever.'

His expression went wistful. 'A trick learnt from an old friend.'

'I suppose that's why you collapsed at the end, anyway, pushing through that.' Aurora straightened a little. 'Really, Tobias, sit down. You'll wear a hole in the carpet.'

He stopped, and realised he was still pacing quite intently. There was a moment, then he nodded sheepishly, going to sit next to her on the sofa. 'Sorry. I just... don't feel like this is over.'

'We're still in a foreign country, at the whims of their government, because our home nation would have us locked up at best if we went home.' Aurora bit her lip. 'I think this is far from over.'

Tobias leaned forward, scrubbing his face with his hands. 'And what? We just sit here?'

'Well, hopefully,' Aurora began, 'our example will filter out and allow or encourage other refugees to flee. I intend to work on my contacts here in Russia to try to get them to do everything they can for Brits leaving the country.'

'So we help people run away?' Tobias said, with no small amount of frustration as he drew his hands down across his face. 'That's our great solution?'

'It's not like we're going to be able to fix Britain single-handedly. Or double-handedly,' Aurora pointed out gently. 'But we certainly can't do anything to fix it from Moscow.’ She lifted a hand as he straightened up. 'And you are not going back there.'

Tobias stood again. 'Why not? I reckon we could sneak into the country, it can't be that hard - I don't think the Death Eaters would know how to supervise Muggle transport routes if they wanted to!'

'And then what? You get yourself captured and killed?' Aurora leapt to her feet also, but unlike him her voice wasn't raised - just calm, level, and absolutely determined. 'How is that going to help matters?'

'Funnily enough, I wasn't planning on that happening.'

'As opposed to all the people in Azkaban right now who were?' she challenged quietly. 'Tobias, listen to yourself. There will be people in Britain right now, on the run, or working from the inside, to do something about this government.'

'And I should be there with them!' he interjected, throwing his hands in the air in frustration.

'And be what? Just another person on the run? When you're one of the only people here,' Aurora pointed out.
'What good is being here?'

'It's all the good you make it.' Silence met her words, silence as Tobias scowled at her and as Aurora drew a deep, thoughtful breath. 'Dimitri is finding out all he can. He will tell us when there's news, you can trust him. You know you can.'

'And what can I do with that-'

He stopped as she lifted a hand, expression somewhat impatient, and for the first time Tobias actually felt like a child. So far she had always trusted him with respect, with courtesy, and treated him like an equal even though he wasn't sure he was.

But, finally, the weight of her greater age and presumably wisdom was being brought down on his shoulders, and he couldn't help but feel sheepish.

'You are in an unique position here,' Aurora told him. 'From here we can react as the information comes in. Perhaps feeding that information to people who would be fighting on the inside. Helping refugees is no irrelevant goal. Working to try to get other countries to lend aid - that's something we could never do from in Britain. No, I don't know what the answer is yet, but throwing ourselves in danger is not it.'

Tobias looked down at the handsome burgundy carpet, and felt rather silly. 'I wasn't intending on dragging you back with me.'

Aurora gave a small smile. 'I can imagine not. But I would have gone with you all the same. I can't exactly let you throw yourself into mortal danger on your own, can I?'

He nodded, shoving his hands in his pockets, and felt his mother's letter there. He should reply, really. Short as it had been, she had still taken the time to write to tell him she was well, that Gringotts was making sure she could stay in France, but that she didn't have the freedom to come and see him right now and she doubted he had the freedom himself.

So for now he would stay in Russia and his mother would stay in France. But, at least, this meant his family were safe. His paternal grandparents were Muggles, and they wouldn't be affected by what was going on. Their son the wizard was long dead. Nothing would drag them into magical matters. And his mother's family, the Harts, were a good, pure-blood family. Their one aberration of a daughter had been suitably disowned and was out of the country. They would not be the first family to have a blot on their record - there were few pure-blood families that did not - and so Tobias doubted they would be in danger.

He also found it hard to care, considering how they had treated his mother over the years.

As such, that only left a handful of people whose health he was concerned about in particular still in the country. Doyle was abroad. He mostly hoped Nat was well for Cal's sake. But Cal himself... whatever Cal's father would do was probably not set to be pleasant. But he would not be harmed, Tobias was confident. That just left...

Tanith...

What would they do to an Auror? Would her family name be enough to keep her safe?

Tobias' hand clenched by his side. 'Damn it,' he muttered, head bowing. 'I just... I hate standing by and waiting.'

'It is the hardest part,' Aurora agreed gently. 'But then... I perhaps shouldn't lecture you. In the wars I have served behind desks, or trying to help from abroad. You, on the other hand, left school to join the MLE.' She gave a small smile. 'You should be lecturing me on what to do.'

'No, I... you're right.' He lifted his head unhappily. 'I just want to be there. With my friends. I feel like I'm abandoning them.'

Her hand reached out to rest on his forearm, and slowly the tension in his shoulders faded for him to unclench his hand. 'That's because you're a good friend,' she told him gently.

Tobias looked down at the hand on his arm, then lifted his own to cover it, gentle and apprehensive. 'I left them behind before for... what? Duty?'

'That doesn't make you a bad friend. It makes you a good man.'

He gave a short, humourless laugh. 'That part I'm even less sure of.' Tobias frowned, running a hand through his hair. It had grown in the time since he'd left the MLE, losing the edge of the short, professional, almost military trim. Now it was back to about as whispy as it had been before he'd left Hogwarts, and he knew that it didn't help him look more respectable.

Then again, neither did the arch in his nose from when Cal had broken it, and from when he'd cast his spell to fix it only rather poorly. He could have fixed it. But it had always served as a strong reminder of what happened when he let his fear get the better of his trust.

'Thank you,' he told Aurora at last, lifting his head. 'I know I get... wound up. I know I over-think some things sometimes. It's been a while since I was around someone who could help sift through that.'

She gave a small, tight smile. 'I think I would be doing plenty of panicking myself if you weren't here,' she confessed with a shrug. 'And, to be honest, I'd be dead if it weren't for you. That Death Eater would have got me.'

He just shrugged, but she cut him off before he could express further modesty. 'Truth be told, it's been a while since I've been in any kind of fight. Since I've needed to cast with my life on the line. I'm rusty.' Aurora hesitated. 'No. I'm untrained. There's no way I could have fought through the pain you did that night. There's no way I'm as fast as you.'

'I'm not the fastest,' Tobias insisted, still thinking of Tanith. Whilst he could dance rings around her when it came to theory, when it came to potions, even when it came to single, complicated spells and raw power, when it came to wits, and speed, and sheer guts and ingenuity, he would never fancy trying to take on Tanith. Not again.

'But this might not be the first time we end up in a fight,' Aurora pointed out. 'So I had best practice.' She tilted her head a little. 'I practice better with a teacher.'

'I'm not the fastest,' he repeated, but it was with a certain wry, dawning awareness. 'But I'm what you've got.' Tobias sighed, and nodded. 'Alright. I'll teach you. We'll train. I just hope... I hope we don't need it again.'

Chapter 8: The Boy Who Cried...
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'We don't need you anymore.'

The state of the economy had not been the first thing on Cal's mind when he'd realised just what was happening to Wizarding Britain. Hypothetically he supposed that international trade might be affected by a coup, and businesses might be making less money, but it hadn't especially made him think about his job security.

Apparently an admin monkey in the Department of International Magical Cooperation was no longer so necessary under the rule of Minister Thicknesse.

Cleaning out his desk would have been embarrassing if Cal had actually had anything to clean out. As it was, he only had a mug that had been used once and then never washed to retrieve, and had then glared at his manager until he was escorted out of the Ministry.

Down into the lobby with the huge 'Magic is Might' banners and the grotesque statue that had been there the first day he'd stumbled into work, and towards the floo fireplaces until-

'Mister Brynmor!'

He didn't know the voice, and Cal couldn't help but scowl as he turned, holding his rather sad cardboard box with its dirty mug. What he was met with was not what he'd expected. In the hubbub he hadn't been able to tell if he was being addressed by a man or a woman, so he could only falter for a moment as he saw the young woman in the robes of the Magical Law Enforcement Squad trotting over to him and his former supervisor.

She just nodded politely at Cal's ex-manager with a dismissive air that could only speak of being confident in one's own power, before fixing Cal with a smile. 'Mister Brynmor, Supervisor Brynmor has asked to see you.'

Cal tensed, ice shooting up his spine. 'Has he, now.'

'He sent me down just now to find you.' Her smile was picture-perfect, but it didn't quite reach her bright green eyes. And though Cal had to accept that it was a good smile, there was an obsequiousness there that he immediately didn't like, this hint of satisfaction at doing her job. And in Cal's opinion, anyone who appeared satisfied at working for Death Eaters could go straight to hell.

'I didn't realise it was Supervisor Brynmor now.' Cal's smile was equally forced. And actually, it was a lie; Tanith had falteringly explained that she was working for his father now. He just hadn't cared about the details.

'If you'd come with me down to the office?' the Enforcer asked, clearly ignoring the attitude.

Cal turned unsmilingly to his former boss, and suddenly felt somewhat guilty for begrudging the poor man for doing his job. He, at least, wasn't a Death Eater supervisor. Just the lesser evil of middle-management. 'And to think I thought I was going to get the afternoon off,' he said humourlessly, before nodding to the man and turning to follow the Enforcer. 'Lead on.'

The Department of Magical Law Enforcement had changed a lot since Cal had seen it. Whenever he visited Tanith at work - usually to bring something she'd forgotten from home, or to drag her from the office - she'd been at the main headquarters, the separate building. That was where most records were stored, training was held, and the detainment of prisoners before they were shipped to Azkaban took place. The offices in the Ministry were more for government business or liaising with other departments. In fact, he was quite sure he'd only been there once or twice before.

Back then, it had been a rather sterile place littered with wanted pictures and various posters warning about strange people in alleyways or not to trust unknown magical devices in case they were secretly cursed. It had been full of serious people doing serious work.

Now the only word for it was dark. Whilst most departments had seen only cursory changes, with the odd Death Eater or suspected sympathiser coming in to supervise or replace one or two staff members, the MLE had been gutted. Almost nobody at the higher echelons had remained in place, according to Tanith, either fired or imprisoned - or forced to go on the run to avoid imprisonment. Or, of course, killed. The footsoldiers of the MLE were mostly untouched, but there were still new faces there, and the odd person elevated rather quickly, and whilst people in the DIMC had mostly gotten away with muttering to themselves and moaning about Thicknesse's regime while Ambassadors were ejected and notifications of political asylum came in, they didn't think they'd disappear if they were overheard.

Obviously the people who had to enforce this new government were going to be monitored more closely, and Cal couldn't stop the hairs on the back of his neck from standing up as he was led through the corridors.

Eventually, the Enforcer - whose smug smile was beginning to look forced around the edges, enough for something potentially approaching empathy to tug at Cal - came to a halt outside of a closed door, gesturing. 'He's waiting for you, sir.'

Since he'd been in school a scant three months ago, Cal couldn't help but flinch at the term 'sir'. Even when Death Eaters ruled Britain, some things he just couldn't get used to.

'Sure. Hold this,' he said, and shoved the cardboard box and the uncleaned mug - which he was sure had begun to spawn new life after being so unsupervised for so long - into her hands, before he just pushed the door open.

Perhaps he was meant to knock. But he was fairly sure he could get away with such a discourteous move. And if this was the extent of rebellion he could indulge in and live through, then this was what he would do.

The office was large and opulent, and had to have belonged to someone quite important before now. Someone who was almost certainly not in the employment of the MLE anymore, and it was unlikely that they were both alive and free. The walls were fine wood-panelling, there were several large bookcases filled with hefty volumes on wizarding history and law - with a few notable gaps - and above the mantelpiece was just bare wall, the wood a slightly lighter shade.

Whatever picture had been there before, obviously the office's new occupant didn't care for it.

The man himself was seated behind a desk, leaning towards what looked like an old-fashioned phonograph, focusing on the horn. The internal communication system which had only been installed in the more important offices, while everyone else had to travel by foot or send the paper airplanes. How Cal had coveted them in his old job.

But there was little time to be jealous of Thanatos Brynmor.

'He's still in the country. We'd know if he left, he wouldn't have the facilities to do this abroad!' Brynmor was roaring into the horn with an irritation which made Cal flinch as he closed the door behind him. 'So I don't want any excuses!'

A tinny voice came back that Cal couldn't fully hear, and it didn't seem like Brynmor was paying it much attention as he looked up at the door's closing. There was a moment as father and son's eyes met, before Brynmor lifted a hand over the horn, leaning in closer and interrupting.

'I don't want excuses. I want results. Just get me Percival McGowan. Brynmor out.'

Then the horn was tilted downwards and Brynmor stood up, prompting Cal to give up on wondering where he recognised the name 'Percival McGowan' from.

There was not much between them in height or build. Both of them were tall, both of them were broad, his father not much wasted from his time in Azkaban - reports had suggested he had fought the Dementors’ presence with determined physical exercise - and Cal himself toned from a Beater's work. Both had the mop of dark, closely-cropped hair, both had the same deep brown eyes, both had the same firmness of jaw and sturdiness of feature.

Cal had not had much opportunity in the past to study his father in the flesh. Before that he could only consult photographs, but even then he had concluded he took more after his father than his late Death Eater mother.

It was just quite horrendous how much this was like looking twenty-five years into the future.

'Thank you for coming,' Thanatos Brynmor said quietly, moving around the desk towards him - and then faltering with inexplicable uncertainty. 'I hope Perkins was polite.'

'Perkins?' Cal blinked, his mouth dry, before he realised that Perkins had to be the Enforcer. 'Oh - yeah. She was a real peach.'

Thanatos frowned. 'She's a good girl. From a good family. She came rather highly recommended.'

This, of course, did not especially commend 'Perkins' to Cal. 'She's fine,' he said with an angry smirk. 'She's doing an excellent job of flunkey work, and of holding my stuff.'

'Your stuff?' Thanatos tilted his head.

'I... my desk.' Irrationally Cal felt a stab of - was it shame? He tried to clamp down on it quickly, instead tilting his chin with a hint of defiance. He didn't give a damn what his father thought. 'I got fired.'

'Oh. Of course.' Thanatos nodded somewhat uncertainly. 'I heard they were making reductions across the departments. I didn't realise that affected you.' He stepped back towards his desk, waving a hand. 'I'll find something for you here -'

'Like hell you will!'

Silence hung in the air between them, and Cal found himself holding his breath after the words slipped out, escaping of their own accord. But he had spoken, now, and so there was nothing for it but to push forward. 'Where's Nat?'

Thanatos sighed, leaning on the desk. 'Nathalie Lockett has been found guilty of having not a witch or wizard parent. In fact, she can't prove a single magical individual in her entire family history. So she's in Azkaban.'

Cal's fist clenched. 'I forgot, this is a crime now.'

'I don't make the rules, I just enforce them.' Thanatos opened his hands, actually sounding apologetic. 'I cannot make exceptions. Not even for my own son.'

'You don't want to!' Cal exclaimed.

Thanatos straightened. 'She is important to you. Whilst I cannot but disapprove that you would choose someone of her heritage, I imagine she has some qualities to commend her. And I would spare her Azkaban for your sake if I could.'

Cal looked away, a muscle at the corner of his jaw twitching. This was not what he'd expected. A lecture, perhaps. He'd wondered if this was going to be the prelude to his own one-way ticket to Azkaban. This genuine concern was just simply disconcerting.

'Why am I here?' he asked at last, rather tightly.

'I thought we could talk.' Thanatos' voice was unwelcomely honest. 'The last two occasions were not exactly conducive to discussion.'

'And just what the hell were we going to talk about? Politics? Or did you want to sit down and discuss my career options?' He threw his hands in the air, unable to bite down on the frustration simmering in his gut. Because it was either that or submit to the panic threatening to take hold.

'You should be pleased to know that the man who murdered your mother has escaped justice,' Thanatos said darkly, moving to return to his desk chair. His shoulders were abruptly rather hunched, taut, and a frown tugged at his brow.

'Will...?'

'William Rayner has managed to evade the authorities and has fled the country. We think he's heading for Germany.' Thanatos' voice was a deep, dissatisfied rumble. 'I thought you might want to know.'

Elation burst in Cal's chest at the news of his foster-father's escape. Will Rayner might have killed his mother - but his mother had been a Death Eater, and in the same fight Rayner had avoided being murdered by Voldemort's forces and had successfully apprehended his father, dooming him to Azkaban.

It was impossible to hate a man who was more family to him than the mother he had been forced to kill.

So he gave a tight smile. 'Good,' he said simply.

'I imagine he will not try to contact you,' Thanatos continued. 'Nor will, I imagine, another international renegade you are familiar with: Tobias Grey.'

Cal's grin just broadened. 'Thanks for confirming Toby's still staying from out of your grasp.'

'For now.' Thanatos returned the grin, though now it lacked all pleasantries. 'I am sure that if they contact you, however, you will inform the proper authorities.'

'You know as well as I do that I won't,' Cal pointed out bluntly.

Thanatos sighed, his shoulders sagging, and he reached for a stack of parchments on his desk. 'I was afraid you were going to say that,' he said, pulling off the top sheets. 'You know, Azkaban is in danger of over-crowding. There has been a suggestion that low-risk Muggle thieves of magic might just be stripped of their wands and returned to their Muggle homes.'

Something tightened in Cal's throat, and suddenly the pieces before him were bright and clear. He was no fool. Thanatos' implication was impossible to ignore. He could save Nat from Azkaban, let her go home to her parents, spare her all of this...

Then he scowled. 'I will not feed you information on my friends!' he snapped, pointing angrily.

'You did before,' Thanatos said levelly. 'Or have you forgotten how we realised that Annie MacKenzie would be such a target?'

'I was just talking to you!' Cal howled, throwing his hands in the air. 'You regret that there has been such a rift between us? That I don't understand you, understand your way of life? Maybe this wouldn't have happened if you hadn't gone on to abuse my trust. Oh, and murder my best friend’s girlfriend!’

'I am not putting the cause before you!' Thanatos snapped, straightening up. 'I am putting the cause first because then it will provide a better way of life for you. My priorities are not as misguided as you. I am still choosing the person I care about the most.'

Cal closed his eyes and thought of Nat - thought of her smile, of her laugh, of the simple way she could raise his spirits - and then his expression closed down thunderously. 'I won't be your spy,' he hissed. 'I won't sell out Tobias. Or Will. I won't spy on Tanith. Not even for Nat.' He took a slow step forward. 'And not even because I care for them more. But you know what? If she got out of Azkaban, and knew what the price for her freedom was? She would hate it.' His eyes narrowed. 'She would hate me.'

Thanatos watched him for a moment, his expression increasingly stony. And when he was done, he just gave a short, sharp nod. 'As you wish,' he said quietly, and Cal did his best to ignore the hint of wistfulness in his voice. 'Just you know that hiding information about wanted criminals is a serious crime.'

Cal gave a humourless smile. 'You'd have to prove it,' he snarled.

'Very true. And this is very difficult.' Thanatos leaned back, steepling his fingers. 'I suppose, if they try to contact you, there'd be the chance they would try to contact Miss Lockett.' He nodded thoughtfully to himself. 'Should we have reason to suspect, we would have to interrogate her.'

Again, his meaning was not lost on Cal, and he straightened. 'You bastard-'

'Should we have reason to suspect,' Thanatos repeated sharply, cutting him off with a thunderous glare. 'At this moment I believe they would not be so foolish as to approach you. At this moment.' He took a deep breath. 'Desperation may breed foolishness.'

'They won't be that dumb. They know about you,' Cal said, praying he was right. And praying that, even if he was right, nobody would have reason to suspect the opposite.

Because he was sure suspicion, rather than fact, would be enough for Nat to be punished for his silence.

And then he wasn't sure what he would do.

Thanatos didn't reply for a long moment, stacking the pile of papers, before he pushed what had to be Nat's file over to one side. When he looked up his expression was taut, controlled, and his eyes rather empty. 'That was all, Cal. Thank you for seeing me.'

He turned to go, before his father cleared his voice again. 'Perkins will see you out. If you need anything, just tell her.'

Cal hesitated, looking over his shoulder. 'I don't want anything from you.'

Thanatos straightened a little. 'You will need something to live off now you've lost your job, if you don't want me to find you something. She will make sure that your stipend from the government comes through. She's my aide but she has enough time to be placed at your disposal.'

There was a suggestion that he would brook no opposition to this, and so Cal barely had to even think the word 'spy'.

And yet, he couldn't live off his meagre savings and a tense Tanith's charity. So he just gave a grunt of acceptance before he tore out of the office, stomping into the corridor and slamming the door shut behind him - only to find Perkins still standing there, waiting for him.

The gloom of the MLE offices suited her. Perhaps it was the dark uniform robes, or her long dark hair pinned back somewhat tightly to make her pale skin stand out in the gloom. She was tall - tall enough that he could look her in the eye, which was unusual enough without her bright green eyes glinting as they met his.

'So you're at my disposal,' Cal said, and suddenly the darkness of the corridor was rather closer than he'd remembered.

'That's what Mister Brynmor said.' She nodded, stepping closer, and shifted the cardboard box to her other arm as she extended a hand. 'Amanda Perkins.'

'Cal Brynmor.' Cal swallowed, reaching to take the box with some sheepishness. It seemed like such a petty gesture, now. He'd bin the mug once he had the chance, anyway.

'I know.' Her lips twitched. 'I saw your picture on your file.'

He straightened up a little. 'I have a file?'

'It's quite... notable.' Perkins clasped her hands behind her back once they were free, straightening. 'You are an interesting man, sir.'

Cal flinched. 'Don't call me "sir",' he insisted before he could stop himself. If nothing else, she had to be around his age - he thought he dimly recalled a Ravenclaw a year or two above him who looked like her - and that she was probably older just made it disconcerting.

'Calling you "Mister Brynmor" would be odd when dealing with your father,' Perkins pointed out.

'Then call me Cal.' He scowled. 'Just don't think this makes us friends or anything.'

'Of course not. Cal. I'll show you out.' Without missing a beat she gestured down the corridor, and he fell into step behind her, grimacing.

'So you're my father's lap-dog,' he grumbled.

'Your father looked through the Enforcer ranks for an aide from a good family who he thought had the skill-set he required. I had an interview and was selected,' Perkins told him smoothly.

'A good family. You mean a Death Eater family.'

Perkins' expression didn't change. 'My family are pure-blooded. That is all it meant. None of them have ever been indicated in any criminal activity, even in breaking the misguided laws of previous administrations many patriots have been pardoned for.'

Patriots. I might go vomit. Cal scowled at the back of her, watching the swishing of her uniform robes around her graceful form. Avoiding being caught was no indication of anything when it came to Death Eaters, anyway. 'So what does being "at my disposal" entail?'

She glanced over her shoulder, and this time her lips twitched as her gaze lingered on him for half a moment. 'Whatever you need it to mean.'

Cal's frown deepened. 'Then what did my father mean?'

Perkins did falter. 'I think right now, just show you out. But I will meet with you every week to make sure your unemployment stipend is received. Your father thought it best I deliver this directly rather than relying on bureaucracy. He'd want me to help you with anything you need at all of these meetings.'

So Thanatos' surprise at his unemployment was a lie. That, at least, was not a surprise.

'And then you report back to him.' Cal skidded to a stop as they finally reached the lift, and he gripped his cardboard box tighter as he pushed the button and turned to face her. 'Fine. You can deliver the money. And then you can go.'

'Really.' Perkins straightened up. 'Because I can arrange meetings with anyone in the Ministry when it comes to finding you new work. Or outside.' She reached into a pocket and pulled out an organiser. 'The directors of all the major Quidditch teams will take an Owl from Supervisor Brynmor's office.'

Cal's breath caught in his throat, before the anger bubbled over it and overcame his shock. 'If my father thinks he can buy my affection with a job -'

'Your father wishes the best for you.' But Perkins hesitated again, her gaze flickering as she watched his reaction. '...and I imagine that this is rather difficult for you.'

He faltered, not having expected the sudden quieting of her voice. 'What?'

'Your girlfriend in Azkaban. Your father being as... infamous as Supervisor Brynmor.' Perkins drew an uncertain breath. 'I joined the Enforcers two years ago, si- Cal. I joined Cornelius Fudge's ministry. Not Pius Thicknesse's.'

The implications hung heavy in the air, and Cal just blinked as she took a step forward, reaching to rest a hand on his forearm. Her hands were warm on his bare skin, and the hairs on the back of his neck stood up again, tingling somewhat more pleasantly this time. 'Let me help you.'

Then the lift declared its arrival with a loud ding, and Cal jerked upright, pulling away.

He didn't look at her as he stormed into the lift, didn't say a word until the cage was pulled shut between them and the lift began to rise. Then he failed to avoid her gaze, those sharp green eyes, and his expression twisted.

'I'll see you next week.'


Chapter 9: The Quick and the Dead
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'I tire of this. Enough is enough.' And then all Tobias could see was bright green, shining light, and all he could hear were his own screams.


Then, darkness as he sat bolt upright in bed, feeling his heart thumping so hard he thought it was going to burst out of his chest. His first breath was torn from his raw throat as his lungs burned for air, and as he tried to swing his legs over the side of the bed he just found himself twisted and entangled in the sheets, which stuck to him from the sweat that slicked his body.


It had taken several months before he could sleep without nightmares reliving Annie's death. And yet, since his exile, they had returned. It didn't make any sense.


But there was little chance to think about this as he scrambled to sit on the edge of the bed, bent over with his head in his hands, fighting for breath and struggling to settle the nausea in his belly.


Somewhat curiously, he never remembered Robb actually saying the Avada Kedavra curse. There was no doubt he had, of course, Annie's body had shown all the signs of it, but Tobias couldn't remember it. Just those cruel, dismissive words directly before. Like life was an inconvenience.


When the thumping at the door to the flat was heard, he almost fell off the bed in shock. It sounded like this wasn't the first time from the heavy, impatient pounding, and Tobias struggled to get to his feet, feeling his legs shaky underneath him. Perhaps this, rather than his dream, was what had shocked him into awakening.


He fumbled into his dressing gown, struggling to find the light switches as he emerged from his bedroom into the living room, and padded over to the front door. A glance towards Aurora's bedroom confirmed that the door was open and it was empty, but a look at the clock also told him it was just past midnight. His had been an early night. It wasn't so unusual for her to be out late; after all, she actually knew people in the city. The only person he really knew other than her was Dimitri.


One of these days, when he was a bit more confident in his Russian, he'd take the man up on his offer to go out. As it was, they had just occasionally enjoyed a beer together, and though Dimitri had always been perfectly earnest in attempting to help them both, it was clear that the troubles in Britain were not impacting a great deal on his personal life, nor really should they be.


But it wouldn't be Dimitri at the door now. His was an entirely different impatient hammering, and Tobias couldn't help but roll his eyes at the notion that he could recognise it. And Aurora had a key. So what was this?


He rubbed the sleep from his eyes as he swung the door open, and started to see two tall, dark-robed figures there. Instinct had him panic for half a moment before he realised they weren't wearing masks, and that Death Eaters probably wouldn't have knocked.


They also didn't have much reason to come after him anymore. Clint had been forcefully deported.


'Mister Grey? We are from the International Magic Consulate.' Their English was heavily accented, but he didn't recognise either of them, nor could he guess what branch of the department they were from.


'You are to come with us,' the other said, rather more smoothly.


Tobias frowned. 'The Consulate? What do you want with me at midnight?'


'We do not have time to debate this,' the second one continued. 'You have two minutes to get dressed and come with us.'




'Or we will take you with us,' the first concluded.


He straightened. '...I'm going to need some identification,' he said.


'The identification is that we got in here,' the second one insisted, but the first sighed and pulled a roll of parchment out of his robes, handing it over.


Tobias opened it only to helpfully find it written in Russian; there was, however, the name and seal of the Consulate clearly stamped across it.


For whatever that was worth.


He passed it back, and gave a polite smile he didn't feel. 'Just wait out here a moment. I'll be right out.'


He practically ran to the bedroom once the door was closed in their faces, yanking on clothes in a haphazard manner. Dark-clad officials in the middle of the night? This went beyond suspicious, and Tobias would be damned if he was just going to go along without concern.


But that meant, if they were Death Eaters, then none of this building was secure.


He went to the bedroom window, pulling it more open to allow in more of the warm air of the Russian summer. He hadn't paid much attention to the surrounding buildings before. That was clearly a mistake.


One he intended to rectify.


Theirs was a tall building. Taller than the ones around it, in fact, he noticed with a start. And the one across the road was just a few storeys lower than his room, making it perhaps a fifteen-yard distance and only a slight drop. He didn't have a broom to fly across, but he did have an 'O' in his Transfiguration NEWT.


Tobias Grey had 'O's in everything.


Partial self-Transfiguration. Enough to glide across the distance and drop enough to land smoothly on the opposite building. Discreet, this time of night. The only problem was that the requisite wing-span to glide across would either have to be of articulated wings he could retract to get out of the window, or he'd have to pop the Transfiguration in mid-air...


Then there was a thump from the door, and this time it wasn't a knock - it was the definite sound of a door being blown inwards, crashing off its hinges.


They'd come for him. There was no time for articulated wings.


Tobias bolted to the opposite wall to the window, putting his back to it, and raised his wand. He would only have half a moment to pull this off; if he failed he'd go plummeting to his death, so he ran very firmly through the incantations in his head. And still, falling would be better than what the Death Eaters would bring.


He broke into a sprint just as the bedroom door crashed open, went to hurl himself out of the window like a javelin just as a spell whipped through the air-


-and fell to the carpeted floor like a log as the spell from the black-robed man's wand hit him, knocking him to the ground, and sending him off into all-too-familiar darkness.




It hurt to move.


This wasn't the first time that had happened. All in all, Tobias was uncomfortably familiar with pain. From what he'd suffered at Idaeus Robb's hands on the night of Annie's death to fighting the Death Eater on the night of the fall of the Ministry, he had suffered his fair share of pain. He'd suffered the Cruciatus.


One thing he had been taught by Sergeant Colquhoun, his superior and mentor at the MLE, however, had been that pain meant he was still alive.


Unfortunately, that meant he was alive and in the hands of the Death Eaters.


So move Tobias did, sitting bolt upright and opening his eyes, his hand reaching desperately for where instinct told him his wand would be, at his belt, even though sense told him that was impossible.


But it was there, in his pocket, and it was in his hand in an instance, brought up to bear on his surroundings...


'Stop!'


Then a bubble of a spell erupted around him, one his tired and pained brain only vaguely recognised as a magical containment charm - enough to stop spells going in or out but not impeding him, and finally Tobias stared at his surroundings.


He was lying - or, now, sitting - on a table, which was never a bad start. Except it was a table in a fairly large room he dimly recognised as one of the conference rooms in the International Magical Consulate, and whilst the two dark-robed men were there, so was Aurora - sitting in a chair with a cup of coffee, no less - Dimitri, and Director Sergeyev. Tobias was really beginning to feel for the poor man who pulled the graveyard shifts around here.


And, finally, seated at the far end of the table, hands flat down on the surface, was a man it took Tobias a moment to recognise, and immediately felt ashamed for his poor memory. He should, of course, remember someone who had been so willing to put four rowdy teenagers under his roof for several summers, had been happy to provide equipment and expertise on their camping trips in the Peak District or their perusing of pubs in Derbyshire, had looked after them at the Quidditch World Cup. His best friend's foster-father. William Rayner.


'Sir?' Tobias squinted at him in confusion, just in time for his vision to swim before his eyes at his sudden exertion, and he gave a groan before slouching.


Director Sergeyev flicked his wand impatiently, and the magical barrier subsided. 'Thank you, Mister Grey. I apologise for startling you.'


'Startling me?' Tobias lowered his wand and lifted his hand to his temple. 'Why was I just kidnapped -'


'You were breaking out of the quarters. In strict violation of your terms of asylum,' one of the two dark-clad men by the door said, in something of a sulk.


Dimitri leaned forwards. He looked tired and worn but somewhere, bubbling under the surface of his usual good-humoured demeanour, there seemed to be genuine aggravation. 'And so you thought to attack our guest?'


The bigger of the two men, the one who seemed to speak the best English, glared at Dimitri. 'With respect, Administrator, we were acting on the orders of Director Sergeyev -'


'Your instructions were to bring Mister Grey here to discuss this matter.' Sergeyev sat down with an expression of discontent. 'Not hex him into unconsciousness and drag him here by the ankles.'


'I thought you were Death Eaters,' Tobias managed to explain at last, rather irately. 'You knocked on my door in the middle of the night, demanded I come with you -'


'You were given papers,' the big man said with a frown.


'In Russian!'


'We are Russian Immigration Control!' He threw his hands in the air. 'What were you wanting us to do?'


'Be polite?'


The Controller scowled. 'You determine someone is not one of your Dark Wizards by that they are polite? It is no wonder you British were conque-'


'That's enough.' Sergeyev's voice was irritated, but quiet. 'We will discuss this issue of protocol later. For now, Mister Grey, I apologise. But we have brought you here to discuss the matter of our latest political refugee.'


'Mister Rayner.' Tobias stared at Will. The man looked older than he had the last time they'd seen, finally showing the march towards fifty he had to be on. He was still fit, though his hair was receding and black was becoming good friends with grey around his temples. His expression just showed mild curiosity, which Tobias found odd - but then, the man was an Unspeakable. What did he expect?


'Allegedly so. He says he has fled Britain and came here because he heard you were in the country.' Sergeyev grimaced. 'Ms Marlowe has been able to confirm everything official he has said but his identity is still unproven.'


'I thought you might be able to interrogate me more satisfyingly,' Will said, lifting his hands to shrug - and that simple movement had the two Controllers by the door flinching towards their wands. Will just grinned when he saw this.


'Oh.' Tobias swung his legs over the table, rubbing his pounding temples. 'Uh, I guess, yes.' Thought was difficult, but he didn't want to leave his friend's foster-father under suspicion overnight just because he was suffering a headache. Even if it was from a not-insignificant hexing.


'We, er... last summer. A load of us - Cal's friends - stayed at your house and went camping. Who were we?'


'Yourself, Cal, of course, and Tanith Cole.' Will said all of this promptly, but then shrugged. 'Gabriel Doyle couldn't make it. That's not much of a challenge, since the three of you ran into Death Eater activity on the moor and so there was an official report. Where Gabriel Doyle was a notable omission. And if I were impersonating Will Rayner that kind of reading is exactly what I'd cover.'


Tobias blinked. 'Uh. I guess so. What's the name of the pub near your house?'


'There are four pubs in Kittering,' Will replied instantly. 'The Rose and Crown, the Steamer, the Wellington, and the White Horse. You all enjoyed the White Horse. Better, more esoteric, Mister Grey, but hardly conclusive.'


'Wait, is he now deciding when we have conclusively proven that it is him?' Dimitri wondered aloud.


Will shrugged again. 'I just want, when it's proven that I'm me, for it to be beyond a shadow of a doubt. I don't want suspicion hanging over me. Life's hard enough. Next, please, Mister Grey.'


Tobias groaned, rubbing his temples again, and thinking. This had to be something obscure, something personable. He briefly considered asking him what colour the curtains in the front room of his home were, but again, that could have been researched. It had to be something personal - and yet if it was too clearly personal then that would have been looked for. It had to be something casually shared, and yet important and...


...a small memory sparked in Tobias' head, and the sensation was like a bolt of clarity through crowds. He straightened up, and fixed Will with a ghost of a smile. 'Which muppet played Scrooge in The Muppet Christmas Carol?'


'What?' Aurora looked like she couldn't hold back this outburst as Will's head tilted back and he roared with laughter in a way so reminiscent of Cal that it warmed Tobias' heart - for the memory of his friend, and for the reminder that he might have the blood of Thanatos Byrnmor in his veins but this honest man was the one who'd raised him.


'That's a trick question.' Will rubbed an eye, chuckling to himself. 'No muppet played Scrooge. Michael Caine played Scrooge.'


'I'll have to take your word for it,' Tobias said with a grin. 'Cal showed it to me three years ago when I was reading the Dickens book and he insisted he had an excellent movie version of the story. I was very confused at all the puppets. But I remembered Scrooge was human.' He straightened up. 'And I remembered Cal saying you two watching that was a Christmas tradition.'


'True enough,' Will said, and Tobias looked over at Director Sergeyev.


'I'm as confident as I can be that this man is William Rayner, an Unspeakable of the Ministry of Magic.'


Sergeyev nodded, and relaxed, and waved a hand at the two Controllers. He said something in Russian, sounding terse, and neither of them looked especially happy, but they did leave.


Once they were gone, Aurora turned to him with concern. 'What happened to you?'


'I was trying to jump out the window.' Tobias rubbed his forehead with a grimace. 'I was going to transfigure mid-air to glide to the opposite - look, I thought they were Death Eaters.'


'Just government officials. Which many say would be worse.' Dimitri grinned, before looking up apologetically at Sergeyev. 'Sorry, Director. You wish to debrief?'


'Yes.' Sergeyev sat down behind the table, looking across at Will. 'You are formally requesting political asylum in Russia?'


'I am,' Will confirmed. 'As I said, I came here because I knew Russia would be friendly to enemies of He Who Must Not Be Named. I am confident the international community has identified Pius Thicknesse as the puppet he is.'


'There is no such proof,' Sergeyev said, in that very particular way politicians did of managing to agree even though he disagreed.


'Then perhaps the fact that I have broken no laws recognised by the international magical community and yet the order was given for my arrest will be sufficient. That should be on matters of public record from the British Ministry. The fact that the murder charge is eighteen years old and against a confirmed dark witch who was trying to kill me at the time when I'd hunted her down ought to speak for itself.' Will leaned forwards, opening his hands.


Sergeyev looked down at his notes, and scribbled something down. 'All of this will take confirmation,' he said. 'But we have been assessing the asylum process following what has happened in Britain. The entire European magical community has been cooperating in this. I would think that unless you are lying it should pass.' He lifted his head. 'But the details can wait for morning. As an emergency measure, I am satisfied with this story and with Mister Grey vouching for your identity.'


Will gave a small, finally sincere smile. 'Thank you, Director. I'm glad I made the right choice in which country to run to.'


There was a short nod from Sergeyev before he turned to Dimitri. 'Make sure Mister Rayner is comfortable. There should be space in the Ambassadorial quarters.'


Then he left, leaving the room quiet, the silence stark against the harshly bright lighting and the pitch darkness out of the windows.


And the moment the door closed behind Sergeyev, Will leaned forwards. 'You have to help me, Toby,' he said quietly.


Tobias straightened with a start, and felt his temples pounding. 'I have to - what?'


'I had to come somewhere I knew I could get allies. People I knew wouldn't be taking their exile lying down.' Will reached into his jacket to pull out a rolled up paper, which he tossed to Tobias.


He fumbled and caught it, before opening up what turned out to be a leaflet. Emblazoned across the top was the heading 'Fourteen Muggle-Borns Kissed Without Trial', and underneath it the still, presumably Muggle pictures of ten people he presumed to be some of the victims.


'What's this?' Tobias squinted, seeing the date was only yesterday.


'This was written by Percival McGowan, the editor of the -'


'Of the Clarion, yes. I've met Val.' Tobias frowned, remembering the man not much older than him who had nevertheless defied the Ministry during the worst days of the Daily Prophet's pandering to the government. The Clarion had never enjoyed the scoops or favouritism the Quibbler had come out with, but one or two hard-hitting tales did not, for Tobias, compare to the consistent whittling down of Ministry lies the Clarion had pursued.


Not to mention some sanity and journalistic integrity.


'He's putting this together?'


'The man has contacts,' Will explained. 'And he's as stubborn as a dog with a bone. He's still in Britain, on the run, trying to find every scoop, every little hint of what the administration's doing, and write these up and send them to the masses.'


Aurora leaned forwards. 'That's crazy. They'll kill him.'


'He's already past the point of no return,' Will said with a shrug. 'So he might as well do some good.' He shook his head. 'I had hoped to help him in Britain, but it's just too hot there for me. I don't know how McGowan does it.'


'Then what do you need our help for?' Tobias frowned.


'Production and distribution,' Will said, leaning back in his chair. 'Val can gather knowledge and write it up but he just doesn't have the resources to print hundreds of them and get them to the masses. But we can do that, out here, where we're not being hunted.'


Aurora grimaced. 'Surely that's getting ourselves involved in British politics, and exposing ourselves like this is a violation of our asylum.'


'We can't just do nothing,' Tobias said bluntly. 'Besides, the Russians don't need to know!'


Slowly, all as one turned towards Dimitri, who was stirring his coffee with an innocent expression. He looked up, appearing briefly bemused, before he gave a small smile. 'I have no idea what it is you are talking about,' he said, then he coughed. 'And in Russia, if you fight against dark wizards, we do not deport you. We call you a hero.'


'You're saying people will turn a blind eye?' Tobias asked.


Dimitri shrugged. 'It has happened before.' He looked over at Aurora. 'And you know this, Ms Marlowe. It has happened.'


Aurora leaned back in her chair and sighed, running her hands through her hair. 'I think that it's entirely too late at night for us to be thinking about bringing down yet more dark wizards on our heads,' she said.


Will nodded. 'No. Of course. I am sorry, Ms Marlowe, for bringing this to your door.' He got to his feet, hands opening apologetically. 'We should get some sleep.'


Tobias gave a small snort. 'We can sleep,' he agreed, but then his eyes found Will's.


'But in the morning,' he said quietly, 'We're helping Val McGowan.'





Chapter 10: The Right Place
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'Oh, do brighten up, darling. The world's not ended.'

Tanith could only lift her gaze balefully at Ariane Drake as she slid into the chair in the small teashop, hands wrapped around her steaming mug as if it might hold the solution to all of life's problems.

She had never had high expectations when it came to meeting her two former roommates for a cup of tea. That would be why she'd dodged the invitations for weeks at a time. But she had expected to get beyond a brief greeting before being driven to such frustration.

'What,' she asked waspishly, 'is there to be happy about, exactly.'

'Shortbread!'

This gleeful exclamation came from the modest form of Melanie Larkin as she threw herself down onto the over-stuffed sofa, clutching a teacup and a small plate holding the precious biscuit that had caused her so much happiness.

Ariane gave an indulgent smile which did a good job of making her look as haughty as she was and somewhat more above it all and intelligent than she was. 'Apparently, sweet snacks are a reason to be happy.'

'Have you tried their shortbread? Seriously?' Melanie waggled the plate at Tanith, who just declined with a tight smile.

'But really, Tanith.' Ariane swept her long, gorgeous blonde hair over one shoulder and leaned forwards with a smile so patronising it made even the tea taste sour. 'You shouldn't be looking so miserable.'

Tanith arched an eyebrow at them. 'Really. And why not?'

'I thought you always told me that's not how arguments work?' Melanie asked through a mouthful of shortbread. 'That you have to tell us why rather than us tell you why not?'

Often, Tanith assumed Melanie Larkin to be more stupid than she was. Often, Tanith suspected this was intentional on Melanie's part.

'After all,' Melanie continued. 'You're not dead.'

'No, you're not,' Ariane contributed helpfully. 'And you're not injured, and you're not ill - are you?'

Tanith sighed. 'No,' she said. 'I am not injured, ill, or dead. This is not a séance over tea with my ghost.'

'I did that with my grandmother once,' Melanie mused, but she straightened up before Tanith could peer at her curiously. 'And none of your friends or family are dead, injured, or ill, are they.'

She rolled her shoulders. 'No, but -'

'So what's there to be upset about?' Ariane asked with a small grin.

Tanith drew a deep breath, and leaned forwards. 'For starters,' she said quietly, 'let's consider the fact that the Minister of Magic is dead.'

Melanie shrugged. 'We've got a new one. Did you know him?'

'No, but -'

'Lots of people are dead. You don't see it ruining my day.' Melanie took a large gulp of tea.

No, it'd need to affect you before it could ruin your day, you self-absorbed cow, Tanith thought uncharitably, before she grimaced and straightened. 'Let's also consider a large number of former Death Eaters have been pardoned for their crimes and brought into the government.'

She let her voice drop a good few decibels as she spoke, despite her anger. Because this was a crowded coffee shop, and even though it was off the beaten track, down a quiet corner of Diagon Alley, you never knew who was here. Never knew who was listening.

And it didn't do to complain too loudly about Pius Thicknesse's government.

'At least the war's over,' Melanie pointed out. 'You don't have the risk of being attacked just for walking down the street.'

No, just the risk of being arrested and bundled into prison for walking down the street. Tanith thought it perhaps wiser to not even try voicing this one out loud. She drew a deep breath. 'Then how about the fact that one of my best friends has been thrown into Azkaban, and another can't return to the country or he'll join her?'

The two other women exchanged glances at this, and Tanith's shoulders tensed. There was a reason she had avoided her two Slytherin housemates throughout the weeks since they had left school. They made her feel like she was right back there.

'People don't get thrown into Azkaban for nothing, Tanith,' Ariane said abruptly, waving a hand dismissively. 'And I won't deny that the government are being a bit more forceful, but at least we feel safer!'

Tanith rolled her shoulder. 'I suppose it works out better for you that your father got that big promotion, didn't it,' she said, just short of an angry growl in her voice. Bacchus Drake had never been arrested for Death Eater activity, but she'd seen his file. Seen the suspicions, the surveillance teams placed time after time only for him to slip through the gaps. It hadn't been confirmed, not even in that unofficial way.

At least, until the Death Eaters had got into power and Bacchus Drake had suddenly become ten times more powerful in the Ministry.

Ariane lifted her hands. 'It's good for Daddy. But it doesn't affect me, and my job at Madam Malkin's has remained secure. Even in times of heightened security people still need the perfect robes designed for them.'

'And that's what's important, isn't it.' Tanith scowled. 'What affects you.'

'That's all that's important,' Melanie said, and her voice dropped even though she was by now stirring a sugar lump into her generous cup of tea and trying to look as innocuous as possible. This was, Tanith realised with a start, the larger girl's idea of subtlety.

'We're safer now,' she continued. 'You can walk down the street and not be attacked. If you accept the schemes to move you into a government-grade position, you get paid better.'

'Not everyone has a choice on those,' Tanith commented, remembering how many previously private services had been absorbed by the Ministry. How angry Jennifer Riley had been when her law firm had been absorbed by the MLE, and she was now set to prosecute dissidents who were arrested.

It wasn't like defence lawyers were a part of the process any more anyway.

'But plenty of people do,' Ariane squeaked, not quite as subtly as Melanie, and whatever secret message was coming from the latter it had not reached her best friend. 'And the pay from the Ministry is excellent!'

'And yet Cal's lost his job. Go figure.' Though Tanith would eat her hat if Cal's recent unemployment had come from anywhere other than his father. Especially considering her housemate was now finding himself utterly reliant upon the Ministry, and by extension his father, to be able to eat and pay the rent.

And she didn't like that Perkins woman who seemed set to come around every week.

'Well, his was just a low-level administrator position in a Department that's downsizing,' Ariane said gently. 'And I'm sure he'll be able to find something else, considering his father's influence.'

'He doesn't want his father's -'

'My point,' Melanie interjected, glaring a little at them both. 'Is that things could be a whole lot worse. You still have your job. It's a shame about Lockett, but...'

'But what?' Tanith had to keep the snap out of her voice if she didn't want to be overheard, but there was still anger in her eyes as she leant forwards. 'But that's just as well, she's a Muggle-born anyway?'

Melanie gritted her teeth, and met her gaze. 'But at least it's not you.'

Tanith rolled her eyes, making a small sound of disgust. 'And that's the important thing, isn't it?'

'In this day and age?' Melanie genteelly placed another sugar lump in her tea. 'When such bad things can happen, and can be brought down on yourself and your family if you put a step wrong?' She smiled humourlessly. 'Yes.'

Tanith had known her housemates to be possessing of a rather self-absorbed mercenary streak before. But she had also previously considered them to be too stupid to consider other people.

That Melanie seemed so self-absorbed and yet well-aware of it was disconcerting and rather unwelcome. If nothing else, she had thought better of the other woman.

'Anyway,' Ariane said, interrupting thanks to her finely-tuned senses of being able to tell when matters were tense courtesy of glares and discontented mumbling. 'Why can't Grey come back to the country? Where is he? Transylvania?'

'Russia,' Tanith mumbled.

'What did he do?' Melanie sounded rather more long-suffering in the question.

'Got the Ambassador to Russia deported.' Or that, at least, was what Tanith had heard. Antonius Clint had definitely left Russia in some disgrace, and was definitely influential - or, had been - with the new administration.

'Oh. Well, that's quite impressive. In a very bad sort of way.' Ariane had spoken at first with a surprised smirk, but then, seemingly realising she might be overheard, attempted to mitigate this with the worst effort at subtlety Tanith had ever witnessed.

'He's also been working with Val McGowan.' It didn't seem like this was the sort of thing that she was supposed to be hiding. At the very least, it wasn't secret information, it just hadn't hit much of the public eye.

'Who?' Melanie squinted.

'Former editor of the Clarion.' Tanith waved a hand. 'McGowan's been trying to-' She paused, drew a deep breath, and summoned the company line she'd been fed for the past week. 'He's been trying to get together papers full of dissident propaganda and spread them to the public, but he hasn't been doing a very good job of it. Distribution appears to have been the problem.'

'What's Tobias been doing, then?' Ariane asked, pouring herself a fresh cup of tea lazily.

'We think he's been collating the information and printing the papers.' Tanith couldn't help but sigh at the prospect that Tobias was making things so much worse for himself, with so little success.

Because Val McGowan was, she was convinced, a crackpot. Running amok and stirring up trouble and with very little real plan of action. His revolutionary ideals did not appear to have survived contact with reality, and now he was on the run from people who would kill him if they found him.

And yet, he had little idea of how to be successful at the efforts that would see him murdered.

Tanith was not surprised Tobias was being a rabble-rouser. But it seemed somewhat ineffective. She had seen the sad little pamphlets, with their half-baked information. Being on the run, McGowan clearly couldn't tap half the contacts he wanted to, and so was reliant upon the odd bit of luck, which usually made a headline for his leaflets, and the rest was filled in with wild conjecture or secrets which weren't at all secrets.

When it came to an effort to rile up the populace against the Ministry's administration, and to bring to light every little ugly deed they did, or every victory against their injustices, it was sorely lacking.

'I haven't even heard of these papers,' Ariane said with a dismissive wave of the hand, and Tanith's heart would have sunk if she hadn't considered the other woman to be completely not McGowan's target audience. The daughter of a Death Eater was hardly the kind to listen to anti-Ministry rhetoric. 'That's a shame. Grey was always such a smart boy.'

'He is,' Tanith corrected a little tersely. 'But so long as he's in Russia, he's safe.'

Melanie made a small noise of irritation. 'Officially. Do you think countries won't make back door deals with each other to get trouble-makers silenced or brought back?'

Something twisted in Tanith's gut, but she tilted her head a little. 'I don't think it'll come to that,' she said, and wished she could have argued with the principle rather than just the particular. 'This leaflet isn't a big problem.'

Melanie met her gaze, and there was inexplicably a hint of sympathy in her eyes. 'Let's hope not.'

Ariane clapped her hands together in that little way of hers which made it clear she was bored of the conversation and desired to be the centre of attention as she leaned forwards. 'So, Tanith, how have you been?'

'Me?' Tanith squinted a little suspiciously. 'I've been... fine, I guess.'

'Adapting to your new job? It must be exciting, hunting down dissidents!'

Melanie rolled her eyes as Tanith leaned back, drawing a deep breath. 'I'm not really hunting anyone,' she said, shaking her head. 'They leave that to the more experienced, more proven people. I suppose I'm just an information gatherer.'

So far, she had not been involved in a single arrest of dissidents against the Ministry. So far, she had just collected and collated data, and set forth projections. And though she couldn't deny that she had probably caused the arrest of several people whose endeavours she supported, would even pursue herself if she had the chance, it still beat being the one to Stun them and drag them to Azkaban herself.

'Oh.' Ariane paused, clearly quite stopped in her tracks by how unglamorous Tanith's career was actually proving to be. She took a sip of tea and frowned. 'I thought you studied for a very long time for this?'

You actually think life is going to go on as it ever did, didn't you? That this is just a hiccup, a change in direction, but that the essentials will be much the same as they ever were, don't you? Tanith frowned at her friend - to use the term loosely - before she gave a sigh. Really, in essentials, Ariane's life was not likely set to change under Death Eaters.

'I did study a lot. But I need experience first,' she said, deciding to meet her at her own game.

'Oh, well, that'll just come with time,' Ariane said, waving her hand briefly. 'Though I could have a word with Daddy, see if there are any better jobs going down in the Wizengamot -'

'No!' Tanith tensed, shaking her head at the offer. The idea of working down there, where they judged and sentenced people with the bat of an eye and doomed them without even listening to a word they said, was enough to make her blood run cold. The only place she'd rather be less was Azkaban.

She cleared her throat as Ariane looked startled and a little hurt. 'I mean, well, you don't have to do that. I mean, I'd much rather achieve this myself. Or I could have had my father pull some strings.'

'Hmm.' Ariane looked rather unconvinced, but Tanith supposed this was more likely suspicion at the idea that Daedalus Cole could wield enough political might, these days, to get her ahead in life. It was not unreasonable suspicion.

'And anyway,' Tanith said, setting her teacup down firmly. 'That's my lunch break done with. I should get back into the office.'

Ariane rose as she did, and pulled her into a hug with firm kisses on the cheeks before Tanith could pull away from the taller woman. 'It was wonderful to see you, my dear,' she gushed, and though Tanith doubted she was insincere, it was also hard to be touched when she was like this with everyone. 'We must do this again some time.'

Then she let go, and Tanith turned to Melanie, who was still focused on her shortbread and most decidedly not moving to get up. Melanie just looked up at her and gave a small smile. 'Do stay out of trouble.'

There was a warning there, as well as a wish, and Tanith just gave a small nod before she turned to head for the teashop's door.

In the shop, the outside world seemed less relevant. This was a place that smelled of tea, and biscuits, and was covered in plush furnishings and pictures of pretty landscapes and that sort of soothing, calming scenery.

Stepping out into the bright sunlight did a good job, on the other hand, of exposing such a farce of an escape for what it was. Because the outside world was a cruel place. And she didn't just have to live in it, she had to work in it.

Right now, as a matter of fact.

The Diagon Alley of her memories was long, long gone. No more were there shops of brightly-coloured signs and exciting front windows, no more did wizards wander around this most central home of their kind, relaxed and for once not needing to or wanting to hide their nature.

Shops were closed, or at least had shutters down. Rubbish and debris littered the streets, nobody stopping long enough to tidy up, nobody wanting to go too near the signs of where a building had been damaged. You didn't want to pretend like you disapproved of these disciplinary measures. So witches and wizards hurried to their destination, shoulders stooped, heads bowed.

And above all, you ignored the Wandless.

They didn't bother Tanith. They knew better than to turn their desperate eyes or reaching hands towards a witch in Auror robes. But she saw them up ahead, begging pitifully for even a knut, or bemoaning the state of their lives.

The highest-profile Muggle-borns had gone to Azkaban. But there was no room for all of them if the Ministry wanted to send its worst enemies to the prison too, and it did. If they weren't executed, they wanted them under the tender care of the Dementors. So those Muggle-borns who slipped through the cracks just had their wands taken from them.

Some of them returned to the mundane world. To families and friends, and presumably tried to make their way without qualifications or familiarity, and presumably tried to forget.

Others were either more stubborn or didn't have this flexibility. Children of two Muggle-borns, still not magical by the definitions of the Ministry. Or those without family ties close enough to return to, those who wouldn't even know how to survive. There were plenty of Muggle-borns who had given up on the Muggle world at the age of eleven. When that was a lifetime ago, how were they supposed to survive in that world?

And yet they could not survive in the wizarding world, either. So they begged.

They scraped. And they hoped.

Tanith was glad they avoided her such that she didn't have to look them in the eye. Not for her guilt. But because she could not bring herself to see that much pathetic desperation in another human being when there was nothing she could do.

And she hated that she could see the thin line between pity and disgust.
So she was quick to make her way home to Floo back to the MLE office in Canary Wharf. There would be little for her to deal with that afternoon.

Except that when she found herself in the corridors of her departmental wing, it was not as quiet as she'd expected. Normally the field personnel - the former Death Eaters, and those who had loyally crept their way into being trusted - were in the field, conducting searches she preferred to not think about, and those like her, the mistrusted, did nothing more than put together reports and files to support them.

So, usually, her work was not so unpleasant. Compared to how it could be.

She could tell something was wrong the moment she opened the door to the main office. The pens were not quiet with Aurors - or Detectors, or whatever they were supposed to be these days - hard at work with their heads down. The room was, instead, bustling with activity.

And, at the front of the room, one broad, the other wiry, stood the two men she thought she hated more than anyone else in the world. Thanatos Brynmor. Idaeus Robb.

She really missed the days when she only had to see their faces on the Most Wanted Posters as Sixth and Fifth, respectively.

Brynmor was barking out orders, but he still saw her first, and jerked a finger in her direction. 'Cole! Get over here. We need you.'

The words sent a shiver up her spine, but still Tanith approached, straight-backed and expressionless. 'What brings you down here, sir?'

It was Robb who answered, standing with his arms folded across his chest, watching the hubbub of activity with an impassive gaze. 'We have a lead,' he said smoothly, 'on the McGowan case.'

Disappointment rose in her chest, but not surprise. It was hard to be surprised at the idea that Val McGowan's mad-cap scheme would reach an end eventually. Still, she fixed Robb with a cool look. 'So why are you here, sir?'

Robb rubbed his hands together. 'McGowan has contacts abroad. I am here to see if there are any leads which can help my department.'

'We've found a warehouse in Manchester where they've been hiding out. We've already put up the Displacement Aura. Now the only thing for it's to go in.' Brynmor smiled a smile which was altogether too humorous. 'Since half the department is chasing up the aftermath of the Potter Incursion, we're going to have to take some lower-rated Aurors with us.'

Jacob had been dragged into investigating the Potter Incursion. Tanith thought it likely this was because of his suspected role in charming that raincloud in Yaxley's office. She just wished he'd made it rain acid.

But she'd counted on him being there the first time she got dragged into the field. 'I'm still barely field-rated, sir. Even by old standards.'

'Old standards be damned. I remember what you did to Alfonse Sneddon.' Inexplicably, Brynmor grinned.

Robb sighed dryly. 'Yes, quite. Oh, how we laughed,' he said humourlessly, before turning to his compatriot. 'You had best get this mob under control.' Somehow Robb managed to get away with saying this without being hexed, and indeed did Brynmor just grumble before lifting his hands and bellowing for attention.

And then the briefing began. A warehouse with all of the exits identified. Hopefully their coming had not been anticipated, and so they would close on the location, surround it, and then send in an assault team.

Tanith could only be glad that she was going to remain with the perimeter team until Robb looked straight at her upon this assignment. 'And Cole. I'll be observing for anything related to McGowan's international contacts. So I'll have you with me for the perimeter watch. Just in case you spot anything interesting.'

Aside from the prospect of spending this unpleasant activity so close to Idaeus Robb, Tanith had to accept that it could be worse. It wasn't as if Tobias was going to be in the warehouse, after all.

Her gaze went to the rest of the room. The young and the disloyal, there was not a single happy expression on the faces of the Aurors present. And yet, it was not rebelliousness that ruled, but grim acceptance.

If they could quit, they would have done so. If they could run, they would have done so. But so far none of their consciences had been tried.

And, really, when it came down to a choice between the crackpot Val McGowan and their own lives, their families' lives, it was no contest. Tanith just had to think of little baby Leah to realise that there were few people she would not hex in the face to keep her niece safe.

It didn't take long for them to kit up and mobilise, though Tanith still reached under her desk for her tool belt, the one she didn't normally need to wear; the one stocked to the brim with Peruvian Darkness Powder, Distractors, and all manner of other 'toys' from the Weasley brothers.

They might just keep her, and those she cared about, alive. Even if that turned out to be people on both sides.

They had a Portkey to bypass the Displacement Aura, and deposit them a building away from their target. Then they moved.

Despite the shadow hanging over the entire operation, despite the thumping in her heart and the nausea in her gut Tanith hadn't experienced before any other raid, it was hard to ignore the fact that this was the biggest Auror operation she had ever been a part of. And that it was impressive.

She went to move out into the street just as a heavy hand grabbed her by the elbow, and she looked up at Robb with a curious, somewhat annoyed expression. 'What?' she hissed. 'We have to get into position to observe that alleyway.'

'It's not just that alleyway we need to observe. Think three-dimensionally, Cole. I thought you were intelligent,' Robb retorted, and pointed at a door to, of all places, the warehouse next to their target. 'We're going to need to watch the roof.’

The prospect of watching an exit with Idaeus Robb had been unpleasant enough. The idea of doing it from one of the roofs of this run-down industrial wasteland just made the entire thing reach levels of being nearly unbearable.

So as the rest of the Aurors moved into their positions, the map almost engraved on Tanith's memory, she found herself trotting up a heavy metal staircase towards the roof of the adjacent warehouse.

'It is a shame about your friend, Mister Grey,' Robb then said, and Tanith cursed herself for having fleetingly thought the situation couldn't get any worse.

'What is?' she asked through gritted teeth, wand out, watching the way ahead. She had to force herself to keep her voice low as they went from stairway to stairway, keenly aware of the possibility that their information might be the slightest bit wrong, and that this building might not be entirely abandoned.

'That he has chosen to throw his lot in how he has.'

'I'd call it unsurprising,' Tanith said grimly. 'Death Eaters murdered his father. Death Eaters murdered his girlfriend. He's not in the business of being friendly with them.' She cast a humourless glance over her shoulder at Robb. 'Besides. He's only a half-blood.'

Robb sniffed derisively. 'True enough,' he said, without a hint of irony. 'I suppose it is fortunate for you.'

Tanith almost stumbled on a step. '...why?'

'You wouldn't want to curse any children of your own with a mudblood grandfather. Hardly befitting a daughter of the Cole family.'

The only reason Tanith didn't fall or turn at this could only be explained by her body, recognising the emotional turmoil gripping the brain, deciding that it was going to run entirely on automatically for this. So she kept on walking up the stairs.

Her body did not, however, keep control of her mouth, and her jaw dropped. 'What the hell are you talking about?'

'Teenaged hormones can be responsible for a lot when it comes to ill-advised desire, but they're still best avoiding.' She couldn't see Robb's expression, but there was a hint of taunting humour in his voice. 'His being in exile - and to be arrested should he ever return or be extradited - simply keeps you safer.'

How the hell does he know? What the hell does he know? Tanith had long suspected that more had happened on that night at Anne MacKenzie's house - and before it, and in everything about that grim night - than she had been told. Especially with Cal and Tobias' antagonism directly afterwards. But still she couldn't help but shiver with discomfort.

'Grey is my friend. That's all,' she said, a little dully, automatically.

'Mmm.' Robb didn't sound remotely convinced, but fortuitously didn't have the chance to pursue the matter as they finally reached the door at the top of the stairway to lead them to the warehouse roof.

It was only late summer now, the sun still warm despite the buffeting wind bringing a lot of coolness on it as they emerged onto the gravelled rooftop. Manchester spread out beyond them, first this decrepit industrial park which was all but abandoned, then the more affluent parts and, in the distance, the city centre.

Overall, Tanith thought, McGowan's lot had chosen as good a place as any to hide out. Barring that rather-insurmountable fact that they'd been found.

She padded across the rooftop, wand in hand, Robb in her wake, towards the next warehouse. Crouching low, she reached into a pocket to pull out her Auror-issue pocket-watch. Everyone on the operation had seen their watches synchronised for this operation, the multiple teams represented on individual hands on the watch. Still, every hand was on 'Positioning'. Once they reached the end of that timer, Phase One would begin. The break-in.

The neighbouring warehouse was silent, dark. Tanith knew to not take that too seriously, but it was enough, in the waiting, to have her wondering if they were in the right place. Or if McGowan and his cronies had been somehow tipped off. The Displacement Aura hadn't registered any scrambled disapparitions, but what if they'd been too late?

Inexplicably, she found herself hoping this wasn't the case. Only training could be blamed for this instinct, this Us vs Them mentality. When she wasn't even on the side of 'us'. Not especially.

'Soon,' Robb said, and his voice was actually calming, reassuring. 'You will get used to the waiting.'

She grimaced. 'I don't need tips from you.'

'Because our skills are so very different. Finding the enemy. And hunting them down.' He crouched next to her on the rooftop, expression twisting to a dark smile. 'We work in much the same way.'

It was hard to argue with that, especially when it would likely only come down to nuances of method, and philosophy. And they both regarded themselves as being protectors of a way of life. Just on opposite sides.

She'd thought any Auror who talked about having even a grudging respect for the Death Eaters they fought to be mad. And she was hardly ready to respect Robb and Brynmor, but she was certainly beginning to see how it happened.

'You will be fine,' Robb continued.

'I really don't need encouragement from you,' Tanith muttered.

'No. You don't.' He nodded. 'I've seen how you fight. Your perseverance is astonishing. I thought that you would stay down when we fought at Hogwarts.'

'I'm sorry to disappoint,' she growled venomously.

Robb shook his head. 'On the contrary,' he said, 'I'm impressed.' His pocket-watch came up, twinkling dangerously in the sunlight. 'It begins.'

She looked down at her own to indeed see each team's hand move to Phase 1. Which, for the teams breaking in the front and the back, meant action. But for everyone else, including them, it just meant more waiting.

There was no sound from inside. They would have charmed the warehouse against that. And so for long minutes it still seemed like almost nothing was happening, like they were crouched on a rooftop for no particular reason.

Then the door leading to the target warehouse roof swung open, and a figures emerged. In Muggle clothing, but the outline of a wand in his grip was unmistakable. The side of his face was slick with blood, and gravel flew in the air under his feet as he skidded to a stop upon seeing them.

There was a moment’s hesitation. Then the wizard ran, straight at them, and leapt into the air off the edge of the building.

For several seconds, Tanith thought he’d suicidally hurled himself into thin air to plummet onto the street below where, even if he survived, even if he could walk, he’d get hoovered up by the other Aurors. Then the air danced under his feet, swirling under the incantation of a simple levitation charm, and he kept rising, higher, higher.

So high he flew over their heads and hit the roof of their warehouse some ten yards behind them. And kept running.

'Damn it!' Robb cursed, clenching a fist. 'You go after him, I’ll keep watching in case there are more!’

And send the poor bastard to Azkaban? No, Tanith resolved. There was only one thing for it. She was going to have to pursue them, and then let them take her down. Let them get away.

And take the consequences for that as they came.

She twisted around and to her feet, and broke into a dead sprint almost immediately. The figure wasn't too far away, running across the expansive rooftop. Tanith didn't have any kind of clue about what this warehouse was for, but it didn't have a flat roof, arches running up and down. Enough to have her staggering up an uneven slope only to have to avoid tumbling over the crest and falling.

It wouldn't do to not appear to be chasing. She just didn't have to be able to catch up.

So she ran, but not as hard as she might, and let herself slow on the rises, and took advantage of being out of sight on the dips.

Until she took the next rise to see, unbelievably, her target fall.

Before she could think further, before she could consider doing anything which wouldn't be blatantly letting him go, she was over the crest he'd tumbled down and on top of him.

A blast came shooting from his wand but she spun to the side and it just zipped harmlessly past her shoulder - and instinctively her own came up, light flashing from the tip for an Expelliarmus he was too sluggish to beat to whip his wand from his hand.

And so, as she stood over him, unarmed and on his back and unable to move because there was every likelihood that would lead to just a short, sharp hex from her, Tanith realised two things slowly.

The first was that she had just managed to, by accident and by instinct, capture an enemy of the government that she, although working for, opposed with all her heart.

The second was that the panting form in front of her, red-faced and weary and fighting for his breath, was her former schoolmate Nick Wilson.

He spat on the floor, laying his head back and looking like he might well be making the most of his capture to get a rest. 'Cole. Expected to see a fascist like you in all of this.'

Anger twisted in her gut. 'What the fuck did you have to go fall on your face like that for, Wilson? You never were smart!'

He gave a dark, lopsided smile which held no amusement, only utter disgust. 'Go ahead. Gloat if you want,' he gasped, his voice still ragged with breathlessness. 'But even if you kill me, even if you kill McGowan, our work's going to continue. We're going to take you sons of bitches down.'

