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Beyond This Place by Slide

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Format: Novel
Chapters: 29
Word Count: 148,435
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong violence, Scenes of a sexual nature, Slash (same-sex pairing), Substance abuse, Sensitive topic/issue/theme, Spoilers

Genres: Drama, Mystery, Romance
Characters: Harry, Ron, Shacklebolt, OC, OtherCanon
Pairings: OC/OC

First Published: 08/01/2012
Last Chapter: 02/28/2013
Last Updated: 02/28/2013

Summary:


A war has been died for and won. Now a peace must be lived for, or lost.

The fourth in the Anguis series.


Chapter 1: So Much For Discretion
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The death of summer was heralded with a shower of gold. The leaves on the trees that tastefully lined the street had turned from green to brown, and begun to tumble to carpet the pavement where they would be buffeted by uncaring feet or the breeze. That wind was cold, now, no longer the gentle caress to soothe the sun's rays, but biting, piercing. The days bore a chill; the nights were not wandered happily.

Which was why Tanith Cole was sat in a Muggle car trying to figure out how to make the heating come on.

'I'm pressing the button,' she said. 'It's not doing anything.'

Jacob Van Roden, sat in the driver's seat, made a face. 'Don't ask me. Enforcers sorted this out for us. Kennedy's a Muggle-born; he put the car in place. All he did was tell me where it was and give me the keys.'

She looked at her partner. 'Do you need to turn it on? The whole car, I mean?'

'How?'

'There must be a button for that.'

The two fully-qualified Aurors patted the dashboard of the car down in search for some means of bringing the mechanical monstrosity they sat in to life, to absolutely no avail. Only after a minute's search did Jacob glance over. 'Won't it make a noise, anyway? Cars are noisy things.'

'I'm cold.'

'Me too,' he grumbled, but tugged up the collar of his coat. 'Why couldn't we have got one of these rooms to watch in?' He gestured at the building next to them, at the windows several storeys up which overlooked the street.

'Research said they were all full. We couldn't justify Obliviator action just for the sake of a stake-out.' Tanith nodded across the road, at the door they had been watching like hawks for the past hour. 'He'll be out soon enough.'

'It's two in the morning. He's asleep. He's not going anywhere until morning.'

'Then I guess we're here until morning, either when he moves or the day shift comes out to babysit.' She made a face. 'Who said the life of an Auror was glamorous?'

'The recruitment posters lied,' muttered Jacob. 'I still think we should be going in there and busting him.'

'A man as paranoid as Bernard Lackardy isn't going to be sitting pretty in his house without protection. We stick with the brief. Watch the front, and if he leaves intercept him, or, if there's too high a chance of Muggle exposure, follow him.'

'I don't like the idea of following him, either. Who knows where he's going.'

'I agree. But if he's in there 'til morning there's no way we can jump him in a busy street. Even this time of night would be stretching it.'

Jacob scowled at the window which led to the room they believed belonged to Bernard Lackardy, former member of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. They'd worked with him, once. But that had been during the Thicknesse regime, during Voldemort's occupation of magical Britain. The MLE had been transformed from protectors of the peace to a goon squad, there to enforce order and stamp out dissident behaviour. Resisting or leaving had not been easy options. So the remaining choice had been to keep your head down, or to embrace it.

Tanith and Jacob had kept their heads down, doing what they could to help the resistance groups when it was safe enough, and otherwise steering clear when possible of the worst of the MLE's misdeeds. Lackardy, on the other hand, had thrown himself wholeheartedly into the new methods of the new regime, to the extent where some had assumed he'd been a Death Eater all along.

He hadn't. He'd just been an unpleasant man with a fondness for control and power, and come the end of the war had been quietly shunted out of the ranks of the MLE. At the time there had been bigger fish to fry, like the confirmed Death Eaters needing trials or hunting.

But there were those out there who'd not got the picture that the war was over, and evidence had brought the gaze of the MLE back to Bernard Lackardy. Just as a suspect, this time, instead of as one of their own. They doubted he had gone quietly into the night, and if he was working with one of the Death Eater Remnant, he needed stopping and thoroughly interrogating.

'How was last night?' said Jacob, after a gloomy silence.

Tanith grunted. 'I don't want to talk about it.'

He looked surprised, but didn't push it. 'At least the election's coming up soon. And then things might quieten down.'

'Might,' she echoed. 'Shacklebolt's hardly out for the count. He might be struggling in the polls, but apparently that could just be people lashing out rather than being indicative of how they'll actually vote. Harrigan's still pretty closely associated with the old administration.'

'It might not be that bad...' But Jacob was clutching at straws, and he knew it. He drummed his fingers on the car door. 'You hear the trainees are about to be moved out of the play pen and into the big kids' pool?'

'I know; Vaughn's been threatening to move me into training.'

'To you too, huh? I thought that was just because he didn't like me.'

'He doesn't like anyone.'

'He likes you. He's liked you since before you were an Auror. He's liked you since the car-throwing thing.'

Tanith snorted. 'I'm never going to live that down. You throw one car at one Death Eater...' She shook her head. 'We won't be moved to training, c'mon, Jake. The Aurors are in such a sorry state right now that you and me actually pass for veterans.'

'So?'

'So, under the old rules I would still be in training too. Not on the beat. But since the old-timers are all too messed up, promoted, or dead to be doing the job, it falls to people like you and me. And so there's no way the old man's going to pull us off the streets.'

'Not even when this class includes the Boy Who Lived?'

'Not even.' She smirked at him. 'We do the job, Jake. We don't babysit.'

'Actually, right now, you could argue that we're babysitting Lackardy.'

'You always have to be the smart -'

They both fell silent when the front door to the block of flats they'd been staring at slammed open. This time of night there'd been so little movement that the slightest sign of life had been jumped on with enthusiasm and hope, which had led to a lot of disappointment as drunken students stumbled back home and cats bowed to tradition and ran around in the shadows knocking over dustbins like it was going out of fashion.

But this time their attentiveness paid off, and Tanith gave a grim smile in the darkness as the figure of Lackardy burst out into the gloomy street. He was staggering, like he'd been running full tilt, and had no compunctions about holding his wand out in public.

'Damn it, he's seen us from his window,' muttered Jacob as Lackardy stumbled into the street.

'No way.' Tanith was already drawing her wand. 'If he did, he wouldn't come out in this state, and look, he's not even looking at us.'

'Well, something's got him -'

The car shook as Lackardy tripped straight into it, and there was a moment where all three of them froze, the two Aurors having expected him to go right past them. Instead his face was pressed against the window, eyes wild and panicked, and locked onto them with recognition.

Then he stood straight and drew his wand.

'So much for discretion,' muttered Tanith - and kicked the car door open. It smacked into Lackardy, sending him stumbling back, but as she got out to deliver a follow-up he raised his wand.

She'd not expected him to be ready for a counter-attack, and his Stun slammed straight into her gut. It was a quick, fleeting spell, but it was enough to have her crash into the car and collapse painfully by its wheels, her limbs locked in place and refusing to move even as she could see and hear everything.

Jacob had got out of the car, but was wise enough to keep his head down. As Lackardy regained his composure he was throwing out a truly tremendous array of firepower to try to keep the Auror pinned down, but still he had to leap back, to the left, to the right, as Jacob let off counter-attacks with a low frequency but with frightening accuracy with the amount of fire he was under.

Then Lackardy glanced down at her, then at the car, and gave a slow smile.

Oh, don't. Take your inspiration from somewhere else, you slippery-

But though the snap-shot of a Stun was beginning to wear off, though she could feel her limbs sluggishly beginning to move as she mentally screamed at them, she still couldn't react quickly enough as Lackardy lifted his wand and aimed it, this time not at the difficult-to-hit shape of Jacob - but, rather, the car he was behind.

Fortunately, she wasn't the only person to anticipate this move. Jacob came skidding over the bonnet of the car seconds before it was magically hurled into the two metre gap between it and the wall, crashing with a ferocious sound and likely to have been lethal had he not moved.

Definitely so much for discretion. But her limbs were reacting, moving, and though she dared not open fire on Lackardy while she could barely defend herself, Tanith managed to find purchase with her knees and elbows and began crawling sluggishly along the road, under the nearest car.

Now she could only hear the scrap as the fight hit the open street, but she could see light reflecting off the road as Muggles opened windows and stuck their heads out to see what was going on - and then ducked away again.

At least the MLE was keeping an eye on police calls and dispatches to this area in case something went wrong. So long as the Muggles didn't come out into the crossfire, this could so far be easily covered as a car accident. The Obliviators could fix it all.

Provided they were alive to call it in.

She had crawled under the car to the pavement by the time her limbs were feeling like they'd follow her instructions properly, just in time to hear a pained grunt from Jacob. She risked a glance through the car window into the street to see him reeling from a blast to the elbow. He was limping to the other side of the road, behind the cars parked in front of the building Lackardy had come out of, getting into cover.

At least there was no way Lackardy was going to be able to pull the same stunt twice. And so long as she could shake off this Stun enough to fight properly, he was going to be surrounded, out in the open.

Lackardy was beginning an onslaught of magical attacks at where Jacob was ducked down as she rose, resting her elbow shakily on the car bonnet, and to her endless frustration she shot too soon. Her hand shook, her curse went wild to blow up a chunk of tarmac, and Lackardy wheeled around to blast in her direction, forcing her back under cover.

Nice going. If you'd waited five seconds, you could have had your wits about you enough to hit him.

Jacob had taken advantage of her attack to shoot back, though, and his spells were only just stopped by Lackardy's Shield Charm. Again there came another sweeping array of curses from the former Enforcer, but though Tanith thought she saw them swish harmlessly over Jacob's head to thud into the wall behind him, this time he didn't rise after he ducked into cover.

He must be pretty worn. Tag, Cole. You're it.

She crawled sideways, her body listening more as she moved and keeping as low as possible to stay out of sight. The magical blasting from the road had stopped, though she could hear Lackardy's footsteps on the tarmac.

She drew a deep breath, which sounded astonishingly loud in the darkness, but she had to pray Lackardy's ears weren't that good. Then, legs screaming in protest at having been Stunned and then expecting to let her crouch, poised for action, she rose.

She was in a different spot to where she'd fired from before, and that gave her the split-second she needed to bewilder her enemy. For once, she didn't bother with a silent cast as she grabbed her wand in both hands and barked 'Stupefy!'

It was unsubtle. Lackardy's wand came whipping up frantically as he saw and heard her, his Protego charm in place by the time the Stun crashed into it -

And then wavering, as the strongest Stun she could throw smashed into his hasty protection and then went through it, cracking the former Enforcer in the face. It was only enough to stagger him, but that was enough for her to finish him off, and he collapsed in the middle of the road.

Breathing hard, Tanith came into the road, wand still trained on her fallen target. A flick of the wrist had bindings shooting up to secure him, and she crossed the distance to kick his wand away. His eyes were wide, shocked, but she knew he could see and hear her, even if his expression could then register nothing more than surprise.

'Nice try,' she said, still catching her breath. 'Didn't think you had it in you.' Then she looked up to the car Jacob had been taking cover behind. 'Jake? He's down. You can stop hiding now from the nasty brute.'

There was no answer, and she glanced down at Lackardy, cocking an eyebrow. 'You hit him? You sly bugger, I didn't see it.' She shook her head and padded over to the car, raising her voice a little. 'You let him hit you, Jake? You are getting old. Old, and slow -'

But when she turned the corner of the car and saw him, her voice caught.

Jacob's eyes were wide and glassy as he stared up at the sky, lying in a pool of his own blood that streamed from the vicious, broad gash across his throat.

Lackardy hadn't missed, and he hadn't just been throwing Stuns.

'Jake?' Her voice was small, knowing words were pointless even as she called out. '...Jacob?'

Then something snapped in her and she burst forwards, skidding to her knees in the pool of blood, wand coming to his throat, free hand going into her pocket. 'No, Jacob - Jacob, look at me, listen to me, you're... you're...'

No pulse.

But still she did the only thing she could do, as she fought against the burning in her eyes - try to remember her first aid charms enough to seal up the gash in his throat, and grab the rune in her pocket to make the one call back to the Canary Wharf office all members of the MLE detested making above any other.

Officer down.


* *


The morgue in Canary Wharf was a dark and miserable place even when it wasn't six thirty in the morning. The sun was weakly trying to make itself known through the gaps in the buildings outside, but that made no difference this far down.

The night hadn't stopped. Competent as the Aurors on the scene had been, there hadn't been a one who had more experience than her. They'd processed Lackardy, got him thrown in one of the Wharf's cells - and kept him far, far away from the partner of the man he'd just killed. That, she'd let them get on with.

And she hadn't got in the way of the Healers, either - at least, not once they'd broken through her haze of horror to pull her off the body so they could begin their utterly futile work. It hadn't taken more than twenty seconds before they'd finished running through what charms they had in their arsenal and confirmed that Jacob Van Roden was, in fact, dead.

But that hadn't been the end of it. Couldn't have been; there was still too much to be done. And so she'd made sure the body had come back here, made sure that everything was logged and recorded properly, and then she'd gone through the records to pull the address of Jacob's parents.

It was only because one of the night shift workers had pointed out she should probably scrub up that she hadn't shown up on their doorstep covered in their son's blood.

There was never a good way of breaking the news. There were just less bad ways, and Tanith didn't want them to hear it from some desk-jockey who didn't even know the man whose family they were supposed to be reassuring.

Not that they'd been surprised. No family of an Auror expected good news when someone in uniform knocked on their door in the middle of the night. She'd broken the news, given them what honesty she could about the circumstances and about how sincerely sorry she was, and then let them know what would happen next.

Then she'd left them to their grief and had come back to Canary Wharf. To her own grief. The thought of going home held no reassurance.

I thought the end of the war meant I wasn't going to ever feel like this again.

It wasn't just the pain of loss that she remembered, that drove her into the darkness, into the room where his body lay behind a solid, stone vault door that would keep him safe until it was time for the funeral arrangements. But it was that same feeling of helplessness... and that same feeling of loneliness.

The loneliness didn't fade in the slightest when the door to the morgue swung open and she heard a familiar pattern of footsteps - with a tap in between. She didn't turn away from the vault.

'...I'm so sorry.'

Tanith closed her eyes at the familiar voice, and willed her own to not shake as she took a deep breath. 'Where were you last night?' Or the night before. It's morning now. Whatever.

A pause. That hadn't been the expected response. 'I was... I had work. I sent a message; didn't you get it?'

'I did.' She turned, eyes accusing. 'After I spent an hour sat on my own in that restaurant waiting for you.'

Tobias Grey was so surprised he took a step back, a step which forced him to lean heavily on the cane that never left his side. 'I'm sorry,' he said again, albeit in an entirely different way. 'I thought I was going to get out in time. Then I thought I'd be late. Then the next thing I knew, I was an hour late, and I wasn't going to get out, so... I sent the message...'

They stared at each other, accusations and defences ringing in the darkness and the stone, before Tanith drew a sharp breath. 'How'd you get here so soon?'

'I've got my seven AM with Vaughn,' he said. 'Weekly briefing from the Auror Office. Someone told me when I was on my way in. Though I don't know... what happened...'

'Just another lackey of the old administration who happened, today, to be faster than him. Than both of us.' She looked away bitterly. 'Should you be down here? You'll be late for your meeting.'

'That's not fair,' he said, and limped over to her. 'I was working the other night, and it was... it was dinner. This is... this is important.'

I'm not important unless someone's died? The thought was treacherous, but it stuck, and she stepped back. 'No - I've got no reason to be down here, I should get home, and get some rest, and I'll be fine -'

But he reached out, quicker than she'd expected, and she realised she'd seen him so irregularly that she'd lost track of how much better his bad leg was getting. He caught her at the elbow, pulling her back. 'But until then you're not fine, Tanith. You don't have to lock this away, this isn't the old days, showing weakness isn't going to get you killed...'

It wasn't that I thought being weak would get me killed. It was that I thought being weak would keep me weak. That I wouldn't ever get out of that hole.

And that's not changed.

But his closeness helped, like it always did, even - especially - when she didn't want it to, and her shoulders sagged as he stepped in, voice dropping. '...and this is me. You know you don't ever have to worry about being weak with me.'

She summoned a response which would have been entirely devastating and highlighted just how little he'd been there for her in the past six months - then when she opened her mouth nothing came out but a desperate, choking sob.

She crumpled, and he pulled her to him for her to bury her face in his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her, murmuring soothing nonsense into her hair, and for those long moments as she let him hold her while she sobbed, the feel of him, the smell of him, the sound of him were all enough to make her believe everything would be okay.

Not just without Jacob, but with them, and with the whole world.

'I am sorry about the other night,' he murmured as she quietened. 'I'll make up for it, not because of... of Jacob, but because it's not fair, you're right. And anyway, it'll all be over in a month...'

Again, when it got like this, when she was so close to him and relaxing in his arms - the only place she could relax like this - she believed him. Even if she'd believed him the dozen times he'd said this already.

'It just... it makes you think,' she said, pulling back only enough to rub her eyes. 'I had coffee with him this evening, he was talking about the holidays... he had all these plans. His whole future. It makes you think about... making the most of the time you've got. Not putting things off.'

She met his gaze, that blue-eyed gaze that could be so cold and distant but, when locked on her, made her feel like the only thing in the world - or, and more importantly, the only thing in the world that mattered to him...

Even if I'm not...

Then the door to the morgue slammed open and she jumped back as if she'd been doing something wrong. Part of it was instinct and surprise, but the other part was guilt - not for daring to steal a moment with him in her grief, but guilt that she was falling for all the same promises, spoken and unspoken, all over again...

'Don't mind me,' came the gruff tones from the doorway of Cassius Vaughn, the Head of the Auror Office. 'Scuttlebutt said you were down here.'

Tanith rubbed her eyes quickly, though it was more for her own sake than his. She knew Vaughn well enough to have no shame about shedding tears for her dead partner in front of him. 'Yes, sir. I was... thinking.'

'Aye. Thinking.' Vaughn gave Tobias a polite nod, a pointed nod, and with a ducked head and just a fleeting glance in her direction Tobias slunk out the door, closing it behind him. The morgue felt abruptly colder - but, at the same time, more real.

Vaughn sighed, sticking his hands in his pockets as he took a few ambling steps towards the vault where Jacob's body rested. 'Didn't believe it when I heard. Not him. Not Jacob Van Roden, to a rat like Bernard Lackardy.'

'We duck a spell a hundred times...'

'But it only takes the hundred-and-first. I know.' Vaughn scowled. 'How're you holding up?'

Tanith ran a hand through her hair. 'I'm... reeling, sir. I told his family. We'll have to hear back from them on what they want done about the funeral... they might not be so fond of the MLE tradition.'

Vaughn looked disapproving, but she knew he wouldn't push it. 'It'll be a while. We'll need to have the body properly examined, make sure we're dotting the i's and crossing the t's. Since now it's murder we'll be doing Lackardy for.'

'I guess that makes everything a lot easier.'

'Aye.' He watched her out of the corner of her eye. 'Take a week off, Cole.'

'Sir, I'm -'

'You're not fine, and you're not supposed to be fine, and if you are fine then I don't want you to take a week off, I want you to give me your badge and never darken the door of the Auror Office again, because I won't post an unfeeling monster out there to have one of my boys' backs.' They were all, male and female, young and old, Vaughn's boys.

Tanith's shoulders slumped. 'I don't really know what I'd do with the time off, boss.'

He jerked a thumb at the door. 'Ask your young man. You've earnt the time off anyway, you haven't taken a break since the end of the war and God knows when before that. Take a break and go somewhere. Clear your head. And when you come back... I've got a job in mind for you.'

She should have picked up on that, but her head was reeling, partly at the events of the night, at her fatigue, a little at the bewildering prospect before her of some time off. But Vaughn didn't stick around long enough to let her argue - just headed for the door, and within seconds Tobias was limping back in, brow furrowed.

'Everything... okay?' He spoke like he knew "okay" was the wrong word, but they both knew there wasn't a right one.

Tanith sighed, glaring at the walls for a moment as she gathered herself, then she drew a deep breath and looked him in the eye. 'He's making me take some time off.'

Tobias nodded awkwardly. 'That sounds... like a good idea.'

'A week,' she said, and he said nothing. 'He suggested I go somewhere.' There was still no comprehension behind his eyes, only a sympathy she had finally found infuriating. 'He suggested with you.'

Now his eyes widened. 'With me? For a week?' Tobias' breath caught and he lifted a hand. 'I can't. I'm sorry, I wish I could, but we're coming up on the election. I can't just drop everything and go on holiday, the Minister's relying on me...'

'To what?' She frowned. 'Continue reporting how he's going to win the election? To soothe international relations you've basically fixed?'

Tobias scowled, like he always did when she spoke ill of his work. 'We're three points down in the last Prophet poll. Harrigan's been picking up momentum, and next week's the Nott Trial, the press are going to be all over that. I have to stay and control the story.'

'Or what? Or the sky's going to fall in?'

'Or the trial might blow out of proportion, and Minister Shacklebolt takes another hit, and Harrigan furthers his lead, and even aside from the election I have meetings in Berlin about the international contributions to the Orphans' and Widows' Fund!'

'I thought you said anything within five points was so marginal as to not fuss over!'

'I'm not losing sleep over it,' said Tobias, hotly, and she could tell he was lying about that anyway, 'but it's dangerous enough for me to not take time off in the middle of an election.'

'Right. You know what?' She lifted her hands, frustrated and hurt. 'Vaughn's right. I should take some time off. Time away. From everything. From you. Us.'

He blinked as she passed him, heading for the door, and this time he didn't reach out to stop her. 'From us? I...'

'I think it'd be best.' Tanith paused in the doorway, knowing he couldn't catch her up if she stormed off, and for once not guilty about exploiting his injury. She met his gaze coldly. 'And in this time, Tobias, you can try to figure out what's really important to you.'

Then, forcing back tears, she left.


Chapter 2: Keeping Up Appearances
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'One of my best Aurors down and I'm about to take the training wheels off the trainees,' grumbled Cassius Vaughn as he sat down behind his desk. 'The timing couldn't be any worse.'

'I am very sorry,' said Tobias, pulling up a chair. 'Jacob was a friend. It's all a lot to take in.'

'It's the nature of our line of work, lad. But that doesn't make it any easier to swallow. If there was a man in this office I was grooming to replace me...'

'I want to make sure he's properly honoured. That the public know of his good deeds, that he's remembered well.' Tobias scribbled a few things on the notebook which rarely left his side. 'But I appreciate if you don't want the Auror Office to look... reduced?'

Vaughn's eyes narrowed at the word, and Tobias flinched. 'I'd rather not much of a fuss were made about how a snake like Lackardy got one of my best. But you're the spin-doctor.'

'I'm the Minister's Director of Communications,' said Tobias, a little defensively.

'And the Head of the Department of International Magical Cooperation.' Vaughn leant back in his chair, feeling about his pockets without looking for his pipe and his tobacco.

'Acting.'

'Acting. Of course. Like Shacklebolt's going to let you go when he gets re-elected.' Vaughn snorted. 'All those hats. Guess that makes you a smart fellow, lad?'

Tobias' brow furrowed. 'That's Minister Shacklebolt. And smart enough to not be called "lad", Director Vaughn.' And old enough.

'Then how come you're such a fucking idiot?'

The question was so rude and blunt that Tobias just stared at the Head of the Auror Office for a few seconds, gaping. 'I... excuse me?'

Vaughn jabbed a finger at the door to his office, which led out to the bullpen where his team of Aurors kept their desks; the home away from home for this overworked elite of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. 'I don't really give a shit about what you think the Minister needs you to do, and I certainly don't give a shit about how the public view us or how the international community view us. I don't need their approval to do my job.'

'A point of view you have made repeatedly clear all the time I've worked for Minister Shacklebolt.'

'Yeah. So you might have perfectly good reasons in your little egg-head brain of yours to keep on trotting around on Shacklebolt's behalf, but the way I see it, the world won't fall apart if the great Tobias Grey isn't around for one poxy week.'

Tobias' expression pinched. 'I don't think my personal life is really your business, Vaughn.'

'It is when it comes down to the well-being of one of my Aurors. I need them in top form, especially the ones with experience like Cole.' He snorted. 'Experience. Shit. What the hell happened to my office when some girl not two years out of Hogwarts counts as "experienced"? When a kid like Shacklebolt sits as Minister, and everyone else got promoted or killed or too messed up to be of use to me... fact is, I need her firing on all cylinders, and you're not helping.'

'I think the death of her partner might be contributing to all cylinders not firing right now. More than my holiday plans.'

'I'm not telling you to change your mind.' Vaughn puffed on his pipe. 'I'm just telling you that you're a fucking idiot.'

'So noted,' said Tobias coldly. 'Can we get on with the briefing?'

Vaughn reached for a stack of parchment. 'Lackardy coming in's the bulk of it,' he said. 'That's the only new development; the rest is training and the hunt for Avery. I'll put Savage on the processing since I won't have Cole. He'll interview him, he'll get the information down to the Prosecution Office, you know the drill. It'll be up to Riley on what she wants to pinch him for, but we can get him just on murdering Van Roden. No need to go poking our way through ancient history trying to see what we can make stick.'

Tobias' brow wrinkled. 'What were you planning on fingering him on in the first place?'

'Mostly his continued association with Avery. Which would be trickier to prove. This is all we need to stick him on, though, and that's an open and shut case. No need to make life complicated.'

'Do you think you can use him to trace Avery's activities?' Most of the inner circle of Voldemort's Death Eaters had been arrested or killed, either in the Battle of Hogwarts or in the past six months. The remainder had gone to ground, likely abroad, likely to never stick their noses above the ground. Garrett Avery was one of the exceptions, the latest poster-boy for the extremists who didn't know when they were beaten.

'I can't comment about an on-going investigation.' Vaughn puffed again on his pipe.

'I'm in the Ministry.'

'So?' He gave a cold smile. 'This issue isn't in the public eye. I tell you those things as a courtesy, lad. Right now this office don't owe you courtesies.' He reached for a fresh sheaf of paper. 'If the Minister wants to know about the Woolwich Situation, however, I have some notes for him...'

That was as much as Tobias was going to get out of Vaughn, he knew. And, keen to avoid the veteran Auror's continued jibes at his personal choices, Tobias was satisfied to just push through the rest of the meeting as the formality that it was, and get out of Canary Wharf. Normally he was well-received in the MLE office - in his own right as a former Enforcer and with his wartime reputation, as much as for his personal connections. He held no illusions about his own reputation keeping him safe from glares today. News travelled. Tanith Cole's bad moods travelled quicker as a matter of public safety.

So it was back to the Ministry, if not back to his office, but down in the belly of the building. It made the most sense for the Prosecution Office to keep its premises as close to the Wizengamot Chambers as possible, even if it didn't make for the most pleasant working environment for one of the most overworked departments in the country.

This much was clear as Tobias walked through the front door and was almost bowled over by the figure rushing out. He stumbled, his bad leg making the impact worse than he would have liked, and was only grudgingly grateful when strong arms grabbed him by the shoulders to steady him.

'Oh, Toby. Sorry.' Tom Everard looked worn and weary, if genuinely apologetic, as he righted the taller man. 'I was just going on a coffee run.'

'You look like you need it,' said Tobias undiplomatically as he straightened his coat. 'Don't let me keep you.'

'Jen's in her office,' said Tom, and ducked out of the door.

Tobias wound his way through the network of desks across the main floor, each one with a lawyer or an assistant and a stack of paperwork, before he reached the door at the far end. He knocked and stepped in without waiting for a response.

Jennifer Riley sat at a desk which he'd originally thought to be unnecessarily wide. This had turned out to be inaccurate in the months of her time at the Prosecution Office, as there was not a clear inch of surface space to be seen under the notes, the files, and the pictures pertaining to the scores of cases her department was tackling all at once.

'Tom, if you're not back with my coffee, I swear I'll -' She looked up, and her expression turned apologetic. 'Toby. Morning. Sorry, I thought you were -'

'Tom only just left.' Tobias limped to help himself to a chair. 'He looks like he needs an Invigoration Draught, not just a coffee.'

'He stayed in the office 'til late to do the paperwork for the Nott case. I don't think he got more than four hours' sleep, but I'll be sure to send him home early so he can rest properly before court tomorrow.'

'Don't you have a kettle?'

'We did, then Hawkins tried to turn his hand to a spot of Potions-making and now it's in pieces. Some are embedded in the kitchen wall. I find it best to not get involved in these affairs.' Jen sagged in her chair. 'Is it that time again?'

'I didn't know my visits were such a source of aggravation,' said Tobias, still smarting from his rounds in the ring with Cassius Vaughn.

'No, but you do tend to come in here and fuss until everything's in order.'

'I think the country needs to be the Head of the Prosecution Office to be organised.'

She glared. 'I am organised. It's just all in here.' Jen tapped her temple. 'And don't you lecture me about doing my job properly; I don't need Mister High-and-Mighty coming down from the mountain today.'

Tobias opened and closed his mouth. 'Did I put a sign that says "Kick Me" on my back this morning?'

'I don't know, but I certainly didn't, so don't act like you're the only one in the world who knows how to act professionally.' Jen jabbed a finger at him.

He got to his feet creakily. 'All right,' said Tobias. 'Let's go.'

She stared at him for half a heartbeat, then gave a short, tired giggle, clamping a hand across her mouth. 'Merlin, Toby, for a second I thought you were calling me out for a fight.'

'No, I'm calling you out for breakfast. Or, at least, a proper tea or coffee. Because my day's managed to go from zero to shit in three seconds, and you are looking so strung out that you'll probably murder someone if you don't get a chance to unwind.'

Jen looked across her desk. 'I have -'

'A meeting. With the Office of the Minister of Magic. I'm just relocating it.' It wasn't normally his habit, but his day wasn't so frantic that he couldn't take five minutes out to troop to the café nearest the Ministry.

Was it so busy you couldn't take five minutes with Tanith? He scowled to himself. This is still work. I'm just... moving it.

But Jen sagged and acquiesced, and they both seemed to judge it prudent to keep quiet as they trooped out of the office, out of the building. She was clearly crabby, and he knew he was in a mood to be oversensitive and lash back, and so they remained in a companionable silence until they were sat down in a quiet café around the corner from the Ministry.

Despite being a Muggle establishment, it was a favourite of any Ministerial workers who knew how to get a hot drink without causing some sort of a scene. Tobias had been there before and often suspected that there were more wizards than Muggles on the premises. He didn't know if it had always been like this, or if the more relaxed post-war attitudes had led to this development.

He did know they did a good cup of tea.

Jen sighed before she gulped down piping hot coffee, obviously an acquired talent. 'Thanks,' she said at last, setting the mug down. 'I needed that.'

'Evidently.' He gave a wan smile. 'You know, you could take a break. You've been doing a million cases a day, or so it seems sometimes. You've earnt time off.'

'Like you have?'

He flinched. 'Touché.'

'I'm just tired. The Nott case is unpleasant enough.'

'At least it's one of the last of the Inner Circle cases. You can perhaps rest a little bit more easily once that's done.'

'Can I?' Jen cocked an eyebrow. 'The Inner Circle almost all had outstanding Azkaban sentences, most of them for life. Those we bothered to put on trial were getting the most heinous of crimes slapped on their record. That stuff was easy. Now we're trickling down to the second-string.'

Tobias put more sugar in his tea than he normally might have. 'What makes that worse?'

'Three words: Only. Following. Orders.' Jen counted them off with her fingers. 'It's like the new version of the Imperius defence. What do we do when they turn around and say they only tortured someone because they were ordered to?'

He shrugged. 'That's not much of a defence. Nuremburg -'

'What if they were told their families would suffer if they didn't do these jobs? It's not as if they had reason to believe these were lies; families were attacked and punished for the transgressions of Ministry officials.'

'There's a world of difference,' said Tobias gingerly, 'between some poor bastard forced to do horrid things when they had no choice, and the sort of people who came out of the woodwork in the Thicknesse administration. The real nasty cases who suddenly had power, and the right to do whatever they wanted with it. Even if they weren't idealists to Voldemort's cause, even if they'd fought against Voldemort's cause originally.'

'Of course there is,' said Jen smoothly, 'and I know it when I see it. But it's not good enough for me to know it. My gut is not admissible as evidence in a court of law. I have to convince the Wizengamot.'

Tobias rubbed his brow. 'You're saying everything gets harder from here on out?'

'Considerably,' she said. 'I have to go through every little thing everyone the MLE brings in has ever done. I have to figure out what I want to push charges on, and what I want to leave well alone.'

He frowned. 'If you're convicting them at all, why do you have to pick and choose?'

'Precedent,' said Jen simply. 'I really, really don't want to get a precedent where we say that it doesn't matter if someone was threatened into committing an act - we'll condemn them for it anyway. Otherwise we'll have to put half the MLE on trial. You know, the half which stayed in the uniform last year.'

Something twisted unpleasantly in Tobias' gut. 'I see your point.'

'This is all made considerably harder by how the Auror Office is clearly picking and choosing its targets for me.' Jen glared into her cup of coffee. 'For everyone Vaughn wants me to convict, he's got two people he wants me to arrange plea-bargains for so long as they testify to skewer the first.'

Tobias frowned. 'Is that allowed?'

'It's how business is done,' she said, 'and Vaughn has so far been doing a perfectly good job of prioritising the really nasty customers and cutting loose the little fish. But this is meant to be justice. We're not meant to be deciding the outcome before we hold the trial, innocent or guilty.'

'Your record remains outstanding.'

'Because these men and women don't have a defence. There's not a lawyer in the country who wants to get within a Quidditch pitch's distance of these cases, so we're assigning the most overworked and under-motivated people we can spare. And that's fine when we're debating if Dolohov murdered sixteen people or seventeen, but when we're moving into these more complicated cases... nuance is everything.' Jen rolled a shoulder uncomfortably. 'I didn't sign up for this work to prosecute in a kangaroo court.'

'I'm sure you'll figure it out,' said Tobias, and he meant it, rather than trying to push her concerns under the rug. 'You're one of the most honest people I know. I struggle to name anyone else in the Ministry with your integrity.'

She gave a wan smile, and sipped her coffee. 'Thanks. And sorry, I just... needed to blow off some steam. What ruined your day?'

He hesitated. 'Jacob Van Roden is dead. He was killed last night by Bernard Lackardy; the Aurors have him in custody.'

Jen winced. 'How's Cole?'

'Upset. She's been given a week off.' Tobias ran a hand through his hair. 'Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?'

'Stun me.'

'How do you and Gabe manage it?' He waved a hand. 'I mean... he's wandering the world. You're stuck in an office all hours God sends. Isn't it hard?'

She paused for a few long moments, gaze going thoughtful as she gathered her words. 'It is,' said Jen delicately. 'And yet, it's sort of... not. We make time for one another. It's as simple as that. We make sure we're taking time off at the same time. Or if he's home, he makes sure he does simple things like be there when I'm back, make sure I have dinner. If I'm off and he's away, I go see him.'

Tobias frowned ruefully at the table. 'That simple, huh?'

'That simple.' Jen gave a sad smile. 'There's something my mum told me about love, which I didn't really get when I was with Nick and I think that was telling. I just assumed she was lucky, or being idealistic, or something. She said that when it's right, it's easy.'

He flinched. 'That's funny,' he said, unamused. 'People kept on telling me that relationships are hard, that you have to work at them.'

'Maybe you do,' said Jen. 'Perhaps it's just that when it's right, you don't mind.' She took a sip of her coffee. 'Bear in mind my parents were a little older when they got married. It probably helps to have a few screwed up relationships under your belt already. It's like a map through the minefield.'

Silence fell between them, until Jen reached for her case and pulled out a few sheafs of parchment, clearing her throat. 'You... probably want the breakdown on the Nott case for tomorrow, don't you.'

And then, like that, they were back to focusing on work. Tobias always enjoyed his meetings with Jen Riley more than anyone else in the Ministry, and not just for their shared background. They were sufficiently alike in how they approached their work and their ideals that it was easy for them to be on the same page.

Truth be told, he probably could have scrubbed the Prosecution Office from his list of departments to interact with. Jen Riley didn't make screw-ups he had to smooth over. But he needed at least one meeting in his weekly catch-up which didn't make him either feel like he was running into a brick wall, or made him want to bash his head against said brick wall.

That was what his next meeting was, down with the head of the Obliviators, yet another rapidly-advanced youth who had proven to hold a particular talent for smoothing over massive catastrophes but lacked the imagination to calm down minor hiccups. The meeting consisted of his outlining for Tobias a proposed cover-up of some wizarding youths' exuberance that was hitting the Muggle public eye with a story which had been used before - and Tobias trying to explain why this was a particularly bad idea.

By lunchtime his stomach was growling away, hard work always giving him an appetite and frustration only fuelling it, but the trials of the day were not set to end. He made it out of the Ministry on time, apparated down to Diagon Alley, found The Golden Fork and the table for two that had been reserved, and all-in-all worked hard to adhere to his schedule.

Only to be left sitting alone in the most expensive and fancy restaurant in wizarding Britain, while the elite wandered in and out for their chic little lunchtime meetings, and he perused the menu while peering repeatedly at the door.

The irony was not lost on him, though he doubted it was deliberate. And, sure enough, when the doors swung open and in waltzed Cal Brynmor, the broad smile that sat on his face was nothing if not apologetic.

Of course, the staff recognised him at once. Tobias hadn't been recognised, and though he knew he preferred it this way it was hard to fight the pinch of jealousy. He'd only spent time in exile in the war and been editor of the biggest Resistance paper. He was only a senior official in the Office of the Minister of Magic, and a Ministerial Department Head. He was probably one of the most influential men to walk into Diagon Alley's foremost restaurant, and yet they didn't give him much of a second look.

Puddlemere United's hottest new Beater, however, got fawned over like he'd killed Voldemort with his bat at the last game.

He was wearing sunglasses, a pretentious move which Tobias could only conclude he got away with in wizarding society because it was too backwards to know that it was a ridiculous thing to do in early November.

But he sauntered past the swish wooden tables, bathed in the bright wintery sun shining through the tall windows and reflecting off the stylish chrome of the restaurant which could have looked tacky but The Golden Fork managed to pull off. Tobias suspected that The Golden Fork could have pulled off a pauper vomiting in the front window as appropriately stylish.

He had no idea why Cal had picked this place for them to eat.

'Sorry I'm late!' his best friend declared, sincere but clearly brushing it off. 'Team photos took longer than expected.'

'You mean the photographers brought friends,' said Tobias dryly. 'Women. Girls. All there to feel your muscles and coo.'

'Aren't you sorry you went into ruling the world?' Cal propped his sunglasses onto his forehead as he sat, smile downright cheesy. 'I bet nobody wants to feel a Ministry official's bicep.'

'I'm okay with this. I'm also hungry; let's eat.'

'Easy, boyo.' Cal lifted a hand, and flagged down one of the servers. He'd not even looked at a menu, and instead just ordered some olives, bread, and marinade.

'Cal, it's lunchtime,' said Tobias a little peevishly as the waiter turned to leave.

'Good point,' he said, and waved the man back. 'And a bottle of merlot.'

'I meantthat's not food.'

Cal frowned. 'It's a pre-starter. Bread, olives. We'll eat them while we peruse the menu to stave off the worst of our hunger. This isn't a pub, Tobias, you don't wander in, scoff down your steak and kidney pud, then hurry back into the office. This is the Golden Fork. Dining here - lunching here - is an experience.'

'I have a two o' clock meeting. I don't have time for a strung-out meal.'

'Postpone it! Aren't you, like, super-duper important, or something?'

'It's with the Minister!'

'Great.' Cal grinned. 'Tell him to join us and I'll sort him tickets for the next game; he's a fan.'

Tobias glared. Kingsley Shacklebolt was a fan. But before he could summon an appropriate retort the waiter had returned with their appetisers and the wine, which Cal swirled around in his glass and tilted up to the light before he finally took a taste of it and declared that it was, in fact, fine to drink.

As the waiter went away, Tobias' glare only intensified. 'You couldn't bloody tell if it was corked.'

'You're the Minister's Director of Communications,' said Cal. 'Don't tell me you don't know all about keeping up appearances. That's your job.'

'My job is to make sure that the Minister's goals to make a better Britain don't get misinterpreted by the public or screwed up by the Ministry.'

'And, apparently, to be Mister Cranky Pants.'

He might have recovered from the bad start with Jen Riley, but a couple of hours with a stubborn Obliviator and starting the day being mauled by the Auror Office's finest was still leaving him bruised, and Tobias' scowl merely deepened. 'Jacob's dead.'

Cal had been sipping his merlot at the time, and almost spat it out. 'You're kidding.'

'Last night, on the job. A suspect he and Tanith were taking down got lucky. Or unlucky, since the bastard's now looking at a murder charge.'

'Of an Auror, no less. Son of a bitch.' Cal ran a hand across his bristly hair. 'Is Tanith okay?'

'She wasn't hurt. Vaughn's given her the week off.'

Cal popped an olive into his mouth as he peered suspiciously across the table. 'And?'

'And? She's upset.' Tobias rolled a shoulder.

'Toby -'

'And she asked me to take the week off with her. And go somewhere.' He hid his discomfort by starting on the bread. 'And I can't, and so she was upset.'

'Why can't you?'

'Because I'm busy.'

'You think anything's going to ha-'

'Can people stop treating me like I'm some paranoid obsessive, or something?' Tobias snapped, getting more attention at his raised voice than he'd really have liked. He drew a deep breath as Cal raised an eyebrow, surprised and a bit miffed, and lowered his voice. 'I am not just deciding that I need to stay. I actually have some concept of my job and my responsibilities, and I can't take a week off.'

'More people than you work in the Office of the Minister.' Cal cautiously filled up his wine glass.

'Yes, but they're responsible for policy, for the smooth running of government. And they're good at their jobs, so nothing's wrong. It's my job to convince the public of this fact, to convince the public to elect them. We're three points down after the last poll, and I need to turn this around and keep it turned around.' Tobias took an irritable sip of wine. 'You know what my weekly meetings consist of? What they're for? So long as I have these, there is much less chance of the various departments, divisions, and offices screwing up in the first place. If I keep my finger on the pulse of each of them then I can get to anything they're doing before it goes public. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.'

'I get that,' said Cal, lifting a hand. 'But what do you think is going to happen in one week?'

'I think that the election is not so far away and everyone is watching the Minister like a hawk, eager for some screw-up. I think that Albert Nott's trial is upcoming, the last of the big-name trials, and the press are going to be hungry for some drama.' Tobias sagged. 'I have poured so much into this for the past few months, and we're approaching the final hurdle. If we fall down at this, then it'll have all been for nothing.'

'No, it won't.' Cal leant forwards. 'If I recall correctly, you got into this job because you wanted to help Shacklebolt as Acting Minister begin the rebuilding work. You've done that. Our international prestige is back. Hogwarts is being rebuilt. Ministerial reorganisation has gone smoothly. I appreciate that the Minister's had to make some hard, necessary choices, and his opponents are skewering him on them in public even if they'd do the same thing. But you didn't get into this for approval ratings, and you didn't get into this to get Shacklebolt elected. Even if he loses, whoever takes over from him is going to benefit from your hard work, because you've helped make Britain a better place. It'll hardly have been for nothing.'

'That is how I started,' said Tobias. 'And I wasn't planning on sticking it out. But you know what? I like this work. I like being involved, I like keeping my finger on the pulse. And I respect Minister Shacklebolt, I think he's a great man, a great leader. I think Britain would be greatly diminished if he loses the election. I think he's the best man to lead us into the future, and I want to help him make that future.'

'I know you're good, Toby, but do you really think his entire election campaign is going to fall apart because you took a week off work?' Cal gave a lopsided smile to take the sting out of his words.

'The Nott case is huge. It's the last of the Inner Circle cases. This is the final furlong and I need to spin every story to creep our approval ratings back up. I made a commitment to the Minister. After the election I can take a break, take some time off, and... you know. Get things back on track.'

'After the...' Cal cocked his head. 'I thought you were all going to resign after the election.'

'We're all going to offer the Minister our resignations,' said Tobias. 'Whoever gets in. But that's to give them the freedom to pick a team for the future.'

Cal frowned. 'And if he refuses your resignation? I thought you didn't want to stay in the government long-term?'

Tobias hesitated. 'If the Minister asks me to continue to serve, I'm going to have a hard time saying "no".'

'Okay.' Cal sipped on his wine.

Tobias blinked. 'Okay?'

'Yeah. It's your life. This is me, mate, I'm hardly in a position to begrudge you your ambition to do well. If you're happy, I'm happy; all we can do in life is try to make ourselves happy. I can't tell you how to be happy.'

'I'm sensing a "but".'

Cal shrugged. 'But, last I heard, you were going to leave the government after the election. And it's entirely your right to change your mind - you're good at this, Toby. I think Shacklebolt can attribute a great deal of his success in the public eye to you, I think you've done great work in restoring Britain's international image, and from what the papers are saying Shacklebolt should be aiming to sit in the Minister's chair for twenty years and then hand the reins over to you.'

Tobias' eyes narrowed. 'And...?'

There was a hesitation, and Cal winced. 'Just... if you've changed your mind. If this is what you want to do. If this is your life... you might want to tell Tanith. Last I heard she was expecting you to not be doing this job come Christmas.'

Tobias sagged, resting his head in his hands, and the waiter came by only to be waved off by Cal. 'I haven't... had this conversation with her yet, no. I wasn't really sure how to. She was pretty angry when I said I couldn't go away with her - but she's upset.' He managed to miss Cal's dubious expression, still not looking up. 'It's not like our erratic time together has been all me.'

'She's an Auror,' Cal agreed. 'Long and unsociable hours and the likelihood of being summoned to go chase bad guys in the middle of the night. Or dinner.'

'Which has happened at least twice,' Tobias pointed out. 'I'm not the sole cause of this relationship stalling. At least my erratic lifestyle has an end date.'

'Had.'

'Maybe had.' He scowled. 'And she does think that, just because she's out chasing bad guys and doing good things right there and then, that her career's more important than mine. Just because mine is more detached.'

'Has she said this?'

'She's not needed to.'

'Well, if you're psychic, then I don't know why you're justifying yourself to me.'

Now Tobias did look up, his frown directed at his sarcastic friend. 'Do you have any actual advice, or are you just going to join the line of people beating me up today?'

Cal shrugged. 'I'm only suggesting you be honest.'

'How'd that work out for you and Nat?'

It was a low blow, but it struck home as Cal winced. 'All right. I guess I deserved that.' He took a big gulp of wine. 'Nat and I wanted different things. A different lifestyle - she wanted to be abroad a lot, I wanted to stay here, she wanted the Researcher career, I wanted the Quidditch, it just - it wasn't gong to work. And we tried to reconcile our differences, and we tried to compromise, but it wasn't just about our jobs. We'd changed. And by being honest we figured it out pretty early on, and we're still friends.'

'She threw your team award at your head.'

'But she turned down a lot of money for a tell-all story to the Daily Prophet.'

Tobias blinked. 'That doesn't mean you're friends, it just means she has standards.' He shifted his weight irritably in his chair. 'Besides, you like being single.'

Cal looked briefly indignant. 'I'm sorry things didn't work out between us, don't act like I'm -'

Then he stopped as a shadow fell over them, and they both looked up to see the light from the windows blocked by a pair of girls, probably a couple of years younger than them who would likely have been in Hogwarts if it hadn't been predominantly shut down for the year. Tobias thought he might have recognised them but really wasn't sure.

'Hi!' said one, unnecessarily chirpy and clearly nervous. 'Um, we're sorry to interrupt your lunch, but we - well, we saw you play on Saturday, and we thought you were great, and could we... please...?'

Then a quill and parchment were thrust out at Cal, about as politely as such a gesture could be, and despite the interruption Cal wore a broad, toothy grin which he turned on both girls as he took the parchment. 'Oh, good afternoon, ladies. Of course, of course, it'd be a pleasure - you know, my friend here's quite important too...'

'Cal. I'll kill you. I mean it,' growled Tobias, then turned a rather wan, polite smile to the girls and kept his head down while the autograph went on. But Cal clearly loved it, clearly loved the attention, and so he stayed quiet and didn't interrupt while his friend was his charming self for a couple of minutes that would likely brighten up the girls' whole day.

And by the time they were gone, Cal's whole mood had improved, and he started to talk about upcoming games, his team's schedule, the trip to go play in Norway in a few weeks, and Tobias was more than content to let difficult questions and emotional issues fall by the wayside and just enjoy a very good lunch.


Chapter 3: More to Hide
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It was peculiar to think he'd never been to the Cole estate after all this time. For years he'd not thought it peculiar, thought the distance between his friends in general and with him in particular had been perfectly normal, but then his life had taken a turn both downright bizarre and inherently more normal.

Certainly the oddities only continued in that he wasn't coming to the Cole estate to see Tanith.

But she'd answered the door anyway, to their mutual surprise, and waved him into one of the sitting rooms. She was in rather light clothes for late autumn, and had explained she was planning on going away when she'd noticed his quizzical looks.

'Ah,' said Gabriel eruditely. Then he shifted his feet. 'I was sorry to hear about Jacob.' But he didn't linger, knowing she wouldn't want him to sit and bestow all of his sympathies upon her, because this was Tanith Cole and she didn't like that kind of thing. 'Where are you going?'

'My family have a place in Tuscany. I thought I'd go there for a week, clear my head.'

He frowned. 'Alone?'

'Tobias is busy,' she said with a bitterness he didn't want to touch. 'Cal's got matches too - and I'm sure you're eager to see Jen rather than leave the country right away.' He gave a sheepish smile, and she continued. 'My options are depressingly limited. I think I'd rather kill myself than go to Tuscany with Ariane and Melanie. I thought about asking Nat, but…'

'You still see her?'

Tanith nodded. 'I like to think we're still friends. She thought I was trying to convince her to give Cal another chance at first, but… I don't know, she's been good company. And Merlin knows I sometimes need a break from you boys.' They exchanged a smile. 'But I don't get to see her as often as I like, and it's short notice, and it might be… weird.'

'You'll be okay on your own?' Gabriel wasn't used to bestowing open sympathy, but he wasn't sure what else to do.

'I'll be fine,' she said, waving a hand, and he knew he was supposed to accept that even if he didn't believe her. 'It's good of you to drop by, though. I know you must be busy.'

Gabriel hesitated. 'Um. Yeah. I only Portkeyed into London this morning; customs were a right pain in the arse.'

She watched him for half a heartbeat. 'Where've you been?'

'Tibet. Getting the wisdom of Tibetian monks. Turns out - not as wise as you'd think.'

'Can you even speak…' Tanith hesitated. '…the same language?'

His lips twisted wryly. 'Enough for me to realise that we do not share powers. They do tap into the temporal arcana, but they do it in a completely different way, through concentration and meditation. They're not natural seers. For me it comes much more instinctively - and unexpectedly. The most I picked up were a few methods of inducing them, but it's pretty long odds of that working. And never when it's important.'

Tanith's gaze flickered over his face, and she nodded. 'You seem pretty happy with it all.'

'I don't get them as much,' said Gabriel with relief. 'I think that's a good sign for the world at large. None of these awful, life-changing incidents being spat at us.' Then he remembered Jacob Van Roden had died the night before and felt like an idiot. 'Well. You know what I mean.'

'I do,' said Tanith, and he took comfort from the fact that her bluntness meant she'd have said if he'd really offended her. 'I'm glad it's working out for you. Your visions. With Jen.'

'Still haven't figured out a way to make a living off it,' Gabriel grumbled. 'I'm entirely at the whims of her and my family.'

'How're they about the whole thing?'

Gabe snorted. 'They still think I'm off trying to find myself, don't they. I haven't told them a thing. Dad's out of his job, his department at the Ministry took a major downsizing, basically because he toed the party line far too much in the war, and… there's his record. I'm just lucky that Jen's a pureblood if only to keep them off my backs.'

Tanith looked dubious. 'She's met them?'

'Hell, no. And I intend to keep it that way.' Gabriel kept his face level; he knew what Tanith was thinking. Even she - and Cal, and Tobias - hadn't met his family. There were some parts of his life he preferred to keep separate.

It wasn't as if it was as exciting as all that.

'So why are you really here?' said Tanith, and Gabriel realised he'd been wrong in assuming he knew what she was thinking. She'd got better at putting him off-balance, at sneaking up on him sideways with a question. Talents honed by war. 'I know it's not to see me.'

'When did I stop being able to lie to you?'

'I learnt to see through it.' Tanith cocked her head at him slightly. 'And you, I think, got worse.'

'Smart. Get worse at lying, now there's more to hide.'

'Oh, I think you can still lie as well as you could. Just not to me, or, I assume to Jen. I don't think you want to lie to the people you care about any more.'

And now, inexplicably, she'd made him want to answer her question more than talk about his attitudes to lying. Because he had to admit she was probably right. 'You father wrote to me,' he said, and took some pride at how much this surprised her. 'Left it with the DOMT, so it was waiting for me when I got in. He asked me to come see him.'

Tanith looked stunned. 'When did you two meet?'

'Aside from passing each other in the crowds in the Azkaban break-out? We haven't.' Gabriel raised an eyebrow at her. 'You haven't been telling him stories about me, now, have you?'

'Certainly not!' she said, indignant, then seemed to realise that these could have been just the innocent stories of what friends did together, and looked bashful at her denial. 'I mean, nothing serious.'

'I can't imagine what a horse breeder would want with me,' said Gabriel, and didn't even try to pretend he believed that Daedalus Cole was just a horse breeder.

Tanith looked uncomfortable, and he reasoned that she also had a harder time lying to the people she cared about. He was quietly pleased by this and reflected that this, too, was a big change from the past. Once he wouldn't have cared much one way or another.

'He's in his study. I guess you'd better go see him, I didn't mean to keep you waiting. And I've got a Portkey to Italy being made ready for me.'

'You have a good trip,' said Gabriel as he stood up, and meant it. 'Drink lots of good wine. Soak in the rays. Read a good book.'

'I think there's something wrong with me that I associate "books" with Tobias, and I don't fancy doing that right now,' admitted Tanith, and he gave a lopsided smile.

'Then forget the books. Chase Italian men and then break their hearts and come back in a week's time having learnt the true meaning of self-reliance. With a lot of good wine.'

'That definitely sounds like the kind of trip I'd need to bring Ariane and Melanie along for. And I don't think Italy's ready for this.'

He smiled, and shoved his hands in his pockets. 'You'll be okay, on your own, won't you? Because I don't work to a schedule; I can send Jen a message, hop on the Portkey with you, see her again in a week's time…'

'Merlin, no! I wouldn't dream of keeping you two apart any more.' But Tanith looked genuinely touched, and for a moment they stood in the small sitting room and stared at their feet, the pair of them the least emotionally demonstrative of all of their friends. 'I do appreciate it, though, Doyle.'

'I don't really like Italian wine anyway,' Gabriel said, and smirked, and then they were okay again. 'Where's his study?'

'Up the stairway, second door on the left. Make sure you knock.'

'Hey, I was raised properly.' His indignant smirk wasn't that sincere, and it turned surprised when she stepped forward to hug him. It wasn't the first time - but the last time had been before he'd been going to the other side of the world to chase answers to his visions, and her going to Tuscany didn't quite compare.

So he sort of mumbled slightly embarrassed farewells and left, trooping up the stairs and feeling distinctly uncomfortable at the decoration of the Cole estate. It was the kind of casual opulence that he associated with the homes of the pureblooded, and it reminded him uncomfortably of his own family.

When he knocked on the door to Daedalus Cole's study he was relieved to be summoned quickly, and ducked inside to be wrapped in the wood panelling and pictures of ancestors looming around him.

Daedalus Cole had never been a big man, and months in Azkaban had certainly not done him many favours. Six months on he was looking healthier, his face less sunken, though he had kept the now neatly-groomed beard to hide the worst of the shadows. Still, in the huge leather armchair behind his desk, he looked tiny.

And Gabriel was still apprehensive. 'You wished to see me, sir?'

The formal address came out bitter, a familiar and unwelcome taste on the tip of his tongue, and that Daedalus seemed to take it in stride was only worse. But he at least rose to his feet and gestured to the chair across the desk. 'Mister Doyle. Please, sit down. Can I get you a drink?'

'I'm all right, sir.'

'You're sure?' Daedalus crossed the room to where several rather-good looking drinks sat on a table. 'I have some most excellent Scottish Firewhiskey I've been keeping for a particular occasion.'

'Is this a particular occasion, sir?'

'I hope so.' Daedalus poured himself a glass anyway, and instead of returning to his chair, went to lean against the desk, so Gabriel had to crane his neck to meet the man's dark eyes. 'I imagine you're wondering why I invited you here.'

'The thought had crossed my mind.'

'If anyone asks, I hope you will assure them you came simply to comfort my daughter in a time of need, a most conscientious act considering you only just got in the country hours ago. Welcome home, by the way.'

Gabriel shifted his weight. 'Thank you, sir.'

'I'll cut to the chase.' Daedalus took a swig of whiskey. 'I am not just a horse-breeder.'

'I didn't think horse-breeders got thrown into Azkaban, no, sir.'

'I am… I was… a piece on the machinery you yourself were involved in during the war - though my achievements were rather more auspicious before the Dark Lord's regime came into power, and my finest hours came in the First War.' Daedalus' gaze went to the window, beyond which Gabriel could see the paddock of winged horses that had ostensibly been the family's source of wealth. 'I was an information broker and spy. I gathered intelligence from the movements of dark wizards and rerouted it to people who could use it. People like the Ministry, and groups like the Order of the Phoenix, or other such organisations. Like your own Lions of Britain.'

Gabriel blinked, perhaps taken aback most of all by the casual manner in which Daedalus related this. 'I never realised.'

'That was the point,' he said, sipping his whiskey. 'I originally acquired this intelligence by fitting in with Death Eater society. Back then they were all purebloods who still went to the same dinner parties, had the same tea appointments, in between their murderous rampages. It was only in the Second War that they were particularly thugs at home; then I had to adjust my techniques to more pro-active espionage. They knew enough to not trust me, as evidenced by my imprisonment in Azkaban.'

'And now the war's over,' said Gabriel, completely lost.

'Now it is over. Though peace is hardly upon us. No, Garrett Avery won't allow that. And there are those who supported the Dark Lord until he became a champion for genocide; there are plenty of people who fought against him who nevertheless shared in the concepts he adhered to. I doubt they will swallow the sweet pill Shacklebolt feeds them and embrace the New World Order.'

'We could debate these points, sir,' said Gabriel, 'and consider what those people will do, if it will prove a problem for wizarding society. But could you do me the kindness of actually cutting to the chase? What does this have to do with me?'

'What these people will do is exactly the point.' Daedalus set his whiskey glass down with a thunk. 'I cannot continue my work. Certainly not as I used to. I no longer have my best agent, a lot of my old contacts died, and I can hardly sit at a dinner party with high, prejudiced, pureblood society and listen to them as they speak with loose tongues about how nice it would be if someone did something about those filthy Mu- Muggleborns.' He gave a brief, apologetic smile. 'I am done. By choice as much as circumstances; after Azkaban I am happy to retire.'

Then he looked at Gabriel dead-on. 'I want you to replace me.'

'What?' Gabriel gaped.

'If there will be more difficulties, more dissident action, more groups springing up to soothe the dissatisfaction of those who did not get all that they wanted out of the end of the war, it will come from high society. The winds of change are against them, whether it's Shacklebolt or Harrigan who stands at the helm. They will lose what they believe makes them special as more equality laws creep in, and they will not accept it.'

'There's a long way to go,' said Gabriel, 'between not accepting it and committing criminal acts.'

'Quite. Criminal acts are usually obvious. But do you know, in the early days, how many minor misdeeds I managed to avert? Cheap tricks in the Wizengamot, bribery within the Ministry to get the backing for anti-Muggle legislation, plea-bargains to get someone's son off with a slap on the wrist. I fought against the iniquities in our system of government and justice and how they abused it, just as much as I fought against the law-breaking.'

Gabriel peered at Daedalus. '...you must have been pro-Muggleborn for a very long time, sir,' he said, bewildered. 'I'd assumed you were just one of those people who didn't like them being murdered.'

'What made you think that?' he asked, amused.

'Well... your daughter's behaviour when I met her, not to put too fine a point on it. She acted like every other spoilt, prejudiced pureblood.'

Daedalus sighed, looking genuinely guilty. 'I wore my mask in front of even my family. Of my daughters, only Tanith knows the truth. I did not trust children to keep a secret and there has never been the time to tell Evadne. It would be most odd for the man who sat at the dinner table with the Dark Lord's Inner Circle and shared their jokes to have suddenly liberal children, no? Not to mention that would make them targets. I made what provisions I could. Evande shrugged them off - but she is a happy woman, in a happy marriage, who will do nothing more than vote a little conservatively in an election. Tanith?' His gaze swept back to the windows, distant and troubled. 'She has fought more openly and more bravely than I ever did; she almost died for it, and now she is troubled and lost.'

Oh, no. I'm not touching this one.Gabriel just leant back in his chair and remained politely silent, and this paid off as Daedalus eventually cleared his throat and squared his shoulders.

'But we have wandered off the point. That point being you,' said Daedalus. 'You are a man of a good family, with proven principles, with experience of the lies and deceptions that are necessary for this way of life, and you have particular talents.'

'I was never really a field agent in the Lions -'

'I mean your gift of foresight.'

Daedalus had sat down behind his desk by now, and Gabriel gaped at him. 'What did Tanith -'

'Tanith knows?' Daedalus blinked, stroking his beard. 'She is getting good. I must commend her. No, Tanith told me nothing. But your nature as a Seer was not a secret amongst the Lions. Have no fear - nobody is tongue-wagging dangerously.'

'You know.'

'It is my job to know these things.' Daedalus leant forward. 'You are uniquely experienced and positioned to walk the path I walked and do it better. You have the familial connections and the birth, you have the experience of conflict and of lies, and your visions can push this operation to greater heights.'

Gabriel lifted a hand. 'You're saying you want me to do what you did. To immerse myself in pureblood society and spy upon it.'

'For the betterment of wizarding Britain.'

'But surely the fact that it's well known I was a member of the Lions of Britain will make people suspicious of me? Not to mention that I'm in a relationship with the Lions' leader, and the head of the Prosecution Office?'

Daedalus shrugged. 'That cannot be helped. I needed someone I knew could be trustworthy, and what I know of your record speaks for itself. But all the public know is that you fought against the Thicknesse administration. Lots of people did. As I said, even people who think Muggleborns have no place in the wizarding world fought the Dark Lord because they didn't believe in genocide. You're even one of them!'

Gabriel rocked back in his chair, eyes narrowing. 'Don't you presume to know me, sir.'

'But I do presume. Because I know.' Daedalus jabbed a finger at him, his voice then as tense and piercing as Tanith's. 'You never took a stand for principle. You stayed away from the war until you had a vision which made you come back. You repeatedly stated that you did it for your friends, not for the cause. And of your background? You're a pureblood from an old family. You spent your childhood around similar youths. Oh, you never had a taste for murder, and you didn't care enough to ostracise a half-blood like Tobias Grey, and you learnt to hate the Death Eaters. But you're no Muggle-lover.'

He has a contact who was in the Lions. He has to. This hasn't come through a chain, this has come directly. Gabriel's grip on his armrests tensed. 'Is this meant to encourage me to work for you?'

'Not for. At least, not ultimately. It would be best if we worked together for a time so I can grant you access to my contacts, so they know who to talk to, so you know how it works. But then I intend very much to let you do this exactly how you want to. My sole goal is that my life's work does not just come to an abrupt halt. Anything else... is down to you.'

Gabriel got to his feet, sudden and awkward. 'I... have to think about this.'

'By all means.' Daedalus shuffled some papers on his desk. 'All I will ask is that you do not speak about this offer to anyone. I know you will ignore that request and likely speak with Miss Riley on the topic, but I do hope you keep it at that.' His gaze became dark. 'Certainly do not speak of this with my daughter. That is not a request.'

Gabriel looked askance at him, brow furrowed. 'Speaking to me like this is even less encouraging, Mister Cole.'

'I'm not supposed to woo you.' Daedalus steepled his fingers. 'But allow me to put it to you like this: You can continue to wander the world trying to figure out what deep meaning your visions have. Or you can try to ignore them and be a normal person - a normal person, which you are not, and who would forever be second place to your paramour. Or you can do something with your life, and your talent, and make the future better. Especially as I know you are not a man who cares about doing such deeds for the public acclaim. You like the shadows, Mister Doyle. Use them.'

Shaken and bewildered, Gabriel left with only obligatorily polite farewells. Tanith was mercifully gone, and so he could make his way out of the imposing manor house, out to the little patch of nearby woodland he'd been directed to use for apparitions, and swept himself away.

His feet landed in a darkened underground car park. The complex was attached to a tall block of flats in the middle of London which was wizard-owned, and so the car park was almost entirely empty. Very few of the wizards bothered with cars, and those who did were Muggleborns who were either either curious enthusiasts or kept them for emergencies. Otherwise the car park was an ideal place for apparitions and portkeys, being entirely isolated from the public eye.

As such, the lift was mercifully swift in sweeping him up to the upper levels, where his flat sat with a fine view of the city. He could never have afforded it on his own, not even with the money grudgingly given him by parents who refused to have their youngest son, even if he seemed determined to be an unemployed layabout, languish in poverty.

But being the head of the Prosecution Office brought in a tidy paycheck.

Not quite tidy enough to cover the rent themselves. That was where the third flatmate came in.

'Gabe! You're back from globe-trotting! I hope you now know how to unlock all the mysteries the future could have in store for us, especially the next lottery numbers.'

Gabriel managed a wan smile for Katie Bell as he let himself into the flat. It wasn't that he didn't like the girl - she had always been more decent to him than the rest of the Lions, and though the bulk of Jen's friends had made an effort with him, he found her honest and open nature unusually reassuring.

But she was sometimes a bit much to put up with after a long day's travel. Especially when that long day had ended on a peculiar job offer.

Katie and Jen were lounging on the overly-large sofa in the middle of the big, open-plan flat, decorated with Jen's particularly discerning and tasteful eyes, after both Katie and Gabriel had agreed that neither one of them had any place in the task of internal decorating.

'I had a great vision on the way back, in fact,' Gabriel greeted them warmly, crossing the flat and resting his hands on Jen's shoulders. 'There was a balcony - looked a lot like ours, in fact - and we were all there, and then, I threw you off it.'

'It's good to see you too, Doyle. Get me a tea, while you're up.' Katie grinned.

'Sorry,' said Jen. 'We're out of milk.'

Katie made a noise of discontent. 'Fine. Fine. I'll run to the shops. And, you know, duck and cover from the sickeningly heteronormative displays of affection,' she said, getting to her feet.

'I told you to not snark at me with words I couldn't understand,' Gabriel said, sitting down on the sofa.

'I'll speak slower next time!' she called back, but then she was gone and he and Jen were left mercifully alone.

And the moment the front door swung shut he was suddenly pinned on his back on the sofa, his girlfriend atop him, and Gabriel reflected that sometimes it was worth being away for so long if it meant he got welcomed home like this.

'Mmph, it's good to see you too,' he managed to find the gap to say.

'Hush. I'm not done with the displays of affection yet,' she said, silencing him with another kiss, and this time he wrapped his arms around her, holding her close and revelling in how parts of him he always forgot were frozen began to thaw.

Eventually she drew back, planting a kiss on the tip of his nose. 'How was Tibet?'

'Cold. And it didn't have you.'

Jen smirked. 'You're going soft. Did you have trouble with the Portkeys; I thought you'd be back earlier?'

Gabriel hesitated, and wasn't sure if he should feel guilty or not that she didn't seem to pick up on it - but then, Tanith Cole was a professional at seeing through lies, and probably knew how to see through his lies better than anyone else.

'Customs,' he said simply, then pulled her to him again.

It wasn't that he wasn't going to tell her. That wasn't who he wanted to be any more - at least, not with the woman he loved. But he could let the ice melt a little more first.



Chapter 4: No Catastrophes
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The funeral of Jacob Van Roden was a quiet sort of affair. The wizarding world had seen so many funerals in the past six months that one more, even of an Auror, was not considered a reason to make a public fuss. So the only people down at the pier near the Canary Wharf HQ, thoroughly enchanted up to keep Muggles away, were other Aurors, friends, and family.

His parents had agreed, in the end, to hold the funeral according to the traditions of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Long ago confronted with the potential for a funeral with no body, or no body in a good condition, the department had adapted. It was expected now that any recovered remains would be cremated.

Those ashes would then be spread into the Thames. Although the head office of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement sat in the Ministry of Magic, the training, the everyday operations, the processing and imprisonment and interrogation of suspects and criminals went down here in Canary Wharf. Only the purely administrative staff of the MLE could spend their career in the department without working down in the riverside office. It was the beating heart of the department, and the beating heart of law enforcement in the country.

So it made sense that its sons and daughters would become a part of the river it sat next to upon their deaths.

As Jacob's partner, it had been up to Tanith to break out from the main congregation, to conduct the long walk down the pier as the eulogies were recited around her and, at the end, to open the urn and see the ashes scattered into the river. The wind picked them up almost immediately, seeing them dance and fly across the surface, before finally they came to rest - and were lost.

She'd hardly heard the eulogies. This wasn't the first funeral of an Auror she'd been to; there'd been a slew after the Battle of Hogwarts, and Jacob hadn't been the first death since then. Although they were sincere, they all said the same thing, more or less.

Because these were all good, hard-working, self-sacrificing people, who put their lives on the line for the protection of others.

She just didn't need to hear it umpteen times. And she didn't need to hear how empty it sounded when uttered for the umpteenth time about her partner.

Once it was over, Tanith didn't linger. She first joined the main bulk of the attending who left promptly, heading down the long road back to Canary Wharf itself, before allowing herself to slow down and drop back. At the pier itself would be Jacob's family, whom she had no desire to be face-to-face with more than necessary - back ahead would be work, and normality.

Staving that off a few moments more seemed advisable, if she wanted to walk in with her head held high.

She almost didn't notice the figure walking the other way until it was too late - and when she did, she stopped, heart lunging into her throat. 'Toby.'

His long coat held off the drizzle of early winter in London, and he leant more lightly on the cane in his hand than he had when she'd last seen him a week ago. His expression was sombre, quiet. 'I'm sorry I wasn't there for the ceremony.'

Tanith hesitated. The last thing she was in the mood for right then was a fight. 'You couldn't make the time for it?'

That clearly didn't mean a fight wasn't going to happen, though.

He flinched. 'I guess I deserved that. No, we didn't want this to become a high profile event. I had to talk the Minister from coming down here himself.' Shacklebolt had made a point of attending as many Auror funerals as had been possible - and with him always came a slew of press and attention. 'It didn't then seem fair that I come, too.'

'You were his friend,' she said, gently more than accusingly. 'You had the right to be here.'

'Perhaps.' Tobias tapped his cane on the pavement self-consciously. 'I wasn't sure if you'd want me to be here, though.'

'So you decided to come five minutes later?'

'So I decided to not suddenly appear in public.' He straightened, still wearing a pained frown. 'I meant to get in touch with you. I mean, I tried to get in touch with you...'

'I was in Dad's house in Tuscany. I've not been home yet, if you sent letters to the flat.'

'Just the one. I didn't want to push. But I... wanted to be here, today. If you wanted me to be.'

She did, and feeling like that made her feel a traitor to herself. The week in Tuscany had been good - warm, pleasant, a chance to clear her mind, a chance to be alone. And so it had left her with unpleasant thoughts and tough choices and nobody to help her with them or to take her mind off things. And no conclusions had been forthcoming.

Even if she had reached some conclusions, though, just being in front of him was enough to turn everything upside-down. Every resolution that she was sick of the situation was dismissed by the sheer comfort his presence brought, and every resolution that she would forgive and forget was stirred up by lingering bitterness and pain at the sight of him.

Still, she took a step forward, and he reached out to touch her elbow gingerly. 'Thank you for coming,' said Tanith quietly, and she meant it. 'I didn't mean to leave you in the dark for a week - that wasn't my intention -'

'It would have been your right. I wanted you to have the time you needed.' He shifted his bad foot, always a sign of nerves, and his gaze dropped. 'I missed you, though.'

'I missed you, too.' Even when they'd been failing to meet for more than a drink, a conversation; even when they'd been so busy, month after month, that getting so much as dinner together had been impossible, or any date had been only interrupted, they'd still not been apart this long since the end of the war. It had been one of her reasons for leaving - being in the flat and missing him would have just brought back too many confusing memories.

She took a deep breath. 'I'm sorry I... lashed out. I did read the news this week, I saw how the Nott trial went. I get that it would have been... a bad time for you to go.' Tanith hesitated. 'I'm still not happy about it...'

'No, I'm sorry. I don't... know what else I could have done, the timing just sucked, but...' Tobias pulled his hand back to reach into his coat. 'That's part of why I'm here. I can't make up for before, and I can't change the fact that I'm going to be practically tied to my desk until the election, but I can make... some better promises.'

And there it was. That light at the end of the tunnel, the reason she could push the hurt and pain to one side. This, too, shall end. If they held strong. If they persevered just a few weeks more...

'I know we said we'd go away at Christmas. The four of us, I mean,' Tobias stammered, still not pulling his hand out. 'But I imagine that Gabriel and Jen have plans, and Cal's... God knows what he's doing these days, and besides, they'll understand. So, well. Here.' He pulled out an envelope and handed it to her.

Tanith opened it up and blinked. 'Tickets from TerrorTours. To Guatemala. What?'

'To the Petén Basin. I thought we could go to Tikal, see some of the old Mayan magical archaeological sites, you know, somewhere warm, somewhere interesting...' He was getting that spark in his eyes she loved so much, that little surge of excitement at not just the idea of going away, but going somewhere he could read about.

Her lips twitched. 'You're such a nerd, Grey,' she said, but she said it with such affection and nostalgia that he couldn't help but grin.

'That's not the best part,' he said, looking beyond pleased at her reaction. 'Look in the top-right corner.'

She lifted the tickets, brow furrowing. 'What...'

'"Non-Refundable",' he said, smile only broadening. 'So I can't back out of it. Neither can you. We book the time off. And we go. No excuses. No interruptions. No catastrophes.'

Tanith quirked an eyebrow at him. 'And what if I say "no"?'

He hesitated, clearly not sure now if she was teasing, the pleased smile freezing. 'Well... then... I would be considerably out of pocket and looking like an idiot and would have to go on a romantic holiday to Guatemala on my own or perhaps with Cal and watch him pick up women while I mooned around pathetically...'

She failed to not laugh, and stepped in closer to silence him with a gentle kiss. 'I was kidding,' she reassured him. 'Thank you. This is... it's a lovely idea.'

His frozen smiled turned bashful, and he rubbed the back of his neck. 'I really am sorry. I hate it when we argue like that, I hate it when we get this... divided, and there's nothing I can do about it...'

And just like that, the world felt right again. She rested her hand on the one that held his cane, and squeezed it reassuringly. 'So do I. But you're right, it's just a few more weeks, then everything will calm down. If we can manage to not lose our heads in that time...'

'I don't know, I am very good at losing my head,' he mumbled, but nodded a little awkwardly. 'Soon. We'll have all the time in the world, soon. But in the meantime, can I try to make up for my abject failure to be here for you over the last week and take you out for dinner?'

Her expression shifted wistfully. 'I'd love to, but I've got a whole lot of paperwork to catch up on... How's tomorrow?'

Tobias grimaced. 'Meeting with the Italian Minister. Wednesday?'

'Night shift on the front desk. I've no idea if my shifts are going to change, though, I've got to go meet Vaughn in half an hour...'

He covered her hand with his, smile lopsided. 'This. This is why we don't manage dinner. I'm busy on Thursday; we're doing prep work for the opening of the new hospital in Manchester Friday afternoon. But let me know what your schedule is. Even if we only get lunch.'

'It's a date in potentia.' Her lips twitched. 'I should get back to the office.'

'Me too; I'll see you... when I see you.' But when she went to walk past him he reached out to catch her at the elbow, turning her around as he twisted, ungainly on his bad leg, to face her. 'I love you.'

Even after all these months the words still turned her stomach inside-out. In the good way. She faltered for half a heartbeat, then stepped forward to kiss him again, this embrace more lingering, deeper. The touch of his lips was always enough to push back the shadows, even on the day of a funeral. 'I love you.'

Then she left, not quite daring to turn back, her head awhirl with a cocktail of grief and contentment, satisfaction and apprehension, and a smattering of guilt that she was letting her relationship woes get to her when she'd just spread Jacob's ashes.

Like he'd want you to linger and grieve. He was getting sick of you two dancing around these issues.

Most of the contentment faded at that thought, at the notion that she'd never again get to sit around the office and chat with him, discuss their problems, their lives, their plans, or just what they heard on the wireless the other evening, and she set about her usual process of packing up the feelings and pushing them away.

She was headed back to the office. She was headed back to work.

She was headed out of her grief and back into her life. It was a daunting path.

It was still disconcerting to go to the office of Cassius Vaughn. Although the Head of the Auror Office was still expected to keep a room at the Ministry, to be on-hand for the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Vaughn found himself needing to stay more hands-on than his predecessors in these days of limited numbers. As such he had moved into the office that had previously been held by Bacchus Drake. And before him, Rodolphus Lestrange.

And before him, Idaeus Robb.

So she wrung her hands as she ducked inside and nudged the door shut behind her. 'You wanted to see me, Boss?'

Vaughn looked up from his paperwork, scratching his greying whiskers. 'Cole. Come in. Sit down. How're you feeling?'

'Like I just had a funeral.' Tanith hesitated. 'I'm doing okay, Boss. The time off was good. I tried to use it... properly.'

'I don't know what "proper" use of bereavement time is. But it's good to see you again.' Vaughn nodded a little stiffly as she sat down. 'You're feeling ready to get back on the job again?'

'Ready and able. Though... look, Boss, I know it's routine for you to not send people out alone, and I appreciate that I have to fit in the department rather than the department fitting me. But I'm really, really... not sure about just being thrown in with another partner right away.'

'I agree,' said Vaughn, much to her surprise. 'What? The bond's important. I don't want to stick you with someone you're smarting about being partnered up with. That's no good for nobody involved - not you, not them, and not the Auror Office. No, I had a different kind of notion for you.'

Tanith made a face and tried not to. 'You're not tying me to a desk, are you, Boss?'

He snorted. 'Always got to have it your own way, Cole, don't you? But no. I'm putting you on a team assignment. Giving you a team, in fact. There's a new case up which I want you to handle.'

'A team.' Tanith cocked her head. 'We only put those together if there's a lot of leg-work to be done. What's happened?'

'A body turned up dead this morning - like they do - in their own house. Definitely not natural causes. Someone you know, someone I reckon you'd have a motivation in finding the killer of. And with people like Proudfoot on the Avery case, you're the best I've got for this.'

Tanith's brow wrinkled, her gut tensing. 'Who's the victim?'

'Bartholomew Mulready.'

Now her nose crinkled. 'Mulready's dead?' She paused. 'Good.'

'Nasty case of a slashing charm to the chest. Attacked in his own home. It got called in this morning by a neighbour who popped round to get some milk. I thought this would be your cup of tea.' Vaughn reached for a folder on the desk and passed it across to her.

'There was never any sign Mulready was cooperating with Avery and the others; we kept an eye on him and he seemed to be taking his demobbing with pretty good grace and went to ground,' said Tanith thoughtfully. 'Who could be striking against him?'

'Perhaps some of Avery's lot branding him a traitor. Perhaps he didn't have any milk and the neighbour was pissed off. If I could answer those questions sat here and now, I wouldn't need to send you off on the case, now, would I?'

Tanith eyed him suspiciously. 'This could be nothing more complex than a domestic incident,' she said. 'Why does this need a team? If not for policy I could chase this one on my own.'

'Ah. That.' Vaughn shifted his weight. 'I said there would be a job for you when you came back. Obviously I didn't mean this one, 'cos Mulready wasn't dead then.'

She narrowed her eyes. 'Yeah...'

'This was going to be a job I was going to foist on you and Van Roden. Or, really, foist on Van Roden and you were going to be collateral. I knew you weren't going to like it, but I meant to split the two of you up.'

'Spit it out, Boss.'

'The kids are coming out of their basic training. And I frankly need as many Aurors on the streets as I can get. Some of them are going to keep in training for a while, some of them are going to be partnered up with the more experienced buggers I can spare. But there are three who are really very promising. Veterans in their own right before they even came here. I want them to be in a team under someone I can trust to help them with the protocol, help them get some experience under their belts, so I can mobilise them to be fully-fledged Aurors ASAP once the rough edges have been worn off.'

'What three?' Tanith's voice was low, suspicious.

Vaughn made a face and ran a hand through his hair. 'You know one of them. In your year at school, lots of experience as a major face in the Lions of Britain resistance group. Katherine Bell. Dab hand with communication and protection spells. Excellent at small-unit combat. Can do mass-apparition with the flick of a wrist. Hell of a thing.'

'I know Bell,' said Tanith, without much enthusiasm as she remembered Hogwarts fights. Tobias might have been Mister Inter-House Relationships at school, and Cal might have joined the Lions of Britain, and Gabriel might have been cohabiting with Jen Riley and Bell herself these days, but she had been given little reason to shed tense past relationships.

'Figured you two might work well together. As for the other two - well, that's why I wanted Van Roden for the job. It's going to be tough to keep these ones in line. I've got a mind to partner them up once they can be trusted on their own instead of splitting them up, all things considered. But I wanted them to have a mentor who can teach them the ropes - and a mentor who's not going to get over-awed. I guess you can do that,' conceded Vaughn, 'but Jacob would have done it with more diplomacy.'

'You're probably right,' said Tanith dryly. 'I wasn't the diplomatic one. So which much-vaunted children are you bringing in for me to babysit?'

'Children?' Vaughn snorted. 'They're a year younger than you, I think they've got as many Death Eater takedowns as you under their belts, and even you aren't about to start adding Dark Lords to your kill sheet.'

Tanith's eyes widened. 'Oh, no -'

He lifted a hand. 'I need someone to show him the ropes. To teach him how to be an Auror. To not be overwhelmed by his fame, and to be a level-headed mentor.'

'I am not going to teach Harry bloody Potter -'

'It's great to see how you show gratitude to the man who killed Lord Voldemort. You'll also have to dodge the press to make sure they're not crawling over your arse just to get the latest story of him back in action.' Vaughn lit his pipe, leaning back in his chair. 'Of course, that's why I wanted Van Roden's self-control and diplomacy; I'm not thrilled at sending you into a PR hotspot, but these days it's the Ministry's job to tidy such things up...'

'If you're not thrilled, Boss,' said Tanith tensely, 'then you could always, I don't know, give the job to someone else.'

He glared, and she realised that she'd taken her irreverent banter a little too far. Vaughn didn't need everyone under him showing deference, but he expected them to know when it was appropriate to sit down and shut up.

Not talents she'd ever especially honed.

'The Mulready case is a nothing case, Cole. You find who killed one miserable son-of-a-bitch. The challenge here is, when you find the murderer, not shaking his hand. But it's good for you to get back into the swing of things, and it's good for the trainees. A nice, easy, paint-by-numbers case. It's only on the Auror desk and not the Enforcers' desk because of a possible connection to Avery and mostly because he used to work out of this office.' Vaughn puffed on his pipe. 'Of course, if you don't want it, I can swap you for Dawlish down in the training -'

'Don't finish that sentence, Boss, please, Merlin.' Tanith winced, lifting a hand. 'Your point's taken. I'll do the case. I'll even deal with the Boy Wonder. Just... don't send me down to training.'

'I spent ten years running the Training Department,' said Vaughn haughtily.

'And you hated it.'

'It was character-building.'

'My character's perfectly well-rounded, thanks.' Tanith scratched her nose. 'Who's the third member of the team? Which one of Potter's illusive cabal do I get to babysit?'

Please let it be Granger. I can have Tobias teach me how to nerd-speak. Granger. Granger. Go Gra-

'Ronald Weasley,' said Vaughn, and her heart sank. 'See, this is what I want from you. Potter's good, Weasley's good. Bell's fine, too, but her attitude's not the issue. I'm not saying Potter and Weasley are stuck up or anything, but they've done lots. They're liable to be of the attitude that a few months' training and now they know it all, after, you know, killing Voldemort. I wanted someone to supervise them who doesn't think they're anything special. Who isn't going to let them cut corners because of their record. I can't think of anyone better for that job than you.'

At least, you can't think of anyone better for that job than me now Jacob's dead.

'So, basically, you're giving me this job so I can be a total bitch to a war hero.'

'Pretty much. Just don't piss them off, don't destroy their spirits, and don't do anything to get this case on the front page. Fob off the press, don't Stun them or anything.'

'I don't know why you're like this, Boss,' said Tanith. 'I've had no bad run-ins with the press.'

'You've not had any run-ins with the press. But I'm sure that a calm, even-tempered girl like you will do perfectly fine with an obnoxious reporter in your face asking provocative questions about your professional talents and whether it's daunting to work alongside the Boy-Who-Lived.' Vaughn's voice took on a dark, scathing tone not specifically directed at her.

'Daunting?' she echoed, wrinkling her nose, then lifted a hand. 'Oh - okay. Point taken. I'll dodge the press, or let Bell handle them.' Tanith drew a deep breath. 'Where are they all?'

'Right now? Still in their training. Work starts bright and early tomorrow morning; you've got all the Enforcer interviews with the neighbour, with the crime scene breakdown in that file, and if you want to get the groundwork ready on the Mulready case for when they're out, be my guest. But remember this is meant to be a learning experience for these probies, too. Don't just shove them out of the way and do it yourself.'

'Are you kidding?' Tanith gave a dark smirk. 'I have flunkies I can dispatch to go get a spell analysis shot off or go question everyone on a street while I get to fuss about the important stuff. I'm not going to shove them out of the way, Boss - I'm going to delegate.'

'And so do you learn the most important talents of leadership.' Vaughn smirked sadly, puffing on his pipe. 'Take it easy, Cole. Catch up, get ready for tomorrow. It'll be busy then, and it'll be busy from here on out. You just let me know if you need time.'

Tanith's expression twitched as she stood. 'I didn't become an Auror to sit around and lick my wounds, Boss.'

'Attagirl. Now, get out of my office. Oh, and Cole?' Vaughn nodded to her as she hesitated by the doorway. 'It's good to have you back.'



Chapter 5: Bright Young Things
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‘We should do this more often.’

‘Mm-hmph.’

‘It’s good that we have. We get to talk. Properly talk, you know?’

‘Mmph? Mmph!’

‘We’re sharing.’

Tanith swallowed quickly as Tobias reached across the café table for her pastries. ‘Touch my danish and you die, Grey.’

He withdrew his hand, chuckling. ‘Just making sure you’re paying attention.’

‘Yes. Nice times. Sharing.’ Tanith’s expression twisted guiltily. ‘I’m sorry. I’m glad you made time for this, I really am. We should make this our compromise when we can’t manage dinner. This way the day hasn’t had the chance to make us run late. But this isn’t the best day.’

Tobias shifted his weight uncomfortably and her guilt increased. ‘When is it ever the best day?’

‘I mean it - I’ve got a brand new case, and a trio of FNGs to teach. I’ve got to do this right.’

‘I didn’t realise the Auror Office was in the practice of doing things wrong,’ Tobias pointed out, munching absently on a croissant. ‘What’s an FNG?’

‘Fucking New Guy,’ she growled. ‘Weasley I could cope with. Bell I could... hold my nose through. But I get Potter? This is just going to be a nightmare, for me and the media.’

‘I’m sorry to say it’s already over the papers.’ Tobias set the day’s issue of the Daily Prophet on the table with a lopsided smile.

‘Let me guess,’ she said, reaching for it. ‘Under the headline it says “Boy-Who-Lived Harry Potter is being taught by accomplished Auror Tabitha Cale?’

‘Actually, you’re not mentioned, it’s just about Potter entering the field...’ Something glinted in Tobias’ eyes as he watched her, and he leant forward. ‘That bugs you!’

‘No, it doesn’t -’

‘Yes, it does.’ He caught her hand as she went for another pastry, and she was so surprised she didn’t stop him from kissing her fingertips lightly. Then he’d done it and she didn’t care so much if she couldn’t go for a pastry, just spent a second grinning like an idiot. ‘You want the attention.’

‘Well.’ Tanith rolled the word around her mouth. ‘Maybe a little. I don’t want no attention while still having to deal with the fuss, you know?’

‘I do know.’ Tobias gave his own silly grin. ‘Just take my word for it - whenever you get the chance? Dodge the press. It’s not worth it and they will piss you off.’

‘I know how to keep my cool.’

‘The soul of self-control that you are?’ But he was still grinning and so it was impossible to be angry with him. ‘I know you’ll be fine. I’m just saying it’s not worth it.’

‘Press or no press, I’ve got to go,’ she sighed, pulling her hand back reluctantly. ‘I can’t arrive at the scene after the trainees. That just looks bad.’

He watched her get up with wistful reluctance, pulling a file out of his bag and setting it on the table. He’d mentioned he had some reading to do before he made it into the office; she felt briefly guilty she’d consumed his busy time by making him sit with her while she stuffed her face with pastries, but pushed that guilt away. It was all too rare that they got to sit together doing nothing. ‘I’ll drop an owl by your flat next time there’s a gap in my schedule,’ he promised.

‘With trainees to take care of I can’t guarantee there’s going to be a gap in mine,’ she said, going over to plant a light kiss on his lips in farewell. ‘But you never know, you might find yourself in a serendipitous romantic appointment with Cal.’

‘It’s not like that between us. Well. Maybe that one time.’ Tobias smirked. ‘Let’s try breakfast, at the least. I like seeing you in the mornings.’

She managed to mumble something coherent and affectionate and not at all awkward before stumbling out of the café into Diagon Alley, and then off to her destination, a fine place with whirling, not unpleasant but certainly diverting thoughts in her head: a crime scene.

I like seeing you in the mornings...


* *


‘Really? We’re getting transferred out of the training squad to get some field experience, and it’s for a case which belongs on an Enforcer’s desk?’ Ron Weasley scowled at the house the three of them stood in front of, fiddling uncomfortably with his newly-allocated Auror’s coat. He’d been fitted for it at the beginning of training five months ago. Since then he’d gone from being on the run for the better part of a year to getting three square meals a day, not to mention a solid workout routine, and he was definitely wider.

At the shoulders, Ron would maintain. But that didn’t make the coat fit any better.

‘We weren’t going to get anything too exciting, Ron. We are just out of training.’ Harry peered up and down the winding country road they’d apparated beside. Bart Mulready’s home was isolated, as most wizarding abodes were, and the dozen or so members of the MLE crawling all over the house as they secured the crime scene were probably the most activity the sleepy country house had seen in years.

‘I thought there’d at least be hunting a dark wizard involved,’ Ron grumbled. ‘You know, we’re Aurors. Dark Wizard Hunters. It’s kind of in the name.’

‘Mulready was a Death Eater,’ piped up Katie Bell, who’d been stood a little distance away from the duo. ‘He joined the MLE when Thicknesse took over.’

Ron peered at her. ‘How’d you know?’

‘He was on Thanatos Brynmor’s team, hunting down the Lions. Come on, we won’t get any answers staring at the house, and it’s going to rain, I just know it.’ Katie jerked her head, and the three of them crunched down the winding path to the ramshackle house, their arrival getting a little more attention from the Enforcers than they would have expected.

Enforcers did usually pay attention when the investigating Aurors made it to the crime scene. Just normally that attention was an acknowledgement and then begrudging disinterest as they got back to their security work.

When one of the investigating Aurors was the Boy Who Lived, attention was a little more focused.

‘If he was in Brynmor’s team,’ said Harry, clearly trying to ignore the probing eyes and concentrate on the matter at hand, ‘then why wasn’t he arrested?’

‘He got drummed out and abandoned. I don’t know, maybe he made some plea-bargain and gave information on a bigger fish. Maybe the Aurors were watching him with the hope he’d join up with Avery and give them a lead. It’s more complicated than we’d like.’ Katie reached up to push the front door open and duck into the gloomy house. ‘Besides. Being on Brynmor’s team isn’t a one-way ticket to Azkaban. After all, our trainer was in Brynmor’s team.’

Ron made a face. ‘You’re kidding.’

‘She’s really not.’

The three of them turned to see a woman not in the dark-green coat of the Auror Office, but a grey, rather baggy trenchcoat coming down the stairs into the hallway of Mulready’s house. The building smelled of mould and damp, and the wooden floorboards creaked underfoot. Decorations were sparse, just a portrait here and there of some ancestor, and it looked like a family home which had been neglected by the last scion of the lineage.

But Ron’s focus was most of all on the new arrival. ‘Oh, no,’ he groaned. ‘That Cole.’

‘Yeah, Weasley, that Cole,’ growled their Auror trainer as she gestured for them to follow into the living room. ‘Glad the three of you could make it on time.’

Harry elbowed Ron as they followed. ‘Dawlish had some last-minute paperwork we needed to fill in. Paperwork he neglected to, you know, have us deal with yesterday so we could transfer teams in peace.’

The living room of the Mulready house was lit only by the overcast sky outside, and Tanith crossed the room to pull some shutters open so they could enjoy the full glory of musty sofas and dated, faded photographs and paintings. ‘Lucky for you, you don’t answer to Dawlish any more. Forget everything he taught you. First lesson from me is this: John Dawlish is an idiot.’

‘I’d figured that one out for myself a few years ago, thanks,’ said Harry coolly.

Tanith paused, that clearly not having been the response she’d anticipated, and she fiddled with her sleeve. ‘Right. How come Bell here knows about Mulready and you two don’t? Did you skip the reading?’

‘Oh, there wasn’t any reading,’ offered Katie helpfully from where she was examining some of the pictures along the mantelpiece. ‘All we got told yesterday was his name. I just knew he was, you know, part of the jackbooted brigade chasing us last year.’

‘But you knew about how he’d been drummed out of the MLE.’

‘I just asked Jen, she had all his records and I wanted to be ready. Gabe says “hi”, by the way, and you and Toby are invited for dinner some time. I get to be the fifth wheel unless I can win over that pretty girl down in admin...’

Ron flashed Harry a grin as Tanith’s second effort to put the boot down went awry, and this time Harry returned the smirk a bit. They’d run the gauntlet over the past few months on how veteran Aurors would treat them - their trainer was falling into the classic pit-traps of acting superior and then tripping up, on this occasion in record time.

‘...that’s great, Bell.’ Tanith ran a hand through her hair and took a deep breath, visibly gathering herself as her gaze swept across the other two of the Training Unit. ‘I suppose you two know me, anyway. Tanith Cole. I joined the Auror Office last year, right before the Thicknesse administration. I was in active service all that time, yes, in the MLE under Yaxley’s control. If either one of you has a problem with it, I invite you to A) Go to hell, and B) Know I managed to get myself locked in Azkaban by the end.’

‘And totally fed us pretty handy information,’ said Katie. ‘She’s one of the good guys.’

Tanith looked a mixture of frustrated and pleased at being vouched for, but Harry lifted a hand. ‘We understand that a lot of the Auror Office stayed on the job when Voldemort was in charge. We understand a lot of people didn’t have a choice. I’m here to learn, and to get down to business.’

She nodded brusquely. ‘Some people did have a choice. Bart Mulready was one of those people. Bell’s right; he was a low-level Death Eater who was brought in by Yaxley to Brynmor’s office. What she didn’t mention was that he was an Enforcer until about ten years ago, kicked out for brutality, and it took an evil overlord in charge before he was given a badge again, then in the Auror Office. He was an unpleasant son of a bitch whom I personally witnessed torture and brutalise suspects and witnesses to achieve his goals. If you want a bit of context, Bell, he was in Lestrange’s team at the Wilson house.’

Ron didn’t have a clue what this was in reference to, but the face Katie made in reaction told him enough. ‘So he’s not one of those people in a complicated situation. Why are we worrying about how he’s dead, then?’

‘Because he’s still been murdered, and so far as we’ve been aware, he wasn’t involved in the Remnant. Since he was drummed out he lived here and stayed quiet. It’s likely the Prosecution Office would have got around to bringing charges against him, especially now the Nott case is over and done with, but he wasn’t exactly top of the priority list.’ Tanith clasped her hands behind her back and began to pace, voice rather less tense, rather less harsh, and now she was all business, reeling off the details with cool professionalism. ‘This is on the Auror Office desk because there’s a chance it’s connected with the Remnant, and he was an Auror and a Death Eater. Old Man Vaughn thinks it’s best for us to keep this in-house.

‘He also thinks this is going to be something you trainees can cut your teeth on. So I’m prepared to let you show me what you’ve got, show me what bright ideas you have, and let you run with them. I’ll be here to point you in the right direction, and here to help you follow the process Dawlish allegedly taught you about.’

Ron wrinkled his nose. ‘Point us in the right direction? You’re acting like you’ve already solved this case.’

She shook her head. ‘No, not even close. But I’ve got my ideas of where to start.’ Tanith reached into her coat to pull out a file, which she tossed onto the coffee table in the middle of the living room. ‘In there’s everything we’ve got about Mulready, and everything about the body itself. The house hasn’t been touched or interfered with, save the Enforcers securing the location and me conducting my own search. He was found in the bedroom upstairs, second on your right. Everything else is pretty much as-is; pictures are in there of the house when we found it if you want to be pernickety.’

Katie looked up from the pictures on the mantelpiece. ‘I didn’t get that much of a breakdown from Jen,’ she admitted. ‘Have we gone to his family?’

‘They’ve been informed,’ said Tanith with a nod.

She jerked a thumb at one of the small photos on top of a bookshelf. ‘Have they been questioned?’

Tanith gave a wry smile. ‘Some preliminary questions. I’m sure we’ll need to go see them soon enough.’

Ron had picked up some sheets from the folder, flicking through them. ‘Says here that he’s divorced,’ he said. ‘Ex-wife lives on her own in Winchester. No children. They split up ten years ago and there’s a note here about her having made domestic abuse accusations against him around the time - and then dropped them.’

‘It wasn’t a happy break-up,’ Tanith confirmed.

‘And it gets better,’ said Ron, though his gut was twisting unpleasantly. The sarcasm helped. ‘There are several notes of her going to the Enforcers about him harassing her afterwards. Each time they dropped him a visit, each time he’d leave her alone for a few months, maybe even a few years. The last note was about a month before Voldemort took over.’

Katie made a face. ‘And I bet the Enforcer office was just thrilled to help her out once Yaxley was at the top of it. Oh, and what time-frame do we have on him being kicked out of the MLE the first time around, and her divorcing him?’

Tanith nodded approvingly while Ron shuffled papers on the search. ‘Good catch. She filed for divorce a week after he was dismissed.’

‘And funnily enough there’s no indication of any criminal investigation into domestic violence when he was an Enforcer. When it would have been his colleagues who would have done the investigating.’ Ron made a face. ‘If this adds up the way I think it does, this is vile.’

‘I’m sorry to say that the MLE wasn’t sunshine and perfection before Yaxley’s rule, and we’re still working on our daily dose of puppies even now,’ said Tanith, but her sarcasm sounded more judging of the system than judging of his discomfort.

‘I still want to read the rest of the files and take a look at the crime scene itself,’ said Ron, looking up at Tanith, ‘but I think we’re really going to need to have a talk with the ex-Mrs Mulready.’

‘The Enforcers are confirming her last known address as we speak.’ Tanith looked at Harry, who had rummaged through some other papers from the folder. ‘Anything to add to this, Potter?’

‘Hm?’ Harry looked up, and ran a hand through his perpetually-messy hair. ‘Oh. The body’s been taken down to the morgue?’

‘That’s right.’

‘So the time of death, we reckon, is about six in the morning yesterday. Looks like someone broke in through the window to his bedroom, which woke him up, and there are signs of a struggle but we don’t think Mulready got to his wand before he was cursed and killed,’ Harry reeled off, looking at Ron and Katie.

‘It’s the going theory.’

‘Except that whoever did it didn’t use the Killing Curse.’ Harry’s brow furrowed.

Tanith sighed. ‘You’re going to learn a few things,’ she said, ‘now you’re not fighting the finest of the Death Eaters. The Killing Curse? Is a real bitch to use. You’ve got to be seriously messed up, seriously powerful, and seriously full of hate to wield it. It doesn’t get used in fights much because it takes a lot of concentration, and unlike other spells, if you don’t pull it off right you don’t get a weaker hit, like you would with a Stun - you get nothing. So it’s often not tactically sound to use the Killing Curse, even if you’re capable of it, in the middle of a frantic fight. If this had gone into a short brawl, which it looks like it did, and the murderer had a chance to get a spell off, they could have picked several dozen potentially-lethal alternatives to the Killing Curse.’

‘Which they did.’ Harry tapped a picture. ‘A slashing curse to the chest, which we reckon incapacitated him and dropped him from blood loss. Do we know which specific slashing curse was used?’

Tanith picked at some lint on her coat. ‘No. No, the body’s not been analysed for that yet.’

Harry slid the papers back in the folder. ‘I think we should find out. There are a lot of different slashing curses and different wizards use different techniques and spells. We might get something useful out of it.’ He watched her curiously. ‘You don’t look convinced.’

‘Oh, you might well be right. But I’ll tell you what, Potter? I’ll show you how to write up the research request for the arithmancers down in the morgue. And you can go wrangle with them to see if they’ll fit it into their schedule.’

Harry looked nonplussed. ‘I’m sure I can manage.’

Tanith snorted. ‘Bolder Aurors than you have tried. Getting requests like that processed is, I’m pretty sure, one of the layers of hell. But upon your head be it.’ She clapped her hands together. ‘Enough yapping, though. The scene’s only had my eyes and the glance of some Enforcers on it. You’re meant to be bright young things; if you can’t give me answers, get me more questions.’


* *


But the Enforcers, when they tracked down Annabelle Mulready’s home in Winchester, reported to find nothing more than darkened windows, closed shutters, and an unanswered doorbell. Any hopes the trainee Aurors might have had of bringing in the only family member on record and the closest thing to a suspect in the first day were thoroughly dashed. Katie had volunteered to check the area for traces of recent apparitions or Portkeys, but Tanith had instead dispatched them to question the street of grimy terraced houses in what she described as “proper” police work.

Katie had rounded it off with some of her charms, but aside from the comings and goings of the other local wizards, she’d not found anything to counter what the interviews had suggested: Annabelle Mulready hadn’t been seen since she’d left her house the evening before her ex-husband’s murder.

‘What’s the next step, Chief?’ Katie had asked, forcing some bounce into her voice at the less-than-thrilling prospects of their first day properly on the job. ‘We get to trace all the recent transport activity and see if the trail of any of it leads us to Mulready’s house?’

‘Except we’ve got no Portkey traces from that evening, and we can’t trace apparitions from that far back,’ Tanith had said on the way back to Canary Wharf. ‘So you can check the Floo network for anything notable, though there was no entry to Mulready’s house by Floo.’

‘Then how do we find if she went there?’ Harry had grumbled.

‘You’re putting the theory before the evidence again. All we want to do is find her, right now. The rest comes later. And to find her we want to check the Knight Bus movements and records and see if she’s shown up in Saint Mungo’s. Also check local Muggle hospitals.’

‘You think something’s happened to her?’ said Katie.

‘I think that she apparated away and so we’re going to need a really good lead to find her. On the plus side, innocent people don’t tend to run. On the down side, we can’t pin everything in this case on her.’ Tanith had turned to them as they stood in the back yard at Annabelle Mulready’s home, gathering before they apparated back to Canary Wharf. ‘So I have an important job for you three.’

That turned out to be going through the transcripts and records of all of Bart Mulready’s cases and incidents in the MLE - both times he’d been in the Department. The man had been specifically targeted by someone who’d broken into his home; there was little doubt that this had been personally motivated. Until they got a spot of luck with finding his ex-wife, they were forced to see if there were other leads.

And they were still pursuing these possible other leads at nine o’ clock, the lights in their bullpen in Canary Wharf low, amongst the very few people still in the building at this time of night.

‘The problem with this guy,’ grumbled Katie as she turned the page of one of the old case folders, ‘is finding someone who doesn’t have motive to kill him.’

‘He’s certainly an unpleasant character,’ agreed Harry, head in his hands as he stared at the latest folder in his own pile. ‘This is like looking for a needle in a haystack.’

‘I’m seriously considering,’ she said sombrely, ‘getting tea fed directly into my veins.’

Ron made a noise of discontent and reached for the next file. ‘How come Cole’s not down here with us?’

‘She gets to follow the breadcrumb trail after the ex-wife. She’ll have the contacts to do it far quicker than us,’ said Harry, understanding but clearly not happy about it. ‘While any monkey can go through old cases to see if any familiar names or particular motives for murder pop up.’

‘Hey, we’re Aurors. That makes us elite monkeys,’ said Katie.

Harry scowled. ‘How’d you two know Cole, anyway?’

‘She was in my year. Didn’t have much to do with her at school but I knew her by sight. Liked to make out she was Slytherin’s biggest bitch, though that said more about her competition than her. Mostly I remembered her being petty and vindictive.’

‘A Slytherin?’ Ron’s voice went mocking. ‘Say it’s not so...’

‘But you recognised her.’ Harry nodded at him.

‘Well, yeah, she was a prefect, weren’t she.’ He shrugged. ‘Can’t say I cared much for her one way or the other. But she was friends with Grey, you know, the other prefect, Head Boy, now one of Kingsley’s staff, guy who wrote that resistance newspaper? And he was one of the few people whose eyes didn’t do that glazing-over thing when Hermione wanted to talk about studies. So we’d get dragged into the outskirts of that particular sucking whirlpool...’

‘She still clearly wants to be top dog. I’ve had quite enough,’ said Harry slowly, ‘of Ministry officials on a power-trip...’

‘I dunno, I mean, Katie, you said she was one of the good guys?’

‘But that’s a whole world away from nice. I don’t think that word features in her vocabulary. She definitely wasn’t on Thicknesse’s side, and she’s got high profile family that could have been easily targeted.’ Katie shrugged. ‘I guess we just have to trust the Auror Office to not put us under the tuition of someone really unsuitable?’

‘I’d believe that,’ said Harry, ‘if Dawlish didn’t run the training -’

‘I assure you, Dawlish couldn’t train a paper bag to be buffeted by the wind. I, on the other hand, do a real job in this office.’

Harry fought a wince as he looked around to see Tanith herself sauntering into the dimly-lit bullpen, a few rolls of parchment under her arm. ‘Oh, er, did you get -’

‘Nothing from the hospitals. I’ve spoken to a couple of Knight Bus drivers, but the guy I really want’s on shift and I’ll have to wait until tomorrow before I can pin him down. Ooh, tea.’ Tanith reached out to pour herself a mug from the teapot, magically kept warm, in the middle of the desks the trainees had shoved together. ‘Anything?’

Everything,’ Harry said flatly.

‘Mulready. Real charmer.’ Katie made a circle with her thumb and index finger. ‘Women loved him, men wanted to be him.’

‘Hey, you didn’t have to work with him. Stellar personality on top of all that.’ Tanith looked across at them. ‘I know, today’s not been glamorous. I hate to burst your bubble after all the hunting of super-evil dark wizards or striking blows against oppressive governments. But this really is what a huge chunk of this job’s all about.’

‘So you’re foisting it on to us,’ Ron observed.

‘Delegation is the key to success. Just, you know. My success. Not yours.’ She shrugged and smirked a superior smirk. ‘All I’m saying is -’

‘Cole, got a minute?’

‘Oh, hey, other people in the Ministry do work as late hours as we do!’ Katie said with little enthusiasm as they looked around to see Jennifer Riley walking in, folder under one arm. Plodding behind him, ever her shadow, was the stout shape of Tom Everard, bearing even more paperwork on her behalf.

‘How many nights out of the last seven did you make it to bed, Katie?’ Jen sniped back. ‘I know it was more than five, and you got a lie-in yesterday, so I’m getting that world’s smallest violin out for you any time soon.’

Katie smirked, leaning across to her fellow trainees with a conspiratorial wink. ‘Someone’s cranky because they don’t have a kettle in her office, and I stole the one from home,’ she said in a stage whisper, before going to protectively shift the teapot in the middle of the desks out of Jen’s reach.

Jen looked at her housemate, before rolling her eyes and fixing her attention on Tanith. ‘I need to talk before you shoot off.’

‘Shoot off. That’s totally what I do of an evening,’ Tanith said dryly, but she perched on the nearest desk anyway. ‘What do you need?’

‘I want to push ahead with the Lackardy case. This is not someone I want to see get bail, this is not an incident I want to see get pushed down on the priority list. Savage conducted all of the interviews with him, but you were the investigating officer before the arrest.’

‘Normally I’d be spitting on you, Riley, for trying to make me give evidence in court,’ said Tanith with a groan. ‘But for this bastard, just name the day.’

‘I will once I’ve set it. I need a few odds and ends from you first, though.’ Jen pulled out a pen, and took a pad of paper passed to her by Tom. ‘Like who else was on the arrest team.’

Tanith’s eyes narrowed. ‘Are you joking, Riley?’

Jen looked bewildered. ‘What?’

‘The arrest team was me, and Jacob.’ Tanith had straightened, gaze flashing. ‘Unless you were planning on holding a seance in the middle of the damn -’

‘Lackardy said there were more.’ Jen lifted a hand to forestall the onslaught of fury. ‘He said he was attacked in his flat and he fled downstairs to run into you and Van Roden. That’s what I wanted to ask, there were no records of anyone else on duty...’

Now Tanith’s fury had faded for her own bewilderment. ‘There was nobody else on that arrest team, Riley. We didn’t send anyone in. We were staking him out, we wanted it to be a quiet takedown!’

Something shifted in Jen’s expression, and she threw her folder down on the desk in irritation. ‘...this is becoming bloody amateur hour here and at the Prosecution Office.’ Beside her, Tom looked grouchy and set about gathering up the folder.

Tanith had stood, crossing over to her. ‘Why, what did Lackardy say, who else was there that evening?’

‘I don’t know - he thought they were other Aurors, and because Savage was processing him and not you, that little detail slipped through the cracks.’ Jen pinched the bridge of her nose. ‘See, this is ridiculous. If these people had an even halfway competent defence team, brigades of them would be walking.’

‘Then let’s be glad they don’t have a competent defence team, and you’re the competent prosecution.’ She jerked a finger at Jen.

‘Yeah, that’s the way to a free and just society,’ Jen muttered. ‘What I wanted originally, anyway, were your file notes from before you arrested him. I’d like to make some charges other than murder stick.’

‘I’ll get the files shipped down to you,’ Tanith said, ‘as soon as I find them.’ She eyed the other woman dubiously. ‘What’re you going to do about this other assailant thing?’

‘I need to pin it down. As any defender with half a whiff of talent could use this to unravel the whole case.’

Tanith did sober at that. ‘Then anything you need, I’ll get for you. This bastard needs to be looking at Azkaban walls for the rest of his life, if there’s any justice in the world. I’ll get all of mine and Jacob’s files out of storage and have them for you by morning.’

‘Appreciate it, Cole.’ Jen looked at Katie. ‘I’ve got to get back to the office. If you’re home before I am, can you tell Gabe -’

‘I’ll tell him you’re working late - like he won’t have guessed. I’m not passing on sordid sexy messages,’ said Katie, and Tanith made a face that unironically mimicked hers.

Tom Everard gave the gathered a wan smile which was returned by the rest; Tanith was suddenly struck with the unpleasant awareness that she was the outcast amongst a group who had been, if not friends, then civil at school. ‘How’s the case going?’

‘Mulready? Fuck that guy,’ Tanith responded before they could. ‘Not sorry he’s dead.’

Tom gave Jen a pointed look. ‘See, I can say these things, the Auror office agree-’

‘But they still have to find his murderer. And when they do, we still have to prosecute them,’ Jen growled, then she nodded to the Aurors. ‘We’ll leave you to your work.’

Ron looked up from having pretended to still be reading his folders once Jen and Tom had left the bullpen. ‘Who’s this Lackardy?’

Tanith’s expression pinched up, pained. ‘He was my last case,’ she said. ‘We arrested him and he’ll be on trial soon enough. Another one of Yaxley’s boys, only we think he was actually working with Avery.’

‘Who’d he murder?’ Harry’s voice was light, cautious.

‘Jacob Van Roden. My old training officer. My partner.’ Tanith ran a hand through her hair. ‘You know what? You’re going to be too wiped to make the right connections going through those files at this time. Take off. Get some sleep. Bright and early back here tomorrow, and you never know, I might have a lead on Annabelle Mulready.’

Ron looked a little defensive. ‘We could do a little longer -’

‘Don’t you have someone waiting for you back home, Weasley?’ said Tanith. ‘Trust me. When your superior tells you to go home around here, go home. It’s not an order you’ll hear a lot, and make the most of it. And the time you’ll get.’

They didn’t argue, gathering their things and sloping off, though Katie lingered a little longer as she retrieved her coat. ‘You’re not going to get some rest, Chief?’

‘You can save the “Chiefs” for the old man, Bell,’ said Tanith, who had sat herself down at her desk. The one pushed opposite it, Jacob Van Roden’s old desk, remained empty, his affairs cleared away, no replacement yet assigned to it.

‘Nice dodge.’

‘Thanks. I practice.’

Katie quirked an eyebrow. ‘But, seriously.’

Tanith pulled a folder out of a drawer. ‘Why do you care?’

‘Because... well, I didn’t, much, I was just making chit-chat, but then you went from zero to hyper-defensive in a third of a second and aren’t we, I don’t know, supposed to bond? Band together?’

‘I’m your Training Officer. Leave your bonding for the Boy Who Lived and his sidekick.’

‘I know them. I played Quidditch with them. We’re pretty well bonded.’ Katie sighed. ‘You know I live not just with Jen, but with Gabe. I’m not oblivious to the scuttlebutt that says your fairy tale ending wasn’t so fairy tale.’

‘Fairy tale.’ Tanith scoffed. ‘I appreciate your concern, Bell. But I really do want to get these files found and down to Riley, and I do want to have us with something to pursue tomorrow. I might want to shake the hand of whoever killed Mulready, but I want them found, too.’ She glanced up from her rummaging around her desk. ‘I didn’t expect to see you here. In the Auror Office.’

‘Yeah. Well.’ Katie rolled a shoulder. ‘I could say some guff about being cursed with an evil necklace gave me a drive to take responsibility for the bad things in the world so it doesn’t happen to anyone else. But after last year? Working with the Lions? Seeing and doing all I did? I don’t think I could go back to nine-to-five office work. The world might be going back to normal, but I don’t know if I am.’

‘Normal.’ Another scoff. ‘It’s overrated.’

‘It does get you home on time, though. Good luck with your hunting, Chief. I’ll see you in the morning.’

And, not wishing to press the issue any more, Katie pulled on her uniform coat and slunk out of the office, leaving the only person in the Investigation Department as Tanith, sat alone at her desk in the gloom, going through the records and details on the man who killed her partner.

Chapter 6: Crazy Niffler-Lady Killer
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‘Interesting, she collected those little collection plates with pictures of nifflers on them. Oh, did I say “interesting”? I meant to say “mind-numbing”. There’s nothing here, Chief.’

Tanith looked over at Katie’s declaration of the latest find in the small storage room, and had to concede that the trainee was right. She’d been so enthused when she’d tracked down the storage room in Annabelle Mulready’s name, confident there’d be something there which could give a lead to their AWOL suspect, but after two hours of the four of them trawling through the mass of packed belongings there’d been no luck.

‘I second that. I think that curtain tried to kill me,’ said Ron, disentangling himself from a pile of crates he’d had to clamber through to get to the depths of Mrs Mulready’s belongings. ‘Who keeps all of this crap?’

‘And, more importantly, who keeps all of this crap when they have a perfectly good house?’ Harry dusted his hands off and went, blinking, towards the sunlight streaming in through the roll-up door. ‘Do we even know when she last came in here?’

‘Last week. She dropped off that box over there.’ Tanith snapped her folder shut with a sigh. ‘What’s in it?’

Katie stuck her head out from behind a crate. ‘More niffler memorabilia. I think this is the wizarding world’s answer to a crazy cat lady, Chief.’

‘No, no. That’s still cats. Nifflers are for your hard-core isolationists. I don’t -’

‘Oh, bugger.’

Tanith looked over at Harry at the interruption, and her hand drifted to her wand, holstered by her side. ‘What is it?’

Harry ducked back into the shadows, and jerked his head towards the way out of the alleyway where all of these storage rooms were homed. ‘Press. Talking to the owner.’

She scowled. ‘Who called in this lead? Kellan and Dwight? I’m going to have their balls when we’re back to Canary Wharf.’

‘Maybe we can tell them all about the crazy niffler-lady killer on the loose,’ said Katie. ‘Otherwise, I don’t see the story here.’

Harry smiled humourlessly and shrugged. ‘Sorry. That story would be me, again.’

‘Sorry to ruin your dreams, Potter, but I’m not sitting around so they can write a pretty little exposé on your life as an Auror trainee.’ Tanith popped her head briefly around the door and scowled. ‘Oh, there’s a whole field of the buggers.’

He nodded. ‘They hunt in packs. And you can be sure my dreams will be intact if we dodge them.’

‘There’s no other way out of here,’ said Ron, dusting himself off. ‘I checked.’

‘And this place has, obviously, nice and secure anti-apparition wards.’ Katie shrugged. ‘Only way out is through the fire, Chief.’

‘Right. Well. Follow my lead, and let me do the talking. Do not answer them, under any circumstances, whatever they ask you. And we might get through this without winding up on the first page.’

‘I don’t know,’ said Ron as they left, ‘Harry sneezed last week and it ended up on the first page.’

‘Talk about a day to bury bad news,’ Tanith muttered. ‘Tell you what, how about you catch a cold next time Shacklebolt wants something out of the polls?’ Without waiting for a response, she straightened her coat and made her way down the narrow alleyway towards where she could see a gaggle of gathered figures.

She had not had to deal much with the press. She was not set the high-profile cases, like the hunt for Avery, and any time her work had come into contact with the media she’d been working with someone more experienced, like Jacob or even Vaughn, who’d fended off the journalists.

But she knew a lot of them by sight. And realised that the group of them, gathered like vultures and peering down at the approaching four Aurors with greedy eyes, were not, as she’d hoped, the desperate scavengers at the bottom of the food chain. No, even the halfway respectable got to chase a story about Harry Potter.

She’d seen Vaughn handle them before. But Vaughn’s rudeness was both legendary and expected. Tanith wasn’t sure she could pull it off. She lifted a hand as they emerged out the alleyway and were greeted with bursts of lights of flashing cameras and the babbling voices of a dozen questions shouted at once.

‘Mister Potter! How’s it like -’

‘What are you -’

‘Who’s the -’

‘Could you tell us -’

All of them directed, of course, at Harry. Tanith cleared her throat. ‘Potter,’ she said clearly, loud enough to be heard over the babbling, ‘is an Auror trainee. If you have any questions regarding current Auror operations, I am the investigative team leader, and you can direct them to me.’

This did take the crowd briefly aback, but the more flexible of those gathered turned on her with hungry eyes. ‘Is it true that the Auror Office has requested Mister Potter’s presence on this case due to its importance?’

Tanith resisted the urge to scoff. ‘Potter, Bell, and Weasley are three trainees. They are working with me on this case for field experience.’

‘Then if they’re only trainees, does this mean that the Auror Office isn’t taking the death of a former Auror seriously?’

Fortunately that was from a completely different journalist, and Tanith realised she was going to have to sidestep two opposing spin methods being thrown at her. It was like dancing through a minefield. ‘The Auror Office has assigned a fully-qualified Auror, namely myself, to investigate the murder of Bartholomew Mulready. We’re taking this perfectly seriously.’

‘Is it true this attack was motivated by vengeance for crimes Mulready committed during the Occupation, crimes the Auror Office had yet to arrest him for?’

‘It’s policy to not comment on an ongoing investigation, gentlemen and ladies, you all know this,’ Tanith sighed. ‘And right now we’ve got places to be, so if you don’t have any more questions for me we’ll be going, and if you have any questions for Potter, you can ask them when he is not on the clock of the Auror Office.’

Despite having effectively invited them to ask more questions she began to push her way forward, hand on Harry’s shoulder to steer him along, though the taller man was working his way through the crowd with a look of distasteful determination that raised him somewhat in Tanith’s opinion. She’d thought he might have liked the attention.

Then again, her only experience of such attention was in watching Tobias, who used it for his job, or Cal, for whom the shine had not yet come off. Harry Potter had been famous a lot longer than Cal Brynmor.

And they ignored the remaining questions, most of them thrown at Harry in defiance of instructions, who valiantly ignored them until one, from one of the lesser, more trashy papers, wafted across the crowd.

‘Mister Potter! How does it feel learning under an Auror who’s already had one partner die?’

Then Tanith didn’t see the crowd at all - she saw red, but before she could whirl around to face the accusation, it wasn’t her hand on Harry’s shoulder any more, it was his hand on hers, pushing her forward, towards the edge of the mob.

‘You stupid son of a -’

‘Auror Cole has been selected for this task by Director Vaughn,’ said Harry, speaking over her angry hiss loud enough to block it out. ‘And though they both have my full confidence, neither one of them needs the support of a Trainee Auror in order to do their jobs.’ Then they were out of the bulk of the mass, in the open, and Harry was looking over at Katie. ‘Get us out of here, now -’

Then Tanith felt Katie and Ron’s hands on her shoulders, Katie was mumbling, and as one the four of them went snapping and whirling through space and time before landing, rather unsteadily, in the Apparition Chamber in Canary Wharf.

Tanith ripped herself free, shaking with anger. ‘That little shit!’

‘You know, I think I preferred the press when they were just talking crap about your love life, mate,’ said Ron with a grimace.

‘Somehow I don’t think Ginny would agree. You all right, Cole?’

Tanith ran a shaky hand through her hair, drawing a deep breath. ‘Yeah, I...’ Her voice trailed off, and she shook her head. ‘I’m okay. I just didn’t expect that.’ She looked ruefully at her three trainees, all of whom were eyeing her rather dubiously. ‘That was good. You did good.’

‘Yeah, I mean, we didn’t even punch him,’ said Ron. ‘That guy was bang out of order.’

‘I should have realised you actually have more experience than me in how to deal with the press, Potter,’ Tanith said ruefully.

‘You did fine,’ he said, and ridiculously she felt appeased by the approval of her own trainee as Harry gave a reassuring grin. He was not, she had ever thought, an especially attractive man; his wasn’t a face to instantly swoon over, and his general manner was casual and unassuming. He didn’t even have an electric presence like she’d known some people could have, the kind to draw all eyes when walking into a room.

But, she had to concede, when Harry Potter smiled it was a bit easier to believe that Everything was Going to be Okay.

‘They were trying to get a rise out of you,’ he continued. ‘Or out of me, so they’d have a story to splash over the front page. I’m sorry that it happened.’

She frowned. ‘It’s not your fault, Potter.’

‘They wouldn’t be here, caring about this case, if it weren’t for me.’ Harry shoved his hands into his pockets and shrugged. ‘I didn’t want to bring this down on us.’

Tanith lifted a hand. ‘I’m pissed. But I’m okay. One run-in with some little shitstain journalist isn’t enough to run me ragged.’ She reached into her pocket and pulled out her pocketwatch. ‘It’s late. Or, late enough. We’re not going to get anything more today, and I’ve got Enforcers watching the Knight Bus. You guys should clock out.’

Ron grinned toothily. ‘Score.’ He looked at Harry. ‘Pub? Hermione should be down from Hogwarts in a couple of hours...’

Tanith frowned. ‘She’s on the rebuilding team?’

He made a so-so gesture. ‘She’s technically still going to sit her NEWTs at the end of the year. But I think half of her practical study and coursework is going to revolve around using it to rebuild the school. She spoke a lot about renewing complicated protection enchantments and then, I fell asleep.’

Tanith snorted companionably. ‘I hear you on that one.’

‘Yeah, how is Grey? We should hook him and Hermione up for a rematch.’

‘Last Nerd Standing?’ Tanith gave an awkward smile. ‘He’s busy. Works for the Minister late nights.’

‘You better not be doing that yourself tonight again, Chief,’ said Katie. ‘Come on. We should all hit the Leaky Cauldron. Have a pint. Celebrate two days on the job without dying.’

‘We’ve not even run into trouble yet.’

‘I mean you killing us.’

Tanith looked suspiciously at the three. Katie was grinning a little too encouragingly, Ron looked a bit more relaxed after their jokes about their respective other halves, and Harry still wore the reassuring smile she was trying to ignore. Even if Katie was egging them on, they definitely looked genuine.

‘I’ve actually got plans,’ she said sincerely.

‘Ooh, hot date with Grey? Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.’ Katie wagged a finger.

‘It’s not. But if it were, Bell, then that instruction would make it the least hot date with him I could possibly imagine.’

‘You know what I mean.’

‘Almost never.’ Tanith straightened her coat. ‘I’ll see you not too bright and early tomorrow. You three have fun.’

Once, if she’d been with Jacob, they might have fudged regulations a little and apparated home straight out of the Apparition Chambers, which were supposed to be used only for official business. But not only was she not prepared to do that with new co-workers, she was supposed to be teaching her trio how to follow regulations, not how to bend them thoroughly for their own convenience.

That was Advanced Courses.

So she walked out of the office, astonished at being able to do so at a reasonable hour, and considered it just typical that Tobias had a meeting that evening at the Ministry. She’d not seen him since their breakfast together, though this wasn’t so uncommon when one or both of them had a new project or case to embark upon.

That new leaf wasn’t quite done being turned over.

She went home first. Apparated to the Leaky Cauldron and then ducked into Diagon Alley, wandering the streets and revelling in how she could do so at a time of night when the road felt actually alive. Too late at night and it was ghostly, too much like it had been during the Occupation, but now the shops were closing and the evening establishments lighting up, and for once she could be someone walking home just like anyone else, connected to the world around her.

Even the posters of Kingsley Shacklebolt and Philon Harrigan, demanding for the votes of the masses in the upcoming election, couldn’t dent her mood.

The lights were on in her flat, obvious from outside since her part of Diagon Alley was usually dark come nightfall. Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, across the road, had not retained its jubilation and sound since the end of the war, though it remained open, and it remained popular. Nevertheless, this had coincided with her rent going up since the noise pollution wasn’t quite so awful, and had helpfully been timed with her making it onto a fully-fledged Auror’s salary and Cal raking in the wages of a first-string Quidditch player.

She’d expected him to move out. First with Nat, when she had returned to the wizarding world after a month recovering from her time in Azkaban, and all had looked to be bliss and sunshine between the two of them. Then, as Cal had enjoyed success after success with Puddlemere United and raked in more money, more public attention, she thought he might move to somewhere better befitting his new way of life.

And he might have done, if he and Nat hadn’t crashed and burned quite so badly. But as it stood, even if she pulled erratic hours and he would be away for days at a time if Puddlemere were playing somewhere far away, they much preferred there to be a second pair of shoes by the door when they came home.

This didn’t mean that Cal’s not-inconsiderable new wealth hadn’t improved their quality of life. Tanith had tried to keep up with the home improvements, but he’d quickly outspent her and swatted away her efforts to contribute a little dismissively.

But she couldn’t deny it was great to have furniture that matched, great to have a completely refitted kitchen, and particularly great to have a fully-stocked bar. This bar was less pleasant when his teammates came around for a party, but Tanith could usually find somewhere else to be on such occasions. Cal always encouraged her to stay, but drunk and boisterous Quidditch players were not her idea of good society.

He was making himself a drink when she stepped in through the door, and almost dropped it in his staggering about in mock-shock. ‘Holy crap. You live. You’re not just a figment of my imagination!’

‘You should be so lucky.’ Tanith gave him a lopsided smile as she hung up her coat. ‘I’m just popping in and out to get changed. I know the girls will judge me if I go out in my work clothes.’

‘The judgement of the ladies. Dire indeed.’ Cal wagged a finger at her before he ducked down behind the bar. ‘Drink? I’m learning how to make martinis.’

‘I’m sure I’ll have plenty of time for that while I’m out, and I do fancy making it to work tomorrow not looking like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.’

‘Ah-ha!’ Cal popped up. ‘J’accuse!

‘What?’

That. That was a pop-culture reference. A Muggle pop-culture reference. Which you made!’

Tanith folded her arms across her chest defensively. Crap. ‘What’s your point?’

‘You don’t know any pop-culture!’

‘I spent enough time around you. Enough time around Nat. Enough time around, now, for my sins, Katie Bell.’ Tanith shrugged and headed for her bedroom. ‘Things sink in! You talk a lot, I don’t have to know what it means!’

‘I still remember you liking the Rolling Stones!’ he said, but his accusation was lost as she closed the door behind her.

And sagged against the wall.

David.

She’d tried to not think about him. Wherever he was, he had to be doing better without her, better not knowing about her. Better with not a memory in his head of the time they’d spent together, of the facts of the wizarding world she’d told him. Better just living his life and playing his music.

And Tanith even believed that, most of the time. When her life was going well, or was busy, she looked back on their time together and considered it best to not think about unravelling the work of the Obliviators that had ripped the memories from his mind.

But then came the quiet times. When it was just her and her loneliness, and so she’d thought of him more than she’d have liked while she was away in Tuscany. That, she thought she’d got under control, especially since she’d spoken to Tobias, but every once in a while she’d catch a few bars of music, a few lines of a song, and she’d remember him.

And she was still the only soul alive who knew what they’d been through together. It stayed locked away in her thoughts, along with half of her other experiences from the war. Anything from the past eighteen months she could condemn to memory and never bring out into the light, she was happy to leave in shadow.

That included David, even if he was the only good thing to be left in the darkness.

When she emerged again, Cal was sat down with the wireless on and his drink half-empty, lounging across the sofa with all of the ease of a man who knew he didn’t have to go anywhere any time soon.

‘You’re having a night in?’ she said, smoothing down her shirt.

‘It’s me and the Match Weekly,’ said Cal with a smirk, nodding at the wireless. ‘I’m in training early tomorrow, then we’re off to Caerphilly for the match on Saturday.’

‘Ah, you get to declare yourself a traitor in front of a crowd of thousands.’

‘A very well-paid traitor.’ His grin broadened. ‘You should come, I can get you tickets.’

‘You only want to give me tickets so I can give Potter tickets and so you get more press attention.’ She wagged a finger at him. ‘Tell me when you play the Holyhead Harpies and I will buy me and my team tickets to that game. On the condition that you win.’

‘Hey. I always win.’

Tanith glanced at the clock on the wall. She didn’t need to race out the door right away, and that was such a pleasant novelty that she let herself sit on the armrest of the sofa, and realised she hadn’t sat down in about six hours. ‘You’re just going to listen to the radio tonight?’ she asked, voice deceptively light.

Cal gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘I’ll relax. Get some me-time. I’d have suggested we, I don’t know, go down the pub or something but I assumed you’d be working late.’

‘Not an unreasonable assumption. We should do that sometime, I swear we’re more like ships passing in the night than roommates.’

‘Oh, no.’ Cal lifted a hand. ‘I’m not getting put on your waiting list. Competition is fierce, and I’d just get bumped off for Tobias at some point anyway. I’ll stick with you and me sharing a beer when circumstance puts us in the same place at the same time.’ He scratched his nose. ‘Speaking of Tobias, he said he might have come by tonight, but then something came up at work.’

Tanith shifted her weight. ‘I thought he had a meeting all tonight. For the opening event tomorrow.’

‘Yeah, he - I think he didn’t want to tell you he might get out early in case he didn’t. And now he’s not, so I shouldn’t have said anything.’ Cal made a face. ‘He said someone in the office spilled the details of the hospital opening to the press. So instead of a meeting, he gets to conduct an inquiry into who did that and have a meeting.’

‘Why did you tell me?’

Cal looked guilty. ‘In case you hoped he’d swing by and then he didn’t and you’d be disappointed? Sorry.’

She waved a dismissive hand. ‘Don’t be silly, Cal. I’m okay. You can talk about him and I won’t explode.’ But still she didn’t look away from him, and awkwardly Tanith wrung her hands together. ‘Are you doing okay?’

He took a gulp of his drink. ‘Hm? Me? Why wouldn’t I be?’

‘I don’t know, we’ve not really talked since you and Nat...’

Cal’s expression flickered. ‘There’s... not a whole lot to talk about. We tried it. It didn’t work. I don’t want to bum you out.’ He jerked a finger in her direction. ‘Or start you thinking that, just because Nat and I couldn’t reconcile our lifestyle differences, nobody can ever reconcile theirs. And by “nobody” I mean “you and Tobias”.’

She couldn’t help but smile wryly at his accusation. ‘So noted. It just really sucks, I mean, you two went through so much together...’

‘War, imprisonment, torture, blackmail, and then, of all things to bring us to an end, reality delivers the killing blow.’ He made a face into his drink. ‘Really does suck.’

‘You’ll find someone.’

‘Hey, don’t weep for me. I like being single,’ said Cal, brightening up a bit. ‘I like being able to go out all hours, I like being able to travel, I like being able to do what I fancy and not have to answer to or inconvenience anyone else. I’m getting the chance to be me, you know? For the first time in my life I’m the best at what I do, I’m valued for what I do, and I get to do that as me. Cal. Not as Cal-and-someone-else. You know?’ He cocked his head.

‘I do know. And you know you have been... you know... valued.’ Tanith shifted her weight, ever clumsy with outright declarations of affection. ‘I didn’t figure how much you backed me up last year until you were gone. I don’t think I properly told you how much I appreciated it.’

He peered suspiciously at her. ‘Who are you, and what did you do with Tanith Cole?’

‘Hey, I mean it -’

‘I know. And you did properly tell me.’ Cal grinned lopsidedly. ‘You just did it in Tanith-speak. I’m an expert in that, you know, I don’t think even the great Tobias Grey’s quite as good at it. He’s an excellent misinterpreter.’

She laughed, slapping him on the shoulder, and got to her feet. ‘I better go,’ she said. ‘I’ll see you later. Don’t wait up.’

‘Oh, before you go?’ She was by the door by the time he spoke, her coat in her hands, and looked back to see Cal’s expression was one of genuine anxiety. ‘I got... permission. To go see Thanatos. They’re still setting a date but it should be in the next fortnight, as soon as I can get the Azkaban Service my schedule, that kind of thing.’

‘That’s...’ Tanith was going to say “good” instinctively, and thought better of it. ‘It’s about time.’

‘I can’t say I pushed for a trip to the High Security Wing to be processed that quick.’ Cal ran a hand across his bristly hair. ‘But. Um. There’s got to be a law enforcement officer there, and I know I could just go with whoever’s on warden duty that day. But I was wondering if... you’d come with.’ He hesitated. ‘I know you and he had your own... mess -’

‘I’ll do it,’ she said quickly, cutting him off. ‘Tell me when and I’ll make sure Vaughn knows.’

He grinned, nervous but clearly pleased. ‘Yeah?’

‘Of course. I don’t want you going in there without backup.’

‘Huh. Wow.’ Cal looked surprised, rubbing the back of his neck. ‘Thanks. I won’t keep you. I feel all guilty, now. You’re going into the belly of the beast yourself and I’m not going to be there to give you backup.’

Tanith made a face. ‘It’s not quite that bad,’ she said, nose wrinkled. ‘But it’s close.’



Chapter 7: Breathe When It's Over
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Even though there was hardly anyone in the office, even though he knew the Minister couldn't be doing anything that couldn't be interrupted, even though it was a late night and he was working at his behest, Tobias still knocked and waited before entering Kingsley Shacklebolt's office.

'I don't think anyone stands on ceremony around here as much as you do, Tobias,' said Shacklebolt, looking up from his desk as his Communications Director stepped in. The office of the Minister of Magic was particularly nice - opulent, comfortable, decorated sparsely in what Shacklebolt had taken the time to pick out but was still pleasantly tasteful, and with the windows beyond the desk showing the magical projection of the wide night-time London cityscape.

'It's just polite, Minister,' said Tobias as he closed the door behind him. 'And respectful.'

'I'm not sure how comfortable I feel with quite that level of formality.' Shacklebolt lifted a hand. 'I know. I know. It's all part of making people take me seriously as the real Minister, rather than as just some caretaker.'

'It's not just a ploy, sir.' Tobias squared his shoulders. 'I do respect you.'

Shacklebolt gave a small smile. 'How's it going out there?'

The younger man scowled abruptly. 'Someone's leaked the whole ceremony details to the press,' he grumbled. 'We got an advance copy of the article the Prophet's running; it's going to completely ruin the surprise and we'll have to change things.'

Shacklebolt looked at the clock by the wall. 'Tobias, it's eight o' clock. It'll hardly be a disaster for the opening of a hospital to not be a surprise or an extravaganza.'

Tobias looked pained. 'This is your best opportunity to fight back, Minister. We might have closed the gap in the polls with the Nott trial, but Harrigan is already starting to deploy the old favourites. About how you're feeding off a culture of fear -'

'We know that's rubbish. We can't rebuild properly until we put the past to rest.'

'I know that, Minister, but the public like to think the war and all of its worries are over, and Harrigan's pandering to them.' Tobias shoved a hand in his pocket. 'Opening a new hospital? That's progress. That's a sign of rebuilding, of positivity, of help. I want it to be successful.'

Shacklebolt leant forwards. 'Toby. It'll be successful. Leave the arrangements as they are, and if the Prophet want to ruin our party, they can do that. And please, please do something for me.'

'Anything, Minister.'

'Breathe.'

Tobias gave a wan smile. 'You're neck-and-neck in the polls and the election's weeks away, Minister. I'll breathe when it's over.'

Shacklebolt returned the smile. 'I know. And I do appreciate all the work you've been doing. I must admit, I didn't think being on this side of government would agree with you.'

'I didn't think it would, either,' Tobias confessed. 'But I need to be somewhere I can make a difference.'

There was a pause as Shacklebolt watched him, before giving a slow nod. 'We're going to win this thing, Tobias.'

Tobias relaxed a little, like he always did when the Minister told him something as a fact. 'I know, sir. And I'm going to help make it happen.'

'But I'm going to head home. Get some sleep.' Shacklebolt stood, and went to fetch his coat. 'You should think about the same for once.'

'You know me, sir,' said Tobias.

'I expect you to at least look like you slept in a bed when I see you tomorrow, then,' Shacklebolt warned. 'And after the ceremony we'll reconvene here; I want to go over some policy announcements with you. We picked up momentum and if tomorrow goes well I reckon we can use it to outstrip Harrigan. He's not the only one who can talk about kissing babies while I make sure the world's a safer place.'

Tobias smiled, this time more firmly, more proudly. 'Yes, Minister. Good night, Minister.'

When he was gone, Tobias shut the office down for him, putting everything away and killing the lights. He didn't mind doing such menial tasks; when they made the Minister's life easier so he could focus on something more important, even on keeping himself sane by getting a proper night's sleep, they didn't feel menial.

Out of the office he lingered at the edge of the conference room where the rest of the Minister's staff hovered, going over the plans for the next day's ceremony, before a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he looked towards his office.

By the door, dressed in sharp, tidy robes, stood Gabriel Doyle.

'Gabe! What're you doing here?' Tobias crossed the distance to shake his old friend's hand firmly, grinning. 'And who let you in?'

'I was arguing with the receptionist when the Minister came out. He waved me in,' said Gabriel with a wry smile. 'I suppose he remembered me from that Magical Beast Care Fundraiser I went to with Jen.'

'Oh - yes. Come on in; I'm sorry my office is a bit of a state...' Tobias led him through the door and his office did, indeed, look a bit like a bomb had hit it. Papers were scattered everywhere in the sort of organised mess anyone who knew Tobias would have been astonished to see, though he knew exactly what was where and what he needed it for. He just didn't have enough room.

Gabriel was polite enough to not comment, and instead let his gaze drift to the far wall, where a variety of press clippings had been attached, depicting particular triumphs and achievements of the six months of the Shacklebolt administration. 'I can't stay long,' he said. 'I have dinner with my family.'

Tobias looked him up and down. 'You're looking a bit smart for dinner at home.'

'It's not home,' was all Gabriel said. 'But I don't want to keep Jen waiting.'

Tobias raised an eyebrow as he sat down. 'Dinner with the parents, hm? This hasn't happened before.'

'No,' said Gabriel. 'It hasn't.' He sat down also, clasping his hands. 'I'm coming to you as a friend, Grey,' he said, abruptly.

Tobias looked at him, and realised he wasn't going to say more right away. 'Um. Okay?'

'But this isn't business of a personal nature. It's just easier if it's handled through the unofficial channels. It might be best for you to tell anyone that we're talking about dinner the day after tomorrow.'

Tobias frowned. 'Dinner the day after...'

'Tanith didn't tell you?'

He hesitated. 'I've not seen her in a couple of days.'

Gabriel scowled, his patter thrown off. 'Jen would like the two of you to have dinner with us. At our flat. The day after tomorrow. There, that's the official story dealt with.'

'What's the unofficial story?'

'I'm getting to that.'

Tobias watched him dubiously. He couldn't help but remember that Gabriel had always been closest to Cal, and that there had clearly been shared experiences between him and Tanith in their last year at school, but it had only been on fleeting occasions that the two of them - ostensibly friends - had spent much time together alone.

To his immense surprise, Gabriel wrung his hands together a little tensely. 'You're going to get a press ambush tomorrow. At the hospital opening ceremony.'

Tobias quirked an eyebrow. 'An ambush.'

'You'll be Portkeying in at the West Street and then taking Tindleham Alley to get to the main square,' Gabriel said promptly. 'But now half the press knows your route, they're going to be at Tindleham Alley to intercept you.'

'We can push through them.'

'But not without answering some questions.' Gabriel leant forwards. 'And the Prophet is going to ask you about the memo that's floated around this office of returning the Dementors to Azkaban.'

Tobias' eyes widened. 'That's just a memo, the Minister has no intentions of actually doing it! He's even announcing the MLE recruitment drive to get wardens for Azkaban tomorrow... at the ceremony...'

Gabriel's face was impassive. 'But now that'll be after he's been asked about it. And now Dementors will be the first thing on everyone's mind throughout the ceremony. Not the new hospital. And words to the effect of "we'll get more men" are going to sound very hollow as a response.'

'How do you know this?'

He shrugged. 'I know people. In the Prophet. You know the editor wants to see Harrigan win...'

'Boy, do I know.' Tobias scrubbed his face with his hands. 'We'll need to take a different route in,' he mumbled, more to himself than to Gabriel. 'Avoid the press entirely before the Minister makes it onto that stairway. And rewrite the language of the announcement to make it clear this is a permanent security measure in Azkaban. So by the time the press get questions it's not a smoking gun any more.'

Gabriel nodded mildly. 'And you have a leak.'

'And we have a leak,' Tobias agreed morosely. 'Thanks, Gabe. This could have been - not a disaster, but it's important the ceremony goes well. Of all things to disrupt it, the press getting a bit between their teeth about an unpopular non-policy and twisting the story until it's all about that...'

'Quite,' said Gabriel, though he didn't look particularly perturbed. 'I thought it would be important to you.'

'It is.' Tobias got to his feet, for once not using his cane - as he sometimes found himself not needing it, after all these months of care and rest, for short bursts if he was particularly distracted. He usually paid for it later. 'I'm going to need to get word to the Minister, and make sure the press don't come near him until the event. And then the staff are going to have to dodge journalists like they're Death Eaters; nobody makes so much as an official sneeze until the opening... and I need to find who I'm going to fire...'

He was already headed for the door, and stopped only when Gabriel got to his feet. 'I'm going to go,' Gabriel said mildly. 'But I hope this helps. And I hope I can have the chance to drop in again if I hear something.'

Finally Tobias realised this was not normal for Gabriel, and he turned awkwardly. '...of course. What kind of something?'

'I don't know,' Gabriel admitted.

'And how did you even know about this, really?'

'I'm going to have to ask you to trust me.'

'Is this to do with your visions?' asked Tobias, bewildered.

'Not quite. But... something like that.' He shrugged. 'I'm still figuring it all out. This just came across my desk.'

You have a desk? he wondered, but didn't say anything. 'You have a good evening, Gabe,' he said instead, and decided he was going to worry about Gabriel Doyle sweeping down with mysterious information after he'd dealt with the consequences of this mysterious information.

In the meantime, he had some menial office worker who'd decided to make themselves feel important by talking to the press to fire.


* *


'Are you okay?'

The home of the Doyle family was a handsome Georgian townhouse in Kensington, tall and imposing on a street favoured by wizarding families. Warded to keep away Muggles, it was a marvel of magical architecture blended in along the classic lines, all needless decoration and a display of wealth which was still beautiful in its own right.

But Jen only had eyes for Gabriel right then, and reached out to take his hand. He twitched a little at the touch, jerked out of his reverie by her closeness, and felt his heart tighten. That ice had frozen here long ago, a protective wall. He wasn't sure how he felt about her heat thawing it when they were so close.

'I'm fine. I'll be fine,' he amended, glancing sideways at her. 'I haven't been here in a while.'

Still confused, she squeezed his hand before letting go, and they trudged up the steps to ring the bell. The door was opened by the old, familiar House Elf, tidy as ever and standing with a stiff formality.

'Master Gabriel, sir,' said Tiesen, and gave a deep bow in greeting. 'Welcome home. And Miss Riley, good evening. Please, come in.'

Jen gave him a quizzical look, but there was no time to do anything but step inside and hand over their coats, which Tiesen flicked up to the stand by the door. The hallway was the height of the first two floors, a grand chandelier hanging overhead and a handsome double stairway leading up further into the house.

'I assume my brother will not be joining us this evening.'

'No, Master Gabriel. Master Abidan is waiting for you in the dining room.'

Gabriel glanced at Jen, who looked increasingly nervous as she realised that there was more going on than she'd anticipated, and he felt a pang of guilt. He hadn't properly prepared her for this; all he'd said was they would be having dinner at his family home, and she'd suggested she come along. Since she had been invited as well, he knew that to say no would have required explanations he didn't want to give.

It looked like those explanations were going to hit her in the face instead.

'We shouldn't keep him waiting, love,' he said, extending an arm to her, and though that didn't make her look any more reassured, her mask of perfect control slipped over her face.

She'd not looked like that since the war, when she'd had to keep herself together for the sake of the group in even the grimmest of times. Clearly she knew something was wrong, and clearly she knew the best thing to do was to keep up appearances, but that dinner with his family was on a par with fighting Death Eaters did not console him.