And as she began to hear the shouts and footsteps of her backup, the sounds of the warehouse arrests spilling into the street and sounding like the Ministry had been absolutely successful, Tanith could only look at her old classmate and hope, deep down, that he was actually right.


Chapter 11: The Right Time
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‘What is all of this?’ Dimitri walked into the printing press with a dropped jaw. ‘When you were given permission to rent premises in Moscow, we thought it was for more living space so the three of you did not have to be cramped into one suite!’


‘There’s nothing wrong with the suite.’ Tobias’ voice sounded muffled as it drifted to him from behind several pieces of machinery. ‘It’s close, but the three of us can cope.’ He stuck his head out from behind the first of the three magical printing presses that filled the small office space, two of which were right now churning out page after page. ‘Nobody said that this was going to be living space.’

‘But you implied,’ Dimitri said, with impotent disapproval, then he just sighed and wandered over to the nearest of the presses, picking up a page. He looked it over with a small frown. ‘List of the Missing and the Dead. Cheerful!’

‘It’s important.’ Tobias finally emerged from out from behind the one printing press that wasn’t producing any sheets. He gave it an impatient flick of the wand, and it sputtered to life and began to whir away at work. ‘People need to know these things. One of the first steps any totalitarian dictatorship takes in securing its control is clamping down on the circulation of knowledge. Ignorance is their tool.’

‘Does telling the public the name of everyone who has been killed by the government and how it happened inspire them?’

‘It details every injustice. Every wrongful attack. It drives home the mistrust and brings the truth squirming to the light.’ Tobias took the sheet out of his hand, and carefully placed it back on the pile. ‘And since the public have been told a pack of lies about what happened to these people in the first place, it not only pokes holes in the trust in the government, it also pokes holes in the faith in their competence. Not only are they covering up the truth, but they’ve been caught.’

‘And so people begin to see that they can be beaten, yes?’

‘Precisely.’ Tobias gave him a tired smile. In fact, everything about the young man had seemed more tired since the fall of Britain, which Dimitri supposed he should not have been especially surprised about. If Russia had fallen back under the influence of a megalomaniac dark wizard, then he would not exactly have been sleeping well at night.

‘What can I do for you, anyway, Dimitri?’

‘I am only here to make sure you are settling in your new... er, what I thought would be your new housing. I will make sure that the suite is not taken from you.’ Dimitri gave a lopsided smile.

Tobias frowned a hint. ‘It’s not going to be a problem, is it, us renting this space?’ He gave a flick of the wand, and several of the sheets began to fly off the various piles and bind themselves together into a single issue.

‘Oh, no, no. If anyone asks to much I will just tell them that this is housing for, euh, Mister Rayner, or for Ms Marlowe, and that you just did not want all three of you under one roof.’ Dimitri shoved his hands in his pockets. ‘So how is this going? Is it being successful?’

There was a sigh from Tobias. ‘It’s... hard. Don’t get me wrong, Val McGowan’s a courageous genius for what he’s doing, but he shouldn’t still be in Britain. He insists on dealing with this all on his own. He just sends me the information and articles and wants me to arrange and print it. I’m more like a publisher than a contributor.’

‘And distributor!’ Dimitri said. ‘That is all important.’



 


‘Yes...’ Tobias grimaced. ‘But it could be better. We could be getting information from other sources. Sources who might have an easier time getting information out to, say, Moscow, than getting it to someone who’s perpetually on the run in Britain. Sources other than just McGowan’s. We need some real links with the various resistance groups, we can only report so far on what You-Know-Who’s administration are doing - and at least it’s the truth, not propaganda - but I want some stories about people who are striking back.’

‘There was the story of Potter breaking in to your Ministry. I thought that was very good.’ Dimitri smiled toothily.

Seemingly despite himself, Tobias did smile. ‘It was. But then, that was all over the country anyway. We did not report anything new.’ He threw a hand in the air. ‘But we’re doing something. Don’t worry about me bellyaching.’

Dimitri cocked an eyebrow at the turn of phrase, but nodded. ‘You look tired, my friend. You should not be working so hard.’

‘Distribution’s a pain in the arse,’ Tobias grumbled, watching the issues beginning to assemble themselves. ‘Will’s got some contacts in Dover who are trying to get it into Diagon Alley. But all I’ve got are some contacts at Hogwarts - and I think the majority of what I’m sending isn’t getting through. There is our big coup of Saint Mungo’s. One of my fellow prefects from school’s girlfriend is a trainee Healer there. She’s slipping papers in with her.’

‘This sounds very good.’ Dimitri’s shoulders slumped in sympathy. ‘But you do not need to be doing something all the time. You should be relaxing more.’

‘Doing what?’ Tobias scoffed.

Dimitri shrugged. ‘Come out with me some time. I will show you the best bars in Moscow. Drink many things and talk about the old days, yes?’

Tobias’ lips twisted. ‘The old days between us were hardly so friendly.’

‘Then talk about our mutual interests.’ Dimitri tried for a smile. ‘And now that I mention them, have you heard anything from Tanith?’

Tobias’ expression tightened somewhat unwelcomely, and sympathy tugged at him again. ‘No,’ he admitted, voice a little throaty. ‘I mean, she’s high enough profile that I’m sure I’d hear if she was in prison, or dead, or if - if anything happened to her, but I’ve heard nothing.’ He sighed. ‘I suppose she knows nothing about me, either.’

‘I would not be so sure,’ Dimitri said, grinning. ‘If you and this Val McGowan are causing so much trouble then surely she will hear of you! Think of it like that. The more fuss you make, the more she will know you are alright!’

‘Until the Death Eaters catch up with me?’ Tobias asked wryly, but there was a bounce of humour in his eyes. ‘I suppose you’re right.’

The door behind Dimitri slammed open, and before the big Russian could really think too much about it, Tobias’ wand had snapped back up towards the entrance. But by the time Dimitri had turned, Tobias had relaxed at the sight of Will Rayner striding in.

But there was nothing relaxed in the older man’s stride or gaze, and he clutched at a piece of paper with a rather cold expression. ‘We’re in trouble,’ he said, voice thick.

It was hard to not notice the flash of fear in Tobias’ eyes. ‘Trouble?’

‘It’s McGowan.’ Will drew a deep breath. ‘He’s been captured by the Death Eaters. The government caught up with him at last. We don’t know, right now, if he’s alive or dead.’

Tobias stared at him for half a moment before turning on his heel and blurting out a sudden flurry of curse-words which Dimitri made a mental note of adding to his vocabulary for when truly pissed off. ‘Son of a bitch!’ he concluded angrily, throwing his hands in the air. ‘Bastard’s going to hope he’s dead!’

It seemed a bit callous to Dimitri, but Will just nodded. ‘By the time they’re done with him, he will, at least. But I would not be surprised if he made them kill him to bring him down. If he’s dead, they can’t interrogate him.’

Dimitri straightened. ‘If they caught him, are the two of you in danger?’

There was a flicker of hesitation from them both, before Tobias let out a deep breath. ‘No,’ he eventually said firmly. ‘Even if the Death Eaters didn’t know about us, they would know eventually. This has just sped up the timetable.’

‘But what’s it going to do to the paper?’ Will pointed at the nearest pile with a frown. ‘Without McGowan...’

‘McGowan didn’t know anything helpful about our distribution methods. There’ll be nothing he could tell them which would really shoot our circulation in the foot.’ Tobias was pacing by now, hands clasped behind his back, brow furrowed deep in thought.

‘That’s great.’ Will’s voice was flat. ‘So we can circulate blank pages.’

Tobias stopped, looking up at Will with some astonishment. ‘What do you mean?’

Will frowned, and Dimitri blinked at the crossed wires which were apparent. ‘Without McGowan, it doesn’t matter if we can print and get the papers out there, we don’t have a paper.’

Tobias still looked rather nonplussed. ‘You know some of his contacts.’

‘Just because I was one.’ Will winced. ‘I don’t know everyone McGowan knew, he was a newspaper editor for God’s sake.’

Dimitri noted the rather dark, perhaps premature use of the past tense, but thought now not the best time to comment.

‘You still know people. So do I. So must Aurora.’ Tobias drew himself up straight, brow furrowed. ‘And we can get more. McGowan barely got this project off the ground. Just because he’s gone doesn’t mean the entire thing’s going to fold. I’m not going to let it.’

Will drew a deep breath, air whistling between his teeth. ‘I know I came here to get your help, Toby, but I didn’t come here to make you sign up to be Public Enemy Number One.’

‘Two.’ The both of them blinked at Dimitri, who smiled helplessly. ‘I do not think that Grey could make himself more hated than Harry Potter.’

Tobias smirked. ‘See? I’ll be fine.’

Will straightened, looking rather less like a tired old man, and rather more like an irate father. ‘Tobias,’ he began levelly. ‘In between “fine” and “Harry Potter”, there is a whole world of still not bloody fine.’

‘So what do we do, Will? Sit in Russia and wait for the war to be over? So what if I piss them off? We’re in Moscow!’

‘The government might like to tell you that Russia is a place free from dark wizardry, but if it were, then people would have let themselves forget what it’s like to fight it,’ Will thundered. ‘It’s one thing to be printing out these papers. It’s another thing to make yourself bloody Editor-in-Chief of the Midnight bloody Press!’

Inexplicably, Tobias grinned, turning away and heading to his desk, where he picked up a quill. ‘There. You’ve solved our problem. We now have a title.’

‘I would be suggesting you drop the “bloody”,’ Dimitri said, awkward as anyone would be when standing in the middle of an argument which does not really involve them.

Will sighed aggravatedly. ‘Fine. Fine. I will talk to my contacts. I will try to see if we can recreate McGowan’s network. We’ll make more contacts. And we’ll try to bust this whole thing wider and more open than poor Val ever did. The three of us.’ For a hair-raising second, Dimitri thought he meant him, before he remembered Aurora.

The older man shook his head and sighed yet again at the recklessness before him. ‘But what do you intend to do, then, when Death Eaters come for you in the night?’

Tobias straightened up slowly, not looking at either one of them. His gaze went to the window, and the ghost of a tight, empty smile tugged at his lips. ‘Don’t worry. When it comes to Death Eaters trying to murder people in the night,’ he said, voice harshly quiet, and rolling past his lips with a world of memories, ‘I’m an expert.’



 

 



 


------------



 

 



 


‘I didn’t think you were supposed to be my secretary.’ Cal frowned at Perkins as he looked over the several letters she had deposited on his coffee table.

‘I’m not,’ came the slightly testy reply from the young Enforcer. ‘It was nevertheless your father’s wish that I help you out wherever I can. Finding a job strikes me as a good way of doing this.’

‘So you’re not my secretary. You’re my babysitter.’

There was a brief scowl from Perkins at this, and she pushed letters away, straightening up. ‘Fine. Then I won’t help you with your application to the Tutshill Tornadoes as a trainee assistant physical trainer.’

Cal got to his feet, assuming a smirk of epically smug proportions as he sauntered over to the kitchen unit. ‘That’s fine, then. You don’t get a beer. I’m pretty sure my Quidditch record will be enough for me to get in for interview without my help.’

‘I shouldn’t have a beer anyway, I’m on duty,’ Perkins corrected, stacking the letters.

‘Oh.’ Cal’s smirk turned rather evilly impish. ‘Do you want one, then?’ he asked, waggling a bottle fresh from the fridge at her, intending on extracting as much satisfaction as possible from her thwarted temptation.

Then she smiled with her own hint of victory. ‘Absolutely.’ Her grin broadened at his sudden surprise. ‘I said I shouldn’t. That doesn’t mean I won’t. Besides, you’re the last thing on my schedule today.’

‘So I’m so unworthy of your attention that you don’t need a clear head?’ Nevertheless he pulled a second bottle out of the rather bare fridge - aside from milk for tea and some cheese that had been there for far too long, the considerably lighter beer box was the only thing inside - and cracked them both open.

‘No, you’re just so maddening that I’m going to need to drink to get through this.’ She gave a short, prim nod as he passed her the beer, but she drank from the bottle with a practiced air which belied his assumption she was more of a girl for a white wine spritzer.

‘Thank you,’ Cal said, his smirk remaining as he flopped onto the sofa next to her. ‘So don’t you do patrols and all that?’ he asked, taking a swig of the beer.

‘There are other jobs in the MLE, you know.’

‘And yours is to do my paperwork?’

‘Apparently.’ Her eyes followed him as she took a sip. ‘Though I can do more than just paperwork for you.’

There was a pause of half a beat as Cal shifted his weight. ‘What did you have in mind?’ He glanced over at her only very briefly.

‘Helping you get what you want.’

This time their eyes did meet, and Cal couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow with a tense curiosity he wasn’t sure as to the cause of. ‘You mean with my career?’

Perkins’ lips twitched. ‘I mean with what you want.’

Finally, the urge to dispel the moment with a raking smirk proved too overwhelming for Cal to fight, and he snorted gently. ‘I’m not sure you could handle everything that goes on in my head.’

She took another sip of beer, not looking away from him. ‘Do you want to bet?’

His breath caught in his throat, which was perhaps just as well, for in that moment of hesitation the door was kicked open. It was enough for his heart to nearly burst out of his chest, but within seconds he realised this was not some Death Eater raid, but rather a discontented Tanith Cole returning home.

He jumped to his feet guiltily as she stomped in, already yanking off her Auror coat and slinging it on the coat-stand by the door, before she turned with irritation. ‘What’s she doing here?’

Cal slowly realised that Perkins had got to her feet too, but something about Tanith’s tone was enough to have a hint of defensive irritation rise in his gut. ‘Hey, she’s here to help me out, there’s no need for you to be so damn sullen about it.’

‘No. Sullen? Today? Why would I be sullen?’ Tanith glowered at Perkins, who looked a little bashful, before stomping over to the kitchen area and yanking the fridge door open. ‘The beer box is empty.’

‘There’s some in the cupboard,’ Cal told her, putting his own down discreetly.

‘It’ll be warm.’ Tanith wrinkled her nose in disapproval, and her expression didn’t change as she looked at Perkins. ‘No, seriously. What’s she doing here?’

‘I was just leaving. Good afternoon, Detector Cole,’ she said, stacking up her papers quickly.

‘That’s Auror Cole.’ Something else twisted in Tanith’s expression, something almost sardonic in her correction.

Perkins smiled humourlessly. ‘Not according to the paperwork. Good night. And to you, Cal.’

He gave her a small smile he realised dimly was actually apologetic. ‘Yeah. G’night.’ The moment the door was shut behind her, however, he turned to Tanith, who was sniffing Perkins’ abandoned beer experimentally. ‘That was bloody rude.’

‘She’s one of Brynmor’s flunkeys. Colour me not caring. Do you think it would be disgusting if I finished her beer? She only had a bit of it and it’s still cold.’

‘Yes.’ Cal snatched the bottle out of her hand, and took his own swig. ‘You were rude. So, no beer.’

‘Rude.’ Something twitched in Tanith’s expression, and she folded her arms across her chest. ‘What did you do today, Cal?’

He hesitated, realising slowly he’d begun to amble onto dangerous ground. ‘I... slept in, I got some lunch, I tidied up a bit, then Perkins was here for some paperwork...’

‘Mmm. “Paperwork”. Right.’ But he didn’t have a chance to follow up on the accusing sneer in her expression before she straightened up, still almost a foot shorter than him, but this was a limit Tanith had never let stand in her way before. ‘You sat around doing fuck and all. I spent the day doing my damn job, so don’t you bloody well stand in judgement of me for being a bit terse.’

Cal squared his shoulders. ‘What, you’re above reproach? And you are any less of one of my father’s flunkeys right now, Detector? What did you do today, Tanith, process paperwork for fascists? Or did they actually let you be their dog this time?’

It was perhaps dangerous to make this accusation, but the implication that her time was being spent more worthily than his was enough to raise his hackles. It wasn’t that he felt especially defensive of being unemployed, but the fact remained that she was still enforcing the law of a corrupt government. Even if she was trying to mitigate damage, it was hardly a job to be proud of.

But even as her expression twitched, he was saved from a reaction by an abrupt, angry hammering at the front door. They both jumped a little and, with a scowl, Cal tore away to stride over. Expecting Perkins, he shifted his expression into more of a controlled mask, and yanked the door open.

It was not Perkins. It was, in fact, an irate Jennifer Riley, who barely looked at him before her gaze shot past Cal and into the room. ‘Cole.’

Tanith froze, much to Cal’s confusion, and as he stared at her gobsmacked - and was it guilty? - expression, Riley had pushed past him into the room. ‘Cole, you little hypocritical shit!’

For a second Cal thought Riley was going to actually attack, and he reached out swiftly to grabb her by the elbow to keep them at least the length of the coffee table apart. ‘Woah, woah. What the hell’s going on?’

‘So, you two didn’t get as far as “Hi, how was your day”?’ Riley’s lip curled, and she glared at the two bottles of beer on the coffee table. ‘Or was this a little celebration of your successful arrest...’

Tanith, who had fallen rather quiet and gone a little pale, raised her hands slowly. ‘Look, Riley, I didn’t know it was Nick...’

‘Did you even care?’ Riley spat, trying - and failing - to shake off Cal’s iron grip. ‘Or were you just ready to beg for scraps from your master?’

Two comparisons to dogs, however inadvertent, seemed to be enough to galvanise Tanith back into anger, and her cheek twitched. ‘What do you expect me to do, Riley? It was a raid. I was on call, and I went after someone, and it happened to be Nick. I even gave him the chance to get away, but, but...’ But her voice gave out, failing her, irritation dying as quickly as it had bubbled up, and she was just left staring at the table with an expression more lost than Cal was comfortable seeing on the face of Tanith Cole.

‘But what? But you had to look good?’

‘Woah,’ Cal said again, feeling quite useless, and moving to position himself between the two women. ‘Let’s hold on. I don’t know what’s going on here, but if Tanith gets sent on a raid, what do you expect her to do, really? Refuse to go? You know she can’t do that, you know she can’t quit!’

Riley finally yanked her elbow free, but she didn’t go to move, turning her glare on Cal. ‘So that means that all she does should be sit quietly and so prop up the monsters running the Ministry right now? Because to speak out, or to try and move against them, might be dangerous?’ She glowered at Tanith. ‘No shit, Cole! Doing the right thing is hard!’

Tanith took a step back, a mixture of aggravation and confusion in her eyes. ‘What do you want me to do, Riley? Get myself killed?’

‘It would do a damn sight more good than if you stuck around and got good men sent to Azkaban for the Kiss!’

Riley’s words echoed around the small flat, and in the silence that followed, Cal let out a deep breath. ‘Wilson’s been Kissed?’ he asked, something small and hollow in the pit of his stomach. He had been embroiled in a childish rivalry with Nick Wilson, and his best friend Cormac McLaggen, since his first year at Hogwarts. Sometimes he had respected the other as an equal, sometimes he had hated his guts. Either way, he didn’t deserve the Dementor’s Kiss.

‘Not yet.’ Riley inhaled deeply, straightening. ‘But he will be, I bet, the moment he’s done with processing in the MLE HQ. They’re trying to make an example of everyone who was affiliated with Val McGowan. Who, I’m sure you know, has been summarily executed.’ She gave a grimace of a humourless smile. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. “Killed Resisting Arrest”.’

Tanith just nodded numbly. ‘...I heard,’ she muttered, not looking up. ‘I - I’m sorry, Jen, really, I didn’t know it was Nick...’

‘It would have still mattered if it wasn’t Nick,’ Riley said, quieting a little, perhaps at the unprecedented use of her first name, but she seemed no less upset and with no less anger under the surface. ‘But damn it, Cole, you were supposed to be one of the good guys. Just keeping your head down and doing nothing doesn’t make you a good guy, it makes you part of the problem.’

‘Making a stand will just get you killed,’ Cal said, expression aghast.

‘Go tell Harry Potter that,’ Riley snapped, straightening. ‘Oh, wait, you can’t, because he’s in hiding after waltzing into your precious Ministry, freeing a bunch of Muggle-born prisoners, flipping off the Death Eaters, and getting away scott-free!’

‘And now he’s nowhere!’ Tanith burst out, her voice thick with frustration. ‘We haven’t heard a thing from him since because of it! How’s that going to bring down the Death Eaters? What bloody good did he do?’

‘For the Cattermoles, and anyone else who got away? A hell of a lot of good.’ Riley tilted her jaw a little, challengingly. ‘I don’t disagree that one individual can’t bring down this administration, but you know what can? A group of individuals!’

‘Then go do it yourself!’ Tanith said, and it was clear that this was a defensive lashing out - at least to Cal - from the abrupt wave of her arm and the way she looked away a little guiltily afterwards, rather than truly passing on all responsibility.

But Riley evidently did not see this, for she rolled her eyes and tossed her head. ‘Yeah. I should have known. I thought you were in danger of being a government stool-pigeon before Thicknesse took charge. Merlin, I should have realised that this wouldn’t change a damn thing.’ She turned for the door, not giving Cal so much as a second glance. ‘Go rot in hell, you filthy, cowardly hypocrite.’

Cal winced as the door was slammed shut behind her, and rubbed the back of his neck a little sheepishly, his gaze seeking Tanith. She was still standing by the coffee table, face pale, brow furrowed, eyes unfocused. He cleared his throat weekly. ‘So... what the hell happened out there today?’ he asked, rather more gently, but perhaps if he could just seem to be on her side, she might -

Tanith jerked at his voice, startled out of her reverie and straightening up. She looked right at him for half a beat, before tearing towards the door. ‘I’m going out,’ she snarled, tugging her coat off the stand.

‘Wait, Tanith...’

She didn’t look at him as she pulled the door open, just rolled a shoulder, but as she tilted her head he could see the grimace that marred her face. ‘Don’t bother trying to play nice. I’m just a dog, after all, I’ll just bite you.’

Then she was gone, door slammed behind her no more quietly than Riley had done it, leaving Cal on his own with his lingering sense of guilt, his half-finished paperwork, and a flat with no cold beer in it.


Chapter 12: The Looking-Glass
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The pub looked different in daylight. The sun hung heavy and fat in the sky, sending haphazard shadows across the streets as the dying rays hit the London rooftops. The last time she’d seen the place it had been dark, and she had been drunk.


Oh, and not a minion of a totalitarian regime.


It was mercifully quiet as Tanith slunk inside, the heavy wooden door creaking as she let it swing shut behind her. Comfortable wood panelled walls made a pleasant break from the too-trendy establishments she had seen on her walk down; this was rather more reminiscent of better times. The Leaky Cauldron, before Death Eaters had been its main patrons, the White Horse back in Kittering, Cal’s hometown, with all the others.


But she was here to avoid reflecting on both past and present. And it seemed the only place to go.


At this time of day the patrons were just those heading home after a long day of work and stopping off for a drink, but there was a space cleared towards the corner where various bits of electronic equipment were being set up she only dimly identified as speakers and... well, the rest, she didn’t identify at all. Of course. It was the live music night. She’d forgotten about this.


Or had she?


Either way she made her way to the bar, pulling up a stool, and peered curiously across the drinks on display as the bartender arched an eyebrow at her indulgently, still serving some of the other patrons. So she ordered what she thought would be a beer, and sat back to wait.


For what, she wasn’t entirely sure until a figure came ambling into the pub, holding a heavy case she recognised as the same shape Cal’s for his guitar, although this one was sturdier. He was whistling a cheerful, jaunty tune, heading over to the cleared space and setting the case down, before he noticed her.


Surprise clearly flickered about his expression, before he smirked and sauntered over. ‘Didn’t think I’d see you round here again.’


Tanith gave a lazy smile. ‘I didn’t think I’d be around here again.’


‘I guess it wasn’t as bad as either one of us had thought.’ David the Muggle’s toothy grin flickered slightly broader.


Her own smile softened. ‘I guess not.’


He nodded at her glass. ‘What’re you drinking?’


‘Um.’ Tanith looked down at the bottle in front of her. She’d decided to go with a bottle, they seemed safer and cleaner, and more reliable than the dark beers from the pumps whose names would make even wizards think twice. ‘Beer.’ She blinked at the label. ‘Carlsburg. See?’


‘You don’t know your music and it takes you a few seconds to remember Carlsburg. You’re a strange girl.’ He pulled up the stool next to her, gesturing to the bartender, and within a few seconds a glass of coke was on the bar in front of him.


‘None for you?’


‘I’m playing tonight.’ David nodded over towards what was clearly, now, a makeshift stage. ‘You wound me. I thought that’d be why you were here.’


‘It’s why I remembered here?’ She tried for an appeasing smile. ‘So what do you play?’


‘Oh, no.’ David shook his head, putting his glass down. ‘You’re the girl who doesn’t know anything about music. I might have a few hours until my set, but even that’s not long enough.’


Tanith took a swig of her drink, feeling the beer and the man’s easy manner both go a long way to ease the knotting in her gut that had been present for longer than tonight. ‘Is it long enough to get a start?’


David looked apprehensive for a moment. Then he nodded, and began talking.


He was a good talker, she remembered early on. There were some stumbling blocks where he made references she didn’t get, but then he seemed to realise the level of knowledge of his audience, and he slowed it right down. Clearly he loved his subject matter too much to get patronising.


He talked about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and she managed to appear not a complete cretin courtesy of Cal and Nat, and she quickly found herself wishing she hadn’t ignored most of their conversations about music. But David’s love of it clearly went beyond theirs, because he then gave up on explaining everything and dragged her over to the jukebox and laughed at her as she fumbled for the correct change to play the tunes he thought she needed to hear.


And he cursed as the jukebox lacked all the songs he wanted, but this seemed to only speed up the swift journey through music he loved, because then he was playing something rowdier on the jukebox and lamenting the death of someone called Kurt Cobain.


‘...I mean, you get your conspiracy theorists who think it was murder, and then you get your naive kids who think he martyred himself or something because he couldn’t cope with making sackloads of cash, but I just think he was a really ill guy. Kinda sad, really, that so many brilliant people have some serious problems, and that’s part of why they’re brilliant... but, really, the whole thing might have been much clearer if the fucking police hadn’t taken, like, a month to check the prints on the shotgun...’


It was probably best to not tell him what she did for a living. Even the equivalent thereof. Besides, she didn’t know enough about Muggle law enforcement to lie about it convincingly, and that would probably just lead to trouble.


But before too long there were four grubby men setting up at the stage with their instruments and David stopped playing tunes on the jukebox, and got her to sit down with a fresh beer. In between the songs of the set he talked about the tunes, and how he thought the drummer wasn’t very good which was a disaster because a drummer was the backbone of the band, but during the tunes he just listened.


Then when they were done, when the clapping had stopped and the band were clearing off the stage, he gave her a grin and a wink and got up. ‘I’ll try to break a leg,’ he assured her.


She thought it best to not voice her confusion to such a bizarre statement, and just settled down to listen.


He was quieter than the other band. Which, in all honesty, she preferred. And more talkative; he started out going right into a rather jovial song that had her unconsciously drumming along to the beat, before launching into a cheerful welcome and good evening to all attending. He bantered with the crowd, said he’d take a request, soundly - but pleasantly - mocked the choice of a young man in the audience, before playing a song she actually recognised from Cal’s music, though she’d never remember the name or the artist.


He played maybe half a dozen songs in total. It was enough that Tanith was confident her desire for a distraction was working; it was hard to dwell on her choices or her life with this music, with his enthusiasm just filling the room.


The second to last song was something exuberant that got the whole crowd in the audience riled up, and so she could barely understand when he settled them down for the final one, sat back down on the stool, and began the last song with nothing but some strumming.


It was slow, it was deep, his voice was gentler and more melodic and altogether richer, and as she watched him, and the reactions of all around, Tanith could not help but wonder how anyone - including herself - could assume Muggles to be inferior.


Some wizards mocked Muggles for finding their magic in the mundane, like music, but there was something altogether more real about this, more real than flashing lights and complicated spells and impressive power. This summoned feelings, feelings just as real as those when she thought of her friends, thought of her family, thought of-


Then on the dying bars of the song his eyes met hers, and thoughts of halfway across the world stayed that far away.


By the time he’d sat back down next to her - after the clapping of the audience, most of whom were by now making ready to move on for the night, and after he’d put away his equipment - there was another band playing, rather less competently she thought, and she was out of beer.


‘That was - good,’ Tanith stumbled, grinning uncertainly at him.


‘I’m glad you liked it,’ David said, before pushing a fresh drink across the table to her. ‘I thought I’d mix up my set. Play some of my better stuff. I’m no Kurt Cobain...’


Probably not a good idea to make a comment about being better due to being not dead, Tanith resolved, but shrugged. ‘I did like it.’


‘Good.’ David nodded and took a sip of his own drink, now finally a beer. ‘So why’re you here?’


It was a blunt question but there was nothing aggressive about his tone, just honesty in his voice and in his brown-eyed gaze. Still she faltered, gulping quickly on her drink. ‘What?’


‘I didn’t think I’d see you around here again. I definitely didn’t think you’d be here on your own. It’s been two months; what’s happened?’ Again, despite the brusqueness, there was actually honest concern in his expression.


Tanith was barely used to her friends being able to show genuine concern behind all of their posturing, let alone someone she’d only met once. ‘I...’ Somehow, lying - despite the fact she’d been trained in it - seemed impossible. ‘I needed to get out.’


‘You don’t mean of the house.’


‘I do. But not just that.’ Tanith grimaced. ‘Is it going to make me seem crazy if I say there are some things I can’t talk about?’


David snorted. ‘No offence, Tanith, but I’ve spoken to you twice and it’s pretty clear you’re not normal.’ As indignation tugged at her expression, he lifted his hands. ‘I don’t mean badly. I don’t mean crazy. But you didn’t know the Beatles sang Yellow Submarine. You’d never heard of Kurt Cobain. That’s not sheltered boarding school, that’s like you grew up under a rock.’


Tanith winced, remembering the various consequences for breaking the Statute of Magical Secrecy. And then she remembered who enforced that these days. ‘Sort of. There was a boarding school.’


‘Then it’s okay if you can’t talk about the rock.’ He definitely looked rather confused, and a little curious, but nodded. ‘If you needed to be somewhere not under the rock, and talk to someone who’s not a rock-dweller, then, well, I’ll try to figure it out.’


Her shoulders sagged. ‘Thanks.’ Dimly she realised this was why she was here. Not just because this was the only place she knew to visit for a distraction, but because this was the first person in a long time she’d found conversation with to be so... easy. So without pressure.


‘I work for some... not good people,’ she began falteringly, looking down at her bottle. ‘It wasn’t bad when I started, but it’s all changed. And I can’t leave.’


His expression settled into a rather more serious one. ‘Is there someone you can tell? Someone in authority you can report it to?’


Tanith gave a sober laugh. ‘They are the people in authority. There’s nobody I can tell, and I can’t leave. So I’ve been trying to make things... not so bad. Trying to do what good where I can, or at least minimise the harm.’


‘That sounds reasonable,’ David agreed slowly, nodding.


‘Only I’ve really fucked up.’ She was a little bit more drunk than she’d thought, Tanith realised with a start. ‘Instead of making things better I’ve made things worse. In doing my job I’ve got someone in trouble, real trouble, and this wasn’t what - I got into this job to make things better.’


‘If it’s hard,’ David said, still speaking slowly, clearly aware he was on unknown territory, ‘then surely you’re not going to get it right all the time?’


‘I don’t think I’ve got it right at all, yet. And this isn’t just a mistake, this is serious. So I just - I work for some utter bastards. At what point am I making the most of a bad situation where I’m trapped, and at what point am I...’


‘Only following orders,’ he finished for her, with an intonation like the phrase ought to be meaningful. ‘And it’ll be bad if you turned around and refused them.’


Tanith drew a deep breath. ‘Really bad. And not just for me.’


David watched her for a moment, then scooted his chair around so he could look at her head-on. ‘I can’t pretend to imagine what’s going on,’ he said, gaze meeting hers. ‘You might actually just be a crazy person. But I don’t think you’re a bad person. Call me naive for trusting my gut instincts.’ He smiled very slightly, and gave a brief wink.


‘You don’t know me.’


‘If you were a bad person you wouldn’t be in here beating yourself up for it,’ he said. ‘If you were a bad person, you wouldn’t care.’


‘It still makes my actions bad, whatever I feel about them.’


‘True.’ David frowned a little. ‘I’m sorry I can’t be much help.’


‘No.’ Tanith shook her head quickly, meeting his gaze falteringly. ‘You’ve - there’s not really anyone I can talk to about this right now who wouldn’t have their own assumptions, or isn’t just as screwed as me. Or might rat me out.’


His frown deepened. ‘Are you in danger?’


All the time. She shook her head. ‘No. Not - not real danger.’


But he didn’t look like he was buying the lie, though, and leaned forwards. ‘Look, if you want some company under that rock...’


‘I have company under the rock.’ She tilted her head very slightly. ‘It’s company and perspective outside of it that I need. It’s - you’ve helped.’


David grimaced. ‘I’ve not really said anything.’


‘The music helped.’ Her gut twisted again, albeit this time in a rather more pleasant way. This was unusual. She was used to tension or intense guilt to accompany it. ‘I liked the last song.’


‘It’s one of my favourites,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t going to play it, but I thought it might be good if you heard it.’


‘It all helped.’ Their eyes met for a long moment, before Tanith tensed and looked down at her watch, grimacing. ‘I should go.’


David nodded quickly, reluctantly. ‘All right. I hope you - I hope you figure this out,’ he said as she got to her feet, pulling her dark Auror’s coat off the back of the chair and slinging it around her.


‘So do I,’ she muttered.


‘You just have to find out what you can get away with. And find out what you can live with yourself for. And do the most good inside of those.’


She winced. ‘Easier said than done.’


‘Then in more practical terms, you get the guy you got into trouble... out of it,’ he said with a shrug.


Tanith paused, one arm in her coat, one out, looking a bit ridiculous but not caring as something slotted into place in her mind, and a slow, determined grin began to tug at the corner of her lips. ‘That,’ she said at last, with not a little satisfaction, ‘is something I think I actually can do.’



--------------




‘What do you want, Cole?’


Riley clearly hadn’t expected to see her down in the bullpen of the Ministerial Prosecution Service wing of the MLE. That she had delivered several thick files, all of which pertained to the Manchester raid, had gone down even worse.


Tanith didn’t let that stop her, though, as she glanced around the office and judged it abandoned enough to talk - or, at least, hiss - freely. She planted her hands on Riley’s desk and leaned down. ‘Nick’s getting transferred at 3 o’ clock sharp.’


Riley froze, the shock evidently both at the news and the source. ‘Why’re you telling me this?’


‘We’ll apparate him to the Azkaban coast, and then he’ll be picked up by Dementors to be transferred to the prison. Once in there he’ll have a week before the Kiss unless an appeal gets through to overturn the judgement.’ Tanith spoke very fast, gaze skittering across the quiet office. It was first thing on a Monday morning. That was enough to get overlooked, for even Death Eaters hated Mondays.


‘That won’t happen.’ Riley’s breath caught. ‘No appeal’s got through unless there were serious family connections. He’s not just a criminal, he’s a Muggle-born - it’s why he went renegade. There’s no way it’ll get overturned.’


Tanith gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘Then you better do something.’


The other woman looked up at her, their eyes meeting tensely. ‘Why are you telling me this?’ she repeated, rather more nervously.


‘I’m going to be on the escort service. There are two other prisoners for transfer, and six Detectors.’


Riley squinted. ‘I didn’t see your name on the records.’


‘That’s because I haven’t been posted to the duty yet. Don’t worry, I will be. That just means you have to worry about five people.’


There was a pause as Riley looked over at the clock on the wall. ‘Then I’d best make the most of the next five and a half hours.’


Tanith nodded curtly and straightened up. ‘I’ll see you later, Jen,’ she murmured, a little tautly and not without guilt.


‘No,’ Jennifer Riley said absently, bowing her head back over the work on her desk as if they’d just had a pleasant chat about the weather, ‘You won’t.’



--------------



‘You want to be where?’


‘On the prisoner escort.’ Tanith shifted her weight uncomfortably as she stood in front of Thanatos Brynmor’s office. ‘Considering this is the last chance at fresh air Nick Wilson is going to get before his brain dribbles out of his ears.’


Supervisor Brynmor narrowed his eyes at her and folded his arms across his chest. ‘That’s either rather bloodthirsty or spectacularly soft for you, Cole.’


‘It’s not soft.’ She drew a deep breath. This was where the bullshit was going to have to be really, really good. ‘We were at school together. He was a Gryffindor, I was a Slytherin. You do the maths, sir.’


‘And to think inter-House rivalry usually gets forgotten once people graduate.’


‘We only left this summer.’ She looked down at him, meeting his gaze warily. ‘And that doesn’t stop him from being a miserable streak of piss, sir.’


Something lit up in Brynmor’s eyes distractedly, and he leaned back, tilting his head a little. ‘Oh?’


‘He was an arrogant bully. The kind who thought might made right but didn’t have the brains to back it up. He gave me and my friends hell, and though we gave it back, I’m not going to shed any tears about him being my catch.’ The reticence in her voice was not hard to fake. The reason for it, however, was.


‘And so, because he was a bully at school, you want to say goodbye to him while he goes off for the Kiss.’ Brynmor leaned forwards, gesturing for a chair opposite her. ‘Sit down.’


She did so, rather stiffly. ‘Can I speak freely, sir?’


He nodded curtly. ‘Of course.’


‘You know I don’t like the policies of this administration. You know this, or you wouldn’t be keeping me on a tight leash.’ Tanith closed her eyes, partly in anticipation of the swell of self-loathing that she knew her subsequent words were going to bring forth. ‘But it is reality.’


Brynmor made a small noise of surprise. ‘It is.’


‘And what you want - what the Minister wants - is ultimately a better world for me. For my family. For my friends - most of them.’ She opened her eyes to see him nodding with approval, and hated herself. ‘So I need to make the most of it. Help pin down the worst opposition. Because the truly violent activists are going to hurt everyone, whether I like them or not. And that needs stopping. Wilson was a part of that, or he was at least riling up those who would.’


‘There are several people in Saint Mungo’s after Potter’s incursion,’ Brynmor said in mild agreement.


‘Exactly.’ Tanith bit her lip. ‘And when the worst of the dissidents are settled, then we can begin to... separate our society properly. Get people like Nat out of Azkaban and back into the Muggle world, and focus on a wizarding world for wizards.’


Brynmor leaned back, clasping his hands in front of him. ‘That’s an interesting perspective,’ he said slowly. ‘I don’t see what it has to do with Wilson.’


‘I don’t like him.’ This, at least, was nothing resembling a lie. She really couldn’t stand Nick Wilson. ‘So the way I see it, if I’m going to have to learn to live with these measures - for the time being, until we no longer need to enforce them - the best way to get used to them is to see them used against someone I think is dangerous, and someone I don’t like.’


He met her gaze, and she met his unwaveringly, trying to keep her expression from being too neutral in the way Altair had always taught her made a bad liar. She had to seem earnest and nervous, not completely deadpan. Then he drew a deep breath, and nodded. ‘All right.’


‘Sir?’


Brynmor waved a hand. ‘All right. You can replace Tirpitz on the escort duty. Get him to Azkaban. Say goodbye. And if you wish, you can attend the Kiss next week.’


She nodded with some apprehension. ‘I’ve never seen it performed.’


‘You should.’ Brynmor looked over at her sharply. ‘If you’re going to send men off to have it done to them, you ought to have some understanding of what it is.’


And if all of this goes wrong, witnessing the consequences of my actions is the least I deserve. She just nodded mutely, weakly, getting to her feet.


‘Alright, Cole.’ He slapped a hand down on the desk lightly. ‘I’ll post up the transfer order. Now get out.’



--------------



It always rained at Azkaban.


She’d only been here once, on one of the training sessions showing her the ropes. Van Roden had apparated with her to the shoreline and then they’d taken a boat across the crashing waves of the sea to the island. It had been cold, and wet, and miserable, but altogether not as terrifying as the stories had suggested without the Dementors.


But with Minister Thicknesse they had returned. And so it was not by boat that they would be going to the prison.


Their team had taken the three prisoner from the holding cells down at Canary Wharf and then escorted them down to the safe apparition spot. As far as routine and risk went this was child’s play. Nick Wilson was the most notorious and dangerous of the three; a man of eighteen newly-graduated from Hogwarts. An attempted escape was not anticipated - or, at least, not a successful one.


Nevertheless, Tirpitz, the grey-haired, slightly mousy and nervous Auror whose spot she had taken had found her and thanked her once he’d learned. Few people were blessed with the confidence of not batting an eyelid when it came to an Azkaban trip.


The others were all older than her, more veteran than her, but she knew from the files that they were all inconsequential. More important Death Eaters had more important work to do; more renowned members of the old administration would not be trusted with the transferring of enemies of the state. And all they wanted, clearly, was to get in and get out.


Tanith did her best to ignore the sea-spray crashing over her. They were high up on the cliffside, the island itself nothing more than a jagged shadow jutting out of the mist and gloom in the distance, but even up here it did not take long to be drenched by the wild and raging fury of the North Sea. Her right hand clutched her wand, and through tension and cold was almost numb. It was with a fumble that she pulled out her pocket watch and blinked through the rain at the time.


Four minutes to three. Almost time.


They were tightly surrounding the three prisoners; two at either side of the group, one at the front, one at the back. Tanith had volunteered for the rear guard. She had no desire to be close to the Dementors if something went wrong.


And if something went right, then, she could cope with being called a poor lookout.


Three minutes to three.


‘Where the hell are they?’ Lackardy, one of the young Death Eaters in the group, said nervously. His voice was a muffled mutter over the roaring of the sea.


Tanith didn’t answer, though she wondered the same thing. The only difference was that Lackardy meant the Dementors.


She wasn’t sure what she was expecting Jennifer Riley to do. She’d actually hoped that by the time she got to the cells, by some miracle Nick Wilson would be gone. But he was not, only glaring at her accusingly and making a few snide comments about how much she had to be enjoying this before Mulready, the ranking Death Eater, a dour, rather slow man who nevertheless had seniority on this assignment, snapped at him to shut up.


Really, against six - or five, not counting herself - enemies, she didn’t know what a legal aide in the MLE was going to do.


So she was too tense and panicked to especially pay attention to the flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye. She assumed it to be a trick of the light and the rain, until she saw it again, along with a flash of green which was too bright to have been some bush swaying in the wind.


But Lackardy seemed to have noticed as well, half-turning with his wand coming up. ‘Did you see -?’


Then a Stun smacked right into his chest from a shape she hadn’t seen a half second before crouching in cover behind one of the nearby rocks, and all hell broke loose.


There were perhaps half a dozen attackers. Tanith took the time to whirl around and count the spells splashing from their surroundings; it was hard to tell if those from one rock were two wizards acting in unison or one just throwing out a lot of firepower. Her fellows, obviously far more panicked and far more fearful, were rather too frantic to take stock of their enemies, as evidenced by the desperate spells that began to fly through the air.


She had to throw herself to one side to avoid a Stun, and it instead hit one of the others in the back, knocking him over as if he were a felled tree. But alive.


It was debatable if all of the attackers - if any of them - knew she was on their side. Or at least not against them. So there was no sense in painting a target of herself.


On her elbows she began to crawl forwards, past the fallen shape of Lackardy, and towards the front where Mulready stood, shooting curses with a skill and speed she wouldn’t have credited the older man with. Then the only other Ministry guard still standing by then dropped from a Full Body-Bind Curse, and Mulready swore, lifting his wand up high.


That was when Nick Wilson, bound by his wrists and ankles and having been unable to do more in the chaos than keep his head down along with his fellow prisoners, bunched his fists together and drove them into the Death Eater’s gut.


Mulready staggered, and Wilson bounded forward as best he could and for a moment Tanith thought that the Muggle-born might have been about to end it. But then the Death Eater’s wand whipped up and Wilson staggered as if punched by an invisible force - just as Mulready’s free hand snatched him by the shirt and pulled him forwards.


Within a second Mulready had Wilson gripped before him as a human shield, wand poking viciously into the soft skin under his jaw. ‘Dissidents! Cease fire or I will kill the prisoner!’ he barked, thick voice rolling across the cliffside.


There was a rumble like distant thunder as the echoes of the fighting died, and then silence fell. Mulready looked down at her, glaring, and jerked his head. ‘Get up, Cole, for feck’s sake,’ he spat. ‘I appreciate staying out of danger but don’t be such a fecking pansy.’


Tanith got to her feet ruefully and told herself she didn’t really care what Mulready thought. ‘There’s a lot of them, boss,’ she said as she moved over to his side.


‘I know. But the Dementors’ll be here soon,’ Mulready muttered, before drawing a deep breath. ‘How ‘bout you show yourselves, cowards?’


There was some movement from the large rocks around them before, finally, a few figures emerged. Only five, leading Tanith to suspect she’d been underestimating Riley’s skill as the other woman came out from behind the rock that had been throwing out the most spells, making her the nearest of the attackers.


But she recognised them all. Cormac McLaggen, Tom Everard, Percival Anderson, and others. Schoolmates from Hogwarts. Some renegades. All friends of Nick Wilson and Jennifer Riley.


‘If you don’t want to join your mate,’ Mulready growled, eyes locking on McLaggen in a mistaken assumption of the beefy young man’s size denoting leadership, ‘then you’ll scarper. Or the Dementors will have you in a cell. I guaran-fucking-tee it.’


Tanith spared a glance over her shoulder towards Azkaban, and her breath caught in her throat as, indeed, two dark shadowy shapes could just about be seen growing larger and larger in the sky from the island prison.


They had minutes, at best.


‘We’re not letting you go with him.’ This was Riley, whose wand was pointed levelly at Mulready but whose eyes were locked unwaveringly on Wilson. There was a tension in the young witch’s voice that sent a shiver up Tanith’s spine, and yet again she was reminded that Jen Riley had been Annie MacKenzie’s best friend.


She’d already lost one of the most important people in the world to her. She wasn’t about to lose a second.


‘You don’t have a choice,’ Mulready sneered in response. ‘I can think of a slicing charm and rip his throat out before you could even think of hitting me. And you bloody well know it. I so much as see a wand twitch and I’ll -’


Then he jerked, a brief, strangled noise escaping his lips as a word was caught in his throat. His grip on Wilson loosened enough that the man shook him off desperately, but immediately Mulready swayed, then slumped to the floor with a thump, as stiff as anyone who’d been hit with a textbook Stun.


Riley looked over at Tanith, who was lowering her wand. ‘Took you long enough,’ she said wryly.


Tanith let out a deep breath. ‘He’ll need his memory altered.’


‘I’ll get to it,’ Tom Everard said, jumping over Lackardy’s prone form and moving over to the lead Death Eater. ‘He didn’t see you, it’ll be really easy to just confuse him on what direction the spell came from. I’ll implant a suspicion that there was someone else hiding and let him reach his own conclusions.’


‘It’s not necessarily required, though.’ Riley wandered over to Tanith, gaze searching. ‘You could come with us.’


Tanith frowned. ‘Come with you?’


‘Er... hate to break up the discussion, but those Dementors are going to be here in a moment!’ McLaggen barked, halfway through severing the bonds on the three prisoners. Nick Wilson was, that moment, giving his best friend a toothy grin and a backslap as he was freed.


Riley looked over Tanith’s shoulder, then to McLaggen, then shrugged. ‘We’re going to have to go on the run. Go into hiding. Fight the Death Eaters from the outside. You could come with us, you’d be useful. You know a lot, you’re good in a fight.’


She hesitated, temptation tugging at her heart - and then she thought of Cal, of her parents, of her sister, of her little niece. No, Brynmor had made it all too clear what would happen if she tried to run. ‘They’ve got my family,’ she said, voice thick. ‘If I go, they’ll make them pay.’ And with Dad, they just need the faintest excuse to go for him. ‘But I can do something where I am. Get more knowledge to you, undermine them, help where I can, get them from the inside...’


Riley sighed, but there was understanding in her eyes as she nodded. ‘Of course. Thank you, for doing this much. And... I’m sorry.’


Tanith frowned. ‘For what you said before? Don’t be. You weren’t wrong.’


‘Not for that.’ Riley looked over in the direction of the rock she’d been taking cover behind, and frowned. ‘You were right.’


But she said it too loud, and with a slightly too odd inflection for this to have been part of the conversation. Then as Tanith frowned and turned towards where Riley was looking, she felt the familiar thud of a Full Body-Bind curse slam into her, and she couldn’t even totter as impact and the wind did their job of sending her crashing to the floor.


It hurt, landing like that when she couldn’t brace herself, her head at least bent sideways and so not pressed entirely in the rock and dirt. Desperately Tanith tried to talk, but her jaw was locked, and all she could do was make a faint noise of protest.


‘Like I said,’ came Riley’s voice from above. ‘I’m sorry.’ Then the other woman turned, and Tanith could barely see her heading towards her small band, lifting her arms. ‘Alright, guys, we are out of here! Memories are all wiped? Everyone’s all right? Then let’s get the apparition spot off Percival and be gone before the Dementors get here.’


But even as she barked instructions there was the crunching of boots on pebbles, and a shadow fell over Tanith as someone stopped beside her. She couldn’t quite look up to make them out, though, even when she saw the pair of legs crouch down next to her.


The voice that spoke, however, was infinitely familiar to her.


‘Sorry about that. But if you didn’t have a mark on you there’s no way they’d have believed that you went down fighting. I thought you’d forgive me for hitting you before you forgave Riley.’


And then she could see his face as Gabriel Doyle bent down to give her a brief, affectionate kiss on the temple. He looked, if possible, even more dishevelled than he had the last time she’d seen him, on a platform at King’s Cross a lifetime ago. Dark hair dangled into grey eyes, which looked even more cold and detached than ever before, and as if they’d seen a world’s more pain.


But, still, the familiar half-smirk tugged at the corner of his lips.


‘I’ll see you soon, Tanith. I know you’ll be all right. Just stay strong. You’re going to have to.’


Chapter 13: The Dogs of War
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Tobias tossed the paper down, the several sheets thudding as they hit the desk he had set up in their press room, and which Dimitri had helpfully - and mockingly - put the plaque saying ‘Editor-in-Chief’ on. Dimitri himself, along with Will and Aurora, were standing before the desk, watching him for his reactions.

So he felt guilty when he sighed. ‘This isn’t good enough.’

Aurora’s expression twisted, and she turned away, throwing her hands in the air. ‘Oh, for -’

‘It’s not!’ he said. ‘This is the first issue; if it’s wet, nobody is going to take risks to read it or to get us information. This needs to be hard-hitting. This has to be the most damning we can make it. Nobody is expecting anything of us after McGowan’s death - we have to confound all expectations.’

Will scratched the back of his head. ‘I got who I could, lad...’

‘I know, Will, and it’s not your fault.’ Tobias stood, briefly confused on why two wizards with twice his years and experience were deferring to him. ‘There are only so many people coming out of the woodwork to talk to us. This stuff about the murders in Ipswich is great. But it’s not enough.’

Aurora looked like she was going to object again, and Dimitri lifted a hand. ‘Then what is it that would be good enough?’

He sagged, turning back to rest his hands on the desk, looking across the scattered sheets of paper gloomily. It was late at night, maybe a week after McGowan’s death. They had spent their time contacting anyone and everyone they could safely to drum up information for their next release. Plenty of people had gone to ground, but they had found some.

It wasn’t enough.

‘We need to prove we’re ready to take risks, or nobody is going to take them for us. We need to get back some of the people who went when Val died, but there’s only one thing I think is going to persuade everyone.’ He lifted his gaze to them slowly. ‘We need information from inside the Ministry.’

The reaction was neither the impressed surprise, nor the disapproving shock that he had anticipated. Aurora drew a deep breath. ‘I assume you don’t just mean the memos that fly around which any two-bit administrator can help us get a hold of.’

‘No. We need something out of a Department Head’s office. Preferably Yaxley’s.’ Tobias scratched his chin thoughtfully, and was surprised to find stubble there. But then, that was the price for several days of unthinking hard work.

Aurora made a scoffing noise. ‘You do know he’s going to have the most intensive security surrounding his office? What were you planning on doing, eavesdropping his meetings? Monitoring his Floo?’

‘No.’ Yes. Tobias sighed. ‘I don’t know. But if we can get reports right from him -’

‘We can do that.’

Everyone stopped and turned to stare at Will, who gave a slightly self-conscious smile. ‘We can do that,’ he repeated.

Aurora folded her arms across her chest. ‘Yaxley’s office is going to have the highest security measures in place in the entire Ministry - except for Thicknesse’s. What do you think we’re going to sneak in there?’

‘Surveillance enchantments neither he nor the people responsible for his security have thought of.’ Will shrugged. ‘I was an Unspeakable.’

Tobias frowned. ‘They’ve taken the Department of Mysteries; they’re going to know everything you know...’

‘Not when I know that everyone on my team is either dead or accounted for and I destroyed the records before leaving exactly so I could use this research. Or, at least, so it couldn’t be used against me.’ The older man shook his head. ‘I used to work in information gathering. This was what I did.’

Aurora let out a deep, tense breath. ‘What do you have?’

‘We were working on enchanting coals to go in Floo networks. These could pipe all messages passed through to a Floo point of our choice, so we could monitor all communication and travel. I can make one in a week, maybe two. Because they piggy-back the existing Floo connection, they just break off partway through, they avoid notice. It’s not opening any new Floo connections to pipe the information back to us, so it goes undetected against all current standard security precautions.’ Will spoke slowly, but easily, as if this was the simplest thing in the world and not state-of-the-art magic.

Tobias nodded, brow furrowed still, gaze fixed on the desk. ‘We can do that. Pipe the information back to us. Get everything in Yaxley’s office, maybe someone else’s if we can make two - maybe Brynmor’s.’ Will flinched at the mention of Brynmor, but he nodded.

‘And how do we get those coals in there?’ Aurora looked between them. ‘I hate to be the naysayer here, but these are going to need to be planted in the fireplace, correct? That’s risky, at best, even to someone who’s got a reason to wander into the offices of the number one and number two of the Law Enforcement Department.’

‘And we have to get the coals to that person. Anyone with that kind of freedom to come and go is likely under surveillance,’ Will agreed.

Tobias made a small, wry, frustrated noise. ‘The magic of breaking through all the enchantments protecting the most secure office in Britain is easy, but physically walking into that office is the hard part. How ridiculous.’ He pinched the bridge of his nose, thinking.

‘We need someone who works in the department,’ Aurora said simply.

Something cold twisted in Tobias’ gut. ‘...Tanith.’

‘Cole?’ Will straightened, and frowned. ‘She’s still in the department, by all accounts. But she’s going to be on the list of people being watched; her owl and Floo at the very least will be supervised. Doubly so because she lives with Cal, and you bet your arse Brynmor’s not going to leave him alone.’

The two exchanged grim glances, neither one of them satisfied with the prospect of whatever Thanatos Brynmor’s intentions were towards his son.

‘Can we get them into the country via a more secure route, and get someone to pass them on to her?’ Aurora wondered.

‘The more links there are in the chain, the more likely it is to go wrong. And if we’re really unlucky, someone’s actually watching their flat and anyone unusual visiting is going to be checked out.’

‘And that’s another person endangered by this, as they’ll have to know what it’s for to tell Tanith what to do...’ Tobias straightened and turned, breaking into an agitated pace. He had never realised he did this while thinking frustratedly until Tanith had mocked him for it, he remembered wryly. ‘We need to get in touch with her directly.’

‘I can arrange that.’

It was Dimitri’s turn for everyone to turn to look at him dramatically, and the burly Russian grinned toothily, evidently having counted on this. ‘I wanted to make you all do that,’ he confessed sheepishly. ‘But really, I can arrange that. Floo.’

Will squinted. ‘Her Floo’s going to be watched. Anyone coming in is going to be identified. And if it’s from an unknown location they’ll probably detain them. If it’s from Russia, i>definitely detain them.’

‘Not if it is not a direct link from Floo to Floo. You have been studying it in your magic coals; you know that is subtler.’ Dimitri folded his arms in front of him.

‘What do you have in mind, Dimitri?’ Tobias raised an eyebrow.

‘All communications from outside Britain into Britain through Floo will be monitored. Except for embassy connections. No country will stand for their embassies being watched. We can patch a Floo connection to the Russian embassy in London and the authorities will not know.’

‘He’s right, but you bet any connection between the embassy and somewhere in Britain will be noticed, as will anyone physically leaving or trying to apparate or Portkey out of the embassy,’ Aurora said.

‘That is not what I have in mind.’ Dimitri walked over to Tobias’ desk and pulled up the spare chair, turning it to straddle it. ‘We can get the embassy to help us. We open up a Floo communication between us and them. Legitimate. Unobserved.’

Tobias leaned on the desk. ‘Then what?’

‘Sometimes there are... how do you say, glitches? In the Floo. Sometimes the connections briefly go down along to the wrong fireplace. Usually this is not noticed, not even by the people sending or receiving. And it lasts only a fraction of a second before the Floo system corrects it.’ Dimitri drew a deep breath. ‘I think we can fake one. Briefly, to her flat, or somewhere else we need.’

Tobias looked at Will. ‘Would the Floo monitoring pick that up?’

Will shrugged. ‘I don’t know. He’s right, these glitches are commonplace. If it lasts only a second or so, then it might not be picked up, it might not even be cared about. The only concern I have is if someone looks at the records, sees the glitch is coming from Russia or the Russian embassy, and gets suspicious. But they would probably have to look for it, it’s not procedure to record glitches.’

‘That’s not enough time for a message,’ Tobias mused.

Dimitri nodded. ‘But it is enough time for someone to go through.’

‘Oh, no.’ Aurora lifted her hands. ‘I see where this is going. Then how do they get back?’

‘Another glitch, timed, ten minutes later or however long they need,’ Dimitri said. ‘They would have to be standing in the fireplace at the exact moment of the other glitch.’

Aurora turned to Tobias, eyes blazing. ‘This is crazy, and dangerous.’

‘It is.’ He nodded, scratching his chin again. Then he turned to Will and Dimitri. ‘How quickly can you make the coals, and how long will it take you to arrange this with the embassy?’


----------------


‘That’s the last. We should be secure.’ Jennifer Riley lowered her wand, the last visible signs of her spells rippling into nothingness as she turned away from the heavy metal door to the block of flats.

Nick Wilson grunted. ‘But for how long?’

‘My wardings are perfectly fine.’

‘They found us last time.’

Riley narrowed her eyes in the gloom of the dingy corridor. This particularly miserable building in a run-down corner of Hull had been quite a find, inhabited by very few Muggles at all and far from the eyes of the Death Eaters and the Ministry. The twelve of them had systematically cleared the entire building for signs of any magical spying, and it had come to nothing.

Much as she loved her boyfriend, she wasn’t thrilled that he was picking just as she had finished the long and arduous task of securing their new hide-out to voice his discontent.

‘That was bad luck,’ she said. ‘Not my spells. We couldn’t have anticipated the movement of that werewolf pack, or that the Death Eaters would be right behind them.’

Wilson peeled himself from where he was slouched against the wall - and with whatever substances drenched this building, ‘peel’ was not a bad word. He had been right to get them to hide out in and around Muggle society, with which their enemies were unfamiliar, and he took it all for granted so easily. She, however, struggled with how he could be so blasé in the face of the difficulties these people faced. The poverty.

‘They almost got us.’ His voice dropped a little, and nerves could be heard alongside discontent. ‘You say they were lucky - well, so were we.’

She shook her head. ‘I’ve stopped thinking of Doyle’s visions as “luck”.’

He frowned. ‘Then what are they now? Predestination? You honestly think he’s leading us to some greater plan?’

Absent-mindedly she tried the door to the rooftop. It rattled, but remained locked. ‘I don’t know. But I do know that they’re responsible for most of our success so far. I can rely on them. I won’t rely on luck.’ She saw him fold his arms across his chest, knew he was approaching one of his infamous sulks, and stepped forward to rest a hand on his forearm. ‘They got you out.’

He snorted, but there was less of an edge to it. ‘You got me out. Cole got me out.’ It sounded like that admission hurt him.

‘If it hadn’t been for Doyle, I wouldn’t have trusted Cole.’

Wilson blinked. ‘He had a vision?’

‘No. But he told me that all magic would be dead in the world before Tanith Cole would sell us out to Death Eaters.’ Riley gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘He’d given me no reason to doubt him.’

‘He is useful,’ Wilson acknowledged begrudgingly. ‘But he’s still a creepy little -’

‘Nick, we’re long out of school,’ Riley chided. ‘I don’t think you get to use “Slytherin” as an insult any more.’

‘I was going to go with “snake”. Or just “creepy little bugger”. I don’t like the way he looks at... people.’ Wilson glanced away, brow furrowing.

She sort of knew what he meant. Gabriel Doyle’s eyes had always been dark, but when she’d known him at school he’d smirked more, and barely bothered to look people in the eye with his haughty, mysterious demeanour. Nowadays he smiled less, and looked at people. Looked at them hard, like he was looking not through them, but into them, and she couldn’t help but wonder what he saw.

But she didn’t think that was all Wilson was going on about. ‘He’s helping us get through this,’ she said soothingly, ‘and so, some day, it’ll all be over. We won’t have to be on the run any more. We won’t have to hide any more.’

Wilson’s frown just deepened, and her heart sank as she drew back. But, instead of drifting deeper into his brooding, he reached out to grab her by the wrist quickly. ‘I’m sorry.’

Riley blinked. ‘What for?’

‘I ruined your life. You could be at home, safe and sound, with your parents, and your sister, and...’

‘And I’d be living a lie. Forced to play nice, forced to live by their rules.’ Riley shook her head. ‘That’s no life at all. I couldn’t do it; I don’t know how Cole manages to be one of them. And if I hadn’t left... I’d have lost you.’ She stepped in closer, gaze lifting to meet his, and lifted an impulsive hand to play with the hair at the nape of his neck. ‘That would be less than no life at all.’

His expression had softened, but guilt lingered in his bright eyes, and he drew a sharp breath. ‘Jen...’

But she didn’t let him finish, just leaned in to press her lips against his even as he breathed her name against her mouth, and for long, blissful moments the outside world, their lost lives, the pain and the pursuit, all faded away.

Then footsteps echoed up the stairs and they heard a familiar voice clearing their throat. ‘Oh, I...’

Riley closed her eyes and drew back, and heard Wilson mutter venomously. ‘Doyle.’

‘Yeah.’ Gabriel Doyle ran his fingers through his hair. The world turning upside-down couldn’t make the man get his hair long enough to be tied back, or short enough to not be unhelpfully messy. ‘Sorry. They were looking for you downstairs. Wanted to make sure you weren’t entangled with trouble. Instead of, you know, each other. I think we’ve taken all that for granted.’

‘...and are you satisfied it’s safe up here now?’ Wilson let her go to put his hands on his hips.

Doyle shrugged and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. ‘I have better things to do than watch your octopus impression, Wilson. But I thought you might want to know that McLaggan’s back. And he’s got the papers.’

Wilson straightened immediately, all business. ‘Right.’

Riley stepped up. ‘Let’s take a look at -’

‘Oh, no you don’t,’ said Wilson. ‘He and I put the plan together based on the intel. You get to pick over it when we have a full and complete plan. Fresh pair of eyes. That’s how it works. I’ll see you at dinner.’ He looked for a moment like he was going to give her a goodbye kiss, but he instead threw Doyle a surly glance and went for the stairs. His shoulder brushed Doyle’s rather roughly, and he gave a humourless smile. ‘Sorry, Doyle. Just checking if you’re getting any useful visions.’

Doyle lifted a finger to his temple. ‘I’m getting vivid images of you falling down the stairs and breaking your neck. Do they count?’

Riley gave him a disapproving look as Wilson scoffed and disappeared down the stairs, footsteps echoing eventually into nothingness. ‘You don’t have to antagonise him, you know.’

‘He doesn’t have to be an enormous dick, you know.’ He ran his fingers through his hair. ‘The more I get to know you all, the more I realise that I was wholly, one hundred per cent, right about him all along. He really is a meathead.’

‘He’s a good man.’

‘Yeah.’ Doyle rubbed the back of his head. ‘You know he gave me my first ever vision? And you know how they’re triggered by physical contact? Merlin, I wonder how that could have come about.’ He rolled his eyes.

‘School was school. Surely we can leave that all behind us.’ Riley went to go past him, then stopped, hesitating, when she was closer. ‘What was the vision?’

All of a sudden he looked uncertain, shifty, and looked down for a moment. ‘You.’ Then he lifted his gaze, and looked at her like that again. ‘You don’t want to hear it.’

Riley straightened. ‘If it’s about my future -’

‘It already happened.’ Doyle spoke quietly, and in the gloom, his dark eyes seemed even more enveloping. ‘I saw you. At Annie MacKenzie’s funeral. You were wearing a green coat, and Wilson had his arm around you, and you wept on his shoulder as they lowered the casket.’

Her breath caught. ‘You were there,’ she recalled, though it was a strange sensation to be disquieted at the prediction of something that had already happened. Pointing out it wasn’t so mystical as all that still helped.

‘I couldn’t tell you what Sawyer or Everard or even Wilson himself were wearing, but the look on your face that day is going to be with me ‘til the day I die. How you looked up at me -’ His expression had folded by then into one of sympathetic anguish, and he’d half-lifted his hand to her before stopping. She’d barely noticed, entranced by his words, until he jerked back and looked away.

‘Him. How you looked at him,’ he corrected with a frown, then he cleared his throat and when he looked back, he wore a smirk and was just Gabriel Doyle, obnoxious Slytherin, yet again, like a year hadn’t passed and nothing had changed. ‘I’m hungry. I don’t suppose you girls have cooked anything?’

‘Cook it yourself, Doyle,’ she said, shaking her head and starting down the stairs, but he fell into step behind her. She supposed it wasn’t to annoy her so much as he had nothing to do in the stairway himself. ‘We’re not your house elves.’

‘We could get some, you know. I think I’m having a vision where they need freeing and, in their gratitude, decide to cook and clean for the brave resistance fighters...’

‘Are you having any useful visions, Doyle?’ She threw an arch look over her shoulder.

He shrugged. ‘Not since the werewolves. It might be best I don’t have visions. I might be able to control them better, but it’s still going to be something big and dramatic in a person’s future I see, and I’m no better at changing them.’

‘Do you think the future’s immutable, then?’

‘Like I said. It can be done. I don’t know what us following the visions as much as we’ve been doing is going to do to... to them, to my perception, to time. But don’t count on everything remaining stable.’

‘What about this big vision of yours?’ she asked, glancing at him. ‘Can that be changed?’

Doyle’s expression sank, the smirk fading. She wasn’t sure at what point it was that she’d trusted he wasn’t a fraud. She’d agreed to his help on behalf of Wilson and the others, when she’d been helping their resistance group covertly from the Ministry, but they’d kept him under close watch. Within a week he’d had a vision of them conducting a raid on a target they’d never even considered, and from his information the plan had been drawn up like clockwork.

When she’d asked why he was coming to help, he’d just shrugged and said he’d had a vision. As of yet, Gabriel Doyle hadn’t seen fit to tell her what it was. Although Riley’s curiosity was beginning to bubble over, she’d begun to feel bad for asking. It always killed his smiles when she made him think about it.

And yet, anything which could be a threat to her people, she had to follow up on.

‘I don’t know, said Doyle, shoulders sagging. ‘And I don’t even know if I want it to.’


Chapter 14: The Far Side of the World
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It was a Saturday, and Cal had thought Tanith would be pleased when he declared he had two tickets to a Quidditch game. He’d looked rather hurt at the baleful look he’d received in response, which wasn’t so unreasonable, but the last thing on her mind these days was Quidditch.

It would be a distraction, Cal had said. But all Tanith could think was that sitting in the middle of a roaring arena with fans enthused about, of all things, a Quaffle, would feel false. A betrayal.

So she had stayed at home, and as the sun grew fat in the horizon as summer slipped away and the nights came sooner and sooner, she was beginning to wish that she had, at least, tried for a distraction. Her own thoughts had not made fine company.

There had been a debriefing after the attack at Azkaban. Luckily Tom Everard’s confounding of Mulready had done the job, and nobody had suspected her of foul play. She stated she’d hit the deck when the shooting had started, had then fired off a few shots, but been stunned at the same time as the lead Death Eater. Nobody had questioned it enough to find any gaps in the story, and nobody had been suspicious enough to bring out the legilimency or the veritaserum.

Thanatos Brynmor had, however, been watching her ever since. Or perhaps that was her imagination; perhaps she assumed he was suspicious that the prisoner transfer she’d requested to be on was the one which got hit.

But it hadn’t been the last move by Riley’s team. A shipment of potions supplies due at one of the MLE alchemical laboratories in Sussex had been waylaid, and a group of Snatchers days later ambushed and killed in Hampshire. That the second one was Riley’s group had come as a shock to Tanith, but a lone survivor had confirmed it.

They weren’t pulling their blows. And whilst intellectually that discomfitted her, she knew that it was the only way they were realistically going to get out of this alive. Snatchers would never be people like her, people just trying to do their jobs. They were just below people with Dark Marks on their arm for indisputable enemies.

But they had attacked with unerring precision, enough to make someone suspect an informant, but the last two strikes had been so far away from anything she was involved in that nobody could logically try to blame her. The MLE was busy looking for someone else on the inside, even though nobody was linked to all the separate departments.

Tanith was just wondering how effective Gabriel’s time in Rio had been. Had he managed to master his gift enough to give Riley’s resistance team the information they needed? Why had he come back? Why had he got in touch with Jennifer bloody Riley and not her?

Of course, if he had not returned since after Thicknesse’s assuming of power, it was possible he had just been paranoid, and right. But she couldn’t shake the question of if he’d seen something, something that had made him go to Riley...

...or stay away from her.

It was impossible to say, but still the question danced around her mind, whirling until -

The fireplace flickered.

Tanith sat up from where she’d been sprawled out on the sofa, failing to read a book, and squinted at it. It had just been the briefest spark of green, as if a Floo message or arrival was about to start, only to be aborted.

Then, as she drew closer, it burst into shimmering green flame which died as quickly as it had arrived, but in its wake depositing a tall figure in the middle of her living room. She was on her feet within seconds, wand outstretched, poised for action. Then she froze.

It was Tobias.

A million thoughts ran through her head at once, from wondering how he was here and why he was here, to a deluge of memories haranguing her, not least the rather vivid one of their farewell at Hogwarts. But above all, ringing in her head, was one question: Is this really him?

He looked older. More haggard, more tired. The broken nose he’d suffered by means Cal still wouldn’t tell her about remained crooked, and his hair was long, longer than it had ever been, wavy at the neck and dangling across his forehead. These, combined with the several days’ worth of stubble on his chin, made for a rather rugged appearance she didn’t associate with Tobias at all.

But it still looked like him. The lofty height. The casually tidy clothes. The glasses perched on the bridge of his nose - and above all those bright, piercing blue eyes behind them.

Which were, at that moment, locked on her.

She found herself rooted in place until the gaze broke, and he looked down at the watch in his hand. The pocketwatch she’d given him, that gift from a lifetime ago. He pressed the top once, before popping it in his pocket.

Then he straightened up and looked levelly at her again. ‘...Hi.’

It was not the dramatic first words she’d expected out of his mouth. But her own vocabulary was failing her, and before she knew what she was doing she’d dropped her wand and practically vaulted over the coffee table and at him.

He staggered as she threw herself at him, but she could feel the relief as he wrapped his arms around her, returning the hug, and for a few long moments all she could do was bury her face in his shoulder and revel in the feel of him, the smell of him - and for those glorious seconds it was like there was no war, oppression, no strife.

She pulled back far too soon, expression hopelessly confused. ‘What are you doing here? How did you get here?’

‘Best I don’t tell you the “how”,’ Tobias said, wearing one of his crooked smiles. ‘But I don’t have long. Only ten minutes. I... I need your help.’

‘What are you doing? You’ve been in Russia only a matter of months and you’re already one of the most wanted people internationally! But Robb’s been giving up on you since McGowan’s death - you’ve managed to lie low, they’re going to forget about you...’ She found her hands grabbing fistfuls of the front of his robes, a pleading tone creeping into her voice, because although the heat had been dying down for him there was no way he was just here for a social call.

‘I know. I was helping McGowan - you probably know that.’ He shook his head quickly. ‘I’m taking on his work. His paper. His contacts. I can put it together from Moscow, I can gather the information and write the articles and print them off and distribute them. I can get the word out there like nobody else can. I can tell the world the things the Ministry don’t want them to know...’

Of course he could. And of course he would. Although she had breathed sighs of relief as, over the past week, Tobias’ name had been uttered less and less, and other exiles had been mentioned more and more, she’d known this couldn’t be it. If he’d decided to take action, there was no way he was going to stop.

She drew a deep breath, steeling herself. ‘What do you need from me?’

He looked briefly surprised, and she resisted the urge to chastise him, mock him. As if she wouldn’t have known what he wanted. As if she couldn’t read him like a book.

‘We’ve only got so much. We need to hit them hard, really hard, or nobody is going to take us seriously.’ He reached into his pockets and pulled out two lumps of coal.

It wasn’t really the hard-hitting she’d expected.

‘These will securely send to us anything that goes across the Floo fireplace they’re put in. All conversations. All transportation. But we need someone to put them in place.’

Tanith reached out for them. They felt like ordinary lumps of coal. They even left her hands dirty when she turned to set them down on the coffee table. ‘Where do you want them?’

Tobias winced. ‘Brynmor’s office. And... and Yaxley’s.’ He drew a deep breath. ‘If you can’t do it, if it’s too dangerous -’

‘It’ll get done.’ She straightened up, dusting her hands off.

‘I know it’s -’

‘Tobias.’ Tanith turned to him, taking a step closer and looking up to catch his gaze. ‘I’ll get it done.’

He watched her for a long moment, then swallowed and nodded and lowered his head, pulling his watch from out of his pocket. He seemed satisfied with this, putting it back, before he cleared his throat awkwardly. ‘Are you all right? Is Cal all right?’

She nodded. ‘Cal’s coping. He’s clearly finding it hard, but he’s coping. And I’m doing my best to help where I can. You should get in touch with Jen Riley if you can; she’s gone on the run, a whole bunch of them have, and they’re really starting to piss people off out there. They’re doing good.’ She hesitated. ‘Doyle’s with them.’

‘Gabe?’ Tobias blinked. ‘He came back from travelling? I don’t know if I should find that commendable, or stupid.’

‘It’s not like you can comment; you could have stayed out of trouble yourself.’ Something tightened in her throat, and abruptly she was keenly aware that there was a very good chance neither of them were going to see each other again. Either one of them could die - hell, she could get caught and killed for just attempting what he was asking her to do.

‘You know I couldn’t have,’ he said, voice quiet and a little guilty. Impetuously he reached out to grab her hand, and it seemed like the urgency of the situation was not lost on him, either. ‘You have to be careful, Tanith, you understand me? I don’t - I can’t - I don’t know how to manage, being all the way out there, and knowing you’re living like this, knowing you’re in danger, every day.’

‘... all I ever hear about you is if they think they’re closer to catching you.’ Her throat was impossibly dry as she looked up at him, and his bright eyes so intense and piercing that she was astonished she could gather enough of a coherent response to answer him. ‘Every time I hear your name in the office I’m terrified it’s Robb saying they’re bringing you in, or that you’re dead...’

Then his hand was at her cheek, and only then did she realise she was cold, trembling, and when he stepped in closer it was like he was the only thing in the world that was warm. ‘I’ll be fine,’ he whispered, his head bowing to rest his forehead against hers. ‘I’ve got good people with me, smart people, they’ll keep me safe...’

He was close, so close, and although it felt right it was like she was running through darkness without a map and trusting only her instincts. And her instincts had her leaning up, straining on tip-toes to be nearer, and with their lips less than a hair’s breadth apart all she could manage was a breathy whisper of his name.

Then he tensed, and all she knew as he pulled her closer was his lips on hers. The scratch of his stubble on her chin, the musty smell of him. Her handfuls of his robes, his own hold on her tightening before one hand came to bury itself in her hair.

It had been as much of a stumbling, fervent embrace when they had kissed at the doors of Hogwarts, but that had been filled with the grief of the past. This time, the present and the future hung over them like a shroud, darkening everything so much she had to cling to him as if he was the only light left.

And, to her, he was. With him, all the worries and woes of the outside world faded away, and all that was left was them. Peace.

I love you. IloveyouIloveyouIloveyou...

A small whimper of protest escaped her lips as he broke the kiss, but he was still close, just close enough, and his earnest whisper was like a fresh caress. ‘Come with me...’

She shivered again, and almost agreed, almost let her feet carry her to the fireplace to join him. Be whisked away from here, help him in Russia, leave all of this behind. But she gave a faint shake of the head, their noses brushing against each other. ‘I can’t.’ Her voice was pained, hoarse. ‘If I run, especially to you, they’ll hurt my family... and I can’t abandon Cal...’

Dimly, it occurred to her that Cal, locked in an impossible situation she had hardly been sympathetic to, might have invited her to the Quidditch so they could have some time together without the stress and strain. It was hard to concentrate on this fact, but the cogent part of her resolved to make up for this.

They would need each other.

‘I know,’ Tobias groaned, sounding like he hadn’t expected his offer to be expected. ‘But you’ve got to stay safe, you hear me, you’ve got to...’

But his voice trailed off, and he gave up on words and instead poured his earnestness into another kiss, this one just as fervent as the last, and she pulled herself as close to him as she could, hiding from the world in his embrace.

Then she heard the beep from his pocket that had to be his watch, and before he could step away, break the moment, she let him go. He pulled back, his hand coming from her hair to his pocket, and he blinked owlishly. ‘That’s... that’s ten seconds.’

It would be less by now, of course, and all she could do was nod mutely, forcing her hands to let go of his robes, letting him step back. He backed off into the fireplace, and for several long seconds they just stood there, in silence, waiting.

He was frowning, staring at her, as if struggling with something, but she found herself only able to watch him, soak in every inch of him before her, knowing this might be the last time she saw him in the flesh. There was a flicker of green at his boots, and he looked down very briefly before intense blue eyes found hers, and the Floo began to flare around him.

‘I love you.’ He almost tripped over the words, but they were there, ringing loud and clear and almost enough to banish any of the darkness from her mind.

But then the Floo burst into life, consuming him with green flame, and though it only lasted a fraction of a second, when it died down into nothingness, he was gone.

‘...I love you.’

Her voice was hoarse, lost as she said these words to absolutely nothing, and for a long time she just stood there alone in the flat, the room cast a dull shade of orange by the rays of the dying sun.


----------------


She was summoned to Yaxley’s office the very next day. Despite that it felt like the lump of coal in her pocket was about to gleefully lunge straight into his fireplace of its own accord, she couldn’t help her stomach from flip-flopping as she glanced across her desk at Van Roden.

‘Any idea what this is about?’

He shrugged haplessly. ‘Not a clue. Hope they’re not blaming you for the rain cloud.’

Tanith scrunched her nose. ‘Yaxley’s still pissed about that?’

‘He’s pissed he can’t find who did it. He’s not making a fuss because it then draws attention to the fact he didn’t catch the prankster.’ Jacob gave a lopsided grin. ‘If you don’t sell me out, I’ll buy you a beer.’

‘See, I was totally going to give you in, but you’ve bought my loyalty.’ Tanith gave a smile to hide her nerves, then set off down the DDD office to find the Portkey to the Ministry.

In the few short weeks before the takeover, her work had barely brought her near the Ministry. The MLE HQ at Canary Wharf was the only place an Auror needed to work unless they were on the most important cases or required regular communication with other government staff. It was usually a sign of prestige to have business at the Ministry itself.

These days, everyone who had to go to the Ministry just dreaded it. But at least the notables like Yaxley and Brynmor kept their official offices there, even if Brynmor especially was still often seen storming about Canary Wharf, Robb following him like a grim shadow. She still didn’t know which one of them she should be more scared of. Instinct had her terrified for the unknown threat Robb represented, but there was nothing comforting about being able to guess exactly what Brynmor could and would do.

Yaxley she’d barely seen. But, then, if she’d done something wrong, they’d just openly arrest her, wouldn’t they?

Worry of this sort kept her occupied all the way to the man’s office, through the Ministry with its oppressive artwork and the near-silence of all who worked there. Nobody dare put a foot or a word out of line these days. Brisk officiousness had been swapped for sheer terror.

She fought the shake out of her hand as she knocked on Yaxley’s door, only to be summoned immediately. It was a small, wood-panelled room, the walls lined with bookshelves. To her left was the crackling fireplace, and above it a portrait of Barnabus Rourke, the first Head of Magical Law Enforcement, a hard-eyed, serious-looking wizard in padded, close-fitting robes that were ancestors of an Auror’s equipment.

And there was Yaxley, sat behind his large desk, several quills scratching ink across parchment of their own volition. ‘Detector Cole,’ the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement said, voice cold. He extended a hand. ‘Please sit.’

Tanith gulped and glanced sideways at the fireplace, but there was nothing to be done while those beady eyes were upon her. She took the hard-backed seat on her side of the desk. ‘You wanted to see me, sir?’

Yaxley gave a slow, careful nod. ‘Correct. You are a recent graduate of Hogwarts, according to your records.’

It wasn’t a question, but he didn’t keep speaking, so she nodded. ‘Er, yes, sir.’

‘A prefect of Slytherin House, to be precise.’

‘...yes, sir.’

‘And Jennifer Riley and Thomas Everard were the Gryffindor prefects in your year.’

A guess at what was going on didn’t reassure her. ‘That’s correct, sir.’

Yaxley plucked a sheet of parchment from her table. ‘Are you familiar with the group calling themselves “The Lions of Britain”, Detector Cole?’

She cleared her throat carefully. ‘They’re a group of anti-establishment dissidents who are responsible for several attacks on the institution, its members, and its resources. They are one of the most important targets of the DDD,’ Tanith said mechanically.

‘And do you know who their members are?’

She tried to not wince. ‘Riley and Everard are amongst them. Riley in particular is considered a ringleader. And...’ Tanith hesitated, but there was little she knew they did not. ‘And several of their former classmates have also been identified in the group.’

‘Yes. And so far we have had little success in catching them.’ Yaxley seemed to relax a little, voice going more business-like. ‘I am reallocating you from general service, Detector Cole, to the team Mister Brynmor has put together to explicitly hunt the Lions. Your partner Van Roden, too; your results have been promising.’

Tanith hesitated. ‘You didn’t bring me up here just to tell me that, sir. A memo would have sufficed, or Mister Brynmor...’

‘Correct. I wanted to meet you for myself before I gave you your first assignment - the specific reason you’ve been posted. Of all of the members of the MLE, you have the most personal familiarity with these renegades. You went to school with them, the ringleaders you shared prefect responsibilities with.’ Yaxley smiled. It didn’t suit him. ‘I recall the bond of Hogwarts. Even the antagonistic bond with Gryffindors.’

‘Certainly we weren’t friends,’ said Tanith, and it wasn’t a lie. ‘But I knew them, yes, sir.’

‘Recent methods haven’t worked. We need to understand what they do, how they think, get into their heads.’ Yaxley tapped his temple. ‘Your first assignment is to provide a full account of everything you know personally about the confirmed and suspected members of the Lions. This includes interviewing classmates and family members. From there we should be able to draw up a better picture of their methods and actions. Especially their latest member.’

Tanith’s breath caught in her throat. ‘Latest member?’

‘Indeed. Someone you ought to be able to anticipate especially well. I’m not surprised you haven’t heard, but it will be such a blow to the Doyle family to learn that their scion has fallen in with a bad crowd. I refer, of course, to your old schoolfriend, Gabriel Doyle.’

It wasn’t hard to look surprised, even though she knew of Doyle’s involvement. But she hadn’t realised he’d been identified. She supposed it was only a matter of time. ‘Doyle is...’

‘Involved. Yes.’ Yaxley nodded, and got to his feet. ‘So you’ll have yet more valuable insight to give the team. Report with Van Roden to Mister Brynmor, and he’ll have a better outline for you of what sort of information’s expected. But I am glad we had this meeting, Detector Cole. It’s allowed me to get... a good grasp of you.’

He extended a hand, and she shook it with a displeasure she fought to hide. But though he then dropped his gaze to the desk and the papers on it, the room was too small, and too quiet for her to think that she could deposit the coal she thought was practically burning in her pocket. She turned to go.

Instinct alone had her acting. The notion appeared in her head when she was by the crackling fireplace, and some part of her refused to let her think it through before she acted. If she’d thought about it, she might have refused to act. The swish of her cloak hid her wand from view, and though she knew major, or dangerous, or invasive magic in this room would be detected, surely something so simple as a wandless charm to briefly disrupt one of the free-flowing quills on Yaxley’s desk could...

The quill jerked in the air, then began sputtering out ink, and Yaxley swore, reaching to snatch it up, away from sensitive documents. Tanith turned - hand off her wand now - in a false impression of surprise, and as she did so almost casually slipped the coal from her pocket and tossed it into the fireplace.

‘Damn - malfunctioning - it’s fine, Cole, just go,’ cursed Yaxley, tapping his wand against the misbehaving quill. The damage looked like it was superficial, and she doubted anyone would suspect foul play in what, on its own, could barely even be considered a prank. Five seconds’ of inconvenience to the Head of Magical Law Enforcement was nothing anyone with half a brain would put themselves at risk for, and Tanith liked to think her superiors imagined she had more than half a brain.

But she didn’t question it, just turned to go, and as she did she spotted the portrait of Barnabus Rourke, gazing down at her, giving her a hint of a crooked smile. Soft, too soft for Yaxley to hear, but echoing in her ears as she left, came the approving, muttered words in a Scottish brogue, ‘Justice will prevail, lass.’


Chapter 15: The Domino Effect
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In Moscow, they got the duplications of every bit of communication or transportation from Yaxley’s office almost immediately, to much rejoicing. Right away there was useful information being piped through, though Will warned that if they used everything in too raw a format, their leak would likely be guessed. He recommended that what they did instead was reroute the information to groups like the Lions and the Order of the Phoenix, which meant that the knowledge was not only going to a useful source, but it meant they could report the Lions’ successful exploitation of the knowledge.

Tobias didn’t question how Will was getting in touch with Jen Riley and her gang. He figured it was best he didn’t know, in case something went wrong, but the moment he’d mentioned what Tanith had said about them, Will had grinned.

Within a week they got a report of a successful attack on an MLE Patrol, the team’s movements communicated by Yaxley and intercepted by the coal - though Tobias liked thinking of their source as the Cole. This was followed up almost immediately by communication from Brynmor’s office being transmitted, as Tanith had clearly had a chance to get the second coal in place.

The editors, writers, and researchers of the Midnight Press - all three of them, so far - stood in their press room around the first collated issue, and confirmed it was fit for production within a day of the Lions’ strike against the Enforcers. Will popped open a bottle of champagne, and they - along with Dimitri, who was refusing to be considered staff for political purposes, but had been more than happy to fetch, carry, and gleefully point out spelling errors - toasted to their success as the printing presses hummed away to produce the first editions.

Val McGowan might have been dead, his work fallen to ash and dust. But the fire had not gone out. And the torch had been passed.


----------------


‘I come bearing good news and beer. One of these things is rarer than the other,’ declared Tanith as she burst into the flat, a box under one arm, a rolled up paper in the other.

Cal lifted his head with a jerk. He’d been lounging on the sofa, his guitar in his hands, but a string hadn’t been plucked or strummed in about fifteen minutes, dark thoughts prowling about his mind proving to be the order of the day. ‘You’re in a good mood.’

‘Because I have good news!’ Tanith crossed the flat to the kitchenette, depositing her first prize in the fridge - though saving a couple of bottles - and turned to face him. She was beaming, and he hadn’t seen her smile in so long he’d almost forgotten what it looked like. ‘Aren’t you going to ask?’

‘I’m just not used to - what’s the news?’

She tossed him the paper, and he unrolled it expecting the day’s issue of the Daily Prophet. But it wasn’t - the header he didn’t recognise, the words 'The Midnight Press' emblazoned across the front, and the headline ‘Enforcers Beware’ under it.

He gave a guffaw that was half-surprise, half-approval, sitting up. ‘What is this?’

‘Read it!’ Tanith flapped her hands at him with uncharacteristic glee, bounding over to sit on the armrest next to him.

He did so, sinking in the details, the brazen declaration of how openly-named and identified resistance fighters - his old classmates - had taken down a gang of Enforcers and freed the dissidents they’d already rounded up. How their wands had been taken and broken, and they’d been tied unceremoniously to a tree in Grizedale Forest to be found by their comrades. It even included a picture, obviously taken by the Lions themselves, of the incapacitated Enforcers.

‘Who’s done all of this?’ he asked gleefully.

‘Well, the attack was Riley and her mob,’ said Tanith, passing him a beer. ‘But if you mean the paper... it’s Toby.’

Cal looked up with surprise. ‘I know he was helping Val McGowan, but...’

‘McGowan’s dead. And this is more piercing, more destructive to the regime, than anything McGowan could write. The first-hand information, the contacts with the resistance movement...’ Tanith chuckled. ‘It’s unreal.’

Cal sighed, looking back at the paper. ‘I thought we were all fucked. I mean, proper fucked. There’s not even been much that’s come out about Potter in recent weeks.’

‘There’s more to this war than Harry Potter,’ she said, swigging her drink. ‘It’s going to take every good witch and wizard in Britain coming together to defeat all of this. And most wouldn’t because they’re scared, but this... this shows someone can bloody You-Know-Who’s nose and brag about it.’

‘You-Know-Who doesn’t have a nose,’ chuckled Cal.

‘Then flatten. Flatten his face even more and brag about it,’ Tanith laughed, and extended her beer bottle to him.

‘To Toby.’ He grinned.

‘To Toby. Cheers.’

They drank, and for a moment, it seemed hope alone was all they’d need to get through these darkest of nights. Then a thought struck Cal, and he sobered a little. ‘Do you think we’ll be in trouble?’

Tanith hesitated, and he thought he noticed guilt in her eyes. ‘Why?’

‘Because if Tobias has done this, how likely is it that they might suspect we had something to do with it?’

‘Ha.’ Tanith shook her head. ‘How could we have helped them? You stay in this flat all day doing bugger all. I wish I knew about Enforcer movements to pass on to the Midnight Press, or the Lions of Britain. But I’m chasing the Lions of Britain, anything I know about them the administration already knows and is using against them.’

‘Yeah. I guess so.’ Cal put his beer down and lounged back with his guitar, fingers finding their way to shape chords, the lack of inspiration to play faded despite worrying thoughts. ‘But might they try to use us to get to Toby?’

‘I think your father’s made it clear he’s not going to do anything to you,’ she said. ‘And as for me... my father might not be the regime’s most popular guy, but my family are still people of note, publicly known in society. I doubt we can wriggle out of punishment, but punishment for things we didn’t do? It’s harder to hand-wave.’

‘I guess so.’

‘Don’t guess, just enjoy it.’ Tanith gave him a sidelong glance. ‘What’s this song?’

‘Just a Muggle song.’

‘No, really, I know this.’ She slid off the couch next to him. ‘Huh. I didn’t realise it was... you know, a real song.’

‘As opposed to a fake song?’

She swatted him on the arm. ‘I mean a famous song.’

‘Where’d you hear it, anyway?’

Tanith shrugged, sipping her beer. ‘I don’t know,’ she said, and he knew she was lying but didn’t press. ‘This is nice. Normal. Like we’re not going to be dragged off to prison or get news of a dead loved one at any moment.’

‘Fear the power of the guitar.’ Cal grinned crookedly, but they both jumped at the knocking on the door.

‘Oh, hell. Get that,’ said Tanith, reaching out to kick their copy of the Midnight Press under the sofa as Cal put his guitar down and went to answer the knocking.

It was Perkins, her hair wet, looking like she’d been out in the early autumn rain. She’d probably walked all the way here from the Leaky Cauldron entrance. Without waiting, she pushed past him and into the room. ‘Cal.’

‘Am - Miss Perkins.’ He frowned as she walked in. ‘What’s going on?’

‘Well, “nice” didn’t last long, did it,’ exclaimed Tanith as she saw her, sighing and draining her beer. ‘Don’t let me get in the way. I’ll just go sit in my room, it’s not so stuffy and fascist in there.’

Perkins arched an eyebrow at the other woman with her usual detached disinterest. ‘Of course, Detector. Don’t let me keep you.’ She watched her as Tanith left the room, closing the door to her bedroom with perhaps unnecessary force.

Cal folded his arms across his chest. ‘What’s going on? We’re not due to meet until tomorrow. It’s a bit late.’

‘And tomorrow I get to inform you that you have been rejected for interview by the last two job applications,’ said Perkins, crossing the room to seat herself at the sofa. ‘I know, I am not here to give you an update of your paperwork, but it seemed fruitless to obscure the knowledge for another eighteen hours.’

His heart sank, but he tried to hide it, rubbing the back of his neck. ‘Well, that sucks. You didn’t come all this way just to tell me that, though.’

‘I did not.’ She opened her briefcase and pulled out the second copy of the Midnight Press he’d ever seen, though he tried to look surprised. ‘Have you seen this? It’s been on every street corner, despite the efforts of Enforcers to suppress them. The distributor just keeps on producing more. Some are charmed to duplicate. It’s ridiculous.’

He shrugged. ‘What is it?’

‘It’s your little friend, Mister Grey, making a nuisance of himself.’ Perkins bit her lower lip, her terseness fading, and she stood, green eyes on him intently. ‘Cal, I have to ask - do you know anything about this?’

She was, he thought, concerned. And that was more confusing than ever. Cal lifted his hands. ‘I haven’t seen Tobias since June. I haven’t heard from him since August. And that’s not some way of me mincing my words. I really don’t know anything about this.’

Her shoulders sagged with visible relief. ‘Good, because there’s going to be a manhunt. Clearly there’s some sort of security leak, and they are going to find the person responsible, and make them pay...’ Inexplicably she turned away, wringing her hands together.

‘Hey.’ He stepped over, blocking her path as she began to pace. ‘It’s okay. It had nothing to do with me.’

Perkins jerked, and it was as if a mask was being slipped back on, austere control back in place. ‘Good,’ she said. ‘Because it would destroy my career if it transpired you were a dissident who’d been under my nose this entire time.’

Cal couldn’t fight a lopsided smile. ‘I’m not going to be dragged off to Azkaban any time soon.’ She hesitated, then returned the smile, almost - he thought - shyly. And that was like a fresh stab of guilt to the gut, and it was his turn to twist away. ‘It’s not like my father would allow it.’

‘If you were helping the resistance, even he couldn’t save you. This sort of fighting is - it’s silly, it’s just going to get people punished and killed.’

‘They’re fighting for what they believe in.’ He stomped over to the window of the flat, brow furrowing. He’d been so keen to reassure her...

‘I’m not questioning their beliefs, I’m questioning their methods,’ said Perkins, rather delicately. ‘It just gives the administration an excuse to clamp down on people, and the people who get punished are rarely the people responsible!’

‘That’s the administration’s fault, rather, isn’t it,’ sneered Cal.

‘If policy were dictated either by logic or by you and I, Cal, this would all be different. We must deal with the reality of the situation,’ she said, again sounding flustered. ‘I just worry that these, these gestures of defiance get people killed and gain very little except for satisfying the egos of these self-declared figureheads.’

‘Tobias Grey is no egotist.’ Anger twisted in Cal’s gut at the accusation, at the implication his best friend was in this for his own gratification rather than to do the right thing, and he turned. But Perkins was standing closer than he’d expected, standing right behind him, so as he rounded on her he found them face to face.

She flinched, but stood her ground, even as her gaze flickered across his, eyes wide and bright. ‘Your loyalty to your friend is admirable, but it’s fact that people will be punished for this, and it’ll be his fault.’

‘No, it’ll be the Death Eaters’ fault, because they’ll be the ones punishing people,’ Cal snapped, refusing to stand down, by now close enough to catch the whiff of perfume that hung around her - something musty and refined which put him in mind of good wine and low candles and leather armchairs, all with an undertone of something spicy...

Perkins drew a deep, nervous breath, licking her lips. ‘And people are punished all the same; I can’t help you if you want to be naive -’

She went to turn away, but anger flared again as she tried to turn her back on him, and he reached out to grab her by the wrist. ‘You don’t -’

He wasn’t sure what he’d intended to do or say. And looking back, he wasn’t sure who did what after that point. But he knew she barely resisted as he yanked her around to face him, didn’t pull away as his other hand grabbed her by the elbow to pin her close. He knew she tilted her head up as their faces came close, knew her lips parted eagerly under his as he pulled her to him, knew she squirmed against him in his grasp for them to be pressed even closer together.

‘Cal...’ Her breath was hot as she gasped his name against his lips, and he turned to slam her back against the wall, pinning her in place with his body with every curve of her lithe form against him. The feel of her in his grasp, so barely able to move was so intoxicating that when she went to move her hands he couldn’t stand the thought of letting her go - his grip on her wrists tightened for him to pin her arms against the wall, her every movement his to dictate.

She gasped again, and as he inhaled sharply at the sound of pleasure his head was again filled with the smell of her, that spicy and intoxicating scent so controlled, so precise, so different to the airy and softer feel of Nat -

Nat.

Desire turned to disgust, disgust at himself, as he let her go and reeled back, lip curling. He went to speak but only a grunt of distaste escaped his throat, and he wiped the back of his hand across his mouth as he retreated.

She stood there, leant against the wall, chest heaving as she fought for breath, and her brow furrowed as she stared at him. ‘...Cal?’

His gut twisted. ‘You can go back to calling me sir, I think,’ he spat, letting his guilt turn to anger and be flung at her instead. For that, at least, he had no remorse. ‘Get out.’

Perkins straightened, neatening her robes, face a picture of confusion. As she neatened her hair he had an vivid flash of yanking her bun free, entangling his fingers in it, and looked away sharply. ‘I...’

‘Get out!’

His barked instruction sounded alien to his own ears, and much as he doubted her there was nothing fake about how she skittered across the room to the front door, not so much as bothering with her briefcase. The door slammed shut behind her and he stared at it, breathing hard, feeling like his lips and hands were covered with burning oil.

He ran his hands through his hair, another strangled sound of disgust, inarticulate self hatred, escaping his lips, and he turned desperately away as the door to Tanith’s bedroom creaked open and his flatmate popped her head out.

‘...trouble in Paradise?’

She spoke lightly, clearly trying to soothe him with a joke, but her choice of words only made him feel worse. Not wanting to let her see, he forced a tight, choking laugh which she probably wouldn’t buy, and gave a one-shouldered shrug as he turned to face her. ‘Yeah. Well. I shouldn’t expect sense from a Ministry stool-pigeon, huh?’


----------------


‘Tobias?’

He looked up as the press machines whirred around him to see Will walking into the unofficial office of the Midnight Press, and he gave the man a broad, toothy grin. ‘Hey, Will. The second issue’s coming along smashingly; I can’t believe we got our hands on that arrest list. We fit it in fine; I’m going to send these off the moment that they’re done so that people are properly warned. I know it’s just a week since the first issue but this is going so well...’

Will had padded around the small network of machines and boxes full of finished issues to approach him, and Tobias’ voice trailed off as he saw the older man’s sombre expression. His eyes widened. ‘What is it?’

There was hesitation on Will’s face, and he took a deep breath. ‘The coal in Brynmor’s office just went dark.’

Tobias paused, lips moving wordlessly. ‘Is it some sort of glitch?’

Will shook his head. ‘No. There’s chatter coming out of Yaxley’s office about a security breach. Specifically in the Floo network. They know.’

‘They haven’t found Yaxley’s too -’

‘No, no. That’s safe.’ Will lifted a hand, stepping closer. ‘For now, at least. I designed them to be incredibly hard to detect, I don’t know how they found Brynmor’s but even if they find one there’s no guarantee that even if they look for others, they’ll find them. They might not even know it’s the coal, they might just have identified the connection in the Floo and shut it down.’

Tobias let out a deep breath of relief. ‘Well, that’s something, at least. I mean, I’d hoped they’d stay in place for longer, but if we’ve got to lose one then better it’s Brynmor’s rather than Yaxley’s, and at least there’s no guarantee -’

‘Tobias.’

He stopped, his nervous, relieved ramble croaking into nothing, and realised Will’s sombre expression hadn’t faded. He opened his mouth to ask, but nothing came out and, deep in his heart of hearts, he thought he knew what was coming.

‘They’ve gone through the traffic in Brynmor’s office over the last week and they already have a suspect. A warrant’s gone out for the arrest, Death Eaters have been dispatched - this will be a middle-of-the-night snatch job.’ Will’s expression twisted.

‘It’s Tanith.’


----------------------


The snap of the apparition echoed through the close, dark room and its rough, stony walls, but before Tanith could try to catch her bearings she was released by one pair of strong hands and shoved roughly down into a chair. Head still spinning from the Stun she’d been smacked with when she’d gone for her wand under her pillow, she squinted around the gloomy corners, through the blinding light of the single ray of illumination bearing down at her from the ceiling.

Footsteps rang out of those who’d taken her retreating, and she heard whispered voices, bouncing too much around her and the room to be understood. She suppressed a shiver at the feel of the cold air on under-dressed skin as water dripped somewhere in the corner, loud enough by echo to be deafening.

There was a thin ray of light from the corner and the sound of a metal door creaking open noisily, before slamming shut. Then there was silence, loud and heavy and oppressive, broken only by the creaking of her chair, or the dripping of water, or the sound of her own breathing, ragged and panicked.

She knew who’d taken her. They wore uniforms. They’d even told her she was under arrest. But she’d tried to fight, tried to run, recalled all of the training Aurors and Altair had given her - and she’d not even touched her wand.

She knew where she was, too. These tiny cells were deep in the belly of the Canary Wharf MLE HQ, wet and dark and protected by all sorts of enchantments - the Enforcers who’d taken her had to have special runestones to be able to Apparate in. She would have been flattered at the high level of clearance and importance such measures took.

If she weren’t scared out of her wits.

‘Miss Cole.’

Tanith failed to fight back a rough sound of fear and surprise at the voice as it transpired she was not alone, and the shadows before her seemed to shimmer and twist around the figure who stepped forwards into the half-light of her ring of illumination. Tall and austere, there was no mistaking Idaeus Robb.

‘Wh - what do you want?’ She hated her stammer, but it spoke truthfully of her terror. Robb was only put on the most important of cases. These measures were only used for the most important of people.

They know.

‘You are going to be charged with espionage and treason, Miss Cole. You violated the trust placed in you by the Ministry of Magic and interfered with the Floo connection Mister Thanatos Brynmor, Head of the DDD, with an aim of intercepting his communications and travel and rerouting it to hostile and criminal elements.’

Her mind whirled. Just Brynmor? Had they not found the other coal? If they knew all of this, then why was she in an interrogation cell on the bottom floor? Why was she just being warned instead of actually charged?

They don’t know. They only suspect.

‘Do you have anything to say for yourself?’ Robb’s voice was gentle, mocking.

Tanith fought for breath. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

His expression shifted into one of anger, and he stepped forward. ‘You will confess, Miss Cole. You will tell us everything you know, about the breach in our security and about those you are feeding information to. I know you’re piping it through to Tobias Grey, I know he’s using it for his dissident paper!’

Realisation cut through terror like a knife and formed up into a shield in her mind against fear. ‘That’s it,’ she gasped, lips curling into a smile despite herself. ‘He’s not committing big enough crimes for you to justify going after him abroad yet, is he. Reporting on criminal activity isn’t a crime, and releasing the information he has and being in touch with dissidents would get you laughed out of the extradition process. But if you had testimony he was coercing a member of the government into breaching security and handing over national secrets...’

The smile turned into a chuckle, and she clung onto it with slightly deranged desperation, letting her head drop wearily. ‘Wish I could help,’ she lied. ‘But I’ve not done anything. And I’ve certainly not heard from Tobias.’

Robb scowled and reached for his wand, but she knew what was coming. She’d been trained for this, by Cassius Vaughn, and Altair Ritter, and others, trained to protect her mind against invasion, trained to keep her secrets, because it was secrets that got people killed.

‘Legilimens!’

But all the training in the world wasn’t enough to stop her from screaming as her thoughts were cut through as if with a knife of solid ice.


Chapter 16: The Girl of Your Dreams
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One arm wrapped around him, still clutching her wand; the other flew forwards to hurl the Floo powder in her grasp at where she was confident the fireplace sat. She heard him grunt at the impact but fold under it, allowing her momentum to carry them along; felt something smashing into her back with astonishing pain; heard Brynmor let out one magnificent curse.

Then they hit the fireplace, and her breath burned in her lungs as she hissed, ‘Cole estate!’


Tanith jerked, spitting out a mouthful of bile, and the shake of her head brought shadows and blinding light swirling together in the tiny, echoing cell.

Robb cursed. ‘I don’t need to know about that, I know about that, you stupid bitch...’ Then he twirled and swished his wand, and she felt him try to latch onto the memory of Tobias entrenched in her memory, try to ride that wave along from the night of Annie MacKenzie’s death to something else, something more recent.

Wrenching her thoughts away wouldn’t work, would never work as a form of Occlumency, but she could still fight him. Forwards became back, the night in the MacKenzie house whirling in reverse like a macabre mannequin show, before speeding up - and then she wasn’t in that house, at that night, she was in a clearing in woodlands near Hogwarts, rain dripping down the back of her neck.

‘You don’t love, you can’t love -’

‘Rejection.’ Robb’s lip curled, mockery masking frustration. ‘How sad for you.’

‘Fuck you,’ Tanith spat back eloquently, jaw clenched, driving her nails into the palm of her hand in concentration as she rocked back and forth on the chair for focus. ‘Is that the best you’ve got? I can do this all day.’

There were only so many ways one could fight a talented Legilimens conducting an interrogation. It was a game of cat and mouse through the halls of memory. Brute force wouldn’t work - simply shoving memories to the back of her mind would make a path for him to pursue them. Equally, it was difficult for him to force his way through a disciplined mind. It was all about following the threads of memories, making the connections between what you could find and what you were looking for.

So she just had to throw different threads out there. If he latched onto a memory of Tobias, then she had to find something else in that memory, and take him rocketing down that path. Flowing with his efforts, but redirecting them, instead of fighting them outright in a battle of brute strength which would get her nowhere so long as she was incarcerated like this.

Unfortunately, Tobias lingered so strong in her thoughts, even without her actual guilt, that he had an easy time of picking up almost any thread in her memory and bringing it to him. Sharp, painful, or significant memories were the easiest to latch onto, and there was barely a one from her history which wasn’t about him. Pushing forwards after the time he’d rejected her was no hard thing, and this time he managed to bypass the sucking vortex in her memory that was Annie MacKenzie’s death, and go past it to -

CAL WILL KILL TOBIAS-

Forwards, but not enough. Robb made a noise of barked frustration. ‘If you’re so innocent, Cole, why are you fighting me?’

Tanith gasped for breath as she tried to not collapse back on the chair. Her hair was plastered against her forehead with sweat, every inch of her aching with the effort of concentration and focus to deflect the skilled interrogation, and she realised she’d bitten her tongue. This time she spat blood onto the cell floor.

‘Robb, even if I’d never done so much as had a school detention, I wouldn’t let you go walking around my head without a fight.’

Eyes screwed shut, she didn’t see the blow coming. It was crude of Robb to use his hands, but more effective, more shocking, and she knew that was what he was trying to achieve. Or she thought she knew, as coherent thought became complicated at the impact across her cheek. The backhand was strong enough to do more than just knock her head to one side - she was knocked over, out of the chair, landing on the cell floor with a cracking impact.

Her arms splayed out for her to catch herself, and the moment she moved Robb swished his wand. She didn’t hear him utter a spell - but she did feel the impact across her left hand, the sickening crunch and popping explosion of pain and breaking bones.

She screamed.

‘Let’s try some exercises in concentration, then, if you’re so keen for a challenge,’ hissed Robb, moving to stand over her. ‘Fight me through that.’

And he was there, again, an intruder in her mind. She’d practiced this in training, but the limited consent that came from an instructor doing it, someone she trusted and respected, against the utter violation that was this man who sickened her to her core rooting his way merrily through every private thought and feeling she’d ever had made theory go right out the window.

So she clung, instead, to faith, trust, and love. If she cracked, she wouldn’t just suffer - Tobias would suffer, and then hundreds more, crunched down under the Death Eaters’ boots. If she let them get through to Tobias... Tobias...

But he stopped as she spoke, froze for just a fraction of a second before turning on the spot and storming back towards her. For the hint of a moment she thought he was angry that she’d called him, angry that she’d stopped him – then he grabbed her by the wrist, pulled her to him sharply, and kissed her fiercely.

Time stopped. Her breath caught in her throat, and for what felt like years she was frozen in place, shocked out of all concept of action, all sense of anything apart from his warmth, the strength of his grip, his lips on hers.

Then suddenly she could move again, and her hands snaked around his shoulders as his slid around her back to pull her closer to him. Her fingers were in the hair at the nape of his neck, the breathing of them both was coming raggedly, and though it felt like they had been standing there for an eternity it was too soon, far too soon that he finally pulled back...

Crunch.


This next scream tore her throat and echoed around the room until it was like she was trapped in a chamber of her own pain, agony the only thing she felt or heard as Robb brought his boot crashing down on her broken hand. But within seconds he was in her mind again, and then all she could do was cling to one moment in her mind, fight him with no finesse or cleverness but just blind stubbornness and love.

I love you. IloveyouIloveyouIloveyou...

Close. The feeling, the memory was so close that if he just eked to the left he’d have that whole conversation, and the whole thing would be blown open...

So she dug her heels in, she refused to budge - not shift him forwards or backwards, or down a tangential train of thought, she just stayed there in her mind, clinging to that one moment, that one feeling, drawing all strength from the kernel of hope and happiness within it.

For now.


------------------


‘Tobias, this is ridiculous.’

‘You must think, my friend, there is nothing that you can do!’

‘Anything is better than nothing,’ spat Tobias as he stormed about his small room, gathering clothes and equipment, holding onto his wand so hard his knuckles were turning white.

‘That’s also ridiculous,’ said Will. ‘If you go back, they will capture you, it is as simple as that!’

He whirled around to face the older man, anger and frustration surging in him, and despite Will’s greater experience, he took a step back. Dimitri hesitated, looking between the two, but said nothing. ‘It has been three days!’ Tobias barked. ‘And nothing! No news!’

‘No news is good news,’ said Will.

‘Or it means she’s dead but they’ve determined they can’t do it publicly. Why the hell would they hold her for three days without a public arrest or a release? Why haven’t we heard anything?’

‘Maybe, they are questioning her...’ Dimitri’s voice trailed off as Tobias brought his baleful glare round to him.

‘If after three days they don’t have what they want and haven’t given up, then there’s no way they’re just going to shrug and let her go!’

Will straightened. ‘If you go to Britain,’ he said, forcing as much authority into his voice as he could, though most of it just washed over Tobias in his fear and fury, ‘the Death Eaters will catch you. This is what they want.’

Tobias took a deep breath to answer angrily, but then the door swung open and he turned to see Aurora enter, hand on her hip. He frowned. ‘I thought you had a meeting with the Director?’

‘Will got in touch. I cancelled. Now I’m here.’ Her eyes went from him, to his wand, to the meagre belongings being shoved into a bag on his bed. She gave Will and Dimitri a jerking nod. ‘How about you two let me handle this?’

‘Handle?’ Tobias’ eyes darkened. ‘I don’t need handling,’ he said as the other two gratefully bolted for the door, closing it firmly behind them. ‘I know what I’m doing.’

‘Really.’ Aurora folded her arms across his chest. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Going to England,’ he said defiantly. ‘Going to Canary Wharf, finding where she is, and getting her the hell out of there.’

‘That’s a masterful plan, Tobias.’ She looked like she was trying to not roll her eyes. ‘If it’s so easy, why haven’t you asked the Lions to break her out, since we know she’s at Canary Wharf?’

‘I... did.’ He faltered, for the first time, remembering the scribbled letter he’d received in Riley’s hand that he’d burned, for security and out of frustration. ‘They say they can’t break into Canary Wharf.’

‘Really. They’ve been very successful in the past. Incredibly resourceful.’ Aurora stepped over. ‘Did it occur to you that if a gang of successful resistance fighters can’t break into Canary Wharf and get a prisoner out, then you on your own aren’t going to have a good deal more success?’

‘I was an Enforcer there,’ said Tobias stubbornly. ‘I know the building -’

‘While Jennifer Riley, former Ministry-appointed defence lawyer, has of course never stepped foot in the place.’ Aurora shook her head. ‘This is madness.’

He frowned, but would not be stopped. ‘Then I’ll go to England. I’ll meet up with the Lions. And we can work together to get Tanith out.’

‘Really,’ Aurora said again. ‘And who’ll work on the Midnight Press while you conduct an unprecedented raid on the Headquarters of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement?’

‘You! Will!’ He waved his hands. ‘The Easter Bunny! Merlin! I don’t care!’

Yes, you do,’ she snapped. ‘And Will and I are not writers! We can put it together all we like, Tobias, but it is your words, your works that are getting out there, that are reaching people and giving them hope as well as information and so saving more than one life.’ Her voice softened, taking on a tight, pleading tone, and this did begin to cut through to him.

‘I don’t care about all those lives of people I’ve never met!’ Tobias snapped, and he meant it until he heard how the words sounded to his own ears, stark and ringing out across the room. Then his anger began to fade around the edges for shame, and guilt, and fear, and he faltered, lowering his hands. ‘This life is... it’s the one that matters.’

She, too, hesitated, and for the first time silence hung between them. ‘...I know.’

He turned away, running his hand through his hair desperately. ‘She - the bigger picture, great, the greater good, great, I do care, I do, but in those... those moments of doubt, when I’m so terrified we’ll lose, we’ll fail, when I worry I’m doing more harm than good, when I worry I’m not reaching anyone at all, it’s her I think of to keep... keep going...’

Tobias took a deep, shaky breath, closing his eyes. ‘She’d do it for me.’ And she has. She’s gone above and beyond, risked her own life against impossible odds to save mine. And it’s not even her own stupid, pig-headed fault...

‘But she wouldn’t want you to get yourself killed for her,’ said Aurora gently, stepping over to rest a hand on his arm.

‘You know that’s the most annoying argument ever, right?’ he muttered, his venom not entirely false.

‘Because it works.’

His eyes flashed open, and he whirled to face her. ‘Would it have worked on you if someone had given you a chance to save my father, only all you had to do was fight a team of Death Eaters single-handed?’

Aurora flinched like he’d struck her, and he saw anger rising in her eyes before she fought it back. ‘It probably wouldn’t have,’ she said, voice low, quiet, and hard, and he realised he’d crossed a line. He didn’t especially care. ‘And I would have probably died. So trust my emotional clarity in this situation and stay here.’

Tobias clenched his jaw. ‘What the hell am I supposed to do?’

‘Keep on writing. Keep on producing the Press. Keep on making a difference. We’ve got a new edition in just a few days and you’ve not put together a word.’

‘Of course not, it’s been three days of...’

‘Did it occur to you that they’re keeping her for so long specifically to lure you out? We’ve not heard a whiff of her being actually charged - maybe they don’t even know it’s her, they just know the information from Brynmor’s office is getting to you, and they picked her up on false pretenses so you’d come charging off to the rescue?’ Aurora shrugged. ‘Anyone who’s known you for five minutes could guess that would be your reaction if you didn’t have us sitting on you. It’ll be a trap.’

That stopped him again, and with a scowl Tobias tossed his wand down onto the bed. It landed with a rather unsatisfying thump, rather than the kind of clatter and noise his frustration demanded. ‘Right,’ he growled. ‘Fine. But the next headline is just going to be a giant “Fuck You”, covering the entire first page.’ He gestured expansively.

Aurora’s breath caught, and she sagged with some relief. ‘We can negotiate on that point.’

He turned to storm towards the door, before a thought struck him, so dark and twisting inside that he had to pause and glance over at Aurora. ‘If she dies, I’m done,’ he said, his voice a gravelly growl. ‘If she dies, fuck the paper. Fuck words. If she dies, I’m going back to England, I’m going to find the Lions, and I’m going to fight. Until every last one of them is dead... or I am.’


------------


‘Cal.’ Melanie Larkin looked rather bewildered to open the door to the grand London house the wealth of her and her housemate’s family had bought them to see the wet and bedraggled shape of Cal Brynmor. ‘Did you not bring a coat?’

‘Damn the coat. Can I come in?’ Cal growled, running his hand across short, bristly, soaking wet hair.

‘You’re such a rebel. If you get the carpet wet or dirty I will do nothing. I will especially do nothing when Ariane strings you upside-down from the front door as a warning to Miles to finally make him take his boots off in the hallway.’ She stepped back to let him in, gaze wary. ‘How are you?’

He stomped into the hall, and ignored her warnings about cleanliness. ‘My door was kicked in days ago, I was magically pinned to the wall, and forced to watch while they accosted my flatmate and dragged her off to Canary Wharf on an accusation of treason. Since then I have heard absolutely nothing about her fate, present or future. How do you think I’m feeling?’

‘Enjoying having the flat to yourself?’ Melanie barely arched an eyebrow, leading him into the comfortable, perfectly presented sitting room. ‘Tea?’

No, Larkin, I would not like a cup of tea. Is Drake in?’ He moved to stand before the crackling fire anyway, folding his arms across his chest.

‘She’s here. Miles is here. I’m sure even you can figure that one out.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘They might be a while.’

‘Get her down here,’ Cal growled.

‘You’re the worst house-guest ever, Brynmor, you know that?’

He glowered at the flickering fire. ‘Let her know I’m here. And then tell her to get down as soon as her highness can remember to get her knees back together.’

‘Oh, no. Sex with her boyfriend. What a fucking calamity,’ said Melanie snippily, but she left the room anyway, leaving Cal alone with just his own thoughts and the crackling of the fire for company as he warmed up and dried off. In honesty, he hadn’t even looked out of the window when he’d left the flat, when inspiration had struck. Hadn’t noticed that winter had begun its inevitable march on England, and brought with it nothing but wet and cold.

Hadn’t cared.

At some point a House Elf came in to give him a cup of tea anyway, and though he didn’t drink it he accepted it, wrapping cold hands around warm china. He must have been waiting there perhaps fifteen minutes before there were footsteps on the stairs and the living room door swung open to allow in the aristocratic shape of Ariane Larkin and the surly figure of Miles Bletchley.

‘Now, what’s all this, Brynmor?’ said Bletchley tartly.

‘Shut up, Bletchley, I’m not here for you unless you suddenly became halfway bloody relevant to the world around you. I’m here to talk to Ariane.’

Bletchley glared but went to take one of the overstuffed armchairs, arms folded across his chest. Ariane hesitated in the doorway, before her expression set with the mask of perfect control he had for so long accepted as the default from her.

‘Cal, I’m sure you’ve had a frankly horrid few days -’

‘Let’s assume we’ve all exchanged the pleasantries about how hard it must be for me and how bloody horrid it is that a friend of ours is in jail.’ He waved a hand sharply. ‘I’m not here to chit-chat. God knows I couldn’t stand to chit-chat with you lot about the state of things. I need you to do something.’

Bletchley scoffed. ‘You’ve got a funny way of asking for a favour -’

‘I’m not asking for a favour,’ said Cal stiffly. ‘And I’m definitely not talking to you, Bletchley. I’m talking to Ariane, and I’m prompting her to do the right thing.’

Ariane frowned, and Cal wondered if the notion in and of itself was alien to her. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘You never do. You need to help Tanith.’

She flinched, wringing her hands together. ‘Tanith made her own bed.’

‘Tanith has not been formally charged with anything,’ said Cal, taking a step forward. He saw Bletchley go to rise from his chair, and stopped. This didn’t need to end in a fight. ‘That means they don’t have anything on her, do they? If they did, then they’d have her in Azkaban quick as you please.’

‘I think it’s a bit naive to assume she’s not helping Grey,’ Bletchley said. ‘It’s not like she wouldn’t come running if he so much as whistled.’

‘Dog comparisons are going to get you put through a window, Miles,’ said Cal with forced calm. ‘You’ve been punched once in your life for talking shit about Tanith Cole - and you know damn well I hit harder than Toby does, and I’ve had a considerably more tense time of things.’

‘He’s right.’ Ariane straightened. ‘She must be guilty.’

‘She mustn’t be anything. If she were, wouldn’t they have charged her by now?’

The two exchanged glances and Cal let them, though he really didn’t want to have this conversation with Bletchley present. He had counted on being able to push Ariane around, however horrendous the idea of bullying her was as a tactic, but she was clearly drawing some strength and security from the other man’s presence. He was just going to have to use logic.

Logic had never been a great tool on his former classmates.

‘...I suppose,’ said Ariane at last. ‘Apparently the idea is just to... continue interrogation. Until something is found, or until her co-conspirators are lured out of the woodwork. Apparently they don’t have enough evidence to justify using the limited stocks of Veritaserum on her, just enough to question her, but if they find anything more, Idaeus Robb is going to request a dose immediately...’

Apparently,’ Cal echoed mockingly. ‘But they can’t prove a thing. So they’re either using her as bait, or abusing her until she confesses to something - and enough time in those places and anyone will confess to anything. Does that strike you as fair?’

‘What do you expect me to do about it?’

‘Your father! Talk to your father!’ he snapped. ‘That’s how you know about what’s happening, isn’t it - from him? If there is anything that he can do for her, then by God you should get him to do it!’

‘Why don’t you talk to your father?’

‘Because your father will actually listen to you,’ said Cal, approaching her. ‘And my father will try to make me sell my soul.’

‘So much for your loyalty, then,’ sneered Bletchley. ‘You won’t put your neck on the line for Cole, but you’re asking Ariane to?’

‘Loyalty! Yes, loyalty!’ snapped Cal. ‘Loyalty to each other, after all the years we spent together! I know you two might think the world’s a bloody better place under Thicknesse, but you have to see that people are going to get hurt, and we have to stick together if we want to make sure the people we care about don’t suffer! If you’re not a self-obsessed bloody fool!’

Bletchley got to his feet. ‘This is a fine way to ask for a favour, Brynmor, even by your standards of being an uncouth git -’

‘He’s right.’

For a second Cal thought it was Ariane who’d spoken, but he looked up to the door to the kitchen to see Melanie standing there, arms folded across her chest. The slightly dumpy woman stepped into the room, crossing over to Ariane’s side and wrapping an arm around her. The other woman had been staring at her hands, still wringing them together, gaze a little weepy.

‘Tanith’s one of us, and so is Grey. The difference is that Grey’s made his choices, and there’s nothing we can or should do for him. But so long as they’re not charging Tanith but keeping her imprisoned, they’re treating her just like anyone else, and we’re not ‘anyone else’, are we, Ariane?’ she said gently.

Ariane took a deep, shaky breath as she looked up. ‘I did ask Daddy about her,’ she said softly. ‘And he said that if she didn’t confess he expected that Mister Robb was going to keep her in the cells until she would be happy to confess to being Harry Potter himself.’

Cal’s breath caught, and he scratched the back of his neck to hide his tense, worried reaction. ‘Is there anything you can do?’

Ariane Drake lifted her gaze apprehensively, and hesitated. ‘I don’t know.’


Chapter 17: The Exception that Proves
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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.

‘Tanith?’

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.

Family.


--------------------


‘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.’


Chapter 18: The Book of the Dead
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'You don't have to go in, you know.' Evadne lingered by the door to the spare bedroom in the Sprague's cottage, needlessly stirring her cup of tea.

'I know.' Tanith frowned as she fumbled with the buttons on her blouse. 'Or, actually - I do have to go in. The final paperwork needs filing.'

'Are they really going to care if you didn't sign a form?' Her sister scrunched up her nose.

'Maybe. Maybe they'll use it as some cheap tactic against me, drag me in for not doing the paperwork right.' Tanith scoffed and reached for her sturdy pair of boots, set down at the foot of the bed. 'But even if they don't I have to go back to... you know. The outside world.'

Evadne didn't answer for a few long moments, just frowned at the window. Summer had well and truly died a death, not even its final writhings visible. The sky was grey and gloomy, English weather not summoning the will to so much as properly rain, or storm, or even yet become especially icy. It was just dark, and dank, and miserable.

Much like the world.

'I'm sure they wouldn't punish you if you quit. I'm sure Amulius could find you a job in the Floo network -'

Tanith gave an inexplicable bark of laughter, and shook her head at her sister's inquisitive look. 'No - sorry. It's a kind offer, it really is, that's not what's funny. Doesn't matter.' She muttered something venomous under her breath as she sat at the foot of the bed and fought fruitlessly with her bootlaces, left hand still bandaged up, the fingers fumbling.

'Let me get that,' Evadne insisted, going to crouch before her sister, and though Tanith looked disapproving she didn't reject the help.

'I can do good where I am, Eva,' she said. 'I can minimise the damage. If all the good people walk, then the MLE really is just a den of oppression.'

Her sister sighed, doing up the bootlaces. 'I knew you'd been brought in but they said it was something about you helping with an investigation, I assumed it was just something... in house. I didn't realise how bad it was until your friend Caldwyn came over and said you'd need a spare room... and asked me to prepare myself.'

'I think Cal thought it would be worse than it was,' said Tanith, flexing her fingers experimentally. They were stiff from the treatment she'd received at Saint Mungo's as much as the damage, but a few days more of rest and she could take the bandages off. The only reason it was taking so long to heal was because Robb hadn't just broken bones but stamped on them, and the injury had gone untended for several days.

But there would be nothing permanent, at least. So long as dark magic wasn't used, wizarding medicine could fix more or less anything without lasting damage.

'It was bad enough,' said Evadne, getting to her feet. 'You looked like hell.'

'Four days. It could have been worse.' Tanith gave a brief shrug. 'Apart from my hand I got some sleep, I got some food. It wasn't a holiday, but... it could have been worse.' She wasn't sure if it was a blessing that Robb had bizarrely abided by the laws which demanded more evidence before using Unforgivables against those of families with correctly recorded blood-histories. She'd seen such laws be stretched and bent in the field plenty - suspicion had often been enough - but perhaps he'd reasoned that doing it under the roof of Canary Wharf was not an acceptable gamble.

Perhaps he had, truly, doubted whether she was guilty enough to not risk his own neck. If he'd used the Cruciatus on her to weaken her concentration, then ultimately found she was innocent and this had got out... nobody cared if this was done to half-bloods, or criminals, or even those from lesser families, but despite her father's deeds the Coles were well enough respected that a little doubt could have gone a long way.

'Something's gone wrong,' said Evadne quietly, 'if we're looking at what happened and saying "it could be worse". It's bad enough.'

Tanith stood, flexing her sluggish left hand, and she sighed. 'That's why I have to go back, Eva. This can't stand.'

Her sister looked away. 'You did it, didn't you.'

'Did what?'

'Whatever they accused you of. You are guilty of treason.'

For a moment, Tanith wanted to tell her sister that she was right. That she had, indeed, been giving underground publishers and resistance fighters information straight out of the office of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Not just to tell Evadne the truth, but so she might have someone, anyone, to tell the truth to.

But it wasn't like she was alone at home, even if she didn't like how closely Perkins had prowled around Cal, even if she didn't want to trust that his father couldn't have some means of getting information out of his son - by coercion, or something worse. And, above all, she wouldn't tell her sister anything which might make her, her husband, or especially her young daughter a target.

She shook her head. 'It was just bad luck. Grey's risking his neck and they thought that maybe I knew something about it.'

Evadne looked infinitely relieved. 'Good,' she breathed. 'Because I don't want to see any of this come down on our family.'

'It won't, sis.' Tanith forced a smile. 'I should get going. I want to get the paperwork done today so I don't have to fuss about it at work tomorrow. Where's Leah?'

'She's having a nap.'

'Then kiss her goodbye for me.' Tanith walked over to enfold her sister in something of an awkward hug. 'And take care of her. And Amulius. I'll see you at Christmas, at the latest.'

Evadne's expression was wry as Tanith pulled back. 'I didn't think you did Christmas with the family.'

'Things change.' Tanith smiled, and the sisters went downstairs for Evadne to show her out. Last time she'd been here she'd been too hot in her Auror's coat - now it was colder, she wished she had it instead of just the sweater her sister had loaned her as she made her way down the front path to the big oak tree at the end of the garden. Cal had brought her wand from the flat, but it was strange to stand in the shadows of the tree, to remember first appearing here worn and broken late at night - and then, how bright and easy everything had felt in comparison when she'd last apparated out in the summer.

It was best to not reflect.

She let herself in the main entrance of the Ministry of Magic, and was relieved when her sheer presence didn't set off the security alarms. Clearly the MLE hadn't taken advantage of having access to her wand to make her persona non grata in the centre of magical government, or if they had, they'd then lifted that security. Nobody stopped her. Nobody dragged her back in for arrest.

She was free. Free to live in fear under tyranny.

The MLE was in the habit of keeping its administrative offices that dealt with the public in the Ministry, just to cut down on unnecessary civilian traffic in and around Canary Wharf, and for ease of the public's access. In her capacity as a former inmate of the cells of Canary Wharf, she counted this time as a civilian.

This was a kindness, at least, because she didn't fancy going through the final processing in front of, or perhaps even at the hands of, people she had to work alongside. She needed neither their dark judgement nor, perhaps especially, their pity. At the Ministry she could get in and out and be home in time for dinner with Cal.

There was some sort of commotion when she entered the main entranceway, the long narrow hall flanked by Floo access points leading up to the administrative desks and the oppressive monolithic form of the new statue. A mob far bigger than normal after-lunch traffic had gathered, blocking from sight whatever was going on, but she could hear the tense, hushed muttering, and the noise of dragging metal on stone floor.

'Out of the way! This man needs processing!'

She recognised the voice as Mulready, the Death Eater who'd been the last man standing in the Lions' attack to break Nick Wilson free, and whom she'd had to Stun to take down. He worked in the MLE - if he was in the middle of this and talking about 'processing' someone, then the only logical conclusion was that this had something to do with a prisoner.

Tanith wrinkled her nose and pushed forward. Sometimes they did this, sometimes they liked to cart a high-profile prisoner through the middle of the Ministry before they made a show of some paperwork and shipped them off to Azkaban. The process was sped up by bypassing Canary Wharf, and everyone got to see.

She didn't especially want to witness it. Whoever it was, they were doomed, and she didn't want to give Mulready the satisfaction of his gruesome theatrics getting a bigger audience. But as she went to push through the crowd it was impossible for her gaze to not be drawn to the centre, where the Enforcers dragging a figure by the elbows along in chains were given a wide berth, and she realised she recognised more people in the mix than Mulready.

He was at the prisoner's right arm, issuing the bellowing, but he did not lead the procession. No, that was Robb, tall and proud, expression thunderous as if the presence of the crowd, whom he had to want to witness what was going on, personally offended him. No prizes for guessing who was behind the arrest of this particular prisoner.

It was the prisoner she recognised next, and catching just the briefest glimpse of his face was like a punch to the gut.

'Let me - let me through!' She shoved and elbowed her way forward, and even those standing and watching didn't try to stop her. They might be transfixed, they might be horrified, and even a few of the onlookers might have been genuinely believing they were witnessing public justice, but nobody wanted to be near the front at this.

But her movement made enough commotion for her to be noticed, and as she burst from the crowd, the Death Eater in the procession nearest broke over to grab her by the shoulders. 'Stand back - Cole?'

It was Lackardy, the young Enforcer who had been all-too keen to throw his lot in with Thicknesse's regime and whom she'd suspected had long been a Death Eater himself, but as he recognised her his expression twisted with confusion and, somewhere in there, sympathy.

She pushed him off, whirling around to face Robb. 'What the hell do you think you're doing?'

Robb, who had feigned not noticing her, lifted a hand to make the macabre procession stop, and the crowd as a whole took a step back. They were in the centre of the hall by now, standing in the shadows of the gloomy statue, and there wasn't a pair of eyes in the Ministry that wasn't locked on the interchange.

'You shouldn't interfere, Detector Cole. It would be rather unfortunate to put you right back in prison.'

'I've done nothing wrong for you to put me there,' she sneered, and realised it didn't feel like lying to say that when she didn't believe she had done a thing wrong, per se. She waved a hand. 'And neither has he!'

'Oh, really?' Robb stepped forward, and a nervous Lackardy backed off as the tall Death Eater approached. 'Conducted espionage on the rightful leaders of this country? Utilised this information to the detriment of the government? Delivered such sensitive knowledge into the hands of terrorists? I think that this is exactly something wrong.'

'...Tanith.' The figure in chains, flanked by Mulready and Lackardy, lifted his head weakly. His face was a swollen mass of cuts and bruises, and from how he'd moved, how he needed help to stand, let alone walk, made it clear that they had not been kind when they had apprehended him. 'Don't...'

'Dad.' Her voice broke, and ignoring the brief snickering from Mulready she moved to kneel in front of his slouched form. Lackardy looked for a moment like he might stop her, but then didn't move, having the good grace to stare at his boots. 'What did they do...?'

'Came this morning.' Daedalus Cole's left eye was swollen shut, but his right eye locked on her, glinting with dark intensity. 'It was only a matter of time...'

'Why...' Realisation sank into Tanith's gut, and her head snapped around to Robb. 'You did this! You couldn't get charges against me to stick, so you targeted my family!'

'I targeted a well-known spy against the rightful establishment,' said Robb with a sneer. 'He's lucky we didn't come for him sooner, and he's lucky that, if he cooperates, he'll dodge the Kiss. Out of our way, Detector Cole. We have to get him to Azkaban.'

Her father croaked her name, and even as Lackardy reached for her shoulder she flung herself forward to wrap her arms around him. 'I'll get you out - I'll get this dropped, I will -'

Then Lackardy was pulling her back, and her father was shaking his head. 'Keep safe. Don't give them reason to target you, to target the others, to kill anyone else...'

Tanith's blood ran cold as Lackardy yanked her to her feet. 'Else? Mum?'

'She's fine... they wouldn't hurt a Harper... but Altair...'

Robb gave a bark of a laugh. 'Oh, of course. This needs disposing of. You can take care of it, Detector Cole, saves us a job.' He jerked a nod to the burly Enforcer who stood at the back of the procession, a wrapped bundle slung over his shoulder she had assumed was just luggage. The man nodded and let it fall to the floor, where it hit the marble with a rather soft thump.

'Make sure it's not here by the time we're back,' said Robb. 'And don't do anything stupid, Cole. I'd hate to have a reason to investigate the wrongdoings of the rest of your family. Your mother. Your sister. Her husband.' He gave a dark twist of a leering smile. 'If something happened to them, what would come of your niece?'

It was, perhaps, just as well that Tanith was too stunned by the sight before her to react to Robb's words. Because they did spark something deep in her gut, furious and twisting and swirling at the sheer notion of a threat against little Leah, and had she not been numbed then there was a good chance that, disregarding of any possible danger to herself, she would have gone for Robb.

But he was gone before she could sluggishly look at him, and the anger in her eyes flashed only briefly before it died, and her eyes were inexorably drawn to the abandoned bundle. Most of the crowd had spread out by now, people trying to pretend they weren't stopping and watching, others legitimately moving on, not daring to watch the macabre display, and so heads turned more in the direction of Daedalus Cole's dragging chains as the procession began to move again.

She didn't know how long she stood there. It felt like an eternity, but couldn't have been more than a few moments, because the sound of her father's chains were still echoing in her ears as she approached the Enforcer's abandoned burden. It was wrapped in what looked like a drape she thought she recognised from her father's study, and was exactly the wrong size and shape, lay in exactly the wrong way on the marble.

Tanith knew who and what she was going to see even as she knelt before the bundle and reached for the drape. She could have used her wand but that felt crude, impersonal... and even rude. This had to be done with her hands. This had to be normal, mundane, flesh and blood.

There was no blood in the face that she unwrapped. No warmth. No semblance of life. Just the cold, dead, unseeing eyes of the squib Altair Ritter.

They wouldn't have thought twice about killing him. He wasn't a wizard, and he was easily proven a criminal to boot. They could have put him down with impunity and nobody would care, nobody would question. Daedalus Cole was a man of too much importance to just be destroyed, especially when public eyes were on her family after her own arrest, but Altair Ritter had no such protection, legally or in the court of public opinion.

Hell, they'd probably killed him specifically because they could only do so much against the Coles.

His face was a rictus of pain, though. And as she unwrapped him more she could see his long, thin body was twisted, contorted in agony. There wasn't a single mark on him - but there wouldn't be, would there. They would have wanted this man, who had thwarted them time and again without a drop of magical power, to be broken and tormented by that power itself. To be finally beaten by it.

But not to submit to it.