But it was too late now.

Tiesen led them up the stairs and down the elaborate corridors to the dining hall, which was far, far too big for only three of them to dine. But it was still made ready, still laid out with all ceremony as if he wasn't family, but perhaps the Minister himself come to supper, the long, broad table dominating the room.

And at the far end, sat alone with a glass of red wine glinting in the shimmering light from the chandeliers, was his father.

He didn't stand, and Gabriel felt his back stiffen as they stopped in the doorway, Tiesen plodding a few more steps in. 'Master Gabriel and Miss Jennifer Riley, Master,' he said, ever one to observe formalities even for a returning family member.

'Thank you, Tiesen. That will be all; I shall ring the bell when we start.'

Abidan Doyle didn't look much like his son. He was taller than Gabriel, though shared the same shock of black hair, albeit now tinged with silver, and the same dark, dark eyes. Otherwise his features were more severe, more craggy, and though Gabriel was not one for a sunny disposition, he looked positively cheerful compared to his father.

Once Tiesen was gone Abidan did stand, crossing the space between them. He ignored Gabriel, turning to Jen and extending a hand, which she gingerly gave, clearly remembering her own education of what high pureblood society expected. Abidan dipped his head, his lips stopping inches away from the back of her hand. 'Miss Riley. I welcome you to my home; I imagine my son has not properly done so.'

Gabriel's breath caught in his throat. 'This is not my home any more, sir; it seemed improper to claim the right to welcome her.'

Jen's eyes flickered between them, something in the corner of her jaw twitching as he addressed his father as "sir". 'It is a most beautiful home, Mister Doyle.'

Abidan's expression shifted; he was clearly not especially impressed. 'Its construction was commissioned by my ancestor, who was an advisor to the Earl Bentley, back when Muggle society had some proper sense of propriety amongst itself, never mind its proper regard for the ways of magic.'

'I had thought this part of Kensington had been constructed by the Lord Harlowe,' said Jen smoothly, and Gabriel felt his heart swell as she didn't back down from his father's beady gaze.

'It was.' Abidan's expression flickered. 'Lord Harlowe was a wizard and a Count of the Muggle monarch, Gabriel, and a contemporary of the Earl Bentley. They collaborated upon the construction of this estate. Miss Riley clearly has you at a disadvantage on matters of magical history, even when they regard your own household.'

Gabriel's face didn't change. 'I was never one for Magical History at Hogwarts.'

'No; it might have given you some regard for your ancestry,' Abidan sneered, and turned to sweep back to his chair; behind his back Jen looked at Gabriel, horrified her keeping pace with his father had been twisted into a blow against him. He shook his head.

She was going to have to get used to it.

'It has been some time since you were last here, boy,' Abidan said as he sat himself down, and gestured to the two laid out places flanking him, the wine already poured into the crystal glasses for them.

Gabriel faltered before he took the seat to his father's right; normally that was his brother's place. But Menelaus wasn't here. 'Easter before last, sir.'

'Ah, yes. You did not even attend upon me before departing for Brazil. And you did not attend upon me since returning to the proper side of law and order, even though you were happy to take my money all the time you were away.'

'With respect, sir, you did not provide me with money while I was... fighting against the Thicknesse administration,' said Gabriel, picking his words carefully.

Abidan glared, and Gabriel flinched as his father's eyes were turned upon him. 'You would have had me funding you all the time you were a criminal? And how would that have looked, do you think, to the Death Eaters, whose company I had to keep? I had to convince them that you were nothing but a foolish, dissident youth, whose ideals I cared nothing for and who certainly was not welcome in my home.'

I can't imagine how they might have believed you, he thought bitterly, but didn't speak. Jen cleared her throat and lifted her glass, her voice pitch perfect. 'Gabriel tells me you've returned to law since leaving the Ministry.'

It must have been a gamble for her, but fortunately it was a safe topic and, more importantly, it changed the subject. Abidan leant back, frown on his face still present, but he gave a stiff nod. 'I am surprised Gabriel told you anything at all; he does prefer to act as if he was flung into existence fully-formed, not raised and shaped by a family - though he has done his best to resist our influence.' He looked back at Jen, who kept her expression studied. 'But he informed you correctly, if inelegantly. I have restarted my old firm. Inheritance law is set to become a particularly more complicated web if Shacklebolt has his way.'

Gabriel had never cared much for how Tobias had fussed over addressing Shacklebolt as Minister Shacklebolt. Considering the press ignored his title all the time, and he barely knew the man, he didn't think he needed to repeat his job; everyone knew who he was talking about. But the sneer of disapproval on his father's face made him, finally, understand why it vexed Tobias so much.

Respect needed to be given where it was due.

'I confess I know only a little,' Jen was saying. 'I specialise in criminal law.'

'Yes, and you're seeing fit to march half of wizarding society into Azkaban,' said his father, and Gabriel leant forward, gut churning.

'Should we not begin the first course?'

His father looked briefly outraged that his son had preempted him, but it distracted him from anything he might have continued to say which could have been an insult to Jen - though Jen looked calm, controlled, not about to rise to the bait. And, mercifully, his father rang the bell.

Dinner was eaten in a mixture of silence and stiff, formal discussion. Jen seemed keen to be the one to jump on any topic of conversation his father raised so he didn't have to, and he was prepared to at least be subtle in his insults to her - and, more importantly, she seemed prepared to take them on the chin.

They were just finishing off the last course, and Gabriel was wondering how he was going to broach the subject, when Abidan looked over at him and said, quite bluntly, 'So why are you here?'

Gabriel hesitated, but he had never done well at being frank with his father; it was his instinct to try to dodge a direct answer to a direct question, because they were so very often accusations where honesty just meant blame. 'Since you restarted the firm, I was hoping you could find a place for me.'

Abidan' gaze darkened. 'You've come crawling to me for a job?'

'Just something... small. Maybe part-time. Help out with the firm where I can.' He fought the urge to lower his gaze, forced himself to make firm eye contact.

'And what do you think you could bring that I could use?'

He flinched at the scathing tone, but forced himself to straighten. 'Myself. My name and my reputation as a member of a group hailed as heroes from the war. My connections to the Ministry, through Jen and through Tobias Grey - and through him, connections to Europe.' His voice managed to stay firm throughout as he recited the lines he'd practiced in his head since he'd realised he needed to come here.

He'd had a taste of what learning from Daedalus Cole could bring, and even though that taste had been something fleeting, something minor, being able to help Tobias like that had felt... good. Good like it had felt when he'd used his visions for good, but less confusing, less complicated. That had probably been what Daedalus had intended when he'd passed on several contact details and several of his dossiers; he'd probably meant for Gabriel to find that particular tidbit.

Dinner with his father had already been arranged as a matter of thoroughness, but he'd left the Ministry determined to do well tonight. He would need a source of his own wealth if he was to take on Daedalus' mantle - and if he was to do as Daedalus had, if he was to wander high wizarding society and eavesdrop for every little detail, barter and trade information and use knowledge as a weapon, he needed to be more than just some quirky little Seer, the boyfriend of a far more important woman.

He needed to be the son of Abidan Doyle.

And despite that his father was still sneering at him, he knew his words had struck home. He knew his father's business had struggled with his reputation to drag it down, the reputation of a man who had never been convicted of wrongdoing in the First War, whose contacts had kept him safe - but those in the know, had known what he'd done. And in the Second War Abidan Doyle had stayed in the Ministry and done all Thicknesse had asked of him, and though he had done nothing wrong that was one collaboration too many for many people to openly and happily associate with him.

So the need went both ways.

'I suppose I could find a way for you to... handle a few meetings,' his father said grudgingly. 'Keep some clients happy while I do the actual work and you, I don't know, bring them the tea.'

Jen flinched at that, the first time her mask had wavered, and Gabriel realised his father's need to insult him even when he was planning on using him had crossed a line for her - but she stayed silent. Her mask was intact but, as ever, he could see through it, see her tension and unhappiness.

'I can always put in an appearance at some of those parties you find tiresome, too, sir,' he offered, trying to sound eager and grateful, and ignoring the incredulous glance from Jen.

'Hmph. Perhaps. If you think you're capable of saying the right thing to the right person.' Abidan jerked his head at him as he looked at Jen. 'You'd best be there, too, Miss Riley. It doesn't do well for the firm to send nobody to these affairs, but I am far too busy to attend them all. But I most certainly don't want my son's presence to make matters worse; he's never had a care to do as I expected him, so I see no reason why he'd have a care to do as society expected of him.'

Jen had been taking the comments in stride so far, more inclined towards gentle deflection, but now Gabriel saw her shoulders tense. 'Your son does rather well with people,' she said. 'He has a much better head for these sorts of affairs than I do.'

Because I spent years in a house where if you said the wrong thing it ended badly, so a party is like a walk in the park, Gabriel thought, and in his bitterness he didn't see the warning sign of his father's expression going rather blank.

'If you're even worse than my son then I can't imagine you'll last long when you're expected to bring proper cases before the Wizengamot,' he sneered.

Gabriel's gut twisted. 'Sir, that's quite uncalled for.'

He was prepared to sit by for insults thrown at him; they were nothing new, but such a comment at Jen was one he'd instinctively not been able to let fly by. Though he wished he had, as his father's beady gaze swivelled around to him, and he again flinched - and hated himself for it. 'I'm expressing my opinion, boy, and I don't know what made you think you had the right to speak against it under my roof.'

His instinct now screamed at him to apologise, to duck his head, and so all he managed in response was a slightly strangled, 'Miss Riley is a guest.'

His father stood, rocking his chair, and all of a sudden Gabriel was ten years old again. 'I do not require reminding of proper etiquette in my own home, and I certainly do not require reminding by you, boy. I should not be surprised you bring up propriety only when it suits you; you never had a care for it when it came to your mother and me.'

Gabriel flinched back, finding himself shrinking in his chair despite himself, and though out of the corner of his vision he could see Jen's eyes widen, he couldn't meet her gaze, was too ashamed to, and when he spoke his voice was soft, strangled. 'I - I apologise, sir...'

Abidan scowled, but sat back down again heavily. 'It's just as well she isn't alive to see this, hasn't been alive to see what you've become; a layabout and a troublemaker. You will come to work for me, boy; I might not be able to make something decent of you, but I can at least make sure you don't bring further shame to this family -'

It was Jen's turn to stand, abrupt and angry. Her eyes flashed and for one terrible moment Gabriel thought she was going to lose her temper, but when she spoke her voice was the image of dainty control. 'If you'll forgive me, Mister Doyle, I am feeling a little light-headed. It might be best if Gabriel and I were off for the evening.'

His father looked up, unaccustomed to being interrupted, but he was mercifully too taken aback to object. 'Oh? Hm. Of course. You must come again some time, Miss Riley. I have enjoyed our conversations.'

How Abidan said that with a straight face, Gabriel didn't know, but he focused instead on standing without knocking anything over. He felt numb and unsteady on his feet, and he gave his father a nod that was almost a bow. 'I shall... see you soon, sir,' he said, and whatever the rest of the exchanged pleasantries were became lost to him in the wave of rushing air that filled his ears all the way out the dining room, down the hall, and out the door.

Even when he and Jen stood in the dark, crisp air on the street he felt light-headed, lost, and when she took his hand in hers gently he could barely squeeze back. She didn't say anything, and he felt too cowed and weak to meet her gaze.

He wasn't surprised when he heard her swish her wand lightly, when he felt the twisting and churning of apparition, which for once barely fazed him after all he'd sat through that evening. He was surprised to be pitched into the gloom of their bedroom back at home when they appeared, however - few magical homes were outright warded to prevent apparition, as that was complicated magic, but there were always spells to make it difficult enough to make a casual visitor decide to use the front door for simplicity's sake.

Jen had clearly concentrated through those protections, an effort nobody usually bothered with when they could instead arrive directly outside, but he was grateful for this exception as he felt his knees shake and realised he really didn't want to walk past Katie's curious glances.

Jen's hand slid from him and he tensed, suddenly alone in the gloom, only able to see her silhouette against the window lit up by the lights of London. But when she came back both her hands were free, and sliding up his shoulders. Her fingers buried themselves in his hair, and she tilted his head down to rest his forehead against hers.

'You're a good man,' she whispered deafeningly. 'You're a brave man. A loyal man. And I love you.'

She pressed her lips against his gently, and though his numbness hadn't faded entirely, that was when he realised he was shaking, his breathing coming raggedly, and desperately he clung to her.

'I'm sorry,' he breathed. 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry...'

He wasn't sure what he was sorry for. A little for his father having spoken to her like that, a little for having exposed her to the whole macabre affair when he should have probably just explained her being there would be a bad idea and suffered it by himself. But that would have been another lie, another evasion, another time for him to hide himself and his life from the people he cared about, as he'd been doing for almost ten years.

His breath caught as he realised that was what he was sorry for, and not just to her, but to all his friends, dismissed and distracted and diverted from truths about himself and his life until they even stopped asking, stopped expecting answers, stopped expecting to know him.

Mysterious Gabriel Doyle. That was who he'd been for years, and it had taken a world of pain and suffering before he'd realised that he was tired of it. It had taken Jen, whom he didn't want to hide from, and made him reflect on his behaviour towards his friends in all that time.

But even if he didn't want to hide so much any more, he didn't want her, or any of his friends, to have seen that - his childhood laid bare, all his doubts and fears and pains. Because he didn't want to see them himself.

She shushed him gently, and this time he could kiss her back, could feel the warmth of her embrace spreading through him and, finally, sinking into even the darkest, dimmest of places that he'd locked away for so long.



Chapter 8: Footloose and Fancy-Free
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‘What,’ said Tanith flatly, staring at the drinks put down in front of them, ‘the hell is this?’

‘They’re called Bongo Magic. Something about some Muggle drums.’ Melanie Larkin picked up her glass with a grin. ‘I don’t know what’s in it. Them.’

The name was certainly not indicative of the glasses’ contents - just the glasses themselves, for they were more like two glasses stuck together side by side, one holding a blue liquid, the other’s contents red and fizzy.

Tanith lifted hers gingerly. ‘How am I supposed to drink this without pouring the other glass down myself?’

‘Actually, you’d pour it on whoever’s sat on your left. So, don’t drink it next to people.’ Melanie frowned at her glass, setting it down. ‘I’ll go get straws.’

Then she went, winding her way through the crowds of the busy wizarding bar, leaving Tanith and Ariane lounging on their comfortable chairs in the corner. The bar known as ‘Nothing in Moderation’ was a part of a wave of new entertainment establishments being opened up in Diagon Alley in particular and wizarding Britain in general. A whole slew of businesses had been lost in the war, and that, combined with the public desire to live large and celebrate the end of an era of terror, had led to a boom of places where wizards and witches could enjoy themselves and relax. More often than not traditional old companies and expectations had been left abandoned, and in their place was something modern and reflective of the new wizarding world.

Tobias would have had something to say about sociological impacts of the war, but she was trying to not think too hard about him or sociology right then.

‘I get it,’ said Ariane when Melanie returned with a fistful of straws. ‘You take two straws, one in each glass, and drink them both at once.’

‘Ohhhh.’ All three girls fell silent in consideration of the brilliance before them - and in trying it out.

‘Still more complicated than it needs to be,’ said Tanith upon reflection and taste.

Melanie looked at her. ‘It’s fun, Tanith. You remember fun? Or does it only happen when you’ve scheduled it?’

Tanith took another drink to hide the sting of the words, before giving her two former roommates a genteel smile. ‘So how’re you both doing?’

They had continued to meet up after the war. The intention had been to do it once a month, but that just took one of them cancelling - usually Tanith - and in practice they’d not sat down together more than three times since May. But clearly Ariane and Melanie had felt some obligation to continue to see to her social well being, and Tanith had felt too guilty and grateful to shoot them down.

Her gaze flickered to Ariane’s neck, hidden behind a perfectly adorable and fashionable scarf. Ariane Drake now owned dozens, maybe hundreds of these scarves, of varying size and style for every occasion and weather condition, and was never seen without them.

Tanith had consequently never seen the vicious scar she knew lay on the bare skin of her throat. The scar from Thanatos Brynmor’s wand the night of the liberation, the wound which had been the only part of her body to not change when the Polyjuice Potion Ariane had consumed to impersonate her had worn off.

Somehow, in six months, they had managed to successfully never talk about those events. And that seemed to be to the satisfaction of all.

‘Madam Malkin’s has been releasing the new winter fashions,’ said Ariane, stirring the blue half of her drink. ‘You should come down, Tanith, it’s quite exceptional. We can get you something new.’

Tanith looked down at herself. ‘What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?’

Ariane and Melanie exchanged those looks she knew so well. ‘Sales are up at work,’ said Melanie, judiciously changing the subject. ‘Everyone’s happy to buy property now, after the slump from the Occupation.’

You mean the Occupation the two of you liked to join in with the rest of the world in pretending wasn’t happening? Tanith hid her expression behind a sip. ‘That’s good.’

‘But what’s up with you?’ Ariane leant forwards. ‘Training Officer for Harry Potter. That must be glamorous.’

‘Actually, I got the job so it wouldn’t be glamorous,’ Tanith said moodily. ‘My boss wanted someone to take him under their wing who wouldn’t be all star-struck, who’d treat him equal to everyone else.’

‘And you, of course, treat everyone equally horribly,’ said Melanie.

‘I’ll certainly treat you more equally horribly from now on,’ Tanith muttered. ‘We did have to dodge the press this afternoon. It’s ridiculous, there’s no story except for “Trainee Does Basic Procedural Work”.’

‘Really, you’d think the Aurors would be spinning this better,’ said Ariane thoughtfully, gaze going distant. ‘With Potter as a trainee you could use it to raise public opinion of the Auror Office, give people a better insight into the work you actually do, and if Shacklebolt wanted to use it to improve his prestige...’

Tanith side-eyed Ariane suspiciously as she voiced several logical thoughts which nobody in the Auror Office was public relations-minded enough to have considered. ‘I think that involves walking a tightrope with the press which I’m really not prepared to try. And the day the Ministry brings politics into the Auror Office...’

‘Is the day you impotently rage at us over drinks?’

Tanith glared at Melanie again. ‘They won’t do it. It’d look bad, and it’d backfire for them. They can publicly tout how successfully they’ve been convicting Death Eaters, they can even publicly tout the success at restoring law and order, but anything which suggests the Auror Office is partisan would backfire.’ She took a sip of her drink. ‘And I’d drag Toby over the coals for it.’

Ariane gave a knowing smile and Tanith realised she’d stumbled into a trap. ‘And how is Tobias?’

She looked down. ‘I haven’t seen him in a few days. And before that, not since before I went away.’

‘We were sorry to hear about Jacob,’ said Ariane, not insincere but certainly not inclined to linger on the topic. Tanith knew it was just because they didn’t want to bog the evening down with something as irritatingly depressing as grief, but she was grateful anyway as she moved the conversation swiftly on. ‘I imagine that made it harder for you and Tobias to see each other more.’

‘It made it even harder when Tobias refused to come on holiday with me because he had to work,’ said Tanith, with a bitterness that surprised even herself. She hadn’t intended on letting loose at the two - hadn’t realised she wanted to let loose at all - but once she remembered storming out of the morgue alone, the bitterness and anger in her gut which no simple tickets to Guatemala could kill churned up again.

‘Wow. Cold,’ said Melanie. ‘I know he’s really important, and all...’

‘You don’t have to pander to me, Mel, you can say it how it is,’ said Tanith gloomily.

‘All right. How has he still got his head shoved up his arse about his work?’

Tanith sighed. ‘It’s not that he’s not important. I mean, he does do a lot for the Minister, and from what I hear he’s basically calling the shots on the public image of the Ministry in the election. But he’s there because he put himself there. Even though it meant long hours and late nights and no weekends... and he knew that was what he was getting himself in for, and he did it anyway.’

‘Yeah, but... you signed up for the same with the Aurors.’ Melanie actually sounded hesitant about pointing her hypocrisy out, for once.

‘I signed up years ago. I’m on the path, I was already on the path. I can’t turn away from the Auror Office now, and I certainly couldn’t turn away from the Office back in May, when they needed every loyal, able-bodied person they could get to finish hunting down the Remnant.’ Tanith rubbed her temples. ‘I thought we could get it together once that calmed down, but within days of the Battle of Hogwarts he’d gone running off to Rome to meet the European Council, and when he came back he was up to his elbows in Ministerial duties.’

Her shoulders slumped, and she didn’t notice Ariane looking around the bar intently and waving a hand at a passing waiter.

‘You know it took us a week after that before we could so much as have dinner together? And that was hurriedly cooked in my kitchen, eaten on the floor because we’d thrown out some furniture and the new stuff hadn’t arrived yet, and he had to dash halfway through anyway...’

‘I don’t really know what to say, dear,’ said Ariane. ‘You both made your choices.’

‘Yeah, but he’s definitely cancelled more dates than I have,’ said Tanith, and she didn’t bother to count in her head to check if this was correct - nor did she volunteer the fact that they’d had to arrange these dates around her scheduled late shifts and long hours in the first place. ‘I just want some sort of... display of commitment from him.’

‘I didn’t realise things were this bad,’ said Melanie.

‘They’re not,’ Tanith groaned. ‘I mean... he got these tickets. For Christmas away. Guatemala. Just the two of us. Once the election’s over, and I guess the worst of the Auror work will be over because we won’t be working with the Prosecution Office on so many high-importance court cases...’

‘See? That sounds nice,’ said Ariane as pitchers were deposited by the waiter, one for each half of their drinks, and she quickly set about refilling their glasses.

‘And you said that once the election’s over he won’t even be in government any more. Just a few more weeks.’ Melanie tried for a smile.

‘I’m just tired of it.’ Tanith slumped. ‘I’m tired of feeling like hell, and working hard, and working long hours, and the times I do get off I look forward to seeing him, so when he cancels it’s just - it’s really, really demoralising. I try really hard to make sure I’m free and available sometimes, why can’t he?’

‘Because he works in the quickly-changing world of politics and sometimes gets called away at a moment’s notice, while you’ll usually only get called in if someone’s at a risk of death?’ said Melanie, a little flatly.

Exactly,’ said Tanith, though she suspected that wasn’t the response Melanie had expected. ‘For me it’s a question of life or death. For him it’s a question of poll figures.’

Ariane and Melanie exchanged glances, but Melanie just shook her head, clearly bowing out, and Ariane leant forwards. ‘But Mel’s right,’ she cooed. ‘Once the election’s over, he’ll be out of government and the two of you can spend some proper time together.’

‘The trick’s going to be getting through the next few weeks with your sanity intact,’ said Melanie dryly. ‘And, you know, ensuring that he treats you decently in that time.’

‘Instead of swooping down for booty calls in between office shifts.’ Ariane sounded bitter as she sipped on her drink.

Tanith stiffened a little. ‘There... what makes you think he’s doing that?’

Melanie shrugged. ‘When you don’t have much time to spend together and it’s a new relationship, it seems pretty logical you’re going to use the time you do have just screwing like rabbits. I get how that’s got pretty frustrating after months of nothing but, though.’

‘Um.’ Tanith bit her lip. ‘That’s not it at all. We’ve actually not, er, slept together yet.’

And again her former housemates exchanged pointed looks. Ariane set her glass down delicately, planting her hands on the table. ‘Well,’ she said. ‘If you want to keep him interested in the run-up to the election, do we have the game strategy for you.’

Melanie cocked her head. ‘How come you haven’t? I didn’t think you had that little time together! What’d he say?’

‘It’s not like it’s been a specific decision,’ said Tanith awkwardly. ‘Just... I don’t know. We haven’t really talked about it -’

‘Shocker,’ muttered Melanie.

‘...and it didn’t happen in the first couple of weeks because we were too busy.’ Tanith pressed on, preferring to address Ariane. ‘And then, I don’t know, I guess for my part I didn’t want our first time to be some frantic fumble on the couch in between my work shifts, but we’ve not got around to having a properly special night. The closest we came was that dinner date at the Golden Fork which Cal booked for us, but he also threw in an extra bottle of champagne and...’

‘...and we know what happens with you and champagne,’ said Melanie dryly. ‘Vomiting is not an aphrodisiac.’

Actually I was just really tired,’ said Tanith, not with unprovoked snippiness. ‘So it’s become a thing. I think he’s as self-conscious about it as I am.’

‘Right.’ Ariane straightened. ‘That needs to be fixed. No ifs, no buts. It didn’t occur to you that he might be holding back because of this? His work would take a hit if he made an extra effort to spend time with you. Surely he needs to know his time together is worth it.’

Tanith blinked. ‘He knows our time together is worth it, I’ve told him...’

‘But he’s a man,’ said Melanie with a sigh. ‘You can tell him all you want, but there’s only one body part he’ll really listen to.’

‘So if he knows that you’re serious about this relationship, then he’s going to be much more prepared to make arrangements for the two of you to spend time together.’

And,’ said Melanie, ‘he’ll totally be more prepared to skip out on work if he’s going to get sex out of it.’

Tanith pinched her nose and lifted a hand. ‘Let me get this straight. Tobias and I have been through... we’ve been jealous of each other, we’ve rejected one another, we’ve risked our lives for one another, thought the other was dead, rescued each other from dramatic peril, kissed, danced, said we loved one another, and our feelings have endured over several years and even several hundred miles. But nothing’s going to actually convince him this is serious, this is worth his time - and mine - as well as screwing like rabbits will?’

‘You don’t have to put it like that,’ said Ariane, at the same time as Melanie shrugged and said, ‘Pretty much.’

‘You know, I shudder to think what your love lives must be like,’ said Tanith flatly.

‘Footloose and fancy-free,’ said Melanie, ‘especially now Miles is out of the picture.’

Tanith blinked. ‘Since when?’

‘Since he lost his job at the Ministry and became a complete waste of space.’ Ariane sipped on her drink. ‘What? I didn’t ditch him because he has no money, I ditched him because he was completely pathetic about the whole thing. Kept expecting me to pay for him to do anything, wasn’t even prepared to make an effort for us to spend time together economically - you know, he can’t cook? And he refused to learn? It was my birthday and he spent the time moaning about how he couldn’t take me out anywhere nice, and when I suggested we do something at home he said there was nothing to be done! If he’d spent half as much time planning something as he did complaining about how he couldn’t do something, I’d have been treated like a princess, honestly.’

Tanith couldn’t help but grin sympathetically. ‘I’m sorry he turned out to be a waste of space.’

‘You’re not, you never liked him,’ said Ariane, and met her gaze levelly for a few heartbeats. ‘And it turns out you were right. So you can be smug about that.’

There was something in her eyes which was unusually honest, and Tanith shifted her weight. ‘I can assure you that I will never be smug about Miles Bletchley.’

Ariane waved a hand dismissively. ‘You said you were waiting for a special occasion with Tobias,’ she said, abruptly changing the subject, and despite the spotlight coming back on to her, Tanith let it happen out of sympathy. ‘We should warn you - they don’t just happen. You make them.’

‘I know - we’ve not had the time to make one.’

‘You fit it in,’ said Melanie. ‘Whenever an opportunity comes along, you seize it, and you make it happen.’

‘Nice dinners and such are all very well and good,’ said Ariane, leaning forward. ‘But I accept that’s difficult for you two. So you’ll just have to try to make the most of it with... other techniques. Schemes. Plans. We can help!’

Melanie nodded, then looked around the bar with a frown. ‘You know, I think we’re going to need some better drinks...’

* *


‘Right on time,’ said Shacklebolt as the Ministerial Office arrived in the secured street around the back of the building that would officially become the new magical hospital within a matter of minutes. ‘Let’s not dawdle, I don’t want to be late.’

But Tobias put a hand on the Minister’s elbow as he started down West Street towards Tindleham Alley. ‘Not that way, sir; we’re changing the route.’

Shacklebolt sighed, but let himself and the rest of the team, including the two Aurors on their protection detail, be led in the opposite direction. ‘I told you that you didn’t need to fuss, Tobias.’

‘I know, sir. But it is necessary. May I remind you to be sure to not speak to any press until after the speech?’ Tobias limped quickly to keep up with the Minister’s long-legged strides, leaning heavily on his cane. ‘Especially not from the Prophet.’

‘You told me already - I know,’ said Shacklebolt, giving his Communications Director a wry look. ‘You don’t need to be so paranoid -’

‘But it costs us nothing to take this street around, sir.’ Tobias nodded to the other narrow road which would lead them around to the front of the building - and avoid the throng of journalists Gabriel had warned him would be waiting for them down Tindleham Alley.

‘We picked Tindleham Alley,’ said Rackham, one of the Aurors, ‘because it’s sheltered enough for us to properly defend the Minister -’

‘I appreciate that from a security perspective it’s better, Mister Rackham, but for the sake of a hundred metres I hope you can do fine on this road.’ Tobias moved forward to lead the half-dozen of them down the narrow alleyway, eyes watching the gap at the far end beadily. If they were quick enough, the press wouldn’t realise they’d been bypassed and they could have the Minister on the stand before they knew it.

‘It’s all right, Rackham. Let Tobias do his job,’ said Shacklebolt, speaking to his former colleague with warm familiarity, and he pulled a roll of papers from his coat. ‘Someone had better take these, I don’t want them claiming I’m reading off notes -’ He looked around the other staffers, one of whom moved up to take the papers. ‘Where’s Demming?’

‘I had to fire Demming,’ said Tobias in a matter-of-fact manner. ‘He spoke to the press.’

‘About the ceremony? That’s a bit much, Toby, we could have just moved him to another department -’

And about the memo, Minister.’

Shacklebolt’s expression did tighten at that. ‘You’re sure?’

‘He confessed like a naughty first year caught out of bed at night, sir. I’m -’

They had just come out of the alleyway, just come into the main square where there was indeed a huge throng of people - some press, but staff for the new hospital, and people just wanting to catch a glimpse of such an auspicious occasion.

And just as they rounded the corner there was a sickening, loud boom, and the opposite end of the square suddenly exploded with a wave of magic and, with it, a wave of shattering masonry and brick. At the mouth to Tindleham Alley, where the mass of the press had been gathered, where everyone by now expected the Minister to have come from.

Tobias whirled around, but Rackham and his partner were quicker, the first Auror physically dragging Shacklebolt back around the corner and to the ground, the second stepping up to the entrance to the square, wand brandished.

‘Rackham! Get him out of here!’ he bellowed, as Tobias and the rest of the staff also went for their wands, Tobias cursing the absence of his staff as his leg twinged. ‘We’ve got to -’

Then the air was thick with screams, and the square was thick with dark robes.


* *


‘At least something good came out of that press attention yesterday,’ said Harry philosophically as the four of them appeared outside of the small country cottage along the east coast. ‘We never would have found this place otherwise.’

Tanith hated to admit that he was right. She’d come into work that morning with her head spinning a little from the drinks the night before, having misjudged just what was in the cocktails Ariane ordered, and so had been almost disheartened when the Enforcers had put a note on her desk. She’d looked forward to at least an hour drinking coffee and trying to put her skull back together.

But after the evening paper had printed their non-story about Harry Potter doing basic investigation work, someone read about how the Aurors were looking into the death of Bartholomew Mulready - and had told Canary Wharf that his ex-wife was their neighbour.

At least the sea air was doing her hangover could. She was not prepared, in the slightest, to let her trainees know she had been so foolish as to get a bit drunk the night before. But there had been plans.

All of them crazy, but plans.

‘Probably not,’ she had to concede. ‘But let’s see what she’s got to say for herself.’

‘Maybe she just wanted to go on holiday to celebrate the brutal murder of her dick of an ex-husband,’ Katie said as they crunched up the path.

Ron snorted. ‘Because that wouldn’t be suspicious.’

‘Let’s see what she’s got to say for herself,’ Tanith repeated as they reached the door, and wagged a finger before she knocked. ‘Now hush.’

There was silence. Then Tanith knocked again, and more silence. She was just reaching for her Auror’s badge, ready to bash on a window and flash it and shout, when finally she heard the sound of bolts being scraped back from the door, and it swung open to show a rather dingy and worn interior.

Before them, tense and apprehensive, stood Annabelle Mulready. ‘...yes?’

Tanith hesitated, then pulled out her badge anyway. ‘I’m Auror Cole; these are Trainees Bell, Potter, and Weasley. We’re looking into the murder of your ex-husband, Bartholomew Mulready. Can we come in and ask you some questions?’

It was difficult to sound as hard as she wanted to. Because even if Annabelle was guilty, Tanith was having a hard time summoning the casual distaste, at best, that she usually felt for criminals. If Annabelle had murdered her husband, Tanith rather thought she deserved a medal instead of prison.

But this was her job.

Annabelle looked like she knew this wasn’t a question, anyway, and stepped back to lead them into a dingy living room. They could see the sea beyond the windows, pale and grey on this gloomy autumn day, and while the view should have been invigorating, it all instead looked weak and straining.

‘I know what you’re thinking,’ Annabelle Mulready said, sitting down primly in an armchair as Tanith sat herself down opposite, and her trainees hovered uncertainly in the doorway. Annabelle hadn’t even looked twice at Harry. ‘But I didn’t kill Bart. I have nothing to hide.’

‘You’re an awfully hard woman to find for someone who has nothing to hide, Mrs Mulready,’ said Tanith, pulling her notebook out and trying to keep her voice casual.

Annabelle’s expression pinched. ‘I know what you’re like. The MLE. The truth isn’t as important as an answer. And I’m an easy answer.’

Harry made a slightly pained sound. ‘This isn’t the MLE under Voldemort, Mrs Mulready -’

‘You think the MLE was only corrupt when You-Know-Who ran it, Mister Potter?’ Her eyes were beady and accusing; Tanith realised with some surprise that she knew full well who he was, she just didn’t care. ‘Your Department has never done me any favours before; I’ve had no reason to trust you to do me any now.’

Tanith cleared her throat gently, and softened her voice as she leant forward. ‘I am interested in the truth, Mrs Mulready,’ she said carefully. ‘I worked with your ex-husband. I know -’

‘You, and every other member of the MLE who ignored everything he did to me.’ Annabelle’s voice shook. ‘When he was one of theirs, and if I reported it when he put his hands on me, I’d get an Enforcer come around, nod, take down some notes, then assure me it was best if I didn’t make anything official of it. And I realised it would go nowhere, so I didn’t.’ She looked up, eyes blazing. ‘Only when you couldn’t pretend any more that he was a good man did you bother to listen. Then you had no choice. So you’ll forgive me if I don’t trust the MLE to not jump to the obvious conclusion, when I had every reason to want that man dead.’

Tanith lifted a hand slowly. ‘I was going to say that I worked with Mulready. And my problem wasn’t in figuring out who might want him dead, but finding someone who didn’t. I can only imagine what happened between the two of you; I know last year that nobody had anyone like him on a leash...’

Annabelle swallowed quickly. ‘I don’t understand why he wasn’t locked up when Shacklebolt became Minister.’

Tanith’s throat tightened. Because it wasn’t convenient at the time. ‘I do need to give my superiors an answer as to what happened to him. And we came looking for you because you have motive, yes, Mrs Mulready, but also because you had a good chance of knowing what might have happened to him.’

She shook her head, a small jerk. Tanith could see fear in the gesture, in her eyes, her posture. If this was anything other than an intimidated, stressed middle-aged woman, then she was an excellent liar. ‘I don’t know what happened to him. I hadn’t seen him in weeks.’

Tanith clasped her hands in her lap. ‘If you did know something, Annabelle - look, like I said, I worked with Mulready. I saw the things he did. I know he happily took part in torture, I saw him... volunteer to murder someone.’ Right before you murdered someone yourself. She blinked, and pushed on. ‘If someone thought the world would be better off if he wasn’t breathing in it any more, I’d struggle to see a reason to condemn them to Azkaban.’

She studied Annabelle Mulready’s face as she talked, studied it for any twitch, any sign of give, and tried to sound as reassuring and warm as possible. But there was nothing - the fear and distrust did fade a little, but there was no flicker of doubt, or hesitation.

Annabelle shook her head. ‘I don’t know anything, Auror Cole. I’m... sorry I can’t make your job easier.’

No, you’re not. But that’s okay. Tanith sighed, and tapped her pencil against her notebook. ‘...can you tell me where you were the night he died?’

The sea air was bracing when they left the cottage, though Tanith couldn’t keep the frown from her face as Annabelle Mulready closed the door behind them, and Harry looked over at her. ‘What do you think?’

‘I don’t think she was lying,’ said Tanith, leading them back down the path. ‘Unless she’s secretly some criminal mastermind. But I’ll have the Enforcers keep an eye on her anyway for a couple of days, unless something else shows up.’

Ron looked over his shoulder. ‘Even if we don’t have any other leads right now,’ he said, ‘I’m kind of glad we don’t think it’s her. It sounds like she’s had a rotten enough time already without being done for murder.’

‘Yeah. She’s clearly been pushed a lot,’ she said quietly as Katie quickened her pace to draw past them, heading to leave the gate. Outside of the basic apparition protections of the house and its boundaries she could more easily whip up the mass apparition charms needed to get them out of there.

Harry raised an eyebrow. ‘Were you lying?’ he asked. ‘When you said you wouldn’t do anything if she confessed?’

‘That’s not exactly what I said,’ Tanith pointed out. ‘And we could hardly go back to Vaughn empty-handed, could we?’

He didn’t press it, but the look on his face made it clear he’d noticed she hadn’t specifically answered the question. It was just as well he didn’t press, though, because Tanith herself didn’t know the answer.

You’d probably just have to ask Riley to go easy on her; the Wizengamot have let enough people who’ve actually done something wrong go to let one more...

‘Chief!’

That was Katie, not organising the mass apparition, but instead yanking the gate open and sprinting over to them. In her hand was the glowing Communication Orb the team had been given; Tanith had palmed it off onto Katie because, of all of them, she was the best at communication and transport spells. It made sense for her to continue a job similar to the one she’d done with the Lions.

And her face was white as a sheet.

‘It’s Vaughn! There’s been an attack – Remnant. Remnant in Manchester, at the hospital.’

Tanith’s gut did loops and twists that put her nausea from the hangover to shame. Tobias. She snatched at her wand. ‘Let’s move out,’ she said. ‘Get here, we’d best apparate toge-’

‘No.’ Katie shook her head, knuckles where she held the Orb white. ‘He doesn’t want us with the team going in there, he wants us back to the Wharf. Stand-by in case there’s another hit somewhere else or they need rapid response...’

Meaning, Vaughn doesn’t want trainees running around in a combat zone if he can help it. Even if they has the experience. Fuck the Wharf -’

But you can’t say “Fuck the Wharf”, can you. Because you’re a professional, and you’re supposed to be a Training Officer...

‘Yeah,’ said Harry, expression setting. ‘Katie, get us a mass apparition ready; Ron, you better be on standby for some group Shield Spells the moment we arrive and –’

‘No.’ Tanith pinched the bridge of her nose. ‘We should... go back to Canary Wharf. Like the Old Man said. Stand by as reinforcements if they, or anyone else, needs us.’

He started. ‘But the Minister -’

‘Is going to be surrounded by the best and brightest of the Magical Law Enforcement Department,’ said Tanith, voice a little strained. ‘Not just his bodyguards, but everyone Vaughn is bringing in. We don’t get to ignore the orders that we don’t like.’

‘You changed your tune,’ Ron pointed out.

‘I remembered my duty.’ The word stuck in her throat. ‘Trust me, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than Manchester right now.’ They passed through the gate, and Tanith slammed it shut harder than she’d expected, her fists balling. ‘Now. Back to base.’



Chapter 9: There'll Be Another Time
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Sweeney fell like a sack of potatoes when the red sparks of the Stun hit him in the chest and almost landed on top of Tobias. This wasn't as unfortunate as it could have been; although the Auror bodyguard was a big, burly man, it did mean his body shielded them against the spray of falling masonry as another curse struck the wall above them.

Tobias wriggled away from Sweeney and put his back to the bench the four of them had been taking cover behind. He looked over at Rackham. 'This Displacement Aura can't be that big,' he told the Auror. 'They couldn't get one up bigger than the square.'

'I hate to remind you,' Rackham snapped, 'but we're still in the square, and we're cut off.'

The square had turned to chaos. Although the initial explosion had probably been targeting Shacklebolt, Avery's Remnant had not been so foolish as to count on a few heavy curses doing the job. Their numbers had been hidden, out of sight or in and amongst the crowd, and within seconds the air had turned from jubilant anticipation to fear and terror.

And all the exits had closed around them. Even if they hadn't been blocked off, the Death Eaters had people high up, throwing spells down from hiding places at anyone trying to make a break for it through the alleyways.

'We need a distraction,' Tobias said.

'The Minister's the target. I don't know how you were planning on luring them away from him!'

Tobias risked a glance over the bench. From his assessment, as the fighting raged between the Remnant and the MLE officers and any other willing members of the public across the square, the Remnant hadn't picked out that this hidey-hole was where Rackham and Sweeney had pushed the Minister to the ground. But that wouldn't last.

'We don't,' he said at last. 'Minister - swap coats with Sweeney. Ennervate.' He flicked his wand at the weakly-stirring Auror, who blinked and straightened, cautious to stay in cover - but he'd heard everything, and nodded.

Shacklebolt had been peering from behind the stone bench, hurling curses with an accuracy which made everyone remember the man had been an Auror himself once upon a time. But at this, he looked back, ducking behind cover again. 'What? I can't allow -'

'Us to risk ourselves for you, Minister? Don't be ridiculous. That's our job.'

'Actually, Tobias, your job is to handle my press releases, not risk your life.'

'Then give me a bonus when this is all over.' Tobias looked at Sweeney, who had pulled his coat off as Rackham was practically wrestling Shacklebolt out of his. 'Sweeney and I will make a break for it, while you two put out a lot of firepower like you're trying to cover our escape. That'll make them probably avoid you two. So when they come for us instead, you can make a break for it.'

Shacklebolt scowled. 'And what if you two just manage to blast your way out of there?'

'I doubt Avery's that dumb,' said Tobias. 'But if he is, then Sweeney's got a nice new coat.'

'You're my staff, Toby, not one of my bodyguards. I can't ask you to -'

'You're not asking me to, Minister. I'm doing it,' said Tobias firmly. 'Besides. If you run for it, you have to leave me behind anyway. I'd just slow you down.' He patted his bad leg. 'On the plus side, my limp makes me distinctive in a fight, so hopefully they'll assume I'm near you and look out for it.'

'That just makes you a target-'

'The kid's right,' Sweeney said. 'Sir, we need to get going. You've got it covered, Rackham?' The two Aurors shook hands with the sort of casual cheer which got a lot of people through life-or-death situations. 'Then you'd best get ready to throw out a lot of firepower, sir, since - like it or not - we're going.'

'Keep your head down,' Tobias told Sweeney. 'We don't want them getting a good look a you.'

'Don't forget I'm the Auror here, kid,' Sweeney said, a little tartly - and indeed, he took one glance around the bench and, assessing the fighting beyond with a speed Tobias couldn't have possibly achieved, determined it was time to go.

So the next thing Tobias knew he was being dragged to his feet and out into the open, as Sweeney, Rackham, and Shacklebolt let loose with a flurry of curses and hexes at the Remnant who'd swooped down on the square.

Sweeney had his head down, one arm covering most of his face, and Tobias limped as desperately as he could after him, trying to focus on protection charms. He doubted he could make a run for it and fight, and each step sent pain screaming up his leg, his cane abandoned somewhere in the debris.

There were shouts as they darted and limped for the alleyway, and then more curses, and Tobias risked a glance around them to confirm that they had, in fact, been noticed - that shadowy figures were falling back from Rackham and Shacklebolt's point, and attention was definitely drawing to them.

'They're falling for it!' Tobias hissed as Sweeney let loose a flurry of curses.

'Great!' the Auror snapped. 'Run!'

Then the paving stones underfoot exploded as some canny Death Eater threw a curse not at Tobias' well-practiced Shield charms - but at the world around them. Sweeney had been at ground zero of the explosion and went flying - and Tobias, unsteady on his feet, suddenly had the world whirled around him, and he hit the ground hard.

His ears rang from the sound, his vision span, and smoke burned away in his lungs. Tobias rolled on his back, fighting for coherent thought, and was dimly aware of the burly shape of Sweeney next to him, his wand already in hand, already getting back up -

And again being struck by a Stun, and again falling to the ground, still.

Shadows fell over them, tall and indistinct figures swarming the pair, though Tobias was too dazed to make out faces or recognise voices. 'Hold it right - damn.'

'It's not him.'

A wand was pointed in Tobias' face. 'The Minister. Where is he?'

Tobias blinked muggily. His wand was too many inches away from his hand, lying on the stones - with his leg, he'd never lunge for it quickly enough, and even if he did, what would he do? Try to Disapparate, take the risk of ending up anywhere and being splinched? It did beat dying.

I'm getting really sick of facing the business end of a wand.

But he smiled anyway. 'Oh, you can go right to hell if you think I'm telling you.'

One of the Remnant standing over him scowled. 'We don't have time for -'

Then the one who'd been waving a wand in his face stamped on his bad leg, and Tobias almost blacked out as he screamed. Not even when he wrenched it, not even when he over-exerted himself, did his leg hurt this much, like every inch of dark magic that had sunk into flesh and bone was flaring up.

'Tell us, or die! Did he get away? Did he -'

There was the sound of Stuns flying through the air, and the Death Eater standing over him gave a gurgle and collapsed to the ground - and through the slowly fading pain Tobias could hear the shouts around him change. Less panic, less pain, more the barking of orders and the voices of authority sweeping over, and then he could hear the cracks in the air of apparitions.

Sweeney's face appeared over him. 'Grey? Grey! You okay? It's all right, the MLE's got here, the Old Man's brought in the cavalry...'

Tobias blinked back pain, the ache making his breathing come raggedly. 'I'm okay, I'm okay. Go find the Minister, make sure he's all right...'

Their gambit had worked, he would learn. The Remnant had made a bee-line for him and Sweeney, and stayed away from what they'd judged to just be two dangerous Aurors who weren't a priority target. Once the bulk of the attackers had broken off, Rackham had all but dragged Shacklebolt away, down one of the roads out of the square - and right into Cassius Vaughn and his team of Aurors, Enforcers, and Hit Wizards.

Avery's Remnant had relied upon surprise and chaos, rather than numbers. Once the MLE had arrived they'd dropped their haphazardly-raised Displacement Aura and fled as quickly as possible, though not before losing perhaps half a dozen of their numbers to the MLE.

Then it was all over - except for the securing of the new prisoners, the securing of the Minister and important officials, and the beginning of repairs and medical attention. Fortunately, the hospital was ready in everything but the official ceremony, which was promptly waived to get people the care they needed.

Minister Shacklebolt found Tobias maybe an hour later sat on the steps up to the front doors. He was holding his cane, which he set down next to the younger man. 'I found something of yours.' He perched beside him. At the bottom of the steps, Tobias saw half a dozen Aurors and Enforcers carefully spreading out to stop anyone from getting past them, especially the press, and up to the Minister.

'Thank you,' said Tobias, and looked at his cane. He hated that thing. 'Are you all right, sir?'

Shacklebolt snorted. 'Am I all right? I got away fine. Even if Vaughn hadn't arrived then, Rackham and I were clear. You were the one who painted a bull's eye on yourself and went running through fire.'

'Limping,' Tobias corrected absent-mindedly.

'From where I stood, you were running. Sweeney and Rackham have been regaling the MLE with the story. Quick thinking; I sometimes forget you were an Enforcer.' Shacklebolt nodded down. 'How's your leg?'

Agonising. 'The same as ever,' said Tobias automatically. 'And I meant what I said, Minister. I just did my job. I'm no stranger to how doing the right thing means fighting sometimes. It's how this happened.' He nodded down at his thigh.

'I know. I suppose I've been surrounded by bureaucrats far too much. But I wanted to impress upon you how much I appreciate -' Shacklebolt stopped, and wrinkled his nose. 'Listen to me. Six months, and that's coming out like a politician. What I mean, Tobias, is - thank you.'

Tobias nodded awkwardly. 'You're welcome, Minister. When I say I believe in you, and I want to work to see you properly elected - I don't just mean at a desk. I mean in whatever way I can help.'

'Did you let the Healers have a look at you?'

He shifted his leg gingerly. The small movement still screamed with a familiar pain. 'There's not much they can do,' he said. 'Except for brew me up some potions to dull the pain.'

'It's something.'

'I don't like them,' said Tobias, a bit stiffly. 'I mean - sorry, sir. They wipe me out, I can't concentrate, I can't do anything. They're only any use if the pain's stopping me from sleeping. It'll get better over the next few days on its own.'

'I didn't realise it was that bad.'

'It's a Dark Magic wound, Minister. These injuries do nothing by halves.' Tobias gave a grimace of a smile. 'I'm used to it, really.'

Shacklebolt quirked an eyebrow. 'That's not especially reassuring. But you should grab some potions, go home. Get some rest.'

Tobias swept a hand across the square. 'And who's going to deal with all of this? We'll need to make announcements to the press, about the attack, about the MLE's next step, and we still have everything that was on the agenda anyway we don't want to let fall by the wayside. If we do nothing, Harrigan's going to jump on this and make it seem like we're not in control.'

Shacklebolt sighed, letting his gaze sweep across the throng of activity before them. 'This job never lets you sleep, does it?'

'We're still in working hours, Minister.' Tobias gave a lopsided smile. 'We should just be grateful the Remnant were so considerate in scheduling their attacks.'

The Minister nodded, getting to his feet and extending a hand to help Tobias up. Out of respect for Shacklebolt, Tobias didn't refuse it like he normally would, but grabbed his cane and let himself be helped to his feet. 'In that case,' said Shacklebolt, 'go talk to Vaughn and get his status. I'll get the staff and we'll drag the press together for a proper announcement.'

Not Vaughn. But Tobias just nodded. 'Of course, sir.'

The Head of the Auror Office was in the middle of a throng of his men, not to mention Enforcers and Hit Wizards. He had clearly assumed seniority amongst the different divisions of the MLE, which was not so unusual since he'd headed up the Department for over a month before demanding the Minister let him go back to the Aurors.

Tobias let his gaze sweep over the gathered officers. He'd seen no sign of Tanith, but then, there were other MLE officers he couldn't spot, and he had to reason that Vaughn wouldn't have brought everyone with him. In some ways, it was easier - for the most part he just wanted to crack on with work, get this situation controlled, but a part of him, the part of him in not-insignificant pain, wanted to rest, and sought her out.

Vaughn was giving out brusque orders, MLE officers entering and leaving the throng of activity, but he stopped when he saw Tobias, turning to him and giving a dry, lopsided smile. 'Grey. Good to see you.'

'Is it?' Tobias said mildly, remembering their last meeting.

Vaughn snorted and clapped him on the shoulder, and he tried to not wince as it shifted his weight. 'Rackham and Sweeney told me a pretty story. About how your plans for this ceremony got bust open, how it looks like the Remnant learnt and planned an ambush, and how you managed to screw it up by taking a different route.'

'That was just to dodge the press,' said Tobias, who hadn't even thought about that. 'If I'd known I was dodging a Remnant ambush, I would have at least brought my staff.'

Vaughn guffawed. 'Still messed up their plans. Then you make yourself a target to get the Minister out? That tickles me.' It was as if he'd never even called Tobias a "fucking idiot" a fortnight ago. 'What can I do for you?'

'The Minister needs to make an announcement to the press; they'll no doubt ask what the MLE are doing,' said Tobias, and thereby committed himself to the next few hours of the Ministry trying to wrestle back control of the situation.

He got the briefing from Vaughn, filtered out the necessary information, and gave it to Shacklebolt, who had harnessed the press and was proving how much he'd learnt of how to speak to them over the past six months. They were reassured that the Ministry had the situation under control, that the MLE had taken people into custody and were pursuing the leads, that Avery would no doubt be hunted. That the hospital would open, and even though they forgot to preempt the leak of the memo that had prompted Tobias' caution in the first place, the Minister swept the faltering question from the Prophet to one side with a calm reassurance that it was nothing more than a memo - that new people would be recruited, on a permanent basis, to guard Azkaban, and that this would be a long-term solution.

Then they were back in the Ministry, going over the events of the day with the staff and how to move on, how to keep in control, how to further their plans; a new poll needed to be put in the field, questions for it needed to be put together, and though it wasn't late by the time Tobias was finally slouching out of the office, it was after eight and dark outside.

His flat wasn't far from the Ministry; he'd liked the idea of being able to walk to work. But now he apparated, his injured leg no better after hours of limping to and fro, standing for most of the time, and though he'd been gritting his teeth and bearing it, the scar was throbbing painfully.

He didn't try to punch through the apparition wards of his flat, didn't feel up to it, and so it was with a groan that he appeared in his corridor, slumping against the wall for a few moments, getting his breath back.

Soon. He could rest, soon. Leaning heavily on his cane, Tobias slouched to his door, found his keys, and let himself in.

It was a small flat. A government salary wasn't all it could be, but he could still enjoy a modest kitchen-and-sitting room, and a separate bedroom. He didn't spend enough time there for it to be more than sparsely decorated, though he'd tried to keep that tasteful rather than spartan. It was nothing outrageous, but it was comfortable, and it was pleasant.

But not empty. The second thing he noticed when coming in were the candles, dozens arrayed on any flat surface that could be found, flickering with a magical, unnaturally golden flame that gave the flat a warm, inviting glow.

The first thing he noticed was Tanith perched on his dining table wearing only a negligée. Or a chemise. He wasn't sure.

The point was, there wasn't much of it.

She saw him and gave a slow, inviting smile he hadn't seen her wear before, encouraging but a little, unusually, shy. 'Hey.'

His jaw dropped and he tried to speak but, almost distressingly, nothing came out.

It would have been distressing if he hadn't been quite so distracted.

'When I got the call about the attack, I wanted to go right there. But Vaughn ordered us to Canary Wharf as possible backup. So we had to wait.' Her smile, if anything, broadened, and lightly Tanith got to her feet. Slowly, details of what was around them began to sink in. The table was laid, though there was no food in sight, just a plastic bag sat on the counter, and he thought he could smell Chinese food.

If he'd been thinking, he'd have wondered how the hell Tanith knew Chinese takeout existed, let alone how she knew to get her hands on it. But thinking was entirely out of the question right then.

'It gave me a bit of time to think. And worry, yes, but... I decided to use that worrying to plan. To think about how much I wanted to see you again, safe and sound. And what I'd do once I did.' She was almost gliding as she closed the space between them, coming to stand before him, reaching out - and then past him, to lightly nudge the door to swing shut.

'Then I heard not only that you were all right, but that you'd managed to make a hero of yourself getting the Minister out of there. Even Vaughn was impressed. So that settled it.' Her fingertips brushed along the buttons of his shirt, toying with the fabric.

A shiver ran through him at the contact, though her touch was enough to spark some function back into his thoughts. He fought to talk, clearing his throat, but his voice still came out hoarse. 'Tanith...'

She lifted a finger to his lips, and he almost melted there. The day was out of his mind, the fear out of his mind, the pain in his leg a thousand miles away. All there was, was her. 'I figured we had best celebrate. After all, you made a hero of yourself out there today.' She leant in, her lips a breath away from his, her hands coming down for her fingertips to brush against his belt buckle. 'And the way I remember it, the hero gets the girl.'

The next thing he knew for sure, they'd crossed the space between the door and the dining table and he was kissing her, their weight slamming against the table to rattle the cutlery. One hand was buried in her hair, the other tight around her; he'd dropped his cane somewhere along the way and he didn't care, couldn't care.

He'd kissed her a hundred times before, but never like this. She'd never felt like this before, hot and pinned against him, the world becoming foggy on where he ended and she began. Then her fingers were fumbling with the buttons on his shirt, and the feeling of her warm hands on bare flesh was enough to make his head spin.

He tore his lips from hers to trail them along her jaw and down, and felt her pulse pounding at her throat. A soft, needy moan escaped her lips, a sound he'd never heard her make before but knew he wanted to make her do again, and his hands slid to her hips, grip firm, to hoist her onto the table and -

- and then pain, blinding pain as taking not just his own weight but hers on his leg finally broke through the haze of desire, and his old injury screamed in protest.

No. No, you persevered through battle, you persevered through bureaucracy, you will not waver now of all -

But the pained gasp escaped his lips anyway, and she was not so lost as to not hear the difference, to not feel him tense, to not feel him sway on his feet, and suddenly her hold on him was concerned, not needy.

'Toby?'

Her voice sounded far away, impossibly far away, but he gritted his teeth even as he opened his eyes to find black spots in his vision. 'No, I'm -'

Then the pain and nausea came rushing up at him, and the next thing he knew the world was spinning and stumbling. Her hand was at his back, steering him, and when his leg refused to keep him upright any more and his head couldn't cope with the balance, he was slumping onto the sofa, guided to lie back by Tanith's light touch.

'Just stay there, put your feet up, I'll get you some water, I'll...'

She said more, but it was lost in a haze of fussing and the rushing of air in his ears as the world slowly stopped spinning, and the throbbing in his leg became bearable. It was the first time in months his leg had failed him - the last time had been in front of Azkaban itself, and he'd not blacked out when he'd tried to redirect lightning, so to now of all times...

Tobias fought to sit up, but then Tanith was there, crouched next to the sofa, and gently pushed him down - and he was too weak to fight it. 'Take it easy, take a moment, then have a drink and -'

He tried to speak, but there was bile in his throat and when he did, his voice was irritatingly weak. 'I'm not a child.'

She did falter, he could see, but it didn't stop that worried knot in her brow he recognised, that apprehensive concern, like he was something delicate that should be handled carefully. 'I know, Toby, you just went white as a sheet-'

'I'm fine,' he said gruffly, and this time didn't let her push him back as he sat up groggily. 'It was just - just a moment -'

'You sure as hell didn't look fine.'

He didn't hear the shake in her voice, or at least didn't hear the fear in it, just the fussing worry he hated so much. 'It was a moment of pain, it doesn't make me a child, or an invalid, or someone who can't do something for themselves, someone who can't tell for themselves if they're okay, who needs fussing over and prodding over and pitying, and I don't need to be pitied by you.'

The emphasis on 'you' came out all wrong, like of all people he should be pitying her, when all he meant was that she was the last person he wanted thinking so little of him. And he saw her flinch, saw her shrink away a little, and guilt came writhing up in him to become an obnoxious cocktail with his anger and self-pity.

Then her expression settled into something firmer. One hand took his, her other came to his forehead, and only then did he realise how clammy he was, and how she was the only thing that felt normal. 'Okay,' she said softly.

He blinked. 'Okay?'

'Okay,' she repeated, and went to sit on the sofa next to him, not letting go of his hand. 'And I'm sorry. I'd hate - hate - that you might feel like I think that of you. I don't pity you. I could never pity you, I could never think you weak, I could never think that you're anything but the bravest and strongest man I know. I was surprised, I was worried, I handled it badly, and I'm sorry.'

The fire in him - the anger, and frustration, and thwarted desire were all beginning to fade, and though the pain in his leg remained a dull throb, he suddenly felt more tired than anything else. 'I just meant... I don't want you to look at me like I'm weak... never you...'

She leant in and kissed the corner of his jaw, and he sighed. 'Can you do one thing for me, though?' she whispered. 'Just... lie down?'

He didn't resist this time, and she tugged him down gently to cradle his head in her lap. He let himself be lulled as she brushed hair from his sweaty brow carefully. 'I'm sorry,' he mumbled, weak and still disorientated. 'I've managed to ruin a perfectly good night -'

'You've ruined nothing,' she murmured. 'Christ, Grey, do you know how long it's been since we've just sat and talked of an evening?' There was something pained and wistful in her voice, and he blinked up at her. She sighed. 'I didn't even realise your leg still gave you that much trouble, I didn't even realise how you sometimes have difficulty with it, because we never talked about it - because I never asked.'

With a start, he realised she was right. They'd never talked about the night he'd killed Robb; they'd hardly talked about anything from the war. They'd been so desperately scrambling for any moment together, and had been so desperate to make those moments pleasant, that they'd let huge swathes of each other fly by.

'It's not usually that bad,' he said quietly, and just starting to speak felt like something was bursting in him. 'I never almost passed out before. It's been better the past few months, but then there was the fight today. I'm usually fine, I can usually get around. Limp around. I guess I've not let the Healers do everything they could, but I don't want them... poking, and prodding me, and fussing over me...' Tobias closed his eyes. 'I hate it. I hate the weird looks, the curious looks, the pitying looks; I hate that I stand out the moment I walk into a room. Hobble into a room.'

He looked at her, sought her gaze, even though shame squirmed and wormed away in his gut. 'I hate that it stops me from being the kind of man you want.'

Her hand at his temple tensed. 'You're everything -'

'Then I hate that it stops me from being... the kind of man I want to be for you. I ought to be sweeping you off your feet right about now, not be wiped out on the couch.'

She leant down and silenced him with a kiss. 'You're everything I could want, and everything I could need. As you are. Every inch of you. There'll be another time.'

'Isn't that our motto by now?'

He saw the flash of pain in her eyes. 'You should get some sleep. Let me help you to bed.'

Guilt stopped him from arguing, meant he didn't protest as she tugged him to his feet, made him lean on her as he limped through to the bedroom. 'Bet this isn't how you figured we'd end up here,' he murmured as he slumped onto the bed, finding it more soothing than he'd anticipated and then feeling even more bitter at his body for failing him.

She didn't answer, just helped him get comfortable, then went to pull away and self-consciously tugged at the short hem of her nightwear. 'I should probably -'

Lying down on his back on the bed, although he was still dog-tired, he could think more clearly, see more clearly, and in the gloom Tobias reached out to snatch her wrist. '...stay?' She hesitated, and he could see every inch of self-doubt written on her, could see her shoulders start to hunch in. He tugged gently at her, light enough that she could resist, but she didn't.

As she sank onto the bed beside him, her own movements speaking of a deep weariness, he slid his hand around her waist. 'You look perfect tonight.'

'I look like an idiot.'

'You look perfect,' Tobias repeated, shifting closer, keeping his weight on his good right side. 'You are perfect.' He kissed her bare shoulder, his nose brushing the strap on her chemise. 'Where on Earth did you get this?'

She squirmed, not entirely, he thought, from discomfort, as he felt her relax in his embrace. '...Ariane.'

'That explains a lot.'

'You think I couldn't do this myself?' But the challenge in her voice was toying, and he knew he'd reassured her.

'I think you did. I think you managed to achieve something nobody else ever has.' He grinned in the dark as she looked at him. 'Made me speechless.'

She rolled over to nestle up close against him, and the sickened guilt in his gut loosened a little. 'If tonight's been rearranged to just be a teaser,' she said, voice toying and relaxed, 'then I'm really going to have to up the ante, aren't I.'

'When I gave my spare key to Cal for emergencies, this wasn't really what I had in mind.' But when their eyes met, his gaze sobered slowly. 'I suddenly have a whole new motivation to go to Saint Mungo's and see if there's anything else they can do to help with my leg,' Tobias murmured. 'Because I don't want to give you anything less than my full attention next time around.'

He felt her breath catch in the gloom, and mentally cursed himself and his failing body yet again. But he meant it; he'd do it properly, this time. No more fobbing off the Healers because he didn't like their attention or their fuss, because he could 'get by' without it.

'I love you, Tobias,' she whispered. 'And there's nothing that could make me want you any less.'

Then she kissed him, lightly and lingeringly and, he suspected, trying to not frustrate herself any more than he'd likely managed to do over the evening. But it was enough to reinforce the promise to himself, the commitment this time he was determined to keep.

She was worth more than him just 'getting by'.



Chapter 10: Completely Unnecessary Optimism
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They'd not closed his curtains, so they were woken up by the sunlight creeping through into his bedroom. Tanith woke first as it landed on her face, stirring with a sound of small irritation, then rolled over to burrow her face in Tobias' shoulder.

Nor had they undressed properly, she remembered, because there was still a shirt where his shoulder should be, and she was still wearing the ridiculous and uncomfortable contraption Ariane had foisted upon her the other night.

It had been the least of many evils, however.

'Mm, where's my wand?' Tobias mumbled, moving only to reach out an arm to fumble on his bedside table.

'On the sofa. I took it out your pocket so you wouldn't break it. Mine's in the bathroom,' Tanith muttered unhappily, then burrowed deeper under the covers. 'Make it go 'way.'

'Hang on.' Tobias rolled away and she made another noise of protest, but he only moved to the edge of the bed so he could grab his staff, propped up against the wall. It was a clumsy, languid motion with which he waved it at the curtains, but it was enough, and they were cast into the gloom again. 'And this is why Muggle society will fail.'

'Because they've got to get out of bed when they're in these situations?'

'Pretty much.' He rolled over to face her, propping his head in his hand. '...hey.'

She kept her face buried in the pillow. 'Hey what?'

His smile was soft and languid. 'Just hey. Like, good morning.'

'It's early.'

'You are not a morning person.'

This did get her peeking up, gingerly, at him. 'How're you feeling?'

'Better for rest. But, um. I might have to ask you to go fetch my cane. I don't fancy trying to get up on my own.'

He looked pained, and she reached out to rest a hand on his chest, pushing him back down gently. 'You mean you're trapped in bed with me until I let you out?' She grinned.

Tobias returned the smile, and to her relief she felt him relax. 'I guess I can live with that. I don't have to be anywhere for a little bit, anyway. The Minister absolutely forbade me from coming in before 10.'

She made a face. 'It's a Saturday.'

'And yesterday was a huge day,' he pointed out. 'Besides, you don't get Saturdays off. Don't you have to be in soon?'

'I'm not in this morning,' Tanith said. 'I'm going with Cal to Azkaban later.'

'Oh,' he said, and she felt like an idiot as she considered yet another topic that had gone thoroughly undiscussed. The perils of spending nine months a thousand miles apart.

'So,' she said, giving a smile and leaning over him, letting her hair dangle in his face, 'I'm going to make the most of this time.' His expression turned pained, just like she'd expected, and he went to answer with some apology, as if she cared that he wasn't up to physical exertion, as if just having this morning with him wasn't a gift in itself, and she cut him off with a quick kiss. 'I'm going to find one of your shirts to wear. Something more comfortable than this silly thing. And then I'm going to raid your fridge and make you breakfast in bed.'

He smiled a genuine smile, and she relaxed. So long as she could keep on making him smile like that, he couldn't be that bad. 'I'm beginning to see the advantages of being bed-bound.'

'Oh,' she said, sliding out of bed with a grin. 'This really is just the beginning.' Then she sauntered over to his drawers, taking her time, and smiling a slightly silly smile to herself.

The teasing was turning out to be almost just as much fun after all.


* *


'So you're awfully chirpy this morning.'

'God knows why,' sighed Tanith, peering at the grey skies, the grey seas, and the ominous rock shape that protruded from the waves with an unnatural crudeness. 'Considering we're here.'

'That's what I meant,' said Cal, patting her on the shoulder. 'You're chirpy considering we're at Azkaban.' He kicked at the dirt underfoot, sent pebbles scattering and dancing to the edge of the cliff. 'Does pickup usually take this long?'

'At least it's not Dementor pickup. Let's count our blessings.'

'See?' Cal's grin broadened. 'Optimism. Completely unnecessary optimism. This is what I'm talking about. So.'

She peered at him. 'So...?'

'So, why? Might have something to do with you not being home last night and taking the spare key to Tobias'?' He nudged her with his elbow, and couldn't help but smile even more when he saw colour rise to her cheeks.

'Might have,' mumbled Tanith, unusually coy. 'It was nice, we -'

'I don't need details, God,' said Cal, with self-aware melodrama.

'Nothing happened,' she said, and sighed wistfully. 'He was a bit beaten up after the attack yesterday. We just talked, and slept.'

'Just talked and slept,' he repeated, and gave his own exaggerated sigh. 'Am I going to have to get you two another reservation at the Golden Fork?'

'I won't stop you. Just no more complimentary bottles of champagne, okay?'

'I was trying to help.'

'Do I look like I need your help?'

He paused, eyes narrowing. 'No good way to answer that, is there?' He lifted his hands in defeat. 'Fine. Fine. I won't help. Continue to be sex-less and frustrated.'

'I'm not taking advice from the single man.'

'"Single" doesn't mean "sex-less". Oh, hey, look, our ride.' Cal gave a grin that belied his nerves as he spotted the shapes swooping through the cloudy skies towards them, and was relieved when Tanith returned the smile.

'This isn't over.' She gave his shoulder a squeeze, mock-threatening and reassuring all at once.

He let out a deep, calming breath, and nodded. 'Dodged the bullet for now, though.'

The Azkaban Wardens took them across on their over-sized brooms. He'd never flown into the prison before; the last time he'd been here had been for the breakout, and they had flagrantly disregarded the security protocols by apparating directly to the island. They weren't supposed to do that on official business, apparently. And he hadn't been in a hurry to come to the place legitimately.

He stayed silent through the journey, mostly because he found the flight invigorating and wanted to harness as much of that good feeling as was possible. He was going to need it to get through this visit. And when they landed he let Tanith take the lead, let Tanith get them through the front doors and through the security procedures, where they took his wand off him and made it clear that under no circumstances was he to have physical contact with the prisoner.

That suited him just fine.

The Dementors were gone, but that only marginally improved the spirit of the place. It was still huge and imposing and unpleasant, and he still remembered crouching in this hallway next to Tobias, more scared and defeated than he'd ever felt in his life as the creatures swept down upon them. Tanith didn't look much happier, and he supposed that at least he'd never visited under how the prison had been before - and he'd never been locked up in it.

They were led through, at last, to the visiting room. Minister Shacklebolt had tried to improve conditions, but so far hadn't got much further than removing the Dementors and letting some plaster and paint tidy the facility. In this room, at least, the walls weren't bare stone any more, but a cold, stark white. He wasn't sure if it was any better.

And there, sat behind a table which he was shackled to by his ankles and wrists, sat his father.

Cal wasn't sure if returning to Azkaban or the loss of the war had dealt the bigger impact to Thanatos. Either way he was thinner than he'd been when he'd seen him last, tied up in the hallway at Canary Wharf. He'd grown a beard, thick and bedraggled, which hid his sunken cheeks, but those eyes - the dark brown eyes they shared, though Cal's had been described was "warm" and "chocolate" and generally like a pleasant piece on a dessert menu, while Thanatos' earnt words like "pitiless" and "abyssal" - those eyes, they remained as dark as ever.

But weary, now. Worn. Defeated.

Thanatos straightened with surprise at the sight of him - and then stiffened at the sight of Tanith, who slid into the room behind Cal and shut the door carefully. 'Caldwyn.'

There was only one person in the world he liked calling him by his full name, and it certainly wasn't his father. 'Thanatos.'

'I thought it would be my lawyer. The man was so useless I wouldn't be surprised if he hadn't realised I was re-convicted five months ago.'

'It doesn't matter how good or bad he was,' said Cal, brow furrowing. 'You were guilty as sin.'

Inexplicably, Thanatos smiled. It was a small, humourless smile, but it wasn't cold or insincere. 'That's correct. It's good to see you.'

'I wish I could say the same,' grumbled Cal, and he went to sit stiffly in the chair opposite.

'And you, Cole. I see you're still in the uniform.'

Tanith didn't move from the door, leaning against the wall. 'I'm here because Cal asked me to be, Brynmor. Nothing more, nothing less.'

'Then if she's only here because you're here, and you don't want to be here, why are you here?' Thanatos' flinty gaze turned on Cal, who squirmed under it.

'I'm not sure,' he admitted. 'I guess I can't just let you be locked up in here forever and then forget you exist.'

'Can't you?' Thanatos quirked an eyebrow. 'You didn't make it to my trial. I haven't seen you since...' He gave a slow, pained smile. 'Since you shot me.'

'You were going to kill Will.'

'That's right.' He nodded. 'And you stopped me. I didn't expect it.'

'Didn't expect being shot at all, or didn't expect that I would shoot you? Because if you wondered, even for second, what the outcome would be when I had to choose between you and Will...'

'Then I was a fool,' said Thanatos calmly. 'I know that now.'

Cal's jaw dropped. 'Are you saying sorry? Or... or that you were wrong, or - are you crazy? Has being in here finally driven you crazy?' He hesitated. 'Crazier?'

Thanatos opened his manacled hands. 'It's given me time to think.'

'And fifteen years wasn't enough time before?' Cal growled.

'The Dark Lord wasn't gone then.' Thanatos leant forward, palms on the table, gaze darkening. 'I believed. I persevered. I endured. That's how I kept my mind. And then, I was rewarded. He came for us, freed us, and -' He stopped, abruptly, jerking as if the train of thought had pained him. 'And now he is gone. Now, we have lost.'

'Yeah, welcome to the same page as the rest of Britain. What's your point? That now you're questioning your wicked ways?'

'I know you have always rejected this. But I did what I did - everything - for you, and for your future.'

Cal tensed. 'Don't you dare. Don't you dare pretend that this was for my good. And don't give me this "necessary evil" bullshit either; I know the truth. You liked doing it. You liked the killing, you liked the torture, you liked the power it gave you, the control it gave you. Maybe, maybe, if I am feeling generous, I can imagine you joined You-Know-Who out of some sense of idealism, perhaps even including making the world "better" for your family. But that's not where it ended.'

'Are you so sure?' Thanatos lifted his gaze to Tanith. 'She knows the truth.'