Her eyes were distressingly dry as she tossed the drape to one side and lay Altair Ritter's body out in the middle of the Ministry, directly before the statue that so perfectly demonstrated every indignity and injustice committed by this place. Once this would have been a scene for the Ministry workers not just of peculiarity, but of horror - but now the Death Eaters were gone, now the theatrical show was over, people just hurried past her, gazes turned aside.

And she ignored them in turn. Her tutor deserved more dignity than this, but she would preserve whatever little shred there was, and show him every respect she could.

So she straightened his twisted form and dismissed the drape before she got to her feet and, with a careful swish of the hand, levitated him in a better state.

But, first, she took his coat. The long, leather coat that had always been too small for him - and was a bit broad on her - but had forever secreted away his belongings, the tools of his trade; which she had always suspected was slightly enchanted for a hint of protection. But aside from its purposes, it was his. It represented him.

And she'd be damned if she wouldn't stand before Brynmor and Robb every day and remind them of the man who had humiliated and beaten them over and over again by wearing it. Her own sign of respect. The biggest rebellion she could, at this point, dare to attempt and get away with.

In the meantime, however, she had a body to bury. A body that she needed to walk with as she levitated it slowly out of the hall of the Ministry, and back towards the Floo points, walking with her head held high, as if she had not a thing to be ashamed of.

And life in the Ministry trundled on, as if a corpse on display in the middle of its offices was nothing that hadn't been seen before a dozen times before.


Chapter 19: The Ace of Spades
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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.



'Don't -'



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.'



'Ah.'



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.'


Chapter 20: The Black Sheep
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'I don't understand,' said Will. 'How can there be this level of corruption this high up in the Russian government? The way they go on about the evils of Dark Magic would put Bartemius Crouch to shame. This is institutionalised mistrust to the point of paranoia.'


Tobias glanced across his desk in the press room at the older man, a quill in his hand, scratching away at the parchment in front of him. 'You sound almost approving.'


'That the government spits nails at the slightest implication of Dark Wizards in their midst?' Will gave a lopsided grimace of a smile that reminded Tobias rather reassuringly of Cal. 'I think that's exactly the right reaction to have.'


'So long as they're not so offended at the implication that they deny it's possible and refuse to act against it.'


'Is that something we need to worry about?'


'No.' Tobias put his quill down and shook the parchment lightly to dry the ink. 'Sergeyev says he's treating the information Riley sent you most seriously. There'll be an investigation, a proper one, and we can do more than root out corruption in Russia, we can cut off the Thicknesse administration from its allies.'


Will's smirk broadened. 'They are not going to like you.'


'I know.' Tobias turned the parchment over with a smirk. 'I'm hoping I can topple Shacklebolt for the Number 2 spot with this.'


'I thought you were only Number 4 now?'


'But I'm definitely going to outstrip Jen and the Lions with this one. They won't get much public credit, it'll be all "investigative journalism" and "political clout" of the Midnight Press cracking these buggers open.' Tobias gestured with a sweeping flat palm, envisioning a headline. 'So I'm guaranteed Number 3. But I reckon I can get 2. If there are some good arrests.'


Will laughed, but there was a sobriety in his eyes Tobias had seen coming, and he sat up. 'If you're getting them that angry, they might do something.'


'They'd still need to get into the country undetected,' said Tobias. 'And I have no intentions of leaving. Any more.'


'We should be careful, though. Do you think it's likely that they have other allies? Or is it possible these connections are a fluke, perhaps even a plant, or... personal friends, or the like?'


Trust an Unspeakable to be this paranoid. Tobias grimaced. 'I doubt they're a fluke. I don't know about the rest, but considering the way Dark Magic has worked in this country...'


Will leaned forward. 'Tell me. International history is not my forte.'


Tobias sighed. 'This isn't Germany, or Austria, or Bulgaria. The Dark Magics here aren't the sins of their fathers from some fifty year-old war. And it's not like in Britain, where we jumped at shadows before an all-out conflict. There was no all-out conflict here.'


'What happened?'


'Muggle history bleeding over into wizarding, as has happened in every major event in our combined pasts, much as wizards like to think we're immune.' Tobias rolled his eyes. 'For Russia, you couldn't have a country of such staggering oppression, with such an astonishing gulf of wealth and prosperity, amongst the Muggles without this impacting on the wizards.'


'I'm a Muggleborn, remember, I grew up with the Cold War around me.' Will gave a sad smile. 'You're saying it trickled through?'


'As it does - with economics, with the impact of the Muggleborns in wizarding society. Dark Magic was a way for people to protect themselves from the Muggles - directly, or just trying to avoid being affected by the ripples. It also encouraged the anti-Muggleborn sentiments, as they and Dark Magic so often go hand in hand, because the Muggles were so... destructive. But instead of Dark Magic causing a splinter in society it became... interlocked. A part of it.' Tobias laced his fingers together demonstratively.


'A shadow war. Like before You-Know-Who's first rise, but without the final fracturing.'


'Exactly. Dark Witches and Wizards used their power and influence and nefarious methods to capitalise on the atmosphere of terror for years. They were ruthless and cutthroat in their bid for power, and if there hadn't been a massive backlash just under ten years ago, they would have either snuck their way to the top, or Russia would have had its own wizarding war. They were lucky in that they had no single consistent figurehead; leaders of the movement came and went, but there was no Grindelwald or You-Know-Who for them.'


'So what happened?'


Tobias sighed. 'The will of the people. Understand we're talking about a country which has had a truly spectacular hundred years. Paranoia is ingrained into the sensibilities of Russian wizards - I couldn't speak for the Muggles. Eventually, the forces opposing the dark ways consolidated their power and saw it formally banned. For the past ten years there have been ongoing and determined hunts to eradicate all traces of Dark Magic from Russia's wizarding population. Some of their measures make Azkaban look like a kindness.'


'I don't want to know.' Will lifted his hands, grimacing. 'So they take it seriously.'


'They do. But at the same time, it's an attitude which is entrenched and has been normalised for a long time. Plenty of perfectly young, upcoming wizards were raised with the values of dark magic. I think that makes them less brash than the British youths, who were only taught about it and didn't know how to live and breathe the lifestyle. The Russian ones had to hide to survive. So the ones who are left, are very good.'


Will wagged a finger at him. 'And are about to be very upset with you, my boy.'


'I know.' Tobias looked down at his parchment, and drew a deep breath. 'If they're trying to kill me, though - at least I'm doing something right.'




-------------




The office was more familiar to him than he'd have liked, and for all of its tidy opulence and professional appearance, just being in the room made Cal's skin crawl. He tried to not let it show as he stood, shoulders squared with almost military precision, in front of his father's desk.


'What do you want?'


Thanatos Brynmor lifted his head from the papers he'd been bent over slowly, arching an eyebrow. 'That's no way to greet anyone for a visit.'


'This isn't a visit,' said Cal tersely. 'I was ordered here.'


'I'm quite sure your presence here was requested. That was how I said the letter should be written. If my staff can't follow basic instructions, I'm sure I can have them punished -'


'Stop it.' Cal lifted a hand to his temples. 'I can read between the lines, I'm not an idiot. So? What's changed?'


Thanatos gestured to the chair, which Cal ignored. Snorting, the older man got to his feet, so neither of them had to look up to meet the other's gaze. 'What do you mean?'


'You've ignored me for the past four months. What happened? Did the festive spirit get to you, or something?' It had been bizarre to walk through the Ministry with the Christmas decorations up, some macabre mockery of a time of year Cal had always associated with happiness, contentment, and family.


'I haven't ignored you.' Thanatos straightened up. 'I sent Perkins to help you out. She was supposed to find you a job...'


'Well, that didn't work.' Cal shoved his hands in his pockets.


'And then you threw her out. So you can't really blame her for that.' He scratched his nose. 'I thought you didn't want anything to do with me, anyway.'


'I don't!'


'Then why are you complaining about me leaving you alone?' He padded around the desk, gait deceptively quiet and light for a man of his size and presence. 'I thought that was what you wanted. I thought Perkins would be a good compromise.'


Cal eyed his father suspiciously. 'Were you actually respecting my wishes?'


'Ignoring your wishes won't help anything.' Thanatos sighed, and perched on the end of the desk, opening his hands. 'But however much you might resent me, disagree with me, you are my son, and that isn't just going to go away.'


'This isn't like that we have a difference of opinion,' Cal sneered. 'As far as I'm concerned, you belong in prison.'


'Perhaps.' Thanatos bobbed his head, and Cal gawped at him in confusion. 'I'm not pretending I'm a good man, Caldwyn. Or a nice man. I'm not pretending that I've not done horrid things.' He stood, and padded over. 'I believe in the Dark Lord's cause. I believe that I'm making a better world here, for our kind, for you, and even for your friends. I believe to make that better world, some people are going to have to die, and some people are going to have to suffer. I'm prepared to do that.'


Cal scowled. 'How noble of you, Father.'


Thanatos flinched. 'I do not pretend I am making the kind of world I would live in. I am not so far gone as Lestrange, or Yaxley. I do not ignore, or relish in the fear I see in people's eyes. That fear is necessary, yes - but it should not be eternal. There will come a day when the threats to our way of life are faded, when Muggles and those of tainted blood are kept in their own world, far away from us, and on that day no witch or wizard will need to live in fear.'


Cal watched him, eyes scanning his expression for a hint of anything other than ardent sincerity. 'And what happens to you, on that day?'


Thanatos shrugged. 'I would fancy not Azkaban. I would hope the good I do means I do not need to be punished. But - somewhere quiet. Somewhere far away. Somewhere I do no harm to the world, and it does no harm to me.'


'I don't see you as the kind of man to retire quietly.'


'You don't see me as any kind of man at all.' Thanatos lifted a finger. 'I have kept you at arm's length because this has been what you wanted, Caldwyn. But also because, most simply, I do not want you deeply involved and entrenched in the work I do, even if you wanted to be. Because, when all of my work is done, I want it to be you who harvests the fruits of my labour. You, and your family, and your offspring.'


'So long as my offspring don't have a Muggle-born mother,' Cal muttered.


Thanatos made a face. 'You will understand. Some day.'


Cal folded his arms across his chest. 'Why am I here, again?'


'Perkins.' Thanatos waved a hand. 'She's no good to you?'


He flinched. 'I don't want her around.'


'She's very good at what she does.'


'And what is that, exactly? Why do you have an Enforcer helping me do paperwork? Unless she's a spy, as well.'


'I would say bodyguard,' said Thanatos. 'But she's an excellent organiser and administrator, as well. I'm surprised she couldn't find you something.'


'That part isn't... her fault,' Cal said grudgingly.


'Then is it a personal problem?'


He grimaced. 'Yes.'


'What kind?'


Cal looked up to meet Thanatos' gaze, and his father's eyes were so open and honest that, bewilderingly, he disliked the idea of disappointing him. '...if she's good at what she does,' he said awkwardly, 'then perhaps you can assign her back to me. If you must. But how about I come to her in the office, rather than her traipsing about my flat.'


'I imagine your housemate doesn't make her presence easy.'


'Tanith Cole is not known for making things easy,' said Cal automatically, and felt immediately guilty for speaking ill of his friend in front of Thanatos Brynmor. 'I mean - she doesn't trust her.'


'I appreciate Cole being protective of you, but I do worry about your closeness to her. She's such a questionable individual...'


'She's one of your Detectors,' Cal reminded him. 'And it's outrageous that you dragged her in for interrogation, just because she's friends with Toby, when I didn't even get so much as an interview!'


Thanatos squared his shoulders. 'It wasn't possible for you to have done what she was accused of,' he said. 'You hadn't been at the necessary places. But speaking of your friend Grey...' He lifted his gaze. 'He's started acting against us in the Russian government.'


Cal quirked an eyebrow. 'I didn't think there was anyone left in international governments too turn against you.'


'Not everyone is so closed-minded.' Thanatos' lip curled. 'Most countries have individuals in certain places who are sympathetic to our cause. I'm sure you read the articles, so I'm sure you know that he's struck against our most vocal supporters in the Russian government, who have since been ruthlessly removed.'


'You mean, he identified officials who were helping Dark Wizards smuggle goods out of the country, and now Russia's clamping down on the security gap the Midnight Press blew wide open? Which probably means that Russia is going to like him more and so be less likely to hand him over.' He smirked.


Thanatos eyed him dubiously. 'You seem awfully well-informed.'


'I read the article. I know you won't arrest me for that.' Cal rolled his eyes. 'I don't know anything, and even if I did, I'm not going to tell you.'


His father watched him for a few long moments, before he sighed. 'No,' he said at last. 'I suppose he wouldn't tell you.'


Cal's stomach flip-flopped, and his fists clenched. 'What's that supposed to mean?'


'I mean that I imagine he took your loyalty to me as a betrayal,' said Thanatos quietly.


'It wasn't loyalty,' Cal sneered. 'It was... stupidity.'


'It was a son wanting to know his father.'


Silence reigned, uncomfortable and supreme, for several long moments between them, before Cal straightened and squared his shoulders. 'Was there something else, Mister Brynmor?' he asked, his voice detached, clipped. 'Or was that all you wanted from me?'


Thanatos watched him for a few long moments, eyes dark and beady, before he gave a slow shake of the head. 'No,' he said at last. 'You can go, Caldwyn. Make an appointment with Perkins before you go. And... don't forget that if you need anything, you can come here.'


'Yeah, right,' he scoffed. 'That's why you let Tanith go for me, not for Bacchus Drake.'


Thanatos took a deep breath. 'You might want to remember, son,' he said carefully, 'that you never asked.'


Then he turned away and went back to his desk, and even as Cal fought for a response he realised that he had been dismissed - and all of a sudden, the fight had gone out of him. So he mumbled something incoherent and slumped out the door, into the corridors of the MLE wing of the Ministry, and made his way back down to the pit of desks he'd passed on the way in.


He'd spotted Perkins there, just out of the corner of his eye, and had then done his utmost to not look directly at her. She'd noticed him, though, he could tell, and he'd felt her eyes on the back of his neck all the way across the room.


This time he decided on the straight approach, and walked briskly over to her desk. The moment she'd spotted him she'd lowered her head and pretended to be hard at work, quill scratching over parchment with unnecessary fervour.


'We need an appointment,' he said once he stood over her.


Bright green eyes flickered up to meet his, full of caution and apprehension. 'If you wish, Mister Brynmor,' she said quietly.


'I think it would be best,' he said, though he wasn't sure why. 'Do you have an office or something in here we can go to?'


She nodded once, then seemed to realise she'd be required to speak. 'I can arrange it.'


'Next week, then.' Cal shifted his weight. 'Wednesday. Lunchtime?'


'One o' clock,' she confirmed. 'I'll see you then, Mister Brynmor.'


He wasn't sure he liked "Mister Brynmor", but he couldn't pretend he was thrilled by the idea of her calling him by his first name, either. It had led to... complications. Ones which added to the noxious cocktail of swirling guilt mixing and broiling in his stomach. So he didn't argue, just nodded briskly and left, hurrying out of the MLE quarter, out of the Ministry, and back to Diagon Alley as quickly as he could.


The street was no longer a hustle and bustle of fuss and noise and sounds, that condensed wizarding experience which came together whenever you got magical folks living and working in the same place. Magic had been the norm in Cal's life for as long as he could remember, but Will had brought him up with enough exposure to Muggle life and Muggle environment that he could appreciate the difference between the two.


But it wasn't just Diagon Alley felt like a Muggle road, with people refusing to stick their heads out their own front doors if they didn't have to, and half the shops with closed signs in windows or boarded up. It felt like a street, a land, of the dead and the dying. As if someone had taken a vibrant picture and then drained all of the colour out of it.


He ignored the Wandless, as he always had, and made for that one, defiant spot of colour and brightness in area. Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes was hardly the extravaganza of fun and indulgences it had been when Cal and Tanith had first moved in. It wasn't open as often as it used to be, the fireworks - and less identifiable but equally loud and annoying noises - went off less often. The decoration had fallen down and not been replaced. And there'd been a hardness to the brothers' eyes he'd not seen before whenever he passed them in the road.


But there were still smiles, grim as they were. There were still toys in the windows, there were still bright colours, there were still the odd noises. There was still light.


His own building was an even more gloomy affair in contrast. The law firm his flat sat above had been abandoned for two months; he didn't know if the owners had shut it down or just fled. Their landlord had threatened to raise rent, likely feeling the pinch without the company giving him an income. Tanith had done something to take care of that; he didn't know what, and he didn't want to. She'd probably just implied someone from the MLE would come give him trouble.


But that was as good as committing a man to torture some days.


And, as always, he hadn't over-thought the issue.


He never did.


Tanith was sat at the sofa when he came in, the radio on the coffee table, fiddling with it. It crackled and whizzed with a tremendous amount of fuss, and he only got a grunt of greeting and acknowledgement as he closed the door behind him, so deep was her concentration.


Cal frowned. 'Hey.'


Another grunt.


'How was your day?'


Yet another grunt.


'Mine was fine.'


Nothing.


'I turned into a swan and went on a mad rampage through the Ministry. It was great.'


'That's ni - what?'


'Got your attention.' Cal pulled his coat off and tossed it onto the stand by the door. 'What's up?'


'I was just...' Tanith frowned at the radio, then set it back down again. 'Nothing. Sorry. I had a night shift last night, I only just got up.'


'Right.' Cal went to sit down next to her, gaze sweeping across their rather stark flat. 'We should decorate.'


'You've been saying that since summer.'


'I mean, for Christmas.'


Tanith snorted. 'Because this is a proper den of festive cheer, isn't it. We won't even be here on Christmas Day.'


Cal shifted his weight. 'You won't be. Where do you think I'm going to go?'


She hesitated, and he could see she'd not given his own holiday plans any thought. To be honest, he'd barely given them any thought. Mostly to avoid contemplating his options. Last year, he'd spent it with Will, who was on the run abroad. This year he'd considered spending it with Nat - who was in Azkaban. That meant his only choice now was to spend it alone, as the alternatives were too peculiar or horrifying to consider.


'I guess. I don't really have time to decorate, though. I trust you to do it.' She stood, and went to put his radio away, to one side by the window. 'How was the Ministry?'


Cal grunted. 'You know. A waste of time.'


'Did you see Perkins?' He'd not told her a thing of what had happened with him and his 'adviser' - he barely wanted to think about it himself, let alone share it with Tanith's judgemental attitudes - but she was still not stupid. He doubted she'd guessed the truth, but she knew something was up.


'Yeah,' he said awkwardly. 'We're going to have more meetings.'


'Right.'


Cal nodded at the radio. 'What were you trying to find?'


Tanith froze with, he thought, unnecessary guilt at a simple station surfing, before turning and shrugging. 'Nothing. I was just... browsing, you know. Seeing if there was anything on.' She paused. 'There's not.'


'Yeah, it's a bit... quiet.' He watched her with a frown, and scratched his nose. 'Are you out again tonight?'


'I'm not back in the office 'til tomorrow.'


'That's not what I meant. You've been out a lot, lately. Of an evening. Where do you go?'


Tanith shrugged in the world's worst evasion tactic. 'Out. I go for walks. I find it helps.'


Cal got to his feet gingerly. 'You can talk to me, you know. About work. About... anything.'


She met his gaze, and he could see the guarded air in her eyes. 'I know.'


'Because I know it's got to suck for you right now. Working for my father. Working in the MLE. Hunting people like Riley. And I don't want to imagine what happened to you when they dragged you in for working with Tobias.' Cal scratched his nose. 'You don't talk about it.'


Tanith shrugged again. 'There's nothing to talk about.'


He frowned. 'Either you got arrested for something you didn't do, which sounds like a hell of a good conversation topic - or you are in touch with Tobias, and you've not told me. Though if you are, I've got to say, no bloody wonder you wriggled out of them fingering you for it. I've not been able to tell.'


She lifted a hand. 'If I knew something delicate, and I told you, that puts you in an impossible position.'


'What do you mean?'


Tanith cocked her head. 'There are important people you come into contact with most days. Lying like that couldn't be easy.'


'In this hypothetical conversation,' Cal said, rather sarcastically, 'you manage to hide what you're doing from people. All day, every day. And your people are more likely to dob you in than my people are.'


'Yes, but none of those people are my father.'


Cal flinched. 'I wouldn't sell you out to him.' It was hard, he realised, to get indignant about that. Does she know?


'No, but I know the situation between the two of you is...' Tanith gestured. 'Complicated.'


'Complicated.' He rolled a shoulder. 'What you're saying, Tanith, is that you don't trust me. After all we've been through. After all you know about me. After everything I have done to demonstrate how I hate the Dark Arts, how I want as little as possible to do with my father -'


'How did you break Tobias' nose?'


There it was. Not the million galleon question, but certainly one of the big ones. Because he couldn't explain that without the whole pack of cards coming tumbling down.


Cal turned away. 'He didn't tell you? He tells you everything else.' It was hard to not sound bitter. To not be bitter.


'I know it was bad. And I know he was trying to have as little to do with you as possible after what happened to Annie.' He could feel Tanith's eyes on his back. 'I doubt it was just to do with the fact that Brynmor was there, that Brynmor as good as killed her.'


'Isn't that enough? After all my family's done to him?'


'I thought it was,' she said, and he glanced at her. Her arms were folded across her chest, her brow furrowed, her stance taut - everything he had come to recognise about her as antagonistic, untrusting. Apprehensive.


Even afraid.


'And then there was that night at the Ravenclaw Quidditch stands.'


Cal did turn at that, because he knew that tone of accusation in her voice, and his brow furrowed. 'What the hell does that have to do with anything? You know what happened! They found me down there! What did I do that night?'


'It's not what you did,' Tanith said evasively. 'It's what you could have done.'


'Could...?' He frowned. 'I could have turned into a bloody squirrel and thrown nuts at them; what does could have to do with anything?'


'Everything,' she said. 'When it comes to what you could feel compelled to, or be tricked, or manipulated into, telling your father.'


He wanted to shout. Wanted to rant and rave, wanted to demand how she dared make that kind of accusation at him. Because he wasn't that kind of man, that kind of boy, so weak-willed and desperate to know the father he'd never had, to find something good and decent in the father who'd been nothing more than a demon in his head since his childhood. Wasn't a traitor, wouldn't sell out his friends, wouldn't hurt them, wouldn't give others the means to hurt them.


Except he was. Except he'd all but given Annie MacKenzie to Brynmor and Robb. And that had shattered more than one life. Everything, every event or action or word of the past year, could be traced to that one night, or had been irrevocably altered by it.


And it was his fault.


He looked down. 'You're saying you don't trust me.'


Tanith looked away, then made a noise of frustration, and stormed over to where that old coat of Altair Ritter's hung on the stand. She yanked it on with a flapping of leather and a flurry of frustration. 'Don't take it personally, Cal,' his closest remaining friend of seven years said, cold and detached. 'Right now, I don't trust anyone.'


Chapter 21: The Hollow Men
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‘We knew there were going to be consequences,’ said Tobias said as he paced across the apartment’s living room, hands clasped behind his back.

‘It’s still not worth destroying all we’ve built here, though.’ Aurora watched him, a frown on her face as she shuffled through the pieces of parchment on the coffee table, on her lap, on the sofa next to her. ‘We do sometimes have to pick our battles.’

‘And I’ve picked this one.’

‘I’m not arguing that. I agreed with you, if you recall. You don’t have to be so defensive.’

He stopped, running a hand through his hair. ‘I’m sorry. I know I did the right thing. I know we have done the right thing. Six arrests, the company’s shut down, the smuggling’s come to an end. Just Will was so ardent - I expect everyone to tell me I’m wrong.’

‘We’re in a hard enough spot as it is without you imagining attacks, Tobias.’ Aurora waved a hand. ‘We can weather this. I’m just saying that we might want to step delicately. You’re still Sergeyev’s darling, don’t you worry, but he’s not the be all and end all of Russian politics.’

‘I’ve annoyed someone else? Not possible. My schedule is far too full for another mortal enemy. And they’d have to land themselves, oh, at least number six, and that would just be embarrassing for them...’ Tobias waved a hand whimsically.

‘Six?’ She arched an eyebrow.

‘You-Know-Who. Brynmor. Robb. Yaxley. Piotr. Then them.’

‘Piotr?’ Aurora frowned. ‘The receptionist down at the embassy? He’s your number five mortal enemy?’

‘Hey, he was really annoying.’ Tobias gave her a lopsided smile. ‘I’m sorry. I know this is hard work, and I know you have to clean up most of the politics while I just get to prance around in the background and write my articles to cause trouble for you.’

‘That is, by the way, exactly how I describe you to the staffers when they ask. Especially the prancing.’ She looked up at him. ‘The Death Eaters are desperate, apparently, to extradite you. Which is making Sergeyev even more intent to keep you here. You’re clearly angering them.’

‘Which means we’re making a difference.’ He sighed. ‘But you said it’s harder.’

‘Not everyone thinks like Sergeyev.’ Aurora rifled through some parchment and passed him a few sheafs. ‘I doubt the three men you identified down in customs were the only Dark Magic sympathisers in the system. Or even the only ones involved in the corruption.’

‘So Dimitri likes to tell me.’

‘Perhaps you ought to listen to him. I know he’s young, but he really is very good at what he does. His father works in the Federation, and I don’t mean he got his job through nepotism - he has an excellent idea of what’s going on in the government.’

Tobias rubbed his temples ruefully. ‘He’s older than me, you know.’

Aurora’s lips twisted. ‘I do know. I often forget that you’re not even twenty. You seem... older than him.’

He snorted. ‘Thanks. I feel like I’m going to go grey at any moment.’ Tobias sighed. ‘I know Dimitri’s good. That’s why I’ve asked him to keep an eye on the situation. He said he was talking to some friends in Russia’s MLE Department this evening; he ought to have sent me an update by now.’

She watched him as he got to his feet and wandered over to the wide windows, peering between the thick drapes that chased off the cold into the night air. ‘It’s not that late,’ she said. ‘I’m sure he’ll let you know.’

‘I know.’ Tobias frowned at the glass. ‘I distrusted him, you know.’

‘He mentioned. He seemed quite upset. I don’t think it’s wrong for you to be careful.’

‘I should have trusted him. If I can’t trust the people around me, I’m pretty much screwed, really. What if-’ He stopped as there was a rapping on the door, a quick, light beat that didn’t sound like knuckles knocking.

An owl.

‘I told you he’d come through,’ said Aurora as Tobias crossed the room to open up the front door, and in fluttered a rather irritable owl, who alighted on the back of a chair and immediately began grooming itself. Its feathers were flecked with melting snow, though at this time of year owls were generally not used for long-distance trips in this part of the world. It couldn’t have come very far.

‘I didn’t doubt you,’ he said, a little defensive as he pulled the message from the owl’s leg, and sent it off to the kitchen where he kept out some water and feed as a rule. This was not the first owl to come flittering into the building as a messenger, and most had travelled outright internationally. A wizard who mistreated his courier owls was a poor wizard indeed.

‘What’s he got to say?’ she asked as he unfolded the letter.

Tobias frowned. ‘He doesn’t say anything. Just says his meeting didn’t go as expected. He wants to meet me. Back out in the park.’

Aurora cast a glance outside. ‘It’s freezing out there.’

‘It’s always freezing out there. But he’s right, it’s safe from us being overheard. Dimitri wouldn’t ask to meet me out there if it weren’t important.’ He turned to where his thick coat, by now his best friend in Russia, hung by the door.

She got to her feet. ‘I’ll come with you.’

‘No, no.’ Tobias waved a hand. ‘It’ll be fine. You have to finish proof-reading those, anyway, if we want to release the next issue by the end of the week. He’ll just want to badmouth the administration without them hearing about it. We can get away with that, but he might get fired.’

Aurora nodded ruefully, sitting back down. ‘Don’t be long, then.’

‘I won’t,’ he assured her, and left. Not before making sure he had easy access to his wand, that his thick coat didn’t stop him from going for it swiftly, of course. Even if a trip to the park to meet Dimitri was not exactly unusual, it was still dark out there, and it paid to be cautious.

He couldn’t help but worry, as he emerged from the building and crunched into the night-clad streets of Moscow. The meeting hadn’t gone ‘as expected’? What did that mean? Had the MLE found more to the underground dark magic movement than they’d expected? He was already watching his back as much as he could without locking himself away or hiring some sort of all-hours protection; both sounded tiresome.

Or perhaps Dimitri Radimir was just being paranoid. Tobias didn’t really believe anyone was actively eavesdropping on either their press office or on their embassy rooms; it would violate too many international laws to do so. Even if they weren’t formally the British embassy, other wizarding nations would be outraged at the revelation, and they had living and working with them Will Rayner, an Unspeakable of the Ministry of Magic. If anyone was going to uncover illicit magical surveillance being used against them, it would be him.

But it didn’t hurt to indulge Dimitri’s worry. And although him being fired was hardly worse than the three British wizards being murdered in their beds, he had no desire to make life difficult for the other man - and it especially worked to his disadvantage if he was going to have to learn how to work with a new liaison. Dimitri supported them as best he could. He needed allies in Russia.

There had been fresh snowfall which fell across the path into the park, and Tobias’ feet crunched a new route as he wandered into the dark, deep expanses of the wintry wonderland. But it was a bit too late, a bit too gloomy for him to feel relaxed by his environment, and he slipped his wand up his sleeve, muttering a quiet ‘Lumos,’ under his breath, and let the light filter across the path and the darkness of the shrubbery around him.

He doubted any Muggles would be out here this late - he was pretty stupid to be out himself - and if they were, it was so dark they’d probably just assume he had a torch.

The scribbled letter hadn’t made it clear exactly where to meet in the park, but Tobias set off down the route he and Dimitri had taken before, down a path which wound its way around one of the ponds, frozen solid at this time of year, and before long was rewarded with the sight, just on the curve of the path around the waterfront, of a glimmer of light not unlike his own.

His shoulders relaxed and he wandered up to the shape of Dimitri, silhouetted against both their wand-lights, towering and imposing in the gloom. ‘Hey. What’s happened?’

Then the figure turned to face him properly, and Tobias’ blood ran cold when he realised it wasn’t Dimitri who stood before him at all.

‘A great many things, Mister Grey. We must stop meeting like this,’ said the tall, shadowy shape of the Death Eater Idaeus Robb.

Tobias’ expression twisted, and he let his wand slip down from his sleeve into his hand even as he whipped his arm up. Without hesitation he let loose a Stunning spell, but Robb’s wand was already up, and the magic crashed harmlessly off a competently conjured shield.

Robb’s curt wave of the wand in retaliation was enough for Tobias to feel his feet yanked out from under him. He hit the slippery, icy path hard, hard enough to knock the breath out of him, and struggled to get his legs back on solid purchase as he brought his wand up again.

‘I would stop while you’re ahead, Mister Grey. Else we will be forced very much to hurt you,’ said Robb. Tobias was going to ignore him until the shadows around him shifted and he realised that ‘we’ was, indeed, the right term for Robb to take. Two individuals stepped out of the gloom to have him encircled, both large and burly, both clutching wands.

‘Dimitri,’ Tobias spat. ‘Where is he?’ He didn’t know if he should be afraid for the Russian, or furious.

‘I don’t know,’ said Robb, bluntly. ‘Probably still at his meeting with the Enforcer Department. Don’t look so shocked that this time you’ve not been betrayed, Mister Grey. Consider it an early Christmas present.’

If he made it to next year, Tobias promised himself, he would spend the Christmas season somewhere warm, somewhere far, far away, and somewhere safe. ‘You haven’t hurt him?’

‘We haven’t done anything to him. But he’s played his role admirably, simply by being trusted enough by you that you would come into the middle of nowhere to see him. Alone. Company would just ruin this conversation, you see.’

Tobias went to get to his feet, slowly and gingerly, and with his wand arm clearly visible for all three wizards, they didn’t stop him. ‘I would have hate to have interrupted this opportunity for you.’

‘It’s not just for me. My friends here would like a word.’ Robb extended a hand to the other two. ‘These gentlemen have been quite upset by you. It seems you’re responsible for landing several of their very good friends in prison with your meddling. I, on the other hand, should thank you. Had you not given us this common, uniting purpose, then I doubt they would have helped me get into the country unnoticed.’

Tobias gritted his teeth. It was remarkable, he reflected, how this dull sense of dawning inevitability and doom in his gut was a feeling he’d gotten used to. And just because he’d felt it before, and thwarted it before, didn’t mean that he was any more optimistic that this time he’d be just as lucky. Just as alive.

But it did mean he could think clearly enough through the dread. Clearly assess his situation, clearly assess his options.

Situation: Dire.

Options: Bugger And All.

‘I assume the purpose is “horrible death for Tobias Grey”,’ he said.

‘I’m afraid so. They wanted to have a personal hand in it, you see. Because I’d love to cart you back and string you up by your balls from the Ministry Dedication Statue, so nobody would even think of putting pen to paper with negative thoughts about the Dark Lord, but I imagine the Russians wouldn’t be very happy. So we can’t set an example of you. You’re just going to have to disappear. I thought, since our friends have done so much for us, it would be cruel for them to not have so much as the joy of reading extensively about your final minutes. So I invited them.’

Tobias’ eyes roved over their surroundings, desperately hunting for anything that might help him. All he had was the frozen pond on one side, and a steep rise through thick, snowy undergrowth and heavy bushes on the other. The path itself was open and clear. ‘You’re good at sharing like that.’

‘I can’t say I’m not disappointed,’ said Robb, and Tobias was relieved to realise the man was just as fond of talking as he’d been six months ago, a year ago. ‘I would have looked forward to showing you the error of your ways. Just how fruitless what you’ve been doing is, and the foolishness of your endeavours. How empty it all is, and just how empty that makes you. An empty cause for a hollow man.’

Tobias snorted. ‘With my headpiece filled with straw?’ He shook his head as Robb’s face creased with consternation. ‘It’s a poem, Robb. I wouldn’t expect you to get culture. “Our dried voices when we whisper together are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass, or rat’s feet over broken glass.”

‘Muggle pretension,’ said Robb dismissively. ‘Though this will prove that you are, indeed, quiet and meaningless. About to be as quiet as the grave.’

Tobias gritted his teeth again, and tightened his grip on his wand, still painted down at the ice.

‘You should thank me, really,’ Robb continued as he lifted his wand. ‘Now, at last, you get to join your girl.’

He’d been concentrating, and concentrating hard, since the last remnants of the poem had escaped from his lips. “Broken Glass” had been what had given him the inspiration, but trying to cast not only silently, but without obvious wand movement, was far too difficult when his intentions were so ambitious and complex.

Robb’s gibe stirred the dark rage within that had laid dormant for a year, furious enough to simplify everything. And then magic sparked out of the tip of his wand.

It was a simple spell, for simplest spells were often the strongest at these times, and the easiest to do under stress and constraint. And not one of the three attackers identified what he’d done until they reacted, wands coming snapping up at him, curses on the tips of their tongues, bracing into a combat stance.

And shifting their feet on the ice he had just nudged that inch closer to being melted. To become slick and unsteady underfoot.

One of the Russians did slip and fall, the other - as well as Robb - just instinctively staggered as the ground became slippery. Robb did get a curse off, but it flew overhead, sparking off in the bushes around them.

Tobias threw himself for these bushes, diving into cover and snapping off several curses behind him as he did so. There was no time, then, for silent casting, but it didn’t matter that his enemies could hear him hollering “Stupefy!” when the light from his wand crashed into the fallen Russian and left him lying in the melting ice, motionless.

One down.

Robb was shouting obscenities along with his curses, but his rage made him easier to anticipate, and Tobias kept moving. He didn’t trust himself to be able to make it up the steep, frozen bank without slipping, and a foot placed wrong with magic flying around could be the difference between life and death. He needed to win time, or a distraction, before he could make an escape.

So he ducked as Robb threw sparking magic into the undergrowth, and several of his own spells came flashing back. With two out there hurling curses at him he had to dodge as much as use his shield spells, relying on the darkness and the trees for cover and defence as much as his own skill. Behind one tree - pop out, throw a spell, move to fresh cover, let their spells thud into where he had been for a moment, repeat the process.

He couldn’t keep it up. It just wasn’t feasible. They could stand firm, keep their shields up, and pick him off at their leisure, and once Robb cooled his head it was likely what he’d do. Tobias grimaced in the dark, flashing his wand to magically snatch up an array of fallen branches and dirt and dead leaves, mixed in with ice, and hurled them all at the standing Russian.

It was what Tanith would do.

The Russian staggered, hand coming up to protect his face against the debris hurled at him, and Tobias saw his opening. He side-stepped from behind cover, needing a clear line of sight, and channelled every inch of his desperation into the next curse.

The slashing curse slammed into the man’s chest with a mix of ice, mud, and blood, and he dropped immediately, the vicious cut across his torso streaming. Tobias didn’t care. He was still standing. His enemy was not.

Then Robb’s next attack hit him.

He’d known pain. He’d suffered the Cruciatus, he’d suffered broken bones, he’d taken magical beatings. Aches and pains from an extended battering. But the agony that struck his left leg was like all of it rolled into one single, exquisite slash of agony that knocked him off his feet and saw him hitting the ice, hard.

As if the impact mattered. As if anything mattered but the sharp pain in his leg, the spinning of his head, the blood seeping from the vicious gash at his thigh and spreading out into the ice, crimson life stark and bold against the perfect white frost.

Against all odds he heard the faint tinkling of metal, and blinked groggily around him to see the blast had knocked his watch from his pocket, left it lying in the ice with his blood streaming around it. The watch Tanith had given him, the watch he’d clung on to as his one last tether to everything from before, everything that mattered, everything that motivated him, with that one word inscribed on it...

Remember...

He could hear ragged breathing, and was surprised to realise it wasn’t his own. A shadow fell over him, blocking out the bright, silvery moon, and Tobias realised Robb had closed the gaps. His chest was heaving from the exertions of the fight, but he seemed to be a very long way away, so distant and irrelevant compared to the seeping agony of his wound.

‘I have... enjoyed fighting you... Mister Grey,’ Robb gasped, straightening achingly. ‘I’d offer you, again, the right to die on your feet, but I don’t think that will happen.’

Robb’s wand - Tobias’ old wand, the wand he’d lost a year ago after he’d broken Robb’s own - came down to point straight at him, blurry before his eyes. ‘Goodbye, Mister Grey.’

Stupefy!’

Idaeus Robb had not lived as long as he had, Tobias thought, without becoming very good at what he did. For although he only had half a heartbeat to react to the hollered curse thrown at him, he still managed to snatch his wand up and get the beginning of a protective shield in the way. The spell hit him regardless, and with enough strength to send him flying back, onto the surface of the frozen pond where he hit the ice and skidded metres more.

Skidded far away.

‘Not him! You will not have him!’

It was Aurora, storming down the path Tobias had come from, wand in hand, advancing on Robb. Her hair was wild, her eyes wide, and she didn’t stop letting off spell after spell. She strode forwards, past him, onto the ice, as the Death Eater struggled to get to his feet - failed, and remained kneeling - and could do nothing more than try to snap off protective spell after protective spell.

Tobias blinked back the pain, gritting his teeth, remembering how he’d fought through agony before and survived to tell the tale as he struggled to move. Though he’d not bled so much before, left so much blood, and his left leg refused to move, refused to cooperate. All he could do was tighten his iron grip on his wand and, with his free hand, begin to drag himself across the ice towards where witch and wizard fought.

He didn’t know what he could do. But he had to do something.

He was a good few feet onto the iced-over waters himself by the time Aurora reached Robb. She threw another curse at him, he blocked this one but was still knocked onto his back, and then she was there, standing over him, wand snapping down at his face.

‘Not this time,’ she declared, her voice ringing loud and clear across the ice. ‘This time, I can stop you -’

Then Robb’s foot lashed out to crack into her knee, and everything changed. He wasn’t on his back with a wand levelled at him, he was rising to his feet and Aurora was falling. He snatched her wrist as she went down, kicking the back of her knee to force her into a kneeling position, splayed out before him.

His wand pressed against her forearm, and in the moonlight reflecting off the ice onto his pale face, he looked even more monstrous than he ever had in Tobias’ dreams. ‘No,’ he told Aurora softly, head tilting half an inch. ‘You can’t.’

And fire curled out from the tip of his wand, the flames horrendous in shape and length, and erupted onto Aurora’s hand, along her arm, billowing around to engulf her within seconds.

Tobias jerked half-upright as the Fiendfyre burst forth and swirled around his mentor’s shape, not even giving her the time to scream as Robb pushed her away and straightened with a dark, satisfied smile. ‘No! No!’

Robb’s head snapped up at the shout, but his smile didn’t fade, and with a whip of the wand he made the Fiendfyre contort and spread, beyond Aurora’s already smouldering, ashing, collapsing corpse to move in a direct wave across the ice towards Tobias’ injured form.

It wasn’t fear that guided his reaction, however, but rage. Rage, and desperation, and hate, and with a wordless cry that gave no precision to his magic but plenty of strength, he brought his wand slamming down on the ice. The impact gave a deep boom as the ice cracked and shook all around, then all was still for half a heartbeat.

This is the way the world ends.

The first pocket of ice to explode was only ten feet away from Tobias - the next, twenty, then thirty, ice shattering from the pond and erupting into the air. Clouds of buffeting, eviscerating shards as sharp and perfect as glass swarmed first towards Robb, then were too thick to have any direction and consumed the lake as a whole.

And now the Fiendfyre wasn’t just racing towards him as Robb’s concentration was broken, it began to spread and surge all around. The waves of ice exploded and mingled with it too, and within seconds Tobias lost sight of the Death Eater in roiling mass engulfing the lake. Which kept coming.

Not with a bang but a -

The swirling storm of ice and fire and oblivion hit him only seconds later.


--------------------


A/N: The quotes contained within and the quote in the chapter summary are from T.S. Eliot's 'The Hollow Men'. This is also the poem from which this fanfic draws its title.

In this chapter, of all chapters, they appeared the most appropriate.



Chapter 22: The Ends of the Earth
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Tanith was relieved to see the Leaky Cauldron was quiet this time of morning, as she slunk through it with her coat wrapped firmly around her, and headed to the back yard. Few people stayed in the establishment out of anything other than necessity these days, and so if anyone was awake at this time they'd probably have left anyway, gone off on their business or whatever they needed. A pleasant breakfast and morning cup of tea were indulgences that could get you killed.


Nobody liked to linger in and around Diagon Alley if they didn't have to, not unless it was broad and busy daylight and you knew you had nothing to fear. Those who had nothing to fear were few and far between. But, at least, she wasn't going to Diagon Alley.


She just needed a good place to Disapparate.


That hadn't been possible in the pub she and David had been sat in 'til closing hour. Nor had it been possible at the bar they'd found where they'd whiled away even later hours of the night. Or at his flat, finishing off the evening with nothing more than a couple more beers and copious amounts of coffee. Doing nothing more than talking.


She didn't know she could talk so much while telling so little of the truth... and telling so few lies, to boot. But it had meant for an evening more liberated, more relaxing, than any she'd known in months. Maybe years.


Tanith couldn't pretend she was entirely sober, either. She'd taken it easy on the drinks, and wasn't so tired since she'd had a night shift the evening before, and had spent most of the previous day sleeping anyway. It was only just approaching bed-time by her body clock. But she felt groggy for the drinks, groggy for that it was barely dawn, and so had benefited from a walk in the crisp cold winter air before she tried to magically transpose herself across London.


The back yard of the Leaky Cauldron was safe from prying eyes, either Muggles to whom she'd be breaking the Statute, or wizards who might mock a few failed attempts. So she only needed to spin on the spot twice before she was away from the pub, and stumbling into the alleyway in Canary Wharf.


'Bloody Jacob,' she muttered to herself, and cursed internally cursed her on soft-heartedness in agreeing to pop into the office to sign some documents for him before she fell into bed. She didn't have to be at work 'til the following morning, giving her a good long while to reset her body clock, but it was approaching a time when she didn't want to think - just sleep.


The Magical Law Enforcement Office was quiet when she stepped in. Those in the lobby, hurrying in late for their shift or ending their night shifts, left with slumped shoulders and bent heads. In her haze she didn't really notice it, didn't really pay attention, until she climbed the stairs, wandered through the corridors, and opened the door to the office pens of the Detectors assigned to hunt the Lions.


And was met with an immediate hubbub far too excitable for seven o' clock in the morning.


She stopped. It was easy to see the serious expressions on the faces of those she trusted, and the quiet, smug jubilation of those she didn't. Lackardy and Mulready were on the far side, talking together with a few of their other cronies, speaking urgently but with the occasional chuckle and smug twist of a smile.


Others, those she'd known for too long to suspect had any Death Eater leanings, were grim-faced and subdued.


Then Jacob appeared suddenly at her side and touched her at the elbow. 'Tanith...'


'What's happened?' She looked at his expression and curiosity faded for concern and dread as she saw his sombre face. '...Jake?'


Her partner took a deep breath, but before he could answer the shadow of the burly shape of Mulready fell over them, and she looked up into the Death Eater's leering face. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. 'Cole. Mister Brynmor wants to see you. He's in the briefing room.'


Jacob scowled. 'Wait just a minute -'


'No.' Mulready glared at the smaller man. 'He said the moment you get in.'


Jacob straightened, eyes flashing. 'You cold-hearted -'


'Careful, Van Roden. We're all on the same side here. Aren't we,' said Mulready, voice quiet but enough to silence the younger man, who just glared daggers at him.


Tanith shifted her feet. 'What's this all about?'


'You'll see.'


She glared at Mulready's curt jerk of the head, but gave Jacob a reassuring squeeze of the shoulder and headed for the briefing room. They didn't use it often - or, at least, she didn't, it was usually reserved for the team leaders in the MLE to hold discussions. If a team itself needed to be told anything, they huddled in a corner of their office. It worked well enough.


Brynmor using it for personal audiences, lacking an office in Canary Wharf, was not so unusual. But her gut only twisted into tighter knots as she wondered what he wanted to see her for. Had they found the other coal? Had they finally decided that her family name and connections had been dredged through the mud enough with her father in Azkaban so as to no longer shield her?


She just managed to stop her hand from shaking as she rapped on the door and ducked inside at the mumbled summons.


It was a long, gloomy room, with a heavy oak table in the centre. The curtains were drawn, the meagre, pale sunlight failing to do more than silhouette the window. But they did reach the shadowy figure sat at the far end, too large and burly to be anyone but Thanatos Brynmor.


His head was in his hands and his movements slow when he looked up at her arrival. 'Cole.'


But gone was his smug sense of superiority, his cold condescension. His voice was strained and - dare she think it - hoarse?


What the hell is going on?


'You wanted to see me, sir?' She hovered uncertainly near the door.


'Sit down,' said Brynmor curtly, and reached under the table for a bottle of Firewhiskey and a couple of tumblers. 'Do you want a drink?'


Tanith approached cautiously, pulling up a chair a few seats down from him. 'It's a little early for that, isn't it, sir?'


'Not today,' said Brynmor, and poured two glasses anyway. But the whiskey and the glasses weren't the only things on the table, and as she finally caught the glint of metal, her breath caught in her throat. Brynmor looked down and seemed to follow her line of sight, and he sighed.


'Robb was contacted by native sympathisers of the Dark Lord who he'd been inconveniencing,' he said, voice grating, and he threw back a mouthful of whiskey. 'They said they could get Robb in the country, get him on his own, and help divert government attention. He'd upset enough people in the Federation that for everyone wanting to protect him, there was someone who wanted to kill him. It was inevitable.'


Brynmor placed the glass down heavily. 'He was resourceful, by the survivors' accounts. Not without reinforcements, despite the best plans. And fought hard enough to drive Robb to utilising Fiendfyre to take him and his allies down. He fought back... and Robb lost control. The Fiendfyre consumed them all.' He reached for the last item on the table, and slid it across to her with the noisy ring of metal on wood.


'This was all we found. I thought, with his next-of-kin out of the country, that it'd be appropriate for you to have it.'


Tanith stared mutely at the silver pocket watch on the table before her, studded with tiny emeralds and smeared with blood.


It was unmistakably the gift she'd given Tobias when they had parted ways last summer, on the platform at King's Cross.


She drew a deep, shuddering breath as her mind whirled and her gut went cold and she was graced with half a moment's coherent thought before reality set in. 'You found... no bodies...?'


Brynmor shook his head, looking sullen. 'Fiendfyre is dangerous like that. Idaeus must have been desperate to even consider it. But we cast some charms on the waters of the frozen - or, formerly frozen - pond they were fighting on. We confirmed remains of Aurora Marlowe, Tobias Grey... and Idaeus Robb in there.'


Numb fingers reached out for the pocket watch, numb fingers that shook at the touch of the cold metal. 'Robb is dead...?'


Good. He took the bastard down with him.


Brynmor poured himself some more whiskey, gruffly. 'Yes. It'll be all over the evening papers.' He slid the other glass over to her, and when she didn't move, made a pained noise of aggravation. 'He fought well.'


He sounded like he was trying to reassure her. The thought was so ridiculous that she couldn't help but reach for the whiskey. 'Not well enough.'


'You know how many people I met who could handle Robb?' Brynmor glared gloomily at his whiskey. 'Two. Alastor Moody. William Rayner. And I wasn't there when he fought Rayner...'


'But he sent you to Azkaban.' Tanith's head jerked up, the words and thoughts numb in her head. 'And he killed your wife.'


It was a clumsy thing to say. Even she didn't hate Thanatos Brynmor to be so cold, not intentionally. But coherent thought or a capacity for emotion were mutually exclusive at that moment.


Brynmor just nodded. 'Robb came for him later. Years later, after the war. He was trying to find Caldwyn, to get him away from being raised by a mudblooded murderer. But... Rayner tricked him, kept him at bay 'til the Enforcers got there. Rayner was... is... good.' He took a swig of whiskey. 'Damn shame we didn't find any of his remains in the pond.'


The whiskey burnt its way down her throat, more painful than soothing, and she let the glass fall heavily on the table. Brynmor looked over at this, and made a face. 'Point I was making,' he grumbled, 'was that your boy... he had to be good. Really good. To get the better of Idaeus like that.'


'He wasn't "my boy",' she mumbled.


'Good enough,' said Brynmor, eyes turning skywards. 'We almost got him before. Our spies in Russia said, when we had you locked up, it almost got him to come running.'


Almost. Tanith's hand clenched reflexively around the pocketwatch. That's the best word to describe the two of us, isn't it. A world of 'almost's. 'But he didn't.'


He sighed. 'Guess not.' Brynmor finished his whiskey and got to his feet, big shoulders broad, taut. 'Take the next few days off, Cole. You'll be no use to me with your guts hanging out like that.'


It was an unpleasantly apt metaphor, but she couldn't do anything more than nod automatically at the suggestion. Coherent thought was fading, quickly, and even the idea of moving was making itself more and more of a challenge.


He left, and then she was sat, alone in that room, with nothing but an empty whiskey glass and the warming silver of the pocketwatch digging into the palm of her hand, the pale sunlight still failing to penetrate the curtains, still failing to penetrate the shadow of her thoughts.


Alone.


Now it was time to cry, surely. To scream, to shout, to throw the glass at the wall, to punch that a few times, too. To upturn the chairs and tables, to wreck everything, to let out every little inkling of hurt and pain and anguish.


But she didn't move.


She just sat and stared at the watch.


Remember.


----------------


The magical tents had been the best thing the Lions of Britain had ever stolen. With just three of the small things they could set themselves up to stay on the move, undetectable, and always guaranteed a bed rather than a sleeping mat in the corner of a soggy warehouse.


But Gabriel didn't want to be anywhere near them that evening.


They were subdued, certainly. Nobody had taken the news well when Percival Anderson had apparated just outside their protections, panting for breath and clutching the latest copy of the Daily Prophet. They had all been shocked and appalled to learn that one of their best informants and the man who kept their achievements in the public eye had been finally found and killed.


But within two hours of sitting around looking glum, they were beginning to plan. Making their preparations for how they would cope. What they would do next, how they would counter this blow, how they'd get the information to keep on going and get the word out to keep up hope. They huddled around a campfire enchanted to keep them all warm enough against the winter's chill, and discussed.


And Gabriel had taken one look at the gathering and left it. Left the array of enchantments protecting them, wandered across the chilly cliffs near where they had made their camp, and found his way down a narrow, winding, rocky path to the pebble beach a stone's throw away.


His gaze swung around the rocks all around him, protecting him from not just the wind, but from sight of others, from earshot of others. Secure and alone.


Then he snatched up a rock from underfoot and hurled it with all of his strength at the cliffface.


'This isn't-'


Another rock.


'-how it's supposed-'


Another rock.


'-to happen!'


At his last flinging of a rock the pebbles underfoot gave way and he slipped, falling onto his side on the unforgiving surface. He kicked out again in frustration, sending an array of pebbles skidding and scattering across the cold, empty beach, and lay there for several long moments, fighting for his breath.


His composure was not so difficult. 'Composed' was a word which easily found association with Gabriel Doyle. Even seconds after having landed on his arse on the beach because he lost his footing throwing rocks around, he could find his control.


Really, struggling to not cry wasn't the problem.


'How was it supposed to happen?'


He still started at a voice, jerking back to his feet and whirling around to see the shadowy, silhouetted form of Jennifer Riley making her way across the beach towards him from the windy path down from the cliffs. Her pale skin was even paler in the moonlight, and for half a moment she looked ethereal, ghostly. For half a moment he wasn't even sure it was her.


He ran a hand through his hair. '...everything was supposed to happen differently, wasn't it.'


'Perhaps.' She stopped a few feet away. 'But you have a different perspective on "supposed to", compared to everyone else.'


His hand curled into a fist. 'If you came down here to poke me 'til the predictions come out because all of you are now worried about the mission -'


'We're always worried about the mission.' Her voice was cold and flat. 'We have to consider what we do next, because if we don't, we will be dead. We will fuck up, the Death Eaters will find us, and we will, all of us, be executed or Kissed because of what we have done.'


'One night.' Gabriel's lip curled. 'We just found out he's dead, the man who got us half of what we've done is dead, and you couldn't give us one night to suffer and grieve before we move on? You couldn't give me five seconds of peace?'


'I was coming to make sure you were all right!'


'So that your goose keeps on laying its golden eggs? Don't you worry. I'll be back with predictions tomorrow.' He turned away, shoulders tense. 'You should get back to the others. Make sure that they're playing good little soldiers and getting on with things.'


'Someone has to make sure they get on with things,' she said, and though she was still cold and indignant, there was a shake and a waver to her voice and composure, and he hesitated. 'Someone has to be the first person to step up and say "we can't stop". Someone has to make sure we're all still thinking, someone has to make sure that we do keep on going.'


He faltered, about to answer, before she cut him off. 'And who is it going to be, except me?'


Gabriel looked down as he turned. 'It's not going to be Wilson, I suppose.'


'He's talking about some sort of counter-strike. As if we could hit them back right now. As if that wouldn't be walking right into a trap.' Riley waved a hand, expression crumpling. 'I have to make sure, not only that they keep moving, but that they don't do something stupid. Because I care. Don't you dare insinuate again that I don't care about what happened to Tobias, but I have to care about the people who are still here.'


He didn't raise his gaze. 'I keep forgetting you were Head Girl to his Head Boy.'


'You're not the only person here who cared about him. But I have to - I have to look at the big picture, I have to...' Her voice trailed off as it grew thick, and she continued to gesture, flustered.


Impulsively he crossed the space between them, hesitating only a foot or so away, brow furrowed. 'You don't have to always be the strong one.'


Either his proximity helped or it rattled her so badly she had to retake control, but either way Riley drew a deep breath and within a few moments, composure was back. Her masks were good, he'd been beginning to learn. Almost as good as his own, and when she lifted her gaze to his, he saw the wavering behind her eyes fade and then disappear. 'What was supposed to happen?'


Gabriel flinched. 'I'd... he wasn't supposed to die. I'd seen him, in things which haven't happened yet, he wasn't supposed to...'


'Like this big vision of yours?' He looked away, and nodded. 'What was that?'


'It doesn't really matter any more, does it,' Gabriel muttered. 'It's not going to happen. I've managed to fuck that one up.'


Riley frowned. 'How is this your fault?'


He wrung his hands together. 'Visions. My acting on the visions. I knew it could get more complicated, could mess everything up, but I kept on doing it anyway, kept marching along regardless of the consequences, and thought that we were immune...'


'Immune? I don't understand.'


'Consequences. Probability.' Gabriel waved a hand through the air. 'My visions are just the most likely outcome of the present circumstances. They're not written in stone. They can change. They have changed. But it's so rare for something to alter probability that they might as well be visions. Except that probability has been altered. I altered it.'


'How?'


'By acting on the visions. I thought I was being so smart!' Gabriel kicked another pebble, sending this one splashing into the rolling, gentle waves of the sea. 'I thought that by following the visions, when they were good and when they helped, that I was cheating the system. Playing fate by doing what it wanted...'


'I still don't understand.'


'Don't you see?' Gabriel whirled around to face her. 'By telling you about these visions, I might have been making them happen, but I altered them. Just by the fact of me knowing, of everyone involved knowing, it's altered. If we made a raid because I saw it in a vision, then who knows what I've changed? Who knows how we were supposed to get the idea to make the raid? Who knows whose behaviour was affected, maybe even outside of the vision itself, because they'd been told about the vision? And then that has a knock-on effect. Every time I have used my knowledge of the visions to affect the events, I have changed something.'


Riley folded her arms across her chest. 'I don't see how this makes Tobias' death your fault.'


'I had that vision about the warehouse where we got those potion ingredients. That invoice, which we sent to Tobias, which might as well have been his death warrant. If I hadn't acted on that vision, maybe it would have been gone by the time we got there. Maybe someone would have fucked up, and we wouldn't have got that crate. Or maybe it was something else, something I changed months ago, which has had a knock-on effect.'


'I thought you couldn't change the visions. Or, at least, it was very hard.'


'It's hard. But not impossible. But it's only difficult to change them when I'm actively working against events I've foreseen. Maybe... maybe it's been a subtle change. Little things I've done, because I cheat the system, and so after many, many little changes, that vision I saw months ago is no longer the most likely outcome. He was going to live.' Gabriel ran a hand through his hair again. 'And now, because I changed things... he's dead.'


'It is not your fault.' Her hand on his wrist was sudden, firm, and he flinched away instinctively, jerked back from contact. He saw her eyes widen, saw that now for the first time she'd realised just how much he hated touching anyone.


How much he feared it.


'It was the fault of the Death Eaters. And nobody else,' Riley continued, her voice softer. 'I don't know about prophecies and visions and being a seer, Gabriel, I really, really don't, but I do know that you have given us information which has saved lives. I know we would not be half the thorn in the side of the Ministry without you. I know that you have made all of the difference in the world, and even if it did change events that made your vision wrong, that is not your fault. They killed Tobias. Not you.'


Silence hung between them as Gabriel looked at her awkwardly, a silence filled with the whistling of the wind and the rushing of the waves down at the end of the beach. He shifted his feet on noisy pebbles. 'He was my friend,' he muttered, the words sounding empty to his ears. 'For years.'


'I know.' She looked like she wanted to reach out, but didn't. He didn't know if he'd wanted her to or not, but there was a twist in his gut as he saw the evidence of yet another barrier up between him and the world outside. One at a time these walls were coming up, just like he'd been warned...


'Even when I thought he was just a bookish idiot. Some speccy little git, even when he was more Cal's friend than mine...' His hand came up to his temples, the headache suddenly a thousand times worse than those of his visions, and he knew this pain wasn't from magic, but from loss.


Then she'd reached for him again, her hand at his forearm, and just the brush of contact was enough for all the careful composure of all of the years of all of the hard effort of just being the unflappable Gabriel Doyle began to crumple. His breath caught, and then she wasn't just gingerly reaching to offer comfort, she was stepping forward to wrap her arms around him.


'I know, shh. It's okay. It'll be okay.'


It wouldn't, but just hearing her say it helped, helped even just a little, even though Gabriel buried his face in her shoulder and, for the first time in as long as he could remember, let himself weep.



Chapter 23: The Bitter End
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Chapter 23: The Bitter End

If I stop, I'm lost.

'I'm not going to see you any more.'

She stood in a tidy little flat in a tidy little corner of tidy, Muggle London, and summoned every inch of strength she had to look and sound like the cold-hearted bitch half the people in her life thought she was.

The other half thought she was a raging, hateful bitch, but that wouldn't be so much use right now. Right now, she had to appear as if she didn't care.

David - had she ever learnt his last name? Had she ever asked? Had she ever wanted to know, or would that have made him too real, would that have diminished the careful escape fantasy she had begun to construct around him - got to his feet, looking bewildered and bedraggled in a way which made her want to rumple his hair more than drive him away.

'What's going on?'

She made herself give a one-shouldered shrug. 'I'm leaving,' she said. 'For a while.'

'Leaving? Where?' He scrubbed his face with his hand, looking tired. She had knocked at midnight, after all, which perhaps didn't help her dispassionate guise. But it had taken her most of the evening to summon up the courage to come here. 'Why?'

She sniffed. 'I don't think the where is any of your business. Nor, really, is the why.'

Because it's safer. Because they will watch me, and they will find you, and then they will kill you. And that's pretty bad for you...

...but I don't think I could take it.

He frowned. 'Something's happened, hasn't it. With your work, with these... people you work for.' He crossed the flat in an instant, eyes blazing as they locked on to her. 'Are you in danger?'

How could he do that? See through her in an instant like that, despite all of her effort, all of her work, like nobody could except for -

Toby.

She tilted her chin up defiantly. 'I'm fine, David. My company being dicks doesn't make this into some sort of corporate conspiracy. I've been offered a better job. And I'll be leaving.'

He narrowed his eyes. 'And is there any particular reason, if all of this is so innocent, for you being a Grade A bitch about the whole thing?'

Tanith hesitated. Perhaps she had over-played her hand. But if she weren't cold and detached she didn't know what she'd do. Didn't think she'd be able to see this through with the dispassionate reserve that was required.

Because if she felt so much as an inch of what lay beneath the surface, she'd crumble. She hadn't even touched her pain, not in the slightest, not in the past few days. She'd let it stay bottled up, locked away where it couldn't hurt her, and she wasn't about to break the tactic now.

If I stop, I'm lost.

'That's not really going to encourage me to talk, is it, speaking to me like that,' she said, rolling her eyes.

'Is anything?'

There was something so honest about his gaze, his demeanour, that she couldn't help but be taken aback.

She'd wondered, stupidly, a while ago, if what she was doing with David had been being unfaithful to Toby. Even though they'd been... she didn't know what. Separated by a thousand miles, she did know, with no spoken promises or even implications to one another. And even then, it wasn't as if anything had happened with David. Sitting up and talking for hours and end without either one of them losing interest did not sound like the affair of the century even if she had been spoken for.

So she'd not felt guilty. If nothing else, they were so different. Tobias had been like a part of her, pushing her further and better than ever before. David was...

Detached. Elsewhere. An escape. A dream. But also more honest, more open, more up front. It wasn't that she hadn't loved, with all her heart, the complexity of Tobias; even in its own way loved the mess of a dance that had gone on between them. But this was something else. Something different. Something refreshing.

Something she couldn't have any more.

David watched her as she hesitated, and then he nodded, grimacing a smile. 'I understand,' he said, and even though he couldn't possibly do so, she felt like he did. 'It's complicated. And it's hard. And you can't tell me any of it for... for whatever reason. But you have to do what you have to do.'

Somehow she managed to keep her expression haughtily level. 'Yes, I do.' She pulled her pocketwatch, Tobias' pocketwatch, from her coat, and glanced at the time. 'I'd best be off.'

'I'm not going to see you again, am I,' he said, and it wasn't a question, and it didn't sound like he was expecting an answer.

She didn't look back as she left. She didn't dare.

Apparating back to her flat was harder than she'd expected. The wand shook in her hand and her breathing suddenly came hard, and it was made all the worse as she looked down to concentrate and saw the sweeping folds of her coat. Altair's coat. Another relic of the dead she clung onto, shrouding herself in ghosts.

She almost lost it there, in that tiny dark alley in London, leaning against a wall and fighting for breath, for composure, for control.

If I stop, I'm lost.

She apparated.

And appeared in the middle of her flat to hear the most outrageously unsubtle sex sounds she had ever heard. This included weeks spent sharing a wall with Cal and Nat, and a much-regretted visit to Melanie and Ariane when the latter had been in her room and the former had long-sufferingly informed her Miles Bletchley was around.

They were coming from Cal's room. It didn't take a genius to figure out what was going on, but just the spark of an idea was enough to break through the walls of control carefully erected around all of her pain, all of her grief, all of her loss.

It manifested in pure, unbridled rage.

She didn't blast the door open with her wand. She kicked it, and stormed into the gloomy bedroom without waiting. 'Brynmor, what the everloving fuck do you think you're doing?'

The one shape on the bed yelped and writhed with surprise until it became two, and for once Tanith didn't care about seeing more than she fancied as she confirmed that one was, indeed, Cal - and the other, to her lack of surprise and intense disgust, was Perkins.

'Don't answer that,' she said coolly, and looked at the woman. 'Get out. Now. You can get dressed in the corridor, or something, I don't care. Get out.'

Perkins was getting to her feet and snatching up her robes, discarded on the floor, rummaging for her dignity along the way. 'I don't see why I have to -'

'Out! Now!'

She didn't argue again, and by the time Tanith had glared her out of the room, out of the flat, Cal had mercifully put on some underwear. This meant she had no regrets in whirling around to face him, utterly livid. 'I'll ask again. What the hell do you think you're doing?'

Cal straightened up with as much dignity and reproach as a nearly naked man could muster, glowering. 'I don't see how it's any damn business of yours what -'

'Nat! What about Nat, your girlfriend? You remember her?' Tanith gestured furiously with her wand and the lamp on the bedside next to Cal wobbled as her control wavered. 'The one who's in Azkaban because of you?'

'She's not in Azkaban because of me.' Cal's voice had taken on a clumsy, wheedling tone. 'She's in Azkaban because she's a Muggleborn -'

Tanith didn't even try to stop herself as the lamp was magically propelled across the room and smashed against the wall next to Cal, who flinched away. 'Do you really think that she's gone to Azkaban instead of just being stripped of her wand for any reason other than you and who your father is? Really?'

He lifted his hands. 'I appreciate you batting for Nat, but it's really not -'

'Don't give me that,' Tanith snarled, 'or I swear to God, Cal, I won't even need a wand to kick ten shades of shit out of you. And with Perkins, really? You disgust me.'

Finally, anger tugged at Cal's brow. 'You're not the only one who's allowed to feel bad because he's gone, you know. He was my friend too.'

'This is about Toby?' she said, incredulous. 'You feel so bad about what happened to Toby that you had to go fuck some little administration sycophant?'

'I feel so bad I need to do something!' Cal snapped, throwing his hands in the air. 'Something other than feel like the most useless piece of shit in the country!'

'And getting your end away is supposed to feel helpful?'

'It's supposed to feel like something!'

This shout was loud enough to echo in the small room, deafening for a moment and ringing out between them for several long seconds. It was enough to take Tanith aback for half a heartbeat, but not for anything more as her grip on her wand angrily tightened. 'You could turn to me, you know,' she said curtly. 'Your friend.'

'Like you've turned to me in any of this?' Cal scoffed. 'Pull the other one, Tanith. You're not turning to me. You're not turning to anyone. You're locking it all up inside and it's going to eat you up, and that's fine if you want to do that, but don't pretend you're someone I can talk to in this, because you're not. After all.' He looked away bitterly. 'You don't trust me.'

'No, I don't, and after all of this I trust you even less,' she said. 'Perkins? What were you thinking? Or were you not thinking, again? Doing what you do when you don't think, and becoming your father's creature even more? I don't know if it's something in the bones or the gut, Cal, but when you act like an idiot, you go running to him.'

Cal looked down, his fist clenching. 'That's not true.'

CAL WILL KILL TOBIAS.

'You know it's true,' Tanith growled. 'Which is why, instead, when people are fighting and dying, when Toby was fighting and dying, you stayed at home and did absolutely nothing.'

'Nothing.' He snorted. 'Like you. Except not, because out of the two of us, which one of us has arrested people fighting against the administration?' His expression curled into one of frustration. 'You come in here and tell me off for being a shit of a guy, and I'll own that, but don't you dare accuse me of helping my father when you go out there every day and work for him.'

Her gut went cold. 'You have no idea what I've done.'

'I know Nick Wilson got locked up because of you.'