Tanith twitched. 'If you think I might help you in this,' she said tersely, 'then you have picked the wrong crowd. He's condemning you and he never even saw you in action. I did. I remember what you were like. I remember the spark of satisfaction in your eye when you tortured someone, or when you killed them.'

'Do you?' Thanatos tilted his head half an inch. 'Was it anything like the spark of satisfaction in your eye when you killed Nick Wilson?'

Cal looked at Tanith, shocked - but then she wasn't by the door any more, she was flying towards Thanatos as if she'd rip him apart with his bare hands, and Cal had to leap to his feet and grab her at the elbow to stop her.

'You made me do that, you son of a bitch!' she roared, but didn't struggle against Cal's grip with more than a desperate tug. 'You know you made me do that, you know you gave me no choice. So don't talk about your necessary evil when you did that to me, and when you killed him - even if he was your enemy, you could have locked him in here!'

'Tanith!' He almost let her go. Almost let her fly at his father and tear him limb from limb, almost thought he'd deserve it. It certainly wasn't out of affection for Thanatos that he stopped her, and after a few seconds she calmed in his grip, though her eyes burnt. 'Do you want to swap with a -'

'No, I'm fine.' She shook off his grip and slunk back to the door, gaze baleful. 'I'll stay. So long as he doesn't say another word to me.'

Cal looked sharply at Thanatos. 'You'll behave,' he commanded. 'Otherwise she's not just gone - I'm gone. And I won't be back.'

Thanatos bit his lip, but lifted his hands. 'So be it. My point was... anything you think that you might know about me, and how I felt about the things I did - you're wrong. Or, you're attributing to malice what is nothing more than a natural, human reaction. We are not peaceful creatures. You've never taken a life. You don't understand.'

Cal thought he saw Tanith twitch again, but he sat back down, letting out a deep breath. 'I didn't come here to debate what you did, Thanatos,' he said levelly. 'I came here to say goodbye. For good. I have my own life now, a good one, and you're no father of mine. You've never been a father to me. You have nothing to do with my existence, and you never have, and you never will.'

Thanatos' head had been bowing slowly as he'd talked, and by the time he'd finished he wasn't looking at him, just staring at the table. At last Cal felt a twist of guilt - and then felt sickened for feeling guilty for hurting a mass murderer's feelings.

'I hear you're playing Quidditch professionally,' Thanatos said at last, in as quiet and defeated a voice as Cal had ever heard from him. 'They let me read the paper a couple of times. I hear you're pretty good.'

Cal swallowed hard. 'First team for Puddlemere.'

'I played Quidditch at Hogwarts, you know.'

'I don't care,' he lied.

'Beater for Slytherin.' Thanatos lifted his head jerkily. 'But you knew that, didn't you. You went through the records. You found a picture. Probably us lifting the Cup back in '70. The one where we're hoisting Vance in the air because he scored so many goals it didn't matter that Hufflepuff got the Snitch -'

Cal's hands balled into fists. 'Shut up.'

'You went looking for it because you were curious, because aside from anything else I am still your father.' Thanatos planted his hands on the table, but his voice was desperate, almost begging now. 'I know Rayner looked after you, I know that... aside from anything else... he raised you to be strong. Principled. I won't argue those principles with you now, but I know you care about him and I know he... he cares about you, but he is not your father.'

'No.' Cal stood so suddenly he knocked his chair over, though he uttered the word as a denial not of Thanatos' words so much as the feelings bubbling up in him. 'You don't get to do this. You had every chance to listen to me, every chance to change your ways. Chances you didn't even deserve, and you didn't take them! You don't get to, now, when you have no other choice, get to pretend like you want to be something in my life on anything other than your own terms!'

He didn't even wait for a response, just turned on his heel and stormed to the door. Tanith had anticipated him and was holding it open, and he marched into the corridor, fists clenched tight enough to whiten his knuckles. The gloom of the stone corridor was inexplicably soothing, though he didn't even relax when he heard Tanith slam the door shut behind them.

'Damn him,' she was cursing, and he remembered she'd had her own anger to bottle up. 'Don't you listen to him, Cal, he is a hateful, hateful man, vicious and vindictive and you owe him nothing - you are nothing like him -'

'Tanith...'

He'd wanted her to stop talking, to stop repeating words he knew were true but burnt within him. And he succeeded, but only because his voice wavered and broke, and she moved from the door to his side.

Just her hand on his arm was enough. He turned to face her, a ball of tension and grief exploding as he pulled her to him. There was a small noise of surprise from her, but then she wrapped her arms around him as his shoulders shook and he bowed his head and wept for the lost boy he'd been - the lost boy still within him - who'd wanted to know his father.

And for the man he'd become who'd gone on to find out who his father really was.


* *


'That wasn't so bad,' said Gabriel as he closed the door behind the departing shape of his friends. But he phrased it as a question, and looked bashfully across the flat at Jen, who was depositing dirty dishes in the sink with a flick of the wand.

'It was nice,' she said, and he relaxed a little, going to help her with the debris of their evening's revelry. 'I would have thought talking politics with Cole was doomed to fail. I thought she'd be voting for Harrigan.'

'She may be, but I don't think that has anything to do with politics.' Gabriel grinned, and went to pour the remains of the last bottle of wine into their two glasses. 'Besides, Tobias has mellowed her out. She used to be much more conservative.'

'I believe you. Besides, she is an Auror. I shouldn't be too surprised the various extended powers for the MLE would meet with her approval. It makes her job easier.' With a sigh, Jen grabbed the half-full glass of red wine and collapsed onto the sofa, the washing up a world easier with a wand to help.

'You must be,' he said, joining her, 'the most anti-government government official I have ever met.'

'I'm not anti-government,' Jen protested. 'I just favour accountability. A fair and transparent and just system. And I don't think, in this world, that one can demand such a thing too strenuously. We might have just come out of a totalitarian dictatorship, but that almost makes people complacent. They won't stand for huge injustices, but they're still scared about outside threats, they still want to feel safe, and after someone could get murdered in the streets for speaking against the government, minor restrictions of liberty don't necessarily seem so bad.'

He watched her as she talked, head propped on his hand against the sofa, more inclined to listen and marvel than engage - as had ever been the case. 'I guess this is why you're working for the Shacklebolt administration, then.'

'He's a good man,' Jen agreed. 'And he's got good people next to him who are fighting for the right things. The balance is tough, and I don't agree with all of it, but he's doing a better job than anyone else could. It's good to talk to Tobias about it; we agree on a lot, and he's got the Minister's ear. I know he got into this to keep him honest.'

'I sometimes wonder if he's still here for that,' said Gabriel, wrinkling his nose. 'I know Tobias. If he gets his teeth into a project he can sometimes not be able to see the wood for trees. You listen to him talk about this policy or that policy...'

'He's got a lot on his plate,' Jen said. 'But no, I didn't think he'd be looking to stick around in government, and then you hear him speak now - he's making plans for the future. It's a shame.'

'A shame?'

'Rumour had it the Clarion would be starting back up again just as soon as they got a new editor. I thought Tobias would be a shoo-in. He'd like it. He'd be good at it. This is the man who kept Voldemort's government on its heels; come Minister Harrigan or Minister Shacklebolt, I can't think of a better watchdog.'

Gabriel grinned at her. 'I can.'

She smirked and shook her head. 'I'm in Prosecution. Which should be renamed "circus show".' Her smile faded. 'There are so many days I'm losing track of why I'm doing what I'm doing...'

'Because these people need to be brought to account for what they've done.'

'For what they've done.' She nodded. 'Not what they haven't done. Or what we think they've done. Like this Lackardy case, it's completely doing my head in...'

Her brow furrowed as her voice trailed off, and he reached out to brush some hair from her face. 'Talk to me.'

'There are so many mishandlings of this case I don't know where to start,' she sighed. 'I get that they didn't want to make Cole wrap up the case since Van Roden died on it, but they should have done something better. Savage isn't interested in the truth, he's interested in a quick arrest. Probably interested in vengeance.'

'But Lackardy has been affiliated with Avery's lot, you've been gathering the proof of that.'

'I have. But the night of his arrest is so fuzzy. I've got Cole's files and they don't shed a jot of light on anything. I don't know if Lackardy's lying about having been chased from his flat by another Auror, but why would he lie? And he stumbled right into Cole and Van Roden; he had to be panicking, he's not an idiot.' She bit her lip. 'A good defence lawyer would rip this to shreds.'

'On procedure?' Gabriel cocked his head. 'I get that you want justice, love, but having the man walk free because the Aurors messed up some paperwork...'

'I don't mean walk free. He still needs to be charged for working with Avery. I mean the murder charge. And there are so many inconsistencies that I can only question what the hell happened that night. I certainly shouldn't be able to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that he killed Jacob Van Roden. But I will, before the Wizengamot.' She sighed. 'Because the truth's being left alone.'

'Why is it?'

'His defence lawyer is sleep-walking through the case; nobody wants to be seen to be trying too hard to protect war criminals. It makes people question their loyalty, because people are... stupid.'

'I know this lawyer,' said Gabriel suddenly, by now playing with an errant strand of her hair. 'She's really, really good. Lots of experience. Stands up for justice, fluffy kittens, that kind of thing. And she's a war hero, you know, so nobody's going to even begin to question her loyalty.'

She smiled at him, and despite her upset he couldn't help but feel better. After all, if she was smiling, the world couldn't be that bad. 'I'm the prosecution. I can't go looking for proof of his innocence, it would be unethical -'

'As opposed to sending him to prison for a crime he didn't commit?' His voice was gentle rather than accusing. 'I'm not saying stand up in court and argue with yourself - though it might be your best chance of getting a good case before the Wizengamot. I'm saying, if you've got doubts, look into it. Don't just sit and worry about it.'

Jen let out a deep, shaky breath, and nodded. 'You're right. Of course you're right.' She sighed. 'It's ridiculous. Of all people - Bernard Lackardy? You know he was on the team... the team that went with Brynmor to Gullsmere?'

Gullsmere. The place where Nick Wilson and Cormac McLaggen had been captured and executed. Gabriel blinked slowly. 'I didn't.'

'He was injured in the fight and taken to Saint Mungo's. So I guess he wasn't... there.' She shook her head. 'The reports on Gullsmere are about as succinct as you'd expect Death Eater reports to be. They fought. They were captured. They were killed.' Jen's breath caught as she inhaled sharply, and looked at him. 'So how's your new job going?'

He never thought that would be a conversation topic he'd be glad of, but any escape from Gullsmere was welcome. 'For the most part I'm just getting the office in order. Getting in some more staff, starting up some advertising, getting the name out there. Doyle & Son has a bit more weight to it than just... Doyle.'

'I'm surprised he changed the company name,' said Jen with no disguised distaste.

'He has to. He needs me, he needs my good name. Then he's got the best of both worlds, the elite status of our breeding, the progressive heroics of his son...' Gabriel's lip curled, and he felt himself tensing.

It was her turn to reach out for him, her hand coming to rub the back of his neck gently. 'If you wanted a job,' she said carefully, 'especially in law, I could have asked around.'

'I didn't want a job in law specifically, I...' He hesitated. 'I know I can't pretend like I didn't want help in getting ahead because working for my father is the very definition of nepotism. And I can't pretend I don't need it...'

'Don't be silly,' she said. 'You're smart, you're capable -'

'My NEWTs are A's or worse,' Gabriel said flatly.

'You had a lot on your plate in your last year -'

'You'd be surprised how few people that convinces, even if I can tell them what was going on.' His voice took on a tart, mocking tone. 'Tobias Grey managed to get all O's in his six NEWTs, and he was working out of Hogwarts as an Enforcer for the last six months and his girlfriend died...'

He wasn't entirely sure who he was mocking. The voices in his head, most likely; he'd avoided his father keenly enough for the topic of his average academic results to not come up, but the shadow of his friends' school achievements had fallen over him long enough for bitterness to rise. Rise high enough that not much was beyond knee-jerk mockery.

And then he glanced to his right and looked at Tobias Grey's dead girlfriend's best friend, her expression going stony. She withdrew her hand and he sat up. 'This may come as a surprise,' Gabriel said quickly, bashfully, 'but there are an awful lot of people who don't like me, and this kind of thing? Is why.'

'I'm trying,' Jen said tensely, 'to remember why I'm not amongst those people right now.'

'I'm sorry,' he said, trying to sound as earnest as he genuinely felt. 'That was a crass thing to say.'

'Are you sorry you said it, or are you sorry you happened to say it in front of me?'

He winced. Tanith wouldn't have given a damn. Cal might have frowned disapprovingly. Either way he wouldn't have thought twice about it. 'That's a fair question,' he conceded. 'I am - I have been trying to get better. To not deflect issues with humour, especially hurtful, to not hide things. They're instincts. They were... survival tactics.'

Jen had been going to stand, but she hesitated at this, expression wavering. Then she sat down, though her gaze didn't especially warm. 'Okay,' she said. 'So what have you been hiding?'

He blinked. 'What, in general, or...'

'There's been something on your mind. I don't know what the history between you and your father is, but I can make guesses, and none of the evidence suggests you'd happily go to him for a job. Not when you had alternatives. Something's going on, and I've been giving you the time to... I don't know. Tell me. But now's the time.' She watched him levelly, cautiously.

'You're right.' Gabriel slumped. 'It is. And I was gearing up to that before I decided to go and be a prick.' He hunched his shoulders, wishing he hadn't pissed her off before broaching this topic, but he didn't want to lie to her face. Evasion was something else, and that had been only a stalling tactic, or so he'd told himself. Either way, it had left a bad taste in his mouth.

No more hiding. Not from her.

'I was late back from the Tibet trip,' he said, 'because I was invited to go and see Daedalus Cole when I got back. I was curious, I knew you'd be in the office for a few more hours, so I went straight there. It took a little longer because I ran into Tanith, but also he had some... interesting things to say.'

She had settled, curious and confused, and stayed silent as he explained it. Daedalus' past. His offer of a job, or at least a duty. The need for access to wizarding high society.

'So that's where my father came in,' Gabriel said tensely. 'If nothing else, this... this job isn't going to pay for a living but it's going to need a lot of time. Working for my father, I have time, and not only will I get a salary but I stay on his good side enough to be able to draw on my family's wealth.'

Jen frowned. 'There are other ways to make the money...'

'Perhaps, but while the Doyle name carries some weight in high society still, my name doesn't. There's a reason my father and I need one another to make the business work - if we care about making the business work. Even his reputation can't destroy the name and prestige, but you have to be on the inside to make the most of it. And that's how Cole made his contacts, got his information. Networking. Communicating. Listening.' Gabriel rolled his shoulders. 'That's a lifestyle I'll need if I'm going to be able to do this as well as he did.'

She still looked a little stricken, and her gaze dropped to her hands. 'This is kind of a big deal to keep from me.'

'I've not made a decision yet,' said Gabriel.

'But you went to see your father. You're working for him -'

'I needed to know if it was possible, and in finding out it was, I was committed. If I don't choose this, I can leave, it's not like disappointing my father will be a novelty.' He looked away, his voice and throat tightening. 'I didn't want to have to explain him.'

'I don't know what's happened between you,' Jen repeated, and then she was beside him, her fingers wrapping around his hand. 'But I would bet the Office's budget that any explanation would reflect worse on him than on you.'

He gave her a wan, not insincere smile. 'You're sweet.'

'And I'm betting the last time you and he had much to do with each other on a remotely regular basis, you were a child - legally and emotionally.' She watched his expression, knowing she was right. 'I was there. I heard how he talks to you as a man, and I'm confident he didn't talk to you any more kindly as a boy.'

His hand twitched, gripping hers hard at the rush of emotion. The tension in his belly and throat, the simmering sense of shame and failure that he'd pushed away for so long, frozen away behind walls of ice. When she made him melt, those, too, came to the forefront.

'I'm still glad that you brought me with you,' Jen continued quietly. 'Because it answers so many questions. And it's why I forgive you for being a dickhead just then about Annie. I get... why you've been like that. Even if I think you're better than it, even if I think you can, and should, rise above it, and even if I'll kick your arse if you don't.'

He gave a short burst of a sad, pained smile, and lifted her hand to his lips as he bowed his head. 'I really am sorry.'

'I know. And I know you'll do better.' Her eyes studied his face as she pressed on. 'So I don't understand why you want to do this job of Daedalus Cole's.'

Gabriel frowned at her. 'It's important. It can help.'

'Lots of things can help, Gabe...'

'I know. But there's not much I can do which can help this much.' He gestured vaguely. 'I barely know how to use my visions still, and even if I do, what am I supposed to do with them to make them help? Run down to the Auror Office every five seconds? Even if they believe me...'

'You're more than just your visions,' she said stubbornly. 'And either way, I'm sure there are ways to use them which won't have anything to do with a way of life so utterly steeped in... deception, in lies.'

Gabriel winced a little. 'You don't approve.'

'Not really. Not of any of it. I appreciate Daedalus Cole might have contributed in the wars, doing what he did. That's spying on the enemy. But this is peace time - who's the enemy, that he needs you to go to dinner parties to keep an eye on?'

'You know as well as I do,' he said carefully, 'that there is political moving and shaking which operates behind the scenes, in the shadows of justice, and that old pureblooded families are the people who'll use those methods the most. The people who'll want to keep the institutions you're fighting to sweep away. And meeting them on that battlefield, being armed and equipped to waylay them or at least just know what they've got up their sleeves, is a tremendous advantage. And that's even setting aside the ones of them who're plopping funding in Avery's pocket, or worse.'

Her lips pursed, and he was confused. He was right, and she knew it, but there was still hesitation and reservation there. 'I don't like it,' she said at last. 'I don't like the idea that there's this powerful information network in the hands of one of the old families being used for whatever good he deems is necessary. I think that such a tool shouldn't just be in the hands of one man, and much as political manoeuvring is a reality, the idea of spying on this manoeuvring for the government is not actually reassuring.

'I trust you,' she continued, meeting his gaze. 'But I'm not sure there's anyone I'd feel comfortable doing this kind of thing. And I don't think it'd be good for you.'

'Good for me?'

'All the secrets, all the lies, all the deceptions.' Jen took a sharp breath. 'You don't put a bottle of whisky in front of an alcoholic.'

'I don't follow.'

She took his hand in both of hers, gaze ardent. 'I think you've spent a lot of your life hiding who you are, what you feel, and what you think. I think that you're getting better, slowly, but I don't think undertaking a duty where leading a double-life will be a basic necessity is a wise choice.'

'I haven't decided on anything yet,' Gabriel said openly, honestly. 'I wouldn't, not without talking to you. I'm sorry I got tangled up with my father before speaking to you, but like I said; that was exploring my options and I can walk out if I don't take Cole's offer.'

'And if you don't, however virtuous this job of Cole's might be, it still throws you into the path of that hateful man.' Jen's expression twisted. 'I am all in favour of families being close and the reconciliation of old differences, but that takes both sides and he doesn't even seem to care about what he did to you...'

He met her gaze and saw a hundred questions in her eyes he knew she wouldn't ask - but she didn't have to. They were there, and so was all of her trust, and love, but though it reassured it didn't make him any more inclined to crack open the vaults inside him and let her see it all.

'I haven't agreed to anything with Cole,' Gabriel said instead, squeezing her hand. 'And I won't without talking to you first. And I haven't even made my own decision yet.'

Jen nodded, though she still looked reluctant. 'I think there are a hundred better things you could do for the world, and a hundred better things you could do for yourself. I think you don't need this.'

'Of course I don't,' he said, and reached for her. 'There's nothing I need, because I have you.'


Chapter 11: All Your Fuss-Eggs in One Fuss-Basket
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'We're back to square one,' Katie wailed, burying her face in her arms as Aurors buzzed and prowled around the bullpen down in Canary Wharf. Most of them were passing through, stopping for important meetings, picking up folders; the team of trainees had been stuck around the desks for an hour so far that morning, and were not set to move off anywhere any time soon. 'If the wife didn't do it, then who the hell did?'

'We have to let the evidence lead us,' Tanith said, trying to sound commanding and reassuring but as much at a loss as the rest, and aware this wasn't the first time she'd said that this morning. She flicked her wand at the board on the wall she'd claimed for the Mulready case. 'Go back to basics. Look at every inch of what occurred that night, at the crime scene. Look at every person who might have motive.'

'I thought we established half of Britain wouldn't have spat on Mulready if he was on fire,' Ron grumbled from where he was sat next to Katie.

'There's a line between that and murder,' said Harry. He, of all of them, had tried to remain the most placid about the entire affair.

'Exactly.' Tanith nodded at him. 'We go back to the files of Mulready's old cases and criminal record and find the people who looked like they'd have a real reason to hold a grudge. Cross-reference those individuals with their own records to see who might have the temperament and the means to act on it. We got halfway through this work before we got distracted with a lead on the wife; it's almost done.'

Harry picked up a file on the table next to him. 'Oh, and I got the paperwork back from the Arithmancers about the killing curse. That is, the curse-that-was-used-to-kill-him. Not the Killing Curse.'

'To think I mocked you,' Tanith said, reaching for it and by now unashamed to implicitly accept she'd been wrong to discourage him. 'There better be something good in here.'

'It was the Scindo curse,' said Harry. 'Apparently it's a particular derivation of some routine severing spells which are usually used for non-violent means - hacking through the undergrowth, that kind of thing.'

'Hey, I know that one.' Katie brightened up. 'We used it a bunch in the Lions, or at least, some of the guys did. They said it had a really good punch, but it was kind of slow and unwieldy. A good finishing move or if you thought they weren't expecting it, and sometimes good to punch through shields, but you wouldn't want to try to pull it off if you were under heavy fire.'

Tanith made a face as she read the file. 'So you're saying it was pretty widely used and not especially distinctive unless it's properly analysed.'

'And it wasn't unpopular in the war. I think the guys might have picked it up off the Death Eaters in the first place, or vice versa, I dunno. It got thrown around a lot.' Katie shrugged.

'Then maybe we should focus our attention on suspects we knew were in the war,' Ron suggested. 'If it's possible that whoever used it on Mulready picked it up from there, or from the same trend all the Death Eaters did.'

'It's as good a start as any,' said Harry, brightening a bit.

'Then it's a plan, Chief. Chief?'

All three of them now looked up at Tanith, who'd been staring at the file. As Katie prompted her, she snapped it shut, then stood without looking at them and began yanking open her drawers, rifling through them one at a time.

Harry leant forwards. 'Thought of something?'

She didn't answer, but eventually pulled out one folder which was still clipped shut; from the way she had to prise at the clips it looked like she hadn't opened it much, if at all. The three fell silent again when, one at a time, they recognised the contents of the file as the details of the arrest of Bernard Lackardy.

'Scindo,' Tanith hissed at last, slapping the palm of her hand down on the folder. 'Son of a bitch.'

Katie was the first one to venture to talk. 'Chief?'

'No, it's - nothing to do with the case.' But her shoulders tensed, and only slowly did she close the folder. 'I remember Scindo now, though I didn't tend to get sent on the jobs where the Death Eaters were throwing around vicious curses like that. I shouldn't have forgotten it, though.'

Harry winced. 'Is that what Lackardy used on...'

'Yeah.' Tanith went to shove the folder back into a drawer. 'But I'm letting myself get distracted. It doesn't matter now -'

'Actually, it might.'

All four of them looked up to see not just Cassius Vaughn storming into the bullpen, but Jen Riley by his side, a huge stack of papers under one arm. Both of them looked rather serious-faced, and Vaughn didn't break step to gesture for them to follow.

Exchanging glances of confusion but not saying anything, the Aurors trooped after them out of the bullpen, following Vaughn as he led them down the corridor and into the broad conference room used normally for team leader briefings and other such auspicious occasions. Tanith didn't think she'd been in it more than a handful of times, and none of them had been for anything minor.

Her eyes still landed on the chair at the top of the table, where she almost half-expected to see Thanatos Brynmor's tall, brooding shape.

'Sit down,' said Vaughn, but he didn't wait for them to finish shuffling around with seats and space before he continued. 'I just had Miss Riley here burst in on me with some rather damning and worrying information that's going to affect this case - and other cases. And some of you.'

He looked right at Tanith, who opened her mouth to speak before Vaughn gestured to Jen, who set her paperwork down.

'I had to go over the evidence against Bernard Lackardy. Because to charge someone with murder, you have to be damn sure that they did it,' she said, her voice a little cold.

'He did do it,' Tanith growled, but the frustration felt now born of instinct more than fact.

'Actually, he didn't. I won't tell Mister Vaughn how to do his job, but he needs to take a serious look at how some even quite seasoned Aurors are following procedure if Auror Savage allowed -'

'That sounds an awful lot like you are telling me how to do my job,' said Vaughn unpleasantly. 'Cut to the chase.'

Jen glared, but let her gaze fall to the papers. 'I conducted the basic double-checking of facts, and discovered nobody had so much as cast a Priori Incantatum on Lackardy's wand after he was brought in.'

Tanith's brow furrowed. 'It was a Stupefy. It missed. And what the hell does that prove?'

'It was a Stun, yes, but you know full well that your Analysis Office can get back as many as the past dozen spells. From Lackardy's wand we could get as far back as the telekinetic charm he used to hurl a car at Auror Van Roden,' said Jen, and then she hesitated.

'Still not seeing the point, Riley,' said Tanith, not caring for her apprehension.

'Auror Van Roden was killed by the Scindo curse; this was identified as a matter of procedure, as is always done when a member of the MLE is killed,' said Vaughn. 'Nowhere in the analysis of Lackardy's wand was there any indication that Lackardy cast that.'

Grim silence fell upon them all, broken only when Tanith drew a short, tense breath. 'You're saying that Jacob wasn't killed by Lackardy.'

'That's exactly what I'm saying,' said Jen. 'Lackardy claims someone burst into his room and attacked him. He fled, and ran straight into the two of you. Savage suggested there wasn't much evidence to back this up, but Lackardy did live in squalor and claims he ran away quickly; it's not that odd. And it's a strange lie.'

Tanith's expression pinched. 'If there's this mysterious fourth person present who attacked Lackardy and drove him out at us - and I agree that Lackardy was acting rather strangely to blunder as badly as he did,' she said carefully, 'then I don't understand why they'd kill Jacob.'

'Maybe for their own reasons,' said Vaughn. 'Maybe as an accident. Maybe it wasn't them. But it wasn't Bernard Lackardy. We're going to have to drop those charges against him and see if the Prosecution Office can take him on over the Avery collaboration.'

'We can do that,' said Jen quietly.

Tanith made a face. 'Much as I appreciate knowing that Jacob's killer is still out there,' she said, 'why have you brought the lot of us in here? Unless you want me to make a pitch for taking us off Mulready's case and put on this one, and then I assure you, I can put on a damn light show to argue that.'

'You don't have to. Not yet.' Vaughn sighed. 'Two uses of a distinctive but not-uncommon spell being used to murder people who, six months ago, were part of the MLE, is not enough to raise my eyebrows. Not when the circumstances are so different. But we got another murder in this morning I was going to palm off onto Williamson.'

He took a folder off Jen and tossed it onto the table. 'Valeria Phelps, Miss Riley's predecessor. Conducted the prosecution of hundreds of cases during Thicknesse's regime, cases the Wizengamot has considered to be unlawful.'

'Someone I would have loved to throw in prison,' said Jen tersely, 'but despite the fact that she was a rather disgusting woman who happily associated with Thicknesse's regime and shot up the ranks over the nine months accordingly, she was unfortunately well-enough versed in the law to hide behind... only following orders.'

'Though she was thrown out of the Ministry after the war and not much has been heard from her since. And then her body was found in her house this morning. Killed by, you guessed it, the Scindo curse.'

Tanith's eyes flashed and she reached for the folder. 'Someone formerly associated with the Thicknesse regime to a full and disgusting level, who escaped justice immediately after through convenience or slipperiness, has been attacked or murdered in their home and killed with a specific spell.'

'I might only be a trainee,' said Harry, 'but that sounds like a pattern to me.'

'Miss Riley.' Vaughn looked over at Jen. 'Could you give me the room?'

She inclined her head and ducked out, and Vaughn waited until the door had clicked shut behind her before he continued. 'The similarities between the Phelps and the Mulready cases are enough that they'll need the same people at the head of them. The Lackardy case - the Van Roden case - is a clusterfuck, but I won't risk dismissing the connections just yet.' He planted his hands on the conference table and looked at his four Aurors - but most of all at Tanith. 'I don't know if this is a case I can give to trainees.'

Tanith opened her mouth to protest - to defend the trainees, to point out Savage's shortcomings, to tell him to ditch the trainees and let her tackle it - but it was Harry who piped up first.

'We can handle it,' he said, gaze cool and calm and collected. Tanith was beginning to tell when he was putting on his mask of The Boy Who Lived, and she suspected he was wilfully turning it on Vaughn right then.

'We can,' she said, eager to back him up. 'The kids are good, they know their trade, and they're not going to cut corners like Savage did.'

There was a pause, then Vaughn gave a single, slow nod. 'I'll give you a chance,' he said gruffly. 'If only because I'm low on people. But if this is a serial killer, it's not going to take long before this flares up. Nobody cares much about Mulready. People will care about a series of murders, especially when it includes an Auror. There's going to be fuss.'

'There'll be fuss wherever Harry is,' said Ron. 'At least this way you get all your fuss-eggs in one fuss-basket.'

'Trainees, I'm going to have to ask you to return to the bullpen. Your Team Leader can give you your next move in a few minutes,' said Vaughn, and the three trainees made themselves scarce with notable speed.

Tanith watched them go, knowing what was coming, and the moment the door was shut behind Ron she'd stood. 'Boss, I can do this case.'

Vaughn scowled. 'I don't want to see this go rotten -'

'It won't.' Her heart was pounding in her chest. 'I know you'll take me off if I screw this up, but I won't. I know it's bad procedure to put an Auror on the murder of their partner, but it's Jacob. I have to find out what happened to him.' She drew a tense breath. 'I sat on the sidelines in the war for so long, Boss, watching injustice after injustice, and I don't know if I can do it again for him. Not for him.'

'I've already said you're on the case, Cole. You don't need to convince me.' Vaughn lifted a hand, but his expression remained stern. 'But you need to listen to me. I am taking one hell of a risk letting this ball stay in your court. And this is because I am low on people and low on time, and Weasley's right - if the press are going to write about Potter anyway, let's give them something to write about. But that means the heat is going to be on your head even more, and you cannot afford to put a foot so much as an inch out of place. You are close to this one, too damn close for my liking, but I'm going to give you a chance.'

His expression folded up. 'And if you prove my faith wrong I will have you babysitting these trainees through Floo traffic violations, I shit you not.'

Tanith gave a short, jerky nod. 'I understand, Boss. I really do. And I'm not going to let you down.'

'All right.' Vaughn squared his shoulders. 'Then get to work. I'll get all the pertinent files down to you.' He nodded at the folder on the conference table, which she picked up as she left the room, winding through the corridors back down to the bullpen.

Jen was lingering at the edges, body language tense, and stepped out to waylay her. 'Cole, look. I'm sorry you ended up getting that news through the official channels.'

Tanith paused, genuinely surprised. 'It was official information.'

'Yeah, but not everyone would want to be told that their partner's killer was still on the loose in the middle of a briefing. But I couldn't justify not taking this stuff to Vaughn directly.' Jen made a face. 'Especially not since it reflect so badly on members of the Auror Office.'

'Savage isn't a bad Auror,' said Tanith, not sure why she was defending a colleague she particularly didn't like. 'But he's been overworked and... and I think most of us thought the Lackardy case was pretty open and shut.'

Jen looked over her shoulder at where the trainees sat. 'I guess it's turning out to be anything but, huh?' She sighed. 'I'll let you get to it. I might have to reschedule Lackardy's court date but I'm probably going to have to call you up as a witness now. It's likely I'll need to bring up the stuff he did during the war.'

'Happy to help,' said Tanith, then ducked past her and went to join her three trainees. They looked tense, apprehensive, knowing she'd just taken a blow of significant news - but they were alert, bright-eyed. Keen.

As was she. Although her gut twisted and her heart spun at the thought of what had happened to Jacob, although fire burned in her belly at the thought that there was someone out there who needed to still be brought to justice for his death, it wasn't like it had been for months. These feelings weren't crippling, draining, dragging her down and killing hope.

Because she wasn't helpless this time. This was something that shocked her to her core and she could do something about it. Go out there. Enact justice.

It was a good feeling.

Tanith looked at her three trainees and gave a broad, feral smile as she set down Valeria Phelps' file on the table. 'New victim. New crime scene. New clues and leads to go through, from here and from Lackardy. We identify the connections between them. We follow the trail.

'And we find the son of a bitch responsible and we bring him down.'


* *





Will Rayner squinted down the corridor as he emerged from the heavy door that led to the Department of Mysteries. '...how long have you been here?'

'About ten minutes. Someone said you'd be out soon.' Cal got to his feet, having been perched on the floor in the Ministry. A pair of paper coffee cups were in his hands, and he passed one over to his foster father.

Will took it, still looking a bit confused. 'You could have got a memo sent in to come see me. Or to get me to come out.'

'I didn't want to disturb you. But I do want to buy you breakfast.' Cal cocked his head at him. 'Or is it dinner for you?'

'Fried dinner sounds fantastic. There's a greasy spoon place around the corner, wizards don't go there but it'll be open even at this time. They do the best black pudding...'

The Muggle-born Unspeakable led his foster son to the lifts and through to the exit of the Ministry. At five in the morning the place was quiet, downright peaceful, with just the particularly keen early risers of ministry officials, and members of the Department of International Magical Cooperation who were bound to the sun in a different land.

And, in very rare cases, the people who were just leaving.

'I'd ask you how work was going,' said Cal as they stepped out into the dark, crisp, morning London air, 'but I bet you can't tell me.'

'Refining Floo Communication, security, and... well, how to break that security,' said Will pleasantly. 'I picked up a lot of techniques while in Russia and Greece. I want to implement them so we know how to stop them, and refine them so we can use them on other people.' He took a gulp of coffee. 'Never design a weapon you can't protect yourself from.'

'Weapon?'

'Floo security incursions are weapons. They're just bloodless.' Will smirked. 'Usually.' He clapped Cal on the shoulder as they wandered down the gloomy streets. 'Not that it's not good to see you, kid, but to what do I owe the pleasure?'

'I can't just drop by?'

'You can. But it's not like our trips to the Leaky Cauldron have been irregular, and it's five in the morning.'

Cal looked down bashfully, big shoulders hunching a little. 'I couldn't sleep. I reckoned you'd still be up.'

He didn't say any more, though Will watched him for several more long, pointed seconds. The older man sighed. 'So, how've you been?'

'Good. I've been good.' Cal nodded quickly, sincerely. 'It's going great at Puddlemere. I've got an interview with Which Broomstick next week, I'm getting to start most games these days, and I've even been getting some contact from the Tornadoes manager I think is him starting to try to poach me.'

'Tornadoes, huh?'

'I won't go. But it's nice to be asked, you know?' Cal grinned. 'To be in demand. I'm not used to that. But I intend to enjoy it while it lasts.'

'I'm glad you're doing good, kid,' Will said sincerely. 'It's a cutthroat world out there, but you've got a good head on your shoulders. And you're getting paid well to do something that you love. Not many people can proclaim that.'

'No,' said Cal, his smile souring a very little. 'They can't.'

They'd just made it to the café, and Will sorted them out with food - Cal suspected this had been a cunning ruse by his foster father to stop him from buying him breakfast. He had no Muggle money on him, so it was up to Will to get them their breakfasts.

They talked about nothing as they waited - recent matches, Will's work, anything and everything except for anything important - and then ate in determined silence, both of them big men with hearty appetites who liked to enjoy their meals.

It was only when Cal was wiping up the baked bean sauce with a slice of toast that he finally broke the silence. 'I went to see Thanatos.'

Will wiped his mouth with a napkin. 'I heard.'

'It didn't go well.'

'What did the bastard have to say for himself?' Will looked cautious as much as anything else as he watched his foster son.

Cal rolled a shoulder. 'I think... I think he knows he's beaten. Properly, this time. Not like before, when he thought You-Know-Who would come back and that he'd just need to bide his time. I think that gave him strength and determination to keep his mind in Azkaban.'

'In so far he ever kept his mind to begin with,' said Will quietly. 'But it definitely gave him... fire.'

'That's gone, now. He's looking at how everything he fought for has turned to ash. His life, his ideals, his family. And he's going to spend the rest of his life, which could be at least another fifty years, in a cell in Azkaban prison.'

Will leant forward. 'Hey.' He caught Cal's gaze, and kept it firmly. 'He killed people. He tortured people. He tortured you, and your friends. You don't have to feel sorry for him.'

Cal sighed, scrubbing his face with his hands. 'That's the problem,' he said quietly. 'I kind of do. He's just... pathetic right now. Beaten. He has nothing in his life.'

'So do a lot of other people. Because he took everything from them. Including their lives.' Will looked cautious, reserved.

'He still wants a connection to me,' said Cal, the words coming out in a tumble. 'I think it's the only thing he could have left in his life. And I can't ever agree with his ideals, or ever look at him and not see a murderer, but there's also - I don't know.' He stared at the table. 'The idea of condemning a man to being stuck in the world's most miserable prison with nobody to ever visit him, or even care that he's there, is... I find it hard to grasp what a man could do deserve that.'

'I don't know,' Will agreed, 'but I think that if it is possible for that fate to be deserved, then Thanatos Brynmor deserves it. And I know that if you are to make decisions about your life, then they should be about yours. Not his. He made his choices, for himself and for others, and now he has to live with them. Do you want a connection with him?'

Cal blinked. 'I - I don't know. That's not a question I've been very good at answering.'

Will grimaced a little. 'I can't tell you what to do, with your life and your choices -'

'But you can give me advice.' Cal gave a worn, worried smile. 'That's why I came here, Will, I - it's you, you're the wisest man I know, you're the only person who can give me advice on this...'

Will's shoulders relaxed, but only slightly. 'Then all I can tell you is to make a choice for you. For what you want. Do not - do not - make your life worse or even remotely inconvenienced for him. He doesn't deserve that. He doesn't deserve anything that is not freely given because the person wants to give it. Not out of guilt, or out of pity, but given, truly given.'

Cal stared at his hands, but gave a short jerk of a nod. 'You don't think I should have anything to do with him, do you.'

'I think that the right decision was made eighteen years ago when they locked him up and threw away the key,' said Will tersely. 'I think that man stands as one of the top five war criminals, possibly the greatest war criminal still alive. I think that he had a thousand and one times to turn back and never did, and so even if he is suddenly expressing that he was wrong - and if he is, I wouldn't believe it - then it is a repentance which is worth less than nothing. Any man can claim to be penitent when he stands in the jaws of hell. True absolution can only come at a price. Because if it didn't cost anything, it's worthless.'

'And he has to even really want forgiveness in the first place,' Cal mumbled. 'Lying aside, I don't even know if that was what he was saying. I don't know if he was accepting he was wrong so much as accepting he's been defeated. Doing so with marginally good grace can kind of look like the same thing.'

'If Voldemort came back tomorrow with an army at his back and broke Thanatos Brynmor out of Azkaban, he would get down on one knee before you could spit,' said Will. 'Remember that. Every time you look at him, remember that, if you struggle to remember his crimes.'

'I shouldn't struggle to remember his crimes,' Cal mumbled guiltily. 'That's pathetic and selfish of me, isn't it. Even if I could forgive what he's done to me, if I wanted to, it's not down to me to forgive him for what he did to others.'

'I know it's hard,' said Will, 'when you're dealing with people who you don't know, when you're dealing with injustices which are far removed from yourself. It makes it detached, it's like something you see on TV where you only intellectually recognise that it's wrong. But it's not so detached for those people. And I think it's important you remember that, even if those people are so far from yourself.'

'A lot of them are,' said Cal, and his expression had darkened with slow, pained realisation and blossoming, twisting guilt. He glanced up at Will. 'But there's definitely one person awfully close to home whose life Thanatos has wrecked. Twice.'


Chapter 12: French Gnomes Are Worse
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‘If you just relax, Mister Grey,’ said the Healer, hands firmly around Tobias’ knee, ‘and let me know what you feel.’

‘If it’s pain,’ said Tobias, gripping the Saint Mungo’s bed he was perched on, ‘do you want a descriptor, or will “ow” suffice?’

‘Some indication of degree will be useful, but I’m not here to make you uncomfortable,’ she said. ‘We just don’t have very good records of the nature and extent of this damage, and how it’s been healed, and how it’s progressed. It’s important for us to get a full idea of which muscles are affected, how badly, and how that’s developed over the past months.’

‘Don’t you have the paperwork from my Healers back in Greece?’ said Tobias gingerly.

‘You stopped seeing them after two months,’ she reminded him, a little tersely. ‘Once you were consistently mobile with a walking aid you cancelled further appointments. Your appointments here with us have been sketchy at best and only when you have been in specific pain.’

‘It’s a hospital,’ said Tobias. ‘It’s for emergencies.’

‘It’s for people who need help,’ said the Healer, her hands a little cold on Tobias’ bare thigh as she felt the red, livid scar, and the muscles around it.

‘I don’t -’ But he winced as she placed pressure on a certain point, and took a sharp, hissing gasp. ‘Yes, it will hurt if you poke it!’

The Healer looked up, only nominally apologetic. ‘I’m four inches away from the scar and applying gentle pressure. This would suggest that there’s damage still further along the muscle. You cannot determine the care that you need, Mister Grey, off sight and feel alone.’

‘They’ve been doing me good so far.’

She stood abruptly and went over to her desk, where she picked up his file. ‘You made this appointment because you wanted to be prescribed some proper long-term care for your leg. I am happy to help you with that, but you need to help yourself.’

‘Of course I want to help myself,’ said Tobias unhappily. ‘I’m here.’

‘After how long?’ The Healer’s voice was gentle in her challenge. ‘It’s no sign of weakness to get our help. I can try to determine a long-term course of care. It will take regular appointments, regular physical therapy, a regular prescription of potions which are both for your pain and to help the recovery of your muscles. It will take time. It will take hard work. Some of it may leave you temporarily incapacitated as we try different methods and different techniques, but we shall find the best course.’

‘And where will I be at the end of it?’ Tobias said, unable to keep the sneer from his voice. ‘Skipping and running? Of course I won’t, it’s a Dark Magic injury, it doesn’t just go away. There is no magical cure for this.’

‘But it is the difference,’ said said tersely, ‘between needing that cane everywhere you go, or being able to move around under your own steam some of the time.’

Some of the time,’ he repeated scathingly. ‘Not in public. In public I’ll still be the man with the cane -’

‘Or, if you’re very lucky, the man with the obvious limp, yes,’ she said coolly. ‘But it’s the difference between leaving that by your front door every time you come home, or needing it by your bed so you can so much as get up in the morning without help.’ Slowly her gaze softened, though Tobias was relieved to see no trace of pity in there. ‘It might not make a difference in how people see you in public, but it should make a difference in how much pain you’re in while you’re being watched.’

She began scribbling something down on a pad. ‘You came here, after six months, for a reason, Mister Grey. You say you’re worse than you were before your fight in Manchester; you know full well that there is a world of nuance within “still injured”. Is that why you came here? To get better after the attack?’

Tobias sighed, staring down at the scar. He tried, most of the time, to not look at it, but here under the slightly too-bright light of the hospital room it seemed even more vivid, red and ugly and puckered up. He was coming up on a year since he’d sustained the injury, and he still wasn’t used to it.

To not being whole.

‘It finally started to get the better of me,’ he admitted grudgingly. ‘I’ve always been able to work around it. Power through. Not let it slow me down in my work. And that’s not changed. It just finally meant I let someone down.’

‘I don’t mean to be so cold, Mister Grey,’ she said, her voice softening. ‘It is a deeply unpleasant injury, and I understand it’s difficult when so many such wounds could normally be cured within hours, days, weeks. Barring tremendous breakthroughs in our understanding of injuries caused by Dark Magic - and we do research all the time, with especially more done since the war - you will almost certainly never again recover full strength and mobility in your left leg.

‘But it doesn’t have to slow you down in anything but running a marathon. And I can help with that. All I ask is that you be honest about whether you want me to help, and honest about whether you’ll take my help, because anything else is wasting my time and yours.’

Tobias’ shoulders slumped, and when he spoke his voice came out very small. ‘I do want your help,’ he said quietly. ‘And I’ll take it. I knew I wasn’t going to be running marathons ever. I guess I just hoped it was possible I wouldn’t need this.’ He tapped the cane.

‘It is possible,’ the Healer said, scribbling something else down on the pad. ‘These wounds are unpredictable; it’s part of why we struggle so much to fix them. But I would not consider it likely. You have to aim for achievable, manageable goals, in the long-term and short-term. Start with, over the next couple of months, getting to the point where you can move around your home, your office, without it, and without putting yourself in more pain to do so.’

The thought did brighten him, a little, and he wore a wan smile when the Healer pulled the top sheet off her pad. ‘In the meantime, here’s a prescription for some potions. They will knock you out, so I suggest you take them last thing before bed. You almost certainly won’t wake up for six hours after that, and I’d like you to get a full eight. But they should help the muscles peripheral to the main injury heal up; the indirect Dark Magic damage is something we can combat.’

‘Eight hours’ sleep.’ Tobias blinked at the sheet as she passed it to him. ‘That’s optimistic.’

‘You can get eight hours’ sleep,’ she said mildly, ‘or you can continue to be in pain. I’d want you to take it every night. I’ll put you in for an appointment in two weeks’ time and we can see what progress the potions, and time, have made.’

He sighed, reaching to the side of the bed to pick up his trousers. ‘Thank you,’ he said a little grudgingly. Even the routine of dressing himself had its little quirks and intricacies, the little ways he had to balance himself, the way he couldn’t put his weight on his bad leg, and he thought he felt her eyes boring into him as he got properly dressed again.

‘For what it’s worth,’ she said as he was putting his shoes back on, ‘I used to read your paper.’

Tobias glanced up, raising an eyebrow. He didn’t get that very often any more. Most people had said and done their praise, and were just looking to bellyache at him about the Minister. ‘Oh? I hope it was helpful.’

It was a stock response, but he’d run out of sincerity since people usually said it while looking at him pityingly - or while trying to not stare at his leg.

‘It was.’ She smiled, her first genuine smile, and again he was reassured by the absence of pity. He supposed a Healer saw enough injuries that they managed to see the people behind them with ease. ‘I was here, just helping who I could, but... it was good to know there were other people out there helping. Fighting.’

‘Then I’m glad I could help,’ said Tobias, pulling on his coat. ‘That was the idea. But that was a while ago now.’ He tried for a more genuine smile. ‘I now have to try to help in a completely different way.’

‘Your man’s got my vote,’ she said with a chuckle, and he left the hospital room feeling a little bit less sorry for himself than he had when he’d come in.

He’d expected it to be a pain to get an appointment at Saint Mungo’s. But the moment he’d mentioned it to the Minister, Shacklebolt had got straight on the Floo himself, ignoring his weak protests. He’d got him an appointment and given him the time off for it, sooner than he could have likely got of his own accord, and when he’d tried to object, pride wounded, Shacklebolt had just said it was in the best interests of the Office for him to be healthy, so he shouldn’t consider it nepotism so much as a campaign investment.

Even if he knew Shacklebolt’s concern was personal, it had been hard to argue with that. And, of all the people in his life who showed concern about his personal welfare, Kingsley Shacklebolt was the one person he couldn’t tell to go take a long walk off a short pier.

Tobias tried to ignore the throng of people in Saint Mungo’s as he pushed his way down the corridor. At least the new hospital had been taking a lot of the pressure off; it was a sad state of affairs that Saint Mungo’s had been sufficient for wizarding society for some two hundred years as the sole magical healing institution in Britain, but no more.

Then again, techniques for healing had developed to become more sophisticated, so a trained Healer had more to offer than the average wizard who’d learnt some recovery spells. That placed a higher demand on such trained individuals. And after two major wars in twenty-five years, he was not the only person with long-term injuries which needed attention. Before he’d been born, such ailments were freakish, unfortunate occurrences, not afflictions which affected a notable percentage of the population.

At least he was not alone in being pathetic.

He only got occasional glances. Someone had to be pretty keyed in to politics to know who he was, or a former reader of the Midnight Press who had bothered to remember his face. Such individuals were few and far between, and that suited him in general and certainly in particular right now.

So he was rather surprised when a voice he recognised hummed through the corridor. ‘Mister Grey?’

Tobias blinked as he turned to see the willowy shape of Philon Harrigan, Kingsley Shacklebolt’s nearest and only real rival in the Ministerial Elections. He forced a polite smile and straightened up. ‘Mister Harrigan - I wouldn’t have expected to see you here.’

Philon Harrigan was a handsome older man, well-presented in old-fashioned robes Tobias knew he wouldn’t have worn two years ago. Two years ago he’d have been wearing something modern, but he was also a clever politician who knew full well that modernity was an angle which his nearest rival had covered. It suited his poll numbers to spout the same politics he ever had, just to look a little bit less like he was against the old, established orders. Tobias couldn’t begrudge him this; that was the nature of the business they were in.

‘My mother’s in hospital,’ he said, though he looked unconcerned. ‘She fell foul of a garden gnome. So she gets to be in here while I have to round up my son this afternoon so he and I can wrangle the little blighter out of her back yard.’

Despite himself, Tobias smiled. He had never had a personal objection to his rival, and had indeed found him perfectly pleasant to talk to when outside of professional circumstances. ‘You should call the Prophet. Make it a press event.’

‘Myself and Leon being outwitted by a gnome for four hours? I imagine Kingsley would love that,’ he chuckled. ‘No, I leave the displays of virile youth to him. I’ll just try to get through the issue with my personal pride intact, let alone my public image.’

‘I don’t envy you. Fortunately, any garden my mother keeps is in Paris.’

‘Fortunately? I imagine French gnomes are worse.’ Harrigan smirked, though the smile sobered a little. ‘I also imagine a man like you doesn’t need to read the news to hear what’s been coming out of the Auror Office.’

‘I have some pretty direct lines,’ Tobias agreed with a sigh. ‘You mean this Death Eater murderer going around?’

‘At least the press haven’t found some cutesy nickname, but a few more days on the front page and I bet that’ll change.’ Harrigan made a face. ‘I don’t envy you for being in government and dealing with that one. Condemning murder and vigilante action while not being able to paint the victims as... victims?’

‘Oh, but if we let the sins of the victims reach public awareness that much then we get all these lovely questions about how the MLE didn’t bring the victims to proper justice themselves, sooner,’ Tobias growled. ‘It’s a great balancing act.’

‘It is, and I’m afraid I’m not going to make life easier for you with it,’ said Harrigan, sounding halfway apologetic. ‘But it’s the nature of the game.’

‘You know it’s the nature of the game why these people didn’t get brought to justice sooner. You know life’s more complicated than that.’

‘I do,’ agreed Harrigan, ‘and yet, when you’re making these kinds of compromises and these kinds of choices, they need to be scrutinised and questioned. Each and every one. Even if they’re right, they still need to be examined.’

‘If you were here to keep us honest, Mister Harrigan,’ said Tobias as he lifted a finger, ‘you should go into the media, not into politics.’

‘Right now I can do both,’ said Harrigan. ‘But I didn’t bring it up to score points against you. It’s hard to hear a name associated with this case which isn’t Harry Potter - good bit of cover-up there, the press like to get distracted with that he’s doing something rather than pay attention to what he’s doing. But the senior Investigating Officer’s your partner, am I right?’

Tobias nodded, a little apprehensive. He didn’t think Harrigan would play dirty but this was a new tack. ‘Tanith Cole. That’s correct.’

‘Relax, Mister Grey.’ Harrigan smiled his politician’s smile - the one aimed to make people relax, and the one which worked. ‘I just wanted to ask you to give her my best wishes. Sincerely. I can hardly wish the Auror Office luck on such a case as this without it seeming like a political move, but I do sincerely wish the team on this the best. I fear they’ll need it, since public opinion runs the risk of being their enemy just as much as a serial killer.’

‘Thank you,’ said Tobias, gently bewildered as they stopped by the lift doors, and they opened to show nobody inside. ‘I’ll be sure to let her know; I think it helps for her to be reminded not everyone’s waiting for the MLE to trip up so they can pounce on it.’

‘It does often feel this way, doesn’t it?’ said Harrigan as they walked into the lift, but Tobias felt his posture change as the doors slid shut, and wasn’t especially surprised when the other man turned pointedly to him.

‘I’m glad I’ve caught you here,’ he continued, almost without missing a beat, but that they were now able to speak in complete privacy was not lost on Tobias. ‘There was something I wanted to talk to you about.’

‘Anything you have to say to the Minister, Mister Harrigan, I fear you can say to him directly.’

‘It’s nothing for Kingsley,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘It’s not even anything about the campaign. It’s about you.’ Tobias looked at him quizzically, and Harrigan gave a cheerful smile. ‘I want to offer you a job.’

Tobias frowned. ‘I have a job. And that is about the campaign.’

‘I mean, when it’s over. If I win.’ Harrigan shrugged. ‘If I win it won’t be because of any mistake on your part. You’re excellent, truly excellent. Kingsley’s lucky to have you, and if he’s smart, he’ll keep you.’

‘You have a Communications Director; I can’t imagine Trannick will be best pleased to -’

‘If Trannick is replaced it’ll be because he’s moved on to something better; it’s too early to make decisions but he’d make a fine Head of Sports and Games. And even if he doesn’t move on from my office I’m going to need someone in the DIMC.’

Tobias blinked. ‘Mister Harrigan, I’m flattered, but -’

‘You don’t need to make a decision. There is no decision to make - whoever wins, wins. But it’d be a crime for you to leave government, and I had assumed you’d be staying on for Kingsley if he wins.’ Harrigan turned to face him straight on, extending a hand. ‘Perhaps not my office. Perhaps not the DIMC. But if I win this election and you want a job - I want to give you a job. I would be a better Minister if I had you on my team.’ He grinned more lopsidedly. ‘I’d be a better candidate if I had you on my team, but I know that ship’s sailed.’

Tobias looked a little stupidly at Harrigan’s hand, then reached out to shake it as the doors to the lift slid open. ‘That has. There’s no way you could lure me away from the Minister,’ he said bluntly, though Harrigan looked unaffected by the honesty. ‘But I thank you for your offer, Mister Harrigan... and I’ll bear it in mind for the future.’

They got off the lift into the crowded lobby and went their separate ways. Tobias tried to ignore the looks he had got then - if he wasn’t recognisable, Harrigan was, and to those who recognised them both that must have looked quite peculiar. He wasn’t too worried about press fallout; Philon Harrigan had been downright courteous so far, and the election fight hadn’t been dirty.

In truth, the two candidates were too similar for it to get dirty. The difference was all in the window dressing as Shacklebolt tried to honestly embrace the progressive movement, unapologetic and unflinching, and Harrigan took a more coaxing approach. Where Shacklebolt fired up progressives and scared off the older establishment, Harrigan had more success presenting himself as a moderate, which reassured some and frustrated others.

While Tobias could appreciate that Harrigan’s approach got people on board, he feared the man compromised his progressive attitudes too much for the sake of popularity. And so long as Kingsley Shacklebolt could succeed while wearing his progressive heart on his sleeve, he saw no reason to compromise.

But if the electorate embraced a man who made change seem so moderate? Where would he stand then?

Tobias had never assumed Kingsley Shacklebolt would win the election. He wasn’t quite so foolish as to count his chickens before they had hatched. But he had done an excellent job of not looking beyond the day as it loomed ever closer.

Still, Cal’s reassurances that not only would he do well to stay on in the Ministry, but that it was his right to want to do well and stay on in the Ministry had not fallen on deaf ears. He liked his work. He was satisfied with his work. He wanted to continue it, and the only reason he’d not brought the subject up with Tanith was because it sounded like an awful lot of heartache and upset when there was every chance Shacklebolt would lose and it would come to nothing.

That excuse was in danger of wearing thin now.

It still occupied his thoughts all the way back to the office, and he was so distracted that he almost missed his secretary warning him that there was someone waiting for him inside. Fortunately, as he stumbled in to find someone sat there before him, it turned out to only be Cal.

But he looked pale and worn and was brandishing two sandwiches.

‘I thought you might want some lunch,’ his friend said, getting to his feet as Tobias pushed the door shut behind him.

‘You never bring me lunch,’ said Tobias suspiciously, limping around to take the sandwich and going to his desk. ‘You always say we should go out somewhere.’

‘Yeah.’ Cal frowned, and sat back down abruptly. With his hands free he began to wring them together. ‘Well, I didn’t fancy being in public.’

Tobias pushed a space clear on his desk and quirked an eyebrow. ‘Are you okay? What’s going on?’

‘I...’ He ran a hand across his bristly hair. ‘I owe you a conversation.’

Tobias blinked. ‘Go on.’

‘About my father.’

Suddenly the sandwich didn’t look so appetising. Tobias set his down next to Cal’s. ‘I know you went to Azkaban to see him the other day,’ he said slowly. ‘With Tanith.’

‘Yeah.’ Cal’s shoulders hunched up. ‘And I can’t tell if I’m being a bloody idiot and there aren’t many people who’ll tell me if I am.’

‘You should try Tanith,’ said Tobias, colder than he’d meant to be. ‘She’s pretty good at telling people they’re bloody idiots.’

‘I already know what she thinks about me and my father. And, yes. It comes under the category of “bloody idiot”.’ He looked up, gaze pained, and though ice had settled in Tobias’ gut, as it always did when the subject of Thanatos Brynmor came up, hard and cold enough that he found it hard to feel anything else, there was still the faint twist of sympathy for his friend.

‘She told me that, once,’ said Cal, and though he looked tense and pained the words sounded like they’d been bottled up somewhere for too long and were now tumbling out with the pressure of having been kept in. ‘That the subject of Thanatos makes me a bloody idiot. That I have a tendency to run to him, and that makes me a weak and stupid coward...’

Tobias frowned. ‘When the hell was this?’

‘In her defence, we thought you were dead.’ Cal scrubbed his face with his hands. ‘Neither one of us was in a good way. And she was right, and it’s why I left for the Lions, and I never looked back, but... now he’s here, again. In Azkaban.’

‘Cal...’ Tobias opened his hands, really not sure what Cal wanted, and even less sure what he could give him. ‘What’s going on?’

‘He wants me to... I don’t know. Not forget he exists and let him rot in Azkaban forever. At least acknowledge he’s my father. I guess visit him once in a blue moon.’ Cal didn’t look up. ‘I think that’s it. He wants me to not just scrub him from my life, even if he’s only a fleeting presence.’

Tobias opened and closed his mouth, the ice turning to anger and then back again, and a mocking laugh ran in the back of his mind. ‘I am not sure I am the person to tell you what’s to be done about Thanatos Brynmor.’

Cal finally lifted his head. ‘Why not?’

‘Because...’ Tobias worked his jaw. ‘I can hardly be impartial.’

Cal drew a deep breath. ‘What if I asked you to not be impartial? What if I asked for what you honestly thought?’

‘Honestly?’ The ice chipped. ‘Honestly I think he’s the most brutal, savage son of a bitch I ever met. Honestly, the man murdered my father in cold blood, not because my father opposed him, but because my father tried to save lives he wanted gone. You know how that happened, that night?’ Tobias had stood without realising. ‘They left a trap. They attacked houses and they waited for the Para-Healers to come and then they murdered them too. This wasn’t war, this was wanton murder.’

He turned on his heel and limped to his window. Anger had always been the best cure for his injury. ‘If you need me to begin lecturing you on what he did to you, then I don’t think I can help you, Cal. But I can remind you that when you reached out to him once before, when you tried to get him involved in your life in the most simple and harmless way possible, by writing to him and not telling him about the war, just telling him about your life, he found a way to twist that to pursue his own sick and violent agenda.’ Tobias’ shoulders hunched. ‘And Annie paid the price that time. He didn’t even know her, or me. All he knew was that Hogwarts’ seventh-years had been preoccupied by the drama of a romance between a boy of a good, old family - half-blood or otherwise - and a Muggleborn, and that this wouldn’t do. That they had to see that this kind of mingling had to be punished.’

His hand had clenched into a fist without him realising, and at the last four words he brought it pounding down on his windowsill - then stopped as he felt a big, warm hand on his shoulder. He started at Cal’s proximity, still tense, still angry, but Cal didn’t back down, wrapping the arm around his shoulder.

‘Christ, mate,’ Cal murmured, voice gentle, reassuring. ‘How long have you been holding that in?’

Tobias was surprised to find his vision suddenly blurred, and he blinked fiercely. ‘Neither one of us had our father around growing up. But you know what the difference is? Your father made the choices which led to him being stuck in Azkaban, and he deserved the consequences of his actions. The only choices my father made were to save lives, and he didn’t deserve to die for that.’

‘No.’ Cal squeezed his shoulder, also glaring moodily out at the magically projected view from the window. ‘No, he didn’t.’

‘I forgive you for what happened to Annie. You know that? That wasn’t your fault. That was Thanatos’. And I understand how it happened, I understand how you wanted to know him, no matter what.’ Tobias’ voice shook more than he’d have liked, and he took a deep, shaking breath. ‘I never knew my father; all I have are his diaries, and the books he liked, and precious little else because most of his old friends are dead and I can see how much it hurts Mum to even talk about him - she gave up everything to be with him, and then she lost him, and...’

Then he pulled his glasses off to push the back of his hand against his eyes, not embarrassed to be crying in front of Cal but not wanting to submit to the wave of grief - not just over his family, but the thoughts of his father brought back the memories of Annie, of Aurora Marlowe, dying to save him. If he let it rush over him he didn’t know if he’d be able to swim against the tide or if he’d just drown.

‘Mate, I’m -’

‘What I meant was, I understand,’ said Tobias, voice hoarse as he interrupted Cal, desperate to finish. ‘I understand why you wanted to know him. Because even if I hadn’t thought my father was a good man, I would have still wanted to know anything and everything I could about him. Even the bad parts. So I almost can’t advise you to stay away from him, because he’s still alive and you still have the chance to know him, to understand him. Even if that’s understanding evil. Because I understand that burning need to know your father.’

He turned, gathering composure, gathering strength, and he grabbed Cal’s wrist as he blurrily met his friend’s gaze. ‘The thing is? You don’t need to go to Azkaban to know your father. You have a father, and his name isn’t Thanatos Brynmor, his name’s Will Rayner, and he is one of the most honest and decent men I have ever met. And he steered you right, he brought you up well, and there is no reason, no reason for you to need Thanatos.’

Cal took a deep breath. ‘I know,’ he said quietly, his own voice rumbling with a dangerously emotional edge. ‘And I would never look to Thanatos for anything resembling emotional guidance. That’s not what this is about.’

‘You wanted my honest opinion?’ said Tobias, voice a little watery as he considered how he had hardly been evasive thus far. ‘I think that if he had to spend the rest of his existence staring at the walls of Azkaban, with his life’s work and principles in dust and ruins, without a single person breathing the free air ever giving him so much as a second’s thought - let alone giving him their time and attention and company - it would still be a greater kindness than he gave each and every one of his victims.’ He wiped his eyes and put his glasses back on a little sloppily. ‘I know I’m supposed to be the one of us who talks about forgiveness and lofty ideals and I’d love to, Cal. I’d really love to. But not for him. And if that makes me a hypocrite -’

‘No,’ said Cal quietly. ‘It makes you the man I wanted to talk to. It makes you the perspective I badly needed.’

Tobias sighed, and felt the tension and sick feeling in his gut fade a little. ‘Please don’t make any decisions about your life and your family based on just me and my grief.’

‘Not just,’ said Cal. ‘But he killed two hugely important people in your life. I can’t forget that, I shouldn’t forget that - I haven’t. But I...’ He winced. ‘I’m going to sound like some sort of callous son of a bitch if I say that I needed to hear that after you just bust your guts up all over me, aren’t I.’

‘No, I - I understand.’ Tobias’ next breath was a lot less shaky. ‘I don’t really talk about it much.’

‘No kidding.’ Cal squeezed his shoulder one last time before pulling back. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to land this on you. I just - it seemed kind of evasive to think this through when you and I haven’t talked about this ever. Not properly.’

‘Hey, at least no bones were broken this time,’ said Tobias with an effort at a lopsided smile, and he gingerly touched his nose. It would, he knew, forever be crooked. He preferred it that way, even if he could have probably had that fixed by magic.

It made a strong reminder of a time he’d failed to have faith in his friends when he should have done. And there were worse things to be reminded of, every day when he woke and looked at himself in the mirror, than that he should have such a faith.

‘We could fix that,’ said Cal, returning the smile. ‘Then we’d know this is a proper manly conversation between men.’

Tobias laughed, and it felt like the sun coming up after a night of dark thoughts when Cal laughed with him. The sick feeling of grief and tension in his gut was fading, though he still felt tired, as if the effort of feeling twenty years of pain was an exhausting process.

Cal lingered in the office for the rest of his lunch, and they ate sandwiches and talked mostly about the Quidditch, which Tobias pretended to care about, and Cal pretended like he believed he cared, and overall it felt more like old times in the common room fussing over absolutely nothing.

Missing hours of the morning had not done Tobias’ day much good as he embarked on the afternoon of work, but his thoughts nevertheless wandered and swirled after Cal’s visit. On an impulse he filched some memo paper charmed to take a message between offices, and after looking at his stack of files decided to abuse his power and scribbled a quick note to dispatch.

He received no reply, as he’d expected, and as he’d predicted it was eight o’ clock before he could reasonably get out of the office. But he left when he had the chance, and gathered up the paperwork he wasn’t done with, and apparated back to his flat to find it as dark and empty and unwelcoming as he always did.

At least in the office there was usually light and warmth, if not company.

His flat had none of these. So he got the fire stoked, and made himself a quick meal, and settled down on the sofa with the files and some reading and thought two out of three wasn’t so bad.

It sufficed until about half past ten, when the fire flared green and he put down his files with a hopeful smile to see the tired shape of Tanith stumbling into the flat, and then he was three for three.

Tobias got to his feet, leaning on the cane to do so. ‘Hey - I didn’t know if you’d get the memo...’

‘It was after eight before we made it back to the Wharf.’ She looked weary, but pleased to see him, shrugging off her coat. ‘Canvassing areas while dodging the press is a pain in the arse.’

‘You’re okay, though? No bad news?’ He hobbled over to her to slip his free arm around her waist, his fatigue suddenly all the more welcome when she was with him.

‘No, no.’ She rested her head on his shoulder for a moment, eyes closing. ‘I think we picked up an apparition trail away from Phelps’ house. We still need to properly isolate it before we can analyse it, and I don’t want to use too many specialist teams in the MLE, I worry there’s a leak... we have leads.’

‘Good.’ Tobias kissed the top of her head. ‘I have faith in you. I’ll know you’ll find the one responsible.’

‘I don’t care so much about someone wanting to take out Mulready and Phelps. They were evil bastards who were just slippery enough to wriggle through the cracks in an overworked justice system. But Jacob...’ Her eyes screwed shut more tightly, and he tightened his grip. ‘I was such a bitch to him.’

‘What?’ Tobias pulled back enough to look down at her; it wasn’t as if he was astonished at the revelation Tanith might not have been sweetness and light to someone, but he’d always thought she and Jacob had been close.

‘During the war.’ She looked up at him, eyes shining. ‘I didn’t let him help, I pushed him away, I took him for granted and treated him like he’d always be here and now he’s gone...’ Tanith drew a sharp breath. ‘I don’t know if bringing down a world of pain on the person who killed him can make up for it. But I will be damned if I do not oversee justice against this person myself, with my own wand. Or my bare hands if needs be.’

‘I cannot think of anyone I would less want hunting me across Britain - across the world - than you.’ He kissed her on the forehead gently, and felt her relax slightly in his embrace.

‘Yeah,’ she murmured a little thickly. ‘I’m good on the vengeance after they’re dead. Less good on being there for them when they’re alive.’ Her hands slid up his arms, across his shoulders, for her fingers to find the tense muscles at the back of his neck.

‘Mm, don’t, you’re the one who’s... been hunting... Christ, my brain’s turning off,’ he slurred, not reacting as she guided him back to the sofa, and he sat down heavily. She perched on the armrest, still lightly rubbing his aching shoulders.

‘And something’s up,’ Tanith prompted. ‘I might not be able to make up for everything with Jacob, but you’re right here, right now, right in front of me, and you’ve never before sent me a memo on Ministry official paperwork to get me to “just pop round”. Something’s the matter.’

‘It’s been a long day,’ he mumbled, feeling her pushing away more than just the past twenty-four hours with her gentle massage. ‘I went to Saint Mungo’s - they prescribed me some potions I need to take before bed, I’ll go see them again in a fortnight, they think they can... help. Make it better.’

He tried to not sound bitter, and it was made easier by her planting a kiss on the back of his neck. ‘Thank you,’ Tanith murmured. ‘I’d only worry if I thought there was something they could do to help, but you just weren’t going.’

‘I wouldn’t want to worry you,’ Tobias said sincerely. ‘So I’ll keep it up. And I even ran into Philon Harrigan there, just a chance encounter in the corridor. He asked me to give you his best, as the senior officer on the Mulready-Phelps case. I’d take it as sincere, he seemed keen to not make it a public or political gesture.’

‘That’s...’ Tanith sounded rather nonplussed. ‘Thanks, I guess. I’ve never met the man.’

‘Then Cal was waiting for me in my office,’ said Tobias, but where he had previously found tension and pain when thinking about the topics they had discussed, right now he felt a quiet ache, like a muscle after a satisfying workout. ‘We talked about... about Thanatos. But it’s okay,’ he assured her quickly, glancing up. ‘I’m okay. I just didn’t fancy being alone tonight after that.’

‘I worry I’m not up to much but some sleep,’ she said, her hands working down his back. ‘It’s been a long day, and they’re going to keep on being long.’

‘Just having you here helps,’ said Tobias sincerely, then all of a sudden he realised he had completely failed to mention the real conversation he’d had with Harrigan. But that would lead to upset, and stress, and woe, and he didn’t know if it would ever come about, and he hadn’t even mentioned to her how he was thinking about staying in government if Shacklebolt won, let alone staying in government no matter what.

And her hands at his shoulders were soft, working away at the knots of worry and discontent that had been settled in there for years, and right then there was nothing that could have possessed him to want to break the spell of this moment.

He made a small noise of contentment as she found a particular point of tension at his back. ‘You’ve got to tell me where you learnt to do that,’ he mumbled, so relaxed he was almost incoherent.

And he was so relaxed he didn’t properly hear her answer. He thought it might have been, ‘No, I don’t,’ thought he might have heard a note of wistfulness in her voice - but thought that, right then, he wanted to do nothing more than rest.

Chapter 13: Two-Way Street
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Fuck today.

It had been a week since Valerie Phelps had been murdered. And the investigation team was only making marginal headway.

They had claimed themselves a tidy corner of the Auror Office's rooms down in Canary Wharf. As the second-highest profile team in the department, after Proudfoot's relentless pursuit of Garrett Avery and the Remnant, they were entitled to the prestige and they needed the room. Around the walls had been strung up the details and pictures of the three significant incidents surrounding their murders: The break-in and murder of Valerie Phelps, the break-in and murder of Bartholomew Mulready, and the attack on Bernard Lackardy and murder of Jacob Van Roden.

All similarities had been strung together, and it was becoming easy enough to identify an modus operandi of their killer. So they had to look at the way the buildings had been broken into, the way they had fought, the way they had got away. And, especially in the case of Valerie Phelps, how her home address, not a matter of public record, had been found if they were to work under the theory that their killer did not know these people personally.

The unpleasant suspicion had arisen that they were dealing with someone who at least had connections straight into the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Although there was no specific lead there or any route to pursue, it was enough to leave the three trainees on edge.

It left the training officer on edge, too. It just didn't rank top on her things to worry about.

She was stood now in the shed at the bottom of Valerie Phelps' garden, ostensibly setting up some runes in an effort to further pin down an errant apparition trace. Normally incredibly hard to pick up, they'd had a spot of luck in that Katie, adept at seeking these traces out since being in the Lions, had noted it in the early investigation. Since then they'd been able to magically sustain it while getting the resources together to try to properly isolate and pursue it.

It would have been easier if they'd got in an analytical team from the MLE, but they were leery about getting in outside help. On a good day, Tanith had the unpleasant suspicion they might have been looking for a disgruntled Auror or Enforcer, past or present, who was taking the law into their own hands, and didn't want to tip anyone off.

Today she couldn't have cared less.

It hadn't struck her until she was in the shed, when she'd set out the four runes to arrange this corner of the Isolation Ritual, and when she'd pulled out her watch to make sure she invoked them at the same time as the other three. She'd done so without incident.

Then she'd spotted the date on her watch and it had been like a blow to the gut.

One year. One year since she'd walked into the Ministry with a recently-broken hand to see her father dragged across the hall in chains. One year since she'd stood before the bundle that was the murdered Altair Ritter. One year since she had walked out with his body, alone, and found a patch of land on her parents' estate to bury him.

She'd done it herself, with a shovel, despite the aching of her body at the effort and after her incarceration. Her mentor had always taught her to never do anything with magic which you could do with your own two hands - that to become overly reliant upon the power made one take it for granted, and made one weak when it was gone. She hadn't always agreed with him, had pointed out the value of simply saving time through magic, but she had understood his point.

And the last thing she would have done was dig his grave with magic. He had been a man who had defeated magic, even the most powerful of dark magics, with his wits again and again. He deserved to be buried with the same hard work and grit that he had lived by.

She hadn't been able to order a headstone 'til the summer, when she and her father had together set it into the grave and stood there, the only two people in all the world who had truly known who Altair Ritter was, what he was capable of - perhaps the only two people in all the world who had cared.

He'd deserved better. But he'd got death.

And the anniversary had snuck up on her wholly unexpected.

It was partly because she was tired. Partly because she was reeling from the loss of Jacob, and partly because of her frustration at not being closer to finding his killer. But also just for simple, raw grief, she needed to take a few moments on her own in the shed, and reflect, and get her feelings back under control.

That was becoming harder, these days. She'd stopped shutting down and it was becoming harder to do so on a whim. Something allegedly emotionally healthy for her was proving to be a serious pain in the arse.

She picked up the gardening equipment she'd kicked over, pulled her coat - his coat, Altair's coat - tighter around her shoulders, and stepped out under the gloomy grey skies of a British November.

'All right, Chief?'

That was Katie, stood in the middle of the back yard, wearing an expression of apprehension that just wound Tanith up. Over by the fence was Harry and Ron. They'd probably all heard her knocking things over.

At least she hadn't cried.

'Let's get on with it,' she said, nodding stiffly. 'This is meant to be your bag, Bell.'

'Actually, my bag was covering our traces,' said Katie, moving roughly to the centre of where they'd placed their runes, the location they guessed someone had come apparating from. 'But you do need to know the principles of how they find you if you're supposed to avoid them.'

'You were never caught, even when we chased you up and down the country. There's no way some office-bound technical specialist in the MLE can have you beaten on that.'

Katie looked a combination of surprised and suspicious at the genuine compliment and encouragement from her Training Officer, before she nodded, closing her eyes and lifting her wand, and she began to mumble under her breath.

Tanith crossed over to where Harry and Ron stood, hands shoved in her pockets, and leant against the fence. Harry nodded at Katie. 'What does this usually get us?'

'Hard to say,' said Tanith. 'But it'll draw the impression of the magical trace into the stones. The readings will be a little different due to their location, so by comparing and contrasting we should be able to get a decent read on the details of any apparition. So long as it left a trace.'

'So you mean,' said Ron slowly, irritably, 'we don't get answers from this, we get something else to analyse?'

She gave a humourless smile. 'Welcome to the leg-work bit of being an Auror, Weasley.'

He muttered something unkind, but her attention was drawn by the crunching of footsteps, and she looked up to see two of the Enforcers who'd been securing the scene letting themselves through into the back gate. They looked harried, and rather furtive.

'Auror Cole?'

Beckoning them over and gesturing towards Katie, so they'd keep it down and not distract her if at all possible, she looked them up and down. 'What's going on?'

The two exchanged unhappy glances. 'Press,' said one. 'Whole bloody swarm of them round the front. We've had a hell of a time getting them to go.'

'I think it's time we threw out a sacrificial lamb,' agreed the other.

Tanith sighed, but lifted a hand as Harry straightened. 'Hell no, Potter. There's no need to throw fuel onto the fire. They'll be crazy about this case even without you; I don't want to encourage them.'

'They were asking bits and pieces about the case,' one of the Enforcers agreed. 'But they were pretty keen to know if you were going to talk to them.'

She raised an eyebrow. 'Me?'

'You're the Senior IO.' They shrugged. 'We didn't want to tell them nothing.'

'Well, no. Don't.' She sighed. 'All right. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. It's not like I can get anything useful done while Bell works.' She turned to Harry and Ron. 'You two stay here, help Bell if she needs anything, and for God's sake, don't poke your heads out. It'll just excite them.'

Harry made a face. 'Are you sure you don't want back up in case they get nasty?'

'I can face the mean old reporters, Potter.'

'I think he was more worried about their well-being than yours,' said Ron cautiously.

'I've learnt my lesson. They can't pull the same trick on me twice.'

She followed the Enforcers around the side of the cosy little detached house. Valerie Phelps had lived in comfort funded by the suffering of those who stood against the Thicknesse Administration; even though Tanith was no stranger to opulence, Phelps' lifestyle made her sick when she thought of its price.

It did, however, mean that access to the front yard was blocked by a handsome white-stone wall and iron fence painted black. A couple of Enforcers could stand in the gateway and not let anyone get past, and they were doing so now to keep back a huge swell of press.

Something had probably leaked, somewhere down the line. It was the nature of the game, and it filled Tanith with passing irritation rather than fury. They didn't yet know anything delicate enough to be disruptive in the hands of the public, even if they were trying to keep their cards close to their chest. But whatever it was had been like specks of blood in a shark tank.

The two Enforcers gave her the sort of encouraging glances that made it clear they were just happy she was going into the fire and not them, and with a groan Tanith stepped forwards.

'Auror Cole! Auror Cole!' But it wasn't just her name being shouted, but a whole slew of questions being hurled in her face, and even though some of them quietened down as she raised her hands, plenty didn't.

'If you want me to actually answer your questions, then pipe down!'

They only did a little, but then questions were being thrown at her, and she handled them as best she could. Yes, they were treating it as likely that these cases were linked. No, she couldn't discuss any leads or suspect list. Yes, they had options they were pursuing. No, it wasn't difficult working alongside Harry Potter, and he was as useful as any qualified Auror trainee would be expected to be. Then -

'Can you confirm that Tobias Grey has agreed to join a Harrigan administration if Minister Shacklebolt loses the election?'

The question came so completely from nowhere that Tanith just gaped, bewildered that they were even talking to her about Tobias let alone the details of the query. She worked her jaw wordlessly for a moment, then gave a snort. 'You really might want to ask Philon Harrigan or Tobias Grey about that, but I seriously doubt it.'

'They were spotted and overheard talking in Saint Mungo's a few days ago -'

'I know they spoke, but you're reading into it a bit if you think that means -'

'And I spoke to Mister Harrigan this morning and all he would say was that an offer had indeed been made.' The journalist, a young woman from the Daily Prophet with an unpleasantly keen glint in her eye, twirled her quill in her fingers.

'An offer...' Tanith's throat went dry. He didn't. He wouldn't. He'd tell me.

And then a treacherous voice at the back of her head she hadn't heard in six months wormed its way to the surface. Would he? If there's one thing he loves more than you -

'I think you'd - you'd have to...' But her gut was churning, and she found herself stammering over the words, desperate to get them out but not even sure what they'd be. 'You'd have to talk to Mister Grey about matters to do with Mister Grey.'

Because they sure as shit don't have anything to do with me.

'Questions about the case, please,' she said, her head reeling.

If whatever tips they'd had were blood in the water, her state of mind was like throwing a limb to piranhas.

'How can the Prosecution Office be impartial in a trial against the murderer of one of its own -'

'Isn't it hypocritical for an Auror who served in Thanatos Brynmor's brute squad to be criticising the past of Bartholomew Mulready -'

'How can the Ministry condemn this vigilante when he's taken action the MLE has failed -'

'You think this person's a hero?' Finally Tanith thundered in, the swirling of her thoughts overcome by the fire in her belly. 'First, let's call them what they are: murderer. They murdered Valerie Phelps, they murdered Bart Mulready, and if you think they had what was coming to them, then remember it is very likely they murdered Jacob Van Roden -'

'Another Auror who served under Thanatos Brynmor -'

'When a single one of you bloodhounds has made the kind of contribution to society that Jacob Van Roden made in one day in this job, I might bother to listen to your judgemental crap. But as it is, you stand there - the whole wretched lot of you - and you're not here for the truth, you're looking for someone to hang.' She jerked a finger accusingly at them, even if she saw no shame in their eyes, no self-reflection - they just ate up the words.

Doesn't matter what I'm saying, does it? It just matters that I'm losing my temper with them. They might as well have something to write about.

'The Auror Office will do its job. It will find the murderer. And if you don't like how this investigation has been handled, or even if it exists, then you can all go straight to hell, because I don't answer to you. We live in a difficult time, and in difficult times, difficult paths need to be walked, and frankly - unless you've spent a day in this uniform you don't have the right to clean an Auror's boots, let alone stand in judgement of them.'

The uproar exploded, but Tanith just turned on her heel and let the Enforcers - who looked a mixture of respectful and horribly indignant at her words, the latter because they had to deal with the fallout - move in to fill the gap and contain them.

As she walked around the side of the building, once she was out of sight she stopped for a few moments to slow her breathing. To her surprise, she felt her hand - the one that had been broken by Idaeus Robb in interrogation, the bones still tingling sometimes when it was damp - shaking.

Fuck today.

When she returned to the back yard, Katie's eyes were still shut, deep in incantation, but Harry and Ron were staring at her. She gave them a sour look. 'What?'

Ron immediately looked away and said, 'Nothing,' but Harry met her gaze levelly.

'We could hear you,' he said.

'Yeah. Well. Fuck the press,' Tanith growled, massaging the back of her hand to stop the flesh from crawling and her fingers from twitching.

'They'll chase you for this,' he said, not unkindly. 'Throughout this case, if you need to talk to them again, they'll bring this up.'

Tanith scowled as she reflected upon this. 'Perhaps I'm not cut out to talk to the press.'

They didn't say much for the next fifteen minutes as Katie concluded her incantations, doing it a second time to make sure there were no mistakes. The Aurors then glumly gathered the rune stones under Tanith's instructions, and apparated back to Canary Wharf. Getting to the bottom of these magical readings was the best lead they had, and there was no point in wasting time on anything else.

It looked as if news of this impromptu press conference had spread, and Tanith suspected the Daily Prophet reporter had circulated one of those paper memos across the Ministry. It would give the essentials of what had happened but leave out the most tantalising details - all so the people in the most compressed centre of magical individuals in Britain would know to read the evening or next day's edition of the paper.

Although the faces were tense, and there were a couple of disapproving glances, the Department of Magical Law Enforcement seemed rather approving of her having openly and bluntly flipped off the press.

She just hoped Cassius Vaughn had the same idea.

The door to his office was open, she noticed as they walked down the corridor, and voices could be heard from inside, raised and frustrated. One she recognised as Vaughn's. The other -

'...can't have your people speaking like that without consequences!'

'Consequences are a public image issue, boy, and so they're your problem, not mine. So long as my people get the job done -'

'Even if they utterly alienate the public in the process?'

Most eyes in the bullpen were locked on the argument, and with a mixture of apprehension and pure, burning rage, Tanith went to hover in the doorway. Both men inside were stood, but though Vaughn had his build on his side to dominate his lanky opponent, he still had to crane his neck to meet the frustrated gaze of Tobias Grey.

Tobias didn't notice her, but Vaughn did - his gaze flickered only briefly over, his expression not giving much away before his eyes locked on Tobias. 'My people go out there and fight criminals, dark wizards. They sacrifice every hour God sends, they sacrifice their health and in some cases they sacrifice their lives. They do this to keep the public safe. If the public will turn against us because one of us doesn't fucking coddle them, then fuck the public.'

So Vaughn did have the same idea. Or, at least, she didn't underestimate his protective instincts - even if he wanted to string her up by her guts, she knew the Head of the Auror Office would be damned if he'd let some outsider come down and rip her to shreds.

The feeling was, at least, mutual towards this outsider.

'Telling the press that they ought to be cleaning Aurors' boots -'

'Actually, I said they didn't have the right to even do that,' said Tanith, voice dangerously mild, and both men spun to face her. 'Sorry for interrupting, Boss. I hate being misquoted.'

Tobias' eyes flashed, and he waved an irritable hand. 'It doesn't matter what you exactly said. What were you thinking?'

'Many, many things,' she said flatly, glaring at him. 'And right now, I'm wondering what the hell it is to you?'

'I'm the Minister's Communications Director -'

'And you come down here, personally, every single time an MLE Officer makes a PR gaffe?' she scoffed. 'Christ, if I'd known that would get your attention I'd have asked Savage to handle the press briefings and hired us a chef in the office instead of pissing around waiting for you in restaurants!'

Vaughn's eyes flashed as he realised the situation was in serious danger of getting out of control. 'She does have a point, Mister Grey,' he said, voice now low and clearly trying to settle them both down. 'I can't help but feel that you're reacting particularly badly to this because of your personal relationship. You can consider your feelings officially marked, and I will deal with the disciplinary measures against my people. If the Minister has a problem with it, then he and I need to have a serious discussion about the chain of command - I know it doesn't include sending his staffers down here to tell mine off.'

Tobias squared his shoulders, and she could tell that whatever anger had prompted this behaviour was starting to cool, and he was starting to question himself. But that didn't calm her down - she kept her gaze on him, flat and furious.

He cleared his throat weakly. 'Thank you, Mister Vaughn.'

Vaughn looked between them. 'Yeah, I don't want to be in here right now,' he growled, moving around the desk. 'Cole, come find me once you've finished picking him out of your teeth.'

He closed the door behind him firmly, deliberately, and the sound echoed around the tiny office. She hated this room. It made her think of Lestrange and Robb and Drake, and through them, Brynmor. When the door was shut, she felt penned in, threatened. It just made her burning anger worse.

Tobias took off his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose. 'I'm sorry,' he said in that brusque way which meant he knew he was wrong, but he was still too angry to be gracious about it, 'but you can't let them get to -'

He only got halfway through the sentence before she'd reached out to grab a folder on the desk and hurled it at him. It opened mid-flight to scatter trainee records across the office and hit him ineffectively. 'Tobias Grey, you are the biggest coward I have ever had the misfortune to meet!'

He stepped back, astonished, leaning on his cane. 'What are you -'

'Philon Harrigan! A jobwith Harrigan if he wins this election, a job he offered you days ago, and do you talk about it with me? No, I have to hear about it from the Daily sodding Prophet!' She stalked up to him, jerking a finger in his chest.

The colour sank from his face. 'How did they -'

'They overheard you and confirmed it with Harrigan, who presumably talked about it because it presumably wasn't a secret. I mean, it's not a betrayal of Shacklebolt if you don't work for him if he loses, so it's not like there's anyone else who you might want to hide this from!' Her lip curled.

Tobias worked his mouth ineffectively. 'I wasn't hiding it from you,' he flapped. 'I was going to -'

'When? When it happened? I'm not a sodding idiot, Toby, I knew you wanted to stay on working for Shacklebolt, but I didn't know that you still being in the Ministry in a month's time was a certainty!'

'It's not a certainty!' He tried to straighten. 'I didn't give an answer, I didn't decide anything yet!'

'And you didn't think that this was a decision we might make together? You know, considering it would affect meas much as you? Considering that you told me for months that you'd leave government after the election and our relationship has basically been on ice until then, you didn't think that I might want to know this?'

'I'm not the only reason this relationship has been on ice!' Tobias snapped. 'What about you? Vaughn would have given you any job you wanted after what happened to Jacob. You could have taken Dawlish's post, worked a nice nine-to-five. You didn't even want to be a field training officer, you didn't even want to investigate the Mulready case, but you did it anyway. This is a two-way street!'

She faltered, words and ideas catching in her throat, and she swallowed them down. But her anger wasn't gone. 'We're not talking about me. We're talking about you, and you hiding things.'

He put his glasses on falteringly. 'This is why I didn't tell you,' he said weakly. 'I knew you'd react badly.'

'No shit I'm reacting badly. You know what might have made me react better? Hearing it from you!'

'Why, so you could just complain about how I get to have a career which is demanding on my time, while you swan off and do the exact same thing and that's supposed to be beyond reproach?'

There it was. That lingering resentment she'd known he had towards her job but had never voiced. And while Tanith couldn't deny that she did think it was more important to give time to the Auror Office than the Minister's Office, that wasn't where it began and end.

'The difference,' she growled, 'is that I have never pretended to you that this job is anything other than what I want to be doing for the foreseeable future. You have made out like your circumstances are temporary, and that has impacted on our relationship, and that means that if that's liable to change, I have a right to know!' She threw her hands in the air. 'This is supposed to be a relationship! We're supposed to share our lives, we're supposed to face decisions together, we're supposed to talk about things!'

He'd fallen silent, hanging his head, but though she knew he was beaten, defeated, she couldn't summon sympathy for him. Her fire was fading, burning out, and in its place was a lump of cold fear in her gut.

She'd shouted at him a hundred times. This time, the hundred and first time, she just felt tired.

'But clearly, we don't,' Tanith said, frowning at his boots. 'Clearly, we don't discuss our lives, or where they're going to go, with one another. Clearly, we don't plan our lives as if they're actually going to interlink.'

'You know I want to -'

'I think that you want two conflicting things,' she said coolly, raising her gaze to meet his. 'Because I don't think that you can have the kind of career that you want to have if we're going to have the kind of relationship that I want to have. I love you, Tobias. I waited for you through grief, and I waited for you through war, but I won't wait around for you to want to be with me. Because if I do, there won't be anything of me left by the time you get around to it.' She drew a pained, shaking breath. 'I've known this for months, but I hung on for two reasons. The first was that I thought maybe, just maybe, the election would change everything. And the second was that I convinced myself that just one more moment, one more second in your company, even if it was doomed, even if it was fleeting, was better than no more moments at all. But those moments are going to kill me if I keep chasing them.'

If there had been any colour in Tobias' face, it was certainly gone now. 'Tanith, you don't mean - come on, we can work on this, we can figure out a compromise, we can figure out how to have our lives and our careers and each other - after all we've been through -'

'Maybe we could figure it out,' Tanith agreed coldly. 'But the heart of the matter is that you didn't try to figure it out with me. You just hid it. So I don't see how we have a chance of confronting these matters and winning, because the only way we'll win is if we face them together. You made your choice. You want to face these things on your own.'

Then she looked away. 'It's over. And I have work to do.'

She couldn't look at him as he slumped to the door, couldn't look at him as he left, limping as if his leg was in the most acute agony, and could only be fleetingly, weakly grateful that he closed the door behind him.

The moment it was shut she felt not just her hand shake, but her knees, and she sank onto Vaughn's chair. For once the tears came easily, hot and frustrated, and for once she let herself cry, burying her face in her hands and letting the sick feeling of grief and shame swarm over her.

Grief for what had been lost. Shame because she'd let it get that far - and because she'd just thrown out something countless hours, tears, and drops of blood had sunk into. They had fought for this, their chance together, for years, through torment and death, and it had ended in an angry argument in a tiny office.

Right or wrong, it was hard to not feel like more than just her heart had walked out that door.

She didn't leave even when she was done, just slumped in the chair and stared at her hands until the door swung open and she jerked a back to life. But it was only Vaughn, who closed the door behind him and looked with supreme disapproval at the scattered file on the floor.

Then he bent to pick it up, before he perched on the desk and reached into his robe to pass her a handkerchief.

'Seems like the world's been enjoying taking chunks out of you this month, Cole.'

She sniffed, and wiped her nose and eyes as best she could. 'Sorry for using your office, Boss.'

He just shrugged. 'You're not allowed to talk to the press any more. I know your options are limited with the trainees to hand, but for Merlin's sake, next time send out Bell.'

'I would have done. But she was the only one of us doing proper work at the time, Boss.'

Vaughn sighed. 'You better take the day off, Cole. I'm having your runes from Phelps' place run down to the analysis team, and that's not up for debate. They'll get you answers quicker than you four would, and you four have other work to do.'

Tanith wrinkled her nose. 'So why're you sending me home?'

'Because you getting your head screwed on straight is other work,' Vaughn said gruffly. 'Not to mention you four would be working on these runes for days anyway. Take the day off, come back tomorrow to chase your other leads, by the time you've done that the analysis team will have your answers. Get back on the horse. Find the son of a bitch.' He hesitated. 'That is, I'm assuming you want to stay on this -'

'Boss, I just dumped my boyfriend, and the reasons are complicated and mostly his fault, but of the percentage that's my fault, it's down to me spending too much time with work. I don't want to end the relationship and only then stop doing the thing I was doing wrong. That's just fucking perverse.' Tanith stood, her knees now a little more reliable, and she passed the handkerchief back to Vaughn. 'I'll... blow today off and be back. Back to work.'

The prospect was long and ominous, like a wasteland she'd have to walk through, a wasteland whose paleness was creeping in already to the now. Just the briefest consideration of the days ahead made her gut twist unpleasantly - a mere hour beforehand she'd thought of her schedule and it had been a case of getting satisfying work done and fitting in the gleaming spots of happiness with Tobias where she could.

She'd planned on cooking him dinner at her flat at the weekend. She'd planned on -

'I need a drink.'

'And I need my office back,' said Vaughn, his sympathy clearly dried up by now. 'There's nothing to drink in here,' he added thoughtfully.

She left, feeling her legs moving only sluggishly as she bade them, and almost stumbled as she returned to the bullpen. Most of the Aurors had, by then, managed to find something to do - or at least pretend to do - and so she was grateful there were few eyes on her as she plodded over to the desks pushed together where her trainees sat.

Jacob's desk, of course, remained untouched and empty.

Tanith looked at them levelly, knew from the expressions on their faces that they'd figured out a good chunk of what was going on, and reasoned that at least this meant she didn't have to pretend everything was absolutely fine. She opened her mouth to tell them she was going home.

'Let's go to the pub,' she said instead.

They blinked, and unsurprisingly it was Harry who reacted first, Harry who gave a firm nod. 'That sounds like a good idea.'

'Hate to put a dampener on things,' said Katie cautiously, 'but where can we go where we can dodge the press? As that might be kind of a notion right now unless we want the evening to end in a celebratory blood-bath. And if that happened, I'd have to change.'

They all frowned, and Tanith gave a small, humourless smile. 'I know a place.'


Chapter 14: Like a Dying Flobberworm
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'...so Jack here has the bright idea of putting Camouflage Spells on the lot of us, so if any Muggles do look up they don't see the entire first team of Puddlemere United charging through the skies of Liverpool.'

Jack Urquhart had his head in his hands, milking the attention for all it was worth, chuckling with mock-despair as Cal stood at the bar. His hands were raised, his voice was raised, and assembled Quidditch players and their gathered hangers-on alike had their eyes locked on him.

'Funny thing: Camouflage Spells work against everyone, not just the Muggles, so we all set off to catch this damn rogue Snitch, and it turns out, we can't see each other. Bash, whack, Jack goes into Oliver, Oliver goes into Saul, Saul almost comes off his broom and I have to rescue him so then we don't even have a Seeker with us while we're chasing this damn Snitch...!'

The bar erupted into laughter, and Cal let the story peter out there, because that was about the point it ended. That was about the point they'd got their act together, got organised, and found the errant Snitch, and it made a better story to just leave the assembled with the image of the Quidditch players fumbling about in Liverpudlian skies blindly.

'Why do you always manage to tell this one like it's my fault?' Jack objected.

'It was!' Cal laughed, reaching across to the bar to pick up his next pint. It wasn't bad, this Nothing in Moderation joint that Tanith had mentioned (at least, he'd thought that was what she was saying, she'd been pretty drunk when she'd come back from drinks with Ariane and Melanie and had mostly been cursing them). There were worse places for he and his teammates to go drinking.

So then it was only fair if Jack told the various women - and men, his co-Beater Samantha was quite capable of reeling in a crowd of adoring young men, but Cal was less interested in keeping their attention - a story of a time he'd messed up.

But stories of rampaging Bludgers and broken noses, although the bread and butter of all Beater cock-up tales, turned his thoughts a hundred miles and two years away. The time he'd hovered above the Hogwarts Quidditch pitch and seen a stupid Ravenclaw let a Bludger loose into the face of Nathalie Lockett...

He gulped his drink and turned his smile on the girl next to him. She'd given his name, but there were three blondes and one was called Chelsea and one was called Tracy and one was called Kayleigh and he didn't have a prayer of remembering which was which. There should have been rules against girls with similar names and the same hair colour from hanging out together.

'In my defence,' he said cheerfully, 'broken noses are really easy to heal -'

Fate clearly hated him, because then he saw over Tracy's (or Chelsea's, or Kayleigh's) shoulder the door to the bar open, and in walk someone whose nose he'd broken which had never healed properly.

Oh, and Tobias looked like he was about to vomit, too, that didn't help.

Cal straightened with a frown and immediately started for the door, Chelsea (or Tracy, or Kayleigh) forgotten. A quick hand on Jack's shoulder assured his teammate he'd be back in a minute, but Tobias was already headed in his direction, and the two met in the middle of the packed tables.

Tobias was limping badly, and there was no colour in his face. He swayed on his feet, and for a moment Cal thought he was already drunk. He reached out a hand to steady him. 'Mate, what's -'

'Didn't mean to interrupt,' slurred Tobias, and Cal concluded he was sober, just completely out of it. 'Just remembered you'd said you'd be coming down here tonight, and...'

Cal grabbed him by the arm and steered him promptly to the nearest empty table, almost carrying his weak side. When he sat him down he made sure he was actually upright, genuinely afraid he might slump over. 'What's happened?'

'Tanith,' said Tobias, and Cal's heart sank as he took in the glassy look in his best friend's eyes, the emptiness of his voice. 'It's over.'

'What did you -'

'Yes, it's always my fault, isn't it?' The bitterness was sudden, though Cal reasoned he shouldn't be surprised. 'My fault for daring to have a job, my fault for daring to take it seriously, and she's beyond reproach for taking a job with equally long hours and the risk of death. That, I should just be taking in stride, but -'

'What. Happened?' Cal kept his voice gentle, but firm.

'...it is my fault,' said Tobias with the despair and consistency of the truly defeated, and he slumped to bury his face in his hands. For one horrid moment, Cal thought he was going to burst into tears. 'Harrigan offered me a job if he won the election, and I didn't tell Tanith, and now she thinks that I'm hiding important decisions from her, like I don't want to make the choices about our lives together, when all I was doing was trying to avoid one more needless argument...'

'Okay.' Cal let out a deep breath. 'Have you eaten?'

'No - no, Cal, I don't think I could keep anything down, I just feel sick...'

'That's normal. Breakups are amazing for weight-loss, if you're a stupid masochist,' said Cal wryly, glancing around the bar. 'Have you been drinking?'

'Nothing in the flat,' said Tobias despondently. 'I was just staring at the walls until I realised I was going to - I don't know. I don't know what to do, it was just like I was going to burst inside unless I did something, anything, anything but feel this way. I actually considered just getting a Portkey back to Greece and doing - I don't fucking know what...'

'Hiding. That's what you'd have done,' Cal said, in the gentle voice of one who's been there.

'I came to find you instead,' Tobias said in a low voice, staring at the table. 'I didn't want to do something stupid.'

Cal looked sharply at him, but concluded that "something stupid" probably just meant get really drunk and wake up in an alleyway covered in his own vomit, perhaps having been mugged, rather than anything truly dangerous.

It still wasn't a condition he wanted to see his friend in.

'I don't get how she can't see it's a two-way street,' Tobias was mumbling, and it took Cal a moment to figure out what he probably meant.

'She does work long hours,' he agreed cautiously - debating the rights and wrongs was a doomed endeavour, and he knew it. 'She always has, just as much as she did in the war.' Then he remembered what Thanatos had said in his cell, and the unpleasant germ of an idea twisted in his gut. 'Does she talk much about the war?'

Tobias shook his head numbly. 'No. Very little. I guess it was hard working for Brynmor and Robb, but... I don't know. She doesn't talk much about it.' His expression twisted. 'And yet I'm at fault for - no, no, mine was a lie of omission.' He slumped forward on the table, burying his face in his arms. 'I'm a bloody idiot.'

'Yes,' said Cal thoughtfully, 'but I think that's a two-way street, too.' But it wasn't the time for him to mull this over. Now wasn't the time for answers, it was the time to just make it through the night in one piece. 'Come on, mate. Let's get you home.'

'I don't want to -'

'We're both going. And I'm going to stay there. And I'm going to make sure you're okay. But you don't want to do this in public. And you don't want to do this in a bar.' Cal stood, going around to help Tobias to his feet. 'Trust me.'

Tobias let him, feeling like a dead weight. 'I didn't mean to interrupt your night out.'

'There'll be more.' Cal squeezed his shoulder and began to steer him to the door. He was glad he'd only had a couple of pints on a full stomach if he was about to have to try side-along apparition. It wasn't as if Tobias was in any state to do it.

He looked at his friend with concern. 'It's going to be okay.'

'No,' said Tobias quietly. 'It won't.' He took a deep, shaking breath. 'I think I've really fucked it up this time.'


* *


Ron looked around the Muggle pub and then squinted at his beer. 'How did you find this place?'

'My flatmate took me here,' said Tanith, swigging from her bottle. 'Right before the Occupation. The night of, turned out.'

'That sounds like the best way to put up with a violent invasion,' Katie said philosophically. 'Or, at least, better than how I did.'

Tanith glanced at her. 'Where were you?'

'In the office with Jen,' she said with a wince. 'We barricaded the doors and didn't come out. I know, just brimming over with bravery.'

'You would have probably died,' said Harry.

'And nobody can say you two didn't make up for it later.' Tanith nodded at the other two. 'What about you?'

Ron's expression twisted. 'It was my brother's wedding.'

'Oh, I do remember a Weasley wedding taking out half of the staff...'

She was feeling a little better. She'd led her bewildered trainees to the Leaky Cauldron then out into the Muggle world, where they'd all looked around as if they were going to be ambushed at any second. Then her feet had, almost of their own accord, taken her back here.

She hadn't been here in months. Even when she and David had been seeing each other, they'd tended to do so at his flat, or somewhere closer to it, and she'd reached the conclusion that he only came here for the music nights. It wasn't a music night, so she'd be safe, even if he did still attend them.

And yet her heart still leapt into her throat every time the door swung open with a combination of hope and apprehension.

You are just made of self-destructive bitch, Cole, you know that?

'It's a nice place, anyway,' said Harry, in the tone of voice which made it clear he was just trying to keep conversation going.

'And it's quiet,' Ron said.

Tanith clunked her bottle down. 'And I need another drink.'

Katie put a hand on her shoulder. 'Oh, no you don't, Chief,' she said, and rose to her feet before Tanith could look at her indignantly. 'I've got this round.'

With a start, she realised she'd not yet gone drinking with her trainees. It was the kind of thing a training officer was supposed to do - see their protégés socially, build up a rapport, a bond. Jacob had done it for her, had made sure that she knew she could rely on him as a friend as well as a colleague.

Yet more ways in which she had been remiss in her responsibilities.

She turned to Harry and Ron. 'You never told me how awful Dawlish was in training.'

They looked a bit surprised, as if they'd been expecting her to just be a wreck and not trying to make small-talk. That was fine; Tanith was pretty confident she'd get around to being a wreck. Right now she was just numb and reeling and wanted to make the most of that to pretend like she was an actually functioning human being.

Instead of a walking corpse whose heart and guts had been ripped out.

'A tit,' said Ron bluntly.

'Oh, he was all right about teaching us procedure,' Harry said graciously, 'which is all we really needed. Since most of the trainees this time around were war veterans. But I don't know how he'll handle it once he starts dealing with Hogwarts graduates.'

'Fortunately, there are a lot of vets to get through.' Katie had judiciously bought another round for everyone. Seeing the way the evening was destined to go, Harry and Ron polished their bottles off quickly and reached for more. 'But it's pretty crazy, you get people who've done all sorts of things.'

'Are you the only member of the Lions who signed up for Auror training?'

'Yep.' Katie kicked back, clutching not a beer but some bright pink cocktail. 'Funnily enough, a lot of them got real sick of war. Tom followed Jen into the Prosecution Office, but Diana's back on her Healer training course and Richard - well, he had a hell of a time convincing Gringotts that going to fight a war was a justifiable reason to drop out of Curse-Breaker training. If he hadn't been a Muggle-born, and so forced out in the first place, I don't think the goblins would have let him in!'

Tanith frowned. She didn't care that much about these people, but Katie did, and that was important.

Is it your own stupidity that has you acting like a more feeling human being after you ditch the love of your life, or is this just you trying to not feel a damn thing by focusing on everyone else?

Got to be the second. The first might be halfway healthy, and we can't have that.

'How come Everard went into Prosecution with Riley? I thought he'd been going into construction...'

Katie rolled her shoulder. 'War fucks people up. Tom's not the same, he's not been the same since Gullsmere,' she said, and Tanith managed to not flinch at the unexpected reference to Nick Wilson's death. 'He's a whole lot angrier than he used to be. He started fighting, and once he started, I don't think he can find it in him to stop.'

'Sounds ominous,' said Ron. 'I remember he was always a pretty mellow kind of guy.'

'He was,' Katie agreed, 'and he still is, if he's let himself had a full night's sleep, which is kind of rare according to Jen. But I can't judge. I wasn't going to be an Auror before the war. Now...' She made a face. 'I'm good at it.'

There was a moment where all four of them, some more veteran than others, stared at their drinks and reflected on how even in peace time, even after all they'd done and suffered, they were still volunteering to throw themselves in the line of fire.

Then Katie gave a sunny grin. 'At least, I think so; don't know if the Chief would agree I'm any good.'

'Tolerable,' said Tanith, but her lips twitched and the moment broke for them all to give a companionable chuckle. It was an illusion of peace, an illusion of good times, but she could cling to it for a little while longer.

Socially adept Katie, who had to know that they were stood at the top of a delicate house of cards, immediately took advantage of the revelry to fix her gaze on Ron. 'So how's Hermione?'

Tanith knew the trick. If they kept on talking, if they kept their minds occupied, there wouldn't be a chance for the elephant in the corner, the demon in her head, to come to the forefront. And, on some level, she appreciated it.

'Oh, you know her, work, work, work,' said Ron with a melodramatic, affectionate roll of the eyes. 'She could have waited a year until Hogwarts was rebuilt to go back to school, but did you think that was likely? Nah, she's up to her elbows in rebuilding work and in studying and she's already applying for a Ministry job in the Office of Magical Beings - of all bloody places - once she leaves school.'

'Yeah, that sounds like her,' Katie conceded.

'It's a pain in the arse,' Ron grumbled, still more affectionate than genuinely bothered, 'but I see her on the weekends. And besides, it's worth it. I'm not going to have gone through all this crap with her for years only to screw it up, am I?'

Then he stopped, his words hanging heavily in the air, and Tanith had to reflect that either they'd put two and two together on the hows and whys of her breakup with Tobias, or Katie had helpfully provided them with the footnotes. She suspected a little bit of both.

Ron squirmed in his chair. 'Sorry.'

'I'm not going to implode the moment we talk about relationships, screwing them up or otherwise,' she said mildly, taking a swig. 'It's okay. Everyone's different.'

There was another pause before Harry cleared his throat and pushed them on. 'You know, we'd thought that we might get a break after killing Voldemort,' he said wryly. 'There are times I think I'm working even harder now than I ever was when hunting horcruxes.'

'Yeah, but a whole lot of that was being sat in a field.' Ron's expression twisted as he recovered from his perceived gaffe. 'Now we're still going on wild goose chases where the leads may or may not provide answers; the difference is now I get to sleep in a proper bed and have a proper meal.'

'It's going to be longer hours from here on,' Tanith said on an impulse. 'I'm meant to be training you, not just having you doing Auror work and learning by watching. I know there aren't that many tricks I can teach you which experience won't, but I do think we ought to clock some hours in the workout room.'

Harry frowned. 'To what end?'

'An Auror has to be able to anticipate their partner's actions, even before their partner's decided what they're going to do,' Tanith reeled off. 'They need to be by their side in a fight, knowing what tactics are going to be used, acting without thinking. Not two halves of a team, just pieces of one whole.' She hesitated, her breath catching in her throat. She'd been concentrating so hard on keeping her upset about Tobias at bay that Jacob had snuck up on the other side.

'You three aren't my partner, and aren't going to be,' she added, a little gruffly. 'But we might see action, so we need the practice.'

Another silence - then Katie filled it again, and the rest of the evening descended into pointless babbling and conversation, and the beer kept flowing freely, and her thoughts remained in the here and now, where there was company and things to talk about and most certainly not heartbreak.

And every time the door swung open, she looked at it with her heart in her throat, not knowing if it was filled with hope or dread. Or a lot of both.

Annoyingly, her trainees weren't that hard to get on with when she actually tried. When Katie was making sure the conversation topics remained vibrant, when Harry and Ron had realised their adventures were no longer top secret and could regale them with the silliest or most impressive parts of them, when Tanith herself was relaxed enough to not feel like she had to throw up walls, or put down Katie, or not be allowed to ask the men exactly how they'd broken out of Gringotts riding a dragon.

She'd been locked in Azkaban at the time. But Jacob had told her about it.

It was an illusion of good times. And yet, there would be all the time in the world for the bad, for the grief, for the loneliness. She couldn't feel guilty for putting off feeling it for a few hours longer, to let the alcohol dull the shadows of her thoughts so she could focus on the here and now. The shadows would come.

And so, in some ways, it genuinely was a good time.

They were kicked out after eleven and managed to stagger back to the Leaky Cauldron, where Harry, really quite drunk by then, had decided that it was far too early for them to all go home.

Drinking with Harry Potter in a wizarding pub turned out to be the cheapest experience of her life. They hadn't been sat down for five minutes before someone came up to offer him a drink, but Harry - reasonable, surprisingly humble Harry - slurred something about how they were all Aurors, and so all equally heroes, and something about how he might have fought and killed Voldemort once, but all Aurors fought and killed the Voldemorts in their hearts every day.

The point was, everyone bought them drinks. And the Leaky Cauldron was wholly disinclined to shut at its normal time when The Boy Who Lived had triggered an impromptu party.

By the time they left, even in November the sun was struggling to rise, they were all struggling to walk, and somewhere down the line she'd found herself with one arm thrown around Harry's neck trying to remember the words of a song she'd learnt not all that long ago.

In her defence, he'd started it.

'Oh, and while the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown...'

'So that'll be me who's doing the apparition home,' Ron grumbled as they staggered into Diagon Alley, patting down his pockets in a forlorn effort to find his wand. 'You okay, Katie?'

Katie emerged from the gutter, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. 'I'm okay! I'm still here! I'm good to go!'

'The day! The music! Died!'

'You were sounding like a dying flobberworm ten seconds ago!'

'That's what I do. Then I feel fine.' Katie side-eyed the other two. 'Oh, look at the bloody Blues Brothers there. I'll take Jake, you take Elwood?'

'What?'

'Never mind. Just get Harry home. I know where the Chief lives.'

'I know who the Blues Brothers are!' Tanith declared triumphantly, having quite forgotten the rest of the words. She extracted herself from Harry and let Katie throw her arm around her shoulder.

'Sure you do, Chief.'

Ron had planted both hands on Harry's shoulders and was focusing on keeping him upright, though he himself looked rather the worse for wear. 'Is she okay to be left alone?'

'Good point. I'll take her to my place. Then she'll be Gabe's problem in the morning.'

Katie proved thoughtful enough to apparate them into the parking lot under the building, even if it took her a good three minutes of concentrating in the road before she seemed to determine it was safe to try to make the laws of physics sit down and shut up.

Otherwise the corridor or flat would have had a far messier carpet.

'I could make it home on my own, you know,' Tanith slurred, and indeed she wasn't really walking any less straight than Katie as they stumbled their way to the lift.

'That's the point,' said Katie, only hitting the right floor button on the third jab at the wall. 'Not gonna leave you on your own.'

'Cal might be there.'

'And he might not. Don't fancy taking the risk.'

Tanith braced her hand against the wall of the lift and tried to even out her breathing. 'Why? You don't even like me.'

'I don't dislike you,' said Katie. 'And it's not the point. You wouldn't leave me heartbroken and alone.'

It was almost a question, but even in her inebriated state Tanith could recognise the faith being thrown out there.

'No,' she said at last, quietly. 'And... y'know. Thanks.'

'Typical,' Katie reflected as the lift doors slid open. 'First time I bring a girl back to the flat and it's you.'

'Sorry to disappoint. Sorry your love life sucks as much as mine.'

Katie fumbled with the keys to her flat. 'Nature of the job. Work all day, work all night, don't meet people, don't have a normal life.' She hesitated in front of the door. 'You just work more than most.'

Tanith leant against the wall. 'I don't -'

'You do. More hours. More jobs. More than you have to.'

She closed her eyes. 'I've got to,' she said falteringly. 'After all. I did the job during the war. For the wrong people. It'd be shitty of me to do it less when it's for the right people.'

'You did stuff for the right people.' Katie looked at her, key in hand. 'Sent us info. Got people out. Did what you could.'

'Sometimes.' Tanith glanced over at her, guts churning. 'But I wasn't one of the good guys, Bell. Not like you. I did things, horrid things - people's lives were made worse because of me.' She never would have been saying these things while sober, because she struggled to admit it to herself, let alone Katie bloody Bell. But now she'd started, she couldn't stop. 'So what do I do of an evening now? Keep working to make the world safer? Undo a little bit of damage I did, or 'least, make up for it a bit? Or go home to be happy when it's my fault lots of people aren't happy, my fault some people are -'

Are dead. But she was standing outside of the door to Jennifer Riley's flat, and she wasn't a complete idiot.

Tanith jerked her head at the door. 'Let's get some sleep. I want to make Gabe scream with surprise in the morning.'


-----------------------

A/N: Lyrics sung by a drunk Harry and Tanith in this chapter are lines from 'American Pie' by the great Don McLean, borrowed with humble appreciation. Because even a boy who grew up in a cupboard under the stairs and a witch with only a crash-course in Muggle music would know the words to 'American Pie'. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Chapter 15: These Soul Wounds
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Tanith didn’t make Gabriel scream with surprise when she was discovered as a pile of blankets on his couch. Because it wasn’t Gabriel who discovered her, it was Jen, and she swore loud enough to wake the dead when the bundle on her sofa moved.

Merlin fucking wept!’

There was a whimper from the pile of blankets, and Tanith pulled them up over her head. ‘Nrglebargh.’

‘Cole?!’ Jen clutched at the counter. ‘What the ever-loving hell are you doing here?’

‘Mrmphfuckoff.’

‘You’re in my flat!’ Jen seemed more astonished than indignant, but her outrage at seven in the morning was enough to summon a bedraggled Gabriel from the bedroom, wrapped in his girlfriend’s dressing gown.

‘Are you insulting the toaster again?’ He stood in the doorway and blinked at the couch. ‘Morning, Tanith.’

‘Mrrrrrr.’

‘Can you get me a coffee, love? Looks like I’m up anyway.’

Jen narrowed her eyes at him, but went to the kitchenette anyway. ‘You knew she was here?’

‘Nope. But I do want a coffee.’ Gabriel went to sit down on the armchair next to the sofa, and Tanith tried to burrow into the couch’s stuffing. ‘I’m a Seer. You have to practice not looking surprised when things happen so people believe you’re all-knowing.’

Jen eyed the sofa suspiciously. ‘Did Katie bring you here?’

‘Mrrrryes.’

Gabriel leant back in the chair. ‘Did she then kick you onto the sofa for snoring?’

‘Fuckoff.’

‘I think you deserved that one.’ Jen folded her arms across her chest. Tanith still hadn’t so much as lifted her head. ‘Are we going to get an explanation?’

There was a pause as the undead bundle that was Tanith Cole tried to summon coherent words for the first time in many hours. ‘Try again,’ she slurred, ‘after lunch.’

Jen rolled her eyes and set about making hot drinks and breakfast, and Gabriel slunk over to perch down by the sofa, nearer her head. His voice dropped, legitimately concerned. ‘What happened?’

One brown eye popped open, baleful at the intrusion into failing efforts at sleep - baleful at the world in general. ‘I broke up with Toby.’

‘So you decided to kill your liver?’ Gabriel reached out to squeeze her shoulder. ‘Come on. You can sleep in our bed for a few hours. This’ll do you no good.’

Jen kept her expression studied as Gabriel half-helped, half-dragged Tanith to her feet and ushered her into their bedroom. But when he emerged she had a mug of coffee waiting for him, and his expression was sombre.

‘I’ve never seen her like that before,’ he said quietly, taking the coffee.

‘What, hungover out of her skull?’ Jen hesitated. ‘Sorry. I should be more sympathetic.’

‘It’s nice we take turns being petty one,’ Gabriel said, leaning over to kiss her on the temple. ‘No, there’s more there. I know they’ve rowed, but this seems serious.’

‘Well, Katie’s not emerged, so it looks like they tried to drown the world’s problems with alcohol.’ She managed a wan smile. ‘What do you want me to do?’

‘Go to work and not worry?’ Gabriel grimaced. ‘If Tanith’s here then I bet Cal’s with, or has at least seen Tobias, but if you could check up on him...’

‘I’ll find an excuse - at least, if he’s in the office. What’re you going to do?’

Gabriel glanced over his shoulder towards the bedroom door. ‘Send a note to my father, take the day off, and buy a shed-load of orange juice.’ He let out a deep breath. ‘And take the chance to repay some old favours.’



* *



‘A little bird told me you might need this.’

Tobias looked up as the door to his office was pushed open by Jen. He looked like hell, and knew it; bags under his eyes, pale and drawn face. He’d not slept a wink, and was beginning to feel the physical effects of his stress almost as badly as the stress itself.

And, most infuriatingly of all, he couldn’t concentrate on his work. Work, which was the entire reason he was in this mess. Without it, what was he supposed to have?

Certainly not breakfast, but even though it was eleven in the morning Jen was still brandishing a paper bag which smelled convincingly of bacon.

His expression twitched. ‘Thanks, but I’m really not hungry.’

‘Have you eaten?’ She sat down in the chair across from him anyway, putting the bun on his desk.

‘No. I can’t.’

‘Just try. You’ve got to eat something.’

Without much enthusiasm, Tobias reached for the bun and took a mouthful. Even though he recognised it as being from the rather-good stall in the Ministry cafeteria, it tasted like cardboard to him. Without much relish he chewed and swallowed. ‘How’d you hear?’

‘Cole was passed out on our sofa when I got up. Gabe’s with her.’ Jen made a bit of a face. ‘I really am sorry. I knew you guys were struggling, but you seemed pretty happy when we had dinner, I thought you were past it.’

‘So did I.’ Tobias stared at the desk. ‘But I guess I’ve fucked up one time too many.’

Jen’s expression pinched. ‘I feel for Cole, too. I really do. But I know there’s no such thing as it being all one person’s fault in relationship troubles. At least, most of the time. Not in real life.’ She sighed. ‘And yet there seems to be something of a propensity for treating that girl like a sacred cow.’

‘It is a two way street,’ Tobias agreed. ‘Just my side’s got four lanes and a higher speed limit.’

The pureblood Jen Riley squinted at him, but seemed to get the gist. ‘Most of your friends are her friends too. But if you want to offload on someone who’s not going to ask you to be fair...’

He gave a wan smile, and tried another bite of the sandwich. ‘Thanks. I appreciate it. But I’m just... going to have to try to get on with things. With life.’ He gave a forlorn sigh. ‘It all seems so pointless.’

‘Nobody’s going to expect you to be full of vim and vigour. But at least you have things to do, things to focus on. The election’s probably going to take up a whole bulk of your time anyway.’

Tobias laughed humorlessly. ‘Isn’t that typical? We break up because of work, and now, I couldn’t care less about it?’

‘You will,’ Jen said gently. ‘You’ll remember why it matters.’

He picked at the bread of the bun. ‘You know, I think you’re the only friend I have who really understands why I’m here, why I do this. Oh, Cal’s supportive, and I’m grateful, but I think he kind of views this as... one of my mad-cap things.’

‘You and I have always been bigger picture kind of people.’ She tried for a reassuring smile. ‘I know it’s hard. But you’ll get through this, Toby. You’re smart, you’re capable, and once the worst of it’s over, you’ll remember that you’ve got a job you love, people around you who care about you, and every reason to keep on getting up in the morning.’

Tobias’ expression twisted. It wasn’t that he couldn’t intellectually see her point - but the words rang hollow, and he wasn’t sure that was just because he was still reeling, that some day he’d see her point.

I don’t want to go back to just living for my work. At least last time there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

I’ve just snuffed that light out.

‘Christ, we’re sounding like someone died.’ He set the bun down. ‘I appreciate the food, Jen, and the talk, and the thought. But I better finish off proof-reading these statements for the Minister.’

She stood, not entirely convinced but at least seeming like she’d accept it for now. ‘Okay. I’ve got court prep to do anyway; we finally set a date for Lackardy. You know where to find me?’

‘Sure.’ He forced a smile. ‘I’ll be fine, Jen.’

She looked a little reassured as she left, like she knew he wasn’t, but at least like she believed he could be.

That made one of them.



* *



‘A trip to Azkaban! That makes everyone’s day brighter!’ Cal squeezed Tanith’s shoulder as they walked down the corridors of the illustrious institution. ‘You know you don’t have to be here.’

‘I do. Because you’re coming here, and I owe you that much.’ She gave him a wan smile, which was the most she’d managed over the past four days. ‘It’s fine. It’s not like there are Dementors here any more. I admit they’d stand a good chance of finishing me off.’

His gaze softened. ‘You’re still here.’

‘It’s a start.’ Her expression set.

‘How’s work been?’

‘We’ve got some leads. The apparition trace gave us a time-frame in a part of Diagon Alley, which is a bit like a needle in a haystack but we’re canvassing the area, trying to turn up something specific. We had a psych profile sorted, and we’re comparing it with old records... it’s a lot of annoying legwork for not as many results as we’d like.’ Tanith’s face twisted. ‘I just want to beat the next body.’

‘You think there’ll be one?’

‘If this is a serial killer lunatic, there’ll be another. If this is a vigilante lunatic, there are still plenty of targets left.’ She squared her shoulders. ‘But I’m okay. We’ll do the job.’

Cal chewed his lip. ‘Last time we were here,’ he said delicately, ‘Thanatos said something.’ She remained silent, and he took a deep breath. ‘Was it true?’

A long silence met his question, and when she spoke, her voice was more dull and empty. ‘I didn’t have a choice.’

Somehow it sounded less like an excuse, and more like an even greater condemnation.

He exhaled heavily. ‘Holy hell, Tan - who knows about this?’

Tanith’s eyes flashed. ‘Me. Vaughn, a few others in the MLE - there was an inquiry for all of us who were in the office during the war. You. And that’s it.’

She didn’t need to say the rest. And that’s how it’s going to stay.

‘Did Jacob know?’

‘Jake was there.’ Her shoulders hunched in a little.

They turned the last corner before the visiting room, and he stopped, grabbing her by the arm to pull her to face him. His expression went earnest, gaze searching her face for some sort of reaction, even though he knew she’d learnt a long time ago how to bluff him. ‘You do know the war’s over, right?’

‘I’m not an -’

‘So why’re you walking around almost as tightly buttoned-up as you were when we fought?’ She looked indignant, but despite his sympathy he didn’t have the patience for it, and surged forwards. ‘Jesus, Tanith, you might have a leg to stand on with Tobias not sharing things with you, but - you want an honest relationship? You don’t walk around with these soul wounds hidden from someone you love.’

She yanked her arm back. ‘That’s incredibly rich,’ Tanith sneered, ‘coming from you. When did you tell Nat about what happened during the war? About Perkins?’

Cal clamped his jaw and forced himself to calm down before answering. She was hurt, he knew that, and this wasn’t about him. And even if her accusation was a punch in the gut, just as she’d intended it to be, he could use it. ‘I didn’t,’ Cal said. ‘And she’s gone. Bit of cause and effect going on right there - use me as a damn cautionary tale, if you want.’ His expression twisted. ‘And Perkins was drugging me with a low-dosage love potion, and fuck you for using that one against me.’

So maybe he wouldn’t entirely take the high road.

His words had struck home, he knew, but he also knew Tanith was in no state to apologise. She looked away. ‘Tobias never asked what happened.’

‘And I bet anything you never offered.’

‘Just as well, isn’t it?’ Tanith scowled. ‘Because he was only going to let me down anyway.’

‘Let you down. Or leave you. Or die. That’s what people do to you, isn’t it?’ Her eyes flashed, and so again he pushed on to cut her off. ‘I know I did - you couldn’t trust me because of what happened with me and Tobias, and then you couldn’t trust me because of Perkins, and I did let you down. And then there was Jacob, and you could rely on him, but he died. And Altair. And maybe even your father let you down by getting locked up. But the war’s over.’

‘Tobias still -’

‘I’m not talking about you and Tobias, I’m talking about you. If you can’t trust Tobias to put you first in his life, that’s your right, and God knows he’s had a bucketload of chances to blow. But you - I know the world has lashed out at you a lot, but it’s lashed out at all of us a lot. And if you keep living like you’re bracing yourself for the next blow, then that won’t be living.’

She hesitated, and despite her adeptness at lying he knew his words had struck home, knew they’d leave an impact.

And knew that if she turned to someone, it wouldn’t be him.

‘Where’d you learn that kind of fortune cookie wisdom?’

‘From a friend of mine who ripped me to shreds one night for being a fucking idiot. She kicked me when I was down, and I both deserved it and needed it. Where the hell did you learn what a fortune cookie is?’ The last question came tumbling out alongside his vehemence, full of bewilderment.

Tanith looked down the corridor and he knew he wasn’t going to get an answer. ‘We’re using up appointment time.’

‘That’s fine,’ said Cal flatly, though he did resume heading for the door. ‘You come above Thanatos on my priority list. But shit like that little bit of evasion right there? That’s exactly what I’m talking about.’

She didn’t answer, and he knew she didn’t need to, because then they were at the door to the visiting room and he had to think not about her, but about Thanatos. About himself.

He wasn’t even sure why he was here again.

Thanatos was sat as he’d been before, still in his shackles, hands resting on the broad table in the visiting room. His gaze was numb, unseeing for the split second before he registered their arrival, and the transition in his eyes was noticeable. Like there was a spark in emptiness.

It would have been warming if he knew he wanted to make Thanatos Brynmor feel better.

‘I wasn’t sure you’d come back,’ his father said.

‘Neither was I,’ said Cal, and went to sit down as Tanith leant against the wall. He silently prayed she wouldn’t be antagonised again; if nothing else, if she really wanted to hurt Thanatos he wasn’t sure he could hold her back. ‘How’ve you been?’

It was a stupid, mundane question, but he thought he saw Thanatos’ lips twitch under his beard. ‘In Azkaban.’ He leant back. ‘Now at least there’s Albert Nott to keep me company. Shakes things up when there’s someone new. Though he was always a miserable git, and recent events haven’t improved matters.’

‘I would think not.’

‘How’ve you been?’

Cal hesitated. ‘My co-Beater and mentor got Player of the Match last Saturday.’ He’d been proud to have helped Sam get there. ‘We’ve got a game in Norway next week. Trondheim.’

‘The old rivalry?’

It burnt him that his father would know about the traditional game between Puddlemere and Trondheim, played once a year, dating back a thousand years. He didn’t know if Thanatos would have known normally or if he’d shown a greater interest in Puddlemere because he played for them. Either way it felt intrusive, even if he’d volunteered the information. ‘That’s right.’

‘Good luck. I’ll have to sweet-talk my way to a copy of the Prophet, read the match report.’

It was too much. Too much like normalcy. Cal lifted his hands. ‘I didn’t - I didn’t come here to talk about Quidditch.’

‘All right.’ Thanatos planted his huge palms on the table. ‘What did you come here to talk about?’

‘What do you want from me?’

The question came tumbling from his lips, almost unbidden, and certainly not with the poise Cal had hoped for. He’d thought about this for days, thought about how he was going to handle it, and in his head he had always been far more composed, had always come sidling up to try to coax the truth out of Thanatos. Not just bluntly, clumsily asking him.

And yet his father cocked his head. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Me. Here. You clearly want to see me. Why?’

Thanatos blinked. ‘Because you’re my son. Because you are the last link I have to the world. Because I love you.’

Cal made a small noise of frustration in the back of his throat. ‘That’s it? You just want me to... to stop by, every once in a while, and tell you about my Quidditch games?’

‘And anything else you want to talk about,’ Thanatos said mildly. ‘Girls. Family. Friends.’

Cal worked his jaw noiselessly, bewildered. ‘Why?’ he said again.

‘For good or for ill, every endeavour I committed my life to is ashes and dust,’ was the calm reply. ‘Except for you. So long as you, my flesh and blood, remains in this world, I am never defeated, I am never undone.’

He associated Thanatos so thoroughly with the worst of principles, motivations, and moral codes that the idea his sheer existence meant those were not dead made him sick to his stomach. ‘You are defeated,’ he snapped. ‘Nothing that you fought for means anything to me. I thought I had made that abundantly clear.’

‘You did. You have.’ Thanatos looked away. ‘You might understand, one day. When you’re a father yourself. I know you don’t carry my principles with you, my thoughts with you, my goals with you.’

‘I carry nothing of you with me.’

‘But you do.’ His voice was so mild as to be infuriating. ‘You stand like me. You walk like me. You sound like me. You look like me.’ Thanatos looked across the room at Tanith, who was stood with her arms folded across her chest. ‘You’re trained to look for these things. You know I’m right.’

Cal looked at her with a start, and Tanith jerked as she was addressed - but even though she didn’t answer, her gaze met Cal’s. Her silence spoke volumes.

‘And it’s more than that. You have that same fire in you that kept me alive for years. You have that same drive in you which saw me through the darkest days. It saw you through the darkest days. You might hate me, and you might hate the things I did in my life, but you cannot deny I was good at what I did.’

This time Tanith did make a sound, a sort of strangled objection which she swallowed. Cal couldn’t deny he was glad of the interruption, the distraction, but still Thanatos kept talking.

‘The lessons etched in your heart might have been put there by Rayner, and might have been hardened by experiences which have nothing to do with me - which are the antithesis of everything I thought and fought for. But your potential to achieve all you could achieve?’ Thanatos’ smile was small and achingly, achingly sad. ‘A part of that is me.

That is how I can never be destroyed so long as you live. And that is enough for me, it truly is.’ Thanatos opened his hands. ‘But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like it if you could find a place in your life for me. However small and fleeting. However occasional. Because accepting, properly accepting, that I’m your father doesn’t mean you have to accept anything that I did - nor does it undermine the people who shaped who you are.’

For the second time Cal found himself just bursting out of the room without anything resembling a farewell, and for the second time Tanith tore out with him. But this time there was just silence in the corridors, a silence filled by the ringing of Thanatos’ words in his ears.

This time there was nothing which either anger or tears could dismiss.



* *



‘I don’t know how a single person could have believed I wanted to be there,’ said Jen, carefully tugging out her dangling earrings the moment she and Gabriel were through the door. ‘I haven’t stood in a room with so many closed-minded, conservative bigots since... since...’ She waved a hand. ‘Since we broke into Canary Wharf.’

‘So they only let you visit Death Eaters by the dozen in Azkaban?’ Gabriel said mildly, closing the door behind him and looking around the flat. ‘Looks like Katie’s not back.’

‘She’s an Auror on a high-profile investigation. I expect we’re going to see a lot of late nights from her.’ Jen made a noise of frustration as she set her earrings down on the kitchen counter. ‘I should have been having a late night.’

Even though Gabriel had not expected the evening to be a thrill a minute, he couldn’t help but feel a small stab of insult at her dismissal. ‘I know the Lackardy case is coming up, but are you really that busy?’

She made a face. ‘I wouldn’t be. Except that Tom has been outright useless lately. It’s like he’s lost absolutely all enthusiasm now we’re done with the Inner Circle cases. He keeps saying he’s going down to the MLE to go through their records, and I would expect that to take a lot of time if we’re to get the nuances of each minor accusation just right...’

‘But he’s not getting it just right?’

‘No. I don’t know what he’s doing down there. Dossing off with friends, I can only assume.’

Gabriel quirked an eyebrow. ‘Not behaviour I’d expect from Tom Everard.’

‘The war changes everyone.’ Jen sighed, leaning against the kitchen counter. ‘Even Tom. He’s just been quieter, surlier. More antagonistic. So, so angry every time we’ve had to make a compromise in any case. He doesn’t understand that sometimes sacrifices need to be made to get to the end.’

‘He never did,’ Gabriel reminded her, padding over. ‘He was always one of the loudest voices in favour of doing something morally righteous and incredibly stupid. And he always knew you’d stop him.’

She paused, and he knew what she was thinking - that he’d not always been one of the loudest voices. He’d only taken on that mantle when Nick and Cormac had died.

‘I’m sorry tonight wasn’t great,’ he said, keen to change the subject, even if it wasn’t to an ideal subject. ‘I guess the Bulstrodes weren’t ever going to throw the kind of party which would be your scene.’

‘It shouldn’t be your scene, either. You don’t subscribe to all of this pureblood rot, Gabe! These ridiculous “I’m-not-a-bigot-but-they-should-all-go-back-to-where-they-came-from” diatribes. The idea that our traditional wizarding values are being undermined by Minister Shacklebolt’s new, improved equality laws. These -’

She was in full flow by then, hands in the air, voice raised, a full-on righteous rant the kind of which he could usually just kick back and admire, because watching her in full swing was like watching a battleship launch and he loved her for it. But she also wasn’t too lost to not recognise it in herself, and subsided, sagging. ‘You know what I mean.’

‘I do,’ he said, and stepped forward to catch her hand. ‘But Daedalus is right; these are exactly the kind of people who need watching. Some of the old families have lost their prestige from sailing too close to Thicknesse, but some of them haven’t, and some of them have slipped out of the way, and plenty of them will try to use their influence - influence that Muggle-born and half-blood families don’t have - to maintain the status quo that keeps them on top.’

Her lips twitch. ‘You really have learnt to speak my language, haven’t you?’

‘If it convinces you, yes.’ He gave a nod that was half a self-mocking bow.

‘It doesn’t,’ she said. ‘I mean, Daedalus might be right, but I still don’t think you should do it. Not just because our democracy might be flawed but it is still their right to do these things without being spied on - but I don’t think you should live this kind of double life. Pretending to be the good son of Abidan Doyle, the good pureblood boy, with the good pureblood attitudes.’

‘I don’t care, especially, what people think about me,’ said Gabriel, shrugged. ‘I gave up on that a long time ago. My reputation would be a small price to pay.’

Jen hesitated, biting her lip. ‘I don’t want to do it.’ She finally looked sheepish and dropped her gaze. ‘I don’t want the kind of life where we put one face on in public and another one on in private. I don’t want to go to parties with these people, act like I at least don’t disagree with their bigoted rot, and then remember what they say to use it against them. I think we fought so we didn’t have to spend our lives in the shadows any more, and so nobody had to watch their words in private.’ She stared at him for a long moment, worried and apprehensive, and her expression only shifted towards confusion when he gave a small nod.

‘Okay.’

‘Okay?’ She frowned.

‘Okay.’ He stuck his hands in his pockets. ‘If you don’t want it, we won’t do it. Because I fancy that reluctance would also extend to not wanting to have me off doing these things, not wanting that to be a part of our relationship, and you wouldn’t be wrong to not want that. So I won’t do it.’

She drew a sharp, cut-off breath. ‘You’d just... decide to... not.’

‘It’s called compromise, love.’ He gave a lopsided smile. ‘I know you don’t approve of Daedalus Cole’s offer in general. And you’re right - if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it my way. If he wanted to do it by putting up with those people and living a lie to everyone, including his own daughters, then that’s his choice. But I’m not him; my life’s not his.’

Jen hesitated. ‘It’s not mine, either.’

He stepped in, hands coming to her waist, touch warm, possessive. ‘It really is.’ He smirked as he saw her breath quicken, unable to not feel a surge as he saw the effect he could have on her. ‘There is one thing I won’t miss from those parties, though.’

She cocked her head slightly, awkwardly, clearly not having expected this direction. ‘Oh?’

His smile became more devilish. ‘I could do without half the men in the room being unable to take their eyes off you.’

Jen gave a small, genteel snort. ‘Hardly.’

‘Oh, please. You don’t even need to open your mouth to out-shine other people at these sorts of parties, but when you do, you blind them.’ She shivered as he lowered his head to kiss her jaw, just under her ear. ‘You blind me.’

‘Just as well... we don’t need to go to these parties any more,’ Jen managed to say, rather distracted from keeping up with the banter.

He grinned as he leant forwards, pinning her against the kitchen counter. ‘There was still something satisfying about seeing them look at you like that and knowing that, at the end of the night, it’s my bed you’ll be in.’

‘I do believe,’ she murmured, fingers burying themselves in his hair, in his shirt, defiant despite it all, ‘you’ll find I paid for that bed.’

In the end they didn’t even make it that far.

They did crawl there eventually, because Katie being late didn’t mean Katie wouldn’t show up, and Gabriel still didn’t know what “heteronormative” meant and he didn’t like having words thrown at him he didn’t understand. And Jen had protested, at some point, that her dress was expensive enough it couldn’t just be left in a pile on the floor, though he thought that was an excellent place for it under the circumstances.

‘Fine,’ he said, once they were lounging back on the bed in a tangle of sheets and limbs. ‘But I paid for the sofa.’

She patted his hand, sleepy and content. ‘That wouldn’t make for as good a pick-up line, love.’


Chapter 16: More Important Than Them
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'Brain-Box Grey!' The door to Tobias' office swung open without even a knock, and all he could hear from outside was the objecting squawk of his assistant as Dimitri Radimir swaggered in. 'It is fine, it is fine!' Dimitri called over his shoulder. 'We are friends!'

Tobias got to his feet - grabbing his cane for good measure - and waved a hand at his assistant desperately. 'It's all right! I was expecting him!' He turned to Dimitri, frantic. 'But my friends normally knock.'

'Hum. I must be more important than them.' Dimitri closed the door and strode across the gap between them, big hand extended. 'You are looking -' He hesitated, and shook Tobias' hand. 'Awful. Terrible. Tell your boss he must give you a raise immediately.'

'My boss is the Minister; I don't think I can do that,' said Tobias, giving a crooked grin despite himself as he sat back down.

'Then I should tell him. Perhaps I cause international issue if he refuses, no?' Dimitri sat down, though his genial smile was tinged with concern.

'Not that I'm not pleased to see you,' Tobias said, flipping open his planner and wondering if he'd made a mistake, 'but I thought I was meeting the Russian Ambassador's Chief of Staff.'

'You are.' Dimitri grinned toothily. 'I have been promoted.'

'Really? That's fantastic!' Again, Tobias couldn't help but smile. It was an effect his genial friend had. 'Last I heard you were still at the Conference.'

'I was. Russia has a new Representative. Director Sergeyev recommended me for this post. Matters are calmer at the Conference, and he thought I should, perhaps, have a break. And, finally, a post abroad.'

'You had a post abroad,' Tobias reminded him wryly. 'Though you may find the weather here a little less pleasant than in Greece.'

'Officially, no, that was a holiday, remember?' Dimitri chuckled. 'No, no, you are right. That was at last acknowledged as business sanctioned by the Federation. So my people can take credit for the international aid provided to Britain, no?'

'Of course, they only do that once we've won.'

'It is politics.' Dimitri frowned, and nodded at the paperwork on his desk. 'We can talk shop. There is much to discuss. But I am not joking; you do not look well, my friend. I hope you are not over-working.'

Tobias gave a rueful chuckle before he could stop himself. 'You would hope in vain. And that's only where my problems begin. But -'

Dimitri's hand came down on his wrist as he reached for the papers on the desk. 'We will talk shop later,' he said. 'Else, I know you. Else we will not talk of what bothers you at all. I refuse to discuss matters of great international importance until you explain.'

Tobias frowned. 'We're only talking about the Ambassador's housing arrangements -'

'And the Ambassador will be most upset if these issues are not corrected, mostly because I will be telling him there are cockroaches in his bath, so it is best you talk to me, and then we can fix all issues, and then everyone is happy, no?'

'Maybe.' Tobias sighed, and finally conceded. 'I broke up with Tanith. Or, to be precise, she broke up with me.'

Dimitri folded his arms across his chest. 'What did you do?'

Normally he might have snapped at this, but it was hard to take anything Dimitri said badly. That was one of his virtues. He didn't judge.

'We both got caught up with work. Me here at the Ministry, her in the Auror Office. We neglected each other. I neglected her...' He looked away. 'It's a long story. But it boils down to how I wasn't honest with her, about what I wanted, about how it would affect our relationship. And she was tired of being second place, and took my dishonesty as a sign I wasn't serious about us, and said she'd had enough.'

A long pause met his words. Then Dimitri picked up the copy of the Daily Prophet on the desk, rolled it up, and smacked Tobias on the forehead.

Tobias barely reacted. 'I suppose I deserved that.'

'Deserve is not the issue. Need? Need is the issue. Neglecting her? Dishonesty? These are not the actions of the man who felt so passionately when we were in exile together.' Dimitri cocked his head. 'Is that it? Have your feelings changed?'

'No.' He scowled. 'That's not it.'

'There is something - something else?'

Tobias opened and closed his mouth. 'It'll just sound like an excuse.'

'Speak. I cannot promise I will not hit you again, but speak.'

Despite himself, yet again, Tobias gave a flicker of a smile, but it soured as he let his thoughts wander in the direction he'd not allowed them to take. 'I've felt, a little...' His voice trailed off, and he waved a hand. 'A little like she's been hiding things from me. But I don't know what. And I can't put my finger on it. And so I don't know if I was just crazy, or what, but I... it bothered me.'

'Did you ask her?'

He snorted. 'You don't know Tanith,' he said. 'Asking her directly could have caused explosions. I did my best, I came at her sideways like I always did, like always worked, and got... nothing. Not even a hint, then, that she might have been lying. But then I'd walk away, and the feeling would come back, and...' Tobias sagged. 'Like I said. Sounds like an excuse.'

'What you tried did not work,' said Dimitri slowly. 'And this is what you always did? Before the war?' Tobias nodded. 'That was a long time ago.'

'Not that long.'

'Long enough. People change. Wars change people.' Dimitri pointed at his leg. 'You came back with an injury, a scar. It changed you. She was here all this time. Maybe, perhaps, she has changed too. Has scars, too.'

Tobias frowned, thoughtful but uncertain. 'I barely even know what she went through.'

'There you have it. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe you are wrong, and there is nothing she has been hiding.' Dimitri shrugged. 'But maybe not. And maybe, just as you have been dishonest, so has she.'

Tobias slumped in his chair. 'I hope not. I hope she can be happy. But it's done.' Dimitri lifted the paper again, and Tobias raised his hands. 'Hey! Hey, what's that for?'

'One day you told me that you stood in defiance of your Lord Voldemort because of her, and love of her. One day you told me that she was what you fought for, why you persevered. You stood in front of your Azkaban prison and performed greater magic than I have ever seen in order to break her loose. And now you stand in the real world, with her at your side. And when she has disappointed you, and when you have had hard choices, you have let her slip through your fingers.'

Tobias threw his hands in the air. 'Fine, fine. I screwed up, I -'

'That is not what I would beat you for!' Dimitri tossed the paper down. 'I would smack you because after all of this, you are sitting here and saying it is done? You are Tobias Grey! You defied the government to bring justice to Britain! You defeated Idaeus Robb when he meant to kill you. You tried to rally all of Europe to your cause. We told you, again and again, that it could not be done, or that it was too dangerous, and time and again you ignored us, and you proved us wrong.'

It was impossible to stop the low, rueful chuckle in his throat. 'That was easier,' Tobias said, knowing his feelings were ridiculous even as he expressed them. 'That was just the risk of death.'

Dimitri gave a lopsided smile and shook his head. 'It is not done. You are not done. You look at yourself, and your heart, and if you would still have her, you are not done. Prove to her your feelings, and your honesty. Prove to her that she can be honest with you. And if she cannot bear it, if she cannot be honest, if she cannot forgive, then that is her failing, and you may walk away, head high, knowing you did your utmost.'

Tobias stared at the desk, his brow furrowing as Dimitri's words sank in, and he drew a sharp breath. 'You're right.'

'When there is a brick wall in front of you, my friend, you have two choices: to walk away, or to run at it. If you walk away, then you will be safe, but you will never know what could be beyond it. If you run at it? You may break through. And yes, you may fail, you may smash your face against that wall, you may break yourself upon it.' Dimitri leant forwards. 'But at least you ran.' He jerked a finger at him. 'You taught me that.'

Tobias grinned, his first honest grin in about a week. 'I don't run so much any more -' He threw his hands up protectively as again Dimitri reached for the paper. 'Okay! Okay! You've bullied me into trying to be happy!'

Dimitri laughed, clapping his hand down on the desk. 'Good. Good! See, you look better now. You do not look healthy, but I have seen you almost dead before, and you looked even better then. I know what was different. There was no fight in your eyes when I came in.'

'I wasn't conscious when I was almost dead, so my eyes couldn't be open for you to see fight -'

Dimitri waved a hand dismissively and Tobias laughed again. It had been a while since he could do that without feeling sick.

'Now. Room arrangements. I promise I will not make up any cockroaches...'


* *


'Duck, weave, find cover. Do whatever it takes.'

Harry lunged to one side as Tanith's Stun flew through the air at the spot he'd been a split second earlier. 'We don't have any cover,' he pointed out, gesturing around the broad, empty training room down in the belly of Canary Wharf.

'Huh. True enough. Guess you'll have to move faster.' Tanith whipped around to flick another spell at Katie, who back-wheeled desperately to not be hit.

'Is this your idea of training, Chief, or just an excuse to take pot-shots at us?'

'Most wizards,' said Tanith, standing in the centre of her three trainees, 'will rely upon their wand above all, their magic above all. That'll limit you. What happens if you lose your wand?'

'You run or you lose,' said Ron, barely ducking in time.