Her grip on her wand tightened. 'Shut up.'

'I know even when they went looking for how you'd betrayed them, they didn't find it, because for all your judgemental crap you are still their creature!' snapped Cal, eyes locked on her furiously. 'I might sit at home and do nothing, but you help them hunt down the people who'd fight them! You sit at those desks while the people around you, the people who do something, get locked up and killed in your place.'

'That's not true.' Or, that was what she'd told the little voice that crawled inside her every night and whispered the same things, and that voice wasn't even silenced by the knowledge of what little she'd done.

'Really?' Cal jerked a head at her. 'Then where's your father now, Tanith? Where'd you get that coat?'

Her wand moved almost of its own volition, a jerk of instinctive, angry reaction. But the furious words of the spell were consciously blazing in her mind to knock Cal off his feet and send him slamming back into the wall. 'Shut up!'

Cal staggered and she didn't give him the chance to recover, the chance to get his footing, before this time she grabbed the nearest thing to her, sat on the dresser, and physically hurled it at him. It was a photo, a photo of him and Nat, and it hit him square in the gut.

'I did bug his office! And I bugged Yaxley's too, and they never found that!' Pride crept into her voice alongside the broiling, spitting rage that had twisted and churned inside her for far too long, despite all of her efforts to control it and kill it. 'I helped the Lions free Nick Wilson when he was transferred to Azkaban! I spoke to Tobias not three months ago and I helped him!'

Her breathing was ragged now, the words tumbling from her torn throat, and in anger she whipped her wand again. The invisible, magical blow hit Cal in the stomach and he folded over, collapsing to the ground.

'I've fucked up! I've done things I'm not proud of! I'm doing things I'm not proud of and maybe I'm doing harm but I am fighting to pay back every sin I have committed!' Tears were streaming down her cheeks by now, tears of loss and pain and rage, and Cal just sat there, hunched over on the floor even though he'd have nothing more than a couple of bruises from what she'd done so far, saying nothing, doing nothing.

She saw his wand sat on the dresser, and snatched it up. 'I might not be perfect in this but at least I am trying, at least I am fighting, when I have family still to lose and you have nothing, and have done nothing!' She threw the wand down on the ground, by his feet.

'Tobias died for this and you have done nothing. So if I'm such an evil, such a part of the problem, this is your chance to do something. At last. If I have been doing such harm, then stop me.' She gestured her wand at him. 'Pick it up.'

He stared dumbly at the wand before him, before lifting his gaze to lock on her, and there was something lost and detached in his eyes, as if he'd seen all of this before and it was then he was seeing, not the present. She couldn't help but remember she had never learnt what took place between him and Toby in their confrontation before he'd left Hogwarts.

Cal drew a deep breath, but when he spoke his voice was small and quiet. 'No.'

And then Tanith remembered two things. The first was that only days after whatever that confrontation was, the confrontation that had left them bruised and battered and cut, when Tobias had left they'd hugged, and parted as friends.

The second was that it hadn't been Tobias who had got her out of prison, and it hadn't been Jacob, or her father, or Altair, or the Lions of Britain. It had been Cal. Cal who'd gone batting with Bacchus Drake against his own father, Cal who'd almost physically carried her out of the jail, Cal who'd made sure she had somewhere warm and safe to stay that wasn't this miserable flat.

Had she ever thanked him for that? Properly?

Her wand wavered in her grasp, only briefly - before she lowered it, and shoved it back into the holster inside her coat, and she didn't utter another word before she turned on her heel and stalked off, through the door, into the night.

She didn't know where she was going. She didn't know what she was doing.

If I stop, I'm lost.

Her feet carried her down the road of Diagon Alley, this way and that, and before she knew it she'd taken herself to the back garden of the Leaky Cauldron, to one of the safest places to apparate from without being seen, and managed to summon up half an image in her mind of where she wanted to go and swish her wand.

She appeared in the alley outside the MLE office in Canary Wharf, somehow not splinching herself. It felt like she was in a daze as she stormed her way into the road, through the front doors, and across the lobby, the building all but empty at this time, occupied with nothing other than the poor saps stuck behind to supervise during a night shift.

She ignored them all as she walked. This time her pathetic desk in her pathetic office wasn't her goal, but one of the few other rooms she could walk into where nobody would stop her, or look at her funny, or where it simply wouldn't be locked. Because, after all, what harm could even a suspected dissident sympathiser like her be with access to the closed case storage?

None. But harm was not her intent.

The file was easy enough to find. It was big and it was fat and the folder didn't have the faded edges and colours of the others. It had, after all, only been there for a few days. But if her footsteps had sounded loud, ringing out on the floor of the records room, then the sound of her yanking open the filing cabinets, rifling through the records until she got to the one she'd looked for, was even louder.

It wasn't as if she'd disturb anyone. The room was remote enough. And it wasn't as if she'd care. But the sound was enough to begin to, slowly, jerk her back to coherence, bring her back to the brink of reality as she finally selected the right folder and opened it.

And there, staring up at her, was the latest picture of Tobias Grey that the MLE had been able to get its hands on.

It had to have been from his records from his time with the Enforcers. His hair was short, then, but there was that crooked twist to his nose that hadn't been there when he'd been at Hogwarts. He looked a little nervous, the picture probably taken at some formal occasion where he'd been expected to be crisp and presentable.

Of course, he was perfectly crisp and presentable, but, being Tobias, he would have fussed over it.

Just that thought, that simple consideration of how silly he'd have been about the whole thing, was enough. Anger surged again - anger, that easiest and safest of the strong emotions she felt, the one that had her lashing out and doing something, anything about the pain, and with an incoherent sound her hands curled around the folder to hurl it across the narrow record room.

Then her legs shook, and the anger twisted and faded and the floodgates opened. The tears came, hotter and more anguished than the had when she'd been shouting at Cal, and with a wordless moan she slumped against the cabinets and let herself slide to the floor, burying her face in her arms as she sobbed.

For Tobias and Altair, murdered for doing the right thing. For her father, locked away in Azkaban. For her family and friends, suffering in a climate of fear. For every person trodden underfoot by the world around them, for every injustice she had been a part of, for every hope shattered and devastated.

And, at last, for herself.

Once she'd started she couldn't stop; just sat there, curled up in a corner of the Magical Law Enforcement HQ's records office, the file detailing Tobias' iniquities scattered across the floor, pressing the pocketwatch that was the last memento she'd had of him against her forehead as if through it she could reach out to him one last time.

But there was nothing. No sense of him, no feel of him, not even easily summoned memories, every recollection daubed in blood and death. It was just her and the cold, starkly-lit, unforgiving room in an unforgiving building in an unforgiving life.

There was nothing to be done, now, except to keep on going.

Just not yet.

Tanith didn't know how long she was in there, but it had to have been hours. Hours to weep, hours to just sit there, curled up in a corner, hours to finally summon the strength and will to regain her composure and get up. She carefully, fastidiously gathered up each piece of parchment in the file and returned it to the folder, the photograph last.

She looked at it for only a lingering moment before she put it away.

Goodbye.

There was the light of a pale dawn creeping in between the buildings and crawling in through the windows when she returned to the corridors of the MLE HQ. The night shifts were ending and the morning shifts beginning, and so there was, at last, staff trickling in and out. She kept her head down, shoulders hunched over, hoping to make it out without being noticed.

Unfortunately, when she entered the lobby she turned to walk smack-bang into Thanatos Brynmor.

He had been storming around like a bear with a headache himself since the news had come of the deaths, though she'd struggled to find sympathy even as he, too, grieved for his friend. She couldn't pretend she was sorry that Idaeus Robb was dead. But he had, if anything, been kinder to her in the past week - or thus did she interpret being ignored more.

Now he grabbed her by the shoulder and slammed her against the wall. 'What. Did. You. Do?'

Her head rang out as it smacked against stone walls, and for a moment all Tanith could do was flail reflexively. But he was bigger than her, less tired than her and, at that moment, angrier than her, and so she struggled for purchase on slippery marble floors. 'What the hell are you talking about?'

Brynmor leaned down, his craggy face shoved in hers. His breath smelt of firewhiskey. 'Caldwyn. Where is he?'

Tanith blinked muggily, uncomprehendingly. 'What? At home? Isn't he?'

'No!' He let her go, only to yank her forward and shove her into the middle of the lobby. She slipped and fell, catching herself on her hands. As the morning shifts came in and the night shifts ended, most of the Enforcers wandering through the lobby hesitated and watched, forming a humiliating ring around her.

'He came to see me last night,' Brynmor growled, advancing on her. 'In my office. Said he'd want to talk some time, but he knew it was late... looked like he was getting a shiner of a black eye around his face.'

'So what?' Defiance was the only thing that made the churning in her gut not so bad she would vomit.

'About ten minutes after he left,' Brynmor hissed, leaning down over her, 'I went through my files. Our map? Tracing the movements on the Lions of Britain? Was gone.'

Bewilderment now took over as the reigning emotion. 'What?'

'I went to your flat, and he's gone,' he added, and hurled a scrunched up note at her, which she scrabbled to pick up and unfold.

It was short, but there was no mistaking Cal's handwriting: You were right. Time to stop doing nothing.

She looked up. 'I don't understand.'

'You've been hammering dissident thoughts into his head, I know it. And now he's stolen our documents and gone on the run, like it means something.' Brynmor pointed an angry, meaty finger at her. 'This one's your fault, Cole. Don't even begin to deny it. And I'm holding you responsible, but you're not all out of luck today, because I'm not going to do anything to you. You know why?'

Then he spat a thick, unpleasant globule of saliva and mucus that mercifully only smacked on the marble floor next to her. But he didn't spare her a second glance as he turned on his heel and went to storm back into the depths of the MLE HQ.

'Because now you really are alone.'



Chapter 24: The Back of Beyond
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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.

'Shh.'

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.'

'I know.'

'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!


Chapter 25: The Living Daylights
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Chapter 25: The Living Daylights

When Tobias had first regained consciousness, two things had struck him at once. The first was that he was warm, unexpectedly warm. The second was that his left leg ached.

His eyes had been unwilling to flutter open, heavy and tired, but when they did he was in a gloomy room with bare wooden walls with a notable amount of sunlight streaming in through a window. It lit up the dust motes hanging in the air, giving everything a strange, funereal sort of sensation. But the door was closed, and the room was empty except for his bundle of a bed and a gown hanging off a hook on the wall.

Carefully he pulled the heavy covers - there were multiple blankets over him - off and tried to sit up. His muscles ached in protest at the movement and he braced himself, feeling for more hints of injury or damage. There was a goodly amount of stubble on his chin and he realised that his glasses were nowhere in sight, making the room a good deal fuzzier than perhaps it needed to be.

His body was a mess of brown and yellow bruises and a multitude of shallow cuts which were certainly not yet done healing. None of them looked more than superficial but they were numerous, and ached in protest at every movement.

And across his left thigh was a vicious, stitched up, deep red scar that screamed with pain worse than any other inch of him at even the faintest suggestion of movement.

Where the hell am I?

Recollection was fuzzy. He remembered pain, certainly. He remembered the sense of freezing and burning all at once; of icy water and of searing lungs. He remembered being blinded by light and cast into darkness.

He remembered Robb. He remembered Aurora.

With a grunt of frustration he tried to get to his feet, but his left leg gave way under him and he stumbled and collapsed into a heap on the floorboards. It was impossible to bite back a yelp of pain at the twist of his leg, and though he caught himself on his hands he felt his body scream in protest and for several long moments he just lay there, sprawled on the floor, fighting for breath and cohesion.

Slowly he managed to crawl across the room, not to the door, but to the window. He felt not just battered and pained but weak; moving all of two metres had never in his life been so difficult, and he barely managed to fight to sit upright enough to rest his elbows on the windowsil and peer out at the view beyond.

The sun was shining brightly, spilling golden rays not just into his room, but across the shimmering ocean that spread out as far as the eye could see beyond the window. But they were on land, a mixture of rock and sand tumbling down to the waves. After so many weeks in a Russian winter it looked positively balmy.

Footsteps rang out from beyond the door, and Tobias tried again to get to his feet in vain before the door swung open and in walked Will Rayner. He looked worn and tired, but much the same as he'd been when Tobias had last seen him - however long ago that had been.

He grinned at the sight of him, though it was a smile marred by a concerned furrow of the brow. 'You're awake! And up. You shouldn't be; let me help you get back into bed.'

'What...' Tobias didn't fight as strong hands helped him stumble to his feet and, mindful of putting weight on his throbbing left leg, he let himself be steered back into the bed he'd fallen out of.

'Lie down. The Healers said you oughtn't be running around just yet, but don't worry; you should be right as rain in just a few days. Or...' Will's gaze flickered to his leg. 'More or less.'

He let himself be bundled back into bed, surprised at how tired he was from that little exertion, but the moment Will straightened he lifted his head. 'What's happened?'

Will hesitated. 'That's... a big question.'

'Then give me a big answer. Let's start with: Where are we?'

The former Unspeakable sighed, before reaching to drag a wooden chair from the other side of the room and sitting himself down next to the bed. 'We're in the Mediterranean,' he said calmly. 'On one of the Greek islands the Muggles think is abandoned. It's a wizarding settlement protected by all sorts of charms and defences, not just against the non-magic types but anyone who might mean harm. We'll be safe here.'

Tobias rubbed his temples, frowning. 'Aurora. What...'

Will looked down. 'She's dead. Robb killed her.' He straightened a little. 'But he's dead, too. So far as we can tell, and the Ministry haven't made a peep to suggest otherwise. Considering everything, I bet they'd desperately want to show the world that he was alive and well if that were the case.'

'Then why aren't I dead?' he asked in confusion, remembering the array of ice and fire that had swarmed them all.

'As far as Britain is concerned, you are. So far we've had no reason to correct them.'

Tobias inhaled deeply. 'Can you start from the beginning? What happened that night?'

He sighed. 'A couple of Dark Magic users who'd been allied with the potion smuggling ring you took down helped sneak Idaeus Robb into the country, under the radar of their otherwise pretty good defences against incursions. We think the corruption went deeper than we'd previously assumed for them to beat the border guard, but... more on that later. It looks like the meeting between yourself and Dimitri was a fake to draw you into somewhere isolated.'

Tobias was more relieved than he'd expected at the confirmation that Dimitri hadn't sold him out; it wasn't as if he'd had much opportunity to reflect upon the notion of betrayal, but it had been a blow not just to his trust, but to his pride, if he'd been fooled so easily. 'And then came the ambush.'

'You fought, as you know. It looks like you had to have pissed Robb off quite a lot; he always did favour Fiendfyre, but it's so dangerous that even he wouldn't use it lightly. But in the past he's always had excellent control. It's a bit difficult to say for sure what happened, as you were unconscious and the others are dead. What broke the ice?'

He almost had to think about it for a moment. When he did remember, it came with the utter, despairing pain at the sight of Aurora's death - the kind of distress which had left him not caring, for a moment, that he'd been in danger of destroying them both so long as he had justice. Vengeance. 'That was me,' Tobias said, voice thick. 'He'd - he unleashed the Fiendfyre right at Aurora. She was dead within... seconds, if that. He was sending a wall of it at me; I smashed the ice to... I don't even know what I was trying to do.'

'It looks like it broke his concentration and knocked it out of control. When Dimitri and I got there it was like a storm of Fiendfyre and exploding ice. Robb was at ground zero; like Aurora we didn't find any physical remains, just... that lingering, magical trace of ash.'

'How did you two get there? How did Aurora get there?'

'Dimitri showed up at the apartment shortly after you left, and he and Aurora realised that you were probably in trouble if your meeting was a fake. She went straight to the park and sent Dimitri to fetch me. I don't know if it was the smartest thing to do...' Will rubbed his temples. 'Between the four of us we could have probably stopped Robb without anyone dying.'

Tobias shook his head, his gaze going to the ceiling as he blinked quickly. 'No,' he grunted. 'If she'd been any later, I'd have been dead.'

Will clenched a fist, and Tobias didn't need to ask why Dimitri and Aurora had sent for him instead of going together. The two of them were diplomats, administrators; talented at magic but hardly hardened by battle. Not only was Will a seasoned Unspeakable, but he was the man who'd locked up Idaeus Robb in the first place. Of all four of them, he'd have stood the best chance of winning the fight.

'When we got there,' Will continued after a beat, 'we had to try to subdue the mess. It looks like you were lucky to still be alive; we found you in the water, half-dead from cold, from the burns, from drowning, from blood loss... you were far away enough from Robb at the epicentre that the ice and falling in the water subdued the worst of the Fiendfyre. I had contacts down here in Greece; I didn't trust anyone in Russia enough to take you to Healers there. They've been caring for you here, and you've been out of it for a bit over a week, mostly from them keeping you that way so you didn't move and hurt yourself.'

'A week.' Tobias blinked. 'And, officially, I'm dead.'

He nodded. 'The Daily Prophet reported it very gleefully. It said your remains had been found alongside Robb's and Aurora's. Either they just wanted to assume that you were gone by dint of there being no more of a body for you than for the others, or... well, you bled an awful lot from that thigh wound. Might have been enough to confuse them when they had nobody's remains. What happened?' Will gestured to his leg.

'That was Robb,' he said, looking down. 'What's wrong with it? Why's it not healing up? Is it just a deeper wound?'

'The cuts and burns from the ice and fire were plenty bad enough,' said Will, shaking his head. 'But that one... it just wouldn't stop bleeding. Even when we knew the rest wasn't going to kill you we worried you might just bleed out from that. It took all sorts of charms to seal the wound up. Robb knows - knew - all sorts of horrendous dark curses. I wouldn't be surprised if that's something he used on you. The Healers probably know more; I was worried more about if you'd make it than any of the further details.'

Tobias looked up to meet his gaze, the gaze of the man who'd been the only real father his best friend had ever had. 'I'm all right,' he said, and was surprised to learn he meant it. 'And... if the Healers are on the case... I guess I should be grateful for being so lucky.'

'You are damnlucky,' said Will, and grinned a toothy grin which reminded him of Cal, enough to warm his heart a little. 'And we'll be safe here. They'd have a hell of a time getting through the island's defences. And they're not even looking for you.'

'Yet.'

Will looked apprehensive, but unsurprised, yet before he could answer, the door swung open and in stepped Dimitri. The big man was in sunglasses, wearing a short-sleeved shirt and khakis, and looked surprisingly more at ease in this rather more temperate environment than he had even in his home country. Several rolls of paper were under one arm. 'Ah-ha! Brain Box Grey returns to us, alive, well, and awake. How are you feeling?'

Dimitri's grin was rather infectious, and Tobias gave an awkward nod. 'Terrible. But, alive.'

'That is the important part. You gave us something of a scare. But you are looking surprisingly healthy for a dead man, so all is well that ends well.' He grimaced. 'More or less.'

'Yeah.' Tobias dropped his gaze, brow furrowed as he tried to push back the thoughts of Aurora's last moments, seared into his memories with Fiendfyre. 'More or less.' He coughed, and straightened. 'So I know how I got here. What happens next?'

'We sit on a nice Mediterranean island and don't get hunted by Death Eaters,' said Will tensely. 'And let the world think you're dead.'

Tobias ignored him and looked to Dimitri. 'What happened in Russia?'

He made a face. 'I would not return there. It should not come as a surprise that Britain's change of governments is sending... ripples. Moscow thought that it would have collapsed by now. That it has not is proving... worrying.'

'Worrying?'

'We - and not just us, I mean to include Director Sergeyev and his team of experts in this - did not anticipate as strong a presence of Dark Magic users and sympathisers as there has turned out to be not just within the country, but within the government,' said Dimitri sheepishly. 'They have become bold with what has happened. Britain can and will support them, and so they have more freedom to act. The Federation will continue to combat them and what they do is still illegal, but such people are emerging from the woodwork.'

Tobias grimaced. 'It's worse than we thought.'

'It is. But they will be found. This may provide the opportunity many have waited for to properly uproot the Dark Magic in the country.' Dimitri nodded firmly, sounding a little like he was trying to convince himself. 'But it is true that Russia is not safe for you. If you were there and knowledge of your survival got out, then the Federation could not guarantee your safety. Not without keeping you under something like house arrest.'

'Security has become that difficult?'

'Perhaps not in general. But you are a target. Every Dark Magic practitioner in the country would be looking to kill you. You could not walk down the street without being at risk. The Federation believes they would be putting you in more danger by trying to offer you legitimate, protected asylum. Because we cannot guarantee your safety as much as we would like.' He gave a one-shouldered shrug.

'Then why are you here?' asked Tobias. 'Not that it's not nice to see you. But if Russia's decided I'm not safe there...'

'Russia has decided that you are dead.' Dimitri made a grimace which was half a smile. 'Only a handful of people in the Federation right now know you are alive, including Director Sergeyev. He was... displeased to learn how security had been breached under his supervision.'

'And there have been wider consequences,' said Will. 'Britain wasn't shy about admitting that it had sent people into a foreign country to "execute" one of their citizens to whom another government had offered asylum. If they were lacking friends and allies before, they're certainly lacking them now. Countries which weren't prepared to make a stand against Dark Magic are considerably more prepared to make a stand against a magical nation which acts like it can do whatever it wants internationally.'

'You are charting, my friend, all new territory in international magical relations!' declared Dimitri, now smirking. 'Which is why we are here, in Greece.'

Tobias waved a hand. 'You're going to have to jump back a bit with that explanation...'

'I came here because I knew it was safe,' said Will. 'We're still here because of Dimitri.'

'You are too kind. We are still here because of Director Sergeyev and his contacts.' Dimitri shrugged. 'Formally, I am not here. Formally, I am on a holiday. Paid leave. It is very nice. Unofficially, I have been asked by the Director to continue to help you and to keep an eye on you. On behalf of the Russian Federation, the Bulgarian government, the Greek government, and several others.'

Tobias frowned. 'What?'

'Congratulations,' said Will dryly. 'Keeping you alive has become an international conspiracy, solely to antagonise Britain. You couldn't get these governments to agree on magical economics and diplomacy, but the moment it comes to flipping off some Dark Wizards, suddenly everyone's on the same page.'

'And Britain really doesn't care about its international standing? They were that happy to crow about having invaded another sovereign territory in order to murder me?' Tobias blinked.

'And Aurora, who... was one of Britain's most notable international faces,' said Will with a grimace, and he patted his jacket down to pull out a folded newspaper. 'But yes, they were happy to crow about it. See for yourself.'

It was strange to see his own name on the headlines, but Tobias had got used to that as the Daily Prophet had decried his writings as those of a mad, violent dissident. What he had not got used to was a headline declaring he had been righteously executed on foreign soil.

It made everything all the more real. From the aches in his cuts, to the throbbing in his leg, to the beating of his heart... and to the recollection of Aurora's death, and the dim satisfaction twisting away in his gut at the knowledge that he had killed Idaeus Robb.

Some wizards said that to take a life was to split one's soul in half. All Tobias felt was a grim sense of vindication at a job well done.

'Are they really this stupid?' he asked instead.

'Yes,' said Dimitri. 'And no. They will make themselves even more hated internationally, that is true. But this is hated mostly by countries which already did not like them, and were already taking what subtle measures against them that they could manage.'

'Then again,' Tobias murmured, 'Thicknesse's Britain hasn't exactly sought the approval of countries which were anti-Dark Magic to begin with.'

'Exactly. Britain's enemies hate them more. Britain does not care. What Britain does care about is that the countries which are more positive about Dark Magic have seen Britain take a stand to pursue its agenda. And the countries which have nationals who are more positive about Dark Magic have seen this stand as well,' said Dimitri.

'And they're being riled up, like what's happened in Russia.' Tobias nodded to him.

'That is so. It is an indelicate game that they play. It is... polarising,' said Dimitri.

'But they believe their ideology will spread, and those who agree with them will rise to power,' said Will with a sigh. 'So they stand strong with their so-called principles.'

'They are still principles,' said Tobias, frowning at the Daily Prophet he held. 'Even if they're disgusting.' He looked up. 'Where are our press machines?'

'Er.' Dimitri scratched his nose, and he and Will exchanged glances. 'Moscow.'

'We need to get them here, then.'

Again Dimitri looked at Will, who rolled a shoulder. 'Tobias, you only just woke up. Isn't it a bit early to start committing yourself?'

'I'm not in so much pain that I'm not thinking clearly,' he said defensively. 'And it's not like I can't do my work from my bed. We have to get back to business.'

'I told you,' said Dimitri to Will. 'I told you he would not stop.'

Will sighed. 'I know.'

'You can stop talking about me like I'm either not here or a child any time, you know,' Tobias said testily. 'And you said this place is safe.'

'I did. It is.' Will rubbed his temples. 'But we thought Russia was safe.'

'I'll tell you where's not safe,' said Tobias. 'Britain. Because Thicknesse - You-Know-Who - is still in charge. Because they will not have stopped doing what they do since they "killed" me. In fact, that was a victory for them, even if it cost them Idaeus Robb. They will have been emboldened by taking me out, they will appear stronger and they will be stronger.'

'That doesn't mean you paint a target on yourself again, though.'

'My "death",' said Tobias, fighting to sit up a little straighter, 'has not just brought harm to Britain by emboldening Thicknesse's regime, it has also sparked up actions of Dark Magic sympathisers in Russia and abroad. Even regardless of the fact that the work we set out to do is not yet done, for me to sit here in Greece with my tail between my legs and pretend like I've done all I can is cowardly and it will continue to do harm.'

Will sighed. 'They'll come for you again.'

'And I will beat them again,' Tobias said. 'But for them to have so loudly declared that they have killed me, and for me to emerge alive and whole mere days later, is going to shake them to their core. It's going to show them as liars, and it's going to show them as weak, and it's going to bring hope to everyone for whom hope wavered when the Midnight Press stopped running.'

The Unspeakable dropped his gaze. 'You know what this makes you, Tobias,' he murmured, voice a little hoarse. 'In this war, you're not a man any more, or even an editor, or even an influential figure. The moment you stage a public resurrection, you become a symbol.'

'That job's already taken, and the symbol's name is Harry Potter. But I will be whatever I need to be to fight these people, Will. And so long as they are in power and I have air in my lungs, I will continue to fight.' Tobias nodded to Dimitri. 'Can you get our equipment down here?'

Dimitri's smile was lopsided, but pleased. 'It will take a couple of days. But yes.'

'Do it as quickly as you can. I want something in circulation as soon as possible. And I need the two of you to get something else for me, as well.'

Will frowned. 'What?'

Tobias sat up slowly, creakily, and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He felt aching, he felt a bit sick, and he didn't think he could put any weight on his left leg, but he could sit up without passing out or vomiting. That would have to do.

'We'll need the latest copy of the Daily Prophet we can get our hands on,' he said. 'And a camera.'



Chapter 26: The Apple of His Eye
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Chapter 26: The Apple of His Eye

The sun was daring to shine again. Insolent though such a presumption was on these dark days of pain and misery, Tanith couldn't help but feel a little like its co-conspirator as she wandered out of the bedroom into her rather empty little flat.

It had never been the best-decorated or the warmest of buildings, and with Cal gone it should have felt worse. His bedroom door had been left half-open, and at every other moment she almost expected to see him out of the corner of her vision, rubbing his eyes and stumbling out to make her a cup of tea.

Like he had most mornings, only for her to take it for granted.

But she had decided to focus on her more positive thoughts about their last conversation. She could let herself feel as if she'd driven him away, as if his departure and going renegade was entirely her fault, and that she had judged harshly a man who was now set to put his life on the line, daily, for freedom. She could have let each of his jibes cut as deeply as they could, for even when he had been wrong there had been a kernel of truth to his accusations.

Instead, she felt free. It was not that she would take credit for Cal deciding to shake off his darkest thoughts and take up the fight, but each victory she would take. Another strong wand-arm with the Lions was a victory. And though she would worry about him, as she had worried about Gabriel, his fate was in his own hands.

That was a freedom she couldn't underestimate.

Besides, nothing this past week could so much as dent her good mood, in defiance of all that she had suffered.

He's alive.

Brynmor had been beyond apoplectic. He had deemed it a trick, a joke, some sort of cunning ploy, but there had been no denying the picture, and no denying the second issue of the Midnight Press which had come out just days later, again thrusting into the limelight the iniquities of the government and the successes of the freedom fighters who warred against them.

Occasionally, doubt had hit her. Perhaps this was some sort of trick by Tobias' allies, perhaps they were doing nothing more than altering some pictures and making the world think he was still alive to strike a blow against the Ministry. But then she remembered that picture, remembered that look on his face in it, and deep down she couldn't believe that was anything but the truth.

Work was not such an unpleasant prospect that day.

Jacob met her in the lobby at Canary Wharf, the huge room echoing with the footsteps and voices of the members of the MLE Department on their way to work. Marble walls and floors squeaked with the anticipation of a new day, and Tanith had to remind herself she was probably just imagining that they, too, shared her fervour.

Or, if they did, it was a fervour for working for a corrupt government, and so not a very good sort of fervour anyway.

'Something's up,' Jacob greeted her, handing over a mug of coffee as he fell into step beside her. 'Brynmor's been back and forth and they've been clearing out Robb's old office.'

'It's about time. And if Brynmor's sulking because they're not about to build a shrine...'

'But they've been moving boxes back in.'

Tanith frowned. The coffee tasted good, even if it wasn't her first of the day. She'd become unhealthily reliant on coffee to cope with atrocities, and then guilty because, of all things, it helped. 'They've finally appointed a replacement now that the Midnight Press is back?' She resisted a shudder at the thought.

'That was my guess,' said Jacob, 'but then I saw they were moving in files from the Lions case.'

That wasn't good prospect, and wondering about it brought them into the bull-pen of of their office, which swarmed with the morning staff - and, at the far end, by the blackboard Brynmor used as his point to glower from, as the big man himself.

Only not alone. Tanith recognised the man next to him only fleetingly, and bizarrely registered relief more than anything else at the sight of him.

It was a misleading feeling.

'All right, listen up,' said Brynmor gruffly, and even his grumbling was enough for all the Detectors in the room to fall silent and turn towards the front. 'Mister Yaxley has decided to institute some more changes around here, what with the recent resurgence in dissident activity. He will no doubt be appointing a replacement for Idaeus Robb, but in the meantime he's reinforcing our domestic defences. Appointed as the new co-director of this unit is Mister Rodolphus Lestrange here.'

Lestrange was a weaselly, rather oily looking man who made Tanith's spine crawl, and the only reason she was reassured to see him was because she had only ever, in the flesh and in the papers, spotted him in the company of his considerably-more dangerous, famous, and batshit wife. He was the lesser evil, and Tanith made an effort to choose the lesser evil.

She'd never seen him around without Bellatrix Lestrange. The apprehension was not pleasant.

Jacob leaned in as the group gave their obligatory claps. 'Yaxley must be pissed that Brynmor's not brought in the Lions. This isn't help, this is a slap on the wrist.'

Indeed, Brynmor was glaring daggers at the oblivious Lestrange, and within seconds waved a hand at the crowd to stop the clapping. 'All right. Enough of that, you're here to work, not to tongue-wag a load more. Mister Lestrange will be familiarising himself with the operation and the leads we've been chasing and we look forward to having him on the team, now work.'

The Detectors began to disperse, and Tanith turned to Jacob. 'I'm going to need more than one cup of -'

'Cole!'

She flinched at Brynmor's shout, but when she turned he'd crossed the space between them and was only a couple of feet away, looking no happier up close than he had across the room. 'Your request to visit Azkaban got through,' he said gruffly.

'I... should hope so,' Tanith said, anxious but rather uncertain. 'I sent it in before Christmas.'

'What I mean,' said Brynmor, 'is they've approved it. You can go see your father in your lunch hour.'

A mixture of hope and horror surged in her, but she gave a bob of a nod and tried to not smile. 'I - thank you, Mister Brynmor.' A spot of deference didn't hurt when it could mean the difference between success or failure and gave her enemies nothing more than a stroked ego.

'Hmph,' was all Brynmor said as he slouched off.

Tanith couldn't fight a grin by now as she turned to Jacob, whose own smile was fond. 'He is not happy, is he?'

'Not at all. Here -' Jacob passed her one of the files that had been on his desk. 'Let's get all of this done this morning, shall we? Then I can cover for you for about half an hour after lunch, we just need to consolidate our findings and I'm better at that than you, anyway. So you can get a bit of extra time in.'

The morning flew by with simple analysis work, even with the shadow of Brynmor falling over all of them as he stormed around the office in even worse of a mood than he'd been in before. To make matters more disconcerting, Lestrange would hang around the edges, ever-present like an oily shadow hanging over them, and making the hairs on the back of Tanith's neck crawl. But even this was not enough to destroy her glee at the thought of, finally, getting to see her father.

Azakaban, however, was. She left at lunchtime and waited patiently at the coastal spot where she had, months before, watched the Lions overcome a prisoner escort and free Nick Wilson and the others. And enthusiasm died in the face of anxious apprehension at the sight of the small dots in the distance, coming from the looming tower that still threatened to overshadow her.

It was only one Dementor, and the Death Eater who must have upset someone very much to be given this assignment. But one Dementor was enough to begin sapping away at her happiness, not just over her father but over Tobias, over simply living, and she would have hated the broom ride across stormy seas even at the best of times.

'The visiting rooms,' said the Death Eater as he let her in through the huge wooden doors set into the rock of Azkaban once they set down on the prison-island, 'are reserved for the prisoners and their legal advisers. You're not important enough to get one.'

These rooms, Tanith knew, were protected thoroughly against the Death Eaters. It looked from the state of the Death Eater warden that nowhere else was, and being cold and dripping wet as she walked into the front hall of Azkaban would have been horrendous enough without the whispers that echoed in the shadows and her mind she wasn't sure anyone else could hear.

Shouts. Screams. Ghosts from fights and sufferings and self-doubt, all whirling together in the background like the voices in her head had finally been brought to nightmarish life.

'I guess that's why it's so hard to get visiting rights,' she mumbled, pulling up the collar of Altair's old coat to stop the water from dripping down the back of her neck.

'You can put up a Patronus if you want,' said the warden, ignoring her as he took his huge ring of keys from his belt and went to lead her down dark corridors and up winding, gloomy stairways. 'And then you can probably have a pretty nice conversation with them. But it pisses the Dementors off something rotten. They don't like being driven off, so they tend to hang around extra hard at the cell they were kept away from. For a good few hours, maybe days.'

He sounded neither hateful nor pitying. Tanith couldn't imagine that this was a job where it was easy to see the continuous suffering of those around you and not feel it - especially when some of that suffering filtered over to yourself. The warden, for his part, sounded more dull and dead than judging one way or another.

'So it's up to you on if it's worth it. On if you can stand it.' He pushed open a door at the end of a stairway, and she could see a long, dark stone corridor, water dripping and echoing, lined on either side with the bars of cells.

'He's down here. Third on your left,' said the warden, not having so much as consulted parchment. 'You got an hour, or as long as you can stand to be in there, whichever comes first. Most people don't do more than fifteen minutes.'

She didn't even have an hour of her lunch, not even with Jacob's help, but Tanith gritted her teeth and promised herself she would stay until she didn't possibly have the time to linger any more. Giving the warden nothing more than a silent nod she stepped into the corridor.

The cells were dark. Just a glance to her left caught a sight of movement, of a figure hunched up in the corner, arms wrapped around their knees, rocking back and forth. She thought she caught a whisper of muttering under their breath from them, but blocked it out before she could make out words. On the other side she couldn't see anything, but every few seconds there was the sound of a thick, rough, choking sob.

She carried on.

The next two were no better. On the right there was a man, thin as a rake, his clothes hanging loosely off him, splayed out on the cold, stone floor. He was barely moving, though she saw the rise and fall of his chest, heard the ragged, whooshing breathing, and saw his fingers twitch occasionally by his sides. His eyes were wide open, staring at the ceiling, motionless.

The left was nothing but the sound of breathing. She wasn't sure ignorance here was an improvement.

And she didn't dare to look to her right as she reached the third row of cells, only into the darkness of her left, and the silhouette of the figure she could see perched on the bed set into the wall. She saw them move, saw their head sweep up towards the corridor, and her breath caught.

'...Dad?'

'You're -' It was her father's voice, but hoarse and broken like he'd drunk nothing but a desert of rocks for three months.

'It's really me, I - I just got permission to come visit you, I'm sorry I didn't...' Her voice betrayed her, and she fought the urge to take a step back as the figure stood abruptly, fought the urge to look away as he came forward, made herself stand her ground and see what Azkaban had done to him.

'...Tanith...'

But it was him. Gaunter than she remembered, his hair greyer than she remembered, his thin face flanked by a thick, wild beard that seemed so unlike him it was hard to recognise him for a moment. But his eyes, dark and hard and deep-set were the same, and the next thing she knew he had reached the bars with hands extended and she'd clasped them tightly.

She just about managed to not burst into tears just at the sight of him, at the relief of seeing him alive and better off than she'd feared, at the release she felt even know with the prospect that it didn't matter what she did or what the world did, this was her father and he could make everything all better.

Despite her efforts, he seemed to tell, and even through the bars he could reach out to wrap his arms around her. 'Oh, sweetheart, everything's going to be okay...'

'That's not...' Again, her voice tried to betray her, but she clung to her father for long, rejuvenating moments. 'I'm supposed to be here to make you feel better!'

She'd been serious, but the words sounded ridiculous even to her own ears, and her father gave a deep, throaty chuckle, a laugh so clumsy it was like he'd forgotten how to do it. 'Nonsense. Just you being here makes me feel better.'

She could hear the voices, still, the whisperings from the corner of her mind made manifest, but for those long seconds it didn't matter. Only reluctantly did she pull back to look at him. 'How - how are you?'

Even the question sounded stupid, but her father gave a small nod. 'I am enduring,' he said, and it was the best answer he could have given, encouraging but no platitude. 'They didn't break my spirit before and they won't break it again. How are you, my dear?'

'I...' She closed her eyes against tears, only this time they spilled out, silent across her cheeks. 'I don't even know, Daddy.' She couldn't remember being young enough to call him that. 'I'm trying to do my best, trying to not let them win, trying to help, but I don't want to do too much in case they get angry and it falls down on you, or mum, or Evadne, or Leah...'

She was in danger of babbling, and her father's hand came to her cheek to stem the tears. 'I know. I know. And you'll do your best...'

'What if my best isn't good enough?'

This was not a fear Tanith Cole was prone to voicing. Her father smiled crookedly. 'It will be. Because I know you. I raised a smart girl who learnt all of my lessons and then did one better, because while I hid my defiance in the dark, you had the boldness and the certainty to take your principles and stand up straight with them...'

'But standing up straight right now will get someone killed...'

'...but I did also teach you how to be just as cunning as me. And that might not be much reassurance when I'm standing inside a cell in Azkaban, but you know it took them almost twenty years to catch me.' His crooked smile broadened. 'Trust yourself, my dear. Trust your instincts, trust your teaching, trust your training...'

She had never explained to him the tight-rope she'd been walking, not once, and inside Tanith kicked herself for not having gone to him when he was free, not having asked him about all she was doing, because he had lived and breathed this himself in the last war. It was more comforting than she could have imagined to realise that she hadn't needed to tell him. Because he'd guessed of his own accord that she would follow in his footsteps, in her own way.

'The most important thing I can tell you,' said Daedalus Cole, 'is to be patient. To bide your time, keep your eyes and ears open, and be ready. You may have to pass on small opportunities. And it may break your heart to do so, to let all these injustices slide while you wait for the big chances. But when those chances come, you will strike such a blow, you will do such good, that it gives you the strength to carry on...'

I haven't done that in a long time.

'What about Mum? The others? I don't know if I can keep trying to help without putting them in danger, but I don't know how I can sit idly by...'

'They know.' He gave a tight, firm smile. 'Your mother knows. She knows what I'm like, and she knows what you're like, and I fancy that if she didn't accept that then I'd have been out on my rear years ago. As for Evadne and Leah, Alcaeus is a smart enough fellow to keep his family safe. The government might try to pretend that they will unleash hell on anyone and everyone for putting a foot out of line, but they still have to govern...'

'They put you in here,' she whimpered.

'Because they could prove I'd done something wrong. When purebloods of notable families do nothing wrong and are still punished solely for association, the wheels will come off this wagon. They might punish others if they can't get to you... but you are here to own your own actions. Be careful, my dear, of course; give them no excuses, and know what risks you're putting yourself at, but fight the fight for yourself.'

Tanith scrubbed at her cheek. 'It's not like I'm fighting a lot -'

'You couldn't. You have to be patient, watch, and you have to pick your battles.'

'...and while I wait?' Her breath caught. 'Knowing all these people I care about are suffering, are dying...'

'You need to live,' her father said simply. 'When I wasn't listening to their scheming and their plans, I wasn't locking myself away in my office, dwelling on every possibility of something going wrong. I had your mother for companionship. Your sister and yourself to look after. The farm to run. I had a family and I had a life, and you need to have a life if you're to get through this. You understand?'

It was so like what her sister had told her even before the occupation that Tanith couldn't help but give a slight, rueful smile. 'I'm not very good at that.'

'You can't wait around for your life to begin, Tanith, and hold it off until this mythical "right moment". Your life has begun, it is now.' Daedalus' smile turned sad. 'I would have thought I'd have been giving you this lecture because you'd be elbow-deep in your career, and that it would take a few more years...'

Tanith dropped her gaze guiltily. 'Are you going to be all right in here?'

It sounded like a stupid question, but he nodded. 'It's not easy. This place was designed to be... horrendous. But they've been happy to lock me up and throw away the key and... I have faith. Hope.' Daedalus looked down at her. 'In you, in my family. The good fight is still being fought. They can't take that away from me.'

'I can't...' She blinked quickly. 'I was so horrid to you, Dad. For years I judged you, I thought you were a small coward, I thought...'

'You thought that because I wanted you to.'

'...but you were doing all of this, you and Altair... Altair...' Her hand came to her forehead at the surge of nausea and grief that met the memories of her mentor. 'Merlin... if he'd had my blood connections, he'd still be alive...'

Daedalus grimaced. 'Very likely.'

'...and if I were a nobody like him they'd have just killed me, too... that doesn't seem right,' she murmured, and guilt rose up to join the near-overwhelming cocktail of dark emotions in her gut, and all the while the whispering of the Dementors in her ear grew louder.

Her father reached out for her hand. 'It's not. But it's the truth. It is a defence, and it is a weapon, and if Altair taught you anything it would be that you use every advantage in your arsenal, without regret and with pride. If he were here he would agree that it is regrettable that some in your position would be killed for doing the exact same had they not your blood connections, but you do have those and you are using them against evil. That is nothing to feel guilty about.'

She stayed only a little longer, letting the dark cell be filled with the light of talking about absolutely nothing in particular, of incidental, pointless parts of her life in a way she'd never spoken to her father about before. But this light still cast long shadows, and her father's expression of dogged perseverance was fading by the time she pulled away from the bars and realised she had to go.

It was best to keep the farewell brief. After all, she had no intention of this being their last meeting.

Count the number of meetings you've had you did intend or anticipate being final.



Chapter 27: The Balance of Power
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Chapter 27: The Balance of Power

His spell hit the Death Eater in the throat, and the man fell with a gurgle onto the pavement, not moving as his whole body seized up and his windpipe constricted - not enough to suffocate him, but enough to give him a bad day.

Cal whirled his wand in his hand and smirked across the darkened street at Cormac McLaggen. 'How's that for proof?'

McLaggen brushed himself off as he got to his feet, expression rueful. 'It was a good shot,' he granted.

'I was thinking more about my timing.' Cal jerked a head down the alleyway. 'Come on. The Portkey's going to be active in only about a minute. We're done here.'

'You know, for a moment,' said McLaggen as he followed him down the quiet, night-clad street of Birmingham, 'I didn't think you were going to stop to get that guy off me. I thought you were going to just grab the Portkey and run.'

'Oh, come off it, McLaggen, I might think you're a dickhead but I'm not going to leave you to get collared by a Death Eater and shipped off to Azkaban. There are a lot of people I like a whole lot less than you I wouldn't wish that fate on.' Cal glanced up and down the road, checking the windows of the shops and flats above them, satisfied there was no flashing of lights or twitching of windows.

The Muggles would likely ignore all of this or not know what to make of it anyway, and the man he'd hit with a petrification charm would be able to get up and leave under his own steam likely before he was found, but it didn't hurt to be sure.

'Thanks? I think?' McLaggen snorted. 'You could have told them anything. Like you fought really hard and they still got me.'

'The more you talk about this plan, McLaggen, the more I like it.' Cal frowned at him. 'I'm on your side. Wasn't that enough evidence? Wasn't that the point of this little excursion? That only you were ballsy enough or stupid enough to come with the guy nobody trusts and join him in beating up Death Eaters?'

'Can we still call them Death Eaters now?' wondered McLaggen. 'I bet half of these guys worked for the MLE even before the takeover. It's not like we're dealing with You-Know-Who's inner circle, we're dealing with the whole of the government.'

'I know,' murmured Cal. 'Why do you think we're leaving them to pick themselves back up again?'

Not that he was exactly bouncing for joy at the idea of murder, especially killing someone he'd already incapacitated. Death for other people in this lifestyle was not a subject he had given too much thought, outside of self-defence, and Cal was not the kind of man to reflect over-much. It would come to him when it came to him. So he certainly had no desire to go looking for it when it came to an opponent who was likely just a poor bastard doing his job.

He nodded at the big wheely-bin at the far end of the alley. 'Where are we off to, anyway?'

McLaggen looked at him like he was an idiot. 'I don't know.'

Cal frowned. 'What?'

'We never know. You didn't not get told just because you're dodgy,' said McLaggen, wandering down the alley. 'Jen sets up the Portkeys. We grab them at the end of the job. We get whisked off to the new location. It's safer for us to not know where it is, because if it goes wrong then we can't be snatched and questioned, and if the time window of the Portkey expires they can't chase the others through that.'

'Then what happens if something goes wrong, we don't get captured, we just get delayed and then the Portkey goes poof?'

'Then there's the emergency rendezvous point,' McLaggen said. He gave a one-shouldered shrug. 'All right, you didn't get told that one because you're dodgy.'

'Great. So there's a disincentive to dump your body in a gutter somewhere and take too long about it.' Cal shook his head. The two of them stood by the big wheely-bin, and just exchanged glances before they both reached out to touch it.

He was used to Portkeys by now. Used to how disorientating they could be, but Riley made them smoother than apparating, and Cal's head was only whirling a little when he and McLaggen appeared in the middle of a play-park, late at night, alongside what looked like a housing estate.

McLaggen frowned, and looked around. 'I don't think we're camping here.'

'Not that the slide and the roundabout wouldn't be mental age-appropriate distractions for you and Wilson,' Cal muttered, glancing about their surroundings - then something caught his eye, and he wandered towards the aforementioned slide.

McLaggen scoffed. 'For a moment, there, you sounded just like Doyle.'

'Funny that, us being friends,' said Cal, still walking away. 'And you say that like it's a bad thing.'

'Well, yeah.' McLaggen shrugged. 'He's dodgy and creepy as all hell. You're at least up front about it. You tell Wilson and me to fuck off. He just insinuates it by acting like he's smarter than everyone else.'

'He's smarter than you, that's the difference.' Cal reached out for the frame of the slide and tugged out a folded note that had been jammed between the metal bars and the plastic tube. He glanced over at McLaggen. 'Wait a second. Are you saying you like me more because I insult you bluntly, whereas Gabe is snide?'

He shrugged again. 'Pretty much.'

'So bloody typical Gryffindor,' sighed Cal, and unfolded the note. 'It's from Riley,' he said after a second. 'At least, I hope. Just says "13 Richmond Street".' He looked up, gaze sweeping across the row of houses, most of which were plunged in absolute darkness but some of which had light twinkling from the windows. 'Must be one of these.'

'Must be.'

The two of them left the park, walking in silence for a few moments as they peered at street corners, looking for the sign for Richmond Street. But within a few seconds Cal was glancing over at McLaggen. 'So he's been telling you about his visions pretty much since he came to you.'

'He said that's why he joined us in the first place,' said McLaggen. 'I don't know why, I guess he saw himself with us and decided to go along with it. But yeah, that was what he brought to the group. He was in touch with Jen before any of us, before she went officially rogue, and she says he'd predicted some stuff he couldn't have anticipated. He had to be legitimate. So he came to hide out with me and Percival and the others, right after Nick had been grabbed, and joined us on the job to bust him out in his prisoner transfer.'

Cal frowned. 'And it was Tanith who gave you the information on that job.'

'Yeah. And she shot one of her own in the back when she thought she could get away with it. And lay low until then so it lowered the number of bad guys to zap.' McLaggen looked at him quizzically. 'They're your friends. You didn't know all of this?'

'We've not exactly been living in the best of circumstances for sharing,' said Cal. 'And I don't think Gabe was telling anyone about his visions.'

Well, he had the sneaking suspicion that Gabe had told Tanith, from the things she'd said, but he wasn't going to voice that insecure little suspicion to CormacMcLaggen, of all people.

'Huh, I'd have thought - oh, hey, it's Richmond Street.'

Cal let them fall silent as they padded down the quiet, peaceful little road to number 13, a semi-detached house with a car in the drive and lights on inside. McLaggen blinked and lifted a hand as he saw it. 'Oh, I know where we are,' he said. 'This is Nick's family's place.'

'His home?' Cal frowned. 'Isn't that horribly dangerous?'

'I bet Jen's put all sorts of protection around it. C'mon, don't tell me you don't want a hot dinner and a bath, even if Muggle ovens look like they're going to explode at any moment...'

They were greeted at the door by Katie Bell, who encouraged them inside quickly, and within seconds they were pushed into a comfortable, if overly-full living room with the rest of the Lions, the smell of cooking coming from the kitchen, and were run through rather swift introductions to Nick Wilson's only slightly overwhelmed parents and younger sister.

But just as Cal was perching on the armrest of a sofa with a bottle of beer in his hand, his elbow was tugged at by Nick Wilson himself, who was soberly gesturing out of the room. 'Don't relax yet. You've got to be debriefed.'

'Debriefed. Are you...?' Cal glanced to where Wilson was gesturing to see McLaggen slumping into a room. He could see Riley and Gabe already inside, and he realised that their host was, in fact, not kidding. He got to his feet. 'Fine. But I'm bringing the beer.'

Wilson rolled his eyes. 'Whatever.'

'You're not coming?' Cal hesitated in the doorway. 'What, Gabe gets to sit in on these debriefs with Riley but she doesn't let you?'

It hadn't even been intended as a gibe. Cal knew how to push Wilson's buttons, and it had perhaps been a misjudgement to make a crack related to Jen Riley around him if he didn't meant to antagonise him. The other man's startling insecurity about his relationship with the girl who had been widely acknowledged as the brightest catch of their year at school was an ill-kept secret.

But normally Wilson wouldn't have done more than glare and glower. If really irritated he might have said a harsh word back. The last thing Cal had expected, upon realising his words to be ill-advised, was for Wilson to duck his head and leave.

Cal frowned all the way into the dining room that had become Riley's command centre over the mere two hours since the Lions had moved into the Wilson abode. She herself was sat at the head of the long oak table, papers and maps spread out around her, and Gabriel stood at her shoulder, pointing something out. McLaggen leant against the wall silently, looking unimpressed.

'Hate to interrupt the party,' said Cal, looking between her and his friend, 'but you wanted to see us?'

'Of course.' Riley looked up. 'How'd it go?'

McLaggen shrugged. 'Like clockwork. We wrecked the place. There were a couple of them in the cellar who came bursting out just as we were leaving, and we had a bit of a running scrap on the way back to the Portkey. But he got incapacitated.'

Riley still looked a bit expectant, and McLaggen sighed. 'And Brynmor was fine,' he said reluctantly. 'Did his part. Followed the plan. Zapped a few Enforcers.'

'Does that mean everyone gets to stop treating me like a pariah? Because, you know, that would be great,' said Cal tensely.

Gabriel snorted. 'Don't count on it, mate. I've been here the better part of six months...'

'...and you're a valued and trusted member of this team,' said Riley, cutting him off smoothly.

Cal quirked an eyebrow at her, and in doing so caught McLaggen's rather dubious expression. 'So I'll give it another few months and you'll all love me. Super.' He lifted his hands. 'It's done, okay? One less hidey-hole for these Enforcer hunting teams. They chase us, we turn around to give them a bloody nose.'

'That is, more or less, the idea.' Riley nodded. 'What happened with the ones in the cellar?'

McLaggen sighed. 'We didn't have exact numbers, did we? We took down the four in the room without trouble as they weren't expecting us. Set about ripping down all of the magical protections and enhancements to make the place just a useless building. Were leaving when two of them came out of the cellar. Since we were in the street, out in the open, it made more sense to run and get cover than stand our ground.'

'McLaggen here got a good shot off over his shoulder when we were running,' said Cal. 'But the other one hit him in the leg and he went down. I was a bit further ahead, I stopped, I Stunned the second. We got to the Portkey.'

Riley and Gabriel exchanged meaningful looks, and whatever the message was between them, Gabe sighed and lifted his hands. Cal raised an eyebrow again, but couldn't say anything before Riley returned her attention to them. 'Thanks, guys. That's good work. We should go get some dinner.'

'Yeah,' said Cal, and gave Gabriel a pointed look. 'In a minute.'

Once Riley and McLaggen had left, Cal folded his arms across his chest and turned to his friend. 'What was all that about?'

Gabriel paused halfway to the door, looking a little guilty. 'What was what all about?'

'That look Riley gave you.'

'Oh.' He ran a hand through his hair. 'I - I'm sorry, mate. I guess I'm used to keeping my cards close to my chest on this one. I had a vision about this job.'

Cal frowned. 'And you didn't tell us?'

'That was... kind of the point.' Gabriel shrugged. 'You had good intel on this job without my vision. Riley suggested we'd see if this job would go down the way I foresaw it would even if we didn't tell you. All I saw was you and McLaggen fighting those guys in the street and winning, it was nothing bad. And she signed off on it.'

'Why?'

Gabriel sighed. 'This is all pretty weird to me too, you know. It's not like I'm churning out foresight and we're all just happy with it. It happens randomly, it's confusing, and while I'm getting better at understanding all of this, I really don't have all the answers. No true Seer does.'

'You didn't know Toby was alive after all, I guess.' Cal couldn't fight a lopsided smile. The first they had heard was the new issue of the Midnight Press. It had been confirmed through whatever channels Riley had been using all along to keep in touch with Tobias. None of the Lions had celebrated as hard as Cal and Gabriel at the news.

'I sort of did. I'd just assumed that the visions I'd seen him in which hadn't come to pass yet were wrong.' Gabriel shrugged. 'I've been second-guessing myself on how this works. On how if using these visions and telling people about them to help them come to pass is... fucking things up. It's complicated, mate, I can tell you more about it but it's a long kind of process...'

Cal lifted a hand. 'I don't... you don't need to answer to me. I was curious. I appreciate you telling me. I know you don't have to, you don't owe me anything.'

Gabriel's shoulders sagged. Cal had been astonished at how much older and more worn his friend had looked when he'd first joined up with the Lions. His smirks and his smug superiority were all there, especially in front of the rest of the group, but his eyes were dark, his face more sallow, and his frowns deeper and more troubled. Thinking back, Cal could see the signs there from the last six months at Hogwarts, but at the time he'd been too preoccupied with his own troubles to properly notice.

No wonder they didn't trust you.

'I never meant to be lying to my friends,' said Gabriel. 'That's the truth. I didn't tell you about tonight because I thought it would be safe, and I want to know how much I can rely on my visions. I want to know that I can be useful, that I can use this as a gift instead of seeing shit things and not being able to do anything about them...'

'Like what?'

Gabriel hesitated. 'That's... not a road you want to go down. It's not a road I want to go down. I have no portents of doom up my sleeve right now, but...' He looked away. 'Just as a taster. I foresaw Annie's death. I didn't know that was what it was at the time, and it didn't make sense to me until afterwards. But I saw it, and I couldn't do anything about it...'

Cal made a face. 'That's pretty shit.'

'Yeah, tell me about it.'

'You don't have to tell me anything,' Cal said again. 'But you know I'm your friend. And I want to help you. I've been doing nothing back there for so long - you can't imagine how good it feels to get out, to fight back, to not feel useless and like my uselessness is making the world worse. So helping a mate is no big extra deal. I want to.' He glanced over at the door, and a sly smile tugged at his lips. 'Though it looks like you got all the help you want.'

Gabriel looked nonplussed. 'What?'

'Riley.' Cal jerked his head at the door. 'You two. All exchanging glances and working in synch and doing the debrief together. Wilson must bloody hate you.'

'I've never been his favourite person. Riley's...' Gabriel frowned in the direction of the others. Their revelry still drifted through the walls. 'She trusted me when she didn't have to. She trusted my visions. Without her, I don't think I'd be helping anyone right now. And... she was there for me. When we thought Tobias was dead.'

'There for you, or there for you?' Cal winked.

Gabriel straightened a little haughtily. 'It's not like that.'

'Because Wilson would rip your tits off?'

He snorted. 'I can neither confirm nor deny that this is a motivating factor. But no. It's not like that. She's smart, she's damn good at this, she's been carrying the Lions through. She really deserves all of the credit for everything we've achieved. I'm just happy to help.'

'And Wilson might rip your tits off anyway, for shits and giggles. So why're we at his folks' place?'

'We needed somewhere off the grid. Somewhere we can get a breather and scout out some more long-term prospects for hidey-holes. Wilson said that his family have been left alone, as far as we can tell, and it's not like the Ministry are shit-hot at looking into Muggle affairs.'

'A bit dangerous for his family, no?'

'They want to help,' said Gabriel, sounding bewildered. 'I guess they heard enough from Wilson about what's going on, and he's their son, and putting us up for the night isn't too bad. Besides, Riley and Bell went to town on the protection of this place.'

'It's kind of nice.'

'It's dry. It's warm. It's not a tent. It's a roof over our heads, it's a hot shower, it's a home-cooked meal. And it's a bottle of beer.' Gabriel gave a lopsided smirk, and looked more like his unflappable old self. 'I don't reckon we've got any right to complain.'


----------------------------


'You shouldn't be straining yourself, Mister Grey.'

Tobias squinted in the bright sunlight that greeted him on the terrace of the house he, Will, and Dimitri had staked out, and smiled up at the sky. 'I'm getting some fresh air. I'm enjoying the outside world. We're on a delightful, isolated little Greek island. I can't do all of my writing indoors. Besides.' He looked over at the older wizard, the sprightly fellow whom he'd seen several times before but had never had a proper conversation with. 'We have an appointment.'

Hypatos, the Healer who had been travelling once or twice a week to look at his leg, gave a deep sigh. 'I could have come indoors.'

'We've been indoors every time so far,' said Tobias, leaning heavily on the walking stick he had asked Will to procure for him as he limped over to the outdoor table and chairs. While being outside was a relief, so was sitting back down again, and he gave a deep sigh. 'But it's a nice day, and I'm tired of being cooped up.'

'You will be in sore danger of exhaustion, Mister Grey. You mustn't exert yourself too much if you want the leg to heal.'

Tobias glanced down at his left leg, knowing the wound left by Robb was still more livid than any injury had a right to be after magical healing attention. 'But it will heal,' he said, looking up at Hypatos. 'Won't it?'

Hypatos sighed, and pulled up a chair next to him. 'Injuries caused by dark magic are complicated,' the Greek said. 'There is no uniform assessment on how bad they are or how easy they are to heal. There are so many curses, and many of them are affected directly by the emotions and intentions of the wielder. A dark curse used in passing will hurt for some time, and it may resist healing which other, milder hexes would succumb to, but it will likely go away with barely a scar. This...'

'He was rather angry,' Tobias conceded.

'This has all the hallmarks of a wound inflicted by a man who very much hated you,' Hypatos said. 'That it struck your leg is telling. It might indicate a desire by him to incapacitate you, but it also likely meant a desire to make you suffer. That level of malice can empower a curse very, very deeply.'

'He probably could have pulled off the Killing Curse in that second if he had chosen to,' Tobias reflected.

'Perhaps, perhaps not. That is a complicated curse requiring a great deal of hatred. A dark magic user is likely familiar with a variety of lesser curses they can use with far less effort and with more confidence of getting the result they wish.'

'He wanted to do me harm, no doubt about that.' Tobias rested a hand on his thigh. It felt peculiarly numb right then. 'So you're saying this is going to have a harder time healing because this was a bit of dark magic pulled off by someone full of hatred at the time of casting.'

'Precisely.'

Tobias drew a deep breath. 'When we say "harder time", can we stop mincing words? What do we mean, exactly?'

Hypatos made a face. 'I am reluctant to give you a -'

'I am not dead, sir. I will take that as a victory, but I would rather know the truth.'

The older wizard sighed heavily. 'There is,' he said delicately, 'a very high probability that you will require the use of a walking aid for years to come. I would not consider myself too fatalistic to venture that you might need it the rest of your life.'

Tobias grimaced, letting his gaze drift from the neat little terrace, bathed in sunlight, or the comfortable cottage he and the others were hiding out in. They were at the top of a rise granting them a view of the island as a whole, and it stretched beyond them like a paradise of a hideaway. Warm. Pleasant. A land of culture and good food and secrecy. Far more pleasant than Russia, a far easier place to live and rest and do his work.

The view only helped a little. It helped less when his leg twinged and he thought not just of his injury, but of that night as a whole. Of Aurora.

'I am sorry, Mister Grey,' said Hypatos, jerking him back to reality.

'I wasn't planning on running around a great deal while writing the Press anyway,' said Tobias, with forced firmness. 'And what comes after, comes after. I'm still alive. That is a boon.'

'It is. Otherwise your injuries are healing up very well, as I'm sure you have noticed.'

'Yes. Only my leg hurts. I'm not tired so often. You and I can actually have a conversation instead of me getting work done and then sleeping through our appointments.'

Hypatos gave an unhappy nod. 'I will continue to work with you and monitor this. There are techniques you can use to keep yourself mobile, keep yourself healthy. To walk better on that leg with the aid of a cane.'

'I imagine I'm going to have to get used to it.' Tobias sighed. 'At least I can walk.'

'Indeed,' said Hypatos, seeming relieved that the positives were being paid attention to. 'I would still encourage you to rest as much as you can. Fortunately your work does not require too much physical exertion. Sitting outside is no bad thing, but you should have your room moved to one of the ones downstairs. Ideally I would have you in a house down in the village...'

'I don't want my presence to be a problem for the locals.' Tobias lifted a hand. 'I will learn to cope with the hill. And I guess that... after a bit, the cane is going to be pretty normal for me.'

'Plenty of wizards have lived fulfilling, active, and perfectly capable lives with all manner of physical impairments,' said Hypatos.

'At least I won't be hobbling around like Alastor Moody on one peg-leg.' Tobias shrugged at Hypatos' nonplussed expression. 'A British dark wizard hunter. I guess that didn't slow him down.'

'Exactly. Ours is a world of many marvels, Mister Grey. I know most wizards don't experience just how easy we can make life for the physically impaired, because for most wizards any injury can be rectified in just a few hours, days, or, at worst, weeks. But dark magic has hit and hurt many across the world, and many intelligent and capable wizards have endeavoured to counteract the harm it has done. Or, at least, to minimise it.'

'I know. Or - that makes sense.' Tobias gave a grim smile. 'Thank you, Mister Hypatos. I look forward to working with you so I'm not going to pass out just from hobbling out into the garden.'

'I am sure we can overcome that particular challenge,' said Hypatos with a kindly smile, and got to his feet. 'I have left the potions for the next week with Mister Rayner.'

'Don't worry. He'll make sure I take them.' Tobias let his gaze drift back off to the paradise of the island, and tried to ignore the throbbing in his leg. 'I don't think I have a choice but to take care of myself, with him around.'



Chapter 28: The Die is Cast
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Chapter 28: The Die Is Cast

'We have thus far utilised nothing more sophisticated in our pursuit of these terrorist groups than gathering evidence, following patterns, and pursuing what leads we have been able to gather from analysis and helpful informants.'

Rodolphus Lestrange paced back and forth across the head of the briefing room, the huge map of Britain spread out on the wall behind him, little magical dots lighting it up in different colours that marked how old or how recent any lead or confirmed sighting of the Lions of Britain had occurred, and their location.

'This has proven woefully, woefully insufficient.'

Even though Tanith was not, in all truth, listening a great deal, she could practically feel Thanatos Brynmor, stood by the door, tense at the criticism.

The two men had been nothing less than at each others' throats since Lestrange had been settled into the MLE, and into the Detector branch charged with the hunt and eradication of the Lions. Their failure to have so much as a successful swipe at the group had clearly become a source of some vexation to Yaxley, and with the death of Robb it was likely that Brynmor, however respected and towering an individual he was to the Death Eaters in his own right, had lost a good deal of standing.

Some said Yaxley was only the head of the Department as a reward for allegedly hitting Thicknesse with the Imperius curse - which wouldn't have surprised Tanith. Others said that Brynmor hadn't wanted the job; that he preferred to be in the field. Certainly he was the second most important person in the Department.

And it looked like Yaxley couldn't wait to undermine his nearest rival by holding him responsible for their lack of success, and bringing in someone to berate and replace him.

Except that there was a high chance this would backfire, in Tanith's eyes, and end with Brynmor just ripping Lestrange's jugular out.

'We have been too forgiving,' the odious man said, turning to face the gathered Detectors with a smug little smile. 'We shall not be so in the future. We shall eradicate where they go to ground. We shall pursue every lead with the most dogged and violent determination. We have operated on only certainly so far - certainty is impossible with these people.'

Tanith couldn't bite back a faint snort, and then Lestrange's cold, reptilian eyes were on her.

'Did you have something to add to that, Detector Cole?'

She hadn't meant to be heard, but she was damned if she was going to squirm in her seat at Rodolphus Lestrange. 'It's just that we've pursued every lead, sir, which hasn't sounded like deranged ramblings. It's not as if we've been ignoring opportunities so far and that's why they've evaded us.'

She felt, rather than heard, the ripple of approval run through the room at her words. Nobody appreciated some outsider coming in to tell them what to do, and to criticise their work so far. But the small rumble of amused approval from Brynmor was certainly audible - to her, and likely to Lestrange.

Something was wrong when she felt vindicated by his approval.

'Perhaps not,' said Lestrange in a voice indicating he was happy to completely ignore her argument. 'But I will be instituting a new weapon in our arsenal: fear. We will make them so terrified of crossing us that they do not dare to. We shall make every hiding hole they utilise unusable. Anyone even suspected of helping them will be harmed so much not a single person in Britain will dare to lend them aid.'

She had heard this rhetoric before, and nothing was making her bat an eyelid at it yet. There was no point in pursuing the hiding holes of the Lions when they'd rarely encountered them any less than a month after they'd been abandoned. The best lead they'd had would have been around January - and then Cal had absconded with the maps and, it had become quickly apparent, edited or destroyed their records so they couldn't follow him or the Lions.

So Tanith held her tongue through the rest of the meeting and let Lestrange continue with his self-important ramblings, and got to her feet to dutifully leave the briefing room when he dismissed the team. Jacob fell into step beside her with a deep sigh once they were out in the corridor.

'That was a waste of time.'

'Mm-hmm. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,' Tanith mused - and tried to not flinch when she realised where she'd heard that before.

'Meet the new boss, crazier than the old boss. You looked about ready to nod off in there.'

'There's something wrong with your life when your boss is talking about how he's going to unleash a reign of terror across Britain and all you can think about is what you're going to have for your tea,' Tanith agreed as they entered the office bullpen and wandered over to their desks.

'Speaking of tea, did you want to get some dinner?'

He'd been like this for weeks, even since the news had come out of Tobias' survival. She couldn't go anywhere or do anything without her partner making sure she was eating and sleeping, making sure she wasn't alone. In truth, Tanith was in no mind to complain about it.

But she shook her head with a pang of guilt. 'I've got plans. I'm sorry.'

'Plans?' Jacob raised his eyebrows. 'That sounds ominous.'

'Family,' she lied, and he didn't press it any further as they packed up their affairs and left the Canary Wharf office for the evening. Neither of them were inclined to linger about the area with Lestrange's lizardy gazes hanging over the Detector team, or Brynmor's sulking filling the room with his anger and frustration.

But Tanith didn't go home when she and Jacob exchanged their farewells. When she disapparated, her living room was not the first thing on her mind, nor was it where she ended up.

It took about fifteen minutes, but soon enough she was stood at the top of a tall building with a good view of London sprawling out beyond her, waving her wand gently through the air to do what she could by way of Muggle misdirection charms. She had neither the time nor the skill to make them perfect, but she was high enough up that a small nudge to any of the people walking the London streets below, to make them disinterested in something as simple as looking up, would be sufficient.

Then she heard the door to the roof access swing open, and quickly she let her wand slide up her sleeve, hesitating.

'So it is you.'

Tanith gave a small, sheepish, guilty, uncertain smile as she turned around. 'You don't sound especially surprised.'

'A vague letter just saying "meet me on the roof" delivered through my window?' David walked gingerly across the concrete towards her. 'With no other explanation and just the assumption I'll trust you? That sounds like you.'

He looked much the same as he had when they'd last met those long weeks ago. Calm. Casual. The shade of dark stubble across his chin, his hair mussed with that lack of care for the expectations of the world around him she had found herself missing more than she could have anticipated. She felt as if a thousand years had gone by, herself, with all she'd done and suffered and recovered, but he didn't look as if a day had passed.

It was refreshing.

She shifted her feet anxiously. 'You're pissed.'

'You walked out on me with very little justification and expected me to just accept that. And now, out of the blue, you've come wandering back in.' His expression was tense, hard to read. She'd spent so long watching people's eyes expecting violence to be the retaliation if she put a foot wrong; simple emotional upset hadn't bothered her for weeks.

Until now. She didn't think she could stand anything less than she could stand him turning on his heel and walking away, right now.

'You're still here, though.' Her voice wavered, just a little.

'The letter was delivered by an owl.' David's frown deepened, though he seemed more bewildered than aggravated. 'So not only did I know it had to be you, Tanith - with whatever crazy shit goes on in your life - but how was I supposed to turn down a mystery like that?'

Her lips twitched, and she glanced at the edge of the building, barely a foot away from her. 'I admit that was a bit the point.'

'So, I'm here.' He shrugged. 'What do you want? I want... to help, I get that whatever's going on with you is complicated and messy and I'm supposed to stay ignorant, but I don't think I can do that. I don't think I can give you the help you need without being able to know, let alone understand. And... I have to think of myself. It's not fair to me for you to come running whenever you fancy and ask me to give you support without context, without explanation...'

Tanith flinched, and lifted a hand. 'I know,' she said. It was everything she'd expected he would say, everything she had dreaded he would say, and everything she didn't think she could take listening to him say. 'And I understand. So... I'm sorry.'

And she stepped off the roof's edge.

'Tanith!'

Her feet hit Cal's broomstick, hovering barely more than a metre down from the edge, and it swerved underfoot to keep her balanced, just as it was designed to do. Just as it was enchanted to do. David was yelling her name and bolting for the edge just as she nudged it to rise up, lift her back up in view of the edge to hover a foot above the ground and a foot away from the building.

David skidded to a stop, hand outstretched, jaw dropping. 'What... the...'

She nudged the broom to land, gingerly stepping back onto solid ground. 'I didn't... know how to explain it without a demonstration. A demonstration that couldn't possibly be anything but real. Because... I have a hell of a lot to explain.'

'Oh, God.' David opened and closed his mouth, moving towards her. 'You really do work for the government, or something. This is some MI-6 super-tech or...'

'No, it's a broom. It's... a magic broom.' Tanith winced. 'And I just broke about three hundred years' worth of law and tradition in telling you that.'

'Magic?' His hand dropped by his side, eyes still wide, utterly dumbfounded. 'Who are you?'

'My name is Tanith Cole. And I'm a witch. I was educated at Hogwarts' School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I was the first candidate from school in three years to be accepted into the training programme for the Auror Office, which is a branch of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement within the Ministry of Magic.'

He blinked, fast, and she could see he was fighting to keep up with her. 'Auror...'

'We hunt dark witches and wizards. People who use... evil magic. Harmful magic. For criminal ends.'

'So you're a copper.' David drew a deep breath. 'And you have enemies? Is that why you were stuck in things you couldn't talk about, some of these... evil wizards had got influence of you, or something like that...?'

'Not... quite. Almost. It's... complicated.' Tanith took a step towards him, gaze flickering over every inch of his face, studying every facet and twitch of his reaction, knowing she was looking for rejection, hatred, disgust in his expression.

It wasn't there. Bewilderment was, of course. Confusion. Astonishment. But there was also still... trust.

Trust he'd always shown, even when she was giving him no reason to trust.

'I'll tell you everything, I promise. I'll answer any questions that you have. But I realised that I can't... my world, my life, is far too hard right now for me to get through it by driving people away. I thought that was the best thing to do, when I left. I thought it would be safer for you and I didn't...' She looked away, briefly, guiltily. 'I didn't like how you made me honest when I was trying to not even be honest with myself.'

'I'm sorry,' he blurted. 'If you were going through tough things, the last thing I wanted was to make it harder on you...'

'No.' She lifted a hand to cut him off, stumbling, but certain. 'I was... wrong. I was just trying to hide away, when that was pretty dumb. And it's got easier since then, but...' Tanith looked up to meet his gaze firmly, levelly. 'You manage to trust me in a way I'm not used to being trusted. By others, by myself. Or that I'm used to trusting others. You've managed to cut through to the heart of matters with me like almost nobody else could, and nobody else can right now and... I owed you better than I gave you.'

'No, you...' He took a step forward, bringing them closer - then hesitated, seeming unhappy with the words on the tip of his tongue. 'You needed help, so clearly. And I thought I could help. And you're... I thought I could read a thousand words in every one you left unsaid and saw a good person, a person struggling, but a person trying to do the right thing...'

'I am. Trying, I mean. But to do the right thing I've got to keep my mind, and...' Tanith drew a deep breath. 'You helped with that. More than I knew. More than I was prepared to admit. You helped, for weeks, to keep me sane, and to keep me doing the right thing, and I valued your friendship more than I realised. I'd like to... get that back.'

'I'm clearly a damn sap,' murmured David, voice quiet, wry. 'Because despite you telling me nothing and walking out on me I don't think I can say anything but "Hey, sure, crazy lady".'

She grinned, a stupid, broad grin despite herself, and he returned it, and for a few seconds they just stood there on the night-clad rooftop over the twinkling lights of London, wrapped up in the cold wind whistling around them, and grinned at each other like idiots.

'That's good. And... I'll tell you more. I promise. Everything you want to know, because it's fair and because it might actually help, telling someone. But I wanted to... let you know.' Tanith paused, the words now clumsy on her lips, and for half a heartbeat she wasn't here, on this rooftop, she was in a rain-clad forest getting shouted at.

She pushed that aside, and looked at the man in front of her. 'I wanted you to know how much you've helped me. How much I've relied on you. How much you've... meant to me. Because that only seemed fair, too.'

Tanith hadn't really known what she'd expected him to say in response. She'd feared him rejecting her far too ardently to think through the possible results of this gambit, of this thoroughly illegal confession, and had tackled it with no greater tactical consideration than effectively closing her eyes and leaping.

So she didn't know what to do in this moment, stood there before him, with all of her cards laid on the table and nothing to do but wait and see what his hand was, and how he was going to play it. There was nothing she could have anticipated.

Not him stepping forward. Not him lifting a hand to her cheek, his hands surprisingly rough but his touch surprisingly light and gentle. Not him coming closer, tilting her face up towards his, and leaning down to kiss her.

It wasn't like kissing Tobias. The times they'd kissed it had been desperate and fervent and more than a little fumbling, and maddeningly intoxicating beyond all sense and reason and almost in defiance of recollection, later.

It wasn't even like kissing Miles Bletchley, full of teenaged hunger and self-loathing and woe, and something altogether more empty and damaging and painful.

And for a moment she hesitated, for a moment her thoughts flew to Tobias, Tobias who was alive, Tobias who had made such an ardent declaration of love, and for a moment guilt gnawed at her for what she was doing to him, and what she might be doing to David...

Then she slid her arms around his neck, pulling him closer, and pushed away all feelings for someone a thousand miles away, all promises so unspoken and unacknowledged they weren't just merely implied, they didn't exist; all hopes and dreams that had gone round in circles and risen and been dashed over and over until she didn't know if up was down and he, Tobias, was almost certainly no better off.

It was the first time, in her whole life, she had kissed or been kissed without a gnawing sense of self-hatred or self-doubt, or without the knowledge that the moment could and would be snatched away within seconds to be never spoken of, thought of, or even acknowledged again.

For once, for the first time, her port in the storm, her escape from suffering, was here, was in front of her, was real, and wasn't going anywhere.


-----------------------------


'We need to talk.'

Will Rayner turned, cocking his head at Tobias. Somehow he hadn't heard him approaching him across the terrace, focused as he had been on the view of the island beyond the house, currently bathed in the golden, flickering light of the setting sun filling the sky and the sea and glimmering all around.

He gave a relieved smile. 'Tobias. Yes, we do, it's good to see you up and about again.'

'Thanks.' Tobias tapped his cane on the paving stones lightly. 'I feel better. Like getting out of bed doesn't make me so tired all I want to do is get back in bed. I can hobble around pretty well.' He looked up at Will. 'And that's what I want to talk about.'

'I figured as much.' Will sighed, putting his hands in his pockets. 'I know it might seem a bit late now, considering that the latest issues have already been sent off, and the whole wizarding world knows that you're back. But I think you should reconsider the next issue.'

Tobias frowned. 'What?'

'I know, I know.' Will lifted his hands. 'But if they come for us again, we can't guarantee your safety. Dimitri is shooting back and forth across Europe these days, not just to Moscow but to Athens, even Paris - anywhere he thinks he can rally support for us. I'm up to my elbows in getting information out of our old sources, most of whom are pretty damn rattled these days and disinclined to stick their necks out.'

'Nobody said this was going to be safe, or easy. But -'

'And right now, if Death Eaters somehow find you and bust through the defences of this island, if neither one of us is here, then you don't have much of a chance of defending yourself.'

Tobias looked down, looked at the leg he still couldn't comfortably put his weight on, looked at the walking stick that had become his life-line. 'If they find us, they'll probably come in force. If they find us, Dimitri is a diplomat; there's no way he could go toe-to-toe with a Death Eater.' Like Aurora couldn't. 'The only one of us who stands much of a chance is you, and that's even one-on-one...'

'Exactly. They won't send one. They'll send half a dozen and then it won't matter how many of us are here, we'll just die.'

'This wasn't what I wanted to talk about.' Tobias frowned. 'This isn't even up for discussion. The Midnight Press is going to continue. I'll let you calm down, and we can talk about matters in the morning.'

He turned to go, only for Will to reach out for a strong hand at his elbow. Once he might have just yanked himself out of the older man's grip, but he couldn't brace his weight comfortably on his stick being held like that.

'No, hold on a second -'

The anger which surged in his gut at the choice Will had foisted upon him - be a captive audience or strain his bad leg - was entirely new, but thoroughly real, and Tobias whirled, as best he could, around to face the Unspeakable. 'You'll let me the hell go, right now,' he hissed.

Will looked startled, then apologetic, and his hand dropped - but he did not look defeated. 'This is important, Tobias. This is your life. I don't want to see them coming for you again, and I don't want to see you die.'

'Then you should have brought this up before we sounded the horn and told the world I wasn't dead.'

'You didn't seem in a state to listen. And I've still been thinking about it. It's not too late; if you just drift off silently, they won't waste resources going across the continent to find you. They won't stick their necks out on foreign influence trying to get you extradited. They'll leave you be, just like they've left every other exile, until an easier opportunity comes up.'

Tobias gritted his teeth. 'So I just take a holiday while my country suffers. While the people I care about are exploited and condemned. I sit on a beach and wait for it to end.'

'You almost died for this, Tobias. You almost lost a leg, you might well be maimed for the rest of your life, and all because of what you did.' Will waved a hand, expression aghast. 'Nobody, not nobody could try to pretend like you haven't done enough. That you haven't earned the right to say "I've fought my fight and now it's over". Anyone who tried to pretend you were a coward for suffering like you have and then backing down would be a fool.'

'I don't do this because of what anyone says, I do this because of what's right. You're right in that if I continue, they will probably try to kill me again.' Tobias took a hobbling step forward. 'And why? Because it hurts them. Because I drag every one of their iniquities and failings out squirming into the harsh light of day. If it didn't mean anything, if it didn't do good, then they wouldn't try to stop me, try to kill me. They waste so much of their resources trying to go after me, after us. Three men. That means they fear me. That means I hurt them. That also means that so long as they're going after us, they're not going after someone else.'

Will frowned. 'So you're happy to die for this.'

Tobias gave a dark smile. 'I already died once, Will, and came back. Do you think they can, now, ever kill me? Even if they rip me limb from limb and put my remains on public display, they have already proclaimed to the world that I was dead and defeated. And I came back. If they make such a claim again, they will not be believed. The messages I wrote will live on - in words, in hope. Don't you understand? In failing to kill me, they have made me immortal.'

'Except that you're not, because it doesn't matter what people believe if they rip you limb from limb, you'll still be dead.'

Tobias straightened, best he could with an aching leg. 'Not in the ways which matter the most.'

'Do you think Aurora would agree?'

Although he couldn't help but feel angry at the accusation, Tobias certainly couldn't feel surprised. He had known, on some level, that Will was going to try to bring up Aurora Marlowe as a weapon in his arsenal to convince him to stop. He shifted his bad leg. 'She gave her life for this work.'

'She gave her life for you,' Will thundered. 'To protect you, to keep you safe. Continuing to paint a bull's eye on yourself is tantamount to throwing that sacrifice away.'

'No, it's not.' The words were nothing new to him, were nothing he'd not told himself dozens of times over. 'She knew me. She knew what I was like. She knew what I would do. And she acknowledged that, and accepted it.' Just like she knew what my father was like, what he wanted, who he loved, and supported him anyway. And loved him anyway. Tobias's eyes roved over Will's face, searching every inch of it for some give in his stern expression.

'Come on, Will, what's this about?' he asked at last. 'If I didn't know you better, I'd swear this was you trying to get an out for yourself...'

Will bristled. 'Even if this stops,' he said, 'I will continue to gather information from my sources, our sources, and pipe them through to the people who benefit from them. That still does good, and doesn't draw attention to us.'

'Then what? What's changed this? Don't say you've had time to think about it, because I thought we'd already done this argument. Why are you suddenly so intent on protecting me from threats I already accepted?' Tobias watched him for several long moments, before he drew a sharp breath. 'What's happened to Cal?'

'What?' Will's head snapped around.

'This. This over-protection. I'm not your son, but you're sounding an awful lot like a lecturing father, and... has something happened?'

Will flinched, and Tobias knew he had him. 'No. There's... no bad news. It's actually good news or... it's mixed news.'

Tobias clenched his walking stick hard. 'What's happened? We've heard nothing from him, about him...'

'Except that he was stuck in London, under the careful supervision of Thanatos Brynmor,' Will growled, his gaze going to the horizon, and again Tobias was starkly reminded that Will had been more to Cal than just a guardian, just the owner of the house the boy had grown up in. He had been the father Thanatos could and should rightfully never be, as a Death Eater in Azkaban. 'And not more than whispers of him still being there had come out for months.'

'Cal's smart,' said Tobias. 'And I know he's had a long, and hard road with Thanatos Brynmor. But he is no fool. I trust him.' I forgive him.

'Whether or not he's a fool is up for debate,' said Will tightly, 'as I just got the latest word from Jennifer Riley. They've been doing well, it's all in the paperwork, I'll let you go through it so you can put things together for the next issue. She congratulates you on not being dead, by the way. But it seems the Lions have gained a new recruit.'

Tobias blinked. 'Cal? He's joined up with them?'

'Out of the frying pan and into the fire, that is.' Will gave a grimace of the smile. 'He's no longer under the watchful eye of his shit of a father, he's going to be hunted by him. I don't know if that's better or worse.'

'I don't think there are good answers in this situation.' Tobias limped up to step next to Will, letting his own gaze sweep over the warmth and welcoming rays of the setting sun, and wherever they fell on this island - this paradise so far away from war and pain it was easy to forget they were out there.

'Trust him,' Tobias said. 'Trust him to be making the right choices, to be keeping himself safe. And if you can't trust him, trust Jennifer Riley. Not a single member of the Lions has been captured or killed since she took direct command. If there ever was a champion amongst us in this fight it's not me, writing papers a thousand miles away from danger, and it's not you, gathering information from the shadows. It's her, giving me the stories to write about, acting on the information you give her, and your son, my friend, is under her wing. Trust her.'

'"My son",' Will echoed with a sigh - a deep, regretful sigh. 'I never called him that. I don't know why. It felt like... intruding, or something. Presumptous. Isn't that bloody ridiculous; I raised him since he was a baby. But I always feared that he'd somehow, deep down, want his real father.

'Murderous, racist lunatic that he is.'




----------

A/N: I'm out of the country next week, so assume there will be no updates until the 14th/15th. You might get lucky, wi-fi permitting, but in the meantime, enjoy, and see you then!

To appease you ravening masses (well, a small mob, at least. A mobette?) I will confirm that Falls the Shadow is 100% written at 44 Chapters (barring proof-reading as I go along), and there WILL be another, post-war story to wrap up all those Happily-or-Not Ever Afters and loose plot threads which couldn't really be satisfyingly concluded with an epilogue. Though the desire to parody The Epilogue was... powerful. Anyway, the fourth and final story is currently being written under the Working Title of 'Invictus', so we've got a good long haul 'til the Very End yet.


Chapter 29: The Devil to Pay
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A/N: This story has dealt with dark themes and events in the past, but this chapter deserves its own warning for tackling the darkest side of Death Eater violence.



Chapter 29: The Devil to Pay

‘Ten sickles on Brynmor.’ Katie Bell smirked as she dropped down to sit on the blanket Riley had laid out on the floor of the big, spacious abandoned warehouse that had become the Lions’ latest hideout.

‘You’re on. Nick will wipe the floor with him.’ Riley looked up from the papers spread out in front of her, and gave her friend a tired smile. It seemed all she focused on these days was paper - messages, intercepted communiqués, maps, plans, theories. ‘Are the wards secure?’

Katie nodded. ‘This is a great spot. The buildings are densely packed, I just need to hook up the wards at the alleyways rather than all around. The background level of Muggle disinterest’s really high. People just wander past here and don’t give it a second look. Like a Diagon Alley charity shop.’

‘Good.’ Riley frowned. ‘Let’s see if this extends as far as the Ministry.’

‘If we use some more Portkey-bouncing to confuse the trail,’ said Katie, ‘I think we should consider using this place for the long-haul.’

‘Don’t get ahead of yourself. We only just got here.’

‘And already the boys are trying to kill each other. How thoroughly appealing and not at all tiresomely and predictably macho.’ Katie both frowned and smirked at the impromptu sparring match that had sprung up amongst the more boisterous of the boys, magic sparking off between pairs locked into what varied between casual practice matches and outright wars of ego. ‘You should wade in. Show them how it’s done.’

‘And undermine their precious masculinity?’ Riley snorted as a fresh spark of a spell knocked Cal Brynmor, locked in a fight with Nick Wilson, onto his back on the floor. ‘You’d better get those coins out.’

‘Oh, hey, look at that, I’m a fugitive and so have no money. Sucker.’

‘Are you two betting against my boy?’

Riley tried to not tense as Gabriel Doyle’s voice came drifting over, and the long-limbed man came to a halt at the edge of the blanket, smirking down at them. He usually smirked. He never smiled. Not in public, anyway. ‘I’m betting against him. Katie has faith.’

Gabriel glanced over at Katie. ‘Oh, you foolish girl.’

‘So I’m learning,’ she mused. ‘He looks like he should be good in a fight.’

‘Because he’s built like a brick shithouse and he knows how to use his size. Unfortunately that’s not so much use when we’re dealing with magic,’ he said.

‘Nick has him beaten on speed, technique, and experience,’ Riley agreed.

‘So when he said “spar”, he actually meant “wildly unfair beat-down”,’ said Katie.

‘We will fight wildly unfair fights in the field,’ Riley said, bending over her papers and sensing that she was around the edges of a conversation she really didn’t want to get into.

‘So that’s completely what we want to do when we’re having a bit of R&R, isn’t it? Then again, Wilson does prefer these fights unfair.’ Gabriel stuck his hands in his pockets. ‘I was going to get a drink. I’ll leave you two ladies to your plotting.’

‘And so does Doyle remain weird,’ said Katie as Gabriel headed for the pile of crates that were their supplies. ‘What was that about unfair fights?’

‘Doyle is still trapped in a schoolboy mentality, with schoolboy grudges against Nick for things that happened years ago. You know, before we were running and fighting for our lives and for justice every day,’ Riley growled into her paperwork.

Katie blinked at the vehemence, and straightened her sweater. ‘You know, I’m going to go check up on our wards now they’ve had five minutes or so to settle. Make sure they’re not being set off by rats or something. Besides.’ She nodded at the centre of the warehouse, where the groups were splitting off. ‘You have a conquering hero to congratulate.’

But Wilson did not come over, not even when Katie got to her feet and headed for the door out into the alleyways. He’d ended the fight with Cal Brynmor on his back, again, finally conceding defeat, and then hadn’t so much as extended a hand to help the burly Welshman back up before he’d cast one glance in her direction, one glance towards Gabriel - who was fussing over snacks at the crates - and storming over to his own corner with Cormac McLaggen.

Riley bit her lip, rolled her eyes, and tried to focus again on the dispatches she’d received. This didn’t last very long, however, before the broad shape of Cal himself flopped down onto the blanket beside her with a groan.

‘Not interrupting, am I?’

A small surge of satisfaction that she was at least not being ignored off-set any irritation. Besides, the work could wait. ‘You look like you need a seat anyway.’

‘His Stunning spells hit harder than Bludgers.’ Cal rolled his shoulder. ‘Your boyfriend fights dirty.’

‘It keeps him alive, that’s the bit I care about.’

‘True enough.’ Cal seemed more cheerful about being beaten than Wilson seemed about having won. ‘I’ll learn a lot. I’m getting better. I’ve not had to do this sort of stuff since school.’

‘And it’s very different to school out here. You’re doing pretty well, though. You already have a couple of Enforcers taken down. Don’t be afraid you’re not pulling your weight.’ She looked up at him, big and burly and inexplicably grinning.

‘Oh, yeah, two.’ Cal nodded across the warehouse. ‘You know the guys keep count? It’s like a contest.’

She bit her lip again. ‘I know.’ They had half-points for those they just stunned or incapacitated. Full points for those they killed. She knew it to be a legitimate means of keeping up morale, a form of friendly competition, but the idea of lethal force being rewarded more highly made her sick to her stomach.

It had seemed hypocritical to criticise, however, considering the first time they’d hit a group of Snatchers with lethal force it had been on her say-so. Stuns only kept them off the street for a day. Killing them kept their targets safer for life.

Cal watched her for a minute - his gaze was astute, but not half so uncomfortably prying as Gabriel’s - before running a hand across his short, bristly hair. ‘I wanted to thank you, anyway,’ he said bluntly. ‘For giving me a chance.’

Riley glanced over at him, and nodded. ‘You’re a good guy to have on the team.’

‘I feel good.’ He sighed. ‘I know, I don’t have much to complain about, spending six months with the Ministry paying for my food and not even having to work - let alone not being in mortal danger daily. But I feel so much better being out here. Like I’m actually making a difference. I feel downright alive.’

He sounded so refreshed that she couldn’t help but smile. For months all she’d felt had been the stress, the fear, the strain, but she couldn’t deny it was good to hear someone else talking like that. It was how she’d felt at the start, and it stirred those lingering feelings she still kept, deep down. ‘That’s good. Happy freedom fighters are productive freedom fighters.’

Cal chuckled, and she couldn’t help but wonder how dour, snide Gabriel Doyle had become friends with someone so easy-going. She’d always known Tobias better than Cal Brynmor, whose reputation had been thoroughly tainted by the revelation of his father’s identity, but he had at least been acknowledged of being one of the ‘better’ Slytherins.

Then again, Tanith Cole, to whom she owed the life of the man she loved, had been considered evil incarnate for a good period of time at school. Life changed everyone and everything. Especially perspective.

‘Then I’ll be productive as anything.’ Cal sobered a little. ‘I know you didn’t have to trust me. I intend to be worthy of it.’

‘I didn’t have to,’ Riley agreed. ‘But Doyle vouched for you.’

He looked across the warehouse to find Gabriel, who was clearly baiting Percival Anderson over what snacks were left in one of the crates. ‘Even if I’d known he was with you, I wouldn’t have realised his word was worth much weight.’

‘He’s proven himself, and his visions, a dozen times over.’

‘And yet most of the rest look at him as if he is, at best, still the same bastard he enjoyed being to you at school, or at worst, a freak or a sham,’ said Cal, with an astuteness she couldn’t say she cared for. ‘It only seems to be you who speaks for him. I think the ones who do trust him, trust him because you do.’

‘I seem to be better than most at focusing on the bigger picture.’

‘Better than Wilson.’ He nodded across the warehouse. ‘He looks ready to blow a gasket when you so much as look at Gabe.’

Thank you, Brynmor. I was trying to ignore that.

‘Nick really doesn’t like him. So long as they work together, that’s not my problem.’

‘Is that why you keep Gabe in debriefs but not Nick?’

She didn’t like the innocent tone of his question, and certainly his eyes were far too earnest when she glanced over at him. ‘Are you insinuating something, Brynmor?’

He smirked. ‘Well-

Jen.’

She hadn’t even heard Katie returning, even though she must have come storming in from the door, as it was only just swinging shut. Her shoulders were tense, her voice urgent, and she was as white as a sheet.

Riley was on her feet in an instant and at her friend’s side. ‘What is it?’ She let her voice drop, urgent but cautious. Information could spread across the group in waves and, sometimes, information needed containing.

‘It’s the wards -’ Katie lifted a hand as Riley went for her wand, shaking her head. ‘Not here. You’d know inside if something went wrong here. The ones we left behind. At Nick’s place.’

The bottom of Riley’s stomach dropped out. ‘His family? The wards have been breached?’

Katie nodded, looking like she was going to be sick. ‘About five minutes ago. I only just noticed the runestone, I was looking at the current wards, not the old ones...’ She took a deep, shaking breath. ‘Jen, we’re looking at about a dozen people hitting the place. They don’t stand a chance.’


-------------------


The Canary Wharf office was quiet at this time of night, and that was just the way Tanith liked it. Paperwork was a boring pain, but it was easier to get on with without the buzz of activity and aggravation that followed the room around like a swarm in the middle of a busy shift. Jacob had gone home, giving her a slightly judging look for pulling an extra shift, but she’d waved him off and settled down at her desk and tried to work.

In reality she’d found herself looking at the big map on the wall. Not the one of Britain - Robb’s old map, the one he’d been using to track Tobias and his accomplices across Europe. It had been left untouched since late December, since the news had come in and Robb had died, and nobody had bothered to update it since. Certainly nobody had dared touch it with Brynmor around.

She’d stared at it before the attack for hours, and she’d stared at it when she’d thought he was dead, but this was the first chance she’d had to reflect upon it with the revelation he was alive, and not in Russia. Now she wondered where he was, if he was safe, what he was doing.

Is he thinking of me?

Again she felt guilty as her thoughts crept from Tobias to David, and she fought a blush even though there was nobody there to see it. The guilt was fleeting, at least, and she reached into her pocket to grasp his watch, which she still couldn’t bring herself to be parted from.

Come back. Come back to me from the far side of the world, when the war’s over and we don’t risk death every day just to bring a little bit of hope and justice to the country wrapped up in darkness. Then we’ll talk about promises.

Her father had been right, of course. She couldn’t try to live just for after the war. She probably wouldn’t get that far if that’s all she did.

But it was hard to not think about it, sometimes. Think about -

‘Cole.’

She started and turned in her chair as Thanatos Brynmor came barrelling into the office, pulling on his thick, heavy coat. She wasn’t sure where he’d come from, but he looked like he meant business. ‘Get up and come with me.’

‘Um. What?’ But she still got to her feet, grabbing her wand and her coat, and falling into step along with him. ‘What’s going on?’

‘Is there - of course there’s only you. Everyone else is home or out.’ He said “out” with an emphasis she didn’t like. ‘We’ve got a situation on our hands.’

‘Is it the Lions?’ She tried to not flinch as he led her down the corridors out towards, she guessed, the apparition zones for when the members of the MLE Department mobilised on official business. He had all of the zeal and vigour behind him that he usually did, and she bit down on a surge of gleeful approval of whatever had upset him.

‘Sort of.’ Brynmor glanced over his shoulder. ‘Lestrange has been pretty canny. Worked with some of those boffins down in the Department of Mysteries on ways of tracing Portkey movement.’

She frowned, no longer so gleeful. ‘But we’ve not had enough notice on any Lions attacks to...’

‘Not usually, no. But at the last one he had two of the Enforcers hold back to activate the wardings before moving to engage. The Lions got away with it, wrecked the Brighton safehouse, but he got a lead on the Portkey they used to get out. So he chased it down.’

Her breath caught, but her instincts told her that something else was amiss, that this wasn’t just Brynmor bringing her to the scene of a fight - or, worse, a bloody aftermath of the takedown of the Lions of Britain. ‘What’s wrong?’

They were at the door to the broad stone chamber where those with the correct runestones could apparate in and out safely by now, and Brynmor stopped, turning to face her. His expression was graver than she had ever seen it. ‘I didn’t know he was doing this,’ he told her sincerely, and it almost sounded inexplicably like he was defending himself. ‘The first I heard was Yaxley telling me the Obliviators were getting down there. Complete with clean-up crews.’

The clean-up crews. Also known as the Sweepers. The witches and wizards who fastidiously tidied while the Obliviators cast the necessary spells to make a magical exposure and incident go away from Muggle eyes. What they cleaned up more often than anything else was rubble, and blood, and bodies.

Her mouth went dry. ‘Where’s Lestrange?’

‘It looks like the Lions hid out at the house of one of their Mudblood members’ family,’ said Brynmor carefully. ‘They’re gone now. But Lestrange decided it was time to finally act on that policy he was so happy about.’

‘Oh, God.’ Tanith’s breath caught. ‘Whose house?’

‘I think it’s the Wilson household.’

She wasn’t sure if that made her feel relieved or more nauseous - not that there was a member of the Lions she would have less wanted to suffer, and to stop reflecting on the unpleasant choice she focused her attention on Brynmor and asked one last, but pressing question. ‘Why the hell are you going, then, and why the hell do you need me?’

‘Believe it or not,’ said Thanatos Brynmor, turning to step into the apparition room, ‘I don’t approve of using this kind of wanton violence just because we can.’

It was a laughable thing for a man of his record, for one of the men who’d killed Annie MacKenzie to say, but Tanith didn’t much feel like laughing as he turned and extended an arm to her, and even if she’d known exactly where they were going she was dimly grateful for the offer of side-along apparition so she didn’t have to try to concentrate.

They twisted in the air, and whirled along through space and it was more than peculiar to be alongside Thanatos Brynmor, to be strung out and catapulted across the country right by his side, but what was most peculiar of all was that when they arrived in the middle of the devastated cul-de-sac she was grateful for his presence.

She would have been grateful, probably, for the presence of anyone, because the sight before her was not one she would have wanted to face alone. But when feeling horrified, threatened, and afraid, there were worse people to have next to you for a sense of personal safety than a Thanatos Brynmor who was on your side.

If only for a night.

It was still horribly, horribly reminiscent of the night of Annie MacKenzie’s murder, from the array of devastated houses and string of panicked and injured Muggles, to the Dark Mark glooming in the air above the particular building they stood in front of. Tanith couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen it, hovering in the night sky, because Death Eaters hadn’t bothered to use it for so long. It had been a warning of their presence. When they were in government, who needed warning?

But if Rodolphus Lestrange was trying to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies, it made sense that he would draw on its old power again.

One refreshing difference to that night was that the emergency Ministry teams were already on the site, already tending to the wounded, the buildings, and already Obliviating people. It seemed bizarrely compassionate for this administration, but Tanith knew it was just cold-hearted efficiency. After all, they could murder every Muggle, but only the most extreme of Death Eaters wanted them all eradicated, and even those who did had to recognise it was not the time to begin genocide.

So when they needed to attack Muggles they tended to tidy it up afterwards pretty much like the old government had. The difference was simple, though: the old government neither sought nor sanctioned this violence in the first place.

Brynmor let out a dark growl the moment they arrived which unhappily summed up much of Tanith’s feelings. ‘This is fucking ridiculous,’ he muttered inexplicably.

Tanith’s eyes swept over the injured people, the panicked Muggles, the brusque and uncaring attention of the Obliviators, and landed on the house in front of them. She could see the burly form of Mulready standing in the doorway, looking entirely unfazed by the cries of pain or the scene of desolation that surrounded them.

I don’t want to know what’s in there.

‘This is horrid,’ she corrected him.

‘Yes,’ said Brynmor, and though he didn’t quite sound like he got it, he didn’t sound insincere, either. ‘This is why I’ve brought you, Cole. You actually understand the meaning of restraint.’

You mean I have a moral compass? she wondered, but didn’t argue as he headed for the gate and walked up along the front path towards the house, towards Mulready.

The Death Eater rolled his shoulder as Brynmor approached. ‘Sir.’

Brynmor’s expression was thunderous. ‘Lestrange in there?’

‘Yes, sir.’ A sick smile tugged at Mulready’s lips. ‘He’s finishing off.’

The bottom dropped out of Tanith’s stomach as she followed Brynmor into the shadow of the front hall of the Wilson house, and the first thing to hit her was the stench of burning. No, not quite burning. Cooking.

Like pork.

‘Oh, my fucking God,’ she breathed as they turned the corner into the sitting room.

Lestrange was in there, all right. As was Lackardy, lounging on one of the armchairs, and a couple of the other Enforcers, all of them former Death Eaters or people who’d embraced the establishment all-too-willingly, milling about the room.

It made sense that Lestrange would have only brought them. Only brought people who would do his bidding without question. Only brought people who could kick back and relax when there were the singed, crisped, burnt remains of a woman half-in the fireplace, half splayed out across the stone of the mantelpiece, as if she’d writhed and twisted in torment, contorted herself in agony, until she’d finally died.

She wasn’t sure if it was a worse end than the husband had suffered. She’d only noticed the body in the fireplace first because of the smell; the corpse hanging from the ceiling upside-down, that had been battered and bruised and hacked at with magic, chunks of flesh ripped from limb and face and body, skin sliced and severed until death had eventually, mercifully come, was more obvious a sight.

Brynmor was impassive as he surveyed the scene. Tanith, by his side, was mustering all of her strength to not throw up. But Brynmor’s gaze drifted across the room, across the Death Eaters, and settled, at last, on their leader. ‘Lestrange.’

‘Brynmor.’ Rodolphus Lestrange nodded. ‘Good of you to join us. Though, we’re done here. It’s nothing but clean-up.’

Brynmor gave a curt nod, then glanced around. ‘The file said there were three casualties.’

Mulready made a small sound. ‘She’s upstairs.’

Dread seeped into Tanith’s gut, and it didn’t fade when Brynmor nodded briskly again, and gestured for her to follow as he headed for the stairs. ‘Come on, Cole.’

Her legs felt like lead as she followed him up. All was silent, none of the Death Eaters up here, no sign of life in sight or in earshot. Just the creaking of their footsteps on the stairs, and her by-now laborious breathing.

‘I want them all accounted for,’ was all Brynmor said as he ducked into the first room.

She wasn’t sure why she didn’t follow him. It wasn’t as if she wanted to be on her own when she found something, but on the other hand, she didn’t want to find something. Nevertheless, her legs carried her past the door Brynmor disappeared through, along the landing, and into the next room.

The first thing she saw as the door swung open before her was the body.

She’d been a girl a few years younger than Tanith. The walls of the room were decorated with posters of Muggle bands Tanith didn’t recognise, and the frame of the mirror on the dresser was adorned with photographs of fun, of friends, of better times and brighter days and life. If the man and woman downstairs, or the remains of them, were Nick Wilson’s mother and father then this, Tanith reasoned, had to have been his sister.

She had not suffered the same mutilation as her parents. Or, at least, not physically. It looked as if the Killing Curse had been her end - but it had been at the end. The magical restraints which pinned down her ankles and her wrists had not been dispelled; nor had they been kind, for she could still see where they bit into the flesh enough to draw blood. It would have been made all the worse by her struggles.

Of course she’d struggled. But it had clearly been for nothing, because even now she was still pinned there, bent face-down on her bed. Her jeans and underwear had been torn when they’d been ripped down to her ankles.

There was distressingly little blood, and no other signs of magic.

They’d not needed it to do their work.

Tanith didn’t know how long she stood there, poised in the doorway. She did know the nausea in her belly had faded for something altogether colder, harder, and considerably less pleasant, by the time there were footsteps behind her, and Thanatos Brynmor made it to the doorway.

She turned to face him, expecting indifference or only sneering disapproval, but there was something dark and thunderous about his expression that even in his tempestuous moods she had never before witnessed.

Again he growled, then turned sharply on his heel to bolt down the hallway and thunder down the stairs. She followed him only on instinct, and out of revulsion at the idea of being left in the room on her own. She wasn’t sure what to make of his reaction.

Nor was she sure what to make of how he flew across the living room to grab Lestrange by the front of his robes and slam him against the wall. ‘What the hell,’ he snarled, ‘did you think you were doing?’

Most of the Death Eaters in the room just stared at their two commanders breaking into a brawl in front of them. Mulready reached for his wand but didn’t draw it, and Tanith, at the foot of the stairs, eyed him carefully, her hand on her own wand.

Just give me a reason. Please.

Even the defence of Thanatos Brynmor, right then, would have been good enough.

‘What - get your hands off me, Brynmor, you ape!’ Lestrange snapped, flailing indignantly. ‘I have been carrying out my duty!’

‘With this - this carnage? This circus of wanton brutality?’ Brynmor shouted, spittle flying.

‘Yes! These people sheltered the Lions, and now not only will they not do so again, but when word spreads nobody will ever dare to give succour to such dissidents again, lest they fear this same punishment falling down on their heads!’ Lestrange retorted, and yanked at Brynmor’s wrists until he let go.

The bigger Death Eater’s chest was heaving furiously. ‘This was unnecessary,’ he snarled, pointing at both bodies downstairs. ‘This was everything about us that they have good reason to hate!’

‘That is your opinion, Mister Brynmor,’ said Lestrange in a forced level voice. ‘In my opinion this is a necessary sacrifice to carry out our duties, and Yaxley happens to agree with me, so I would suggest that instead of taking out your brutish anger on me, you bring it up with him.’

Brynmor straightened, lip curling, but before he could do anything, say anything - and for one terrifying moment, Tanith thought he was going to go for his wand - she stepped forward, lifting her hands. ‘Sirs. If policy isn’t up for debate, then perhaps we should clear out and let the Obliviators finish up here.’

She spoke with a calm she did not feel, but her stomach had gone beyond churning, and she couldn’t even smell the stench of Wilson’s mother cooking in the fireplace. She did know, at least, that she didn’t want to be in this building any more.

‘...yes. No preening on the site of victory,’ Brynmor snarled, and whirled on his heel to storm for the door. ‘Come on, Cole!’

Tanith had no idea why he was demanding she go with him, but she was in no state to argue, and tore out of the murder scene hot on the heels of her superior - a man she knew for a fact had killed innocents in cold blood before, yet who was striding out of the house, down the path and along the road as if he had just witnessed something that distressed him to the very bottom of the heart she doubted he had.

He did not disapparate, and she didn’t think she could bring herself to, either. But he was putting distance between them and the Obliviators, and this was a move Tanith had very little argument with.

They were at the end of the road before he stopped, running his hands through his hair, and his body language when in distress was so like Cal’s it was briefly, uncannily uncomfortable. ‘Those... those lunatics,’ he hissed, eyes wide in disbelief.

But she certainly couldn’t bring herself to sympathise with him. ‘I have no idea how you’re managing to stand in judgement of them, sir.’

There it was. There was the emotional reaction to what she’d seen. But it was such a cold and deadened one that she didn’t, in this moment, care about vocally taking the moral high ground against the psychopath who had been her boss for the past six months.

‘What?’ Brynmor’s head jerked up in astonishment. ‘I have killed people, yes, but I have never participated in that kind of... wanton... unnecessary... suffering.’

Really?’ Her lip curled. ‘Tell that to Annie MacKenzie and her family.’

His gaze darkened. ‘Every person in that house who died, died to the Killing Curse. I did not torture them to death, I did not burn them to a crisp, and I most certainly did not rape the girl before I killed her!’

‘All that tells me,’ Tanith said coldly, ‘is that if I wanted a pitiless murderer to come to my house and kill me and my family in the night, I’d rather it was you than Rodolphus Lestrange. Is that really something you’re going to claim the moral high ground over?’

‘No.’ Brynmor straightened, big shoulders squaring. ‘And that’s the difference between him and me. I don’t claim the moral high ground over the people that I murder. It is a necessary evil of what I do, and what I have done. The world I would build for wizarding kind does carry a price of blood, and I will pay that price, but I will not relish in it as he has.’

He sounded so self-righteous, so utterly hateful of Lestrange, that for a moment, until she closed her eyes and was back in the MacKenzie’s living room with Tobias’ screams filling her ears, she could almost accept his deranged logic.

But it was deranged.

‘...if the world you would build needs blood?’ Tanith’s voice dropped. ‘Then that is not a world you want.’

Brynmor stared at her for a few long moments, uncomprehending, bewildered, and still angry and clearly distressed at what he had witnessed. Then his expression closed down, though of all the emotions to linger behind, when he looked at her she could see approval. ‘That’s why I brought you here, Cole.’

‘To remind me that you’re all fucking evil?’

‘Because you do see things like this and you do see the evil in them, not the necessity. You might think it is harsh of us to do these things and you are not wrong,’ said Brynmor. ‘But it is necessary. The thing is, a day will come when it’s not necessary any more. And what I understand, which Lestrange doesn’t, is on that day people like him and I not only won’t be needed, we shouldn’t be there.’ He gave her a brief, cool nod.

‘You, on the other hand. You will be. And you should be. And then things like this can stop.’ Brynmor’s eyes narrowed. ‘Until then, they are necessary. But we should never, ever do more than is necessary.

‘And we should never, ever relish in it.’

Chapter 30: The Elephant in the Room
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Chapter 30: The Elephant in the Room

‘Weasley!’

There was something wrong with her that she was, on some level, glad that one of the Weasley twins had had his ear blown off. It meant she could actually tell the difference between her neighbours.

This one was George, and this late in the day he was conducting a stock take, going through sheets of parchment and examining what was on the shelves. Tanith had to remind herself every once in a while that the brothers were not just the layabout pranksters and tormentors she remembered from school, but also consummate and professional businessmen.

If they weren’t, after all, a joke shop couldn’t have possibly endured under the tender mercies of the new administration. Or, at the very least, nobody would have bothered spending their money on such fruitless past-times. But somehow the shop persevered, and somehow the brothers kept on living and working there, and somehow they had the enthusiasm and intellect to continue to experiment with their new toys that explosions occasionally soothed her to sleep late on in the night.

Like last night.

‘Oh, uh, Cole. Pleasure to see you, Detector.’ George Weasley looked cautious at best, his deference clearly nothing more than a gesture. They had never exchanged warm words, because Cal had been the one to like buying their goods - Tanith preferred to discreetly order hers by post, even if it was just being delivered to the shipping office and then across the road from the shop - and she was the one who was actually assertive enough to complain when they were noisy.

‘I’m sure it’s not, Weasley.’ She walked up the the shelf he was by, arms folded across his chest. ‘It seems I only come over here to complan.’

‘And you never take the free samples.’ George grinned haplessly.

‘That’s because your free samples are always for joke wands.’ Now if it was some Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder... but I already have plenty of that. ‘Last night. What were you two doing, killing someone? That noise didn’t stop until three in the morning!’

‘I’m sorry,’ said George, and didn’t sound very sorry. ‘We’re working on a new project. It’s called “make enough noise to keep the neighbours’ rent nice and cheap”.’

‘I think the occupation keeps the rent pretty cheap around here. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t pay good money to make either one go away.’ She met his gaze pointedly. This late in the day it was unlikely anyone was going to come in, but you never could tell. ‘I’m sick and tired of all of this noise. Can we sit down and hammer out some sort of compromise?’

He did stop at that - and had faltered at her indication she didn’t think the administration was the best thing since sliced bread. Perhaps he was just curious, or perhaps he had picked up on her not-so-subtle hint, but George stepped back to gesture to the rear of the shop.

‘Of course, Detector. Shall we step into my office?’

It was a small and cramped room, the walls covered with sketches and plans which were almost certainly either for goods already on the open market or which wouldn’t work anyway. The twins would like to show off their intellect and give the impression of being craftsmen as well as entrepreneurs. They weren’t dumb enough to put their secrets on view for all the world to see.

‘So what sort of compromise were you thinking of?’

Tanith sat down and reached for the papers in her coat inside pocket, but didn’t pull them out. ‘Can you get messages out to the Lions of Britain?’

George opened and closed his mouth haplessly. ‘What? They’re terrorists. I’m offended that you -’

‘Cut the crap, Weasley. You were in Gryffindor House with most of them. You were in the Quidditch squad with Katie Bell, and in that super-secret little club in Umbridge’s year with her and half of Potter’s little entourage.’

He opened his hands and gave a smile that wouldn’t melt butter. ‘That was a long time ago.’

He has no reason to trust me.

‘I am not trying to con you into making some admission of guilt. Look...’ Tanith rubbed her temples and glanced around the office. ‘I happen to like you, or at least your goods. They’re tremendous.’

‘I’m so glad to know the MLE approve of my toys,’ George said, a little coldly. ‘That makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. Shall I get a stamp? “100% of crackpot dictators approve”?’

‘I’m not...’ A thought occurred, and she leant forwards. Damn her for having gone to such measures to hide that she herself had been a regular buyer of their goods. That could have, for once, proven useful as a display of faith. ‘I know they’re not just toys. And I know you don’t just sell them as toys. Shield Cloaks? Peruvian Darkness Powder? Those things have saved my life before, and the lives of people I care about.’

He looked at her cautiously. ‘I don’t remember you coming in here to buy things before.’

‘That’s because I never did. I was discreet. Or...’ She looked away. ‘Do you remember a man named Altair Ritter?’

‘Remember him? Of course I remember him, he was one of our biggest investors...’ George’s voice trailed off, and he looked her up and down, gaze settling on her coat. ‘I heard about his murder. Is that where you got that?’

‘For Merlin’s sake, Weasley, he was my tutor, my mentor. I know that this is not the great age for trust and optimism, and I know the wrong word to the wrong person could have you looking at the business end of a sentencing in Azkaban at best, but I am not the enemy here. I became an Auror before the occupation, I was taught by Altair how to help keep people safe, not oppress them. Now if you have even an inkling of the work he used to do, then perhaps you will understand that my intentions are not entrapment.’ She placed a hand firmly on the desk, injecting every inch of sincerity and earnestness she could muster into her voice.

He watched her for several long seconds, then glanced at the ceiling and seemed to curse. ‘Okay. But I genuinely don’t know how to get in touch with the Lions. We don’t use the same network of contacts. I never really knew Jennifer Riley - she hated us, in fact - and I haven’t seen Katie since she was in Saint Mungo’s last year.’

‘But you’re friends with Lee Jordan, you must...’

‘He doesn’t work with the Lions. He works with the Order, you have to know that, Cole.’ George shrugged. ‘The Lions take their tips and most of their exposure from your good mate Tobias Grey, the Lazarus-impersonator. And I don’t have a clue what their other sources are.’

Tanith rubbed her temples. ‘Damn it...’

George rolled his shoulders. ‘...but Lee might be able to get something out to Grey.’

This had not occurred to her. Not in a hundred years would she have put two and two together and realised that George Weasley, living not thirty metres away from her, would have been able to get a message through the chain from her to Tobias Grey.

Suddenly she felt very stupid.

‘You could...’ Her voice trailed off weakly.

‘But if I’m going to get something to Lee, you’d better give it to me now, because I’m not going to see him for another week after tonight.’

‘I... um. Okay. Give him this.’ Tanith pulled the envelope from out of her coat and set it down on the desk. ‘But let me write a note, I thought this would be going to Jennifer Riley first...’

He passed her some paper obligingly, and all of a sudden it was harder to write just a handful of words on a tiny scrap of parchment than all of her long, complicated school exams put together.

George glanced into the envelope as she wrote, and he quirked an eyebrow. ‘This is pretty serious,’ he said. ‘Especially since...’

‘I know. That’s why I’m doing it.’ Tanith shoved her note in without looking at it, knowing that if she began to second-guess herself she’d probably end up writing absolutely nothing.

‘If they catch you...’

‘They didn’t catch me before.’ She looked up at him and gave a grim smile. ‘So how about we make sure they don’t catch me now, huh?’


--------------------

‘...I am telling you, Tobias, that it cannot be done.’

‘Well, it should be!’

He wanted to pace. Desperately wanted to storm across the terrace as he always had been able to do when frustrated. But his leg twinged at just the thought of it, and all Tobias could do was glower at Dimitri, sat so casually at a table with a glass of ouzo and water, his sunglasses hiding his eyes and most of his expression.

The Russian winced. ‘Many things should be done in this world, my friend. But many things are not possible. France has stated repeatedly that they will take in any refugees from Britain who can make it across the Channel.’

‘That’s not enough.’

‘Greece is condemning Britain. Russia is condemning . Italy, Spain, Germany, are condemning . How is this not enough? The countries of Europe have gone from ignoring Britain to doing all that they can to fight a dark magic administration.’

‘Except for actually fighting.’

Dimitri shook his head. ‘We do not want a war.’

‘Actually, that’s exactly what I want.’ Tobias whirled around as best he could. ‘I want all of these countries to stop wringing their hands about how awful it must be in Britain, and start doing something about it. I want them to go from reacting to acting. I want them to gather up all of their vaunted strength and help us kick the Death Eaters out of the Ministry.’

‘The Death Eaters are the Ministry. By all edicts of international law, Thicknesse’s administration is legal,’ barked Dimitri. ‘What you are proposing is for magical nations to express their own disapproval of another country’s rulership and invade.’

‘Yes!’

‘You know that this would be a gross violation of magical sovereignty,’ said Dimitri, shaking his head. ‘You know that this would pave an unfortunate road. You know that the countries more sympathetic to Britain would bring outrage to the international conference. This would overturn all balance of European power!’

‘Then maybe it should be overturned,’ snapped Tobias, hobbling to the table. ‘If these governments are too weak-willed to take action when it should be taken, then perhaps the status quo ought to be thrown over.’

‘And that,’ said Dimitri, ‘is exactly the justification used by your Lord Voldemort.’

Tobias glared at him. ‘Thank you for the reductio ad absurdum,’ he growled. ‘But right now I’m not even asking Europe to invade. I’m asking them to help us get refugees out.’

‘That is tantamount to invasion. It cannot be done.’

Tobias threw himself down on one of the deck chairs, and immediately regretted it as he wrenched his leg. He leant back and let Dimitri pour him a drink. ‘When’s the next International Conference?’ he muttered.

‘I have meetings with ambassadors and representatives weekly. The next Conference is in late April.’

He nodded curtly. ‘I want to be there.’

Dimitri opened his mouth. ‘You have no ambassadorial...’

‘Then make me an expert speaker. I want to address them.’ Tobias took a big swig of ouzo, even though he hadn’t become the greatest fan of the stuff.

‘You are moving,’ said Dimitri, ‘from editor to dissident to trying to spark international war.’

‘I call it international aid. But that’s months away now.’ He looked sidelong at his friend. ‘Did you have any good news from the meeting?’

‘As I said. More and more countries are prepared to take in refugees and grant them asylum. And Germany is prepared to provide supplies and equipment - under the table, of course - to anti-Ministerial groups.’ Dimitri grimaced. ‘It is not much, but it is the beginning of these governments rejecting the legitimacy of British rule.’

‘They already morally reject it, they just don’t reject it on paper.’ Tobias tapped his cane on the floor, and sighed. ‘All right. I’m sorry. I know this is going to be long and hard and I know... I’m probably being a bit audacious.’

‘I think, by now, that is your specialty.’ Dimitri refilled his glass.

‘I just want to do something.’

‘And writing the most condemning paper against the administration, as well as passing government secrets to resistance fighters, is not sufficient? Certainly that is an indication of being audacious.’ He smirked, but the smile faded after a few seconds. ‘This is about the Wilsons.’

‘I hate...’ Tobias ran a hand through his hair. ‘That’s the worst part of this. Sure, I can write words to inspire and encourage and condemn. Sure, I can even help those who fight. But then when that’s done all I can do is sit back and... and watch. And when things go badly, there is nothing that I can do.’

‘No man can do everything.’ Dimitri jabbed a finger at him. ‘You have not learnt this yet, I think.’

‘I’m not most men,’ he said, without a trace of arrogance. ‘I got told, for years, by most people, that I was special. Talented. Capable. It’s time I put those words to use for something other than padding my ego and did something with it.’

‘You think, perhaps, they just meant you were very good at writing exam papers?’

‘Perhaps.’ Tobias’ lips twisted. ‘But I’ll never know my limits if I don’t try to find them. And I haven’t met them yet.’

‘I think,’ mused Dimitri, ‘that I would not want to be there when that happens.’

‘Tobias!’

They twisted in their seats in the direction of the path that lead down to the village to see Will staggering up the final rise towards them. His chest was heaving, his forehead slick with sweat, and he was waving a chunky envelope at them.

‘I’ve got... it came from PotterWatch... they said explicitly it was for you...’

Will slumped into the chair Dimitri pushed out for him, and accepted a glass of just water with relief. He pushed the envelope over to Tobias, who picked it up with a frown.

‘PotterWatch? What do they want?’

‘I don’t think it’s from them,’ gasped Will, getting his breath back. ‘They’re just passing it on. Clearly someone knows that we have connections.’

‘Ours are better,’ Tobias grumbled. The rivalry between the Midnight Press and PotterWatch was mostly imaginary or for simple fun, and the truth was that the two resistance media sources shared a lot of their information. PotterWatch was good at getting the short, sharp, key bits of information out - then the Midnight Press skewered the subject on the details. This was also one connection which hadn’t come from Will, but rather, the lingering contacts Tobias had made from the Slug Club and its expanding, spider-like network across magical Britain.

He opened the envelope anyway to pour out what looked like an MLE schedule, and the name at the top of it made him start. But before he could reach for it a note tumbled out, too, folded over but with his name on the back of it written in a familiar hand.

‘My God,’ he breathed, and snatched it up.

Toby,

Get this to the Lions. It’s their right to do something about this, and they may be the only ones who can.

I thought you were dead. Since you’re not, that’s no excuse for losing my presents.

~ Tanith

‘There’s something else in it,’ said Will with a frown, and reached out to shake the envelope again.

A scratched and scuffed silver pocketwatch fell out and rattled on the table loudly, and Dimitri swore as it hit the ouzo bottle and he had to lunge forward to stop it from being knocked over, but Tobias didn’t think he’d ever been so pleased in his life to see an inanimate object.

The impact knocked the battered latch and the lid of the watch swung up, the sunlight glinting on metal, and making the engraving on the inside stand out all the more.

Remember.

---------------

‘I wouldn’t go in there for all the tea in China.’

Gabriel glanced at Cal sideways. ‘Is there a lot of that?’

‘What?’

‘Tea. In China.’

‘It...’ Cal squinted. ‘It wouldn’t be a saying if there weren’t.’

‘I don’t know. Muggles have silly sayings. Like “the world is my oyster”. No, it’s fucking not. I don’t even like oysters. They taste like sea-snot.’ Gabriel nodded at the door to the one isolated room in the Lions’ warehouse hideout. ‘So maybe there’s no tea in China. That’s why going in there would be a really shit deal.’

‘I think there’s no amount of tea which could make going in there not really shit.’ Cal frowned. ‘And yet, she’s doing it.’

‘Well, yeah.’ Gabriel rolled a shoulder. ‘You have the bad judgement to pork Nick Wilson, that means you’ve got to stand by him when he’s gone through something truly horrendous.’

But even when the two friends returned their attention to their dinner, sat a little away from the rest of the sombre Lions of Britain, Gabriel couldn’t help but cast a glance occasionally in the direction of the tiny office which had been Wilson’s Cave of Sorrow since the news had come through of what had happened to his family.

‘It’s weird here,’ Cal muttered into his tin of beans. ‘One minute they’re like best bosom-pals, the next everyone’s growling at each other.’

‘Usually just at me,’ Gabriel pointed out. ‘But it’s the stress. You see the same people day-in, day-out, for months at a time when putting a foot out of line can get you killed, you see how chirpy you are with the people around you.’

‘Sounds like seven years in Slytherin House.’

‘Yeah, well. It’s pretty make-or-break for a relationship.’

Cal gave a brief nod across the warehouse as the office door was opened for Riley to slip through. ‘Like this is make-or-break for them?’

Gabriel made a face. ‘His folks are dead. I think that ties them together ‘til more or less the end of time.’

Cal watched his friend for several long moments, then drew a deep breath. ‘That really pisses you off, doesn’t it.’

‘What?’ Astonishingly, it sounded like Gabriel actually hadn’t heard him, distracted as he was with his gaze still on Riley. He didn’t even bother to chase this one up, putting his can down and getting to his feet. ‘I’ll be... sorry, Caldwyn...’

Cal peered at his own dinner as his friend trundled off, unsurprisingly towards Jennifer Riley. ‘It’s you, isn’t it, beans. You’re giving me gas. It’s driving everyone away.’

Gabriel was mercifully out of earshot as he slunk around the perimeter of the gathered Lions and moved to intercept Riley, who was headed for the door out. ‘Mind if I join you for a spot of fresh air?’

‘I -’ Riley hesitated as she looked up to see it was him, then gave a one-shouldered shrug. She looked pale and drawn, with heavy bags under her eyes that had always been present but were now only more prominent since the attack on Wilson’s family. ‘All right, Doyle.’

They slid out into the alleyway. It was cool and crisp this time of the afternoon, but hidden from sight from all - the Muggles, any wandering Enforcers looking for them, and even their own allies, huddled back inside.

‘That looks like it’s fun,’ said Gabriel, jerking a head back to the door.

‘His family are all dead,’ said Riley, lifting a hand to her temple. ‘How do you think it’s going? He’s destroyed.’

‘I can only imagine.’ Gabriel bit his lip. ‘Times like this, I wish I could properly control my visions. Then maybe I could see things like this before they come.’

‘Nobody expects that of you, Doyle.’ She looked over at him. ‘Nobody thinks your visions are an on-demand kind of thing. It’s a gift, it’s a perk. It’s not a tool for us to berate when it doesn’t work the way we want it to.’

He frowned at her. ‘You’ve just had to tell him that, haven’t you.’ There had been a ring of long-suffering about her voice. ‘He’s pissed that I didn’t anticipate this.’

‘He’s pissed about a lot of things right now. Don’t take it personally. It’s not about you.’

Gabriel nodded reluctantly, and drew a deep breath. ‘Does he know?’

Riley hesitated. ‘About what?’

He watched her reaction closely. ‘That it took you fifteen minutes after you got word of the attack to tell everyone? To tell him?’

She froze, the lingering colour draining from her face, and her mouth dropped a little. ‘How did you... did Katie...’

‘Bell didn’t say anything.’ Gabriel shoved his hands in his pockets. ‘She’s a smart girl. But I saw you two talking when she gave you the news. And then I saw you do nothing for fifteen minutes until you went over to Wilson to tell him.’

Riley lifted her hands. ‘You have to understand -’

‘I do.’

She blinked. ‘What?’

Twelve Enforcers breaking into that place? Come on. There’s no way we could have taken them on.’ He shrugged. ‘And I bet that’s what they wanted us to do, or they at least thought it was possible. For us to come riding to the rescue. They would have been ready for us. We don’t have twelve people capable of taking on an Enforcer one-on-one, and we don’t have the numbers to overwhelm them.’

‘If I’d told Nick -’

‘Then he’d have wanted to go tearing in there with that gnat’s chance of saving them. Regardless of if it got him or anyone else killed. Because he’s a Gryffindor to the hilt, and that sometimes means being a bloody idiot.’

Riley’s voice shook. ‘If he’d gone in there,’ she said, ‘then others would have followed him. And then we’d have all died.’

Gabriel cocked his head. ‘I’m not condemning you, Riley,’ he said. ‘I understand. I just wanted to know if he knew.’

She looked at him peculiarly for a moment, before squaring her shoulders and setting her jaw in that line which said she meant business. Her officious stance. The stance of a leader.

The best mask she wore, and the one he fancied not many of them could see through.

‘He doesn’t,’ she said at last. ‘And he never, ever will. Do you understand me? I will take this secret to my grave, and so will you, and so will Katie.’

He nodded. ‘I owe you that much. At least.’

Inexplicably she made a small noise of protest, and her mask crumpled before she turned on her heel, lifting a hand to her forehead. ‘Why... why do you have to be the one who understands me best?’

‘Because the world, for them, is still a hell of a lot more black and white than reality would demand,’ said Gabriel, jerking his head back towards the warehouse. ‘But you don’t have the luxury of looking at the world that way, do you.’ He took a step towards her. ‘I see what happens in those debates. When they argue for something stupid, claiming the moral high ground, and you have to shoot them down even if it makes you look like the bad guy. Because if you didn’t, their moral high ground would get them killed. And they know you’re going to shoot them down. They’re counting on it, in fact; if they were in your shoes, if they were in command, they would make the exact same calls you do, time after time. But because they know you’re going to make the hard decisions for them, the choices that need to be made, they play oblivious. Naive. So they get to feel good about themselves while you make sure the world keeps turning.’

Her eyes had been downcast as he’d been speaking, her breathing ragged. ‘I am so, so tired of keeping everything together...’

They were close, now, closer than Gabriel had realised he’d stepped, and if he just lifted his hand a few inches he could bring his fingers to brush her cheek, tilt her face him, seek her gaze and then find the words to make her life that little bit easier, her day that little bit brighter, her horizon that little bit more full of hope, like he’d been fighting to do for the months since he’d...

‘Guys!’

They jumped apart with a start, whirling to the door to the warehouse to see Katie there, hanging onto the handle. ‘You’d better come back in,’ she said, jerking a thumb. ‘There’s a message in from Grey.’

Riley had pushed past him before he could say a word, protest, or even really think, and with a groan Gabriel fell into step to troop back into the warehouse after her. He tried to ignore the pointed look he got off Katie Bell as he did so.

Wilson was out in the main room, in the middle of the others, who were around him in a big gaggle. He looked pale and worn and like he hadn’t eaten in days, but there was a fire in his eyes as he paced back and forth in front of them, clutching some papers.

Even the sight of Gabriel and Riley coming back in together could only darken his gaze briefly, and he lifted the envelope aloft as they joined the huddle, Jen going forward to stand by his side at the front. ‘We’ve got him,’ Wilson declared triumphantly.

‘Got who?’ Riley took the papers off him with a frown.

‘Cole finally decided to get off her arse and do something,’ said Wilson, with a dismissal tone that made Gabriel’s gut twist in irritation. ‘She routed through to us some papers from the MLE office. It’s Lestrange’s schedule for the next fortnight. A lot of it’s vague, as I bet he’s going to keep chasing us around wherever we go, but there is scheduled a security inspection down in Herefordshire the day after tomorrow.’

Her frown deepened. ‘We know where, exactly?’

‘Yep. And it’s with Detector Team Two. We know their makeup, we’ve kept an eye on them. We’ve taken them down before.’ Wilson’s eyes remained lit up, exuberant at the prospect before him. ‘We know where he’s going to be, when, and who’ll be with him. So we can make a hit.’

Cal glanced about the gathered Lions. ‘And what’s your intention?’

Wilson lifted his chin a little defiantly. ‘Simple. To find him. To kill him.’

It wasn’t the first time the Lions had set out with lethal force in mind, though it was the first time Gabriel could recall them specifically going after one lone target to eliminate them. Cal looked uncomfortable, but he would no doubt learn that leaving an enemy behind, all too often, just meant that they’d get back up again to hit you back some day.

And in the case of Rodolphus Lestrange, justice wasn’t going to be forthcoming any other way.

‘We’ll work on a plan,’ said Riley, looking a bit reluctant.

‘Of course we will.’ Wilson gave a humourless smile, and smirked at Gabriel. ‘What do you know? Finally Cole pulled her weight.’

Gabriel’s jaw set. ‘She probably risked her life considerably just to get you that information. It’s likely she saw or heard what happened to your family and is trying to make things right. You could sound a little bit more grateful.’

For a moment Wilson’s eyes flashed with irritation - his temper had been, understandably, all over the place for the last few days. Gabriel had tolerated it, or at least avoided him, until now. But after a second Wilson made a face, nodded, and sauntered over.

‘All right. You’re right. I guess this will mean I’ll owe her one.’ He gave a one-shouldered shrug, then winked at Gabriel. ‘Maybe you can join us on this one. Get a little bit of field experience at last, instead of kicking back and telling us what to -’

The punch to Gabriel’s shoulder had probably been intended as playful. But physical contact it was, and physical contact was enough. The moment he felt Wilson’s hand on him, that familiar sharp, searing pain shot through his temples, stronger than it ever had before - and with it, images and sensations that were stronger, sharper, clearer, and more horrifying than anything he’d felt before.

It was also, unfortunately, more than enough to send him collapsing into the darkness of unconsciousness.



Chapter 31: The Shot Heard 'Round the World
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Chapter 31: The Shot Heard 'Round the World

'Hey, mate. Back with us? You gave us quite a scare...'

Gabriel blinked muggily as his vision swam back into clarity. The warehouse office swirled and danced in front of his eyes for long seconds until, finally, it returned to focus, and gingerly he sat up. He'd been stretched out carefully on one of the sleeping bags tucked into a corner, and, perched on the desk which had been shoved against the wall, was Cal.

'Ung. I feel terrible,' he said eloquently.

Cal grimaced and carefully passed over a water bottle. 'Yeah, you... it looked like you were having a fit, or something. It was pretty scary. Does that happen often? It was like the time you passed out in Snape's Defence class...'

The cool water and Cal's words worked together to bring memories dredging up from the darkness, and Gabriel almost choked on his drink as he went to get up. 'Wilson. Where's -'

'Outside, with McLaggen and the others.' Cal reached out to press a hand firmly on his shoulder. 'They're getting ready to move out.'

'Move out?'

'Against Lestrange.'

Gabriel shook his head and again fought to get to his feet. Cal didn't stop him this time, but he did keep a steadying hand on his shoulder. 'How long was I out?'

Cal winced. 'The better part of a day. What happened? Did you see something?'

Gabriel took a deep, shuddering breath and willed his legs to not fail him. 'They can't go. Not after Lestrange. They just - help me.'

He began to stagger towards the door anyway, leaving Cal with no option but to sling his friend's arm over his shoulder and half-support, half-drag him out of the door and out into the warehouse main floor. The hustle and bustle there was everything that Gabriel had come to expect from the Lions when they were gearing up for an operation - checking and double checking maps and plans, confirming their wands were in order, stocking up on any potions Percival had brewed for them to take out into the field.

Only this time it would not all go to plan.

Wilson was at the centre of the storm of activity, McLaggen next to him like a burly shadow, and in the swirl he couldn't see Riley. But he didn't have the luxury of waiting.

'Wilson,' Gabriel called out, but his voice was like sandpaper and he couldn't be heard over the hustle and bustle. He took a deep breath. 'Nick!'

That did get Wilson's attention, and the wiry young man turned to face him with a disinterested frown. 'Oh, Doyle. You're up. Feeling better?'

'You can't go.'

He and McLaggen lowered the papers they held. 'What?'

'You're going to Gullsmere, aren't you. To intercept Lestrange.' Gabriel shook his head. 'You can't go.'

McLaggen rolled his eyes. 'Oh, what, you had a vision?'

'I did.' Gabriel shrugged off Cal's arm, aware that the eyes of the rest of the Lions were turning in their direction. 'I don't know what it is - I don't know if it's a trap, or if you'll just mess up, or if we've got some bad intelligence. But something's going to go wrong.'

Wilson narrowed his eyes. 'That's some great feedback, Doyle. "Something will go wrong". Gee, like that's never a prospect on every op we've ever been on.'

'This isn't a prospect,' spat Gabriel. 'This is fact.'