'Wrong.' Tanith flicked another spell at Katie, which brushed her shoulder and knocked her over. But still Tanith didn't stop. 'Keep rolling, Bell. You're not dead 'til you're dead.'

The fourth spell flung hit her, and Katie flopped onto her back, breathing hard. 'I'm dead.'

Tanith's lips twisted. 'Half the time a wizard doesn't know what to do if they can't throw a spell back, can't put up a Shield Charm. They might try to run for cover, but how good are they at not being hit?' She lowered her wand and nodded at Katie, who just waved a hand weakly in the air and still didn't get up. 'Think about the effort you save in a fight even if you have your wand. You don't have to throw up any Shield Charms.'

'We did fight a war, you know,' said Ron ruefully.

'I know.' Then Tanith threw a spell at him and he only barely reeled out of the way. 'Then how do you get out of this situation?'

'Find a fallen wand,' said Ron, darting sideways. 'Find a way out -'

She almost, almost didn't hear the footsteps behind her in time. But although Harry had demonstrated he could take her in a wand fight, although Katie had demonstrated Tanith couldn't break through her Shield Charms, although Ron had proven he could take a battering in a fight and keep on going even when she'd assumed he'd been beaten, there was one area where she was undeniably better trained and more experienced than them, and that was mundane hand-to-hand.

She turned as Harry was almost upon her, and almost casually flipped him over her hip. As he tumbled, she used his momentum against him to toss him down onto the mat, wand coming up to the back of his head.

'That,' Tanith said approvingly. 'You do that.'

'Fall on my face?' said Harry once she'd pulled back, and he sat up with a cheerful expression.

'On most wizards that'd work. Unfortunately, I'm not most wizards.' She looked up at Ron. 'Nice distraction.'

He grinned bashfully. 'I'm not quite as dumb as I look.'

'Most wizards, especially Dark Wizards, will rely excessively upon their magic and not consider alternatives. They will not train themselves in alternate forms of combat, and so not only will they not use them against you, they will not be prepared to defend themselves. I have, wandless, beaten an armed wizard twice my size thanks to the element of surprise and training which he was not prepared to cope with.'

'Hand to hand combat is on the Auror training,' Harry said, picking himself back up.

'But not to the degree I will train you. Because that's one thing I can teach which most other Aurors won't, or which you can't learn yourselves, or which you don't already know. Practice, and you can beat wizards who outclass you in magic.' She folded her arms across her chest. 'Therein ends my trite wisdom of the day. You mentioned you had reports?'

'I did,' said Katie, still on the floor. 'Then, you shot at me.' But she sat up, dusting herself off. 'Finally got a full magical analysis of the break-in at Phelps' place.'

'The open window?'

'Harry was right, the lock hadn't been bust with magic - exactly. And it was too tough to force by hand. Further inspection has showed some trace elements of Explosive Elixir, but not enough to suggest it was poured across the window-frame, and that would have blown the window open, not bust the lock.' Katie got to her feet. 'There was also trace amounts of - and you're not going to believe this - something non-magical which seems remarkably like silly putty.'

Harry's brow furrowed. 'What?'

Tanith paused - then she looked at Ron. 'You know what this is.'

He stared at her, completely nonplussed. 'I do?'

'Sure. Putty. Explosive Elixir...'

A look of dawning comprehension crossed his face. 'Boom-Doh?'

'Finest release from your brother's shop this side of the war.' Tanith nodded grimly. 'We have a toy enthusiast on our hands.'

'We're saying our vigilante lined the window-frame with Boom-Doh and then set it off to bust the lock?' Katie scratched her nose. 'That would bypass any anti-magical charms on the lock, be quieter than any sort of explosive fluid, and be more forceful than your average person's brute force. Pretty ingenious.'

'There are times I wish George just made toys,' Ron groaned.

'I never wish that,' said Tanith with a frown. 'Those things have saved too many lives.' She pointed at them. 'Clean up. Then we're going to have to ask George Weasley for a full list of sales of Boom-Doh over the past... let's make it a month, and we can work backwards. I want us to know every person who bought this stuff. We run those names past the profiles and suspects we've got so far, and if we have to, we go through every single person.'

'It's getting late,' said Ron, looking up to the windows, 'but I can drop by on my way home, talk to George at the shop.'

'I'll go; I still live across the way from the shop,' said Tanith. 'I'll have him hand any sales records over to you tomorrow; I want the full list of names of purchasers, with obvious innocents crossed off, by the time I come back.'

Katie pursed her lips, but Harry frowned. 'Back from where? What's tomorrow?'

Tanith grimaced. 'Tomorrow,' she said, 'I'm in court.'


* *


For once he made it home after Jen; the entire point of working for his father was that, along with the prestige and wealth, it wouldn't occupy all of his time. But he'd let her know he'd stay in the office, let her know he'd be late, and wasn't too surprised to find the flat dark, with indications the girls had shared a bottle of wine before retiring.

Gabriel tried to be as quiet as possible when sneaking into the bedroom, changing in the dark and slipping into bed with the minimal amount of fuss, but still the warm shape beside him rolled over.

'Sorry,' he whispered, his voice deafening in the dark. 'I didn't mean to wake you.'

'I wasn't asleep,' Jen murmured, and it sounded like she was telling the truth. 'I never sleep well without you.'

'That makes it pretty thoughtless of me to have gone to Tibet for two weeks.'

She slid up beside him, resting her head on his shoulder. 'Funnily enough, I got a lot of late nights in the office that fortnight. What happened?'

'Just a meeting,' he said, and frowned at the ceiling. It was the truth, and yet, a lie. 'Some of my father's old colleagues in the Ministry who'd run a mile from him when he was let off. He wanted me there to make it clear that his poster-boy-for-progression son wasn't a lie.'

'Even if he is.'

'I...' He couldn't bring himself to argue the point. 'I was thirteen when my mother died.'

He didn't even know why he said it, why he blurted it out; he knew he'd meant to say it, at some point, to tell her, but why it came out then was a mystery to him. But she didn't seem surprised, just nestled in closer.

'It was in the summer. I was home from Hogwarts. She'd been ill for a while...' Gabriel worked his jaw wordlessly for a few long moments. 'I didn't tell anyone. I wasn't in the habit of talking about my family, they didn't know anything anyway. I didn't want to be pitied, I didn't want them to think that knowing that gave them some insight into my life or some right to enquire further. So I didn't tell them.'

'You were thirteen,' she repeated quietly, thoughtfully. 'And you already wanted to keep people at bay that badly?'

'I didn't want them to know.' His throat tightened. 'Hogwarts was - at Hogwarts I could be whatever I made myself. Nobody needed to know about my family, about my father. Even my brother was older enough that we could keep our distance, and he'd left Hogwarts by the time she died. My professors knew, but making sure I was okay? That was Snape's job. You can imagine I got caring and compassionate support.'

She tensed at his side at last. 'I'm sorry.'

Gabriel shook his head. 'It was a long time ago. And I wanted it that way. At Hogwarts, I could be anything. If my family was suddenly someone else's business, they'd know...' He hesitated, the words choking him for half a moment, before he pushed through. 'Know what a failure I was, know I wasn't good enough, know every single truth my father drummed into me over the years.'

'And they never asked?'

'Tobias was a half-blood Slytherin, Cal had Death Eater parents, and Tanith was discovering she disagreed with everything she thought her family stood for. We all had our reasons to not talk about our families. They never pushed.' Gabriel closed his eyes. 'And I never volunteered.'

'So you became Doyle.' She said the name with the same inflection she'd used when they'd first met, properly met, during the war, and he felt her fingertips brushing his hair back from his forehead. 'Superior, detached, confident Slytherin.'

'Nobody asked him questions. Nobody expected answers. Nobody needed to know.' Gabriel nodded weakly. 'It took time before I realised that perhaps my father wasn't right, that perhaps I wasn't a waste. It took listening to Cal and Tanith talk about how their fathers and families didn't define them. Learning how parents could be wrong.' He took a deep, shaking breath. 'And that maybe I could contribute something other than a snarky comment or failure. Maybe I could do something else. Even if I wasn't a very good friend, I was a friend. That became... worth something, and the terrible irony was that although I drew strength from it, I couldn't ever embrace it, because I still didn't want them to know. That was a step too far, still.'

She had shifted up in bed to wrap her arms around him, and now it wasn't him holding her but the other way around.

'I never understood - I still don't - why my father hated me. My brother was quiet and dutiful and did everything he was told and he was fine, but for me, it was different. Nothing I did was right, nothing I did was good enough, and nothing I did could ever prove I was anything but a worthless failure.'

Jen kissed him on the temple. 'Some men are so weak, so petty, that they draw strength from putting other people down, from controlling them. Even their own sons, especially if they see a potential in them they themselves don't possess.'

'It got better when my mother died,' Gabriel murmured. 'Not because she contributed in any way - she didn't do anything, she didn't stop him, and I can only wonder, if he was like that to me, what kind of hell did he make for her? But I guess he did care, because when she died he became more isolated, more distant, easier to dodge.

'And it got better, despite it all, when I found my gift.' He couldn't help but sneer a little, because being a Seer had been a burden, and then it had just become a part of him, like a limb, but he had never wanted it. 'It got better when Tanith found out and that was like... something, like a secret part of me that someone knew. And that was an okay secret, because I could control it, but it was still someone knowing me. And... and not judging me.

'And it got better because it was something I could do to have an impact on the world, or at least the people I cared about. I used it. I saved Tobias' life with it, in the one vision I ever changed. And he doesn't know, the only other person who even knows that is Tanith, but he doesn't need to know. I know.' He was speaking faster now, past the worst of it, words tumbling out of his mouth as he stumbled to his conclusion.

'It gave me purpose and it gave me achievements and it proved, to me, even more, that my father was wrong. But even when I came back from Brazil it was just because I had that vision of Canary Wharf, just because I knew I was supposed to, and because I knew it would help Tobias and Cal. Whenever I said I didn't come back to fight the war, I didn't come back to fight the good fight, I was telling the truth.

'And then there was you.' He opened his eyes to find hers, gaze clear and strong. 'And I could fight a little for you, but you kind of didn't need me to do that. So I could fight with you, and... and it seemed cheap to fight for you, with you, and not care about the things you were ready to give your life for.' He gave a weak, one-shouldered shrug. 'I mean, I cared, but I wasn't quite about to die for them if I could help it. So that gave me more purpose.

'Then you fell in love with me. And I reckoned if someone as... brilliant, as passionate, as brave, as astonishing as you, could believe in me, then my father's opinions could burn in hell.'

He took a deep, shaking breath, using the silence to gather his words, and she kept silent, letting him, knowing him well enough to know that he wasn't done. 'I've never told anyone even half of that before,' Gabriel murmured. 'I never wanted to. But I'm... I'm sick and I'm tired of having these walls around the people I care about. I don't know if I'm ready to stand up and explain everything to everyone, but I'm tired of keeping everyone away.' He managed a smile, managed to meet her gaze to show her it. 'You did that. Burrowed your way in by having faith in me when you didn't have to, by being there when I had nobody, by bringing down all of these walls and now I don't... I don't think I need them any more.'

For long, long moments, she said nothing in return, just stroked his hair and held him close. And when she did speak he could hear the tremor in her voice, and hated the idea that his words had caused her even the slightest anguish, even if it was for the best. 'Thank you,' she murmured, 'for telling me.'

He said nothing, knowing he didn't have to, and after a few seconds her breathing slowed and her own composure came back. 'However you want to do this - this thing with Daedalus Cole. Whatever you need. I'm with you. But...' She faltered for only half a heartbeat, and it was only by knowing her that he heard the hesitation. 'I think you should do it without your father. I think we can find another way. And I think you made the right decision when you started cutting him out of your life.'

Gabriel hesitated, then she was pushing him onto his back gently and was above him, her hair tickling his face even as her lips found his. When she pulled back her voice was low, urgent. 'And your father's opinions can burn in hell. Because I stand by what I said. You are a good man. You are a brave man. You are a loyal man. And I love you.'

He kissed her and this time, for the first time, he actually believed her. On all counts.


Chapter 17: Until They Serve a Day
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The trial of Bernard Lackardy was a quiet affair. Once it had come out that he wasn’t being charged with the murder of Jacob Van Roden, interest had decidedly faded in his case of petty association with Garrett Avery, and misdeeds from during the war. Such criminals were ten a penny to the media, and even his indirect association with the vigilante striking at wizarding Britain wasn't enough to summon the press. And nobody went to these dismal affairs for their own entertainment.

He was brought into the courtroom only once the Wizengamot had been seated, but before lawyers, witnesses, or official observers were allowed in. So he passed Tanith as he was escorted down the long corridor to the courtroom, and the glare he threw her would have been enough to curdle her blood had she not faced down more terrifying men than he.

But his words, loud enough for most of the corridor to hear, were not as easily dismissed.

‘It should be you in here.’

Then he was pushed inside, and Jen and Tom escorted her around to the seating area for the witnesses so they could be summoned with ease. ‘You’ll be up third,’ Jen told her. ‘I want to ease the Wizengamot in with some of his indisputable war-time offences first, then we’ll move onto you corroborating what we talked about - and his Avery associations. But I’ll be putting him on the stand afterwards.’

It wasn't the first time she'd sat in court. She'd given evidence in several trials, both for the war-time offences and the Death Eaters she'd arrested since. There was nothing about Bernard Lackardy's case which had cause to give her pause except for the circumstances surrounding Jacob's death, and Jen had assured her she didn't want to muddy the waters by bringing that up. The night of Lackardy's arrest wasn't even something that needed to be discussed before the Wizengamot; it had been the investigation and surveillance before that which was more important in presenting a case.

In some ways, that made it worse. If she'd been worried, she could have concentrated on that. But because she wasn't, it made it very hard to ignore Tobias.

He was sat up with the Wizengamot, in the official seat reserved for a Ministry Observer and traditionally where the Minister themselves would sit if they wished to watch a trial. With no Shacklebolt present it was not unusual that it fell to him, but it did indicate some official interest in the proceedings.

She'd not seen him since he'd left Vaughn's office a week earlier. And although she’d had to work hard to keep herself in good physical condition, not allowed the liberty of eating or sleeping badly, it didn’t look like he’d held himself to similar standards. But he looked, infuriatingly, not the worst she’d seen him. Tired, but determined. Worn, but still going on. And for some reason which defied her reasoning, he was back to carrying his staff with him.

She wished she could ignore him. And, at the same time, wished she wouldn’t. It wasn’t even the heartache that was proving hard, but just missing him. When she sat down at home with the issues of the case before her and felt her thoughts going round and round in circles, she missed him. When she saw something that gave her a moment’s amusement, she missed him. Missed sharing these things with him, missed asking for his opinion, missed him just being there in the parts of her life. As her oldest and dearest friend, just as much as the man she loved.

She couldn't ignore him.

But she could concentrate on the trial. There would be several days of this, no doubt, but Jen wanted to bring out her big guns first, and had determined she'd put Lackardy on the stand because his defence lawyer wouldn’t. He was, Jen had said, a singularly uninspired man who was just waiting around to lose. It wouldn’t be fair, apparently, if Lackardy at no point took the stand.

Jen Riley was no less strange than she’d ever been, evidently.

Yet she was good at her job. Knew how to build an argument, knew how to use her witnesses to tell the story she was trying to tell without leading them by the nose. Even if it was child’s play, after all this time, to demonstrate Lackardy had committed war-crimes when a member of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, she still did it calmly and methodically.

When summoned to the stand, Tanith could match her calm in answering the questions. Was perfectly fine retelling what she remembered of Lackardy during the war. And when it got to one of the highest profile charges laid at his door - that being the murder of the Wilson family - they remained calm.

She was the only eyewitness to the event being summoned to the stand, though this wasn't the first occasion she'd had to for this particular crime; several of Lestrange's flunkeys had gone to court over it. But Jen hadn't handled those cases.

So Tanith didn't quite look at her as she retold what she'd seen that day, and she did her best to keep it succinct and to the point. Only when it was over - only when she had properly described the torture and murder of Nick Wilson's parents, the rape and murder of his sister - and Jen asked her several simple, calm questions, did Tanith look at Nick Wilson's former lover.

'Can you name the individuals who were present at the scene when you arrived?'

She did. Lestrange, Mulready, others. And Lackardy.

'Do you know which individuals perpetrated which acts?'

She didn't; it had all been over by the time she'd got there. But it was a formality of a question. Nobody got away with "only following orders" on horrors of that magnitude.

Then Jen went to Tom, sat at their counsellors’ desk, and he handed her a fresh roll of parchment. She moved on to the investigation of Lackardy after the war, and Tanith relaxed as she ran through the pursuit she and Jacob had engaged in. This was a matter of simple facts and evidence, and more about his collaborating with Garrett Avery than horrors perpetrated, and within minutes it was over and Tanith was sitting back down.

There was some back and forth with the Wizengamot which Tanith mostly tuned out, and then Jen summoned up Bernard Lackardy himself.

He had never been a physically impressive man, and time living poorly after the war, then being incarcerated, had not done him any good. He was tall, but wiry and weak, his cheeks gaunt, and moved with a furtive, squirrelly air.

Jen went back and forth with him over some of the details of his accused collaboration with Avery in a manner Tanith thought was a bit wishy-washy - and then demonstrated exactly why when she turned and, in a deceptively casual voice, said, 'Can you tell us, in your own words, what happened at the Wilson address on February 12th?'

Lackardy flinched. 'I was there. On the orders of Rodolphus Lestrange, who was my superior officer in the MLE.'

'But not everyone from the Detector Division was there,' Jen noted. 'Only half a dozen of you. Why were all of you chosen?'

Lackardy licked his lips. 'We were on shift at the time.'

'Detectors Williamson, Cole, and Proudfoot were on shift at the time. Lestrange didn't summon them.'

'They worked more with Mister Brynmor.'

'So you worked closely with Lestrange.' Jen cocked her head slightly. 'He knew he could trust you to do a good job.'

Lackardy fell silent for a few moments, then rolled his shoulders. 'Yes,' he said at last. 'And yes, I was there. But I didn't kill any of those people. I didn't rape the girl.'

'Did you partake in the torture and murder of Emilia Wilson?’

‘Lestrange burnt her. There wasn’t much participation.’

'Did you beat Andrew Wilson?'

Lackardy swallowed. 'Yes.'

‘How?’ Tanith saw a muscle twitch in the corner of Jen’s jaw. ‘How did you beat him?’

‘Is being there enough of a crime to condemn me?’ Lackardy snapped at last, sitting up in the chair. ‘A lot of people currently in the Magical Law Enforcement Department were present for an awful lot of things. If being there is enough to condemn them, then you’d better get yourself a lot more court dates, counsellor!’

Jen opened her hands. 'I'm not talking about these other people or these other incidents, Mister Lackardy. Answer the question.'

'Do you want to ask me about Gullsmere next?'

Tanith's hands clenched her armrest, and she saw Tom sit bolt upright in his chair. No. I saved your life that day, Lackardy, you little shit -

'I'm not interested in talking about Gullsmere,' said Jen, with supreme control and disinterest. 'My records indicate you weren't present for any criminal activity that day -'

'That doesn't mean I don't know what happened. We could have an interesting conversation on the topic,' Lackardy spat, venomous in his panic.

'I am asking you,' said Jen, 'about the deaths of the Wilson family -'

'Nick Wilson died at Gullsmere. Don't you want his murderer -'

'Thanatos Brynmor is serving a life sentence in Azkaban -'

'Tanith Cole is not!'

There was the briefest moment of silence that fell across the courtroom in utter shock and Lackardy, victory gleaming in his eyes, sat up. ‘She performed the Killing Curse, and now she’s not just not on trial, not just still an Auror, but giving evidence against me? You all pick and choose who you want to condemn -’

It took that long before the room exploded into chaos as the Wizengamot, official observers, and Lackardy’s lawyer broke into hubbub and and muttering and shocked exclamations. Some stood, some went to leave, and in the chaos Tanith slipped out of her seat and made for the door.

She wasn't the only one. She could see, high above, Tobias getting out of his chair and limping with purpose out, though he'd be leaving by a different door.

Of course he's leaving. He's not going to want to spend more than a heartbeat in the same room as you.

She walked through the door to the noise of the gavel of the Supreme Mugwump being crashed into his desk to re-establish order and, sounding as if she was speaking from a long way away, the voice of Jennifer Riley asking for a recess. Tanith didn’t stop.

But the corridor was long, and the lift doors were shut, and even as Tanith stormed towards them it didn’t take long before there was a shaking, angry call from behind her, from the courtroom doors.

Cole.’

Instinct screamed at her to not stop, to carry on to the lift, to get away, but if nothing else the lift wasn't there, and if there was a single person in the world she owed answers to, it was her. Tanith stopped and turned.

Into Jen's closed fist slamming into her jaw.

'You. You!'

What was I supposed to say? Tanith crashed into the wall, clutching her cheek, but didn't move to defend herself, didn't try to straighten or fight back. Brynmor made me? Only following orders?

'You gave us the information that day!' Jen was screaming, looking like she expected Tanith to fight back, fists clenched. Back in the doorway to the courtroom stood Tom, looking like he’d tried to stop her but obviously not very hard - and now, stern-faced, staying far, far out of trouble. 'You sent them to Gullsmere! And then - then you stand like one of the good guys?'

I don't. I really don't.

But there was nothing she could say. Nothing which wasn't just an empty, empty excuse.

'You knew. All this time, you knew! Because you did it! You -'

Then something changed in Jen's expression. The hate didn't fade, the sheer rage and hurt, but she rocked as if struck, as if some thought had occurred, the impact of which was enough to stagger her.

And just as suddenly as she'd come tearing down at her, Jen turned on her heel and left. But not without the tense, angry parting words of, 'Stay away from me.'

None the wiser, but not about to look a gift horse in the mouth as to why she'd left, why she'd not tried to beat her to death in front of the Wizengamot - when Tanith wasn't sure she'd have tried to stop her - Tanith straightened and made for the lift.

She had to get out of there.

By then most of the observers, Wizengamot, and witnesses were being called back into the courtroom, ushered in by the Wizengamot security, but Tanith ignored them and they didn't stop her from getting into the lift.

The trip to Canary Wharf passed in a whirl of thoughts enough to make her nauseous, and when she entered the lobby, for a second it felt like she wasn't in this new world, this time of peace and justice, but like she was entering it under the shadow of Yaxley and Brynmor and the others. As she had a hundred times before.

Deep down, Tanith knew she never felt like she wasn't still living in those times. It was more like the rules had changed, but there was still something waiting around behind every corner, still someone waiting to lunge on her, take advantage of any weakness, any chink in the armour.

The trick wasn't just avoidance. The trick was to preempt them.

She ignored everyone as she came in - everyone who clearly hadn't heard yet what had happened, everyone who was acting like the day was completely normal. From Savage, who managed to spare her a sarcastic smile that was about as nice as he ever got, to her three trainees, sat in the Auror bullpen with a pile of paperwork around them.

She had only one destination in mind: Vaughn's office.

She stepped in and closed the door behind her without even waiting to knock, and fortunately the Head of the Auror Office wasn't engaged in anything more important than some paperwork. He wore a frown of consternation which only deepened when she reached into her robes and pulled out her badge.

And set it down on the desk.

'Give me some paper and I'll write my resignation.'

Vaughn didn't look surprised, she noticed, just looked down at the badge, then slowly up at her. 'What's your reasoning?' he asked in a slow and mellow voice.

Tanith drew a deep, shaking breath. 'It's going to be all over the press soon enough,' she said quietly. 'It's going to bring the wrath of God down on the Auror Office, and I can't...'

'What's going to?' Vaughn sounded like he was making a point rather than speaking from ignorance, though, and lifted a hand. 'Don't answer that. If you answer that, I'm going to have to arrest you.'

She frowned. 'What?'

'Then again, I'm one of the few people allowed to know, being the Head of the Auror Office, and considering I knew all about it anyway because of the June Inquiries...' Vaughn scratched his whiskers pensively, before he shrugged. 'There's been an injunction. Classifying the occurrences of Lackardy's Wizengamot case. Nobody who was in that room is allowed to talk to anyone about it.'

'An injunction?'

'From the Office of the Minister. Guess he moves fast.' Vaughn was looking pointedly at her, but she couldn't understand why. 'So, you can't give that as your official reason for your resignation. So, I'm not under any obligation to accept your resignation. So, there's not going to be any public outcry over the Gullsmere incident and you don't need to protect the Auror Office.'

Tanith sat down shakily, realising the skin on the back of her hand was crawling again. 'I still, I - Riley's right, I shouldn't be wearing the uniform...'

'Not only is Jennifer Riley not an Auror, but right now I don’t think she’s going to be thinking clearly enough to give any kind of input about any kind of action that should be taken over the Gullsmere issue.’ Vaughn shrugged. ‘So I wouldn’t take her opinion about your professionalism to heart. We discussed this in June, remember? We went over it with you, with Van Roden, with Savage, Proudfoot, Williamson. All of you who stayed in uniform for the year. We were thorough. You were honest. We made the decision to keep you in the uniform. To trust you. To know you were in an impossible situation where you couldn't do anything else.'

'I could,' Tanith mumbled, her voice coming out almost so shaky she couldn't understand herself. 'I could - I could have done anything, so many things, so...'

'If someone breaks the injunction, the Auror Office will stand firm,' said Vaughn calmly. 'I won't leave one of my own to hang out to dry. You might have misspoken to the press last week, but you were right - until they serve a day in this uniform, they don't have the right to judge.'

She lifted her gaze from her hands, awkward and not sure she could look him in the eye. ‘Why did you all keep me? At the inquiry, why did you -’

‘Savage was present when a bunch of Snatchers executed three Muggle-borns. Twelve Snatchers. Three Muggle-borns. One Savage. Williamson took part in that raid on the the Jones residence; you know, the one where family of a member of the Order of the Phoenix died. Four family members. Eight Ministry Loyalists. One Williamson.’ Vaughn’s expression twisted. ‘You’re not alone in these misdeeds.’

‘Proudfoot didn’t -’

‘Proudfoot was the backbone of the Salford Irregulars, and Proudfoot got lucky. He got jobs he could afford to botch without the wrath of God falling down on his head, so they shunted him to one side and nothing more. And, yes. That means I can have Proudfoot standing front and centre in our most important op right now, because he’s experienced and because he doesn’t have stink on him if public opinion wants to hold one of its kangaroo courts.’

You went to Azkaban.’

‘In the end, as I recall, so did you, Cole.’

‘Only at the end -’

‘And while you weren’t in Azkaban, what did you do?’

Tanith’s shoulders tensed. ‘Killed Nick Wilson, obviously -’

‘Fed The Midnight Press information. Fed the Lions of Britain information. Undermined operations. You couldn’t have done that, any of the good you did, in Azkaban.’

‘It’s the principle of the -’

Fuck the principle. Would the principle of being in Azkaban for your morals have you successfully planting a spying device in Yaxley’s office? Would it have directly led to the death of Rodolphus Lestrange?’

‘It directly led to the death of Nick Wilson.’

Bollocks.’ Vaughn scowled. ‘If you hadn’t been there, then you know full well that anyone else would have done it. You know full well that if you had tried to save them, you would have died, and then they’d have died too. The only reason why they wouldn’t have died if you hadn’t been there is because they’d have never had the intel to make the attack on Gullsmere. And that takes us down a whole, stupid-ass route of “what if”s, but at the end of the day, they saddled up to fight, and they died. That’s between them, Thanatos Brynmor, and God, and not nobody else.’

He sighed, leaning back in the chair and tugging at his whiskers. ‘But I didn’t answer the question. I kept you on not because of the bad you’d done, but the good. I don’t know about it balancing, but I don’t care about that cosmic hokey crap. I do know it showed me who you are. That when shit’s bad, you will still stand up and risk your neck to do what’s right. Not through some stupid-ass sense of principle that gets you and people around you killed, but for what’s good, and what ought to be, and what’s right. You know what the people who I tossed out of the MLE said in their inquiries? That it was complicated.

‘It might have been difficult. But it wasn’t complicated. Right and wrong. Good and bad. You knew which was which and you did as much of the first as you could while minimising the worst. Like I said. “Balance” can go fuck itself. But you didn’t kill Nick Wilson, Thanatos Brynmor did; he just used you to do it. You’re not a murderer, because I don’t employ murderers. I employ good people.’ Vaughn winced. ‘Even if you’re a burnt out person right now.’

‘I’m okay, Boss -’

‘Will you stop saying that?’ He sighed. ‘I’ve got half a mind to take you off this case -’

‘No.’ Tanith sat bolt upright, a spark finally firing in her eyes and belly. ‘I’m doing this case, Boss. I’m finding the guy who killed Jacob, I’m - you don’t get to transfer me...’

Vaughn looked like he was chewing the options over, before giving a reluctant nod. ‘I do, actually, get to do whatever I damn well please in the Auror Office. But all right. You win.’ He jerked a finger at the door. ‘But not today. Today, let your kids pitch the ball to one another. You’re in no state to catch.’

He looked at her, and as she met his gaze she didn’t see anything but cold pity in his eyes. Not respect, not a regard for what she could do, or an understanding of what she’d been through.

Just pity. Pity at how it had broken her.

‘Go home, Cole.’

* *


Being in a long-term relationship often grants one an insight into the feelings of the other, allows them to read the subtleties and nuances enough that at a simple glance they can tell if something’s wrong.

Or, in Gabriel’s case, he knew something was wrong because Jen slammed the door behind her loud enough to make the wall shake.

‘You knew.’

He stood from where he’d been sat on the sofa, and there was so much pain in her voice that it was his instinct to go to her, to offer comfort. But there was venom, too, so much fury and hate, that he stayed put, bewildered, hands hanging by his sides.

‘What did I -’

Gullsmere!’

The bottom of Gabriel’s stomach dropped out, and he swallowed - and then, quickly, rationalised that there were all sorts of things she could think that she knew, and that didn’t necessarily mean anything. He forced a tone of innocence into his voice. ‘What do you think happened -’

‘Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare stand there and lie to me,’ Jen raged, storming over to him. ‘I know you said you didn’t want to tell me, but you said that was to protect me!’

Ah. That.

Gabriel took a deep breath. ‘It was to protect you -’

‘Bullshit. Bullshit. You were protecting Cole. Protecting her from any kind of consequences -’

'Consequences of something that wasn't her fault,' Gabriel snapped. 'Brynmor made her. He threatened her, he threatened her family. If she hadn't killed Nick, someone else would have, and innocents would have suffered.’

‘If it’s all that simple,’ Jen said, ‘then why didn’t you tell me?’

Because of exactly this conversation?

‘And so I got to find out in the middle of a Wizengamot case?’ she continued furiously. ‘Does that protect me? Is that your idea of shielding me from it?'

He didn't answer, and she stood silent for a few moments, chest heaving. 'I have put up,' she said quietly, voice shaking, 'with your secrets. With your evasion. But I have always trusted that you would tell me these things when you were ready. That these were things you didn't tell me because you couldn't tell anyone. And I have never kept anything secret from you.'

Something twisted in Gabriel's gut, and though he could identify and dread it, he couldn't stop it. That old instinct, the one which told him to push back when pushed, the one which his father had tried to hammer out of him and which had only been strengthened by these efforts. It was why he stood up when he couldn't win - and why he lashed out when it would only make things worse.

'So couples never keep secrets from each other,' Gabriel sneered. 'No secrets, ever. That's why you waited fifteen minutes to tell Nick his parents were being tortured and his sister was being raped.'

She stopped, staggered - but recovered with a furious glint in her eye. 'You know why that happened. You know what Nick was like. If I'd told him, he'd have gone -'

'And died. Didn't do him much good in the end.' He straightened as she flinched, a mixture of desperate, frustrated and irrationally, irrationally angry. 'You kept it from him to keep him safe. I did the same to you.'

'You did it to protect Cole. Precious Tanith Cole, who kept your secrets long ago and, what, now ranks higher than me?'

'It's not about ranking,' Gabriel exclaimed. 'No good would come of it!'

'For me? Or for her?' Jen stuck her hands on her hips. 'Or for you?'

‘For me?

‘Were you just trying to keep me in the dark, make me think everything was all right, just so you’d stay in my good books -’

She was hurt. He knew it, in his heart of hearts. He knew she’d just had an old, painful wound which she’d never had the time or chance to properly put to bed be ripped open in a shocking and public manner. He knew, better than most, how that could make someone lash out just to regain a sense of control in their anguish.

But it didn’t mean that he could just shrug it off. It didn’t mean that his own instinct to push back didn’t flare, and up rose his finest talent. Not his wits, or his visions.

His gift for finding exactly the right thing to say to someone at exactly the right moment to hurt them in exactly the right way.

‘Kept me in your good books so you’d be happy to fuck me before Nick was cold in the ground?’

The sound of her open palm on his cheek was loud enough to echo, loud enough to ring in his ears along with the blow, which knocked his head to one side. ‘How the hell do you dare -’

And then he wasn’t thinking when he reached out to snatch her wrist, grip firm, unforgiving. ‘You do that again and you’ll -’

Then their eyes met, and for the first time since she’d stormed in they actually saw each other. Not the rage, not the hurt, not the defensiveness, just each other and the pain, and Gabriel heard the words coming out of his mouth and the sound made him sick to his stomach.

He let go of her hand - almost pushed it away, as if to do so forcefully would undo that he'd ever snatched at her in anger in the first place - and worked his jaw wordlessly. 'I...'

But there was nothing he could say - or should say, and nothing she could say, and then without another sound she’d turned on her heel and torn back towards the door.

‘Jen -’ But there was still that kernel of anger bubbling in him alongside his own pain, and the stab of fear in his gut at her turning away from him, and even more he couldn’t find the words he needed to make her stop, make her come back.

And so the door slammed shut behind her before he could figure out what to say to make everything all right.

Chapter 18: Save the Day O'Clock
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It was the second time in as many weeks that she'd been in this pub, after over six months of nothing. But she'd still calculated correctly.

It was a music night.

The chairs and tables had been rearranged, pushed back to be that bit closer together, elbows to elbows, and the slightly elevated area had been cleared to become a makeshift stage. It was just as she remembered it; a mish-mash of technology and musical instruments and plenty of things she didn’t understand and never would.

And she didn’t care to understand them tonight. That wasn’t why she was there.

She slunk up to the bar, the far end of it furthest away from the stage, and slid onto a stool. The music had already started, one of the live acts already up there, and in the gloom and in the tight gathering of the crowd, she couldn’t recognise anyone, any of the regulars she would pray wouldn’t give her a second glance.

The bartender certainly didn’t when he passed her the whiskey.

Tanith couldn’t even tell if it was good music tonight. It was just sound to her, like how everything had been just noise, like how everything in front of her eyes had been cast into black and white. Since longer than just the day’s shocks, since -

Since Tobias.

She slammed the whiskey back and ordered another.

The look in Jen Riley’s eyes - right before she’d punched her - was likely to be one of those images that stayed with her ‘til the day she died.

Then again, so was the look in Nick Wilson’s eyes right before she’d executed him.

It was only right. Only right that her sins be remembered, that the people she’d hurt be remembered.

She couldn't conceive of Riley taking this quietly, letting the injunction lie, letting her get away with it. There'd be a leak, there'd be something, there would be public attention or some sort of reprisal.

At the least, she didn't think she'd be invited round for dinner again.

Despite herself, Tanith snorted in a deeply un-lady-like fashion into her drink - and then almost choked on it as the next act came up, guitar in hand.

It was David.

Of course he was here. That was why she'd come here, she knew - even if she liked to tell herself she was just here because nobody would find her here, look for her here, so she'd be away from the magical world, there was a small piece of her which had come because...

...because that was still a part of her instincts of where to run when hurt. And she couldn't run to Tobias.

When she couldn't run to Tobias, she'd always run to him.

And he was up there, just like he'd been a year ago the second time they'd met, charming the crowd, launching into his mellow music, like no time at all had passed.

It was probably like it hadn’t, for him. His life was probably much the same as it had been before she’d walked into that pub last year. The same work, the same people. He wouldn’t remember the world behind the one he knew, the one she’d shown him.

She’d stood on his roof and told him everything. And then she’d kissed him.

She ordered another whiskey.

He was singing, now, in full swing, and the audience were lapping it up like they always did, the conversation at a low murmur, most eyes in the place locked on him more than they were on any of the other acts. She was no exception, though she didn’t recognise this song.

It hit all the notes that she expected of these kinds of songs, the lover asking for forgiveness, though at least this one had a bit more spine and wasn’t taking all the responsibility, and she had to resist the urge to throw her glass at the stage. Even Obliviated, that man knew how to carve straight through to her heart and find the pain, and either soothe it or bring it into the light and make it not that bad.

Then his eyes met hers across the pub, and she almost dropped her glass.

He remembers.

Perhaps the Obliviation had been botched, perhaps it had worn off, perhaps, perhaps - something had happened. There was that glint in his eye, like there had always been when he looked at her knowingly, and though their gaze only locked for half a second it was enough.

And maybe it wasn't so coincidental that he sang this song.

She ordered another whiskey, and her hand shook when he finished the song, finished the set, gave his thanks to the audience, and stepped down from the stage to go towards the bar.

To go towards her.

She had to put her glass down when he stopped beside her at the bar, and for a few moments she couldn't look up, could only stare at the bartender, before she drew a deep breath and lifted her gaze.

He caught her out of the corner of his eye, and for another moment she froze, unsure of what she could say, unsure of where she could even begin, how she could start to explain.

Then he gave an awkward smile and said, 'Hey,' and her heart sank.

It wasn't an off-beat, casual greeting after months of not seeing one another. There was no knowing glint in his eye. The awkwardness wasn't sheepishness - it was poor politeness at the woman sat next to him at the bar who'd been looking at him for a few seconds too long.

And Tanith then realised he'd come to stand next to her at the bar because it was too busy to stand anywhere else.

She lifted her drink half an inch. 'Good set,' she managed to say.

'Thanks,' he said. And then he looked away to order his drink.

He didn't remember.

Her heart bunched up even tighter when, waiting for his pint to pour, he glanced back at her and gave his usual welcoming, charming smile - the one he gave to everyone. 'Is this your first time here?'

'No,' Tanith said, and her legs propelled her to her feet, forced her to finish off the latest glass of whiskey even though she wasn't sure she wouldn't be sick. 'But I really must be going.' She hesitated. 'It really was a very good set.'

Then she left before he could say anything, or at least anything she could hear; turned and pushed her way through the crowd towards the door, tugging her coat tightly around her shoulders, and stepped into the cold winter night beyond.

Goodbye.

She'd only had a few whiskeys, but the night seemed darker and more monstrous as she shoved her hands in her pockets and slouched down the street. A part of her screamed in her mind to turn around, to go back to him, screamed at her that maybe she could undo the spell, or maybe she could just talk to him and make everything the way it had been.

And then what? How does that change anything? How does that make anything any less impossible than it was before?

She didn't know how to change it. She just wanted to hide again. And Tanith knew her own instincts of running down the most damaging roads whenever she was in doubt. Somehow, outright pain was something she could control better than swirling anguish. Somehow, it was better to know you were fucked than be caught in the uncertainty.

She was pretty good at making sure she was fucked.

On an impulse she cut down an alleyway which would cut across streets to take her to the same road as the Leaky Cauldron. They'd taken it before, when she'd been out with her trainees, though somehow she doubted that this evening would end with more drinks and singing at the Cauldron.

It had been bizarre. She'd been beaten and broken and in one of the lowest points of her life, and yet somehow she'd managed to laugh, somehow she'd managed to enjoy herself, somehow she'd managed to throw herself in the revelry and not feel like she wanted to curl up into a ball and die.

She supposed, dimly, that was what it was like to have your friends beside you when you were in your darkest of times. She could barely remember. She'd faced all of the truly dark times on her own.

Or with David.

Then something landed in the dark alleyway behind her.

Tanith turned, sluggish from her thoughtfulness and her whiskey - and had to throw herself to one side as a curse lit up the darkness and hurtled towards her. Her shoulder hit the wall, hard, and she scrabbled at her coat for her own wand.

But even as she grabbed it a looming figure, indistinct in the dark, closed the gap between then and delivered a heavy, vicious punch to the side of her face.

There was something strangely familiar about it all as she was spun around and hit the ground, wand dropping from her grasp, but she didn’t stop to reflect upon it. Distraction in a fight meant death.

So did being drunk in a fight, but she couldn’t really control that.

She reached out to grab the metal dustbin next to her, swinging it around as she rolled onto her back, and hurled it in the direction of her attacker. It was a clumsy throw, but it was a big bin, and even if she scattered rubbish everywhere, her assailant was forced to step to one side to avoid it.

Then another spell flew over Tanith’s head, only this one came from the other direction, and missed her shadowy attacker by inches. They looked up, straightened - then turned and bolted in the opposite direction.

Tanith flopped onto her back, head still spinning, as heavy footsteps pounded straight past her and in pursuit - then lighter ones reached her, and suddenly it wasn’t the cloudy night sky that filled her vision, it was Katie Bell’s face.

It had started to rain.

‘Easy, there, Chief. You okay?’

‘Fell over,’ she slurred, though it was more from not having shaken off the effect of the punch than the alcohol. ‘You got the bastard?’

Katie tried to help her into a sitting up position. ‘Harry and Ron have -’

‘Stupid bastard’s apparated!’

‘I think that makes him pretty bright, actually, Ron...’

‘...let him get away,’ Katie finished, and Tanith clung to her for support as she staggered to stand. With her feet under her she felt a little better, felt the world stop oozing from left to right, and she shook her head to clear it.

'What the hell are you three doing here?'

Ron, hair coated in fine droplets of rain, made a face. ‘Saving you?’

‘You left Canary Wharf in a bit of a state, Chief,’ said Katie. ‘Nobody was sure where you were. We did what admin we could do, but we’re waiting on some analysis team results still, so we went to check up on you.’

‘Checked your home. Checked the pubs.’ Harry shrugged. ‘We thought you might have come to that Muggle place.'

'And wasn't our timing excellent?' said Ron, pointedly but good-naturedly.

'It was Save-the-Day o' clock, and we were seriously on time,’ Katie agreed.

Tanith gave a small, wry smile, and looked at her three trainees. 'Thanks.'

Katie gave her shoulder a quick squeeze, then let go just as quickly. ‘It’s all right, Chief,’ she said. ‘We’re your partners. It’s what we do.’

And yet again she felt miserable but grinned at them, even if moving her face muscles was starting to hurt. Then Harry - to her eternal relief - completely broke the moment by frowning and pushing past her. ‘What’s that?’

She turned to see a huge gouge in the masonry, and her brow furrowed. ‘That’d be...’ She turned, looked up and down the alleyway, and drew a deep breath. ‘Where the first spell he threw at me hit.’

Harry fingered the stonework. 'I'd want to get these bricks back to the analysis teams,' he said grimly, 'but I think this is the Scindo curse.'

'Harry, you might be jumping at -'

'That was a wizard. Who attacked you, down a dark alleyway.' He turned to face her, gaze serious. ‘And used the Scindo curse, same as our vigilante.’

‘Yeah,’ said Ron, ‘but our vigilante’s been targeting criminals from the war.’

And, we suspect, Jacob Van Roden,’ said Harry. ‘Who was a member in the MLE during the war.’ He nodded at Tanith. ‘Just like you were.’

Tanith lifted a hand to her temples. ‘This can’t be a coincidence,’ she breathed.

‘See?’ said Harry. ‘This guy’s gone nuts and is going after -’

'That's not what I mean,' said Tanith, and drew a deep breath. ‘I’m only telling you this,’ she said carefully, ‘because it’s pertinent to the case. Otherwise, there’s an injunction against me discussing what happened in the courtroom today.’

‘We assumed it wasn’t cheerful,’ said Ron.

‘Lackardy spouted a lot on the stand. Tried to do damage before he went down. He... made public some of the things which had happened in the war. Things which I had done - Vaughn knows about them, I was cleared in the June Inquiries, same as anyone else who served in the war who’s still in uniform.’ Tanith hesitated, and met Katie’s gaze. ‘On Thanatos Brynmor’s orders, under threat of harm falling to my family, especially my father who was already in Azkaban at the time, I executed Nick Wilson.’

Katie’s face went a peculiar shade of green. 'Oh, sweet zombie Merlin, Jen was -'

'There. Yes.’

Harry and Ron exchanged glances. They did that a lot, she knew; spoke in a secret, silent code she couldn't begin to understand, and she often suspected that was part of the point. Then Harry looked back. 'And that night you're attacked by a wizard whose signature curse is the same as that of a vigilante who’s been targeting war criminals who’ve not been brought to justice.’

‘Like I said,’ said Tanith weakly. ‘Likely not a coincidence.’

‘Right.’ All of a sudden Harry seemed taller as he looked across at the three of them. 'Ron, I want you to get back to Canary Wharf. Let them know what’s happened, let them know Auror Cole’s going to need a protection detail, and tell Vaughn. Katie, start running what spells you can on this masonry to confirm what we can about this Scindo spell, and get to work on tracing this apparition while the trail's still warm.'

Tanith nodded, cursing her spinning head. 'Right, we're going to need an analysis team to -'

Harry turned to her. 'You're going home.'

Her eyes narrowed. 'No, I'm -'

'Yes. That's not up for debate.'

Tanith straightened. 'You don't give me orders, Potter -'

'You've been drinking. By regulation, you're not fit for duty.' Harry's expression shifted apologetically. 'It's legwork tonight, Cole. Unless we're shockingly lucky with the apparition trace, we're not going to have any answers by morning, and if we are lucky with the trace, we don't want a tipsy Auror on any kind of pursuit team. I don't need to give you orders on this one; the rulebook dictates you're not on duty.'

Ron shifted his feet awkwardly to break the silence. 'What're you going to do?' he asked Harry.

'Take her home,' he said, and Tanith went back to nursing the small seed of resentment towards Harry Potter she'd thought she'd left by the wayside. 'And wait for the protection detail from Canary Wharf.'

She protested. She argued. She cursed. She sulked. But he still apparated her out of there and into her front room, still sat her down and made her a cup of coffee which he forced her to drink, and still sat with her and was infuriatingly nice until there was a knock at the door and Sergeant Colquhoun of the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol confirmed he was here to watch and secure her flat. Then, apologetic, he left.

Leaving her alone in the gloom, with the Enforcers out by the front door, and Cal a few hundred miles away playing a match in Norway.

The ceiling of the flat was high and slanted, at the top of the building, and as she sat in the darkness for long moments - hours? - she could hear the rain get worse. It thudded on the tiles, it lashed against the windows, and it pattered on the skylights above like a rolling beat, enveloping in the darkness. She finished the coffee. She got to her feet. She crossed the living room to Cal’s bar, and dug into it until she found the whiskey.

It was rather good whiskey. Cal wasn’t a man to skimp now he was making a hefty salary and his living expenses had hardly gone up since he’d got this job; he knew his drink and he liked his drink. And right now, she liked to benefit from his taste. He wouldn’t complain, and if he did, she could fork out to replace the one bottle.

Or two. Maybe two.

She’d only just poured a glass when there was a knock at the door. It would be the Enforcers, or the Auror Office at last getting back to her, and so with a scowl - not wanting to give Harry bloody Potter the satisfaction of knowing he’d been right to keep her off duty - she set the drink down and glowered across the flat. ‘Come in!’

It wasn’t Colquhoun, or one of her trainees, or even Vaughn.

It was Tobias.

Tanith reached into herself to find the indignation to override the shock as he closed the door behind him, leaning on his staff to limp into the room. ‘What the hell are you doing here?’

Tobias winced. He’d clearly walked most of the way, as he was sopping wet, his hair plastered down across his forehead. ‘I came to see -’

‘How’d you get in? So much for the bloody protection detail.’ She reached for the whiskey glass.

‘Colquhoun was my TO in the Patrol,’ said Tobias, head cocked a little. ‘He knew it was me.’

Her lip curled, and she couldn’t look at him. ‘So why are you here now? You couldn’t get out of that courtroom quick enough today. And don’t think we can talk about what happened in there - there’s an injunction, you know, it’d be illegal to -’

‘I know there’s an injunction.’

There was something in his voice, something careful and deliberate, that made her look up with a start. He had propped his staff up against the back of the armchair and was limping towards her - moving with difficulty, but better than she’d seen him walk unaided in a year.

‘You.’ Her brow furrowed. ‘You got the injunction -’

‘I left quickly so I could get to the Minister before anything could happen, before the press could...’ Tobias sounded like his throat was dry, and he coughed. ‘I wasn’t running, I was trying to shut it down.’

Tanith’s eyes narrowed, unable to fight suspicion. ‘Why?’

Officially so as to not undermine the Auror Office during a key investigation. The Office cleared you; it’s not up to the press to get to judge each and every individual or what they did in a time of war. The court of public opinion could be better described as a mob. You got a fair inquiry, and you were cleared. It was for justice, and yes, it was for the political expediency of not opening up this can of worms. Or that, at least, is what I told the Minister when I had him sign it.’ Tobias took an awkward step closer. ‘But why I really did it? Do you even have to ask?’

He was just a couple of feet away now, the bar in between them like a protective barrier, one she almost wanted to hide behind. Instead, she fussed over screwing the lid back on the whiskey bottle, putting it away in its proper place, so she didn’t have to look at him. ‘I don’t need you to protect me.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me about Nick?’

It wasn’t the question she’d expected him to ask, and she took her time closing the cupboard, straightening up, and letting him see her expression. When she did, she’d found her poker face. ‘What was there to say? I fought the Lions, I helped capture McLaggen to save Jacob’s life, Wilson was caught too. Brynmor said they were to be executed, and he turned to me, and -’

Her voice caught and she looked down, scowling at the bar as her body, her feelings, betrayed her. ‘...and he said he’d punish my family if I didn’t do it. My father was in Azkaban; they could do anything to him. That doesn’t even count my mother, my sister, her daughter...’

Then he was by her side, one hand coming gently to her cheek, tilting her face up to his, and for once she didn’t fight him, didn’t pull away. Again she was trapped, hovering between two urges - the desire to flee, to hide, to protect herself, and the burning need to throw herself into him.

But if she did that, then he’d see everything.

When he spoke, his voice was gentle, unaccusing. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘It was over.’ Her voice shook. ‘It was done. It was my misdeed, my burden to bear, my soul that’s tainted by murder -’

‘I could have helped.’ His touch at her cheek was gentle, so achingly gentle, and she felt him thumb away a tear she hadn’t even known she’d shed.

‘And then what?’ Tanith tensed. ‘Then it could have been better? Then I could have just carried on living my life with a smile and a spring in my step? Like Nick Wilson never will?’

Tobias’ eyes widened. ‘You don’t have to carry this with you forever.’ She knew he had put two and two together, had realised why there had been so many late nights, so few refused cases, such a constant, steady stream of work that had done her part in digging the gulf between them.

‘But I have to make amends. And I cannot forget. Else, what does that make me? If I do something like that, and let myself forget, what the hell am I?’ She pulled back at last, rubbing fiercely at her cheeks with the back of her hand. ‘So, yes. So I try to make amends. So I live my work.’

‘You can’t stand there and tell me you don’t have the right to a life.’

She shrugged. ‘It doesn’t matter anyway. Tomorrow I’ll go back to the office, I’ll get back on this case, I’ll get back to work, and that’s what my life will be.’

Tobias’ expression turned pained. ‘It doesn’t have to -’

Yes, it does.’ An edge crept into her voice. ‘Because this is how it is. Because this is my life. My world.’ She turned away, storming to the nearest window, knowing again she was unfairly using his leg against him, putting distance between them before he could stop her. But she didn’t care, just watched the rain thudding against the window, watched the river run along the outside of the glass.

‘I thought my world had ended when you died. I thought the sky would fall in and that everything would come to a stop.’ She took a deep, shaking breath. ‘It didn’t. The world kept on turning. I think that was more terrifying than losing you - that I lost you, and the world didn’t end. And I was going to have to learn to live with it. To live on, without you. That is the darkest, bleakest thing I have ever faced.’ Tanith scrubbed her face with her hand. ‘It didn’t come to pass, but I still faced it.’

‘It didn’t come to pass. I’m right here -’

‘Nothing’s changed, Tobias. Nothing between us has changed.’ She looked over at him, finding him surprisingly tall and resolute in the darkness - but as if he’d been struck, as if he was still reeling. ‘You can come in here all you like, and try to comfort me and reassure me, but it’s hollow, because my life isn’t going to change - because nothing has changed with us.’

‘Something has,’ said Tobias, but he sounded lost, forlorn. ‘Because now I know what lay between us.’ He gestured across to her, as if the physical space was something broader, deeper. ‘I know, now, why I couldn’t quite reach you.’

Her expression twisted. ‘I’ve made my mistakes, Grey, but are you going to act like you’ve not made your share of lies of omission?’

‘No - I did. I was wrong. I’ve been wrong, and you are not... wrong to stand your ground.’ He looked down, hands shoved into his pockets, shoulders slumped, and he seemed so adrift, broken in that moment that she almost went to him.

But she didn’t.

‘I love you,’ he said at last, speaking as if from a long way away, and though he sounded sincere and pained he also sounded thoughtful, careful. Whatever he was saying was something he had considered before, tumbled over and over in his mind. She knew that voice, that expression, well. ‘But you’re not wrong.’ Tobias drew a deep breath. ‘I love you, and I do - do - desperately want to be with you. To make amends. To make all the suffering, of us both, worth it. To start to move on, and to start to heal. I want to overcome all of these challenges between us, of work, and pain.’

He ran a hand through his hair, and she stayed quiet, hearing the “but” before he even said it - and then he did. ‘But there’s one thing I can’t do.’

For some reason that flashed in her gut, and she turned to him, eyes narrowing. ‘One thing? Merlin, Toby.’ Tanith gave a short, humourless laugh. ‘This is so typically you. You come here to help me, reassure me - but then twist the knife in a little further while you’re about it? All right, then.’ She took a few steps towards him, slumped, defeated. ‘What’s this one thing you can’t do?’

I thought there had always been a thousand.

Tobias straightened slowly, carefully, his expression steeling, and drew a deep breath. ‘I can’t get down on one knee.’

Then he pulled his hand from his pocket to reveal the gleam of a ring.

Tanith stared at him. ‘Oh, bloody hell.’

But her voice was flat, not angry - too astonished, too shocked, too bewildered to summon any kind of reaction except for roiling, spinning wonder.

He gave a grin - a slightly manic grin, the grin of a man who’d just thrown himself into the fire and knew the only way out was forwards. ‘Marry me.’ Her jaw dropped, and she fought and scrabbled for words - or thoughts, or feelings, or anything, and he carried on before she could find any. ‘I know. I... I know. But hear me out.

‘I managed to lose sight of myself in the past few months. I managed to get not just complacent about what I had - but complacent about why I do what I do.’ His voice had gone quieter, hoarser, like he never sounded when he was confidently speaking before a crowd, or confidently explaining something complicated he’d studied. ‘I knew, once. Six months ago, a year ago - back in the war. I wrote the Midnight Press and risked my life so I could make people’s lives better.’

Tobias drew a careful, cautious breath as he took a step closer, like she was a skittish horse in danger of bolting if he put a foot wrong - and it didn’t feel like the worst comparison in the world right then. ‘Or that was why I did it when I was feeling idealistic. But when I was scared, or doubtful, or alone... I clung to one reason to keep on going. One reason why all of the danger and worry was worth it: You. The thought of seeing you again, the thought of making your life just a little bit better, the thought of... of finally putting to rights all that was wrong between us for so long.

‘And I failed at that last part. Because I let myself get swept away by my job - and I like my job, I’m good at my job, but I lost sight of why I care. And you paid for that. And then I paid for it. And now we’re both paying for it.’

He met her gaze, and hers flickered down to see that, although he only held the ring between thumb and forefinger, he was clutching it so tightly his knuckles were white. ‘I love you. And I want to make things right between us. I want us to build a life together, I want us to build a future together.

‘And, I know. I’ve said this kind of thing before, and I’ve made promises, and you have had no reason to believe that I’m going to make a change. A proper change.’ His manic grin returned, and anxiety swirled in her gut at the sight of it. ‘I don’t know what I’ll do if Shacklebolt loses the election. But I won’t work for Harrigan, and I’ve now told him as much. And anything I do - we’ll discuss together.

‘If Shacklebolt does win, I’ve already given him my resignation as the Head of the DIMC. He can find someone else for the Department. I’ll just stay on in his Office. No more international trips or calls. These aren’t just promises - it’s done.’

Tanith finally found her voice, and he jumped a little when she spoke. ‘I haven’t even given my answer,’ she said, sounding maybe half as bewildered as she felt, ‘and you’ve already done all this?’

His crazy grin broadened a little. ‘Yes. Absolutely. Because even if you say no, I am going to stick to my guns and continue to show you that this change in me is real, and isn’t just a bargaining chip. I’m changing. I’m sticking to these job commitments, I - I have continued to take the potions for my leg and make the Saint Mungo’s appointments, I am serious about making this work.’

He took another step closer, now only inches away, and his voice dropped and softened. ‘And I’m serious about helping you. Because, once, you could trust me with anything, and I was worthy of that trust. I want us to be there again. And if you think that you don’t deserve a life, I want to show you how wrong you are, how much good you have done - show you how I see you. Because I see you as deserving of so much, and I want to give you all I can.’

As if on an impulse, Tobias reached out with his free hand to grab hers, his hold tight, and their eyes met. ‘I came to court today hoping to see you afterwards to talk, to tell you this, but everything happened and - now I’m here. So. Marry me. We’ve wasted so much time; let’s not waste any more. The war’s over; you don’t have to fight any more. Build a peace with me, build a life with me, build a future with me. Be my wife. Marry me?’

For a heartbeat, Tanith actually thought she might pass out - or that she was dreaming, or hallucinating, or that something was wrong, or would break the moment. But she blinked, and he didn’t disappear or run away and she was still conscious -

She grabbed at the hand that clutched the ring as if he was a lifeline, as if he was going to disappear at any moment. ‘Yes. I -’ She hesitated, feeling he deserved half the out-pour he’d just given her, but she couldn’t summon any words, anything remotely coherent, and she just grinned. ‘Yes.’

Then he was kissing her, and one hand was buried in his shirt, the other clinging onto his, and she was lost in the swirl of euphoria; the feel of him, the sound of her heart racing with excitement, the thoughts and memories and sensations whirling around in her mind and at her fingertips. Soon, far too soon, she was so lost for breath she had to break the embrace, but she didn’t pull away, still clutched at him, holding close as if to let go now would be to let go forever.

‘I missed you,’ she whispered desperately against his lips. ‘I missed you during the war, I missed you now, I missed you, I missed you...’ She kissed him again, fierce and needy, but now the words were coming, and she had to let them out in a frenetic tumble. ‘It’s a wasteland without you - my life is a wasteland without you, grey and dreary and empty and - I need you, I need you to bring colour into my world, or all I’m doing is fighting and struggling in this wasteland...’

Her next breath almost choked her. ‘And I’m sorry - I’m sorry for fighting you, for keeping you away. I just needed to fight, for so long, and so much has happened...’

‘I know.’ His grip on her hand tightened. ‘And I’m not going anywhere. Even if you kicked me out today, I was going to stand by this, I was going to fight for you, because we have been through far, far too much to get brought down by... by peace.’ Tobias pulled back at last, though only enough to rest his forehead against hers. His anxious, panicked smile returned. ‘That was a yes, right? You did say that, I didn’t just imagine that?’

‘No. I mean, yes.’ She giggled, a strange, gleeful sound escaping past her lips before she could stop it. ‘Yes, I’ll marry you. Of course the answer’s yes, I think the answer might have been yes since I was sixteen...’

Tobias’ breath caught, but his slow smile remained, and he took the ring and her finger in his hands. ‘This was - I spoke to my mother. This was the ring my father gave her when he proposed. If, of course, you won’t explode if I put on a ring made by a Muggle company.’

If anything, her grin broadened. ‘I think I’ll explode if you don’t put the damn thing on now, Grey -’

Then he did, and he kissed her again, and just as simply as all that, the thoughts of the courtroom, of Nick Wilson, of Jen Riley’s pain and ire, even that someone had tried to kill her that evening, couldn’t have been further away from her thoughts or her life.



Chapter 19: Looking Right Back
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There was only darkness outside. The rain pounded on the skylight above the bedroom and the wind howled at the windows, but no weather could break inside and shatter the cocoon against all the chaos.

They were there. Finally. Together.

When Tanith had sat in Tobias’ flat, surrounded by dozens of magical candles and feeling a complete idiot as she waited for him, she’d managed to steel herself. It had been nerves as much as discomfort, and so every time she’d told herself she was stupid, that she should put some clothes on - ideally baggy and shapeless - and they shouldn’t do anything more than pig out on the couch with Chinese food when he came in, she had persevered. Reminded herself of how she’d felt as the news of the day had come in of the attack on the Minister, reminded herself of how she’d felt when she’d thought him dead, reminded herself of every time when she’d begged whatever almighty power might exist to give her just another second with him. And told herself she wasn’t going to waste this opportunity.

And the look on his face when he’d pushed open the door had been beyond worth it. To make Tobias Grey speechless just at the sight of her was an intoxicating sensation in and of itself, and she’d revelled in it, played the part, teased and taunted him and had, above all, remained in control. Even when his self-control had cracked and she’d been left helpless in his arms, it was a submission of her own choosing.

This was different. She’d spent the whole day on edge, spent the whole evening on edge, felt like every nerve and feeling had been rubbed raw. She’d been up and down so much that it had been impossible for her to feel even one iota as in control - as secure.

Euphoria had reigned supreme when Tobias had slipped that ring on her finger and kissed her, and that had been heady and intoxicating, and for long moments all she’d wanted to do was cling to him, melt into him. The moments lasted long enough for them to take stumbling, feverish steps through the door into her bedroom, to fall onto the bed in a thrilled tangle.

They’d been here before, of course. And never at the right time, always when one or both of them was stressed or exhausted and she’d taken any opportunity to deflect the issue, or he’d been the one to hold back - she suspected being overly cautious on her behalf, and she’d never wanted to stop him from doing that.

But again, this was different. She’d just agreed to spend the rest of her life with this man. How could she do that and still shy away from physical intimacy? It was ridiculous. It was illogical.

So when the euphoria had started to fade away, when she’d managed to think, as ever, she panicked - and this time ignored the warning signs, ignored the tension within herself, ignored it all and just willed herself to persevere -

When Tobias broke the embrace, when he pulled back to prop his weight on his elbows and look down at her, it was like fresh air rushing in at the edges - and then she looked up at him, up at this man who loved her and adored her and cared for her, and could only feel shame.

His eyes were dark, skin flushed, breathing ragged, but still he met her gaze unwaveringly. ‘Are you all right?’

His voice was rough, like finding words had been difficult, but when she nodded wordlessly, willing him to believe, willing herself to believe, he just frowned. ‘You’re not, you -’

‘I’m fine -’

‘You’re tense.’ He relaxed, and a hand came up to her cheek. ‘It’s okay. It’s okay to be tense. Please, please don’t bottle it up.’

‘It’s silly.’

‘It doesn’t have to be logical.’ He lowered his head to kiss her jaw, just under her ear, his lips gentle and careful, and the clenched fist in her gut loosened. He was delicate, reassuring, not pushing. ‘This is me. This is us.’

She swallowed, a lump in her throat. ‘So it has to be right.’

‘You kidding yourself doesn’t make this right.’ He brushed his nose against hers. ‘We don’t have to do anything tonight. I remember you telling me about... about Miles. I don’t want us to be like that. I want to listen to you. Make you feel good. Be trusted by you.’

Tanith met his gaze. ‘I do trust you,’ she breathed, and just the words were like a gunshot in her head, a blow to crack through a wall inside her, and impulsively her grip on him tightened, like he might slip away again.

Even if she knew he wouldn’t.

And that was it. That was what had made her so calm, and keen, and thrilled when she’d put herself in that ridiculous get-up of Ariane’s and smirked to see the look on his face. Not discipline and perseverance, as if this intimacy was a trial to be endured, but a simple reminder of him and all he meant to her.

She leant up to tease her lips against his, tugging back as he went to reciprocate, the taste all the sweeter for how tantalising it was. ‘I trust you. I trust you to listen to me, I trust you to make me feel good, and wanted. And I want you.’ The words tumbled from her, honest but awkward and clumsy, and Tanith felt a surge as she realised words were not enough, not nearly enough.

Tobias looked hesitant for a moment, his features silhouetted against the gloom of the bedroom, and before he could doubt himself, doubt her, she kissed him. Her fingers buried in his hair to pull him close, and though he faltered for half a heartbeat, in the next he was kissing her back, pinning her under his weight and making her feel like the whole world had faded to be nothing but his needy embrace.

‘If you want me to stop,’ he managed to gasp, though it was hard work as neither of them could much tolerate their lips being apart, ‘just say.’

‘I’ll say, I promise,’ she said. And though she meant it, when he kissed her again she was so lost to the swirling tumble of raw need and feeling that within seconds she was barely capable of saying anything at all.

And she didn’t need to.

* *


He’d shut himself in the bedroom. Jen kept a desk in there, somewhere she could do work at home without intruding in the living space or inviting interruption from him and Katie. It was a good place to sit, by the window with a view of the city, and he could turn the lights off and be out of the way. If Katie came back, he had no desire to see her, to get her accusing looks as she inevitably took Jen’s side.

Not that he thought Jen wrong, but that was a discussion for the two of them, and the two of them alone. It was nobody else’s business.

He might have slept. Gabriel wasn’t sure; sat in the dark for what felt like hours in a stiff-backed chair, he might have nodded off. If so, dreams had been no more comfortable than thoughts, dark and ominous.

And lonely.

So when the door finally creaked open and he jerked around to see Jen, hair wet from the rain, standing in the gloom, it was like someone had turned the lights back on.

He got to his feet with a start, trying to not wince. ‘...hey.’

She hesitated, wrapping her arms around herself. ‘...hey.’

Then they stood there for long moments, staring across the gap, apprehensive and silent. Gabriel ran a hand through his hair and took a deep breath. ‘I’m... I’m sorry.’

Her gaze dropped. ‘So am I.’

‘I’m sorry for... losing my temper. I’m sorry for saying what I did. It was crass and it was cruel and I... I’m sorry.’ Gabriel tensed. ‘I’m not sorry for not telling you.’

‘...I know.’

‘I thought it wouldn’t come out. I thought it would bring you only pain.’ He, too, looked down at his feet. ‘And I didn’t do it entirely for you. I did keep it secret for Tanith. Because she... she was there. Years ago. When I was terrified out of my wits about what was happening to me. She was there, and she helped me figure it out, and she didn’t judge me or condemn me and that was one of the best things anyone has ever done for me.’

He chanced a look at her, found her staring out the window, and he pressed on. ‘And without her, the one vision I managed to change would have come to pass. Because she trusted me and because... because I could rely on her.’ Gabriel took a deep, shaky breath. ‘I hid what happened at Gullsmere from you because I didn’t think any good would come of the truth. Because I wanted to protect you. But I can’t deny that I did it most of all because I wanted to protect Tanith.’

Jen stayed by the window, arms still wrapped around herself. ‘I could have really done without having this blurted out at me in front of the full Wizengamot.’

Gabriel made a face. ‘I didn’t see that coming.’

‘But you’re a Seer.’ And she was smiling, sad and tired but smiling, and the knot in his stomach unwound a little. ‘Come here.’

He crossed the space between them, footsteps ginger, but once he was close enough she reached out to grab his hand skittishly. ‘I’m sorry I lost my temper like that. I’m sorry I...’ Her gaze flickered to his cheek. ‘I’m sorry I hit you.’ She flinched as she spoke, as if to put it in words made it worse.

‘I think I deserved that one.’ He grimaced. ‘And I - I never meant to get angry, I really -’

‘It’s okay. You stopped yourself. And I’d just said some pretty reprehensible things.’

‘As had I.’ Gabriel’s eyes searched her face, ardent, worried. ‘I wrote to Daedalus Cole.’

Jen blinked. ‘Why?’

‘I’ll have nothing more to do with his project.’ He hesitated. ‘I know that’s not what we argued about. But it was, a bit, about secrets. And keeping them. And you weren’t wrong, I - I have bad habits. Bad traits. And this would bring out the worst in me.’ He met her gaze. ‘The parts of me you don’t like.’

She bit her lip. ‘...so you’re going to go back to travelling? Go to Rio, go to -’

‘Not just yet. I’ll... have a think about what’s next.’ He took her other hand, squeezing it gently. ‘I’m going nowhere unless you want me to.’

‘I don’t want you to. Go anywhere, I mean.’ Again, shame tugged at her expression.

‘I’m fine, it didn’t really sting, love, I -’

‘That’s not why - I mean, I am sorry, I won’t... I’m sorry.’ Jen tensed. ‘Nick and I used to argue about you. Did you know that?’

Gabriel shrugged, nonplussed. ‘I know he wasn’t thrilled with me around -’

‘I mean about you.’ Her breath caught. ‘And me. It wasn’t so bad, it wasn’t like he didn’t trust me, but... I don’t think he trusted you.’

‘All things considered, it would be a bit silly for me to take offence at that.’

‘But once, when upset... after what happened to his family, when he was tired, and worn, and bitter, he did accuse me of...’ She closed her eyes and gave a short, bitter laugh of recollection. ‘He said you used to look at me like... “that”. And he said that, sometimes, when you were looking at me like that, I was looking right back at you.’

Gabriel hesitated, not sure what he was supposed to say. ‘I can’t say I noticed.’

‘He was afraid, I know. Of losing me. But even though I didn’t do anything wrong, because he’s dead, it feels like more of a betrayal.’

Gabriel frowned. ‘Being with me?’

Her hand slid up his arm, her touch cold from the outside. ‘Falling for you. Even when he was alive, when he and I were together, even though I didn’t act on it, didn’t do a thing wrong... looking back, it feels like more of a betrayal than it would have been if we’d just broken up.’ The words caught in her throat. ‘Like it was convenient.’

‘You know that’s a load of crap, right?’ he said as gently as one could say such words.

She nodded. ‘I know.’

His expression twisted. ‘I didn’t even know you felt like that... before...’

‘I did.’ And even though the anguish didn’t leave her expression, her hands ran up his arms, across his shoulders, his chest. ‘In the meetings together, the debriefs together, when it was just us, those were the only times I didn’t feel... alone. Those were the times I wished you’d kissed me sooner.’ The mixture of guilt and want and wistfulness in her voice was almost palpable.

His breath caught. ‘Those were the times I wanted to. When nobody was around, it felt like the whole world had gone away and it was just us, and I could almost... reach out...’ He leant in, and felt her tense with eager apprehension, and then his recollection of the evening kicked in and he stopped, their lips memories apart. ‘...I guess that makes what I said even more spectacularly jerky. I’m sorry.’

‘I can forgive you,’ Jen said, a sad smile at the tip of her lips, ‘if you kiss me.’

He did, and though she was cold and wet from the outdoors she was still enough to again melt the walls of ice that had crystallised over the hours - days, years? - since she’d stormed out the door. So this time, he wasn’t going to release his hold on her.


* *


‘I never thought I’d be a Mrs.’

Tobias shifted lazily under the bedsheets. ‘You thought you’d be a spinster all your life?’

‘Perhaps.’ Tanith rested her chin on his bare chest, looking up at him. ‘But even if I got married, I didn’t think I’d be a Mrs. I didn’t think I’d change my name. It’s so traditional.’

He shrugged, one hand playing with a stray lock of her hair, head propped up by the pillows. ‘You don’t have to. I mean, you know you don’t have to, it’s not as if I could make you do something if you didn’t want to...’

She didn’t seem to be entirely listening. ‘Tanith Grey.’ The name came out like she was trying it on for size. ‘That’s not so bad.’

Tobias flopped back, grinning up at the skylight. ‘I don’t mind the sound of it.’

‘You’ll have to talk to my father.’

He froze, then lifted his head slowly. ‘What?’

Tanith grinned impishly at him in the gloom. He wasn’t used to seeing her smile like that. It almost made up for what she’d just said. ‘That’s tradition -’

‘What’s he going to do, refuse permission? You’ll ignore him!’ Tobias hesitated. ‘Won’t you?’

‘I would.’ She shifted up to kiss him, hands sliding across his chest. ‘And he won’t.’

Tobias didn’t look convinced. ‘I am a half-blood...’

‘It doesn’t matter to him. And I’d...’ Tanith paused, brow furrowing thoughtfully. ‘I’ve spent a lot of time dodging my family. And I kind of wish I hadn’t. Or, at least, I don’t have to any more. So you don’t have to go ask my Dad for permission, but I’d like this to be done... properly.’

His eyes searched her face. ‘Do you think it’d make life easier if I did him the courtesy of asking?’

She smiled self-consciously. ‘I think it’d appease his ego.’

Tobias’ hands slid down to her hips, pinning her against him as he smirked up at her. ‘Then I’ll do it. And if he doesn’t like it, I guess we’re just going to have to elope.’

Her grin broadened and she kissed him again, but halfway through a thought struck her and she made a small noise of protest, breaking the embrace. ‘Oh, Merlin, there’s going to be lots to do...’

‘There’s no rush. We can discuss it.’

‘Big, small, which traditions - are we going to live together now? Are we going to find a place while you’re working on the election and I’m doing this case? Can we even -’

He pulled her to him again for another kiss, cutting her off, and met her gaze when he let her go. ‘Tanith. You’re freaking out. We don’t have to decide a damn thing right now.’

Her gaze softened, and she relaxed in his arms. ‘I know. I just... don’t want this to be a meaningless gesture.’

His hold on her tightened reassuringly, and he brushed his nose against hers. ‘It won’t be. But... how about we hold off on decision-making until the election’s over?’

‘I think I’m going to start having an allergic reaction to those words,’ Tanith murmured with a gentle smirk. ‘But, you’re right. It’ll be easier if your responsibilities have changed.’ She drew a deep breath. ‘And mine will. I’ll... get myself something easier once this case is over. Some patrol work, if I keep the trainees, get them some experience of normal work. Low effort, for a couple of months, so we can get everything... in order.’

Tobias grinned, a satisfied, toothy grin. ‘See? We can do this.’

Her expression flickered guiltily. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t... before -’

Yet again he cut her off with a kiss, this one softer, more lingering. ‘I think we should ban apologies,’ he murmured. ‘And just look to... moving on. Making a change.’

‘You’re right.’ Then she pulled away, escaping his grasp and rolling onto her back to stare at the ceiling for a second. ‘Which means... if we’re getting better... there are some things I should tell you.’

His hand came to her hip, possessive, reassuring. ‘I’m listening.’

She winced. ‘You might not like it.’ But his gaze didn’t flicker, and Tanith nodded, rolling in closer to him so he could wrap his arms around her again, and she took a deep breath. ‘During the war... while you were away... I met someone...’

* *


International Portkeys were a bugger, in Cal’s opinion. Strict immigration and travel laws, especially ones put upon Britain over the last year which had only been partially lifted, meant that all international travel had to go through the various appropriate magical departments. These were almost always over-burdened, so one had to schedule their trip weeks in advance and take whatever time-slot they were given for an appropriate Portkey to be enchanted and provided.

Which was why, after a long night of celebrating Puddlemere’s victory in Trondheim and only a couple of hours’ sleep, he was staggering back to his flat at seven-thirty in the morning, bleary-eyed and pretty sure he hadn’t properly sobered up yet.

There had been MLE Enforcers in the street. That had been weird. They’d stopped him as he’d been going in, they’d asked him who he was, then one of them had said they’d recognised him from the paper, and they’d just grinned and let him go on his way.

Likely George Weasley had blown up something in the shop. That had probably made for a hell of a night.

But he still did his best to shut the door delicately behind him. If Tanith was in, she’d be asleep, and the last thing he wanted was to incur the wrath of his increasingly erratic roommate. Not that she didn’t have the right to be erratic, he thought as he put his bag down by the door as quietly as possible and padded towards the kitchen, considering all she’d been -

His feet had been moving of their own accord, navigating by memory, and he wasn’t awake or sober enough to cope with a difference in his surroundings. So when his toes hit the staff propped up against the back of the sofa he didn’t just stagger, he went flying with a colourful curse and landed with a tremendous clatter.

For a few seconds Cal just lay there, face planted against the floor, and drew deep, cleansing breaths.

Their carpet really was hideous.

‘Cal?’

That was Tanith, and he clawed his way up to be visible over the sofa to see her standing in her bedroom door, a white shirt around her like a tent. He gave an apologetic, apprehensive, and yet gleeful grin.

‘Hey. Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you. We won!’ Cal gave a little fist-pump, and frowned at the offending staff he’d tripped over. ‘I didn’t see that -’ Then he paused. ‘When did this get here?’

‘Uh. About the same time I did.’

And when Cal looked up again he realised why Tanith was wearing a man’s shirt. Because it was Tobias’. And because Tobias was stood in the doorway next to Tanith, looking really a bit ridiculous in her dressing gown.

Cal beamed.

‘Oh, ho, look at you. Now what are you doing - actually, I don’t want to know.’ He cut himself off mid-gibe, and his enormous smile faltered for a minute. ‘Wait. If this is just some sort of unhealthy one night stand, tell me now, so I can get the hell out of here...’

It probably wasn’t the best way to broach the subject of their delicate relationship status, but he was definitely still a little drunk.

‘It’s not,’ said Tobias, and wrapped an arm around Tanith’s shoulders. They, too, had rather ridiculously broad smiles on their faces, and as Cal watched they exchanged glances, speaking in the silent code they’d always communicated in for years and which had only become more sophisticated as time had gone by.

She gave a small nod, and looked back at Cal, still beaming. ‘I’m glad you’re back. And that you’re the first to know - well, I guess I was the first to - never mind. We’re engaged.’

Cal’s jaw dropped - and then he gave a short bark of delighted laughter, staggering around the sofa towards them. ‘No. Oh, you two silly, silly kids, you’ve finally got your heads out of your arses, hey?’ He pulled Tanith away from Tobias to wrap her in a bear hug which she had very little choice about.

‘About this at least,’ said Tobias wryly, and Cal let Tanith go to turn on him.

Then he stopped. ‘Yeah, you don’t get hugged until you go put some clothes on.’

Tobias snorted and looked at Tanith. ‘I guess it’s the walk of shame for me this morning.’

‘It might have been a bit presumptuous if you’d shown up last night with an overnight bag.’

‘Women like confidence.’ Cal clapped Tobias on the shoulder as his friend turned back into the bedroom. ‘You go help him, Tanith, he’ll need his shirt back; I’ll put the kettle on.’

Miraculously, for Cal at least, by the time he was pouring the tea they had both emerged. Tobias was a bit rumpled, Tanith in her rather plain, rough, practical Auror gear, but, still grinning from ear to ear, to Cal they had never looked better.

But he still couldn’t help but get a dig in, and turned a mock-accusing eye on Tanith. ‘So, you’re going to be abandoning me, huh?’

She looked bashful. ‘Sorry. But it’s not like you can’t make rent on your own...’

Cal waved a dismissive hand, already unable to keep up the tease. ‘You’ll find somewhere new, I guess, since Tobias lives in a cupboard.’

‘Hey, I like my flat -’

‘I’m not living there, Grey.’

Cal snorted as normalcy reasserted itself, then tilted his head. ‘You know, if you left, I’d probably go looking for a new place myself. Somewhere more suited to my expensive bachelor lifestyle. I’m really only still here because I’ve liked us living together.’ He ran a hand through his hair. ‘So, I mean, if you want, it would make the most sense for Toby to move in.’

Tanith made a face. ‘I don’t want to kick you out...’

‘Like I said. You leave, I’ll find somewhere better for just me, or maybe find a place with Jack and Saul.’ Cal shrugged. ‘It’s not kicking me out, it’s circumstances changing. And you’re allowed to kick me out, God!’

‘Well...’ Tobias leant forwards. ‘I don’t have that much stuff, still. There’s easily enough space for me to get my things in here. So, I could propose the radical notion of how I move in here, and Cal can figure out what to do whenever Cal fancies it.’

Cal frowned, though his heart had leapt. ‘I don’t want to be a third wheel.’

‘We’re not deciding anything until after the election,’ said Tobias with a nod. ‘As I might, you know, have an awful lot of time on my hands all of a sudden. So we can think about it. Talk about it. But I like this idea.’ He reached into his jacket and pulled out his scratched pocketwatch. Cal had always noticed he smirked to himself every time he did this, but now he positively beamed, and turned the smile on Tanith. ‘I’d better get going.’

‘Already?’

‘I have to get home to shower and change; I have a meeting with the Minister to make sure I didn’t horribly abuse my authority to get this injunction and so I should try to look as unbiased as possible. And by “unbiased” I mean, “didn’t just spend the night with the person who benefited from this”.’ Despite his words, Tobias still grinned as he got to his feet.

Tanith’s expression twisted. ‘I didn’t mean to make life difficult for you at work. I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be.’ He leant down to give her a kiss that was probably meant to be brief, but lingered a bit longer. ‘I love you.’

Tanith’s ears turned slightly pink. ‘Love you.’

Cal waggled his fingers as Tobias headed for the door. ‘Love you too, sweetheart,’ he called, and laughed as Tobias just stuck up a middle finger before he left. Once the door was shut Cal turned his smirk on Tanith and waved a hand. ‘Get up.’

‘What?’ She blinked as he stood.

‘Stand up. I want to hug you now you’re fully dressed and it doesn’t feel vaguely inappropriate.’ He flapped his hands at her and she got to her feet so he could pull her into another huge, close hug.

At first he was just enthusiastic and so was she, but after a few seconds he relaxed and kissed the top of her head. ‘You’re okay. Aren’t you? Tell me you’re okay.’

Her hold on him tightened. ‘I am, Cal. Really. Why wouldn’t I be?’

‘Because I know you. Though I’ve never seen you smile like this before. I just wanted to check this was real. That you’re not hiding something.’

‘I’m not hiding anything.’ Tanith lifted her gaze to meet his, steady, reassuring. ‘And, thank you.’

Cal frowned. ‘For what?’

‘For helping me out this past week. Both being supportive and kicking my ass.’

‘I thought it was time I returned the favour. Just be glad I didn’t beat you up to make a point. Though you’d probably kick my ass.’

Tanith chuckled, and pulled back. ‘I forgot to say. Congratulations on the win. I admit, I didn’t catch the news, I was a bit... distracted.’

‘Two-thirty to ninety. We were neck-and-neck for hours until Saul got the snitch. Just how a good Quidditch game ought to be.’ He grinned toothily. ‘Got him his first Man of the Match.’

‘Good for Harper. I guess he’s not going back to Hogwarts once it’s finished.’

‘Nah, him and Urquhart will be happy, well-paid, superstar dropouts.’ Cal clapped her on the shoulder. ‘I imagine you need to be in the office.’

‘Yeah. You missed a hell of a day yesterday.’ Tanith wrinkled her nose, and went to finish her tea. ‘Though Potter did send me home. I’m going to have to get him back for that one.’

Cal smirked. ‘Do try to not kill him.’

‘Don’t worry.’ Tanith gave him a superior smile. ‘Today, there is nothing which could put me in a bad mood.’

* *


‘That’s a ridiculous idea.’ Tanith got to her feet with a start, eyes blazing. ‘Are you out of your mind, Potter?’

Harry shifted his weight awkwardly. ‘I know it’s unpleasant. But we have to consider the possibility.’

Katie pushed her chair back and tilted her head towards Ron. ‘Uh oh. Mummy and Daddy are fighting.’

‘Don’t joke, Bell, you have to agree this is ridiculous. It’s not a possibility, it’s downright impossible.’

‘You’re not listening to me.’ Harry lifted his hands. ‘I’m not saying we arrest her. I’m saying that we have to properly investigate.’

‘There is no way,’ said Tanith in a flat, level voice, ‘that our vigilante killer is Jennifer Riley.’

Harry chewed on his lip. ‘I get that you’re feeling guilty over -’

‘This has nothing to do with my guilt.’ She sat down abruptly. ‘I know you might be the Boy Who Lived, and that’s great, Potter, really great, and people would take me out back and have me shot if I suggested you needed investigating for murder. But there are more heroes out there than you, and Jen Riley is one of them. She did fighting the good fight every day while I sat in this office keeping my head down, and you were God only knows where plotting against Voldemort.’

She saw Harry flinch, and felt a sullen surge of satisfaction as her blow struck home. Good. It was meant to. He squared his shoulders. ‘I get that,’ said Harry carefully. ‘But you were the one who told me that we have to look at the evidence first, not the conclusions? And the evidence means we have to check her out.’

‘I don’t get why you think she’d have killed Mulready and Phelps.’ Except Mulready was at the Wilson home and Phelps abused everything she now stands for -

‘You’re right, there’s no more motive for her on those attacks than there is for anyone else,’ Harry said mildly. ‘But there’s definitely motive for her to attack you.’

A cold silence fell on the room, and Ron leant forward to clear his throat. ‘We were thinking about this,’ he said, a touch more diplomatically, and Tanith could see that though Harry had remained calm, there was something hard about his eyes after her dig at his work in the war. ‘All we need to do is take a look. It doesn’t mean we’re accusing her.’

‘We have to be thorough. Above reproach,’ said Harry. ‘You say it wasn’t her - great. I believe you. But that’s not how you taught us to conduct investigations, and this is the kind of hole which Riley herself just poked in the Lackardy case. When we do find who did this, we have to make sure our case is watertight, and that means eliminating all possibilities.’

‘We can’t be seen to be ignoring our friends,’ said Ron, again more delicately. ‘Especially not when Katie lives with her. So we check her out. We find she has a rock solid alibi. We cross her off the list. And then nobody can accuse us of not doing it right when this goes to trial or the press or someone tries to nit-pick at us.’

Tanith looked between them, heard the manipulation in Harry’s appeal - the reassurance that he wasn’t threatening her authority by invoking her teachings rather than blunt procedure - heard the appeasement in Ron’s tone. She hated being handled.

‘Fine. There’s an easy way to deal with this.’ She looked at Katie. ‘Where was Riley last night?’

‘Er.’ Katie wrung her hands together. ‘You know how I was there when you were attacked? I didn’t get home for another two hours, and at that point I hadn’t seen her since breakfast. I mean, then she was home, Gabriel too, but...’

Harry stood up. ‘How about,’ he said calmly, ‘we go and see if she can account for her movements last night and if she has an alibi. And then we can cross her off.’

‘Unless she had a quiet night in on her own,’ Ron pointed out.

‘It’ll be a start,’ said Harry tensely. ‘And I think it’s best Ron and I handle this one.’

Rather than her roommate and... me. Whatever I am. Tanith nodded stiffly. ‘If she invokes Gabriel Doyle as an alibi, I’ll handle it.’

Harry looked like he’d argue, but Ron nodded. ‘You got it, Chief.’

At least she was still “Chief”, even when her trainees were approaching open rebellion. Once the door shut behind Harry and Ron, Tanith sagged back, scrubbing her face with her hands. ‘And today started so well.’

‘Is that, like, a rule?’ Katie wondered. ‘We’re the Auror Office - we ruin good days?’

Tanith snorted. ‘Methinks Mister Potter isn’t taking too well to not being top dog.’

‘Yeah, he gets like that. But he does respect you. Otherwise I bet he’d be ignoring you and going off to do things himself.’ Katie shook her head. ‘Don’t worry. Of course it wasn’t Jen. Harry’s just being thorough by making sure we’re not overlooking one of our friends.’

Tanith winced. ‘I have the utmost respect for Jen Riley,’ she said delicately, ‘and I would bet all the money in my Gringotts vault that she is not the person we’re looking for. But I don’t think I can really, justifiably, fairly, refer to her right now as a friend.’


Chapter 20: Risk Life and Limb
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‘Someone to see you, Mister Doyle.’

Gabriel frowned at the knock on the door from his father’s secretary, who had by default become his secretary for the short time he’d been working at the now-inaccurately named Doyle & Son partnership. He had fortuitously not seen his father since he’d written to him to say he’d changed his mind, that their working together was a bad idea, but this was supposed to be his last day. He was supposed to be packing up.

‘If it’s a client you’d best ask them to wait until my father’s -’

‘It’s not a client,’ she said snippily. ‘They’re from the Auror Office.’

Gabriel frowned as the secretary left without letting him reply, and pushed his box of personal affairs to one side of the desk, going to sit down. It wouldn’t do to not look professional, calm, and in control when members of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement came to call. Whatever it was about.

He let out a sigh of relief when it was just Tanith and Katie who were shown in, and gave a grimace of a smile. ‘For a second there I thought I was really in trouble.’

Tanith, to his utmost surprise, smirked. ‘Who’s to say you’re not?’

‘Okay, then I mean I thought it was real business. Take a seat.’

They did so, though Katie didn’t look best pleased. ‘This is real business, I’m afraid, Doyle.’

‘Potter’s bright idea, I assure you. Not mine.’

Gabriel side-eyed Tanith. ‘You’re sounding so pleased.’

She gave an unusually airy shrug. ‘I think he’s being a bit pernickety, but I’ll live. He’s a kid, he’s inexperienced, I’ll indulge him.’

He leant forwards. ‘Okay. Who are you, and what have you done with Tanith Cole? You’re smiling, you’re being forgiving and understanding of someone I would expect to get right up your nose, even after -’

Gabriel stopped himself, though his unspoken words hung in the air between them anyway. Even after yesterday.

Then, to confuse him even more, Katie smirked. ‘She’s just all loved up.’

Tanith flushed. ‘Shut it, Bell.’

‘Oops, my bad. Not allowed to let on that the Chief is capable of squishy human emotions.’

‘You’ll just be squishy human if you -’

‘Do I need to be here for this?’ Gabriel still couldn’t help but smirk.

‘Just look at this rock, Doyle!’ Katie exclaimed, grabbing Tanith’s left wrist and yanking it up. ‘You could take an eye out with this thing.’

‘Let me go, Bell, or you’ll find out for sure...’ Tanith gave a melodramatic, long-suffering sigh, and rolled her eyes at Gabriel. ‘Toby and I got back together. We’re engaged. Does this need to be declared from the rooftops?’

But Tanith should have remembered that, of all of her friends, the one who’d best understand how she didn’t want to make a fuss was going to be Gabriel Doyle. His smile didn’t waver, but he just gave a shrug. ‘Saw that one coming.’

Something flashed in her eyes. ‘You saw -’

He laughed, lifting his hands. ‘Seer’s privilege.’ It was an utter lie.

Katie coughed. ‘We do, uh, actually have business here, mind...’

‘Oh. Yeah.’ Tanith rolled her eyes. ‘It’s just a formality, Gabe. I said we’d deal with this so you didn’t have to put up with Potter being earnest at you. But we...’ Astonishingly, she looked apprehensive and guilty as she hesitated. ‘We need to know Riley’s whereabouts last night.’

Gabriel’s brow furrowed. ‘She was at the flat,’ he said, suddenly guarded.

Tanith’s eyes met his, and he could almost feel them boring into him, reading his every flicker and move, and he concentrated as best he could on bringing back that old mask of control. The old mask of Gabriel Doyle, which nobody saw through.

Except for two women, one of which was sat right in front of him.

‘All night?’ she asked guardedly.

He fought back a wince. ‘She got home at... I don’t know. A bit later than usual, but not weirdly so. Half nine? From the office. We... talked. She’d had a hard day, you know this. And she went for a bit of a walk, but she wasn’t gone long.’

Tanith’s eyes were on him, and she reached into her coat to pull out a notebook. ‘How long?’

Gabriel knew, then, that he wasn’t just imagining the game of cat and mouse. He gave a casual, one-shouldered shrug. ‘Hell, I don’t know.’ Years. Eons.

Anyone who knew Tanith less well wouldn’t have spotted the hesitation. ‘How does half an hour sound? Back around ten?’

Not like the lifetime it felt. He tried to not grimace again, because it felt short, far too short a time for all the while he’d spent locked in the gloom, but he could read the inference in Tanith’s words. She wouldn’t have given him this time out of nowhere; it had to be what Jen had given them, and so that had to be the truth, even if checking the time had been the last thing on his mind last night.

‘I guess so,’ he said, forcing a casual note into his voice. ‘What’s this about?’

Tanith looked at him for a few long seconds, and he couldn’t tell if she believed him or was just choosing to do so. ‘We’re just trying to close off some avenues. You’ve helped us do so.’ Then an expression of sympathy crossed her face. ‘Is everything okay between you two?’

‘It is now.’

Then Katie swore, suddenly and loudly, and they both jumped as they looked at her. She subsided with an apologetic air. ‘Sorry. I - shit, Doyle, you saw -’

It had taken her longer to put two-and-two together than he’d expected. The Lions had known he’d seen the deaths of Nick and Cormac, but only now had it come out just what that death had been. He tensed. ‘I did.’

‘And you didn’t tell her -’

‘It’s done, Bell, she and I have dealt with it. Are dealing with it,’ Gabriel said through gritted teeth, and he saw Katie subside with an anxious, apologetic air.

Tanith had gone a bit pale, but when Gabriel met her gaze she drew a deep, stiff breath. ‘You knew.’

He nodded awkwardly. ‘I knew.’

She nodded Katie. ‘We can go. Her alibi checks out.’

Katie looked tense, but didn’t argue, and gave Gabriel a sympathetic glance. ‘Glad you two are okay,’ she said. ‘Don’t know if I’ll be home for dinner. I can always make sure I’m late...’

He found himself smiling at the offer. ‘Thanks. But don’t stay away on our account. We really are fine.’

‘Then I’ll try to repeat my specialist performance of the third wheel. I think I’ve got it down super.’

‘Do you three find that awkward?’

Gabriel and Katie looked at Tanith with some bewilderment, and she looked a bit surprised herself at having asked the question. She pushed back of a lock of hair self-consciously. ‘Just Tobias and I are talking about living together. And we’re not sure where. And it came up that maybe he’d just move in with me and Cal doesn’t have to go anywhere. I don’t know, it seems weird, being a couple with someone else there.’

‘Thank you,’ said Gabriel dryly.

‘I don’t mean that. I just mean it’s not what people tell you is going to happen, is it? You become a couple and you get your own place and then that’s it.’

Katie shrugged. ‘For us it’s a bit about the money. But - and assuming Gabe and Jen aren’t just bitching behind my back all the time about how much they hate having me around - I don’t know, it’s fun. Jen and I have been friends for years...’

‘I like having you around,’ said Gabriel abruptly.

Tanith gave a wry chuckle. ‘Remember this moment, Bell; he doesn’t make overt statements like that much.’

‘I can see why you two are good friends, then.’

Gabriel smiled apologetically at Katie. ‘I could talk some crap about liking Jen having a friend around, or liking there being someone in the flat when we’re all working long hours. But it’s not really that complicated. I have grown accustomed to your presence.’

‘Careful, it’s undying declarations of love next,’ said Tanith, getting to her feet. ‘But we’ve taken up enough of your time wittering on about my personal issues when we’re all supposed to be working.’

Katie stood, but at the mention of work her expression had shifted into a more studied one, and Gabriel wondered how much of the unspoken communication that had run between him and Tanith she’d picked up on.

Tanith had to be wondering it as well, because she waited until Katie had turned her back to get the office door to look at Gabriel. Their eyes met for only a split second, but Tanith’s gaze was serious, and he knew her looks, the subtleties of this woman who rarely expressed her feelings overtly, well enough that she might as well have been shouting her thoughts from the rooftop.

Thank you.

He just gave her a small nod, and wondered if a secret was being kept in exchange for a secret.

Because he had definitely just lied to them about Jen’s alibi for the previous evening.

Then they were gone, and Gabriel got back to packing up his affairs. His father had reopened his law firm in a rather comfortable part of Diagon Alley, not far from Gringotts, in the financial district which would no doubt attract a certain clientele. That clientele had mostly only come in once the ‘& Son’ had been added to the sign, either genuinely reassured by the presence of a man with a good war record in the company, or knowing it looked better to go to such a company.

He wondered how many would leave with him. How many would take the further separation of father and son as a condemnation of the father and his dark record, and how many would think that, if Gabriel Doyle didn’t want to associate with Abidan Doyle, maybe they shouldn’t either.

He couldn’t find it in himself to feel guilty about this.

So Gabriel was done in the next hour, the box of what little affairs he’d brought into the office sealed up to be transported home by the secretary, and didn’t let himself linger once he was done. He’d come here for a purpose, and not only did that purpose no longer exist, but Jen had been right - it had been a bad idea to begin with.

It was in the stairway down to the street that he ran into Cal, and though his friend looked a bit tense he was clearly delighted to see him. ‘Hey! You’re late for lunch, I was just going to stop by...’

‘If you’ve got a legal question,’ said Gabriel wryly, ‘then you might want to make an appointment with someone else. Otherwise, I’m going to be free for lunch for the foreseeable future.’

Cal squinted up the stairs towards the office. ‘Short employment.’

‘It was a bad idea.’

Still Cal was frowning, and Gabriel patted him on the shoulder - and steered him back down the stairs. It had been hard enough to get into all of this with Jen. He wasn’t sure he was ready to get into it all again, not even with Cal. ‘So did you want a late lunch?’

Cal grinned, a bit wanly but not insincerely. ‘Always. I bet I can get us a table at the Golden Fork even without a reservation...’

So that was where they were within half an hour, and so hungry were they that even when they’d made their orders Cal instructed them to keep the pre-starters coming.

And the pinot grigio.

‘You know I only drink wine when in the company of women and you,’ Gabriel told him with a wry smile once he was halfway through a glass.

‘Difference is, the women make you pay. I take you to a swanky restaurant and pay for you to drink in the afternoon.’ Cal made a face. ‘I do this a bit too often. That’s kind of depressing.’

‘Have another drink. That’ll make it better.’ Gabriel swirled the wine around in his glass cautiously. ‘So what’s up?’

Cal looked briefly indignant. ‘Can’t I just be -’

‘Nope.’

‘Fine.’ Cal sagged. ‘I wanted some advice.’

‘And Tobias is, what, dead?’

His expression twitched. ‘I already asked him. I need more.’

‘Stun me.’

Cal scrubbed his face with his hands. ‘It’s about Thanatos. And, well, about me. I need someone who can give me advice about... me. And Tanith and Tobias both have way too many issues caught up with him to be able to look at things... without bias. I mean, their bias is completely okay and normal and it’s useful to hear these things from people Thanatos hurt, but... I mean, did you ever even meet him?’

Gabriel shook his head. ‘Not until we broke into Canary Wharf. I don’t know if “fought” counts as “met”.’

‘Right. Yeah.’ Cal sagged. ‘I’m just stuck with what the right thing to do is. He’s in prison, forever, pretty much. And it would be so easy to just let him be locked up and throw away the key and forget about him...’

‘Wasn’t that pretty much what you wanted to do before?’ Gabriel cocked his head. ‘You could have visited him last time he was in Azkaban. Why didn’t you?’

Cal hesitated. ‘Will, I guess. We never really talked about my parents. My mother’s dead, my father was in Azkaban, he raised me. That was all there was to it. But now it’s different. Everything’s changed. And he’s still my father.’

Gabriel was no stranger to these conversations with Cal. He remembered, all too well, sitting by the lake with his friend at school and assuring him that blood wasn’t the be-all and end-all, only to have his own argument used against him in the context of magical inheritance.

He’d taken that one on the chin. But that had been almost three years ago now. A lot had changed.

He rolled his shoulders awkwardly. ‘I don’t know what you expect me to tell you the other guys can’t.’

‘I don’t know,’ Cal admitted, not seeming to see his awkwardness. ‘But you’ve not... you’ve never judged me over this. And -’

‘Did Tanith and Tobias judge you?’ Gabriel said sceptically.

‘I - no. But it’s... difficult. He’s my father. It’s important, still, on some level. However much I might try to deny that -’

‘Cal, what the hell are you doing?’

Cal blinked as he heard the snap in his friend’s voice, and straightened slowly. His expression fell. ‘Asking you for -’

‘Are you just going to keep on asking people for advice until one of them tells you what you want to hear?’ Gabriel challenged tensely. ‘Because if so, you can skip me from the process, because I am not going to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do about Thanatos Brynmor. I’m not going to tell you that your relationship is important or irrelevant because it’s your relationship, and -’

He stopped himself and took a deep swig of the wine, a bigger gulp than a good vintage like that deserved, really, but it felt heavy and acidic in his belly.

I’m the last person to give advice about paternal conflicts.

Cal winced. ‘I’m... sorry?’ He cocked his head, clearly confused. ‘Are you okay?’

‘I quit my job and you’ve not even stopped to ask why,’ Gabriel said, unusually bitterly, and Cal flinched this time.

‘...I figured you’d tell me if you wanted me to know.’ Gabriel had to pause at this, knowing Cal was right that this, at least, was how he normally behaved. And before he could reply, Cal took a careful breath and asked, ‘why did you quit?’

Before he could stop himself, Gabriel had the gall to say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’

Cal threw his napkin down on the table in frustration. ‘For fuck’s sake, Gabe -’

‘Look, you want to know what I think? What I really think?’ Gabriel cut him off, knowing he was being unreasonable and trying to claw back a modicum of helpfulness. It would do better than an apology, and he knew he wasn’t very good at those. ‘You just need to decide what you’re going to do, and stick to your guns on it, and to hell with what anyone thinks. I think you do want to have something to do with Thanatos because otherwise this would be an easy choice. So you have two options: suck it up, and do it. Or, if you have doubts, by all means keep trawling people for advice - but actually go to someone whose advice you’ll fucking follow, because I am not someone to be polled for my opinion on how fathers can be dickheads.’

‘Shit, Gabe, I just wanted your help.’

‘No, you wanted me to validate you,’ Gabriel said grouchily. ‘And I’m not your girlfriend, so I’m not here to tell you everything that comes out of your mouth is perfection.’

‘Never had a girlfriend who did that,’ Cal said gloomily, and Gabriel could tell he was trying to add a touch of levity to their conflict. ‘Nat just knocked sense into me, and unlike Tanith, she did it by being right.’

‘Then maybe she’s someone whose advice you’ll actually follow.’

A silence fell upon them both, and Cal reached out to refill their glasses, a silent, obvious peace offering. They both sipped their wine in gloomy reflection, before Cal sighed deeply. ‘...see? You did have something helpful to say, after all.’

Gabriel pushed some hair out of his face, guilt gnawing at him. ‘Oh, shit, Cal, I’m sorry,’ he said awkwardly, sincerely. ‘Can we just have some lunch and you can tell me about the game?’

Cal did perk up a bit at that, and Gabriel couldn’t help but grin too, because Cal’s smiles were endlessly infectious.

And Quidditch was a lot easier to talk about than dickhead fathers.


* *


Katie put her hand on Tanith’s elbow as they appeared in the Apparition Chamber back at Canary Wharf. ‘Do you actually believe Doyle?’

Tanith’s expression twisted, and she grabbed Katie’s wrist to drag her out of the Chamber, away from the prying eyes of the transport supervisors, and into the empty corridor. ‘First, don’t do that,’ she hissed, and then waited for the door to swing shut behind her, Katie’s eyes wide and confused. ‘Second, don’t ask me those sorts of questions in front of other officers.’

‘I don’t think I’m undermining you, if that’s -’

‘You never know who’s listening.’

Katie cocked her head and yanked her hand from Tanith’s grasp. ‘Wow. You really are paranoid. I know there have been leaks but it’s been nothing more than some low-level administrator desperate for a little bit of press -’

‘You don’t know that, and there are worse kinds of eavesdroppers than just the ones who’ll run to the press.’

‘The war’s over, Chief. You can breathe, you know?’

‘Perhaps.’ Tanith straightened. ‘But also don’t ask me those sorts of questions when who knows who’ll choose to mention something to Potter and Weasley. Especially not when we’re considering what we will and won’t be telling them about the interview.’

Katie made a face. ‘Okay. Point taken.’ She took a deep breath. ‘But. Do you?’

‘We both know that there’s no way this is Riley. Even if she had somehow snapped and wanted to tear me to pieces - and I’m pretty sure she’d do that in public and manage to get a standing ovation for her efforts - there is no way she went after Mulready, Phelps.’ Tanith swallowed. ‘Or Jacob.’

‘Of course not. I guess Harry was being thorough, but...’

‘But it wasn’t her. So anything which crosses her off the suspect list faster, like a good alibi, is fine by my book. It stops us, and Harry, from wasting our time.’

‘That still doesn’t answer my question. You gave him the alibi; I thought that was so you could read his reaction...’

‘Why do you want to know? What does it matter?’

Katie hesitated. ‘Because he’s a good liar. Because I never suspected he knew it was you who killed Nick and Cormac - and I’m not standing in judgement of you there. But he lied, to Jen, for months. Even just a lie of omission.’

‘That has nothing to do with the case.’

‘Neither does you believing him blindly now out of gratitude for him keeping your secret, even from his girlfriend.’

Their gazes met, and Tanith squared her shoulders. ‘All of this is moot,’ she said quietly, ‘because Jen Riley isn’t a serial murderer, and questioning Gabe’s alibi would prove nothing more than a waste of everyone’s time. Jen gave Harry the times. Gabe confirmed them. She was back before I was attacked. It’s done.’

Katie hesitated. ‘You’re still not answering the question.’

‘I don’t know.’ Tanith grimaced. ‘He’s hard to read. You know that. So I’m definitely not wasting my time on a possible lie about an alibi for someone who’s definitely innocent.’

Katie watched her for a long moment, then drew a deep breath and nodded. ‘You’re right. There’s no need to mention the doubts to Harry and Ron.’ She straightened her uniform coat. ‘Ever thought you’d lie to The Boy Who Lived to protect Jennifer Riley?’

‘Never thought I’d work with you, Bell. Life changes.’

‘And to think you had a happy face on this morning.’

‘This is my happy face.’

‘It looks an awful lot like your regular face.’

‘It is, it just means it’s not bruised from headbutting Harry for being overly keen.’

‘Oh, relax, Chief, you know he’s good at his job.’

‘He is, which just adds to his infuriating-ness.’

‘I don’t think infuriating-ness is a word.’

‘And now you can see my not-caring face.’

Also an awful lot like your regular face.’

‘Funny, that.’

The two of them wandered into the bullpen and towards the sectioned-off corner where the team was set up. By now they’d covered the wall with various maps pertaining to the several break-ins they’d been dealing with, and in the time she’d been gone the little markers on there had begun to grow.

Ron and Harry were sat at the desks, a pile of untouched folders next to them, mugs of steaming tea in hand. Harry looked apprehensive. ‘How’d it go?’

‘Checked out, just like I told you it would. Riley’s clean.’ Tanith watched him as she spoke.

Harry visibly relaxed. ‘Good. Even if that does leave us down a suspect.’

‘Bringing our list to what, zero?’ Katie wondered.

‘For now.’ Tanith gestured to the folders on the desk. ‘These are the files from George Weasley’s store, at last, of everyone who bought Boom-Doh in the last month. We get to go through these files and start crossing the impossible off the list and drawing up some likelies.’

‘I am thrilled,’ said Katie blandly, ‘thrilled to be a part of this process of Auror investigations.’

‘And we’re out of milk,’ Ron offered, tilting his teacup to her.

‘I now understand our murderer’s motivations,’ she deadpanned.

‘We do the boring leg-work right, we eventually make it to the exciting chase sequence where we risk life and limb for little pay and less acclaim.’ Tanith sat down and sorted the folders into four approximate heaps, helping herself to one. ‘So now we buckle down, whine less, and get some work done.’

It was, indeed, destined to be long and dull, and consisted mostly of making a list of people they expected would quickly be found to not be remotely feasible as suspects - but they would need checking out anyway. So they were so eager for a distraction that when there was a fluttering from above, they all looked up to see a paper airplane swooping in.

Harry reached out to catch it, then turned it over with a frown. ‘This isn’t internal...’

Tanith’s breath caught, and she snatched it out of his hand. ‘I know this.’

Her father had devised all sorts of methods of rapid communication in and about the Ministry and with his agents. Altair had explained them to her once before, and she’d seen his various ministerial tricks, the messages by owl or by Floo which would, upon being legitimately passed through the Ministry post, deliver themselves through the building.

And indeed, the crest on the paper was the Cole family crest. Heart pounding in her chest, Tanith unfolded the letter.

And stood as he heart moved from chest to throat. ‘I’ve got to get home.’



Chapter 21: Of Bloodlines and Ideals
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‘Knock, knock.’ Tobias stuck his head in round the door to Jen’s office and lifted a wrapped sandwich as she looked up. ‘I come bearing lunch. Consider it a favour repaid.’

Jen looked tired and worn, but smiled when she saw him and waved him in. ‘I only brought you breakfast.’

‘Then you can still owe me a little.’ Tobias set his staff against the wall and pulled up a chair, passing the sandwich. ‘I’m okay with that.’

She cocked her head, looking him up and down. ‘You look... better.’ Her eyes fell on the staff. ‘Does that make walking easier?’

‘Not especially,’ Tobias admitted, pulling out his own sandwich. ‘But it makes me think it does.’ He took a mouthful as she looked quizzical, and sighed. ‘Last time I carried that, I was fighting a war. Sometimes? That’s not such a bad mentality to have.’

‘Annoyingly, I know what you mean. But you do look better.’

He hesitated, guilty and not sure why. ‘I went to see Tanith last night. We patched things up.’ Another hesitation. ‘We’re engaged.’

To his surprise, she smiled - even if it was a tired smile. ‘Congratulations. I mean, it is good, isn’t it?’

His genuine smile broke through. ‘It is! It is, I just... all of a sudden feel a bit like an ass that something good came out of a horrendous day for you.’

‘At least something good came out of it for someone. Well, for you. Her, I care less about.’ Jen shoved papers to one side and pulled her sandwich over. ‘It seems a little sudden.’

‘I understand how it looks that way,’ Tobias conceded, ‘but it’s not. I... she and I... it’s such a long story. We spent so much time dodging and dancing around each other that now we’re here, now we have the rest of our lives spread out before us - I just can’t imagine spending it with anyone else. There’s nobody in the world who knows me better.’

‘And her? Is there anyone in the world who knows her better than you?’

He heard the other question, the real one, in her voice, and gave a gentle grimace. ‘I didn’t know,’ he admitted. ‘And yes. That kind of thing was... part of the problem. We’d been holding out on each other, almost without realising it. I won’t... pretend to defend her to you. But the war took its toll in ways I didn’t realise.’ Tobias took a deep breath. ‘But we talked about it. A lot. We’re moving forwards.’

Jen’s small smile returned. ‘...I’m glad you’re happy, Toby.’

‘Thanks. But I didn’t come here to talk about me. It would have just seemed disingenuous to not let you know.’ He leant forwards, voice softening. ‘Are you okay?’

‘I...’ She dropped her gaze. ‘Gabe knew. I mean, I’d known he’d seen Nick’s death, but he didn’t tell me it was Cole who...’

Tobias closed his eyes. ‘Shit.’

‘Yeah.’ She picked at the sandwich. ‘I can understand why he didn’t tell me. But at the time, when he refused to give me details, he gave me this song and dance about it being to protect me... and then last night he admitted it was probably more to protect her.’

‘Are you two okay?’

‘We rowed. A lot.’ Jen grimaced with guilt. ‘For our first real fight, it was... a doozy. But we’re moving forwards.’

‘Shit on top of shit. I’m sorry.’ He drew a careful breath. ‘For what it’s worth, the injunction’s holding up. The world doesn’t need to know this.’

‘The Wizengamot does.’ She fumbled a lock of hair behind her ear. ‘Not my brightest hour. I thought I was past this...’

‘It wasn’t that long ago. Nobody can expect you to just be over it. And time doesn’t do everything. I still have nightmares of when Annie...’ Tobias grimaced. ‘There’s no rulebook on how good or bad you need to feel. And it’s allowed to vary from day to day. You loved him.’

Jen’s shoulders tensed, and her gaze went upwards. ‘You know what?’ she said, so quiet he almost couldn’t hear her. ‘At the end? I didn’t.’

Tobias opened and closed his mouth, fighting for words, and in the end settled on a calm, ‘I don’t understand.’

‘We were Hogwarts sweethearts,’ she sighed. ‘And we’d been together since, what, fifth year? For over three years. And we were ill-suited then, but it was... kind of what I loved about him. His free spirit. When we left school, at first, he seemed reluctant to take anything seriously, and I wanted to do well at my job, and he didn’t care as much - we rowed. A lot, for that first month. And I kind of thought... we were drifting apart. That we wouldn’t make it outside of Hogwarts. And then the war started, and he was a Muggle-born, so he went on the run immediately. I barely saw him until we intercepted his prisoner transfer and had to go on the run together.

‘And then we didn’t exactly have the same relationship problems when we were fugitives at war. And even the old problems seemed less important because he was familiar. Comforting. Close. And what the hell, was it really time to sit down and talk about where our relationship was going when the government was hunting us? Though that’s not to say I didn’t want to be with him, it was just...’ She sighed, and shook her head. ‘I don’t know. It was weird. But having him by me was still better than the idea of not having him by me.’

‘It was a lousy time to be alone,’ Tobias agreed. ‘In so far as our experiences matched up.’

Jen looked down. ‘I was alone. You know what Nick was like. Fiery. Impetuous. And the war made him more serious, it made him grow up, but it didn’t calm him down. I think it made him angrier. And so I had to be the calm one, the stable one, the level-headed one - not just in our relationship, but in the Lions as a whole. I had to be the leader they could look up to, I had to be the rock. And I had to be his rock. And I couldn’t ever - ever falter.’

Tobias made a face. ‘That sounds rough. For you, and for the relationship. I’m sorry.’

‘It made a rift,’ Jen said. ‘Or, it made the rift even bigger. I think by the end we stood side by side because we didn’t know how to do any different. But I’d begun to lock so much of myself away from him so I could be what he needed, what the others needed, that we weren’t... two halves of a whole any more. Not by the end. It’s hard to say I fell out of love with him, but...’ She fiddled with a quill on the desk. ‘I was once told that you don’t fall out of love with someone. You just become a different person over time, and so do they, and maybe the person you become isn’t in love with the person they’ve become. But the person you once were is still in there, still loving the person they were...’

‘That makes sense to me.’

‘That’s how it was at the end. I wasn’t the girl who’d loved Nick, and he wasn’t the boy she’d loved. Though that part of me kept hanging on to him. But... I didn’t love him.’

‘You don’t need to beat yourself up about that. You have nothing to feel guilty for.’

‘What makes you think I’m guilty?’

‘That’s what this is about, isn’t it?’ Tobias gave a sympathetic smile. ‘He died, and you think you betrayed him somehow by... not loving him enough, or by the idea that you were deceiving him. It was war, and you stood by him, and you didn’t lie to him.’

‘I kind of did.’ Jen fiddled again with the quill. ‘And by “kind of”, I mean I did. Because when I was lonely, and when I needed to be strong for the rest of the Lions, there was one person, just one person, who could see me be weak and it didn’t matter.’

Tobias nodded. ‘Gabe.’

‘I started telling him last night, for the first time, but... he doesn’t really know. Not all of it.’ Jen hesitated. ‘I guess I really can’t stand in judgement of you and Cole not properly telling each other important things, can I?’ She made a face. ‘Or for him not telling me things.’

‘Jen, you know as well as I do that we can’t live for the dead. We can remember them. And I could talk about how they’d want us to live on, or whatever, but still most of that is crazy - we live on, because life goes on, and if the dead would begrudge us that then... that doesn’t matter, because that would be selfish of them.’ Tobias grimaced. ‘You know what I mean.’

‘I do,’ she said with difficulty. ‘But it doesn’t make it easier to have it all dredged up again. Cole was... I can’t imagine what position she was in. An impossible one. I know. I’m hardly okay with it, but... I know.’

‘If you’re looking for someone to blame,’ Tobias said, ‘it doesn’t need to be her, no. But it doesn’t need to be you, either. Thanatos Brynmor makes a great scapegoat when it comes to murders he actually ordered.’

‘...only following orders,’ Jen muttered. ‘We talked about this, weeks ago.’

‘And we both said there are different kinds of “only following orders”. I guess we need to make sure everyone gets the same chance. A good chance.’

‘I’m working on it.’

‘Then give yourself a chance, too. I know you’ve had a rough time. But you don’t need to hide or beat yourself up. And certainly don’t hide from the people who can help you.’

‘I haven’t been. I almost did,’ Jen conceded, and her expression twisted. ‘I can’t hide things from Gabe for long. I just hope he has as hard a time keeping secrets...’

‘I have never seen him like he is with you,’ Tobias said. ‘Never. I don’t think he knew how to be like that before you.’

She gave a smile. It was small, and it was tense, but it was genuine, and she picked up the sandwich. ‘I’m going to actually try to eat this now.’

‘You should, it’s good for you,’ he said with a smirk.

Lunch was easier then, and he could see a loosening of the tension in her shoulders as they chatted. Now the spectre of an ailing relationship was no longer the darkest shadow over his thoughts he’d managed to get tense and apprehensive of the election, which by now was less than a week away, and a lunch not spent staring at numbers was a welcome relief.

He paused at Tom Everard’s desk on the way out, frowning with concern at his former fellow prefect. ‘Hey. You okay?’

Tom stopped rubbing his eyes to give Tobias a wan smile. ‘Oh. Hey, Toby. I’m fine, I’m fine. Just a late night. Is Jen okay?’

‘Yeah, she’s... just fine.’ Tobias shifted his grip on his staff. ‘You better not be over-working.’

‘Bit rich of you to lecture me on that, isn’t it?’ said Tom, with reasonable humour. ‘Oh, hey, I’ve got some friends down in the MLE; I heard Tanith was attacked last night...’

‘She’s fine too,’ said Tobias, unable to stop a small smile on his face. ‘Even with... everything.’

‘Even with that stuff we’re not allowed to talk about?’ Tom’s grimace was difficult to miss. ‘Makes you think, huh. You think you know someone...’

‘Tom.’ Tobias tensed a little. ‘Everything’s fine.’

Tom seemed to realise, at last, that he was making a bit of a faux pas, and cleared his throat. ‘I’m glad,’ he said, and managed to sound halfway sincere. ‘Don’t let me keep you.’

Tobias nodded, trying to push Tom’s more graceless implications out of his mind as he left. He shouldn’t have been surprised; Tom had been there in the courtroom, Tom had known Nick and Cormac for years. Even if Jen was being a bit more philosophical and self-flagellating about it all, it didn’t mean everyone would be.

Overall, it made him more confident the injunction had been the right choice.

Against all of his habits he’d treated himself to an afternoon off, one of the few bits of free time he knew he was going to get for the next few days, but these were appointments he refused to miss. So when leaving Jen’s office he made it down to where he could apparate away from the Ministry securely, and arrived in a neat, tidy back yard of a quiet terraced house he knew very well.

After all, he’d lived there for eighteen years.

He knocked on the back door before letting himself in, and was in the kitchen by the time his mother came in through from the living room, smiling at the sight of him. ‘You’re on time. This is a novelty.’

‘I came from lunch, not work. Apparently I’m better at leaving friends on time,’ he said before going over to hug her. ‘How’s unpacking?’

‘A work in progress,’ Melissa Grey said, returning the embrace. ‘They can say I’m back in Britain for a while all they like, but I know Gringotts. They’ll have me in New York next if the rumours are accurate, and within all of a few weeks.’

‘You think that’s likely?’

‘Likely enough my shoe collection is staying right where it is. Tea?’

He sat at the kitchen table, letting his mother fuss over him in a way she didn’t usually do and he didn’t usually let her, but their time together had been so limited in the past eighteen months that it was a welcome indulgence. ‘You shouldn’t let them uproot you like that,’ Tobias said. ‘It stops, you know. Roots.’

‘I’ve been perfectly comfortable without roots for the past two years,’ she said, putting the kettle on. ‘But speaking of roots...?’ She quirked an eyebrow.

He couldn’t help but grin, feeling as giddy as a schoolboy and quite okay with this. ‘She said yes.’

Then his mother was hugging him again, as best one could when he was sat and she was standing, and when he looked up at her he could swear her eyes were shining. ‘Congratulations.’

‘Thank you. And... thank you for the ring.’ He didn’t let her go. ‘It really means a lot to me - stupidly lots to me - that you’d let me give it to her.’

Melissa pulled up the chair next to him. ‘I kept it to remember your father by - but I don’t need a ring to remind me of him. I remember him every day. And I certainly remember him every time I see you. Besides.’ She clasped her son’s hand. ‘He gave me that ring because he loved me. I prefer the idea of you being able to give it to the woman you love, to keep that love eternal rather than to keep my grief eternal.’

Tobias nodded awkwardly. ‘It really is perfect.’ He drew a deep breath. ‘If you’re still here after the election we’ll have to have dinner together. The three of us.’

‘Just the three of us?’ Melissa looked wary. ‘Are the Coles not to be invited?’

‘I’m sure we can do more than one dinner,’ Tobias conceded. ‘But I’d like you two to, you know, get to know each other. You’ll really like Tanith. And...’ He rolled his shoulder. ‘And maybe the Coles don’t know yet.’

‘She hasn’t -’

‘They’re an old family, Mum, there are... certain ways of doing this, you know all about that. And I’m going to see Daedalus Cole next.’

She made a face. ‘You’re asking permission?’

‘Tanith knows it’s ridiculous, she just thinks it might... appease him a bit. To do him the courtesy. It’s not like it matters, but I’d rather not be at war with my future in-laws from the get-go.’

‘The Coles aren’t exactly renowned for their forward thinking.’

‘I think a lot of what we know about the Coles is what they’ve wanted to project,’ Tobias said delicately, ‘but no, they’re not the most liberal of families. I know that was a significant rift between them and Tanith over the years.’

‘So long as she has a good head on her shoulders, that’s the important thing,’ said Melissa. ‘Of course it’s easier if you get on with the family, but do not, do not compromise yourself, your relationship, or your happiness for the sake of them. They should not influence what matters at all.’

He gave her a wan smile. ‘How did you and Dad handle it?’

Her expression went wistful. ‘I told my parents. And unsurprisingly, they told me that it was completely out of the question, and impossible, and I was going nowhere. And I’d already packed, so I grabbed my trunk and went to the car Robert had parked outside.’ She shrugged. ‘Much as I expected, really. And I didn’t see them again until after he died.’

Tobias’ expression sank, like it often did when she was talking about his father, and he reached for her hand again. ‘...you know, this is why I worry about you travelling for work so much,’ he said carefully. ‘I want you to be happy, Mum, not just living vicariously through me.’

Melissa looked amused. ‘What makes you think I’m not happy?’

‘Then I don’t want you to be lonely.’

Her eyes fell on the kettle. ‘I’ll get the tea.’

He didn’t press the issue through the rest of the drinks, and his mother knew him well enough to know when he was delaying, so before too long she was expressing how she’d have to get into the office and he should be on his way. He doubted she did have anywhere to be, but something was going to have to make him dare to visit Daedalus Cole.

So he left without argument, and when he arrived, he didn’t let himself hesitate as he marched from the copse he’d apparated into, didn’t let himself linger as he tromped up to the front door and rapped on it with his staff. He’d considered whether or not to bring it, but concluded that it made him look better than the cane did, and anything which reminded onlookers of his days from the Midnight Press was something worth cultivating.

There was silence for long moments, and he allowed himself to step back, to peer up at the windows and doors of this great old house for any sign of movement. Of course, the absence of movement didn’t mean they were out. They could have been anywhere and he wouldn’t have seen the family.

It seemed a huge place for just Daedalus and Gaia Cole, however.

Eventually the door creaked open and he was shown in by a rather obsequious House Elf, even by the standards Tobias had come to expect of House Elves over the years. The estate was not much changed from the last few times he’d been here, he thought, but as he was led through the house up to Daedalus Cole’s office he found his breath quickening, his throat tightening, and his desire to admire his environment rather faded in the face of thudding nerves.

By the time he was shown in to the study he thought that his heart had to be pounding loud enough to deafen both of them.

Daedalus Cole was sat behind his broad oak desk, hands steepled as he watched him come in, and he gave a small, thin smile. Tobias could see the caution in his dark eyes, the uncertainty as to what this was about, and hoped that the man was expecting something ominous.

It might make this a pleasant surprise.

‘Mister Grey. It’s been a while.’

‘Mister Cole.’ Tobias shook his hand. ‘Thank you for seeing me at such short notice.’

‘I’m always prepared to make time for the Office of the Minister. Can I get you a drink?’ He gestured to a whiskey decanter on the wall.

Tobias hesitated, then considered that doing his utmost to appease the man was sensible. He inclined his head. ‘I won’t say no,’ he said, taking a seat. ‘Though I fear there may have been a certain miscommunication. I’m not here on behalf of the Minister.’

‘Of course, of course,’ said Daedalus, pouring two glasses of firewhiskey and giving one to Tobias the moment he’d set his staff to rest against the desk. ‘I understand completely.’

Tobias hesitated, glass in hand. ‘I’m not sure you do, sir,’ he said. ‘I’m really not here on behalf of the Minister. My business here is purely personal. About your daughter.’

He saw Daedalus hesitate - and that was apprehension in his eyes, Tobias realised, along with fear. He set down his glass deliberately as he sat. ‘Then what can I do for you?’

Tobias realised he had underestimated the sheer levels of paranoia at which Daedalus Cole operated in his everyday life. He took a deep breath. ‘There is nothing bad, sir. At least, I hope very much my business here proves to be nothing bad. But it would be discourteous for me to not attend upon you under the circumstances.’

Daedalus’ expression pinched a little. ‘What circumstances would those be?’

‘She and I have discussed the matter,’ said Tobias, feeling the wall of formality come up as both a defence and a barrier - for them both. ‘But you are her father, and it is only appropriate I come to you.’ He drew a sharp breath. ‘I seek your -’

Permission? Oh, the hell with this.

‘I’ve asked her to marry me,’ he said instead with a surge of pride. ‘And she’s said yes. But I know it’d please her if we had your blessing.’

He’d meant, all day, to phrase it differently. Meant, all day, to be asking him for permission, for the right to ask his daughter to spend her life with him, even though he’d known it was just a gesture, nothing more, nothing less.

And now, face to face with him, he realised that even though he was there because Tanith thought it might make everything go smoother, he still wasn’t going to pretend that Daedalus Cole could influence their decision one inch.

His potential father-in-law was looking at him with a rather bland, almost dull expression, and drew a careful breath. ‘My blessing,’ he repeated. ‘If you have already asked her, do you need such a thing?’

‘I think you know your daughter well enough to answer that, sir,’ said Tobias, shoulders tense. ‘But we should like it all the same. As I said. I know it would please her.’

Daedalus Cole continued to look at him for several seconds - then he pulled a sheaf of parchment from a pile on his desk, scribbled something on it, and flicked his wand at it. The parchment folded itself up before flying across the room at the fireplace, where it disappeared into the flames with a flicker of green.

And this is where he’s summoning the wild nifflers to come chase me out of here.

‘Your mother is Melissa Hart, am I right?’

‘Melissa Grey,’ Tobias corrected, a sinking sensation in his stomach. ‘But yes, she’s Abraham Hart’s daughter.’

‘And -’

‘And my father was Robert Grey, son of Thomas Grey. Who was a farmer from Yorkshire.’ Tobias couldn’t help but feel a spark of perverse satisfaction at flaunting his father’s roots, not just Muggle, but common Muggle. ‘If you wish for my credentials, sir, I was Head Boy at Hogwarts, I’m a former Enforcer of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, a former attaché of the British Ambassador to Russia, and the former Editor-in-Chief of The Midnight Press. At present I am the Acting Head of the Department of International Magical Cooperation, the Communications Director of the Office of the Minister of Magic, and last year I spent a considerable length of time as the most wanted man in Britain after Harry Potter.’

He met Daedalus Cole’s gaze, knowing it wasn’t his credentials that were in question, knowing the moment his mother had come up where this was going, and feeling searing disappointment at the prospect.

He’d known Tanith had conflicted for a long time with her family, but with everything she’d told him about her father he’d hoped that it had been more of a front than this.

‘It is certainly not your personal achievements that are in question, Mister Grey,’ said Daedalus Cole. ‘I recall The Midnight Press, I recall your hard work and dedication. But it’s -’

Then the air right next to Tobias cracked and he almost threw his whiskey in the air in surprise as a shape appeared next to him.

It was Tanith, coat flapping around her, wand in hand, eyes wide. Before she’d even registered Tobias was there, her eyes had fallen on her father, gaze anxious and panicked. ‘Dad? Are you okay? You sent an emergency -’

Daedalus had rocked in slight surprise at the interruption but didn’t seem at all taken aback that it was his daughter stood before him. He picked up his whiskey and lifted a hand. ‘Tanith. Thank you for coming.’

She lowered her wand and looked around, frowning with dawning apprehension as she spotted Tobias. She gave her father a forlorn look. ‘You said this was an emergency.’

‘It is,’ said Daedalus coolly. ‘I’ve just been having a very interesting conversation with Mister Grey here. So please do take a seat, dear.’

Tanith holstered her wand and planted her hand on her hips. ‘I just left in the middle of work because I thought something was wrong.’

‘And this need not take long. Do sit down.’

Tobias was nonplussed as she sat next to him, her expression wan. He was starting to suspect Daedalus Cole was a lot crazier than he’d first anticipated.

Tanith’s father took a calm sip of whiskey and looked at them. ‘Mister Grey has informed me that the two of you are engaged. Is this correct?’

There was a defiant tilt to her jaw. ‘Yes.’

Then Daedalus slammed his glass down on the desk with the first real display of emotion he’d given since Tobias had arrived. ‘Have you taken complete leave of your senses?’

Tanith’s jaw dropped. ‘Have I...?’

‘You are a Cole, and you intend to marry a man who is, at best, from a disgraced branch of an old bloodline, and at worst the son of a Muggleborn wizard?’

‘You care about that?’ Tanith sounded as bewildered as she did outraged. ‘You, who went to Azkaban because of all you’d done to fight against Voldemort? You care that I’d be marrying -’

‘It’s not about what I think!’ snapped Daedalus. ‘You marry him, and the wizarding world will know you as a woman who married a man whose grandfather was a Muggle. You marry him, and the wizarding world will see your children with a Muggle name, not a wizarding name.’

‘Merlin’s bloody -’ She shook her head, and Tobias thought it best right then to let her handle this. It wasn’t as if she couldn’t do righteous outrage on his behalf. ‘So what?’

‘So?’ Daedalus’ eyes widened. ‘So they will judge you, they will watch you. They will undermine you and work against you. You will be ostracised and targeted, every single time there is a need for someone to be targeted. Even more than some Muggle-born would be hated, you will be hated as a traitor to the principles which they value, because a traitor is hated far more than an enemy.’

‘I’m no traitor of theirs, I was never on their side -’

‘It doesn’t matter what you think,’ Daedalus said. ‘It matters what they think, and they - the people who wriggled out of blame for the Dark Lord’s acts, the people who agreed with his principles and not his methods, the people who are still not silenced with the end of the war, will think you a traitor.’

‘This is crazy, Dad, the world has changed.’

Not enough!’ Daedalus thundered, slamming his fist down on the desk and knocking over a pile of papers.

But the outburst looked like it was all he had left, and certainly Tanith had no coherent answer to give, and as silence fell upon all three of them her father sagged in his chair, the strength fading from him as did the anger.

Only then did Tobias see what was in Daedalus Cole’s eyes. Not anger, or hatred, but fear.

‘I protected myself, and this family,’ he said, voice suddenly quiet, hollow, ‘by presenting to the world the image that I was everything they expected me to be, wanted me to be. And so they left us alone. Left you alone.’

‘No, Dad,’ said Tanith gently as she got to her feet. ‘They didn’t. And you know that I’m not you. You know that I have never fought my wars silently.’ She went around the desk to wrap her arms around her father. ‘And I won’t fight this one silently, either.’

Tobias looked at his hands. He’d gone from apprehensive to outraged to now feeling like an awkward interloper in a conversation he himself had sought.

‘The world is changing,’ Tanith pressed on, carefully. ‘It’s changing, every day, and it will get better. But more than anything else, it certainly won’t get better without people to make a stand and show that it can be done.’

Daedalus Cole drew a deep, pained breath. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘But why does it have to be you?’

‘I didn’t make this choice to be difficult,’ said Tanith, and looked up to meet Tobias’ gaze. ‘But I never was good at choosing the easy road.’

She straightened, and her father scrubbed his face with his hands. ‘I know,’ he repeated, and now he looked to Tobias. Suddenly he looked much older, much wearier, as if the months in Azkaban had caught up with him all at once. ‘I apologise, Mister Grey,’ he said at last.

‘You aren’t the first person to make dubious inferences about my parentage,’ said Tobias, as kindly as he could manage while still smarting. After all, while it wasn’t the worst this conversation could have gone, it wasn’t ideal.

‘No, I - my questions were not for personal issue with yourself. And I know about your father, I know what happened to him.’ He hesitated, as if he’d said too much.

‘He knows, Dad,’ said Tanith a bit wearily. ‘No, I haven’t told anyone else. But he knows. It was kind of hard for him to not know after everything with Altair.’

‘That man was a Squib and probably the bravest and smartest fellow I ever knew,’ said Daedalus, hasty but sincere as he met Tobias’ gaze. ‘But understand that I have seen so many brave and smart people still suffer for their principles. And while I will fight for mine I have never thought it fair that my family see the ill consequences of my actions.’

‘I can... appreciate that,’ said Tobias with a guarded air.

‘I suppose now is a more appropriate time to bring this up,’ Daedalus continued, his eyes going to his daughter, who pulled back with her own apprehension. ‘It had only been a germ of an idea but it’s one I discussed with my lawyer. I’ve been drafting up my will lately -’

Tanith looked confused, but pained. ‘Oh, Dad -’

‘No, listen to me,’ he pressed as she sat back down. ‘I have to plan for the future of everything that I’ve made. And it’s something your mother and I discussed, on the topic of the inheritance. The business, the house.’

She shrugged awkwardly. ‘I assumed Evadne -’

‘Evadne is married into the Spragues,’ said Daedalus with a slightly dismissive air. ‘She doesn’t need my money, though yes, she’ll get a good chunk of it. But while I have absolutely no regrets when it comes to yourself and your sister, the one way in which I have failed is that the Cole family will come to an end with me. The least I can do is make sure that my estate and life’s work don’t just get absorbed into the Sprague family.

‘And while I may not have agreed, my dear, with your forthright way of fighting for what you believe in, I have accepted it. Eventually,’ Daedalus conceded. ‘And as the last thing I would wish for is any daughter of mine to suffer for her principles, I certainly don’t want to see you languishing and struggling on an Auror’s paycheck - which, as I recall, is hardly as grand as perhaps it should be considering all of its risks.

‘Make no mistake. I have no intention of this house needing to be passed on any time soon. I shall be here for many years to come. But when I am not.’ Daedalus looked between the two of them levelly. ‘May it fall to you. These estates, and the bulk of my wealth, to you two. And to your family.’

Tobias crinkled his brow. ‘That’s very generous, sir,’ he said, bewildered. ‘But five minutes ago you were against the idea of Tanith marrying a man with a Muggle name - and now you’ll have that Muggle name be the one that will hold your life’s work in perpetuity?’

Daedalus gave a polite smile. ‘I make a point of never arguing with my daughter if my initial point bounces,’ he said calmly. ‘I suggest, Mister Grey, you adopt a similar policy if you two wish to have a happy life together. She has an irksome tendency of both standing her ground and being right.’

Tanith’s jaw had dropped. ‘Dad...’

‘I think this is risky. And foolhardy. And I think that you will make enemies you have never met, and may never meet, and I think that even if they will not influence your decision, then you must make efforts to be aware of these dangers. We do not live our lives in a vacuum, my dear. People react to our decisions and whether you like it or not, agree with it or not, ignoring those reactions could be dangerous. But.’ Daedalus Cole leant forwards. ‘If this is what you want. If this is the man you wish to build your life with. And if you are prepared to face these risks, then all I can do is help you.

‘And the best way I can help you is by letting you make the point you will be making, boldly and proudly. And what better way to do it than for the Cole family to fall to the Grey family, for a... union. Of bloodlines and of ideals.’ He clasped his hands together. ‘And, because I know you have not made this choice to make a statement, the best way I can help you be happy together is to ensure that there is one less worry before you. You will have all the trials and tribulations of a long life together before you. You might as well cross wealth or where to live off those trials.’

He got to his feet, and extended a hand to Tobias. ‘I followed your actions in the war with great interest. You have nothing but my admiration and respect for what you did, for the sacrifices you made. You came here today, Mister Grey, to ask for me to bless this betrothal; I have stated my reservations, they have been rejected, and therefore I have little choice but to accept this, and to give you my approval wholeheartedly.’

Tobias stood also, shaking Daedalus’ hand with a rather befuddled expression, and his future father-in-law let go and turned to Tanith. ‘But now you’re here, you are certainly to stay for dinner. Both of you. Your mother will be most keen to hear the news and to see you. Both of you.’

Tanith opened her mouth, but whether it was to accept or refuse, Daedalus lifted a hand. ‘It’s decided,’ he said firmly, ‘and I shall go inform Dacey at once to make ready.’

Then he was gone, sweeping out of his own office, and Tobias was left with his hand still extended and a completely bewildered look on his face. By the time he spoke, his voice sounded almost too loud in the silence as it broke it. ‘I don’t mean to alarm you, love,’ he said, ‘but I think your father’s crazy.’

Tanith stood, going to his side and taking his hand. She, too, seemed rather stunned. ‘I didn’t expect that,’ she admitted in a low mumble. ‘Any of it. I suppose I should have; this was the man who told me when I was seventeen that I shouldn’t admit too loudly to Slytherin House that I wanted to fight against Voldemort. He’s... always been concerned about not just doing the right thing, but keeping safe against the consequences.’

‘I suppose I have to respect some of that,’ said Tobias a little numbly. ‘You told me all he’s done, and he has done all that with most of the world thinking he’s just... another pureblooded patriarch. Hardly anyone knows the good he’s done and he accepts the complete lack of adulation or glory.’

‘But,’ she prompted gently.

‘But that wasn’t only about how people might see you, us, as a target for marrying,’ Tobias said carefully, turning to face her. ‘It was, a little bit, upset at his daughter marrying a half-blood.’

Tanith’s gaze went wistful and apologetic. ‘It was,’ she conceded. ‘Even if he’s not acting on it... it was.’ She lifted his hand to her lips, and the gentle kiss she planted on his knuckles was enough alone to begin dismissing the tension in his back that had settled in from the confrontation. ‘But, just as I didn’t need his approval for us to marry, you don’t need his... surely?’

He smiled gently at the hesitation in her voice, and stepped closer. ‘No. Though I’ll try to get it, anyway, because I know it matters to you.’ He let out a deep breath, the smile going wry. ‘Wow. This is actually... feeling a bit more real, now.’

Her eyes danced. ‘It didn’t feel real enough last night?’

‘You know what I mean. Pieces are falling into place. Plans. Our life.’ He entwined their fingers closely, bowing his head to rest his forehead against hers. ‘This is a good kind of scary.’

‘I’m glad,’ she murmured, closing her eyes, and the two of them stood there for a moment, basking in this small victory. ‘Because it’s not going to get any easier from here. After all.’ A small smile played at her lips. ‘Dinner with my family might be the bad kind of scary.’



Chapter 22: Dangled Over a Tank of Sharks
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The shield spell was strong enough to just absorb the Stun, and Katie gave a triumphant smirk. ‘You were saying, Chief?’

Tanith paused, assessing her trainee, and the distance between them in Canary Wharf’s training room. She narrowed her eyes, and lifted her wand. ‘The Boom-Doh customers,’ she said, working on speaking and casting at the same time. It was a useful enough skill to practice. ‘You three managed to narrow down the list to something like twenty names.’

‘In so far as we can narrow it down,’ said Katie, backpedalling as she deflected spell after spell being thrown at her. ‘But we went for who - c’mon, Chief, you can hit harder than that - didn’t obviously exclude themselves, like with an alibi.’

Tanith gritted her teeth, and for a long few seconds focused on casting lighter, probing attacks to keep Katie diverted while gathering the energy and concentration for something that might punch through her focused defences. ‘I went through the delivery addresses on the twenty,’ she said.

There was a pause in the discussion for more spell-work; although they were working purely on Katie’s defensive spells, by moving around in the space they had, she forced Tanith to adapt her awareness and concentration.

‘And?’ Katie eventually prompted.

‘And one of the addresses isn’t a house,’ Tanith said at last. ‘It’s a - STUPEFY!’

The fat, heavy spell came after an array of lighter, flickering attacks which had been dispersed with ease, but this last one forced a yelp from Katie’s lips as she leapt back. Her wand whipped up in response, but instead of dissipating the energy, this Stun was strong enough and the shield spell came up at enough of an angle to deflect it. It rocketed away, knocked upwards, and took out one of the light fixtures high above, out of the way of any usual errant spells.

The two witches stopped, looking up, and Tanith quirked an eyebrow. ‘Huh.’

‘Whoops,’ said Katie. ‘That one came a bit fast and strong. Couldn’t really dissipate it.’

Tanith was looking between Katie and the fixture with a thoughtful expression. ‘Yeah. Didn’t think it’d shoot off like that.’

‘Happens sometimes.’

‘Depends on the strength and the shape and speed of the Shield. Like a ball, but usually a spell’s going to dissipate on impact.’

‘Well, that was a whopper.’ Katie brushed back some hair. ‘I barely got the Shield off in time, it was at a bit of an angle, so...’ She shrugged. ‘Anyway. Address. Places. You were saying?’

‘Yeah.’ Tanith tore her gaze away from the burnt patch of wall above them. ‘It’s a Muggle Post Box.’

Katie frowned. ‘A post box?’

‘It’s in a post office. Muggles hire little boxes to have their post taken so they can pick it up, instead of having it sent to their homes?’ Tanith wasn’t sure if she should be proud to have figured this much out or if she was just stating the blatantly obvious.

‘Oh, a PO Box,’ said Katie. ‘Huh. Weird. But if we have who it belongs to...’

‘Someone called Stacey Whitman. Who does not exist in any wizarding registry I’ve been able to find. And this was a mail-order to Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, so George Weasley doesn’t have a clue what they so much as look like.’

‘Could be perfectly innocent,’ said Katie. ‘I bet some Muggle-borns like using the Muggle world for stuff, and maybe it’s safest to have magical things delivered to a Muggle PO Box. Just as well George is smart enough to use couriers who know how to be discreet instead of an owl flying into a bloody post office.’

‘It could be innocent,’ Tanith agreed, ‘but since when was anything actually innocent?’

‘Since we kept on hitting dead ends?’ Katie winced.

‘Fine.’ Tanith holstered her wand and waved a hand, gesturing for Katie to follow as she headed for the door. ‘Let’s go check this PO Box thing out.’

‘Shall I get the boys?’

Tanith smirked. ‘They were so keen to be thorough with Riley, they can continue to be thorough in checking out the rest of the twenty names. Grab your coat, and we’ll go. Don’t tell them unless we find something.’

‘Ooh. Secret investigating. Like investigating, but way cooler...’

* *


Cal consulted the bit of paper in his hand to confirm he was at the right place, then with a sigh shoved it in his pocket and glared at the building in front of him. Of course it was the right place. He’d never been here before, but it had to be - he’d fussed for hours and hours over making sure he came to the right place.

Now he just wanted it to not be so he could leave.

The Portkey to Paris had not been easily found at short notice. He’d had to throw around a lot of money and, most demeaning of all, ask Miles Bletchley for a favour. That had hurt him in his soul, but then he remembered that his smug arse had been dumped by Ariane Drake, one of the least discerning women in the world, and all had been right.

So he’d been able, within a couple of hours, to get to the magical district of France and now stood before a café and hotel he’d last heard was the best place to try called Les Deux Mages. Tobias had laughed when he’d heard the name and said something about someone called Sartres and a Muggle café, but Cal hadn’t really been listening.

He didn’t care much for the cultural implications of this place.

It was a busy, pleasant establishment, with an atmosphere he’d have appreciated if he was there to drink instead of there for rather less palatable business. The staff took mercy on his slow, clunky efforts to communicate, and since he knew at least what room he was looking for in the hotel, directed him up without too many questions.

It wasn’t as if he wouldn’t get his face hexed off if he wasn’t supposed to be here.

Which meant Cal wasn’t at all sure if he wasn’t going to get his face hexed off.

He found the right room and took a moment to look himself up and down. He’d dressed casually, lightly - he didn’t want to look too formal. But he didn’t want to look dismissively casual, or look like a mess, or even look too good - that was a definite faux pas. It wasn’t like he was just stopping by as if this was the most normal thing in the world; this was definitely not the most normal thing in the world, and -

He rapped on the door.

There was a long pause and Cal sincerely considered bolting as every good reason to not be here ran through his head, first and foremost being that he didn’t want to be here.

And yet, he was here entirely of his own volition.

Then the door opened and there before him, dressed for a casual evening herself, pixie-like hair as wild as ever and these days a bright green, stood the rather astonished shape of Nathalie Lockett.

She gaped. ‘Cal.’

He winced. ‘Hi. Glad I caught you here. This was where the Centre said you could be found until the Conference was over...?’

Nat frowned. ‘They shouldn’t have given that away...’

‘The receptionist recognised me and I bribed her with an autograph.’ Another wince. ‘Sorry. Can I come in?’

She stepped back and waved him into the hotel room, still clearly a little dumbstruck, and he self-consciously shoved his hands in his pockets as he slunk in.

‘Nice place.’ Cal nodded at the rather chic - it seemed the best word to use when in Paris - decor, that particular mixture of old fashioned and modern which France seemed better than London at pulling off with charm even in the wizarding world.

‘The company pays for it,’ said Nat awkwardly, and when she closed the door behind them Cal couldn’t help but be keenly aware that they were alone in a small room where the bed was the most predominant piece of furniture. ‘How’ve you been?’

‘Good. Yep.’ To make himself less awkward he took one of the two chairs around a tiny, pointless table. ‘Matches have gone well. We’re third in the league right now, but the Falcons and Tornadoes have a couple of tough matches coming up, while we’re going to pick up easy points from the Cannons. So I reckon in the next three games we’ll be second, if not first.’

She smiled, and he could see the sincerity there, see that - as ever - it pleased her to hear he was doing well, and that the sport they both loved was doing well for him. ‘That’s great.’

Cal tried to not wring his hands together as she sat down opposite him. ‘And... you?’