They never did believe you, did they? Deep down they just thought you were a funny little mascot who saw funny little things which usually just told them what they wanted to know, anyway. They never lost anything before by listening to you.

Until now.

'Then if it's fact, it's unavoidable, and we'll just have to deal with it when it happens,' said Wilson, and turned away to go back to the papers with McLaggen.

Cal gave him a frustrated look, and Gabriel ran a hand through his hair. He closed his eyes tightly, anticipating the wave of throbbing pain which was likely to come. 'If you go,' he said carefully, slowly, 'then you will die.'

The pain didn't come, but the full attention of the whole of the Lions did. All pretense of hubbub died down, and again Wilson and McLaggen turned to face him, their expressions dubious at best. Silence hung in the air for a few long moments, before Wilson gave a gentle snort. 'What. All of us?'

Gabriel scowled. 'Just you two. You'll get captured, you'll get lined up, and they will summarily execute you right there and then.'

'Huh.' Wilson looked over at McLaggen, then back to Gabriel. 'Do we get Lestrange?'

'Yes, it's for his murder you'll be executed,' Gabriel said tensely.

A ripple of uncertainty ran through the group, and Tom Everard stepped up to the centre a little nervously. 'Maybe he's got a point, Nick. Maybe we can push the plan back.'

'We're not going to get another chance like this,' said Wilson, a muscle at the corner of his eye twitching, and he glanced at McLaggen, who gave him a small nod. 'This sounds about worth it.'

'Worth it?' Gabriel exploded, his legs unsteady under him, and Cal moved half a step closer. It was difficult to not draw strength from his friend's presence - from the knowledge he wouldn't keel over, from the knowledge he was also somewhat shielded from the ire of the two men in front of him, thanks to Cal being so close. 'He will die but so will you. You have to stay behind, wait for another chance. Why don't you get that?'

'Because he fucking murdered them!' Wilson exploded at last, taking a step forward. 'My family! My parents! My little sister! He murdered them just because he could, because they dared to help us, and he did it to punish them, and to punish us. Well, turnabout is fair fucking play!'

'Is it worth dying over?' barked Gabriel. 'Is vengeance worth throwing your life away over?'

'This is the best chance we are going to get at him,' said Wilson, a muscle in the corner of his jaw twitching. 'If my life is the price I pay for stopping him from hurting anyone else's family, then so be it! Besides!' He jabbed a finger in Gabriel's chest, and Cal tensed. 'You foresaw it! It's a fore-drawn conclusion!'

'The first thing the man who taught me how to use this talent told me is "fuck fate",' growled Gabriel. 'These visions can be changed, I've seen it, I've done it, when the stakes were just as high. But that was with months of warning - the best way I can see for you to avoid dying there, today, is by just staying behind.'

'And maybe never getting another shot at him?' Wilson straightened, letting out a deep breath. 'No. No way. I'll take my chances.' He looked around the Lions, raising his voice. 'I don't want to speak for anyone else. But I'm still going to go.' His gaze landed, last of all, on McLaggen. 'I'll understand if you stay.'

'Stay?' repeated an incredulous McLaggen. 'I'm with you 'til the end, mate. Like he just said - fuck fate. We'll take it as it comes, and if that means we go down together, then we go down together.'

'This is throwing away your lives!' Gabriel's jaw dropped. 'There will be more chances! More opportunities! And you're prepared to just... just... Look at these people around you!' He sputtered, waving a hand at the crowd of the Lions. 'I just told you you're going to die and they'll follow you anyway! You can't throw your life away! Think about them!'

Then he saw Jennifer Riley, winding her way through the crowd with an expression of confusion which suggested she'd only just arrived, and Gabriel pointed at her. 'Think about her.'

'I think you do enough of that for us both, Doyle,' Wilson growled.

'What's going on?' Riley looked between them, folding her arms across her chest.

'We're just getting ready to go,' Wilson said, straightening up.

'I've had a vision,' snapped Gabriel, turning to face her. 'If the team goes, they'll kill Lestrange, but Nick and Cormac will be captured and executed.'

Her jaw dropped and she stared at Wilson. 'What?'

'Come on.' Wilson walked over to her. 'All his visions have ever told us before are things we already knew. That a job would go okay, that someone would do this, or do that. It's never been any kind of a game changer before.'

Gabriel frowned at her. 'What about... the Snatcher lead, the potions smuggling lead...?' His voice trailed off as she looked, while somewhat nauseous, rather guilty. 'You didn't tell them, did you. I've been giving you intel all year and you couldn't bring yourself to tell them that I'm not just some crazy bastard rambling in the corner, that I've been right so many times...!'

'Now isn't the time for your little ego-fest, Doyle,' sneered Wilson. 'We've got to go.'

'No, look -' Riley started, eyes widening, and she stepped in front of Wilson. 'He's right - he's been right, so many times, times I didn't tell you, he wouldn't say this was going to happen if he hadn't seen it, if it wasn't going to happen...!'

Next to her came a chirping from Everard's pocket, and the stout man pulled a watch out from his coat. It was still chiming. 'Time to go,' he said, though he looked at Wilson and phrased it as a question.

Wilson gave a lopsided smile, and brushed Riley's chin with his finger. 'It's sweet that you're worried, love,' he said. 'But whatever bad happens today, we'll handle it. And if not... you gotta go sometime.'

His kiss might as well have frozen her, as she just stared at him as he turned on his heel and started for the door, the other half-dozen of the Lions going on this op falling into step. Then Riley started, and looked to McLaggen. 'Cormac? You can't - you have to stop him, he'll listen to you...'

McLaggen gave a one-shouldered shrug. 'We've got out of tough scrapes before,' he said, though there was something dark and haunted about his gaze. His gait was determined as he turned to follow Wilson.

Tears were forming in Riley's eyes by now, and she reached out to clutch at Everard's arm. 'Tom? Tom, you have to...'

'I'll take care of them, Jen,' said Tom Everard, gaze earnest, reassuring - and, Gabriel could see, afraid. 'We'll come back. We'll all come back.'

But then he, too, left, along with the other four, and the rest of the half-dozen of the Lions just stood and stared as the contingent crossed the warehouse to slip out the door, the sound of it slamming shut behind them echoing about and filling the room with a rumble like thunder.

Jennifer Riley stood stock-still for several long seconds, staring at the closed door, while everyone else shifted their feet. Then she turned on her heel and stormed back towards the warehouse office, hair wild, and slammed the door shut behind her with equal fervour.

Gabriel stood in the centre of the staring eyes, the muttered confusion and worry, and rubbed his temples. Finally, finally he realised that he felt no pain; that the throbbing in his temples he'd felt in the Slytherin common room hadn't come, that despite everything he'd said, everything he'd told them, everything he'd tried to do, that familiar incapacitating ache hadn't even begun to demonstrate himself.

And that could only be for one reason: There wasn't a thing he could have done to change Nick Wilson's mind. It wasn't even, Gabriel suspected, that Wilson hadn't believed him, had thought that he could wing his way through, though perhaps it was, indeed, a rather natural assumption somewhere in his and McLaggen's thoughts.

But certainly, even if he had believed him, Wilson hadn't cared.


----------------


'Cole! Van Roden! Off your arses.'

They lifted their heads blearily from their desks to see Brynmor storming past them, a small contingent of Enforcers behind him. He wore a disconcertingly jaunty smile, but other than exchanging looks, they didn't stop to question or challenge their superior as they grabbed coats and wands.

'What's the situation?' Tanith asked as she fell into step beside Brynmor, disliking how this had become almost second nature by now.

'No situation. No emergency,' said Brynmor, still with a smirk. 'We're just going on a routine patrol. Mister Lestrange is conducting an inspection at Gullsmere this afternoon, and we're to make sure absolutely nothing goes wrong.'

Jacob's brow furrowed as Tanith's gut twisted unpleasantly. I've read that name before...

'Isn't it meant to just be an equipment inspection, sir?' Jacob was saying. 'Nothing especially out of the ordinary, warranting the arrival of half a dozen more Enforcers?'

'Certainly not,' Brynmor agreed as they wound their way down to the Apparition Chamber. 'I expect everything will go entirely to plan. This is an important opportunity for Mister Lestrange to become familiar with our procedures, however, so I would hate for it to be interrupted.'

This was the best opportunity on that itinerary for the Lions to make a counter-strike against Lestrange...

'For all six of us?' Jacob said quizzically.

'Wouldn't you rather stretch your legs?'

I found that schedule in one of the filing cabinets... which wasn't locked. Why wasn't it locked? Why didn't I think about how it was unlocked?

Brynmor was grinning at her as he opened the door into the Chamber. 'Pleasant walk in the woods. Sounds nice, don't you think, Cole?'

Did he know I was going to make those copies?

'Wasn't Mister Lestrange taking the Gullsmere inspection your idea, sir?' said Jacob, squinting at the bigger man.

'It was. Now I want to make sure it all goes well. Line up for mass apparition. I want wands at the ready.' Brynmor nodded curtly, and gave them little to no warning before he swished his wand and sent them hurtling into the swirling mental vortex that was apparition.

It's a trap. It's a trap. It's a -

They appeared at the outskirts of the village at the edge of a firefight.

The Ministry weren't doing so well. She could make out all of two figures crouched behind the corners of solid stone buildings - the populace of Gullsmere had likely locked their doors and decided to hide in cellars, attics, or under tables while the chaos was unleashed. Prone forms in MLE uniforms lay sprawled across the single road that wound its way between the tiny smattering of houses, and very few of them moved.

On the opposite side were figures she recognised. Tom Everard taking cover behind a First War monument, Diana Sawyer crouched over a fallen Percival Anderson and trying to remove the curses that were choking him. Richard Keating somehow on a rooftop, hurling precise curse after precise curse down. Nick Wilson and Cormac McLaggen, front and centre, throwing curses like wildfire at the two Enforcers remaining.

The cold, still body of Rodolphus Lestrange, eyes wide and unseeing, lying in the gutter not ten feet away from them.

Run. Run, you stupid bastards, you've got him, what are you...

Brynmor seemed astonishingly unsurprised as he slid his wand more firmly into his hand, and gave a firm nod right ahead. 'Get them,' he instructed, and as one the reinforcements he'd brought surged forwards, whipping wands out and already throwing curses up into the air. Tanith hesitated for half a heartbeat before she, too, started forward, settling on the heels of Jacob, who was already on the move.

When the Lions spotted them - about the blink of an eye later - they scattered. This was what they'd always done, this was how they'd always survived. When it got hot, they ran. It was the most sensible thing to do, and that they hadn't already pulled out of Gullsmere, that they had bothered to stay to finish off the last two of the Enforcers, was a testimony to something being wrong.

This wasn't a normal operation. It was revenge.

And it was going to get them killed.

For a moment, as she and Jacob headed for round the back of one of the cottages to come up behind them, it looked as if Wilson and McLaggen were going to stand their ground as they whirled to face the three reinforcements coming hurtling down at them. It would have been likely brief and painful, especially with Thanatos Brynmor making his slower, more measured approach to join the battle.

Then the monument that had stood tall and proud in the middle of the village suddenly wasn't stood there any more. It was flying through the air, a giant pillar of rock, pinwheeling around down the road and at the Enforcers. They shouted and yelped, one of them hitting the ground, the other two leaping into the gutters and behind cover to avoid its huge, crushing wave, and in that moment, Wilson and McLaggen took advantage of the situation to run, splitting off in different directions.

Tanith paused for half a heartbeat, peering around the corner of the building she was taking cover behind to watch the road, before breaking into another run. All she needed to do was break into the woodlands in pursuit of the other four and then she could be lost in and amongst the chaos, could claim she was tricked to go in the wrong direction.

She didn't think Brynmor would believe her, but so long as he couldn't prove it -

Then she ran smack into Tom Everard as she went to round the corner. Solidly built as her former fellow prefect was, she bounced, hard, and he too went stumbling, having been running at quite a pace. But this did, mercifully, bring them out of sight from the main road.

'Tom! Hells!' Despite her familiarity, she kept her grip on her wand tight, even as she had it aimed low. 'Was that you with the monument?'

Everard got his footing and his breath, straightening and looking at her like a deer trapped in the headlights. 'I heard this story, once,' he panted, nodding. 'About you and a Death Eater and a car.'

Then he punched her in the face.

Tanith would have liked to say that if any of the Lions had got away, it would have been because she'd let them. They were good - they'd had to be, to have survived for this long, and it wasn't as if they weren't battle-hardened by now - but she had been trained by the best, and had worked for far longer than them to be the best.

But she would have also been lying if she'd pretended the blow took her anything but by surprise, and she dropped like a stone as her vision exploded in front of her eyes. The world spun as she hit the ground, and for a few seconds all she could do was fight for clarity. Her beefy former classmate had the weight behind him to hit like a freight train, and without being able to roll with the blow it had knocked her thoroughly for six.

At least, by the time she got back to her feet, Tom Everard was nowhere in sight and all of the sounds were coming from off into the woodlands. She thought she could hear Brynmor yelling curses, but she didn't know who at, and that was off to her left, on the other side of the village.

Then, on the right, into the woods, she heard Jacob's voice, clear and loud. 'Officer down!'

Even if he was talking about one of Brynmor's lackeys, she still took off at high speed. Tree branches whipped at her face and she went lunging through the undergrowth, sidestepping treacherous roots and leaping over fallen logs, and within seconds she could see the flashes of magic in the air from a fight.

It was Jacob for certain, his wand held with two hands, teeth gritting as a cord of magic snapped and shook through the treeline to connect it to Cormac McLaggen's, both of them vying for control of the magical lock. And, on the ground a few steps behind him, Lackardy lay in the dirt in a slowly-expanding pool of his own blood that seeped from a gash in his upper chest, gasping for breath.

McLaggen saw her, even when she was too far away from the two to start casting, and suddenly jolted his wand upwards. The magical cord went flying into the sky, severing branches as it went and spraying them both with wood and leaves and dirt, and as Jacob staggered with the sudden severance, McLaggen moved. He charged forwards like a rugby player to tackle the smaller man square in the gut and drive him down to the ground.

Jacob was a fine duellist, but Tanith had never before seen him in a fist-fight, and even as she desperately put on another burst of speed McLaggen was straightening up, one arm wrapped around Jacob to keep him pinned helplessly against him, the other pressing his wand against his new hostage's chin.

Tanith skidded to a stop in the undergrowth, crouched low, wand held before her. Jacob's hands were empty, and for a few seconds as he struggled ineffectively against McLaggen's iron grip and McLaggen fought to keep his hostage successfully pinned, all they could hear was Lackardy's laborious breathing.

'It's over, Cole. Let me go!' McLaggen shouted at last, as he dug his wand into the soft skin under Jacob's jaw, and the Auror writhed.

'I don't want to hurt you, Cormac. You know this.' Tanith rose slowly, but her wand didn't move an inch. 'Let him go. And you can go. Apparate away; I won't stop you.'

'I'd really love to believe you,' he snarled, eyes wide with panic and adrenaline, gaze roaming around the undergrowth. 'But I'm having a little trouble trusting you right now.'

'Tanith, don't be crazy.' This was Jacob, his voice strangled from the pin. 'He practically just cut Lackardy in half-'

'He's a Death Eater!' McLaggen roared. 'He's got what he deserved; I saw it, I saw the pictures of what you did to Nick's family...!'

Her blood went cold, at both the recollection and the sheer, vitriolic hate in her old classmate's voice. 'I know. I saw it too, Cormac, but you don't need to punish all of us for it - you've got in your arms one of the good guys, and you do not want to hurt him.'

But despite herself, her words sounded less like a reassurance, an effort to convince him, and more of a threat as Jacob writhed with the wand pressed right against his skull.

'I don't? I thought you were meant to be on our side, Cole -'

'Then for Merlin's sake, McLaggen, get your wand the hell off my partner!'

Then the sound of footsteps tearing through undergrowth came from behind her, back in the direction of the village, and the familiar voice of Mulready with it, shouting, 'Lackardy! Van Roden! Cole!'

McLaggen started, gaze going over her shoulder, but she didn't react, didn't budge an inch, just kept her wand levelled on the small target of his head behind Jacob. But in his panic McLaggen's lips moved to form words, and the tip of his wand under Jacob's chin sparked with the promise of magic to come.

'Stupefy!' Her aim was good. The curse smacked right in between McLaggen's eyes, and he went sprawling into the undergrowth, stiff and still and with his hold on Jacob abandoned.

Tanith ignored him, vaulting over a fallen log to fall to her knees in the dirt next to Lackardy, who was by now almost sobbing in his wheezing gasps for air. The moment she lay her hands on his chest they were covered in blood. She could feel it sinking into her trousers, her coat, and all she could do was wave her wand over the horrendous gash across his chest.

'Not... you...' Lackardy whimpered as his eyes locked on her.

'Yes, me, now don't make me save your life, you vindictive little son of a bitch,' she hissed between gritted teeth, and tried to remember any emergency aid charms she'd been taught in basic training.

Over her shoulder Mulready came to a halt, joining Jacob as he retrieved his wand and moved over the fallen form of Cormac McLaggen, securing his still form with the simple summoning of some magical bindings. 'One more down,' drawled the older Death Eater, sounding impressed. 'That makes two. We'd better send Lackardy off to Saint Mungo's but we should get back to the village after - Mister Brynmor has something planned.'


------------------------


Nick Wilson and Cormac McLaggen were forced to their knees in the middle of the charitably-named main road that ran through the middle of Gullsmere. By now the survivors of the attack had been picked up or sent off to Saint Mungo's for medical help, and the citizens of the village were only just beginning to dare to peep out of their windows at the sight before them. Nobody had made sure they were unharmed by the day's fighting. That wasn't the priority of the new government.

What had also been sent off was the cold body of Rodolphus Lestrange, killed, according to the reports of the survivors, by Nick Wilson's own Killing Curse, thrown in the opening salvo of the sudden attack by the Lions, come from the woodlands as if from nowhere.

The others had got away. But for the first time, the resistance fighters had left men behind. Wilson, according to Mulready, had stood his ground against Thanatos Brynmor himself, and for his troubles had blood streaming down the side of his face to go with his captivity.

Procedure dictated they be brought back to Canary Wharf for processing before, likely, being shipped off to Azkaban. But Brynmor clearly had something else in mind as he looked up and down the line of MLE officers, and puffed his chest out.

'What you see before you,' he boomed, 'are two ring-leaders of the terrorist organisation known as the Lions of Britain. These dissidents have murdered civilian volunteers, destroyed infrastructure, and stolen civil secrets to send them off into foreign hands. Just today they have brutally assassinated Rodolphus Lestrange, a member of the Dark Lord's inner circle.'

Tanith looked down at the two, on their knees with their hands on their heads, and thought she saw Wilson's lips twitch at the latest accusation. Despite their doomed situation, she saw no fear on his face. Only pride.

'It is only good fortune that we arrived here when we did, to save the remaining Enforcers and civilians, to drive off the attack party, and to apprehend these two dangerous criminals.'

She looked up at Brynmor. He seemed to have no regret about the death of Lestrange. Indeed, despite his posturing, he looked positively pleased with himself.

You let this happen, didn't you. You wanted Lestrange gone, and you've just gone and used the Lions, used me to do it. You knew I was going to take that opportunity of those files after what happened to the Wilsons - and you knew, after what happened, that there was no way they weren't going to come after him.

'We could have them brought back to Canary Wharf for processing. And then shipped off to Azkaban, where both of these disgusting individuals would likely have the Kiss administered to them. But one of them has already slipped away from that fate once.' Brynmor's voice took on a new level of disgust. 'So I remember the events here today a little differently.'

Tanith frowned.

'I remember that we arrived, and that we fought. And that we drove off the bulk of the Lions. But I remember that these two stood their ground. That they fought back. And that, tragically, we were forced to employ the Killing Curse to stop them from being an even greater risk to us and the people we would protect.' Brynmor gave a sneer of a smile. 'Does anyone else remember this?'

Her gut twisted and went cold as there was a rumble of assent from the crowd. Beside her, Jacob scowled and stayed silent. Inexplicably, Wilson and McLaggen exchanged glances and seemed neither surprised, nor distressed.

'Do I have any volunteers for the honour?'

Too many voices chimed up at this, loudest of them being Mulready, begging for the chance to dispense some justice, and Brynmor gave him a nod and he stepped forward. The big man swept his gaze down the line again, and Tanith thought she might choke on air itself as his eyes landed on her.

'Detector Cole, you had the pleasure of apprehending Mister Wilson back in September,' he recalled. 'Only to see satisfaction be plucked from your fingers at his escape from the Dementors of Azkaban. I think it only appropriate that it be you who has this final honour?'

Tanith gaped at him. 'Sir, I couldn't -'

He was in her face in an instant, leering down at her, and when he spoke his voice was nothing more than a hiss which only she could hear. 'You've had a good day, Cole. You've done well. Continue to do well.' If anything, his whisper dropped a decibel. 'I know you thought you were clever, finding those files. And I know it was justice to get rid of Lestrange. Consider it payback that I will forgive this transgression, rather than visiting it down upon you, upon your father, your mother, your sister, and that whelp of hers.'

Anger stabbed in her, and for a moment her wand twitched towards Brynmor at the threat towards her family, her niece, her eyes flashing as they locked onto his. But all she saw there was pitiless disgust, and rational thought screamed at her to not move, screamed at her that she would gain nothing.

When Brynmor spoke again, his voice was more level. 'So long as you enact justice here, now.'

This is it. You used me to achieve your goals. Played me right down the line. And this is the punishment I get for betraying you, even though you wanted me to. Because you couldn't possibly let this one slip by without punishing me one more time.

'Come on, Cole.' This was Wilson, and his voice was astonishingly light and casual. 'You've got more balls than the rest of these fascists put together. I might as well go down to you.'

Her feet moved her out to the front of the line without her bidding them to, working on some survival instinct she had left ignored for too long, and Brynmor gave a small noise of gruff satisfaction as she went to stand in front of Wilson, even as Mulready placed himself before McLaggen.

Nick Wilson's eyes were cold and level, and she could see nothing in them she'd deem as familiar. Even though she'd known him for eight years, known him since he was a little snot of a Gryffindor pre-teen, a bully and a rival to her friends. Gone was that sneering superiority which she'd fancied had always hung about him - but also gone was the mirth and warmth she'd begrudgingly acknowledged he held towards, and around his friends.

Though she would be deceiving herself if she tried to claim the war, and the loss of his family, had already killed him. Being dead inside wasn't the same as being actually dead. She'd been there herself and emerged the other side; death, on the other hand, was irreversible.

'If you ever see Jen,' said Nick, astonishingly amiable, 'and I really hope you don't - no offence, Cole - tell her... I'm sorry.'

She didn't answer, didn't trust her voice, and just lifted her wand to be levelled directly at his face. He gave a lopsided smile that looked a lot more genuine, and glanced sideways at Cormac McLaggen, who met his gaze.

'Once more into the breach, huh, Cormac?' he said cheerfully to his best friend.

'You know me. 'til the end, mate,' was the calm reply.

You have to mean it to cast it. That was what Alastor Moody's impersonator had told her in her fifth year. You can't be empty. You have to be full of passion, emotion, or it'll just be like a tickle. That's why they don't use it all the time - it's not easy.

But right then it had to be easy, or Nick Wilson would die anyway, die by someone else's hands, and she would suffer. Her loved ones would suffer.

Mum. Dad. Evadne. Leah. Little Leah. She's an innocent, and Brynmor will rain down hell on her, her mother, her father, all because of me...

Tanith lifted her wand and thought of her niece as she concentrated, and her lips moved to form the words she'd hoped she would never utter.

'Avada Kedavra.'



Chapter 32: The Moving Finger Writes
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Chapter 32: The Moving Finger Writes

The memorial was a sorry and pathetic affair, because if it was anything too obvious it would have been found and desecrated, or at least used to track them down. They didn’t have a body, or remains, or even any personal effects to use to show their closeness to the deceased. The bodies had been burnt, as had everything with them, in a full and public ghoulish display in the Ministry Hall - after they’d been left for the masses to stare at the corpses for a full day.

The Department of Magical Law Enforcement wasn’t taking any risks after Tobias Grey’s resurrection with the possibility someone would proclaim these two members of the Lions of Britain were just as not-dead as he’d been. The public had been granted every opportunity to examine the bodies - and then every opportunity to watch them be barbarically destroyed.

Even pictures had been impossible to acquire, and so all they had been able to do was to find two decently sized rocks, inexpertly use their magic to carve the names of the fallen into them, and then set them into ground in a small rise in the middle of a patch of woodland only Jennifer Riley knew the location of.

It was less about leaving a place where they could be remembered, and more about permitting the surviving Lions the chance to take a moment to remember their fallen.

Tom Everard had looked like he was going to step up first when they were gathered, but then Jennifer Riley had got to her feet and moved through the small crowd to stand at the front. She looked paler than ever, her long brown hair whipping around her in the breeze, the bags under her eyes dark and heavy, but she stood as straight and tall and defiant as ever.

And she spoke in a loud, clear, crisp voice which didn’t waver once as she talked about them. Talked about them as her friends, talked about the first time they’d met. Talked about their growth from children into young men, proud and strong and capable, brave and prepared to sacrifice all they had for the good of the country, for the battle against evil.

And sacrifice they had. A sacrifice that had to be remembered, and honoured.

Above all, it had to be honoured by the fight continuing. Because the last thing Nick and Cormac would have wanted, she said, was for them to give up. Their cause was not done, and nothing would be a truer disrespect of their friends’ sacrifice than to abandon the cause for which they had died.

There had been a bit more rumbling, a few more people voicing their memories of their friends, the key moments in their lives. Since most of the Lions were Gryffindor classmates there were plenty, and even those who hadn’t been had been close enough to have something to say.

Gabriel and Cal remained judiciously silent. Gabriel couldn’t guess what Cal would have to say for himself - certainly he was being diplomatic by being quiet - but Gabriel knew he himself would have nothing to bring to the ceremony which would go down well.

I remember this one time when the two of them beat me up in the school corridor because they were pissed Grey was going out with MacKenzie.

But if the Lions wanted to remember them as heroes - and perhaps they were, Gabriel didn’t know what the going exchange rate was between ‘acts of petty bullying’ and ‘acts of heroic sacrifice’ - then he wouldn’t stand in their way. It didn’t matter to him.

All that mattered was that they kept going afterwards.

That she kept going.

Most of the Lions left immediately afterwards, Apparating off back to their warehouse base which remained mercifully still secure. Cal left with them, mumbling something about Tom trying to claw his way to the centre-stage, but Gabriel lingered, hanging at the outskirts. He stayed when Diana and Katie spoke with Jen quietly before the memorial stones. He stayed when the two pulled away, side-eyeing him before they left.

And in the gathering dusk he padded across the grass to stand at her side.

‘You can’t give me just a moment?’

Gabriel flinched at her words, voice catching in his throat. ‘I - I’m sorry,’ he stammered. ‘You once intruded to make sure I was all right. I thought... I’m sorry.’

He turned away, went to pull his wand from his pocket, but he hadn’t got more than a few feet before she spoke again, her voice small and wavering and panicked. ‘Please, Doyle - wait. Don’t go. Please.’

When he looked back she’d turned away from the stone, towards him - and all of a sudden threw herself into his arms as she burst into tears. He instinctively wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close, and remembered that she’d done this for him, too.

‘It’ll be all right,’ he murmured, knowing it wouldn’t be, but he remembered that those words had helped him. Or, it hadn’t been the words - it had been her, her closeness, her support. Just having someone there to care.

Her shoulders shook as she sobbed, and for long seconds there was nothing coherent he was going to get out of her in response as he whispered nonsense reassurance into her hair. He held her close, against the grief and the cold, until she had cried herself out.

When she spoke again, her voice was raw. ‘The man you grieved for came back.’

‘I know.’

‘He’s not going to.’

‘I know. I’m sorry.’

It seemed so meaningless and yet so necessary - but, inexplicably, her shoulders began to shake again. ‘You tried to stop him,’ she gasped. ‘And he wouldn’t listen, because I’d been so stupid, so proud, too afraid to tell the others just how right you’ve been, to tell the others how much I’ve come to... to... rely on you...’

Aghast, he pulled back, hands coming up to cup her face. Her tears ran over his fingers, and in that moment he’d have given anything to have pulled them away from her forever. ‘This is not your fault,’ he said, voice coarse in its earnestness. ‘They did this, not you. They killed them both, and you know it. And if anyone is at fault for Cormac and Nick not listening to me, it is Cormac and Nick.’

Criticising them for their own death seemed churlish, but he would be damned if he was going to let her blame herself.

Jen sniffed. ‘What happened?’ she asked in a quiet voice. ‘At the end?’

‘Oh, no. I’m not going to tell you so you can torture yourself...’

‘Were they brave? Were they afraid?’

He asked his killer to tell you he was sorry. But I’ll be damned if I’m doing that to you or Tanith. ‘They knew the risk - the likelihood - of their deaths when they left for the mission,’ Gabriel said instead, his gaze seeking hers ardently. ‘They knew that they would have to buy retribution against Rodolphus Lestrange with their lives, and they accepted that price.’

She looked away, down at Nick Wilson’s memorial stone. ‘I asked him to stay, and he wouldn’t,’ she whispered. ‘I asked him to. I didn’t ask anything of him before that - nothing that I didn’t ask of the others.’ She turned from his grasp, though he kept his hand at her back, and she didn’t shrug it off. ‘How am I supposed to continue to lead them when they know the most important order I ever gave was ignored?’

‘They’ll follow you. Because they believe in you. They’ve been hurt, and they’ve been scared, but you’ve led us all so far, and you have yet to take us down the wrong path. These people have faith in you, Jen.’

It was the first time he’d called her by her first name, and she did start a little, watching him out of the corner of her eye. ‘How can they have faith in me, or in my orders,’ she asked in a shaking voice, ‘when Nick didn’t have enough faith in me to stay when I asked?’

‘Because they’re not all Nick.’ Gabriel turned to face her, fervour growing. ‘And they’re not me, either, so I can’t speak for them. But I can speak for myself. And I would follow you to the ends of the Earth if you ordered me to - and if you asked me to stay, for anything, for the cause or just for you, then Fiendfyre couldn’t drive me away.’

She was watching him now, eyes a little wide, and he gave a self-conscious cough to clear his throat, pulling his arm away to rub the back of his neck. ‘I mean... that’s just me. I’m still pretty sure the others will follow you.’

There was a long pause before Jen drew a deep, calming breath. ‘I’m not sure I can lead them right now.’

‘Nobody expects you to be fine right away. Tom’s looking after them. Cal’s looking after Tom. The first one should make you feel better. The last one makes me feel better.’

She did smile, a little. ‘Tom’s a good guy.’

‘But when Nick decided he didn’t want to be a little kid any more, that war was serious business, suddenly Tom found himself lagging even further behind in the leadership hierarchy than he did before, didn’t he? I know he was always second fiddle to you. I know he was third choice for Head Boy in his year, and when the only person you’re beating is Craig fucking Sharpe, that’s got to be a serious sting. I know Tom’s a good organiser and a good lieutenant but he’s not going to be the leader. And that means you can trust him to hold down the fort while you pick yourself together, and that means I can trust Cal to stop Tom from being a pompous windbag everywhere. I taught Cal how to snark, you see.’

The laugh which escaped her lips was small and sounded guilty, and she looked down a minute before seeking his gaze, eyes shining. ‘When did it stop being “Everard” and “Wilson” - said with a particular sneer, I might add - and become “Tom” and “Nick”?’ She hesitated, whetting her lips nervously. ‘And... “Jen”?’

‘That’s your name, isn’t it?’ He looked stricken, briefly. ‘I’ve not been getting it wrong all this time, have I? Oh, Merlin, you’re Katie, aren’t you?’ This time she laughed properly, and the sound lightened the tension in his gut which had long-predated Nick Wilson’s death. He shrugged. ‘I think it’s time I stopped being the match commentator and actually got on the pitch.’

‘I think it’s time I properly subbed you in,’ said Jen, remorse clinging to her words. ‘I just wish it hadn’t taken death for either one of us to reach this conclusion.’

‘It’s not death that motivates me,’ said Gabriel. ‘See, the team captain’s this nice girl. Very sensible, very smart. Puts herself down a lot. Doesn’t see how inspiring she is, doesn’t see how much she’s achieved, doesn’t see how integral she is to the entire match. Doesn’t see that the season can’t be won without her. And I figure I can make the game a bit easier for her.’

She nodded, the smile returning, before she cast a wistful glance over her shoulder. ‘I’d like you to, truly,’ Jen agreed. ‘But I think, right now, we need to make it back to the locker room... and start to patch up the team so we can decide our next move.’


----------------


‘Hey, you’re okay? You’re a bit late.’ David swung the door open to his flat with an expression of concern, but beckoned her in anyway. The tidy, stylishly decorated - or, at least, what Tanith thought was stylish by Muggle standards, understated and not garish was good enough for her - flat looked like it had been tidied, and a sting of guilt hit her gut as she slumped in.

‘It was a... long day,’ she said, fighting a frown. ‘What’s that smell?’

‘A good one, I hope.’ He waved a hand towards the comfy, overstuffed sofas, where a couple of white plastic bags sat on the coffee table. ‘I thought that tonight I would treat you with a bit of - what do you call us? “Muggle” cuisine.’

‘You cooked?’ More guilt. She couldn’t be less hungry if she tried, but she hung up her coat anyway and followed him to the chairs.

‘Oh, hell no!’ He laughed. ‘You had my cooking, remember?’

‘I thought it tasted... fine,’ she said diplomatically.

‘That’s because it was oven-cooked pizza. The only expertise that takes is not burning it. No, this is something better. Sit down.’

He pressed her gently onto the sofa, and she was so bone weary she didn’t resist, closing her eyes for a moment as the ache in her limbs from the day’s strife and fighting began to fade away. It would come back, she knew, once she was gone and once she was working again, surrounded by Death Eaters, again. But the respite from being here, with David, and the fact that it made her feel like a normal nineteen year-old was why she kept coming back.

He sat next to her and pulled an aluminium container out of the bag. ‘Chinese takeaway. From just round the corner. I bet you never had this before.’

The expression on his face was that of a man so pleased with himself that her guilt finally intensified beyond bearing. She winced. ‘Are you going to hate me if I say that I’m not especially hungry tonight?’

He frowned - though it was the frown of a kicked puppy’s disappointment rather than anger. ‘Did you already eat?’

‘No...’ Tanith sat up, scrubbing her face with her hands. ‘It was just a... a hell of a day.’

Then she felt his hands on her shoulder, and the next thing she knew he’d scooted next to her. ‘You know you can - holy hell, you are tense!’ David exclaimed. ‘It’s like you’re been chiseled from stone today! When was the last time you relaxed?’

Before I killed Nick Wilson. Before his family were tortured and murdered. Before I thought Tobias was dead. Before I feared for my life and the lives of my family. Before the occupation. Before I thought I was trying to save Britain. Before I thought Cal might kill Tobias. Before I worried about NEWTs and thought Tobias would get himself killed as an Enforcer. Before Annie MacKenzie was murdered. Before I was too fucked up and childish to cope with petty jealousy.

A night, a year and a half ago, in Slytherin common room when she’d drifted off to sleep with Transfiguration homework and had woken up to find herself in the dark with her best friend smiling at her like she was something special. That had been the last day she’d managed to go a whole hour without feeling tense and miserable.

‘A long... long time,’ she said instead, albeit in a slightly garbled voice as David went to work at her knotted muscles.

‘What’s happened?’ he murmured, close and warm. ‘You usually come here tired, you don’t usually come here looking like hell. Something’s different.’

And here I thought I was a pretty good liar. ‘There was... I got roped into a mission today. Coming to reinforce one of our teams being attacked by a group of freedom fighters.’

‘Good guys?’ He’d kept up with a lot of what she’d told him, even if it had been a garbled explanation where she’d had to go back and elaborate on phrases she’d taken for granted, and where he’d picked up on some complex ideas far quicker than she would have guessed.

Even if he couldn’t possibly understand it, he’d picked up on the notion of the oppression and judgement faced by those with a non-magical heritage fast. She’d supposed that even Muggles had things which they despised and judged other Muggles for. She didn’t know if it was reassuring that all humans were so messed up - that this wasn’t some evil exclusive to wizards - or if that was a depressing universal truth.

She began to explain, recounting the events of the day, and David sat quietly and listened. Even when her voice faltered he just let his hand slide down her arm and clasped her hand, she held his tight, like a life-line, like a source of strength to get through this even though she didn’t especially want to, didn’t want to give the events of the day strength through being put into words.

But it became even harder when she got to the stand-off with McLaggen.

‘...Cormac was panicking, and I could see Lackardy bleeding out on the ground, and I knew Cormac had done that. He knew I’d helped the Lions before, but I was afraid he was going to freak out entirely and hurt Jacob just to make sure he could get away. And then I was reinforced, and Cormac had to have realised he probably wasn’t going to get away, and he started to cast something...’

She squeezed her eyes shut, haunted not by the memory of Stunning Cormac McLaggen so he could be captured, but by the implications of that action. ‘So I incapacitated him. To save Jacob. Even to save, of all people, Lackardy, who almost died, probably would have died if I hadn’t got to him when I did, the Healers said...’

Tanith almost paused to explain what a Healer was, but realised the name itself was self-explanatory, and instead took advantage of the gap to fight to compose herself. ‘I don’t know why I gave a shit about saving Lackardy, the little dirtbag’s done... horrible things...’

‘But you saved your partner,’ said David quietly. ‘If this guy was panicking, and he’d shown he was already prepared to use lethal force, then who knows what he might have done to try to get away.’

‘I wish he’d listened to me. I’d have let him go, all he’d have needed to do was let Jacob go and then do something to knock us flying so we could claim he’d beaten us, we wouldn’t have even fought back... but he didn’t.’ She took a deep breath. ‘And then he and the other guy we took prisoner - Nick Wilson - were executed. I’d known both of them at school, I’d known them since they were kids...’

David’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Executed? Holy hell. So much for due process?’

‘Brynmor said the official story is that they’d been killed in the fight. But it’s not as if anyone would have really complained if he had marched them into the middle of a crowded wizarding street and murdered them there and then. There aren’t many limits on what the law is technically allowed to do, and most of these technical limits get ignored in practice anyway.’

He squeezed her hand. ‘I - I’m sorry...’

‘There’s more.’ She looked up, eyes shining, and wasn’t even sure why she was still talking. She could have left it there - could have let him assume that she was just traumatised by the part she’d played in Cormac McLaggen’s arrest and the deaths of people she’d known for years.

And once, perhaps, she would have. But now the words had started, they wouldn’t stop, and she didn’t want them to - she wanted them out, not bottled up inside, adding to the chest of secrets and pains she’d locked up and bolted shut and wrapped chains around over over, even though it was fit to burst.

‘I killed him. Wilson. Brynmor made me, said it was my right, and made it clear that if I didn’t he’d punish my family. And if I didn’t, someone else would have done it anyway. And he only did it to punish me, to make me suffer for rebelling against him...’

This was the part where she would have normally stopped, normally taken a deep breath and fought to compose herself and carried on.

But then David had wrapped his arm around her shoulder and pulled her to him, and the spell broke. The carefully constructed walls of self-control wavered, and she wasn’t sorry to see them go as a sob came choking past her lips.

She didn’t fight it. She didn’t hold it back until she could go to pieces safely alone, out of sight, where nobody could see her pain. She let herself be held, closely and firmly and warmly, burying her face in David’s shoulder, and let herself cry.

No tricks. No self-control or self-denial. And the world didn’t shatter to a thousand pieces because she let herself be vulnerable, and her strength didn’t fade to make her unable to take up the fight again when she was done, and she wasn’t left hating herself for a display of weakness.

It was not, despite the circumstances, such an unpleasant novelty as all that: to throw her grief and her weakness and her vulnerability into the hands of someone, and for them to hold it gently and soothe the pain.



Chapter 33: The Life of Riley
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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 -’

‘Liar.’

‘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.’

‘Recruitment?’

‘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.’



Chapter 34: The More Things Change
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Chapter 34: The More Things Change

'Two. You dragged me down here for two.' Tanith raised an indolent eyebrow across the processing desk at the scruffily-dressed wizard sat opposite her.

Scabior gave a toothy grin that made her want to hit him with a Scourgify. 'Two's pretty good pickings these days, love. It's not like there are many left out there.'

'I would have thought that the ones who'd lasted this long would have evolved to be able to outwit you.' Tanith waved a hand at the two Enforcers by the door. 'Bring them in.'

The Muggle-borns were shivering when they were dragged in, heads stooped. One's nose was broken, the other limped. Both had swelling and bruising around the face, and one's arm was wrapped around his chest as if to put pressure on painful injuries.

'Had wands on 'em and everything,' said Scabior, reaching into his ridiculous coat to pull them both out.

Tanith's eyes narrowed as she noted the injuries, and she got to her feet. 'Did you witness them casting any magic?'

'Well... no.' Scabior shifted his weight. 'They were in a Muggle shopping centre, you see...'

'We've left the wizarding world,' one exclaimed, lifting his head.

'Oi! Shut it!'

Tanith rounded on Scabior as he stood, and ignored the difference in height as best she could. 'You don't give the orders in my processing office. Not if you want to see a lick of the bounty.'

'If I want...?' Scabior's expression darkened. 'Don't you try to threaten me, sweetheart. I've been doing this a while. I know my rights here. I brought in a couple of Mudbloods. I get paid for a couple of Mudbloods. End of, thank you, good night, an' I'll be on my merry.'

'You'll be "on your merry" when I'm satisfied, and you'll only get paid when I'm satisfied.' Her voice was low, flat. 'Or have you forgotten you're not top dog any more since that sterling recommendation of your conduct at Malfoy Manor?'

His lip curled. 'I brought in Potter. It's not my fault that they were too stupid -'

'Excuse me.' She gave a smile which wouldn't melt butter. 'Were you just about to describe Ms Lestrange and the Malfoy family as "stupid", Scabior?'

Not that I care what you think. I'd pick "evil" over "stupid", myself. But anything to wipe that smug snake's smile off your lips.

She remembered Scabior from school, just about. She'd only been in her second year when he'd left, but he'd been in Slytherin House, a tall, gangly youth with a predisposition towards petty vindictiveness the like of which she'd sneered at back then.

Of course, she'd sneered because she liked her petty vindictiveness with more style, but even in her history she was less proud of, he had been exactly the sort of scum she thought made good people look bad.

Now he was exactly the sort of scum she thought made bad people look pathetic.

Scabior straightened, brow furrowing. 'No. I weren't going to say nothing.'

'That's what I thought.' Tanith turned back to the two Muggle-born men. 'If you two have left the wizarding world,' she said levelly, 'then why did you have your wands?'

The one with a broken nose glanced at the other, who rolled his eyes. '...In case something happened, believe it or not. Like us being attacked in the car park by this sodding lunatic.'

'That is unfortunate,' she was forced to agree. 'If you didn't have the wands on you, I'd have had to let you go, according to the definition of magical theft. But I must ask - if you have been so well-behaved, staying out of way of the wizarding world and going on your Muggle way, how did Mister Scabior find you?'

They shrugged. 'I don't know. I really don't.'

'Here, is all this necessary? Last few times I've just been able to bring them in and get paid,' Scabior complained.

'Then this is just your unlucky day that you met a stickler for the rules.' She turned to him. 'How did you get a lead on them?'

He grinned toothily. 'Got a list, don't we. Addresses of every Mudblood what ever attended Hogwarts.'

Her gut twisted unpleasantly. 'And you have been trawling the houses of these Muggles in search of Muggle-borns who have not even been casting magic? Who have accepted they have no place in our world and have left it well alone?'

Scabior frowned. 'Here - they're still Mudbloods, they're still -'

'I don't have time for this.' Tanith threw her hands in the air and crossed behind the desk. 'Their wands will remain confiscated.' She nodded to the two Enforcers who'd dragged the prisoners in. 'They can be escorted off the premises and then let go.'

'What?' Scabior exploded.

A shadow fell in the doorway to the stairs leading back into the belly of Canary Wharf. Tall and imposing, it was impossible to not recognise the burly form of Thanatos Brynmor. But although he'd clearly heard it all, although his eyes were locked on hers, he clasped his hands behind his back and said nothing.

Tanith drew a shaky breath and focused her gaze on Scabior. 'Or perhaps you can explain to Headmaster Snape exactly from where you received this confidential information about former Hogwarts students?'

That did stop Scavior, but only briefly, and he flapped his hands indignantly. 'What - I don't - who cares? They're only Mudbloods!'

'I care,' Tanith growled. 'Now you can get out of here, or I can arrest you for theft of confidential information.'

And Brynmor stood there, and watched, and said nothing.

It probably wouldn't stick, and they all knew it. But it would bring down the ire of anyone who cared about Scabior having got his hands on sensitive information, and that was more trouble than she suspected was worth to him, considering how perilously close to the wind he had been sailing after rumours of the Malfoy Manor disaster. For that, too, she gambled he wouldn't question her release of the two Muggle-borns. The law was on her side, but neither the letter nor the spirit of the law had been the highest authority in magical justice in Britain for a long time.

But he didn't argue it. And the two Muggle-borns were let go, and she prayed that they'd been telling the truth in how they'd been doing nothing more with their time than trying to go back to their old lives, and hanging on to their wands as mementos and as precautions. It made sense, after all. Not everyone was going to love the wizarding world enough to suffer and die to stay in it.

Only when Scabior had left did Brynmor approach. 'You handled that one... interestingly, Cole,' was all he said by surly greeting.

Does he eavesdrop on everything I do these days?

She grimaced. 'The law's on my side, sir.'

He cocked his head. 'Is it?'

'If they're not casting magic, then they've not stolen magic from wizards, and then they're not thieves. Anyone can carry around a wand. Besides - isn't it good that they're getting the message and leaving us for their own world?' She forced herself to sound like she believed the idiocy. 'They return to their Muggle lives and they don't cause problems for us. It allows us to stop chasing every idiot Muggle and means we can focus on the real threats. We have better things to do with Ministry personnel and resources.'

Brynmor gave a dark smile she thought by now indicated approval. 'We do have better things to do with our time, yes. I don't know if Scabior does.'

'If Scabior is allowed to keep on roaming the streets hunting down every Muggle-born thief, do you really think he's going to keep on doing it discreetly if he's walking into non-magical society? He doesn't know what "discreet" even bloody means,' she scoffed. 'You let him continue running his band of Snatchers, and he's going to need a whole team of Obliviators following him around to undo his damage. Obliviators who also have better things to do.'

'You're saying that the bubble's burst on the Mudblood bounties for the Snatchers.' He folded his arms across his chest.

'Numbers are way down. I'll be sending a missive to Hogwarts to see if Headmaster Snape wishes to look into any possible stolen documents, but if Scabior's stooping to such levels, it sounds like he knows the game's up. The age of random thugs roaming the countryside chasing petty criminals has come and it's gone, sir. We're entering a new era of peace.'

Brynmor never looked convinced when she acted like she agreed with the Ministry propaganda, but he seemed to approve of her making the effort nevertheless. His lips gave a twitch of a smile. 'And in this new era there's no place for Scabior?'

'I personally think we'd have to be looking at the end of the world before there'd be a place for Scabior. And even then I'd only say that so the grimy little bastard can die with me.' Tanith suppressed a shudder.

Brynmor gave a dark scoff of a laugh. Perhaps that was why he had tolerated her all this time, she wondered. Perhaps she amused him. 'I'll pass your thoughts on to Mister Yaxley,' he said, shaking his head. 'We'll go over the numbers. If the Snatchers are just going to cause more incidents needing covering up than they are going to bring in criminals, you might be right about it being time to lift the bounty.'

That was one thing she respected about Brynmor. Thuggish and brutal and petty though he could be, he did actually seem to care about the smooth running of the MLE, and the smooth running of the government. It made him an unusual exception amongst the Death Eaters who had found gainful employment in the modern world of 'Thicknesse's' Ministry. So many of them were still inclined towards violence for whatever purpose suited their fancy.

'You were on-shift for the announcement,' he continued, and she looked up at him warily. 'Mister Lestrange - tragic though his death was - has been replaced. Or, at least, someone's in his office and that someone will be acting as my second-in-command.'

Second-in-command. Not co-director. You finally got yourself a toady who'll do what you want, Brynmor? You finally proved yourself to be the top dog you're obsessed with being?

She feigned casual interest, instead of disgusted curiosity. 'Indeed, sir? Who's joining the team?'

'A friend of yours. Done you a favour in the past. But don't expect it to get you anywhere. You know him well.' Brynmor gave a mocking wink, before he turned to go. 'And his daughter.'

Tanith straightened with surprise. 'Bacchus Drake?'

'The one and only,' said Brynmor, and carried on his way down the corridor.

She sighed as he left, running a hand through her hair. Bacchus Drake was petty but he didn't have the stomach for excessive violence. On the one hand, he might be a man to put the brakes on Brynmor, be inclined to look for alternatives to his thuggishness.

On the other, he'd probably be too wet to do anything, and now Brynmor could do whatever he wanted in the DDD with another notable name behind him to blindly back whatever he did.

'The more things change,' Tanith sighed as she headed up the stairs, 'the more they stay the same.'


----------------


'I didn't think I'd like seeing here again,' Jen muttered, ducking under a tree branch as they plodded their way through the thick woodland and winding paths of the Forbidden Forest. 'But these days anything familiar's awfully welcome.'

'Is it the forest that's familiar,' Katie wondered aloud, 'or the threat of imminent death?'

'We'll be all right,' said Cal. 'Most of the worst of the Forest has been driven deeper into the woods by the Death Eaters at Hogwarts. It's not a good idea for them to go too near the school.'

'But it is a good idea for us to go near the school?' said Katie. 'And if so, why are the centaurs still out there?'

'We're not that near; we haven't even seen the school.' Jen sounded a little wistful.

'And the centaurs haven't moved,' said Gabriel from the front, glancing up from the scribbled map, 'because it will take more than Death Eaters to move them.'

Katie paused. 'Do I want to know what would?'

Gabriel frowned into the darkness ahead. 'The stars.'

'Are we being metaphorical? Or are we actually talking about falling stars? Because I didn't sign up for that.'

'It's all right, Katie,' said Jen. 'Next time we're dishing out ops, you get to go on the one which is a nice meal out in London.'

Gabriel snorted, and couldn't help but share a fond, conspiratorial smirk with Jen as Katie nodded. 'That's more like it. But why am I here again? Not saying it's not important.'

'Because if things go horribly wrong, you're good at communication and protection spells to keep us safe until we can get out of here, or send word for reinforcements,' Jen reeled off.

'Tom's good at them too.'

'Then next time Tom can come with us and you can have acting command. Or permanent command, if I don't come back.'

'Being here so I dodge that responsibility might sound fantastic,' said Katie, 'but I've got "sidekick" written all over me. If you die, then I've definitely been trampled by a centaur.'

'We won't get trampled by centaurs.' Gabriel tried to make himself sound convincing. For some reason the Lions had assumed he was the going expert on centaurs, and everyone had been so enthused about the idea of doing something productive which didn't include risking life and limb that he hadn't wanted to disillusion them. 'I know what I'm doing.'

Of course, he also knew that it was Katie's wont to make jokes like this to ease the tension, and while she chose to do it with mock-bellyaching that highlighted the very real threats they were surrounded by, Gabriel had to admit he preferred it to the tense silence which had occupied missions under Wilson's leadership.

'Besides,' said Cal, 'centaurs won't trample you. They'll shoot you.'

Helping or hurting, Brynmor?

'Hold up.' Gabriel was saved from cutting this latest conversation off by the sight of a glimmer of moonlight on water ahead, and lifted a hand. 'I think we're at the pool.'

Cautiously the four of them advanced, moving through the gloomy undergrowth to enter the small clearing and approach the edge of the water. The woodlands around remained dark and foreboding, the occasional creaking of trees audible but with no signs of life.

'Is this the place?' For some reason Jen was whispering.

'I don't know,' Gabriel admitted, forcing himself to speak quietly. 'It looks like it.'

'If this is so sacred,' Katie said, 'are they going to just kill us for being here?'

'No,' he said, and hoped he was right. 'Not so long as you're with me. Let me take a look at the pool. Cal, watch the perimeter.'

He ignored the hushed complaints of Katie as he padded up to where the water lapped gently against the pebbles and rocks. The moonlight streamed down through the clearing in the trees to make the surface look like shimmering silver, and he was cautious to not break the illusion as he knelt down beside it.

He'd read about this. A sacred meeting place of the centaurs, the best place to seek them out while they roamed the woodlands. A place to see the will of the stars reflected and read, the centaurs even more adept than he could probably ever hope to be at reading the future.

Is it the stars that talk to me? Gabriel wondered, leaning across the pool. Or something else?

But when his reflection in the water caught his eye, he had to pause and look properly. Because it didn't look right; it distorted, twirled, and then his awareness of everything around him rushed away. The cool night breeze. The whisperings of the others nearby. The creakings of the trees of the Forbidden Forest.

He knew this sensation - the same overwhelming buffeting sense that had accompanied every one of his visions, before he'd learnt how to ride the wave. And then he wasn't in the clearing in the woods at all - he was at a graveyard in Surrey holding Jen Riley as she sobbed, he was on a broomstick high above the Hogwarts Quidditch pitch, he was in a dark Muggle home being murdered.

He was surrounded by trees and being shouted at by Tobias. He was watching his best friends murder one another.

No - no, that's not what happened, I changed it, I saved Tanith and this didn't happen -

He was watching their mission to intercept the potions shipment from Russia, he was watching Nick Wilson get executed, he was standing in the middle of the Canary Wharf lobby -

Then reality came rushing back to him, and with a gasp Gabriel fell away, collapsing on his back at the water's edge and fighting to get his breath back. But with air came sound, and the sounds of shouting voices, including Cal desperately bellowing protective charms.

How long had he been out? Centaurs had come, four of them pelting out of the undergrowth to surround the other three, and as Gabriel rolled onto his front he saw an arrow sear through the air only to be knocked aside by a particularly adept swish of the wand by Jen.

He fought to a kneeling position, the best he could do, and lifted his hands. 'Stop! Stop!'

They couldn't have seen him before, so suddenly did they come to a halt, and the biggest wheeled around to abruptly give Gabriel a perfect view of the business end of a bow and arrow. 'You have disturbed the -'

Then the centaur stopped, and frowned at the water's edge. 'Who are you?'

'Leave them alone,' Gabriel gasped, getting to his feet. 'They're here with me. And I'm supposed to be here.' He didn't know what the centaurs had expected to happen at the pool, or what was so different now, but he'd got their attention and that was enough.

'The stars brought you here?'

Yeah. What the hell ever. If it'll stop you from pointing arrows at them, the stars brought me here. Gabriel nodded firmly. 'They did. I need to speak with you. Or, at least, your leaders.'

The centaur looked suspicious. 'You are a human.'

'I'm a seer. I know how to read the stars. They give me their will, the motion of the planets. You know I didn't have a choice but to be here.'

He was stepping on dangerous ground, he knew. He'd never agreed with Firenze's attitude to their divination, and the professor was one of the more liberal centaurs. But their territorialism had increased beyond what Gabriel had expected, and he was playing with an empty deck.

He'd need to bluff if they were to make it through this alive.

'You came with others.'

'The Forbidden Forest is not a safe place,' Gabriel pointed out. 'Can you take me to your herd so we can talk properly?'

'I cannot.' The centaur looked at the others, who were backing off from the three humans. None of them lowered their bows or their wands. 'But I can send them a message that you would meet with them.'

'Thank you. That will be more than enough.'

'On the new moon. Return here.'

Gabriel glanced upwards. The moon was big and fat in the sky. About two weeks. He nodded to the centaurs. 'I shall.'

'Bring others if you must. But do not think to trespass before then. And if you attempt anything, attempt to bring harm upon us, then you shall be most sorely punished.'

He lifted his hands. 'I understand. We'll leave, right away.'

'You had best,' said the centaur, and waved a hand at his comrades, who all began to back off. 'We shall be watching.'

Then they left in a thunder of hooves, turning tail to disappear into the gloom of the nearby woodlands, and within a matter of heartbeats all was exactly as it had been when they had first arrived - dark, still, and quiet, though Gabriel couldn't help but glance into the undergrowth to see if he could catch a glimpse of their reception committee.

Then again, if they're trying to hide, I probably couldn't ever dream of spotting them.

Katie was the first one to speak as the foursome looked about, struck dumb by the encounter and cautious of their environment. 'Next time,' she said, 'you can ask Tom to come along.'

'Next time it might be best if I come alone,' said Gabriel grimly, going to join them.

'We can discuss that,' said Jen, lifting her wand, 'when we're back. Which I suggest we do right now. I don't want to give them any reason to drive us off, or any reason for them to have an even less warm welcome when we come back.'

He noted the 'we' but didn't argue with it, simply lifted his wand and put his hand on Jen's forearm so she could control the mass joint apparition back to the warehouse. Within a blink of an eye they were in the quiet alleyway outside, and they made their way gingerly back in.

It was late, after midnight, and most of the Lions had gone to bed. This wasn't the first time someone had gone on a mission at inhospitable hours, and sleeping through concern over fellows was a lesson one picked up quickly when a good night's sleep could make the difference between life and death in a fight.

Katie slumped off to find her sleeping bag almost immediately, an Cal didn't linger long, but even without consciously thinking about it, Gabriel and Jen crossed the warehouse for the office, which had become both Jen's command centre and her bedroom. It wasn't that the leader of the Lions had been granted any perks consciously, but after enough long hours pulled, it had just proven easier for her to put her bed roll and sleeping bag in the corner.

'There's no way in hell you're going back on your own,' Jen said the moment she'd closed the door behind them.

'I'm a seer. You're not. They probably won't hurt me. They certainly will have less compunctions about hurting you,' said Gabriel, watching her as she crossed the room to her desk and began rearranging papers.

'I'm the leader of the Lions. I represent the underground movement against the Ministry. Surely it makes sense for me to be there to argue our corner?'

'It makes more sense,' he said firmly, 'for you to be here. Safe. This isn't worth you risking your life over, not when there are alternatives.'

'Oh, but it is worth you risking your life over?' She folded her arms across her chest, watching him challengingly.

He gave a humourless smile. 'I don't have alternatives. I'm a seer. They'll listen to me. They might not agree, but they'll listen to me. If we're going to do this, if we're going to try to enlist them into the cause, then we don't have a choice but for me to go.'

Jen drew a deep breath. 'I made myself a promise,' she said carefully, 'when we started this up. That there was nothing I would ask anyone to do that I wouldn't do myself. That there was no mission deemed so risky that I couldn't possibly undertake it - but I could send others in my place. I've stayed behind so I could coordinate operations, I've stayed behind so I could rest up after other missions, I've stayed behind so I could conduct planning or simply just because it wasn't my turn. I have never not gone on a mission because I was too important for it.' She straightened, and slowly walked over to him. 'And not only am I not going to start now, but I am certainly not breaking this promise with you, of all people.'

He'd been prepared to fight, gearing up to argue, but her "of all people" took him by surprise enough that his voice caught. Instead he could only give a one-shouldered shrug and a lopsided, arrogant smile. 'I'll be fine.'

She rolled her eyes, swatting him on the arm. 'That's not how it works-'

Their limbs entangled, lips locked together as if all the world's fury couldn't tear them apart, in such a state that they couldn't tell where one began and the other ended, heart singing with need and hunger and want -

He was leaning heavily against the desk when reality came sinking back in through the now-familiar haze of a vision. His head was spinning but she was by his side, face close to his, expression screwed up with concern.

'Are you all right?' She knew what this was, she'd seen it a dozen times before, and all he could do for a moment was nod mutely, his eyes roving wildly over every inch of her face. 'What did you see?' Jen continued, voice gentle, and she lifted a hand soothingly to his forehead.

He couldn't answer for a few moments, breathing ragged, thoughts tumbling and whirling, and all he could do was stare at her. A wry smile tugged at the corner of her lips. 'Don't tell me it was something horrid...'

Finally Gabriel found his voice, and his hand came up quickly to grab hers at the wrist. 'I hope not,' he said hoarsely.

Then he kissed her.

He thought she started, for half a heart-beat, as he tugged her to him - then all of a sudden she was kissing him back, melting into his embrace, letting him wrap his arms around her in defiance of anything that might break this. He turned to pin her against the desk, felt the flood of warmth run through him at her closeness, to having her in his arms after all this time, and when she broke the kiss only to give a ragged gasp he didn't think anything was going to stop him.

Then a word finally made it past her lips, strangled and strained but sincere. 'Stop.'

He did, though it was a fight to keep his spinning head in check, a fight to get his hands off her, and even putting on all the brakes he only managed to make it half a step back, her still maddeningly within reach. Her hair was dishevelled from the embrace, her cheeks flushed, lips parted, breathing heavy, and though their eyes met for a few seconds she abruptly, guiltily dropped her gaze to the floor.

'I'm... sorry,' she murmured.

'I'm not,' he said firmly, but still he took another step back, running a hand through his hair.

'I should - I'm going to take a walk,' Jen said, and turned to head for the door.

For a moment he almost let her as she crossed the room, then he turned abruptly. 'No, wait. Please,' he called out, and she did, hovering with her hand on the door handle, frozen. 'That wasn't... I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable. But I'm not sorry I did that. It wasn't just a... momentary indulgence.'

She cringed, head dropping again. 'My life is... really a bit too complicated right now for...'

'For what? For happiness? You shouldn't feel guilty because...'

'Because Nick's not even been dead a month.' Jen turned, but though her words were accusing it was more like a weight was pressing down upon her than that she was lashing out at him. 'And already I'm... and we're... and you're talking about happiness...'

'Maybe I shouldn't,' he admitted, advancing on her. 'Maybe it's stupid, and it's wrong, and if it hurts you, then I'm sorry. But I stayed quiet before because of him - because of him and you, because I thought you were happy.' He waved a hand at her. 'He's gone. And you're not happy. And maybe it's not appropriate, but I have seen what happens when people sit on their feelings because they think it's "not appropriate", or because they're scared.'

She froze, bewildered, and in that moment he reached out to grab her hand before she could escape. 'And nothing scares me half as much as the idea of not telling you, of not being with you. I love you. I think a part of me has loved you since that first vision, when I saw your grief and I didn't even know you properly but I wanted to ease it. I have loved you all the time I have been here, I have loved you with every piece of advice I gave you, and I have loved you through all of your joy and your pain.

'And I am sorry if you can't give me an answer I'd like, or any answer at all right now, but I will not keep quiet because I think it might be the right thing for me to do for you. You are smart, and you are strong, and that is so much part of why I love you that it would be disrespectful of my own feelings to think that you couldn't stand to hear the truth.'

He gave a small, sad, lopsided smile. 'I've known Tobias Grey and Tanith Cole for eight years. I know bullshit, angsty, romantic incompetence screwed up by your own self-pity and self-imposed restrictions and fear. I don't want that. So you can tell me "yes", you can tell me "no", you can tell me you can't say either or anything right now, and that's fine, because I reckon so long as I've put my cards honestly on the table, I stand a fighting chance.'

Jen's eyes roved over his face as he spoke, drinking in every word, as if she was searching for some sign of insincerity or some imperfection - but she seemed to find none, because her gaze only wavered and she drew a deep breath. 'I'm going to tell you,' she said, voice unsteady, 'that I'm going for a walk. And I think you should go to bed.'

He let go of her hand as she tugged, and then she left, leaving him alone in the tiny office with his head whirling just at the memory of his lips on hers, and the tingling that was almost like burning where his hands had been upon her.

Gabriel made a small noise of amusement and self-satisfaction, running a hand through his hair. 'Well,' he murmured to himself, 'that went about as well as it was going to.'



Chapter 35: The Pressure of Adversity
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Chapter 35: The Pressure of Adversity

'If I'd known that it wasn't going to be something new, I wouldn't have bothered.'

Tanith looked over at David as she hung up her coat, looking briefly guilty at his crestfallen expression. 'I'm sorry,' she said, and meant it. 'But you didn't tell me where we were going! How could I warn you?'

'It was supposed to be a surprise! Telling you would sort of negate the point.'

But he wasn't really upset, just playing at it, and Tanith smiled indulgently. It was pleasant, she thought, to get the fun and tension of a bicker without there being a legitimate, unpleasant twist in her gut of fear and worry. 'I know,' she conceded. 'And I appreciated it. It was thoughtful. And I enjoyed it!'

David gave a lopsided, bashful smile as he sank down onto the sofa. 'How'd you get to know so much about art anyway?'

She fought to hide the flash of pain which still accompanied any thought of Altair Ritter. 'My father hired a tutor for me and my sister when we were young, and for the holidays,' she said casually, wandering over to join him. 'He taught us lots of things, including some Muggle art and literature.'

'Magic and culture, huh. You really are a renaissance woman.'

'Not really.' Tanith shrugged. 'Art was the only one which stuck. I rebelled pretty damn hard against learning the rest; I don't really remember any of it.'

He reached out to casually wrap an arm around her as she sat down, and for a moment the two just lounged there, enjoying the rest after a day of trooping around an art gallery. There were worse ways, she thought, to spend a day off.

'How come art stuck, then?' he asked, after a deep, relaxed sigh.

'Because it's patently different to magical art in a way literature isn't. All of magical art is enchanted. It moves, it comes to life. A lot of it is about making a very precise depiction of whatever it's trying to represent. Rather than about art for its own sake, for trying to use the art to express something other than simply trying to get a picture down on canvas.'

'So what you're saying,' David mused slowly, 'is that I should have taken you to the Tate Modern? Lots of atypical expression there.'

She made a face. 'I wasn't quite so enamoured with Muggle art as to like modern art. But it's like the things we saw today - I mean, Whistlejacket could never have been painted by a wizard artist. The blank background. The capturing of a horse in motion at the perfect moment. It's not about having a picture of a horse, it's about communicating that exact feeling. The power, the presence.'

'Whereas a wizard would have just painted a horse, in a stable, rearing over and over?'

'It would have been like a photograph.'

'Um.' David looked down at her. 'You remember our photographs don't move, right?'

Tanith wrinkled her nose. 'Now that I don't approve of.'

'So sorry to disappoint, your highness.'

She looked up with a glare, only to see him grinning infuriatingly. 'I am not that difficult to please!' she said - or, rather, she said about half of it before he kissed her.

The sudden jerk, from bickering frustration to an abrupt keen awareness of their closeness, of his heat, of the feel of him under his clothes and the sensation of his lips on hers, was not unpleasant. It fired everything up, the heat of aggravation changing to an altogether different and more welcome heat. The next thing she knew he had her pressed down on the sofa, pinning her down with his weight, the sudden embrace a heavy entanglement of limbs and feelings.

She made a small noise of protest when he did break the kiss, but he didn't pull back, the grin back on his face with an altogether different sort of glint. 'How about...' He leant down to kiss the corner of her jaw, and she shivered. '...I don't take your word for it, and find out for myself?'

Impatient, she reached for him this time, and the outside world rushed away at the embrace, narrowing to just her, and him, and the feel of his hands on her, running down her body, reaching down for the hem of her t-shirt -

Then there was the sense of warm hands on bare flesh, and the shiver this brought was not so welcome, not so pleased. Her body clenched up without meaning to, and, with enough speed to give her whiplash, the feeling that ran through her wasn't anticipation and desire, it was tense apprehension, twisting and writhing away inside enough to make her feel nauseous.

He felt it, he had to, but just as he was pulling away in confusion, she was pushing him back, her head turning to one side. 'No - no, I can't, I -'

'Okay! Okay...' Clearly surprised and shaken, David still pulled away, getting to his feet, hands raised deferentially. 'I'm sorry, I didn't mean to...'

'I have to go.' Her head was a whirl of emotions and memories, none of them pleasant and all of them combining for an obnoxious cocktail in her stomach as she stood up. 'I don't, I - I'll be in touch, um, okay?'

She didn't even wait for his answer as she fled for the door.


----------------


'This place is great,' gushed Katie as she led Jen around the Lions' latest "secret lair". 'We can put the tents up in here, it'll be sheltered from the wind, rain, and it'll be nice and warm! Really, we should have put the tents up in the warehouse...'

Jen frowned. 'I don't know why I didn't think of that,' she admitted. 'I guess I thought putting tents up inside was so weird it didn't occur to me. But you think you can get the place all charmed up and secure?'

Katie's gaze swept over the wide cave that had been found that morning on a routine scouting operation, courtesy of the spelunking hobbyist amongst them, Muggle-born Richard Keating. She grinned. 'It'll be easy. We only have to charm the entrances.'

'That does mean we have to find them all.' Jen picked up a rock by her foot, and tossed it into one of the tiny, arm-sized holes in the cave wall. It rattled around, clearly no more than a few feet deep.

'Richard's going to love that assignment. It shouldn't surprise us, really, should it. He's a man - men like to go sulk in their caves.' Katie chuckled, then snuck her friend a quick sideways glance. 'Though speaking of sulking...'

'I'm not sulking.'

'You're not smiling, you're not talking, you've been locking yourself up in that awful bloody office and you're getting obsessed with work. Not that I mind a change of scenery, but we have no reason to leave the warehouse and yet here you are, ordering us to scout for a new hidey-hole.' Katie shrugged. 'What gives?'

'Aren't I allowed to be in a bit of a stinker of a mood, considering...' Jen let her voice trail off pointedly, but she thought it more judicious to wander about the floor of the cave, not looking at her friend.

'Sure. I encourage it; it makes you feel better. It's just...' Katie cocked her head. 'You've also been avoiding Doyle. Like, whiplash-inducing change, there.'

'I've been busy.'

'You usually were busy with him. You'd usually be coordinating efforts with him. Instead, you send him and Cal off to the grimmest search sector we've got.'

Jen wrinkled her nose. 'I sent them to Swindon.'

'Exactly.'

'What's your point?'


Katie lifted her hands. 'Just saying. I'm your friend. You can talk to me. It doesn't make the sky fall in. I don't see a moment of emotion from you and then run around the base screeching "We're doomed! The hive mother has failed us!"'

'You have got weirder this past year, you know that?'

'Hey, I live in a cave now. What's your excuse?'

'Um, that I also live in a cave?'

Katie scowled. 'I got cursed this one time by an evil necklace.'

'Clearly this evil necklace made you crazy.' Jen rubbed her temples. 'I don't... want this getting around. Not just that I'm upset, I know... people would try to help, but I really don't want the others fussing. Especially not Tom, or Richard.'

'Because then they'd try to be manly and reassuring.' Katie nodded sagely. 'And that would just be embarrassing.'

'Quite.' She shoved her hands in her pockets. 'So, um. Doyle.'

'I'm familiar with his work. C'mon, it can't be that bad.'

'He said he loved me.' The words felt strange to utter, like they didn't fit right in her mouth. She didn't look up.

'What?' Katie did sound taken aback at this. 'Are you sure?'

'He said it, like, six times, I'm pretty damn sure,' snapped Jen.

'Okay, okay. Huh. Did not see that coming.'

'Really? Because I thought you were going to put up a banner or something for us two,' she said bitterly.

'Hey, there's a world of difference between "crazy about you" and "loves you". Or "in love". Did he say "in love"?'

'I don't - does it matter?'

'It's different.'

'I didn't stop to negotiate the finer points of detail.'

Katie cocked her head. 'Then what did you do?'

Jen sighed, shoulders slumping as she turned back to her friend. '...ran. Pretty much.'

'That wasn't polite.'

'Polite? I panicked! He just... blurted it out!'

'What, just like that?'

'Well, not quite.' Jen's ears suddenly felt rather hot. 'He did kiss me first.'

'Ooh. Was it any good?'

'There wasn't time to rate him.' Jen scowled. 'Look, forget it -'

'I sure as hell will not!' said Katie indignantly. 'So he kissed you! So he loves you! What's the problem? I thought you liked him?'

'I do,' said Jen awkwardly. 'But... you know... Nick...'

Katie sighed, and her expression grew more serious. 'You're hurting. Of course you're hurting. And you're allowed to hurt. But you know what?' She padded over to her friend. 'You're also allowed to not be so badly chewed up you can't possibly let anyone be close. You're allowed to not be so hurt you have to be a nun for the rest of your life. That's okay, too.'

'I don't... know what I feel,' Jen admitted. 'I don't know if this is real. I don't know if I'm just still reeling so badly from losing Nick that I'm clinging desperately onto the nearest thing to give me support, and it's him. I don't want to get hurt, but I really don't want to be so messed up I jerk him around.'

'I get that. And that's fair.' Katie nodded. 'So, you figure it out. You do some thinking. You work out what your feelings are, what you want, and then you're honest and up front with him about it. You do what makes you happy.'

'But what if the others -'

'Bugger the others!' Katie threw her hands in the air. 'Maybe you don't want him at all. Maybe you do, but you still need time to grieve. Maybe you don't know, and you need lots of time to figure it out. Or maybe you want to jump his bones and that's okay. It's okay to feel whatever you feel. Just figure it out, and tell him. So many problems of the world would go away if people were just a bit more honest with themselves, and with others.'

Jen looked at her suspiciously. 'How come,' she said slowly, 'you manage to give good advice to other people, but can't follow it yourself at all?'

Katie sniffed mock-haughtily. 'I'll follow it,' she said. 'There's just not been anyone worth following it with yet. Just you wait and see - when I finally hunt down Gwenog Jones' home address I will be the most honest and emotionally accessible obsessed stalker you ever saw.'

Jen couldn't hide her small, grateful smile. 'Thanks, Katie,' she said quietly, genuinely. 'I'll try. Really try.' A sigh escaped her lips before she could stop it. 'I just need to, you know, find the time to figure all this out.'

Katie nodded soberly. 'Rebelling against crackpot evil dictators really messes up your love life. Who knew, right?'


----------------


'You know, it's not that bad.'

'What? War? Crazy centaurs? Death Eaters?'

Gabriel nodded at the street they walked down. 'Swindon.'

'Oh, look. Another industrial district. I don't want to stay in another warehouse.' Cal shoved his hands in his pockets as he scowled at their environment, the quieter corner of the part of the city where companies did their business and stored their wares and didn't look too closely at people lurking around. 'I like camping.'

'I like a roof over my head. Sometimes we don't always get what we want.'

Cal gave him a sideways glance, tugging his hoodie a little further over his head. A weak drizzle had started the moment they'd arrived, and while Gabriel was suffering in silence, Cal had muttered and moaned like water might make him melt until Gabriel had pointed out he was wearing something with a hood. Cal had said that hadn't been the point.

He wondered why his friend was so keen on camping, then.

'Speaking of not getting what we want -'

'Does it help?' Gabriel interrupted.

'What?'

Gabriel looked at him, dark eyes piercing. 'Speaking about it.'

Cal opened and shut his mouth. 'I -'

'Because you've not done a great deal of talking about it.'

He folded his arms across his chest, a little defensive, a little hunching in against the bad weather as they walked under grey skies through grey streets. 'What's there to say, really?'

'I don't know.' Gabriel kicked an empty McDonald's cup. 'Nat's in Azkaban because of your father, specifically to try to control you or punish you or I don't know what. You think there might be some fallout for her because of you being with us?'

Cal flinched, and Gabriel felt abruptly guilty for deflecting the questions back on to him. His motivation had been evasion more than compassion, and more because he wasn't in a talkative mood than anything was wrong, and here Cal was looking like he'd been the McDonald's cup. If the cup had also been a puppy. 'I hope not. I think not. I mean, he'd want me to know, wouldn't he? Otherwise why wield it as a threat?'

'You're right,' said Gabriel, and didn't say what he was thinking. Because your father's a psycho. It seemed a good enough justification for Thanatos Brynmor to do whatever he pleased to Nathalie Lockett.

Saying that probably wouldn't help. 'I'm sorry we can't do anything,' he said instead. 'I mean, it's not like we can raid Azkaban.'

'I know,' Cal sighed. 'And I feel... well, not okay now I'm here, but... it beats her wasting away in there while I was taking my fa- Thanatos' money and...' He waved a hand as if he could throw errant words away. 'I'm doing something. I'm making a difference.'

'You are,' Gabriel said sincerely.

'And I'll see her again. So long as Thanatos thinks he can use her against me, she should be okay, right? So I just don't let it get that far, and hold out until the war ends, and then I'll see her again.' Cal drew a deep breath. 'And I can make up for the things I've done.'

'Some people would think fighting with us, risking your life to bring an end to tyranny, wouldn't make you someone who still needed to even the scales. Some people would say it makes you a hero.'

'I thought we weren't using that word?' Cal gave a crooked smile.

'About me.' Gabriel slapped him on the shoulder. 'You, on the other hand, you big, strapping type with your broad shoulders, chiselled features...'

'Are you sure it's me and Nat you wanted to talk about, or you and me?' Cal laughed, shoving him playfully.

'I'm serious. Well, sort of.' Gabriel returned the lopsided smile. 'You're walking around with the weight of the world on your shoulders, mate. And times are serious, so, I mean - you don't have to make them more serious. You're one of the good guys. Just think of her, just think of seeing her again, and don't think about making it right, think about it being right, and I know you'll get through anything.'

Cal sobered, again looking like a neglected puppy. 'You think so?'

'I know so.' Or, at least, I need you to believe it, which is close enough. 'Come on. There's nothing here. Let's go to the pub and then get back.'

Cal snorted. 'We really shouldn't while we're on an op.' He didn't sound convinced.

'I know, but if Death Eaters have learnt to look for us in the pub...'

'Then we're screwed.' Cal clapped him on the shoulder again, and they turned the next corner, heading for something closer to civilisation where they had seen a road with plenty of swinging, welcoming pub signs. 'We didn't talk about things you're not talking about.'

'Oh, hey, we didn't, did we. Crazy.'


----------------


'All right.' Tobias rolled his shoulders. 'Hit me again.'

Will looked at the wooden floorboards of their cottage. 'You know, maybe we should put down some mats or -'

'I'm fine. Do it.'

'You're not, you're going to break something.'

'It's a motivator.' He braced himself as best he could with his left leg twinging. 'Bloody curse me again.'

Will did straighten, wand still in a low guard, but looked unconvinced. 'I'm not sure I -'

'I said -'

This last reticence from the older wizard would prove a trick, however, as mid-reproach Will's wand flicked up. The Stun which leapt from the tip was light, probing, but fast, and Tobias almost didn't react in time.

But one thing that hadn't been dulled by his injury was his reflexes. The staff had been heavy in his hands, so heavy compared to a wand and wielded in an unfamiliar manner, but time and practice was making it more comfortable. It wasn't that it had nothing to do with complex movements, like the wrist-flick of a wand - that was a popular misconception, he'd learnt. It was important to move the staff right, be it slamming it down on the ground or even angling it, swinging it, or pointing it. But it was still less refined, less precise, less about doing it right, and more about thinking it right.

What this different method required, above all, was will. That, at least, was something Tobias Grey had in spades.

The tip of his staff came slamming down on the floorboards as Will's Stun flicked across the distance towards him, and although he'd almost been caught unawares, the wave of the Shield charm that sprung upwards and deflected the curse was strong.

But Will didn't stop there. High, low; deflecting them from different angles, spells of different speeds and strengths, they came thick and fast. Tobias had trained with Enforcers, but the Unspeakable was an altogether different prospect, if only for the sheer array of unusual spells that he knew along with a technique that would make any officer of the MLE satisfied.

At first, Tobias just deflected them all as best he could. Then, as the pattern and concentration set in, he ran through the variations of Shield Spells that he dared - then, finally, began to lash back, because there was no situation where playing solely defensive would be enough. His curses with the staff were sluggish, sloppy, and some missed just as much as they were easily deflected or absorbed by Will.

But that was what practice was for.

Seeing his defence was stronger than his offence, Will took a different tactic with the next spell Tobias threw at him. Instead of simply dispersing it harmlessly, he did a complicated wrist-flick, and the spell bounced off his shield to come ricocheting right back, weaker but quicker than a spell cast of his own accord.

Tobias didn't get his Shield up nearly in time, and the weakened Stun crashed into his chest still with enough force to knock him off his feet. He landed on the floorboards, hard, giving a grunt as the air was knocked out of him and his staff went rolling from his hands.

Will winced and lowered his wand. 'I'm sorry -'

Tobias forced himself, despite the throbbing in his leg, to sit up quickly. 'Why? We're practicing. This is what happens.' He stretched out uncomfortably to get a grip on the staff, resting it on the floor so he could brace his weight on it as he got up.

Will moved quickly to close the gap, extending a hand. 'Let me -'

'I'm fine.' Tobias determinedly hauled himself up of his own accord, ignoring the offered help.

'I'm only...' Will straightened, blinking. 'Just trying to help.'

'You apologise to everyone you knock down in a spar, and try to pick them up? Even on as mild a hit as that?'

'Normally, mild hits like that don't knock people off their feet.'

Anger and frustration stabbed in Tobias' gut, even if he knew Will was right. Once upon a time, a deflected Stun like that would have only staggered him, not all but taken him out of action. But he'd been pushed back onto his bad leg and it hadn't been able to take his weight so suddenly.

That, he could cope with. That, he could work on. Work on his weight distribution, work on the strength of his leg, work on deflecting spells with magic better.

There was nothing he could do about the reactions of other people.

'I'm not a bloody child,' he said before he could stop himself, turning to Will a little sharply. 'I'm a grown man, I'm a former Enforcer, I can take a hit and I don't need someone to tend to each scrape I get when I'm trying to get combat ready.'

'I don't...'

'Would you have fussed over Dimitri like that if you'd been sparring with him?'

The accusation hung heavy and thick in the air, and suddenly, absurdly, Tobias felt guilty. Not for feeling what he did - not for daring to be frustrated at how helpless he was treated as being since his leg injury. But saying it out loud, seeing the awkward expression Will's face, was almost enough to make him wish he hadn't bothered. That he'd just decided to grin and bear it.

Will drew a deep breath. 'I would have offered to help him up, yes,' he said in a slow, measured voice. 'Because that's a courtesy. But I see your point.'

All of a sudden Tobias was very tired. 'Let's take a break.'

'I don't think you're incapable,' said Will as Tobias headed for the door, and he paused in the entranceway uncertainly. 'I saw you training Aurora and Dimitri to be better. I know you're good. And I know you will get better. At this magic, as well as just your leg getting better. But I don't want you to push yourself so hard that you hurt yourself.'

Tobias grimaced, looking over his shoulder at the older man. 'Don't think I'm throwing this in your face, or anything,' he said, voice gruff, 'but being treated like a child is a really good motivation for me to push myself as hard and fast as I can, just to make you stop looking at me like that.'

Will had the good grace to look abashed. 'I'm sorry,' he said again. 'I'll back off. But don't feel like you can't ask for help if you need it, or just want it. You should know that I have a great deal of respect for you, and this?' He gestured to Tobias' leg. 'It doesn't make me think any less of you.'

There was a moment where the words hung in the space between them, and all of a sudden Tobias wondered if the room had got dustier than he'd realised. He looked down, shuffling his bad foot. 'You know... Cal was pretty lucky to have you.'

He really needed to write to his mother again. They'd exchanged notes and letters, mostly assuring the other that they were fine. She was the only person to be told that he was still alive before the Midnight Press had gone out, but otherwise they hadn't communicated in depth. Tobias had no desire to risk either of them by exposing delicate information which might be intercepted by the British Ministry, and he had even less desire to make her a target. In Paris she was safe, and he had no desire to make her worth the hassle of an international incident.

Will looked rather taken aback by the expression, and he, too, averted his gaze. 'Well, yeah,' he mumbled self-effacingly. 'When your real father's a bigoted arsehole, it's easy to look good in comparison.'

'Ah, good evening!'

Tobias looked, with some relief, out of the door to see Dimitri cresting the hell, crossing the terrace towards the cottage and waving a roll of parchment at them. Glad to escape the awkward emotional admissions, both of them came outside.

'I have good news,' Dimitri continued with a cheerful grin. His hair was plastered down on his head, the hike up the hill hard work at the best of times but getting tougher as they marched onwards to a Mediterranean summer. 'You should sit. I should sit.'

He and Tobias collapsed with some relief onto the chairs, and Will left to get them refreshments. It wasn't until all three were sat with cold drinks in their hands that Dimitri unrolled his paper and leaned forwards. 'You have been invited,' he told Tobias with a smirk, 'to the most auspicious occasion of the meeting of the European Magical Conference on April 30th.'

'Really? With only a few weeks to go I thought it was going to be too late to hear anything from them.' Tobias grinned. 'They've given me a slot?'

'For now you are just on the agenda as a speaker. There is no formal means for them to approve or disapprove of what you have to say, or any proposal for action being tabled which they can vote up or down.'

Tobias frowned. 'That's... in that case, even if it goes well, aren't I going to have to wait for the next Conference before trying to get the committee to take action?'

'Formally, yes,' said Dimitri. 'But there are lots of things that could happen. A country may be inclined, after hearing you, to lend help to Britain of their own accord. If there is enough of a move for it, they may try to hold an emergency conference to properly discuss the issue.'

'This is just the start,' said Will. 'This puts the issue of international action against Britain on the table. We're not aiming for a fait accompli in just a few weeks, we're looking to create the spark that will start action.'

'So what we're saying,' said Tobias, slow and cautious, 'is that the future of international action to remove the Thicknesse administration will kick-start or flounder, based entirely upon my address to the Conference in Rome?'

Dimitri gave a cheerful grin. 'Welcome to politics. It does not matter how right you are, it matters how you sound. Fortunately you, I think, they will want to listen to.'

'And if I fail, the weakening resistance efforts in Britain are left completely without help in a hostile, totalitarian regime.' Tobias smiled wryly. 'No pressure.'



Chapter 36: The Hair of the Dog
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Chapter 36: The Hair of the Dog

Melanie Larkin's jaw dropped as she opened the door and stared at the sight before her. 'Oh, good grief.'

'What? What?' Ariane Drake's voice came from inside, squeaky and panicked. 'It's those damn street singers, isn't it? I knew they'd -' She emerged in the corridor behind Melanie, hair askew, fingernails threatening to drip with newly-adorned varnish, and gaped. 'Holy fuck.'

Tanith swayed on the spot, squinting at them with some confusion at their reaction. She lifted the bottle in her hand. 'I brought whiskey.'

The other two exchanged glances, before Melanie stepped forward to usher her in. 'It's raining, Tanith...'

'Yep. And I walked. Don't drink and apparate, kids!' She weaved as she staggered into the hall of the house her former roommates shared, and leaned heavily on the wall for support.

'Melanie, get into the kitchen. This is an emergency. You know what to do,' instructed Ariane curtly, and went to steer Tanith into the living room as Melanie shut the door and shot off as directed. 'Tanith, dear, it's so nice to see you...'

'No, it's not. I am the portent of doom.' Tanith waved a finger in her face dramatically. 'I only come here when things are wrong.'

'You've only been here for our housewarming party!' Ariane squeaked, crestfallen.

'Montgomery vomited on my boots. That was pretty wrong.' She sat down on one of the armchairs heavily, shoulders stooped. 'But I found the place again! I was impressed.'

Ariane squinted at the bottle as she took a swig from it. 'What are you drinking?'

'Firewhiskey -'

'I can see that, what sort?'

Tanith peered at the label. 'Um. "Hairy Heart".'

Ariane made a face, and reached for it. 'Give me that!'

'Hey, that's -'

But Tanith couldn't hold on for long as the two struggled back and forth, and Ariane triumphantly yanked the Firewhiskey from Tanith's grip and looked over her shoulder. 'Melanie!'

Melanie emerged a few seconds later, flustered. 'I'm done! I'm done!'

'Good!' Ariane turned an accusing glare on Tanith. 'Look at you! You're a state! You come in here, drunk, with bad whiskey! You can't have any more!' Then she reached to take one of the glasses of gin and tonic from Melanie's hand and passed it over. 'You need this!' The other she claimed for herself.

Melanie looked down forlornly. 'I thought those were for us.'

'This is an emergency,' Ariane reminded her. 'Go make another.'

'But we're out of lemon.' Melanie might have said 'I have one month to live' with the same severity.

'Oh...' Ariane made a face, then reached down towards Tanith, who was just about to take a gulp, and plucked the slice of lemon from her glass. 'She won't know the difference.'

'Hey!'

'Oh, be quiet and drink your gin,' Ariane snapped, and sat down on the sofa to take her own genteel sip of the important beverage. Melanie went back into the kitchen, grumbling, but within another few minutes all three women were sat in the comfortable living room with full glasses.

Or nearly full, anyway.

'So what's wrong?' cooed Ariane, looking across at Tanith.

'Wrong?' She hiccuped. 'What makes you think anything's wrong?'

'Oh, well...' Ariane played with a lock of perfect golden hair. 'It's just that you never come by, so we just assumed that... you know... something was amiss.'

'Yeah,' said Melanie. 'That, and you're shit-faced.'

'A minor clue,' Ariane conceded. 'But you don't have to tell us if you don't want to.'

'I mean, it must be pretty bad. Considering you didn't even get like this when we all thought Grey was dead.'

Tanith had sunk over while they talked, her head in her hands. 'It's... complicated.'

'Have another drink,' Ariane suggested.

She did so, and drew a deep breath. 'There was a... a thing. Something that happened to me. A while ago. Like, eighteen months ago.' A pause. 'With a guy.'

The other two exchanged astonished looks, and then Melanie's settled down into something particularly apprehensive. 'It was Howlett, wasn't it. Theron Howlett. You tried to hide you had a thing with him. But we all knew,' she said, speaking too fast.

'Oh, yes,' said Ariane after a moment's pause. 'We all knew.'

Tanith looked up at Melanie, who could not have been gurning more frantically at her to get her to play along, and realisation sank in that Ariane was just bluffing and had no idea what was going on - and it had to stay that way.

Because even in her inebriated state she realised it was poor form to come in and talk about a negative sexual encounter she'd had with Ariane's current boyfriend.

'...Howlett. That's right,' said Tanith. 'But you better keep quiet about it. I've... sat on it for a while. I don't want anyone to know, and...' I should have picked someone who's dead.

'We've kept our lips sealed so far, haven't we?' said Melanie with a sickly-sweet smile - and took a gulp of drink.

'So... this sounds like it wasn't so good,' coaxed Ariane.

Tanith wrapped her hands around her drink and stared at the floor. 'I was - it was - you know, I'm really not used to talking about this.'

'We can tell,' muttered Melanie.

'This is what you get for being friends with boys. You've missed valuable life lessons.' Ariane paused, then sobered a little. 'Sorry. You can take your time, you know.'

Tanith wasn't used to feeling grateful towards Ariane. But there was a reason she'd come here, after all. She took another drink. 'It was... awful. I don't - I mean, it was my own fault, I initiated, I entirely went along with it and didn't stop him, and... yeah. Awful. Awkward. Unpleasant. Even... painful.' Another drink.

'All... right.' Ariane looked like she desperately wanted to help but didn't know how. She set her drink to one side, flapping her hands a little as she got to her feet and crossed the room to perch on the armrest of Tanith's chair, resting a hand on her shoulder. 'We all do silly things we regret. Emotionally or, you know, physically.'

'Let me make sure I'm on the same page,' said Melanie, leaning forward with a frown. 'About a year ago you had shitty and painful sex?'

Tanith squirmed as it all felt rather silly when put so bluntly. '...yes, Melanie. Thank you.'

'Melanie.' Ariane hissed her name as she squeezed Tanith's shoulder gently. 'Was this... I mean, around the time Grey was seeing MacKenzie, or... after, when he was so upset? I imagine that was all rather messy and complicated.'

'After,' Tanith lied easily. To say otherwise would come too close to the truth, and she didn't dislike Ariane enough to set her up for that. 'I was... it was dumb. I was pretty messed up myself, and I was... stupid.'

'Not that we don't want to help,' said Melanie, the soul of compassion, 'but why's this coming up now?'

She made a face. 'I'm sort of seeing someone.'

'Really.' Tanith could almost hear Ariane's eyes light up. 'Who's the lucky boy?'

'I don't want to say, and it's not the point,' she said as firmly as she could. 'But, as you can imagine, it's... come up. We haven't talked about it, but there was a moment, and...' Why was putting it in words so difficult? Perhaps Ariane was right, perhaps this was a consequence of not having the stereotypical 'girly' conversations with others in her childhood. '...and I basically freaked out and had to leave.'

Ariane wrinkled her nose. 'That's not good.'

'I'm getting another drink,' said Melanie, and left. 'Tell me if something actually happens.'

Normally, Tanith much preferred Melanie's company to Ariane's, but normally she didn't turn to them for emotional support and sympathy. If one didn't need something complicated, but did need buoying up, they could do a lot worse than Ariane Drake.

'Have you spoken with him about it?' she was saying, voice tremendously attentive.

'No. I don't know where to start. Because I don't know what's wrong. It was ages ago, and David's different...' She winced as the name slipped out, but it was too late and a first name wasn't absolute condemnation anyway. 'He's nice. He's kind. I'm sure he wouldn't want to do anything to hurt me, and I'm sure he'd be much more... attentive...' She almost cringed as she used the word.

'You need to relax,' Ariane said. 'Not just now. But with him. You would be surprised what good talking can do. And there's all sorts of things you can do to build up some trust first.'

Again, normality was inverted as Ariane gave one of her teasing smiles and Tanith found it reassuring rather than asinine. She gave a small, wan nod. 'I guess you're right. It just took me by surprise. It's been so long - I mean, I didn't think about it, I tried to not think about it...'

Ariane patted her on the shoulder. 'Trust me,' she said. 'A little communication goes an awfully long way. Why, Miles was all over the place when we started to go out - clumsy, utterly inattentive, acted like it was a race...'

Melanie's disappearance into the kitchen was no longer so resented, because at that point she came back with a jug to refill their glasses and Tanith drank deeply, gratefully as Ariane wittered on about her sex life with Miles Bletchley a little more and she tried to block her out.

'...but yes, you must be honest about what you want,' Ariane was saying when she resurfaced. 'And not just with him, but with yourself! And remember that he's not Theron.'

'Quite,' said Melanie, sitting back down. 'And he must be quite impressive, after all, if he's lured you away from Tobias Grey.'

Tanith knew a trap when she saw one - Melanie suspected that Tobias, himself, somehow, was her secret consort, and was trying to trick her into an admission. Fortunately she didn't even have to lie. 'I don't know what Tobias and I are,' she sighed. 'It's not as if we've been able to talk about it, and I don't even know if I'm ever going to see him again.'

'Daddy says he's been trying to rile up the European governments against us,' said Ariane with a frown. 'They're furious.'

'I know, it's knocked him back up to Undesirable Number 2 - though I bet Shacklebolt will upset Yaxley again, sooner or later, and drum him back down.' Tanith took a gulp of gin and tonic. 'But it's not as if it makes any sense for me to still be mooning over him.'

'True,' said Melanie, 'but when did you mooning over Grey ever make sense?'

There was more than just an accusation of silliness there, and irritation mixed with alcohol to form a dangerous cocktail. 'It's not as if I've been holding out on a wing and a prayer,' Tanith snapped. 'He did tell me he loved me!'

Shit.

One thing Tanith Cole clearly wasn't good at was handling was admissions of love. Especially not when she had quite a lot of whiskey and a glass of gin in her.

'Really.' Again, Ariane turned her gaze to her. 'And when was this?'

Tanith buried her face in her hands. 'In my flat,' she mumbled. 'Before he went to Russia.' It wasn't strictly a lie.

'You didn't mention this,' said Melanie with a smirk.

'It didn't come up,' Tanith groaned. 'We were going to be apart for a while. I guess it was a bit emotional.'

'Did anything else happened?' asked Ariane, and this time the teasing smirk was annoying.

'No. He kissed me. He said he loved me. And then he left.' Despite the fact that she was skirting on dangerous ground, she did have to admit it felt good to actually let the words come out. There was no reason for the two of them to suspect this had happened when he'd been recruiting her for illegal international espionage.

'And now you have a new fancy man? You are more active than we gave you credit for.'

'I know it's weird,' Tanith sighed, and wondered if this conflict made her a bad person - and then promptly decided that her two companions, while perhaps helpful to go to for advice on emotional issues, would not be the best sample group for advice on moral issues. 'But my life can't stop during this... during all this.'

'Are you sure that's not the issue?' wondered Ariane. 'That you might like this... David... perfectly well, but it's not so unreasonable that you're being a bit clumsy, a bit tense, a bit apprehensive, if you've still not reconciled your feelings for a wanted criminal who'll be arrested the moment he so much as sets foot on British soil?'

'I don't... know...'

'It can be both issues, of course,' she continued. 'Issues and feelings are like that. So I'll just say again - honesty is the best policy. Talk to your David. Communication!'

Melanie scoffed at her friend. 'Listen to you. "Honesty is the best policy". You bloody hypocrite.'

Ariane drew herself up to her full height, and sniffed indignantly. 'I don't know what you mean!'

'I mean you like to pretend to Miles that there's been nobody else, but I know you and Derek Cadwallader did more than just flirt...'

And then the two descended into the rampant bickering that marked any occasion when they weren't ganging up on someone, and Tanith let herself sit there, the whiskey and gin - a foolish combination to mix at the best of times - fizzed and whirled around her head, spinning and entwining with her thoughts and feelings and none of them coming remotely close to emerging strong, front and centre.

In some ways, as she had hoped, going to an unusual source for help had cleared up a lot of problems. Even just voicing issues she'd hidden from even herself made them less daunting - once quantified, they could be understood, and tackled.

And then they'd gone and dredged up something new...

Or, at least, stirred something old which had long been dormant.


----------------


The clearing in the Forbidden Forest was as dark and still as it had been a fortnight ago. But this time it was far from empty. All around the edge of the waters of the pool stood the centaurs, tall and imposing and with nothing welcoming about any expression or stance.

Gabriel gulped before he stepped forward, leading the small procession. There had been much argument about who would come here. Jen had insisted, pointing out that she was the biggest figurehead of the human resistance against the Ministry, and that if the centaurs cared about such things, her presence was a big indicator that they were taking matters seriously. He wasn't sure if they would care, but he hadn't dared push the issue too hard.

Then there was Cal, whose idea it had been - Cal who had come along leaps and bounds in his training, Cal who had, with such more grim seriousness than he usually showed, become more hardened and dedicated in the fighting they did than anyone. The shoes left to fill by Nick Wilson and Cormac McLaggen were no longer empty - but they were reshaped, redefined, to something which left Gabriel a little uncomfortable. Just as vicious, but colder.

He didn't understand it.

Katie was there, again to bolster their defences, and then Richard Keating, her classmate who had proven best at more unconventional curses. Tom had been infuriated by Jen's refusal to let him join them, for he had been correct to argue he was a magical powerhouse in his own right - but if this went south, and Tom was with them, that would be the whole command squad and heavy hitters of the Lions gone in one night.

Not that Gabriel thought, if it went south, Tom Everard alone could carry on the fight. But again, he hadn't dared push the issue with Jen.

So overall, he had to make sure it didn't go south. This scheme, which hadn't even been his, which had been suggested by Cal and leapt on by Jen but which had proven to land almost exclusively in his hands. Because he was the only one they might remotely listen to.

He cleared his throat as the five of them approached, and his voice sounded rather quiet and subdued in the gloom. 'To who should I be speaking?'

As the centaurs exchanged glances, he couldn't help but overhear Jen muttering to herself. 'Whom.' He ignored her.

One of the centaurs - and now Gabriel thought he was the biggest, his coat and skin dark, his form broad and muscular - straightened, and he was so large it was like he might block out the moon just by flexing. 'I am Bane. You are the Prophet?'

'Seer. I go with... seer,' said Gabriel, awkwardly stepping down the rocks towards the water's edge. 'But I am, yes. Thank you for, er, agreeing to meet with me. Us. My name's Doyle.' For some reason that seemed safer. 'This is -'

'Your escort. They are irrelevant. Speak, Seer. You had a vision of us.'

Oh, crap, they took that seriously. 'You know the state of affairs in Britain,' he began, voice a little stumbling. Public speaking had not been his forte. 'Things are pretty bad. Oppression. Murders. They're trying to wipe out and kill humans of non-magical-birth.'

'This does not concern us.'

'They won't stop with us,' blurted Muggle-born Keating, pale and indignant in the moonlight, and Gabriel winced at the outburst.

Bane's dark gaze turned between the two before settling on Gabriel. 'Is this one a Seer too?' His voice rang with mockery.

'No, he's nobody, look - shut up,' Gabriel hissed this last at Keating, and squared his shoulders. 'But he's right. When they're done with the Muggleborns they'll come for the elves, and the centaurs, and the giants, and... and all of you other non-humans.'

'You have foreseen this?'

'I don't need to foresee it; it's true, it's clear.' He clenched and unclenched his hand, feeling his right knee shake like it sometimes did when he was nervous. 'If you just sit in these woods until the day it happens, you won't be ready, and they'll be strong.'

'Our forests protect us,' said Bane. 'It is the best course of action.'

'There is another way,' he pressed, stepping forward. 'There are humans who are fighting the Ministry, humans who mean you and your kind no harm. Join with us, and we can protect ourselves together, maybe even overthrow them. Rather than them taking us down one at a time.'

There was a ripple amongst the centaurs, and Bane glowered. 'Humans have never cared enough in the past to ally with us.'

'Times are changing. You have to know this.' Gabriel glanced up. He'd never really used the stars for anything, never used the tricks and divination techniques he'd studied. Whittaker hadn't indicated they were good for anything, but he'd had so little, so little time to develop and practice in Rio. 'We would ally with you. We've fought successfully against the Ministry. We have allies who can help. And now we will not turn down allies. And we won't, uh, forget it if we win. Won't forget your help.'

Another ripple, and this time Bane had to lift a hand to stop the muttering from the crowd. He glared at Gabriel. 'The stars told you this? You foresaw that our paths would become aligned?'

He hesitated. 'Have none of your portents indicated this... change?'

'The stars are mixed. Undecided. A great change is coming, a great upheaval. A moment where all will be determined. But the outcome is... unclear.' Bane tilted his head a little. 'You know of what I speak.'

'I know of what you speak,' Gabriel lied. Something's coming, but I mustn't have seen it. A point where it's too close. Where the future can't figure out the most likely outcome. Where it could go a hundred different ways as likely as another... or just two.

'And you have seen us in this?'

'I have... not.' He winced. Outright lying seemed unwise. 'But it is -'

Bane's nostrils flared. 'If you have no portent to bring before us, then this is nothing more than the mewling of a -'

'He is a Seer,' thundered another centaur, and Gabriel looked over gratefully to see it was the one he'd spoken to the first time he'd been here. 'He saw the reflection of the stars' will in the waters of the pool. No other human could have seen such a thing.'

'We know of their seers,' sneered Bane. 'Men and women of baubles and trinkets thinking they can trick fate to twist it to their own means...'

I can, but that's not the point. 'That's not me. That's not how I work. I know our ways are different, I spoke with Firenze -'

It was the wrong thing to say, judging from the disapproval that swam over the crowd of centaurs at the name of Hogwarts' Divination Professor. Bane hoofed at the dirt. 'He is a human lover. He is soft. Even he thinks the reading of the stars is to be done for jest and curiosity, not to understand the will of fate. Your words are wind and dust.'

The tension had changed, unpleasantly abruptly. They had been guarded but curious when he'd first approached; now Gabriel could feel the hostility in the air, see the centaurs about them reaching for bow and arrow, poised for action.

'I am telling you the truth -'

'You are telling us of the concerns of humans,' snapped Bane. 'I shall not ask you again. Did the stars send you to us, Seer, as you so boldly claimed before, and if so, what did they utter to you? What path did they lay out?'

Gabriel looked around wildly - to the dark, hostile faces of the centaurs, to the panicked gazes of his friends, all of whom had their hands on their wands by now, and Katie's lips were moving almost imperceptibly.

'I...' His voice caught in his throat, and one of them nocked an arrow. 'They did not. I have had no vision.'

Then there was uproar. Bane was bellowing in anger, though his hands were empty and he made no move forwards. Others were beginning to band together, glowering and muttering, some were reaching for bows again and others still, mercifully, were trying to shout them down, cursing for the humans to leave even as they tried to stop their comrades from breaking into violence.

'Time to go,' muttered Gabriel, stepping back as the five humans huddled together. 'Quickly, now -'

'Mass transit point-to-point; can't just snap my fingers,' cursed Katie, face screwed up with concentration as the tip of her wand glowed.

'I don't -'

'Gabe!'

Then there was a hand at his shoulder and he was yanked back suddenly, stumbling and falling as there was the unmistakable sound of an arrow swishing through the air and thudding into flesh. Then a scream, the shouts of the centaurs, and then they were twirling and winding their way to Disapparate out of the clearing and far, far away.



Chapter 37: The Course of True Love
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Chapter 37: The Course of True Love

‘You know, patrolling’s not bad,’ said Jacob. ‘If you ignore the Wandless. And the run-down shops. And the fact that the average member of public looks at us like we’re about to wantonly torture them.’

Tanith gave her partner a suspicious look. ‘Apart from all that. Yeah.’

‘I mean that nothing happens in Diagon Alley,’ he said as they wandered down the street. ‘Nobody tries anything. So we don’t have to defend ourselves, we won’t have to take action against some poor innocent who should have known better. We don’t have to be in the office, next to Mulready and Lackardy and all those other bastards.’

She didn’t say anything for long moments, hands still shoved in her pockets. It wasn’t that she disagreed with her partner, so much as she wasn’t especially in the mood to clutch at straws. ‘Why do you stay in the MLE?’

He blinked at her. ‘I don’t think they’d look very well upon my leaving.’

‘Yeah, but... your family’s a Good Family.’

‘And I’d like to keep it that way.’ Jacob’s expression twisted, then he reached out a hand to squeeze her shoulder affectionately. ‘Besides, who’d look after you? I’m still your mentor. I’m still supposed to look out for you. You can’t get out of here.’

Tanith looked at him quickly. ‘If you’re just here for me -’

‘I’m not. I’m here to do what little bits of good I can, to protect my family and, yes, to look out for you. Because you’re my friend, and you’re my responsibility. But don’t you try to pull this martyr thing on me.’ He gave one of his content, easy smiles, and she wondered how he managed to keep it together quite so effectively through such dark times.

Then again, his times hadn’t been as dark as hers.

‘I’m good at it,’ she mumbled. The knot of worry in her gut that had been placed there by David - or, perhaps, by Miles - hadn’t been dismissed by drinks the night before. For the most part, it had just made her head spin worse. ‘You manage to do a pretty good job of keeping your head.’

‘I try,’ said Jacob, but he was too good an Auror to not notice a pointed comment like that. ‘What’s up?’

‘I -’ If she’d struggled telling two girls she’d known for eight years after a lot of whiskey and gin, telling Jacob in broad daylight in the middle of Diagon Alley was no fairer prospect. ‘It’s tough. Keeping a normal life. Normal relationships.’

‘You’ve got yourself a bit on the side?’ He grinned crookedly, nudging her with his elbow. ‘Good for you. We all need those little specks of normalcy.’

Tanith gave a dismissive laugh before she could stop herself, and his gaze became more pointed. ‘Yeah. Normalcy. I know.’ She rubbed her temples. ‘I just - he and I - it’s getting complicated...’

Jacob’s expression went level - encouraging, certainly. Ready to help, certainly. But he was also clearly a little apprehensive about whatever was going to come out next. ‘What, erm, sort of complicated?’

She looked him in the eye. She thought about what was going on. And then she turned away. ‘You know what? It doesn’t matter.’

She thought he looked a little relieved, but Jacob still frowned as he fell into step beside her. ‘I... it only doesn’t matter if you don’t think it does,’ he said.

‘We don’t need to talk about it.’ And then, irrationally, ‘You’ve had girlfriends, right?’

‘That’s not exactly what you’re asking -’

‘It’s close enough.’

Neither one of them made eye contact. Jacob straightened his robes. ‘Yep.’

This conversation would have been a whole lot easier if they weren’t both trained in reading body language and seeing through deception. They knew each other well enough to know when they were bluffing and when they were being sincere, and Tanith had the horrid sensation Jacob had figured out more than she’d let on.

She couldn’t fob him off, though. So it was time to approach this situation from a different direction. ‘I mean no offence, but I’m kind of only talking to you because most of my friends are wanted fugitives.’

‘That’s perfectly fine by me.’

Tanith lifted her hands, giving vague and probably incredibly unhelpfully misleading gestures as she clawed with the words. Let’s take this from a different direction. ‘How’d you figure when was a good time to - take things to the next level?’

‘Being able to talk about it with the other person without being paralysed by euphemisms helps,’ Jacob said, dryly but not unkindly. ‘But, at the risk of being supremely unhelpful, I think you just know.’

She bit her lip. ‘And if you’re not sure?’

‘You can talk to people - you know. Friends. Women.’ He grinned reassuringly even as he fobbed her off, though she took it in the calming spirit it was intended. ‘You can talk with them. You can try to figure out why, really, you’re uncertain, and get to the heart of matters. So there’s only two things I can really tell you.’

Tanith blinked. ‘Two is two better ideas than I have.’

‘The first is that it’s okay to worry, or... or whatever. Nobody’s judging. All you can do is what’s right for you.’ Jacob reached to squeeze her shoulder again. ‘The second is - and I know this might be a whole new way for you too look at the world - but sometimes? You being reluctant isn’t about you having a problem, isn’t about you being wrong, or failing, or whatever other way you’ll try to spin it. Sometimes? Sometimes you know, somewhere in you, if the problem is actually with the other person. And that’s okay, too.’

She let out a deep, uncertain breath, and nodded. ‘You’re right,’ she said at last. ‘Trying to have a non-euphemistic conversation would be a good start.’

------------------------

‘You are going to fold that piece of paper into nothing, my friend.’

Tobias glanced up as Dimitri joined him at the railing at the edge of their terrace, the best spot to enjoy and admire the extensive view across the island - though it wasn’t as if he’d been paying the view any mind. Not for several hours, anyway.

‘What?’ he said, even as he tried to palm the note.

The Russian nodded at his hand. ‘You have been staring at it for hours, then putting it away, then getting it back out again. Does it contain the secret to your success or the like?’ He gave a good-natured smile, softening any blow of his probing.

‘Something like that,’ Tobias murmured, looking down. He drew a deep breath. ‘Why’re you here, Dimitri?’

Dimitri blinked. ‘To see how you are -’

‘No, I mean... in general. Here, in Greece. Helping me.’ Tobias straightened, turning to face him. ‘You don’t have to be. You were assigned originally, but I bet that stopped being obligatory when we left the country.’

‘I want to help.’ Dimitri opened his hands and shrugged. ‘You are a friend. This is a good cause. And the Federation pays for me to be here.’ He nodded at the bright blue sky with a lopsided smile. ‘That is hardly so bad a thing. And you must remember, this is less a case of life and death for me, I must admit it. Whether we succeed or fail, I will still go home and my life will go on.’

‘I suppose,’ said Tobias, frowning at the railing. ‘I do appreciate it, though. Everything you’ve done, everything you’re doing. We’d be in a much worse state if it weren’t for you, and I do know you don’t have to have done... well, anything that you’re doing.’

‘I do,’ said Dimitri. ‘Because the alternative would be to leave you floundering, without protection, without aid. I am sure that Will has many ideas and prospects, but this is something easy that my government can do. That I can do. Somewhere to stay. Somewhere safe. Equipment.’ He waved a hand at the cottage behind them.

‘I have learnt many things in my short time in international diplomacy,’ he continued. ‘The most notable has been that doing the right thing is hard. Many people do not want to. The right thing is often costly. It is difficult. And so often, we do not do the right thing, because it is inconvenient. Right now I have the opportunity to do the right thing, at little expense. So I do it.’

‘I can understand that. I think.’ Tobias’s brow furrowed more. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been fighting someone else’s fight.’

‘You sound guilty. Do not. It is hardly your fault that the fights came to your front door. Even if you are not at home right now.’ Dimitri cocked his head. ‘But this sounded like a leading question.’

‘What?’

‘Asking why I am here. Why I do what I have done. You do good work, you know. I do believe people are inspired by the words you write, by the news you bring them. Hope is a weapon, and...’

‘I know.’ Tobias rubbed his temples. ‘I don’t... doubt what I’m doing. It’s just sometimes pretty hard to see the benefit. The gain.’

‘Ah. I see. Then think of the little things. The people you have helped individually. And remember that they add up.’

Tobias gave a heavier sigh. ‘I know,’ he repeated, unable to keep a wistful tone from his voice.

‘Is that what this magic note is?’ Dimitri asked, a smile playing about his lips. ‘The reason why you do this?’

‘I think it is,’ he said, a little thickly. ‘The cause is important. Helping people is... important. Fighting back is important, and I want to, and I feel like we’re making a difference, and that’s great, but then, when I struggle to see what the point is, the purpose is, the gain is...’ His hand, at first against his will, went back to pull out the folded-up note again, and his fingers twirled it absent-mindedly. ‘...I think of her.’

‘Tanith.’ Dimitri frowned until Tobias nodded, and his expression cleared with a lopsided smile. ‘I can see how she could be an inspiration.’

Tobias’ frown returned abruptly. ‘...I hate to go all... I mean, this was three years ago... what happened between you two?’

That Dimitri threw back his head and laughed did not help the frown, and he clapped Tobias so hard on the shoulder the other man stumbled, and grabbed the railing with a wince. ‘I am sorry, sorry,’ said Dimitri, sincere in his regret both at jostling an injured man and at laughing in his face. ‘You are just so very earnest, Brain-Box Grey. It was, as you say, years ago. She was a lovely girl and I did enjoy our time together. But it was nothing even a boy could call serious.’

For a brief moment Tobias wanted to demand to know exactly what their “time together” had constituted, but then sanity kicked in, and his shoulders sagged. ‘I apologise. That was both childish and intrusive of me.’

‘There are worse crimes you could commit. Though this is not such a good sign if you two are...’ Dimitri waggled his eyebrows and gestured demonstratively.

Tobias snorted, though it sounded again more wistful than dismissive as he leant on the railing. ‘No. No, we’re not. I don’t know what we are, but we’re not... anything. Communication issues aside, it would be ridiculous to be anything right now. So maybe, maybe... when the war is over... when I can come home...’

Dimitri watched him as his gaze swept back to the fantastic, shimmering horizon of the Mediterranean Sea. ‘You will come back to her?’

‘I’ve wasted so much time. Took so much for granted; I see that now. And now I’m here, and I don’t know if I’ll ever set foot back on British soil, I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again even if I do, and all I can think about when people are fighting and dying is that it’ll all be worth it if I can.’ His shoulders sagged. ‘If I can just tell her... everything.’

‘“Everything” is a long subject.’

Tobias drew a deep breath. ‘It is for her that I’m here, that I do this. When I struggle, it’s the thought of making her life easier, keeping her that little bit more safe - with my work, if I can’t do it myself.’ As if she’d need me to fight for her. But this is a way in which I can fight. ‘And perhaps it’s selfish, and perhaps it’s ridiculous, but between that, and fighting to make it back, it... it gets me through the dark nights when “because it’s the right thing to do” doesn’t quite cut it.’

The two stood in silence for a long time, Tobias frowning as the words spilt past his lips he’d not even consciously realised were there - though they had been, of course. Even saying the words back in November had seemed like a blind stumbling; the truth, eminently the truth, but the entire meeting had become like a dream, as if it had happened to someone else, for all the escape that it had been from his reality and hers.

‘So when you get back,’ said Dimitri, ‘you will tell her this.’

He winced. ‘It’s... complicated.’

‘Is it?’ Dimitri cocked his head. ‘I think not. You find her. Perhaps somewhere normal, like the street. Perhaps take her somewhere nice - take her here. You take her hand, you look her in the eye, and you tell her that everything you have done - defying Lord Voldemort himself, risking life and limb to bring hope and truth to the people of Britain, fighting and suffering the scars and wounds of your trials - has been for her, and for the love of her.’

He had straightened as he spoke, puffing up his chest and gesturing with a self-aware, melodramatic air, and by the time he finished he was wearing a broad, jocular - but sincere - grin.

Tobias couldn’t help but return it, and punched him on the arm lightly. ‘So nothing understated.’

‘You have come back from the dead, my friend. Understated is for lesser mortals.’ Dimitri’s grin, if anything, became even toothier. ‘And then she swoons, and then you have a lovely sunset. See?’ He nodded at the horizon, and indeed the rays of the sun were beginning to grow orange, this late in the day.

I don’t think Tanith Cole has ever swooned in her life. Tobias gave his own lopsided smile. ‘Are you trying to tell me how to sweep a girl off her feet, Dimitri, or are you trying to sweep me off mine?’

‘It would be unfair to her for me to present myself as competition,’ said the big Russian, mock-preening. ‘But you do it, hmm, Tobias? When it is over. You remember these moments, where you would give anything to be able to tell her, and do not - when you could, any day, go up to her and do it - find excuses to not.’

‘I’ll try,’ said Tobias, and he meant it, but then he straightened and picked up his cane. ‘But in the meantime, we’ve got a war to win.’


----------------


‘Hey.’ It was such a simple, deceptive word, but it was all Tanith could manage.

David stood in the doorway to his flat, expression concerned. ‘Hey yourself. Come in.’

She wrung her hands together as she walked into the flat, and didn’t take her coat off, even when he closed the door behind her. It was mid-April by now, and not so cold outside, but she still had not abandoned Altair’s coat for something cooler, lighter. ‘I’m sorry I... about last time. Can we talk?’

‘Sure. Of course.’ He nodded, awkward but sincere, and waved her towards the chairs. ‘Do you want a drink?’

Her head had throbbed all day after the drinks with Ariane and Melanie. Whiskey gave her the worst hangovers. ‘No - no, thank you.’

There were several long seconds of silence as the two sat opposite one another on the armchairs, David’s stance clearly awkward and concerned, Tanith trying to gather thoughts and words which she’d believed she’d mastered before coming here - but right here, right now, they were failing her.

‘I’m sorry I bolted so quickly. That wasn’t fair. I guess I keep on owing you explanations...’

‘It’s okay,’ said David. ‘I know things are... I know your life is...’

‘It is, but it’s not really about that.’ I don’t even know what it’s about. ‘I’m sorry, this is proving... tough to... put into words...’

‘I understand - how about if I go first?’

She looked up with surprise, not having considered that he might go at all, that he might have anything to say, and apprehension tightened in her gut. ‘Um. Okay.’

David leaned forward, clasping his hands in his lap. ‘You mentioned... a while ago... this friend of yours. The one who’s abroad, printing his paper. You indicated that the two of you have... history, and that it’s pretty complicated considering the Occupation and him being an exile and all, and I get that. And I appreciate you being honest with me...’ He rolled a shoulder. ‘But then I began to wonder. I mean, when all of this is over for you. If he comes back...’

‘I’m not going to suddenly ditch you because a “better” offer comes along,’ said Tanith a little indignantly, and was almost surprised to find that she meant it.

He looked like he might have even believed her. ‘That’s not entirely what I mean. It’s not just this guy. It’s everything. It’s your life. You say that right now I shouldn’t go anywhere near your life, your world, because it’s not safe, and I understand that. But what about when it becomes safe. What then? Are you just going to... walk down the wizards’ streets with me, like everything’s normal?’

Tanith’s expression sank slowly. ‘I can’t say I’ve thought about it.’

‘Am I just going to... be the non-magic guy at magic dinner parties?’ David shifted his weight awkwardly. ‘I mean, do people do that? Magic people and non-magic people? The worlds... intertwining?’

‘I know it... happens...’

‘Does it happen to you?’ he asked quietly, firmly. When her shoulders slumped, he made a face. ‘Do I have a place in your life when it becomes less complicated? When you don’t worry about your safety or the safety of people around you? When you want to live a normal life, do I fit in it in any way?’

She drew an awkward breath. ‘I don’t know.’

‘No. I don’t either. I know I’m a port in a storm for you. I know we’ve just... found things in one another which we’ve needed. And, you know. Still need.’

‘I don’t -’ Panic bubbled in her briefly. ‘I can’t just walk out of here and not come back. I did that once, it was stupid, you - we -’ I need you. I don’t know what it means, or in what way, but I...

David lifted his hands. ‘Woah, I didn’t mean we stop having anything to do with one another...’ He gave a wry smile. ‘This is silly and messed up, huh?’

My specialty. ‘Actually,’ Tanith sighed, ‘this might be the least silly and messed up thing that ever happened to me.’ She leant forwards a little. ‘My life is messed up. In lots of different ways. And you’ve been a calm in that, an escape. Me fleeing the other night - like most of the bad things I’ve done to you - wasn’t about you, it was about me. I do trust you.’

He bobbed his head. ‘I’m glad.’

‘And you’re not... wrong.’ She scrubbed her face with her hands. ‘I could make it happen. A relationship, something long-term, when peace comes - if peace comes. But it wouldn’t be easy. I’ve just not thought about it, at all. I’ve not dared think about the future in that way.’

‘I get that,’ David agreed. ‘It just... occurred. Since we’re sort of dancing around taking things to a deeper level, I realised we’ve not had any kind of conversation about where this is... going.’ He looked away briefly, pained. ‘And I don’t know if where your life is going is anywhere I fit in.’

‘I was just planning on taking things a day at a time, myself.’ Tanith bit her lip. ‘I’m sorry. I know that’s not a very helpful answer.’

He reached out to take her hand, anxious and apprehensive, but reassuring. ‘I can’t say I knew what I was getting myself into with you - but that’s the point, I knew I didn’t know, I knew it would be messy. And I’m not going to turn my back on you just because there’s no obvious future. There’s never been an obvious future. You’re right; all we can do is take things one day at a time.’

‘So... where do we go from here?’

He stood up, and there was something that had changed, she could see it in his stance. His shoulders were a little tenser, his expression a bit more pinched. He was still here. His eyes were still locking on hers with that spark, there was still that playful grin about his lips. But walls were coming up, walls to protect himself when things inevitably went wrong, and Tanith had the sneaking suspicion that those walls would mean any lingering emotional damage she’d done herself on an ill-advised night with Miles Bletchley could remain quiet and hidden for a while longer.

Still, he crossed over towards her and extended a hand. ‘How about dinner?’


----------------


‘If you keep hovering outside that door,’ Tom told Gabriel as he emerged from the second bedroom in the girls’ tent, ‘then how can you expect me to work?’

Gabriel quirked an eyebrow at the Lions’ best wizard when it came to healing spells. ‘I disturb you even through walls? I’m impressed.’

Cal clapped a hand on his shoulder. ‘How is she?’

Oh, yeah. Concern first, sniping at idiot Gryffindors later.

Tom wiped his hands off with a towel passed to him by Diana. ‘She’ll be fine. The arrow did go right through the shoulder, but I managed to get it out without causing more damage and the flesh is knitting together nicely. I can’t make it all go away overnight, but I can set the healing process in motion. She should rest, she shouldn’t move, and within a few days, maybe a week, she should be good as new.’ He frowned. ‘I should have been there with you.’

‘What, Tom, so you could get shot too and leave us all in the crapper?’ Cal shook his head. ‘It was right to leave you here. Especially now Jen’s going to be out of action for a bit.’

‘Yeah - speaking of which, we got a new report coming in from Grey. His informants are suggesting there’s going to be a Detector squad standing by in Grimsby when he’s going to be making his way back from the European Conference next week. I think he’s implying that he’d like us to make sure there’s no goon squad waiting to make a grab for him if some window of opportunity opens up.’

Cal gave a rather feral grin. ‘Grimsby, huh. I did fancy a trip to the seaside.’

‘Yeah.’ Tom also smirked. ‘As I say, he’s implying, not outright asking, but I think his meaning is clear. You know, if we’ve got time.’

Gabriel gave them both sideways glances. ‘You boys have fun with that. Can I see her?’

‘What?’ Tom blinked and looked back at him. Disapproval flickered over his face, albeit briefly. ‘Oh. Sure. She’s awake.’

The second bedroom in the girls’ tent still had bunkbeds in it, two along either wall, and had been used briefly for storage while the few girls of the Lions used the other room. Now that it had become an infirmary, other places had quickly been found for the Lions’ equipment, the top of one of the bunks had been removed, and the place lit with gloomy, allegedly soothing candles, as if these would help the healing process.

And then there was her. Jen Riley, bundled under blankets as if they could bestow regenerative traits, her shoulder bundled up with bandages doused in alchemical healing aids, pale and sleepy in the gloom.

But alive.

He gave a wan smile as he saw her. ‘How, uh, are you feeling?’

‘Like I got shot with an arrow. I don’t recommend it.’ She returned the smile, weak. ‘Are you okay?’

‘Am I okay?’ He went to pull up the stool by the bed Tom had vacated. ‘You yank me out of the path of an arrow, get shot by it yourself, and you ask if I’m okay?’

‘Yeah. Well. Better for me to get shot in the arm than you to get shot in the face. You’re the golden goose, remember?’

His smile faded and he looked down at his hands. ‘The golden goose couldn’t pull that one off.’

‘It was a long shot, but it was worth trying, and we came closer than anyone could have expected or hoped. I hope Cal’s not blaming himself. It was a good idea.’

‘No, he’s...’ Gabriel paused and frowned. ‘I guess he’s leaving all of the guilt to me.’

‘Why, because you couldn’t break down centuries of oppression, hostility, and distrust in a five minute meeting?’ Even though she was weak, it was she who reached out with her good hand to clasp his. ‘I think they’ll remember your words.’

‘I lied.’

‘But your point wasn’t wrong.’

He scowled. ‘So when we lose this war due to a lack of numbers and a lack of resources, and the Ministry come for the centaurs in their isolation, then they’ll remember my words. Comforting.’

Jen inexplicably smiled, and the expression lit up her pale face. ‘Did you just come in here to complain at me? I’m horribly injured, you know.’

Gabriel looked down again, shame-faced. ‘I’m sorry. I’m just - I’m really glad you’re okay.’ He gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘I guess that would be obvious. You know.’

‘I know.’ He looked up, and their eyes met for a few long, lingering moments, before she took a deep breath. ‘You saw something,’ she said at last. ‘Right before you kissed me.’

He hesitated, but remembered lying about his visions hadn’t been doing him much good lately. ‘I saw me kissing you,’ Gabriel admitted. ‘And figured there was no time like the present.’

‘That’s an interesting way to look at a precognitive vision.’ Her lips twitched. ‘Are you sure it was there and then you saw? Because, I might be no Seer, but this whole scenario seems kind of familiar to me...’

His heart leapt into his throat at the outright request, and permission, and for a few moments all he could do was work his jaw wordlessly, gaping. ‘I, um, I mean...’

She smiled even more, and tightened her grip on his hand. ‘I can’t sit up, Gabe, give a girl a break.’

‘Oh, so you’re asking me to be all chivalrous and gentlemanly,’ he said, joking suddenly the easiest thing to do, even as he leant down. ‘You should know that’s not my forte.’

‘I know, I was the one who had to take an arrow for you; that’s totally the wrong way... round...’

Then he pressed his lips against hers, gentle, gentler than he’d been in the warehouse office, and this time there was no frantic tension, no panic that, when the moment ended, it would be lost and gone forever.

And somehow that made the moment feel endless, and even though the kiss had been softer, more languid, less heated and desperate, he felt almost more breathless at the end of it. ‘...thank you.’

She quirked an eyebrow. ‘Thank you? You have to work on your romantic declarations, you know...’

‘I mean for taking an arrow for me.’ He brushed his nose against hers, and marvelled at such affectionate simplicity.

‘Is that really what you want to talk about right now?’

‘No,’ he agreed, and kissed her again. But much as he would have been happy to enjoy this second, peerless moment, he couldn’t help but pull back after a few seconds, resting his elbows on the bed and keeping her hand firmly gripped in both of his. ‘...what’s brought this on?’

‘Getting shot helps,’ said Jen, then sighed. ‘I just did some thinking. And some beating myself up. And took some advice.’

He frowned. ‘Advice? From who?’

‘Whom,’ she corrected absent-mindedly. ‘Katie.’

‘I’m surprised I’ve not been strung up by my balls, then.’

‘She doesn’t mind you, you know.’ She squeezed his hand. ‘I think she wants me to be happy.’

‘I’d kinda like that, too.’ The corner of his mouth twitched. ‘So that’s good. Because I’m not... I mean, just to jump the gun here, but there’s no way I’m going to be your secret bit on the side.’

Jen quirked an eyebrow. ‘My what?’

‘You know. Here to entertain and service you when you demand it, but to all and sundry in the public I’d be nothing more than your crazy prophetic adviser.’ He waggled his eyebrows and she laughed, but slowly he sobered. ‘I mean, I know you worry about what the others would think. But it’s great that Katie doesn’t seem so bothered, and, you know - I don’t care what anyone else thinks.’

She gave a softer smile. ‘I know. And I don’t... intend to keep you secret.’

‘Good. Because I made a promise, you see.’ He smiled again. ‘I spent a lot of time watching my friends, and how they’ve handled their love lives, and it’s been enlightening. Really enlightening. So I promised myself, if I was in a situation where I had to make a romantic choice, I would never pick one which any of them would pick.’

She laughed quietly. ‘I’d forgotten about Cal and Nat’s Worst Kept Secret.’

‘Worst kept? None of us knew!’

‘I guess he was better at keeping it secret than her. Katie was in with the Secret Quidditch Information Underground and so it filtered through that way. You Slytherins were all so isolated.’

‘And indifferent. Don’t forget indifferent.’ He lifted her hand, kissing the inside of her palm, revelling in how he could make such a gesture as he wished. ‘Huh. This is weird.’

‘What?’

‘This feeling. I think it’s happiness.’ He made a face at her. ‘You’re not going to tell anyone about that, are you?’

‘I don’t...’ Her smile grew a little more serious, though it didn’t face. ‘It’s not like we’re going to be able to have anything normal, Gabe. And I’m going to have to ask you to be patient with me. I’m working out... stuff. I’m not just going to forget about Nick -’

‘I know, I know.’

‘...and I still have to be responsible for the Lions. We’re still on the run. We’re still fighting a war. Nothing about this is going to be... normal.’

‘Good,’ decided Gabriel, and leant down to kiss her on the forehead. ‘Because of all the things I can cope with, “normal” isn’t anywhere near the list.’



Chapter 38: The Fly in the Ointment
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Chapter 38: The Fly in the Ointment

'Thank you all for coming. Please sit down.' The briefing room down at Canary Wharf was filled to the brim with the Detectors of Thanatos Brynmor and Bacchus Drake's anti-dissident operations, and so it was impossible for everyone to find a chair. The burliest and most important of the wizards jostled to the front and sat down, while Tanith just leant languidly against the wall and quirked an eyebrow at Jacob, who chuckled and shook his head.

'I know we don't often meet in here.' Bacchus Drake was a strange mixture of haughty and slightly scatter-brained, and spoke as if he was discussing matters of gigantic import but had forgotten several key facts, knew this, and was trying to hide it. 'But what has happened recently is of an import that affects everyone.'

'Or, rather, this is stuff which you're going to need to know about to do your jobs properly. And it's not hitting the press, you hear me?' Brynmor growled from his side. 'There's a reason you're not reading about it in the papers, and if this gets out I will personally hunt down them responsible and have their balls.'

Then he glared at Tanith, which she thought was wholly unreasonable.

'This has got to be pretty big,' Jacob murmured once he'd looked away, 'if they can't just tell the Daily Prophet to not publish it.'

'They control the editors,' she said quietly. 'But if the average journo gets his hands on something, sometimes that control's not enough. They reprinted a couple of reworded stories from the Midnight Press.'

He smirked. 'And how would you know what's in the Midnight Press?'

'Heard it from a friend.'

'Hope you reported them.'

'This afternoon,' Drake continued after pointedly clearing his throat, 'the European Magical Conference met, as regularly arranged. As we know, diplomatic pressure from Russia, France, and Greece has resulted in our ambassador's credentials to attend said conference to be... rejected.' He wrinkled his nose disapprovingly. 'Normally this would not be of concern to us, as we have no desire to embroil ourselves in Europe's affairs, and even less desire for Europe to embroil itself in ours.

'But that may not be a liberty we will be granted. Someone addressed the Conference, someone you should all know well, because if you so much as get a glimpse or sniff of him, you should be arresting him immediately. Gentlemen, let me reintroduce you to Undesirable Number Two.'

Jacob made a noise of disapproval, before palming Tanith a sickle. She smirked. 'Told you Shacklebolt wouldn't displace him just yet.'

'Give him time.'

Brynmor had placed one of the Recording Orbs on the briefing table, and the air above it shimmered in that familiar way before the orb sputtered dust upwards. This went as high as to fill the ceiling, and when it came sinking down it formed into the shapes of a miniature display of a large, round conference chamber, the benches lined with individuals in an array of cultural wizarding garb, a chairperson seated in the centre. There was only one person in the room standing, in the middle of the floor before the delegation, and even in miniaturised form she could recognise Tobias Grey.

'...for letting me speak here today. I shall be brief. For those of you who do not know me, my name is Tobias Grey, Editor-in-Chief of the Midnight Press, a paper deemed an illegal publication by the British Ministry of Magic. Since last October I have publicly circulated stories about activities perpetrated by the British government that they have wished to quash; I have reported on the illegal and immoral actions they have taken, and I have broadened public awareness of the successes by those who seek to overthrow this illegitimate government propped up by Dark Magic and convicted criminals.

'It has been impossible for me to return to my home country, for I will surely be arrested and likely executed the moment that I do, simply because I voice truths that they do not wish voiced. As such I have been forced to rely upon the hospitality of the international community, which I have been most grateful and fortunate to receive. I am perhaps the best-informed individual outside of Britain regarding the political and social situation there, and so I am uniquely placed to inform you all, and to make a request of you.

'The Ministry of Magic is corrupt. It is headed by a man in league with the Dark Magic practitioner known as Lord V-Voldemort -' The stumble was audible, '- and manned by individuals who have sweepingly and immorally been pardoned for crimes of blackmail, coercion of government officials, abduction, torture, and murder, and then been abruptly recruited. Overnight. Despite that the Ministry of Magic has denied to the international community that those responsible for the murder of Minister Scrimgeour are now those in power, this is a lie which the international community has, as a whole, rejected. Many of you have taken stances against the British government, refusing them trade agreements, limiting migration, and welcoming within your borders refugees whom they have deemed to be wanted criminals.

'These actions have been great indeed for those they have helped, and it has allowed the resistance forces within Britain to continue their fight for justice. However, that fight is faltering. So I have come here today to ask you for more. To stop simply refusing Britain's requests, and to begin to take action. To place international pressure upon the Ministry to offer a fair and free election for a new Minister, to place international pressure for justice in the justice system, to demand the fair treatment of all citizens, and to demand a free press.

'We stand in an age where this barbarity has been frowned upon for a hundred years, and now we have the opportunity to take our principles of truth and justice and fairness, principles each country here fought to preserve in Grindelwald's War, and bring them to those who have no hope. I am no politician. I do not ask you to raise armies. For those of you thinking that it is not your place to interfere with a nation's sovereign right to govern, I put to you that the British Ministry of Magic has no sovereign right - that right lies with the people of Britain, and they have been denied it!'

Tiny as the little dust figure of Tobias was, his recorded voice had grown in volume at this point to even echo around the small briefing room.

'For those of you still undecided as to the morality of my plea, allow me to shed some light onto the actions of this government. A list I have gathered, from legitimate sources, and which I will certainly allow you all to cross-examine at your leisure. A list of so-called "dissidents" against the British establishment who have been summarily executed, or we could call it murdered, without trial.'

Then he broke into the recitation of a list, and though he held a roll of parchment he left it unfurled as he reeled off names, ages, and alleged crimes, apparently by memory. Some of the names Tanith recognised, some of them she didn't. Once, this would have shocked and horrified her, especially as children were listed, but now there was nothing more than the dull sense of inevitability in her gut.

The figure of Tobias didn't get far before Brynmor leant forwards to shut the Recording Orb off with a grunt. 'And there you have it. He's trying to trigger international war against us.'

There was a hush in the room, though Tanith doubted it was for the same feelings she felt. Eventually, Mulready leant forwards, clasping his hands on the table. 'He was limping,' he observed.

'We believe Grey suffered an injury at the hands of Idaeus Robb when he murdered him,' said Drake, and Tanith fought to bite back an incredulous snort at describing Robb's death as murder. 'Reports from the Conference indicate he has been using the aid of a staff to walk.'

Inexplicably, of all the feelings to be assailing her right then and even though she'd just seen a recording only a few hours old of Tobias, hale and hearty, Tanith couldn't suppress the stab of worry in her chest at the thought of his being injured.

'We have shown you this,' said Brynmor, 'so you understan