‘You know how it is. Travel. I’ll be in Morocco next week talking to their alchemists. I’ve found the north African theories on potions really cool; if I can convince the company to let me start work on incorporating those and their ingredients to make some variations on our catalogue...’ Nat’s voice trailed off as she remembered he didn’t find her job quite as fascinating as she did - or as she found his.

‘That’s cool, that’s really cool,’ he said as sincerely as he could. ‘I guess that’s going to keep you pretty busy.’

‘It should. And it’s to Casablanca, which is just an awesome place from what the others in the office were saying, I’m really looking forward to it...’ Again she stopped, and squirmed a little in her chair. ‘It’s good to see you.’

Cal gave an apprehensive smile. ‘And you.’

‘So I hope you don’t think I’m being a bitch if I ask what the hell you’re doing here?’

‘I...’ Cal hesitated. Tell me what to do. ‘I need your advice.’

She looked dubious. ‘My advice?’

‘Yeah.’ He scratched the back of his neck. ‘It’s... about Thanatos. I went to see him, just to... I don’t know. I hadn’t seen him since Victory Day. But...’

His voice trailed off, faltered - then he looked up to meet her green-eyed gaze, calm and reassuring and unjudging in a way he couldn’t imagine anyone else looked at him when he talked about Thanatos Brynmor.

So he told her. What Thanatos had said, what Will had said, what Tobias and Gabriel had said. Even what Tanith had said in the brief, limited times they’d spoken on the topic. About his doubts. About his fears. And about how he still couldn’t reconcile the smallest spark of a desire to see his father again with the knowledge and sick feeling in his gut which came from awareness of what a monster the man was.

And she sat and listened, because that was what she was good at. Only when he was done, shoulders hunched in, hands clasped together, head bowed, did she finally speak, her gentle voice like a knife through silence. ‘I do hope Doyle’s not right,’ Nat said calmly. ‘Because if you came here for me to tell you what you want to hear, I can’t do that.’

Cal winced. ‘I want what you think.’

‘And you’ll get that, because - well, because I don’t actually know what you want.’ Nat cocked her head. ‘Why did you come to me?’

‘Because you know me best,’ Cal said honestly. ‘Over the past two years of my life, you know me best. Even with all the time we spent... apart. You are better than anyone I know at cutting through the bullshit I know I can wrap myself in and get to the heart of matters. And you do it without bias, without bringing your own... issues to bear.’

Because Tanith Cole was also pretty good at cutting to the chase, but she brought her own damage with her when she did so.

‘Then if I know you so well, if I don’t know what you want... do you?’

Cal flinched. ‘I don’t,’ he admitted. ‘I think about all that he’s done, and then I think that nobody would judge me for locking him up and throwing away the key. And then I think about him, and wonder if any man deserves to be forgotten...’

Nat clicked her fingers. ‘That’s it.’

‘What?’

She met his gaze levelly. ‘What you just said. What people would judge you for, what he deserves. You’re not thinking about what you want, Cal. You’re thinking about how other people would see you, and you’re thinking about some higher cosmic power judging you on right or wrong, on justice.’

Cal hesitated. ‘I guess so.’

‘It doesn’t matter.’ Nat shook her head. ‘Anyone who matters to you will trust and love you enough to accept your decision either way. And there’s no court of morality to judge your decision in a broader cosmic sense.’

He briefly thought of the hurt look on Will’s face sometimes when he talked about Thanatos, of the sound of Tobias’ voice cracking when he spoke of his father, but was forced to nod. ‘...maybe not.’

‘So you need to cut out all of this bullshit,’ said Nat simply. ‘Of what they want. Of what even he wants. There’s no right decision or wrong decision. Just what’s best for you. To hell with everyone else. Do what you want, not what they want. And remember that whatever people think your reasons might be, they don’t matter as much as the reasons you’re actually acting on.’

‘But I don’t know what I want.’ Even as he said that, it was like something in his heart was bursting out, a dizzying sense of freedom from a cage he’d not even realised he’d been in. He could do what he wanted, and just what he wanted, without worry of the judgement or disapproval of others.

He just needed to figure out what that was.

‘I can’t help you there,’ said Nat, leaning back with a shrug as if she’d fixed this huge problem for him without so much as breaking a sweat. ‘I think he should be dangled over a tank of sharks until the rope breaks, but hey, I’m biased.’

Cal gave her a crooked, reassuring smile. ‘I don’t think Azkaban would let me ask that.’

‘But if you do want my opinion?’ Nat grimaced. ‘I hate the guy. For what he did to me, for what he did to you. I think he’s about as close to evil as you get without becoming Voldemort. But even if Azkaban doesn’t have Dementors any more, even if it’s changing, I can’t think of a hell worse than being in there, alone, forever.’

Cal grimaced. ‘The question is if that’s a fitting punishment.’

‘Nope.’ Nat shook her head. ‘It’s not even a question which should affect your judgement. Do you want to turn your back on him and never see him again? Or do you want to see him again, however often you damn well please, without warning or commitment?’

‘I guess I have a lot more to think about.’ He looked over his shoulder and saw through the window that the sun was growing fat and orange across the Parisian skyline. ‘I hate to drop by, demand your help, and run, but if I don’t get the mass Portkey going in the next half hour I’m going to have to wait until tomorrow or pay through the nose for a personal one...’

She stood, smiling sympathetically. ‘It’s okay. You didn’t interrupt or anything, I just got some reading to do before the conference tomorrow.’

Cal stood, hands back in his pockets, and all of a sudden was aware, far too aware of the distance between them - or lack thereof in this small, cosy room. He gave a lopsided smile. ‘But thanks. Thanks for... untangling this for me. I’ve just been going round and round in circles...’

‘Any time.’ She hesitated. ‘It was good to see you.’

‘And you.’ He stepped in, at last, for a friendly hug - because they had been amicable once all of the hurt and pain that came with any separation had faded, and even though they were awkward, it didn’t mean that after being so, so close they couldn’t go back to being friends.

And then he was standing there with his arms wrapped around her and remembered they hadn’t really been friends. And it hadn’t been out of any desire to not be with her that the relationship had broken down.

She seemed to realise it too, and pulled back a few inches - which just proved dangerous as he looked down to meet her gaze, both of them frozen close, too close together, like deers in the headlights.

Cal drew a deep, shaky breath. ‘I should go.’ He didn’t move.

Nat swallowed, and nodded. ‘Yeah.’

Then, instead of letting go, she kissed him.

It was like they’d never been apart, like no time had passed, as if the way they fit together had been perfect all along and why, just why had he tried to change that? Why had they both let everything slip through their fingers?

But reality came rushing in soon, far too soon, and although he didn’t let her go he had to break the kiss and they stood for long seconds, breathing laboured, foreheads resting together and still just as entangled with one another as they’d ever been.

Nat bit her lower lip. ‘Oops.’

He chuckled, a low, wry sound in the back of his throat. ‘Oops? Did you trip and fall?’

‘What can I say? You’re distracting.’ Nat closed her eyes. ‘Sorry. That was a bad idea.’

‘Felt pretty good.’ Cal straightened, grinding his teeth together, and though he didn’t let her go completely he did pull back. ‘But. Nothing’s changed.’

Nat made a face. ‘Nope.’

‘You’re still going to Morocco in a week.’

‘And you’re not quitting Puddlemere to be dragged across the world by me.’

He felt that surge of inexplicable guilt which always toyed at him whenever he decided that no, he wasn’t going to sacrifice his dreams for her and vice versa. ‘Afraid not.’

She gave her own wry chuckle, pressing the base of her palm against her temple. ‘How’d we end up here, Cal? I went to prison for you. You endangered Tobias’ life to save mine. All this... big, messy stuff, and how’d we end up like those other people?’

‘I guess those other people had their own epic upsets, too, which weren’t good enough once life got in the way,’ Cal said, suddenly maudlin. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know how it happened. But it did.’

Nat let out a deep breath. ‘I love my job. My life.’

‘So do I.’

‘I love them both. And even if I love -’

Cal winced. ‘Don’t say it.’ It would be harder, he knew, if he heard her say the words - because however this went, it was going to end with him walking out that door and then not seeing her again until God-knew when.

‘Sorry.’ Nat tensed. ‘You were right. You should get going.’

He sighed, letting her go, and rolled his shoulders. ‘Thanks for... for listening. I guess I’ll see you around.’

‘Yeah.’ She could only look at the table they’d been sat at. ‘You take care, Cal.’

He let himself out, closing the door behind him with careful deliberation and, shoulders slumped, hands shoved in his pockets, he slouched down the corridor like a teenager whose pocket money had just been rightfully cut off.

With a discontented mutter he stopped at the top of the stairs and checked his watch. Fifteen minutes. He was going to have to hurry if he’d make it to the Portkey in time, as he certainly had no desire to wait for another or pay the extortionate prices for one to get him back home before nightfall.

Even if home wasn’t seeming at all appealing right then. Tanith would be working late, which meant he’d be on his own as even if she did get out of the office she’d probably go to Tobias’. And even if she didn’t, he’d come to theirs and while Cal didn’t normally begrudge them their time together this was hardly the evening he’d want to spend as a third wheel.

The night loomed before him, either lonely or awkward and embittering. Even the idea of going out, finding Jack and Saul and dragging them for drinks seemed meaningless, empty. Like a gloomy fog stretching before him, and the only spot of light was behind him. Back in that hotel room.

He turned around.

Her gaze was apprehensive as she opened the door again, and all the more so when she realised it was him. Nat hesitated, then drew a sharp breath. ‘Did you forget -’

He barely remembered to shut the door as he pushed in, pulled her to him, and kissed her. For long seconds she was weak, powerless in his arms through utter bewilderment - then her mouth was opening under his, she was clutching at him like he was floating debris in a storm, and all sense and reason faded to irrelevance for those long, intoxicating moments.

When he finally pulled back, he refused to let her go again. ‘So I’m going to miss the Portkey,’ he said. It was a statement rather than an objection.

For a second she didn’t say anything, too dumbstruck to find words, but then a wry, sage look crossed her face and she nodded. ‘And those personal ones are extortionately priced if you don’t pre-book,’ Nat agreed - and kissed him again, pinning him back against the door, hands snaking around his chest.

By the time they broke the embrace for anything other than desperate gasps, they’d managed to stagger their way across the cramped hotel room to fall in a tumble on the bed, and Cal drew back with a remorseful glint in his eye as he held in his arms the only person who’d never judged him for his many, many mistakes. ‘You know... this doesn’t change anything.’

Nat looked up at him, meeting his gaze with calm, accepting understanding - and then a lopsided grin tugged at her lips. ‘I don’t know,’ she said wryly. ‘It changes what I’m doing tonight.’

Cal had been right. However this went, it was going to end with him walking out the door and then not seeing her again until God-knew when.

But it was going to be a good while before he did walk out that door.


* *


‘So.’

‘So.’

Tanith tapped her fingers on her belt buckle. ‘It’s a Muggle PO Box.’

‘Yep.’

‘Now I’ve seen one.’

‘Yep.’

‘I feel enriched.’

Katie grimaced. ‘What were you expecting to see here, Chief? We’re in a post office in Enfield.’

‘Which is also a first for me.’ Tanith glanced around the old building and then back at the row of small lockboxes not big enough to take more than a small package. ‘I don’t know what I’d hoped for. A clue.’

‘Well, we’ve got the number.’ Katie looked down at the bit of parchment she’d been told to take care of, because Tanith didn’t like having to remember to cart paperwork around. ‘2359. It’s right there.’

‘Yeah. And... it’s just a box.’

‘I say again, what did you expect?’

‘I don’t know,’ Tanith repeated. ‘We could ask the staff here, but there are thousands of these bloody things. The odds of any of them remembering who came in here for one box is... practically impossible.’

‘Plus, we can’t actually tell them we’re law enforcement. So they’ll just think we’re weirdos, and we can’t really justify some Muggle police identity falsification at this point in a case,’ agreed Katie.

‘We might have to. We could see what details they’ve got on file for the box holder. And hope it’s more than just a name.’

Katie rubbed the back of her head. ‘We could,’ she said slowly, levelly, ‘expand our search to Muggle databases. Stacey Whitman has to exist in the Muggle world; we should be able to find out who she is, even if it’s a fake identity? It’s better than nothing.’

‘Yeah,’ Tanith sighed, and frowned at PO Box 2359. ‘This was a bit of a waste of time.’

‘You never know until you see it, Chief,’ said Katie. ‘Besides, now you know what a PO Box looks like.’

Tanith was going to say something sharp, but stopped herself as a man walked in, wearing a uniform she couldn’t recognise but at least knew it wasn’t the same as that of the Post Office staff who worked in the main building. She didn’t want to make snide comments about Katie’s prowess as an Auror in front of a Muggle.

She was going to turn away and follow her trainee out, but for some reason spared the Muggle a glance, for some reason bothered to pay attention to which box he was going up to, a jangling key in his hand.

And stopped when he went right up to PO Box 2359, opened it up, and pulled out a few envelopes before putting them in a bag.

Tanith grabbed Katie by the elbow and stopped her, dragging her out of the way of the Muggle as he headed back out the door. ‘Bell. Bell. He just did a pickup.’

‘Yeah, he’s got some courier company logo on him, I guess he picks stuff up from the PO Boxes when the owners don’t want to go themselves -’

‘From our box.’

Katie blinked and watched the man’s disappearing form through the windows of the door. ‘Oh. Shit.’

‘We should follow him -’

‘He’ll have a van -’

‘Then stick a tracer charm on him; do I have to think of everything?’

Katie drew her wand out and grabbed the door. ‘Fine. Distraction time, Chief, I need a clear shot at -’

Tanith was out the door and back into the main floor of the Post Office before Katie had finished. Fortunately it was quiet this time of day, and there was nobody and nothing in between her trainee and their Muggle courier target. But someone still might hear or see something of the spell casting if she didn’t divert -

In the end, Auror Tanith Cole, survivor and escapee of Azkaban prison, who had stood up to prolonged interrogation under torture and Legilimency, Training Officer to The Boy Who Lived and his right hand man, knocked over a stand of postcards and earned many a tut from many a middle-aged Post Office employee for being a silly, clumsy young woman as Katie cast the tracer charm on an unsuspecting Muggle courier.





Chapter 23: Heads or Tails
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‘What is this place?’ Tanith squinted as she peered around the empty rooms.

‘Offices. Unused. The name on the bell ringer said, you guessed it, Stacey Whitman, though if that’s who actually rents this place, I don’t know.’ Katie hovered by the door leading to the corridor, the stairs, and back into the streets of north London.

‘The bell ringer?’

Katie rolled her eyes. ‘Those buttons by the doors? They have names on them so you know who to ring when you want to visit.’

‘Oh. I was too busy Alohomora-ing our way in.’ Tanith looked a bit abashed. ‘You can tell I’m not really cut out for this Muggle investigation end of things.’

‘Yeah, well, I only know so much myself.’ Katie pushed the door to and wandered to the window, tugging one of the blinds slates down to peer into the street beyond. ‘My Dad only really brought me up with radio and TV, not so much... everyday stuff.’

‘Still doing better than me.’ Tanith stopped in one of the doors to a further room, but shrugged forlornly. ‘There’s nothing here. It’s just a set of empty rooms. Peculiarly thorough. They get deliveries sent to a Muggle PO Box, and then get a courier to bring them here, where there’s... nothing?’

‘I guess we got lucky spotting the courier.’

‘So nobody sees who orders from the shop, nobody sees who the goods are delivered to, and if the courier just drops off things here, then nobody sees who the goods are transferred to. It’s thorough, and it’s paranoid.’ She rapped her fingers on her belt buckle.

‘Of course, none of that is illegal.’

‘No,’ Tanith conceded. ‘But who the hell goes to that much trouble to buy some bloody Boom-Doh?’

Katie looked back down into the street. ‘The courier did drop off some envelopes. We could take a look at what’s in the post box downstairs?’

‘True. Maybe these rooms aren’t what’s important here, maybe it’s just another drop-off point for documents and deliveries. Let’s just hope this isn’t a ridiculously long chain of implausible couriers.’ Tanith gave a grimace of a smile, and the two of them left, magically locking the door behind them.

Back in the lobby downstairs, Tanith looked around to make sure they were clear and drew her wand. ‘Just because the office door had no protection doesn’t mean this doesn’t.’

Katie nodded, and quirked an eyebrow as the other woman frowned after swishing her wand. ‘Something?’

‘Protection charms. Alert charms. Anti-Muggle charms. A pretty thorough job.’

Katie smirked. ‘I got this one. Just keep an eye out.’

Tanith moved towards the glass door out into the street, folding her arms across her chest and keeping her ears pricked for the sound of footsteps coming from down the stairs. Although her attention was discreetly kept on every Muggle wandering past in case they diverted into the building, she occasionally glanced back at Katie, who had her wand pointed at Stacey Whitman’s post box.

‘This is pretty good,’ Katie commented in between incantations. ‘Like you said, thorough. Used all the right layering, all the right tricks. Unluckily for them, it’s the same sort of thoroughness I had to use for protecting us back in the Lions.’

‘Can you get through it?’

‘I can get through it, not be noticed, and put it back up again without them batting an eyelid. This is my ball, Chief.’

‘If you say so.’

After a couple of minutes Katie finished her incantations, rounding it off with a mundane ‘Alohomora’, and pulled the post box open. ‘Here we go.’

‘Let’s be careful with this,’ said Tanith. ‘I don’t want to do anything we can’t reseal afterwards. If we don’t get something damning here, I want us to be able to leave everything exactly as it was.’

‘In case we’ve just broken into some poor innocent sap’s mail?’

‘In case it spooks an actual perpetrator.’

Katie picked up the envelopes and ran her wand over them. ‘Chief,’ she said after a second’s thought, ‘are we allowed to just break in like this and go through someone’s post?’

‘Stacey Whitman is a Muggle, officially,’ said Tanith with a smirk. ‘So, pretty much, yes. If it was a wizard we’d need some legitimate suspicion...’

‘...other than buying a child’s toy.’ Katie snorted, and the flap of the envelope she was holding - a big, inflexible package - flipped open magically. ‘Hello, what do we have here?’

She reached in to pull out a card folder, and passed it over to Tanith.

Who opened it up and immediately swore loudly.


* *


‘You know, when we signed up to become Aurors, this wasn’t the kind of exciting work I was expecting to have.’

Harry gave Ron a lopsided smile. ‘Chin up. Cole’s right; we do this boring stuff and at the end of it we get to risk our necks for minimal acclaim.’

‘You are way too happy about that idea, mate.’ Ron snorted as he reached for the next of the folders George had sent down to Canary Wharf. ‘Possible death! And very little chance of being harassed by reporters along the way!’

‘See? It’s a better version of the old days.’

There was the sound of someone clearing their throat in a pointed manner, and they both looked up to the makeshift entrance of their corner of the bullpen, isolated off by office screens, to see the tall shape of Jennifer Riley and the bulky form of her eternal shadow, Tom Everard.

‘Sorry to interrupt,’ said Jen with an apologetic smile. ‘We’re looking for Cole.’

‘Out,’ said Harry.

‘Doing more interesting work than us,’ added Ron.

‘Hm. Perhaps you two can help me.’ She reached to take a file from the helpful Tom. ‘I’m here to see Bernard Lackardy. He indicated he wanted to speak to someone down in the Prosecution Office before his sentencing happens.’

‘Oh.’ The two trainees exchanged looks, and Harry stood. ‘Wouldn’t you need to talk to Savage, since he handled the arrest -’

‘I’d rather not trust Jeremiah Savage to so much as get me a coffee if I can help it.’

‘Though she is pretty particular about her coffee, so that’s not a menial task,’ said Tom with a smirk.

‘But since Lackardy is technically a witness in your investigation, you can still get us in to talk to him.’ Jen smiled. ‘I don’t mean to tear you from your work.’

‘Oh, no,’ said Ron, also springing upright. ‘We can totally walk you down there. Supervise. All that. The work can wait.’

Tom frowned at the desks. ‘Looks important.’

‘Basic procedure,’ said Harry, and pulled a coin from his pocket, looking at Ron. ‘Heads or tails? Winner gets to visit a Death Eater instead of stare at customer lists.’

They tossed, Ron lost, and with a good-natured grumble he returned to the pile of folders while Harry led the two legal counsellors down through the corridors of Canary Wharf. Jen walked with the confidence of someone who knew what to expect, but Tom seemed tense, shoulders squared.

Harry glanced at him. ‘You’re expecting something bad down there?’

Tom jerked a little as if from a reverie, and shrugged. ‘I don’t know what he wants. But nothing good comes from this -’

‘It’ll be a bargain for information,’ said Jen bluntly as they went down the stairs towards the cells of Canary Wharf’s jail. ‘That’s what it always is. He’s sat through his trial, realised he’s screwed, and now he’ll want to convince me that he has something that’s worth asking the Wizengamot to give him a lighter sentence.’

‘Like I said.’ Tom scowled. ‘Nothing good.’

‘If he’s been involved with Avery -’

‘Then only now he gives us information, to save his own skin? To hell with that. Let him rot, Jen. Proudfoot and the others are doing fine without his insights.’

Jen glared at her paralegal. ‘We don’t know what his insights are,’ she said. ‘We can’t make that judgement now.’

‘Except he won’t tell us everything he knows because he’ll want to bargain, which means he’ll make it sound better than what he knows. And then, we get him off from a life sentence - what if it turns out his information’s rubbish?’

Harry found himself focusing more and more on just leading the way, collecting the key from the jail officer, heading for the right cell. He had no desire to get caught in the middle of this professional tiff.

But Jen lifted a hand sharply and Tom fell silent. ‘Tom. We’re not debating this. Because we’re not making a decision. We’ll see what he has to say. And then we’ll consider it. Anything else is premature.’

They reached the right cell, and Harry pulled the right key to unlock it. ‘Do you want me in here?’

‘He has the right to speak with us in private, even if we’re not his counsellors,’ said Jen. ‘Especially when his counsellor’s a moron.’

Tom made a face. ‘He doesn’t have that legal right with anyone but his counse-’

‘He has the moral right,’ she said firmly, eyes flashing. ‘Leave it, Tom, or I’ll talk to him myself.’

Tom Everard’s mouth snapped shut abruptly. ‘Fine. You do the talking. I’ll take notes.’

Harry stepped back to let them in the gloomy cell that had been Bernard Lackardy’s home for several weeks, and carefully locked up after them, now committed to waiting down here in the dim lighting for however long it would take the two bickering legal professionals to have their meeting with a man accused of a whole litany of unpleasant crimes.

Now he was wishing he’d lost the coin toss.


* *


‘You’re sure you sealed up the envelopes and the spells properly behind you?’ said Tanith as she and Katie burst into the corridors out of the Apparition Chamber in Canary Wharf.

‘Chief, I know how to do my bit of the job; now you do yours and let’s truss this son of a bitch up to be properly nailed.’

‘No nailing just yet. We’ll get a proper surveillance team on that place, day in, day out; if anyone so much as sneezes at that damn building then I’m going to want them identified within the hour. If they’re Stacey Whitman, or know where Stacey Whitman is, then they’re ours.’

Canary Wharf was usually a busy building and today was no exception, but still people side-stepped to let the two Aurors come storming through. Force of personality aside, their case had quickly become the second-highest profile in the country, and since little new about the hunt for Garrett Avery was coming to light, it was difficult to miss a pair of MLE Officers behind the investigation - even if most people, in and out of the department, were going to recognise Ron and Harry first. It got them some perks, even if all it meant was that they could get from A to B quickly.

Today, that could have made a serious difference.

The bullpen was calm, quiet, and Ron and Harry themselves still over in their section, Ron by now with his feet up on the desks as he rifled through files. Harry spotted them coming over first, and didn’t seem to notice their serious expressions as he stood.

‘Hey, Cole - Jen Riley and Tom Everard left about half an hour ago, turns out Lackardy wanted to make some bargain for Avery information -’

‘Don’t care,’ Tanith snapped. ‘We’ve got a lead, a proper lead.’

‘We know one of the hidey-holes of our killer,’ added Katie. ‘The name they’re using is Stacey Whitman, which has to be an identity which exists in the Muggle world; they’ve got a Muggle PO Box and are renting out an office in Enfield where they’re having deliveries like the Boom-Doh sent to.’

Harry and Ron exchanged looks. ‘That doesn’t sound like an offence,’ said Ron, but he sounded keen.

‘No, but we broke into their post box and found copies of personnel documents from this department about MLE Officers who were drummed out in the June Inquiries,’ said Tanith, voice low. ‘Like Bernard Lackardy and Bartholomew Mulready. I’m going to go to Vaughn to get Enforcer surveillance on that building.’

‘Who the hell is Stacey Whitman?’

‘Nobody we’ve found in wizard records. We’ll find out who Muggles think they are, we’ll find out any associations they have; we’ll pursue this leak from our own office, starting with HR and the legal departments who handled the June Inquiries. This adds up too much to not be a lead, and I will not let this one slip through -’

Then the lights went out. Just for a second, a second enough for everyone’s breath to catch and hands to go to their wands, but when illumination returned it was from usually-dim sconces on the wall, and was a low, piercing green.

‘What the hell -’

‘That’s a lockdown.’ Tanith’s head snapped up. ‘Emergency security lockdown - don’t move,’ she added as both Harry and Ron looked ready to snap into action. ‘This has been a security breach, we can’t have people running around like headless chickens. There’s an emergency response team to react to this, and otherwise we don’t move until we’re -’

‘Cole! Get your team and get over here!’

‘...told. Like that.’ Tanith drew a sharp breath and turned in the direction of the door, where stood the burly and serious-eyes form of Cassius Vaughn. ‘What’s going on, Boss?’

Vaughn was surrounded by Enforcers Tanith recognised as some the emergency response team, but he didn’t answer, just jerked a hand for them to follow him, and the four of them hurried over. Even then he didn’t talk, but led them down the corridors and eventually to the top of the stairs leading to the jail.

‘Jail Officer just did cell checkup,’ said Vaughn gruffly, leading them down. ‘Bernard Lackardy’s dead.’

What?’ That was Harry, pushing to stand at Tanith’s side. ‘I just saw him not thirty minutes ago -’

‘And in those thirty minutes, someone’s gone into that cell and killed him.’ Vaughn made a face. ‘This is your show, Cole, because by now it’s not taking a full analysis to identify the spell he’s been slashed up with.’

Tanith let out a low whistle. ‘Scindo. Son of a bitch. Jail Officer saw nobody?’

‘I’ve got everyone who’s been down here since Potter took Riley and Everard out; they’re contained. But there’s nothing fishy about any of it -’

‘Except that he’s dead.’

‘We trust the Jail Officer?’ said Harry, a bit tersely.

Vaughn snorted. ‘Mortimer Drudge got this job for a reason. If he’s rotten, Potter, you’re rotten.’

‘Then it’s someone who was visiting since Harry left,’ said Tanith. ‘There’s no way someone’s punched in through Canary Wharf security; that was something not a single resistance cell or Death Eater succeeded at in the war whoever held this building.’

‘That’s exactly what we’re trying to confirm,’ said Vaughn, and they turned the next corner in the cell block to see the door to Bernard Lackardy’s cell - the door to the crime scene. It was gloomy within, but two Enforcers, other members of the emergency response team, stood at the doorway, grim-faced.

‘We found something, Boss,’ said one of them, stepping forward and extending a hand. In it he held a fist-shaped rock, the sight of which was enough to make Tanith’s breath catch in her throat.

‘Is that...’

Vaughn took it, and if his craggy features were already lined with dark concern, now they folded up even more. He turned the rock over in his hand, and looked back at the others. ‘Security rune. Placed in here to allow someone to apparate in from outside. This is of the highest clearance.’

‘Drudge confirmed the cell was swept this morning and nothing in here was found,’ said the Enforcer.

‘And who’s been in here since this time?’ said Tanith.

‘Drudge said nobody except for the legal counsel Auror Potter escorted down.’

Vaughn turned to Tanith, shoulders squaring. ‘Your gig, Cole.’

My call. My responsibility. My fuck-up.

Tanith drew a sharp breath. ‘Lift the emergency lock-down,’ she said slowly, carefully, then turned to Harry and Ron. ‘And get down to the Prosecution Office and bring in Jennifer Riley and Thomas Everard.’

The gathered officers of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement dispersed almost immediately at those words. Everyone knew their job - Vaughn and the response team to properly lift the lock-down, Harry and Ron to march into the Ministry and bring in people they usually worked so closely in unison with.

And, left in the humming darkness, Tanith Cole and Katie Bell, their eyes meeting tensely.

Tanith’s expression flickered. ‘I stand by what I said before.’

Katie looked unusually pale, and grabbed Tanith by the elbow to tug her into the cell. ‘And so would I, you know, Chief. Until death. Whatever was said, whoever lied, whatever little deceptions of convenience we’ve got into. I’d stake my life on it being impossible Jen did this.’

And ‘this’ was an altogether more gruesome, real issue than it had ever been before when they’d debated Jen Riley’s possible guilt - because the body of Bernard Lackardy was right there on the floor near them, in a corner in the cell, a miserable bundle of clothes and flesh and blood.

Tanith only fleetingly looked at it. Of all the corpses she’d seen in her career - in her life - Bernard Lackardy’s was not one to make her weep.

‘It’s just a bit more complicated than that,’ Katie continued, equally unperturbed by the corpse in a way which would have made Tanith disturbed at the two of them if they didn’t have better issues to concern themselves with. ‘Because there’s no doubt in my mind that Doyle - and Jen - were lying about her alibi.’

Tanith frowned. ‘You don’t get to decide now that they were lying, Bell, when it looks dubious - I’ve known Gabe for years and he can still pull a fast one on me better than anyone I -’

‘I know they were lying,’ said Katie with deceptive coolness Tanith suspected was an effort to keep tight control, ‘because there’s something I didn’t mention before. That night? I swung by the flat at ten fifteen, when they both should have been at home, and about fifteen minutes before you were attacked. And you know what I found? Doyle asleep in a chair in their bedroom, and no sign of Jen.

The words thudded into Tanith’s gut, as powerful as a punch and considerably more unpleasant. Katie, too, looked as if the confession had been physically painful to her, and it was with this same sick expression that she continued speaking.

‘I really did think the same thing as you. That there was no way under the sun that Jen could have done this, and that by letting this alibi go by unquestioned meant we didn’t waste our time chasing after her.’

Tanith closed her eyes for a moment, drawing a deep breath. When she spoke, she didn’t feel any better. ‘You now think she could have done this?’

‘No,’ said Katie unhappily. ‘But now I think we need to be properly honest and up-front to make sure we can clear her name. Following procedure. According to the law. Instead of according to our guts.’ She hesitated. ‘If you need me off this case, or to put me on report because I didn’t say this earlier, Chief, I get it -’

‘You’ll do nothing.’ Tanith ground her teeth together for several long moments, thinking. ‘I was no better than you. And I’m meant to be in charge. So you sure as hell won’t take any flack without me taking flack, too.’ She hesitated. ‘And right now, flack helps nobody. So you’ll do nothing. Except...’

She looked away, looked at the gloomy walls she hated so much, the shoddy, morale-destroying lighting, even the body - anything but at Katie Bell’s face when she uttered her next words, words the like of wish she’d prayed she’d never, ever have to say.

‘...except, while Harry and Ron are off bringing in Jen and Tom, you’ll go bring in Gabriel Doyle.’




Chapter 24: Slash of Darkness in Yourself
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‘I was gone,’ said Jennifer Riley with absolute determination, ‘for an hour. I went for a walk around the park to clear my head. And then I came home.’

Tanith and Harry exchanged glances, and the senior Auror reached into her coat to pull out her notepad. ‘We have your statement indicating you were home by ten o’ clock that night. You stand by this?’

She frowned. ‘I do.’

‘And Mister Doyle has verified this.’

‘Gabriel Doyle, your friend, a man you’ve trusted with your life - yes. He’s verified this.’

‘Come on, Riley, you know better than to pollute this with personal feelings.’

Jen arched an eyebrow. ‘Because you’re not doing that right now, Auror Cole?’

Tanith flinched as the accusation bounced around the walls of one of Canary Wharf’s cramped interview rooms. ‘If I were, Riley, then I’d have let you go already. But you know how this works. You’re the one who believes in how the system will bring the truth out, so you don’t need to worry about your innocence being proven.’

‘The system has to be run by good people.’

Harry’s shoulders squared a little. ‘You may have claimed you were at home, and your partner may have confirmed this, but we have testimony to bring this alibi into question.’

Jen’s head tilted, and Tanith couldn’t read anything but defensive sincerity in her expression. If she was lying, she was better at it than Tanith had ever given her credit for.

‘What testimony?’

‘Auror Bell recalls being at the flat at ten-fifteen, fifteen minutes after you claim you were back, with only Mister Doyle at home.’ She kept her voice low, calm, and studied that mask for any hint of a crack.

The only crack was surprise. ‘Auror Bell must be mistaken. I went for a walk. I came home. I wasn’t gone more than an hour. The times are approximate, but not that approximate.’ Jen shook her head. ‘I appreciate how this might be concerning, but you’re barking up the wrong tree, Auror Cole.’

Tanith picked up her notebook. ‘Does the name Stacey Whitman mean anything to you?’

Jen looked like she was sincerely thinking, then shrugged. ‘No.’

‘And we’ve covered that you believe you left nothing, intentionally or accidentally, in Bernard Lackardy’s cell.’

‘We have, indeed, covered that.’

‘All right.’ Tanith flipped the notebook shut and got to her feet. ‘We’re done here. Thank you for your cooperation. Come on, Potter.’

The two Aurors slunk out of the interview room, leaving Jen shut in behind them, and Harry gave a sigh when the door closed. ‘She’s not giving anything away.’

Tanith grimaced. ‘All we have is an alibi that doesn’t add up.’

‘And a rune next to a dead body which only two people could have dropped.’ Harry made a face. ‘Unless there’s way more mess in this office than you anticipated.’

‘You think the Head of the Prosecution Office being implicated in the highest profile murders since the war isn’t more mess than I ever figured was going to fall down on us?’

‘There’s the senior aide, still.’

‘No luck there.’ They turned to see Ron and Katie coming out of the other interview room, Ron rather dour-faced, Katie still with that rather sick expression she’d been wearing since confessing and implicating Jen.

‘Tom Everard’s alibi the night of your attack checks out,’ Ron continued. ‘His neighbour saw him coming into his flat at ten-twenty on the night, and heard him cooking dinner and listening to the radio. Guess an aide’s pay in the Prosecution Office isn’t so good if he’s living somewhere with walls that paper-thin.’

‘It’s not,’ said Tanith, and scowled. ‘All right. We can still hold him for another couple of hours, but that’s it, really. We don’t have enough to go on to keep him here.’

‘And we have enough to go on for Riley?’ Ron quirked an eyebrow.

‘I worry we might. But I have another interview to conduct. Which room did you put him in?’

‘Beta,’ said Katie, still rather pale-faced. ‘You want any of us to -’

‘I’ll do this one myself,’ Tanith said firmly. ‘You finalise things with Everard.’

The last of the interview rooms her team had claimed was at the end of the corridor, a corridor most members of the MLE were trying to avoid as Auror investigations went through several of the nastier jobs that any of them could do. It was bad enough conducting investigations into the death of one of their own, or into a murder on their own premises, but combine these two with a prime suspect in the Prosecution Office, the office they relied on to make their own good work stick, and this was a situation nobody wanted to be too closely associated with.

Except for those of them who didn’t have a choice.

Gabriel was sat at the table in the interview room, hands clasped together, head lowered. He jerked up as she came in, expression tensing before he realised it was her, then his gaze became cautious, suspicious. ‘Tanith, what the hell’s going on -?’

She didn’t answer until she was sat down, her chest tight. ‘Here’s the deal, Gabe.’ Her voice was raspier than she meant it to come out. ‘Jen’s alibi the night I was attacked? It doesn’t check out.’

He frowned, bewildered. ‘I gave you the times -’

‘No, I gave you the times. You couldn’t remember what time she’d come back.’ Tanith leant forward an inch. ‘Could you?’ He hesitated, and her heart sank as she realised she had him. ‘Katie confirmed that Jen wasn’t home, fifteen minutes after she said she’d been. So I’m going to ask you again, Gabe. When did Jen get back?’ Gabriel opened his mouth - then paused, and frustration surged within her. ‘Damn it, Gabe, I am not the enemy here!’

‘Really?’ He tensed. ‘Because you’re the one who’s got me and my girlfriend in an interview room -’

‘You know I have to do my job, and my job means that I have to look at a suspect who has motive and opportunity and right now the person who has both is sitting on a defence made out of lies!’

Her voice echoed around the room, though still Gabriel’s expression remained tight, unaffected, and Tanith realised with a start that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d faced the brick wall of his implacability like this. Normally he just turned it on others, normally she was one of the few people who could sidle past it, but not today.

‘This isn’t a smoking gun,’ Tanith continued carefully, ‘but this is not something I can ignore.’

‘Really? Even though everything doesn’t add up, perhaps, you can’t let this one go out of faith? You can’t look at someone and know, and trust, that no matter how it seems, they are not the person who might do what you fear they’ve done?’ Gabriel’s voice was low, challenging.

She felt the sting of the implied accusation of hypocrisy, and straightened, shoulders squaring. Her expression twisted. ‘I have to do my job. And my job means I don’t have the luxury that you do of being able to rely on faith. I need truth and I need facts.’ Tanith forced herself to shrug. ‘So give me facts. When did Jennifer Riley make it home last Thursday night?’

Gabriel hesitated again, and she slammed her hands down on the desk. ‘Come on, Gabe, you are not an idiot, and if you had an answer to make this go away, you’d give me one - but do not try to lie to me again because I can see through you. When did she come home?’

‘This isn’t -’

When?’

Another pause, but now she saw something cracking at the edge of his mask, and she let it wait this time, let it worry itself open until Gabriel worked his jaw silently - then his shoulders slumped. ‘I don’t - I don’t know.’

Her instincts as a friend made her want to go to him. Her instincts as an Auror made her lean forward and keep an edge in her voice. ‘You don’t know?’

‘It was late! We’d rowed, badly. I shut myself up in my room, it was dark, I don’t know how long I was there, it felt like it might as well have been days, I didn’t check the time when she came back...’

And there it was. Patience and the correct application of pressure meant she’d found his kernel of doubt and done the impossible - break Gabriel Doyle’s mask. But Tanith struggled to draw anything resembling satisfaction from this victory.

She leant back and gave a stiff nod. ‘All right. All right...’

Gabriel ran a hand through his hair, and to her horror she could see him shaking. ‘Merlin, Tanith - you are barking up the wrong tree -’

‘I hope so,’ she said. ‘But I’ve got other dogs after other trees, and I can’t leave this tree behind until I know for sure. There are a hundred and one possible explanations for this, but -’

‘No, there’s just one,’ Gabriel snapped. ‘And that’s that she didn’t do it. I know this might be tough for you, Tanith, to accept and understand. But the kind of thing you’re suspecting? It’s just not in Jen’s nature.’

‘I know -’

‘You don’t. Because I don’t - didn’t - and you and I are that bit too alike.’ He looked up, dark eyes meeting hers and blazing with a fierceness she’d not seen before. ‘We both scratch and claw our way to being good people, and even if we win, it’s after a long battle. There are lots of reasons you’re good at this job, but one of them is because you’re good at seeing the darkness inside of people. Understanding why they do the things they do. And you have that insight because, even if you’ve turned your back on it, you’ve got that slash of darkness in yourself.’

Tanith hesitated, and Gabriel leant forwards, gaze still ardent. ‘So you don’t get that Jen doesn’t. I’m not taking about purity or innocence or any of that crap, I’m talking about the kind of morals that are unflinching and bright and blinding. The person you’re after? Is weak, and petty, and cowardly, and broken. That’s not her.’

There was a pause, then Tanith got to her feet, fiddling with her notebook. When she spoke, her voice was a little unsteady. ‘I look forward to you being proven right.’

Outside, her three trainees waited, though from the looks on their faces she suspected they had watched the entire interview, as there was no curiosity in their eyes - just a dull air of determination. Tanith scowled when she saw them, and jerked a thumb over her shoulder.

‘I just have two things for you to do,’ she growled. ‘Process Gabriel out. And someone can fucking find me Stacey Whitman.’

Harry quirked an eyebrow. ‘Where are you going?’

‘To do something unpleasant I don’t want the three of you tarnished with.’

Again, she went to an interview room - and again was confronted with the cold grey eyes of Jennifer Riley, calm and dignified even in a confined space such as this. With just the two of them in the room the tension was almost palpable and when Tanith shut the door behind her it sounded loud, far too loud.

‘Your alibi no longer checks out, Riley,’ she said. ‘Gabriel’s admitted he can’t remember for sure when you were back.’

‘I imagine that puts you in a rather difficult situation, Auror Cole.’

Damn it, Riley. You talk about following the system, but this entire situation is mired in a mess of lies. Why don’t you just tell me where you were that night?’

Jen straightened. ‘I did.’

‘I have an Auror, one of your best friends, telling me that’s wrong. That when I was attacked, you were unaccounted for.’

‘As the victim in this case, should you be really investigating?’

Tanith yanked back the empty chair and sat down. ‘I’m trying to do you a favour here. We gave you the benefit of the doubt, Bell gave you the benefit of the doubt, and now Lackardy’s dead and I can’t afford to do that. I’ve got the whole of the MLE, the whole of the wizarding world breathing down my neck and I cannot afford to make a fuck up. So just tell me -’

‘I told you,’ Jen snapped. ‘Katie must be mistaken.’

‘I’m pretty sure that if Bell had even the slightest amount of doubt as to what she saw when, she’d have kept her trap shut. She did in the first place, to protect you, even if this could cost her a whole career in the MLE, because she trusted you. So if not for me, then for her.’

Jen looked away. ‘I wish I could help,’ she said quietly. ‘But I have told you what I know. If Gabriel can’t remember, that’s not so unusual that he didn’t check his watch at a time of emotional turmoil. Katie is wrong, and even if she weren’t, I certainly wouldn’t have asked her to lie for me. And that’s all I know.’

Tanith scrubbed her face with a hand, feeling the weariness in her bones. ‘Merlin, but you are stubborn.’

‘Let’s find out what happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object, Cole.’ Jen straightened. ‘Your move.’

‘Don’t play this game, Riley. You know exactly what my options are. We’ve gone through your alibis for the murders on this case - a whole lot of late nights, alone in the office, or home alone, with nobody to confirm your presence isn’t exactly damning, but it sure as hell isn’t clearing your name any time soon! Nor is that you and Tom went your separate ways after speaking to Lackardy and you “needed time to think”! If you were anyone else -’

‘Treat me like I’m anyone else. Because if you’re so worried about everyone breathing down your neck, it’s going to be bad enough when they realise you didn’t bring me in sooner because of personal relationships. You don’t want it to be made worse.’

Tanith’s expression twisted. ‘And here’s you and me having another conversation about being slaves to the system.’

‘That was years ago.’ Jen paused, then looked up for their eyes to meet firmly. ‘Let me be honest: I don’t trust you.’

‘Are you really letting the Nick thing -’

‘No. But I want to thank you for referring to the time you executed the man I loved as a “thing”.’ Jen did hesitate, drawing her hand down her face wearily. ‘I get it. I understand it. You had to kill him. Or you refused and Brynmor would kill you, then him -’

‘Not just me.’ To anyone else, she’d been quiet, calm, stating her case, but now Tanith’s voice faltered. ‘My father in Azkaban. My mother. My sister. Her daughter.’

Jen’s gaze flickered. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I know that’s hard. I always worried they’d go after my parents, my sister. But they were always loath to go after pureblood families.’

‘And then sometimes they weren't so reluctant.' Tanith stared at the desk, her gaze unseeing for a long moment. ‘He said - he said, if I saw you again... to tell you he was sorry.’

When anyone else would have burst into tears, Jen just closed her eyes. But she took longer before she spoke, and when she did, her voice was tight, hoarse. ‘I hope it was quick.’

‘It was. And he was... unflinching.’ Tanith didn’t know if this was helping or just making it worse, but she still didn’t look up, and all she could see in the desk was Nick Wilson’s face in those final moments, making that light-hearted, affectionate, and loyal exchange with his best friend.

Silence fell upon them for those long seconds, until finally Jen cleared her throat. ‘I don’t... blame you,’ she said awkwardly. ‘Though you’ll forgive me if I don’t invite you around for tea any time -’ Then she stopped, and squared her shoulders, and met Tanith’s eyes. ‘Actually, no. Look at me, Cole.’

Tanith did, just about, and blinked as she found Jen Riley’s gaze locked on hers, calm and firm. ‘I don’t blame you,’ said Jen levelly. ‘It was not your fault. My more complicated feelings aside, I believe you were in an impossible situation in the war, I believe you did everything you could to help where possible. I have not forgotten that without you, Nick would have been given the Dementor’s Kiss months earlier.’

‘Except, again, he would have been in Azkaban because of me -’

‘If not you, then someone else, perhaps, maybe. Let me focus on what I know: I know that you had no choice. I know that when you had a choice, you invariably took the hard path to do the right thing.’ Jen wrinkled her nose. ‘I also know that I don’t like you very much. I think you’re downright unpleasant, occasionally hypocritical, and sometimes narrow-minded. But. I do know you have a strong sense of right and wrong. I know you’re good at your job. I know I want you to keep on doing your job for years to come. And I know I want you to do your job right now.’

Absolution, Tanith reflected bitterly, came with a hefty serving of guilt on the side. ‘That’s what I’m trying to do.’

‘No, you’re trying to cut me some slack because you trust me. And I’m saying that’s a terrible idea. Because at some point this will get bigger than you - this will go to the Auror Office as a whole, the MLE as a whole. And I think the MLE has been a little too prepared to take the easy road when it comes to justice.’

‘You’ve been the one responsible for justice.’

‘On paper. You know, in practice, how much of these decisions come from the Auror Office, the Head of the MLE. Like Lackardy. He wanted to make a deal to sell out associates of Garrett Avery he claimed he knew about, who are more influential in the Remnant than him. In return, he’d get a reduced sentence. Is that justice?’

Tanith ground her teeth together. ‘It’s the price of doing business. And it’s a business you’re involved in, too.’

‘As I recall, I’m the reason Bernard Lackardy didn’t get charged with a murder he didn’t commit,’ Jen said smoothly. ‘While the Auror Office trying to make things easier, cutting corners, got him into that situation in the first place. So forgive me if I don’t want this handled behind the scenes.’

‘But they’ll do you any favours if I do this by the book?’

‘I think I stand a better chance with you at the helm, with everything being done in the open. If you disagree, we’re at an impasse.’

‘I guess we are.’

‘So can I go?’ Jen’s eyes flashed defiantly.

Tanith tensed. ‘Don’t make this harder than it has to be.’

‘I’m not. I’m the one of us facing reality. And the reality is that, if you don’t have anything more to say, I am free to leave this interview room at any time.’

She went to stand, and Tanith lifted a hand. ‘Or, you could choose to stay and help us with our investigation.’

Jen stopped. ‘You wouldn’t offer that to anyone else.’

‘You’re not anyone else.’

‘I am in the eyes of the law.’ Jen Riley squared her shoulders. ‘So, go on. Follow the law.’

Tanith rose, jaw clenched, and glowered across the interview room. ‘Oh, fuck you, Riley,’ she hissed. ‘What is this, fighting me on this? We’re on the same side.’

‘Not right now, we’re not. And my best chance of not being discarded by the MLE, the MLE so eager for any kind of answer to this current crisis, is to follow procedure to the letter, for this to be as public and transparent a process as possible, and I don’t particularly care if that makes your life difficult.’

The two women glared at each other for several long seconds, before Tanith drew a sharp, pained breath. ‘So be it. Jennifer Riley, you are under arrest for the murders of Jacob Van Roden, Bartholomew Mulready, Valerie Phelps, and Bernard Lackardy, and for the attempted murder of an officer of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.’


* *


Five hours later she was still there, at Canary Wharf. Even when the MLE officers had calmed down from the drama of the security breach, even when Vaughn himself had signed off for the rest of the night, even when she’d dispatched her trainees to the Ministry, ostensibly to go through records there but in reality so she could be left alone.

Jen had been transferred to one of the cells, Gabriel and Tom had been let go, and she needed to get to the bottom of this.

Hardly anyone was still in the building by this time, so when she heard footsteps in the bullpen she didn’t look up, expecting it to be her trainees. ‘Did you find something?’

‘I found you.’ Tanith looked up with a jerk to see Tobias stood there, leaning on his staff, brow furrowed. ‘And I heard everything went crazy today.’

‘I have to follow procedure -’

‘You don’t have to explain yourself to me.’ Tobias limped in to pull up the chair across from her, Jacob’s chair, and she managed to not flinch. He was the only person in the world who could get away with that.

It was also, once her knee-jerk reaction of disapproval faded, reassuring to look up and see half of what she expected, deep down: someone she trusted.

‘You will have to explain yourself to the press. They’re having a field day with this.’

‘The arrest of the Head of the Prosecution Office for the same murders she herself would have prosecuted. I know.’ Tanith’s shoulders hunched. ‘This couldn’t suck more. She and Everard are the only people who could have dropped a rune in Lackardy’s cell, and Everard’s got an alibi for at least my attack.’

‘I wouldn’t have thought it of either of them,’ said Tobias gloomily. ‘What about someone else breaking through Canary Wharf’s defences?’

‘That’s what I’m hoping.’ She nodded. ‘Vaughn’s got the security teams going over the wardings to find some evidence of their being breached. But it’ll take time, and until I can find that...’ She rested her head in her hands. ‘I can’t justify letting my prime suspect walk.’

‘She didn’t do it. And you know this. And you’ll find evidence of this.’ She heard him stand, heard him shuffle around the desks, then his hands were on her shoulders, and only then did she realise quite how horribly tense she’d become. ‘I trust you.’

That helped, a little. A little was enough. Tanith lowered her hands and looked up at him standing over her. ‘At least someone does. And I have other leads. The other three are going through Ministry records to try to track down our leak and find out who Stacey Whitman is.’

Tobias cocked his head. ‘And... who is that?’

‘Someone who’s gone through a suspicious amount of trouble to discreetly receive a delivery of a substance found at a crime scene, and has been receiving MLE files about personnel fired after the June Inquiries. Unfortunately, this is exactly the wrong time to get the MLE to do something.’ She frowned at him. ‘I hate your election.’

‘Why now?’

‘Enforcers are being rerouted for security of polling stations. Administration are going nuts at this. You’d think that getting a surveillance team on a hot spot and rooting out a leak in HR would take a higher priority, but...’ Tanith made a face. ‘It’s being done. Just... inefficiently.’

‘But you have leads,’ said Tobias quietly. ‘One of them will show up something - this Stacey Whitman identity, this leak. And it’s not as if you’re going to charge Jen...’

‘No.’ She tensed. ‘But that means I have forty-eight hours to get something better. And the clock’s ticking.’

‘What’re you working on?’

‘Staff rotas to find out who might have had access to these various files. It’s getting messy.’ Tanith rubbed her temples. ‘But I can’t go down to HR and start throwing around these accusations or whoever it was is going to start covering their tracks.’

‘And how long have you been at it?’

Tanith looked around. ‘What time is it?’

‘Past nine, love.’ He squeezed her shoulders gently. ‘You should get some rest. No wonder you’re not getting to the bottom of this...’

‘I’ll rest when I have my killer and Jen Riley can go free.’ She got to her feet, sliding away from his touch, and went over to the next stack of files. ‘You should go home, though. I know you’ll have a busy day tomorrow.’

‘We do start at five,’ Tobias conceded. ‘Stopping by pretty much every bloody polling station on a whirlwind tour of the country. But I’m not going to be able to rest if I’m worried about you driving yourself into the floor.’

‘You think Gabe’s getting any rest tonight with his girlfriend locked up? You think Riley’s getting any rest tonight? As someone who’s enjoyed the hospitality of Canary Wharf’s cells, I can assure you the answer is “no”.’ Tanith scowled as she fussed with the folders.

Tobias sighed. ‘Since she’s accused of, amongst other things, murdering an Auror, can’t you justify a request to Vaughn for a Legilimens to -’

No.’ Tanith whirled around, voice like thunder. ‘Under absolutely no circumstances. Aside from the fact that, in legilimency, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, I will not have a -’

‘Okay, okay.’ She’d been shakier than she’d thought, she realised, as Tobias limped across the gap between them and reached out to catch her hands. ‘Bad idea. Forget it.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Her gaze dropped. ‘I just don’t feel like I can justify going home and relaxing when I’ve managed to ruin lives today...’

‘You’re not walking out on your responsibilities, you’re recharging,’ said Tobias quietly, his hold on her hands tight. ‘So you will be in a better state tomorrow to go out there, find the truth, and finish this.’

Her shoulders hunched in. ‘I don’t...’

‘You don’t have to punish yourself for this,’ he murmured. ‘Everything will look brighter tomorrow. And, you see, I’m not leaving until you do.’

She looked up, a crooked smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. ‘You know, I could have Enforcers throw you out.’

‘Colquhoun’s on the front desk, he won’t throw me out. He likes me better than you.’ Tobias smirked, clearly knowing when he’d won. ‘You’re not a bad person for being able to sleep at night.’

‘I assure you,’ said Tanith mock-haughtily, ‘I have a lot of experience on the subject of bad people.’

‘So do I. I know them when I see them. And you, Tanith Cole, are not a bad person.’

Then he leant down to kiss her, which brought its own surge of excitement and tingles as Tanith was abruptly, keenly aware that even if they stood behind some screens they were still in the middle of her office and this was wholly inappropriate.

But as his closeness, the feel of him, his warmth and his reassurance wrapping around her finally began to make a dent in the self-doubt, the self-loathing, and the tension that had sunk deep into her bones over the day, she realised that she didn’t especially care.

And when she pulled back, shy and self-conscious in a way which was new but not unwelcome, she couldn’t fight a small, tired, rueful smile. ‘Okay. You win. Let’s go home.’

Chapter 25: Weather the Storm
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Normally, Gabriel would have been pleased to see Cal. But as he opened his flat door to see his friend standing apprehensively in the corridor, he could only scowl. ‘What do you want?’

Cal winced. ‘Are you okay?’

‘Of course I’m not bloody -’

But Cal had pushed past him, bulky form enough to just bully his way into the flat, and his expression turned serious. ‘I heard. Of course. Since it’s all over the news.’

‘Yes. Second to the bloody election,’ Gabriel sneered. ‘Because that’s the bit everyone should be focusing on today.’

‘The future of wizarding Britain? Kind of important,’ Cal pointed out. ‘Though I get that you’re having a shit time of it -’

‘Jen’s just been charged with murder. Oh, by one of my closest friends. Great day,’ Gabriel sneered. ‘You can tell Tanith’s bucking for a promotion -’

Don’t be a jackass, Gabe; I never told you this but it doesn’t suit you half as much as being a decent guy does. And it doesn’t get you the girls. Girl.’ Cal’s tone was sharp, but held a hint of pleading.

Gabriel did subside, arms folding across his chest. ‘What did you want?’

‘To see how you are,’ said Cal honestly. ‘Team’s got the day off for the election. I voted, and I came to see you -’

‘Nice to hear how everyone’s got their priorities straight; politics first, friendship -’

‘I will smack you silly, Gabe.’ Cal scowled. ‘Don’t be pissed at me about this. And don’t be pissed at Tanith. Be pissed at the psycho who’s letting Jen take the rap for this. And relax. It won’t hold. She’ll be found innocent, we’ll find the right person, and -’

‘Why is everyone so fucking naive?’

Often would Gabriel Doyle sneer, or mock, or make snide comments at those around him. To hear him irritated or aggravated was not so uncommon, but he did so normally with cool, calm, superior disapproval.

For him to shout was a real change, and it was enough to startle Cal into wide-eyed silence.

Gabriel threw his hands in the air, lip curling. ‘Why are you all so fucking naive as to think the system is beyond reproach, the system would never condemn an innocent person? As if the war ended and all of a sudden it became populated with saints? It never bloody was. And it isn’t now.’

Cal drew a careful breath. ‘I trust Tanith to -’

‘I did, but then she got Jen locked up,’ said Gabriel flatly. ‘As did Jen’s best friend. So forgive me if I cannot trust either the system or friendship right now to keep the woman I love safe. It has not.’

‘They’ll find who did it, mate.’

‘And what if they don’t?’ Gabriel straightened. ‘I get how Tanith might have to act, because the evidence is pointing her this way and faith alone doesn’t make a criminal investigation. But what if this is it? What if nothing else is found? Do they just power forward anyway, because a bad case against Jen is better than no case against anyone?’

Cal’s hands dropped powerlessly at his sides. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Well, I don’t want to find out. You can have faith in the system to keep Jen safe, when you and I both fought a war against the precious fucking system. But I am going to do something about it.’

‘Mate.’ Cal looked genuinely worried now. ‘Don’t do something stupid.’

‘You know me,’ said Gabriel, and grabbed his coat off the rack.

‘That’s why I’m afraid.’

‘And something rash isn’t exactly my usual reaction,’ Gabriel pointed out, hand on the door handle.

None of this is your usual reaction,’ said Cal quietly. ‘Not losing your temper, not shouting at me, not blaming Tanith. So no, I don’t know what you’re going to do next, and that’s scaring the hell out of me.’

Gabriel stiffened. ‘It’s Jen, Cal. I can’t do nothing.’

‘You know how I said a while back that love suits you? Yeah, well, it suits you a little too well, turns out. Just - think. Whatever you’re going to do. Think about what she’d say, even if you don’t listen to me.’

‘Jen’s a good person,’ said Gabriel, forcing himself to calm at least enough to explain as much to Cal as he was prepared to explain. ‘She’s got a good heart.’

‘I know she didn’t do this,’ Cal agreed.

‘Not my point. My point is that just because she wouldn’t approve of it, doesn’t mean it’s something I’m not prepared to do. Not for her.’ Gabriel yanked the front door open. ‘I’ll see you around, mate.’

And then he left, out the door, down the corridor, and, once beyond the apparition shields, whipping his wand off to disappear before Cal could finish reeling, finish considering his words, and call out.

Whatever his friend might have said was lost in the crack of air and rushing of wind, and then he was stood somewhere he’d only been once before - a copse, around the back of an old manor house with winged horses in a paddock nearby.

The House Elf knew him by now, from the few times he’d been there, even if he hadn’t stopped by in the better part of a week. Knew enough to take his coat and direct him up to the office, the wood-panelled, sumptuous study that was the domain of Daedalus Cole.

Daedalus Cole, with whom he had severed all ties because it had seemed sensible, and because it had been what Jen wanted.

Right then he was thinking about Jen, but more about what she needed than what she wanted. And she needed answers.

Daedalus looked remarkably unsurprised to see him as he waved him inside, and reached to a drawer on his desk. ‘Ah, Mister Doyle; good afternoon. Was there something I could -’

‘Jennifer Riley is under arrest and in a cell in Canary Wharf, right now, for a murder she didn’t commit. An arrest which was ordered by your daughter.’ Gabriel strode over to the table, shoulders squared.

Daedalus cocked his head, raising an eyebrow. ‘A sad state of affairs indeed.’

‘It’s more than sad. It’s ridiculous. And you’re going to do something about it.’

‘I am?’ Daedalus said, disinterested. ‘I’m not entirely sure why I should -’

‘Because you can. You have the resources to get the evidence, or at least get these charges thrown out.’ Gabriel slammed his hand on the desk. ‘You keep saying that you’re here for when the system fails, for when good people fall foul of the government and the imperfect people in the government. To balance affairs.’

‘I am,’ was the calm agreement, and Daedalus stared at the palm slammed down on his desk until, slowly, Gabriel pulled back. ‘But I cannot be everywhere at once. I must pick my battles, based on what information I have and weighing up how necessary it is for me to act. And in the grand scheme of things, the odds are likely your young lady will be absolutely fine, so why, exactly, should I be sticking my neck out and using up my currency for her behalf?’

‘How do you know she’s going to be -’

‘Because this is the kind of thing that happens in high-profile investigations. Because she is, as you say, innocent. Because my daughter will make sure that justice is served, and despite your fear, Mister Doyle, you have the same trust in Tanith that I do.’

Gabriel stared at him, dark eyes meeting even darker until he looked away sharply. ‘It’s too much of a risk.’

‘I’m sorry, but -’

‘As a favour, damn it. Look, I’ll owe you -’

‘You turned your back on me, and my work.’ Daedalus shrugged. ‘Perhaps it was not for you, but you understand, now, how it is necessary. How sometimes one must act outside of the restrictions of the law, outside of the judgement of the public, to ensure the right thing is done. But I regret to inform you, Mister Doyle, that I am not some resource to be picked up and discarded at will.’

‘Is that what this is about?’ Gabriel’s eyes widened. ‘I refused your offer, so now you’re punishing Jen because of it?’

‘No. This is just not worth my resources, and I owe you nothing, Mister Doyle. Perhaps, if we worked together, you would have the access to my influence and resources and could expend them on matters which will go away without them, but we do not.’

Gabriel glowered out the window, where the sky was grey and overcast. It would be dark soon, dusk coming earlier and earlier as winter marched on. He drew a sharp breath. ‘What if I changed my mind?’

‘To work with me?’ Daedalus snorted. ‘What, and then I give you what you want, and then you change your mind again as soon as you don’t -’

‘No, you’re right.’ Gabriel turned to him. ‘This is important work, this does need doing, and you need somebody you can trust who understands how important it is. I refused you because... frankly, because Jen didn’t like it.’

That had been it, really, at the root of it. She’d been slipping through his fingers, he thought, and he’d have done anything to keep her.

Now he’d just do anything to keep her safe.

Daedalus was watching him with his dark, fierce eyes, and he put a hand into the drawer he’d opened. ‘If you go back on your word - if you think you can use me as a resource to be picked up and abandoned when you don’t need me - it will go very ill for you. I am not a petty man, but I will not be treated pettily.’

Gabriel swallowed, his throat dry. ‘You have my word.’

‘Then here you go. Something to make this all go away.’ Daedalus pulled a file from his drawer. ‘I cannot promise you that you will like it.’

Gabriel stopped, hand a few inches away from the paper folder. ‘What do you mean?’

‘The crux of this issue is that she has no alibi, correct? Well, this gives her an alibi. This places her with someone the night she allegedly attacked my daughter. And there are very few reasons I can think of why someone would not confess to having been somewhere when it might clear them of murder.’

Daedalus’ gaze didn’t move from Gabriel, who sat down slowly, drawing the folder to himself but not opening it. The younger man worked his jaw for a few moments. ‘But if this blows everything open, why didn’t you tell Tanith?’

‘Unless - even if - Tanith comes to ask me, it is best I do not provide her with evidence that may be inadmissible in court. At the time I gathered this, you and I were a partnership. It seemed prudent and fair that I keep an eye on your affairs - I assure you, so you could utilise these resources for your own protection. But that same night you wrote to me saying our partnership was disbanded, and then I was left with slightly... indelicate information.’

‘Indelicate?’

‘Yes, indelicate - and that’s why you, after coming in here with such vim and vigour, are now so reluctant to take what’s in front of you, which is exactly what you wanted. Because the two of you argued that night, and so why, oh why, would she not admit to her whereabouts afterwards?’

Gabriel didn’t answer that, just swallowed hard, reached out, and opened up the folder in front of him to show a time-stamped Muggle photograph from a security camera of his girlfriend being greeted at a door by another man.


* *



‘I don’t get why I’m here; the polls shut in one hour, the count won’t be done for another five...’

‘You’re not nervous, are you? You met him before -’

‘Back when he was an Auror; it’s different now...’

‘To be honest, you don’t get used to it.’ Tobias stopped in front of the door to the Minister’s office and smiled at her. ‘But you’ll do fine.’

Then he opened the door and Tanith had no grounds to complain further at him, because he was showing her into the office and, sat behind the broad oak desk and looking remarkably at ease for someone whom exit polls were placing neck-and-neck with his nearest opponent, sat Kingsley Shacklebolt, Minister for Magic.

He was also scoffing down a sandwich and gestured at them both. ‘Toby, Auror Cole, come in, sorry about the short notice...’

Tanith straightened her uniform with more regard for decorum than Vaughn usually got. ‘Minister Shacklebolt.’

‘Please, sit down. I won’t keep you long, and I’m sorry to drag you away from business, but Vaughn and the rest of the office are scattered to the four winds today. I imagine that’s not made your job very easy.’

‘Election day does require a large amount of security,’ Tanith agreed, and sat down awkwardly. ‘But at the very least it does mean the press are leaving us alone in regards to the Riley issue.’

‘Yes. Bad business.’ Shacklebolt made a face. ‘That’s why I wanted you here, Miss Cole. The election might be tonight, but with transition I’ll still be here for another month even if we lose. And so it’s almost a certainty that, no matter what, I’ll be presiding over the conclusion of this investigation. I have to weather the storm, even if I’m not the man to get us into port. The press will soon enough remember this, and I want to make sure I have the facts straight before some journalist keen to make an idiot of me tries to skewer me on the details.’

Tanith glanced across the office. ‘If Tobias brought you up to date, then you’re almost certainly fully in the know.’

‘He did.’ Shacklebolt nodded at Tobias, who was stood by the door, the same ball of tension and nerves he’d been since Tanith had last seen him that morning. ‘You have alternatives to Jen Riley?’

‘I have a name I’m trying to identify; Potter and Weasley are requisitioning help from Muggle relations to go through Muggle records - electoral register? To try to find out just who this person is. But I can make no promises.’

Shacklebolt gave a lopsided smile. ‘I was an Auror for almost twenty years, Miss Cole. I know how it works. And I know what to tell the press and what not to tell the press. I just... hope you find something to exonerate Miss Riley.’

‘As do I. But our personal feelings...’ Tanith bit her lip. ‘We’ll have to see how it goes, Minister.’

‘Of course.’ He stood. ‘I’m sorry to take you from your work; I just wished to make sure that there’s nothing new I need to know if the press try to skewer me over the next few hours. And I wanted, on a personal note, to wish you good luck.’ Shacklebolt looked up at Tobias. ‘But you have been rather remiss in your briefings Toby.’

Tobias looked as if he’d been told he’d failed the Minister and needed to commit honourable suicide at that exact moment. ‘Sir?’

Shacklebolt nodded at Tanith’s left hand. ‘Congratulations. To the both of you. Even in peace time there’s not enough good news.’

Tanith cleared her throat and managed to fight down the hint of embarrassment, but Tobias had gone pink enough for them both and abruptly opened the door. ‘Yes, Minister. Thank you, Minister. We’ll, er, go, you’ve got to be getting ready for...’

‘For waiting for the results, and nothing more, right now,’ Shacklebolt reminded him. ‘The long and arduous wait. You still have meetings?’

‘I’m on my way right now,’ said Tobias, and ushered Tanith out to close the door behind her.

They stood in the corridor outside for a few moments, a short distance away from the fuss and bustle of the main office, where all systems were go even as the last of the ballots were placed and the office of the Minister got ready to batten down the hatches and wait out the worst of it.

Tanith gave him a lopsided smile. ‘So, you hid me from everyone?’

‘I didn’t - it didn’t come up, and it didn’t want to announce it loudly to everyone, because it’s not their business, but don’t think I was trying to hide you from -’

He looked so panicked that she regretted teasing him, a hand coming to his. ‘Relax, Toby. I was kidding. Relax...’

Tobias sagged and smiled apologetically. ‘I’m sorry, I’ve just been - everything’s going crazy today, it’s the end, but I feel so useless. I’ve cast my dice and now I just have to see how they land, and I know there’s nothing I can do to influence it but I feel that if I breathe too hard I’ll knock it off course...’

‘Just so long as you remember to breathe,’ Tanith said gently. ‘The Minister mentioned you have a meeting?’

‘Yeah...’ He rubbed the back of his neck. ‘He’s expecting some information from the Prosecution Office, especially on their stance with the case against Jen, because he reckons someone is going to try to cause trouble with him over that. But Tom’s working from home today, so I’ve got to go down to his flat and get him to brief me, so I can brief the Minister, so...’

Tanith nodded, squeezing his hand. ‘He’s covering his bases so nothing goes wrong,’ she reassured him. ‘And, I suspect, trying to give you something to do.’

‘Yeah, well, Tom’s not likely to be in the best of moods so I should see how he is.’ Tobias made a face. ‘Are you okay?’

‘If Harry and Ron find me some information from the Muggle records, I will be,’ she said tensely. ‘But most of the MLE are wrapped up with the election; I can’t even get a full surveillance team until midnight. I’ve got what Enforcers I can drag out to watch a front door and that’s it.’

He offered a half-hearted smile. ‘Are you going to be horribly irresponsible if you come to the party tonight?’

Tanith blinked. ‘Party?’

‘Well, it’s probably only a party if we win,’ said Tobias, morose enough that it sounded like he thought an asteroid hitting the Ministry was more likely. ‘Otherwise it’ll just be a rather sad and depressing affair -’

And if you’re happy, you’ll want to share it with me, and if you’re not, you’ll need me there. Her hold on his hand tightened. ‘I’ll be there. I’ll try to come up even before they announce the results.’

Tobias gave an anxious smile. ‘I’d... really like you to be here for that. If you can. I know this case is important -’

‘But this is what you’ve been working on for the past six months, Toby. It’s important to you. And if I can’t take an hour out...’ She returned the smile, equally anxious. ‘Well, isn’t this the kind of compromise and change we were talking about?’

‘I know. If something happens, let me know if you can, and I understand, but... I’d like you to be here.’ He glanced up and down the corridor. ‘I should get down to Tom’s.’

‘And I should get back to the Wharf.’

A quick peck on the lips was all they’d allow themselves, both professional, both tense, and Tanith made her way out of the Minister’s Office and down to the Apparition Chambers. She wished, not for the first time, that she’d taken Vaughn’s offer of putting her team in the Auror Offices in the Ministry itself, as was usually the case for the high-profile operations which needed to work with other Ministry Departments, like Proudfoot chasing after Avery. Only because of her need to still access the Wharf’s facilities for continuing the tuition of her trainees had seen her rejecting this, but it would have made life easier on a day like today.

The Ministry was tense, everyone buzzing from place to place, and though most people had voted and had nothing to do now but wait, it was clear few people were thinking about what was right in front of them. Their thoughts went to the same place the press did, the papers, the radio - what would be the results in a few hours time? Would Shacklebolt continue in office? Would Harrigan take over?

Tanith, to her eternal shame, wasn’t even sure which result she’d prefer. And she knew it had little to nothing to do with politics.

She barely had time to think about her personal life today. Politics was way down the list.

When she was back in the Wharf she made her way down to the bullpen, towards the wall of screens blocking her from the sight of Katie likely still working away on the Weasley files just in case there was something else they’d missed.

Really, she was just hoping Ron and Harry found something, or she was in sore risk of reaching a dead end.

‘Tell me you’ve found something, Bell, or I’ll be sending you back to the shop and asking for a newer model of trainee...’

She rounded the corner and almost walked into Gabriel. He was looking paler than usual, which made his dark eyes stand out more than ever, wide and determined and with a certain edge she didn’t remember seeing before.

Wait. She had seen that edge before. Years ago, the last time he’d been fighting furtively to change the situation before him.

When he’d been fighting to cheat fate in the one and only vision of hiss he’d so far ever changed.

‘Er, someone to see you, Chief,’ said a rather disconcerted Katie, still sat at the desks.

Tanith stopped short and looked up - and up, and she’d forgotten how tall Gabriel could be. ‘Gabe.’

She really didn’t want to do round the umpteenth about how she’d locked up his girlfriend.

‘I need to talk to you,’ he said.

‘And unless you have something new to say, Gabe, I’m really sorry but you can best help Jen by staying out of my way so I can -’

‘I do have something new.’ He reached into his coat and pulled out a brown folder, the shape of which seemed distantly familiar in a way she couldn’t place, but she didn’t over-think the issue of stationery as she took it. ‘It should help clear up the issue of Jen’s alibi the night you were attacked.’

There was something wrong, horribly wrong about his attitude, but Tanith took the folder anyway and opened it up. Her brow furrowed with confusion. ‘Where did you get this?’

‘There’s a mix of Muggles and wizards in that flat; you didn’t check the Muggle security recordings. I suppose you didn’t need to, you thought.’ Gabriel shoved his hands in the pockets of his coat.

‘Hey, this is good, right?’ Katie stood up and went to poke her head over Tanith’s shoulder - and she, too, looked bewildered, falling silent.

‘Why didn’t Riley mention this?’ said Tanith tensely.

Gabriel met her gaze, working his jaw. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, and she had the horrible feeling that he did, and so did she. ‘But this gives her an alibi.’

‘It gives the start of an alibi,’ said Tanith, and flipped the folder shut. ‘It most certainly does not explain everything. I’m going in to talk to her.’

Gabriel’s expression went pained. ‘Can’t you just -’

‘No, I cannot. I need to talk to her about this.’ Tanith looked over at Katie. ‘You’ve got a right to be in there, Bell, if you want.’

Katie looked about as uncomfortable as it was possible to be. ‘You know, I think I’ll pass on that can of worms, we’re all close enough as it is without me adding to it.’

Gabriel’s gaze darkened as his eyes locked on hers. ‘Did you know about this?’

‘Know? No! Merlin, Doyle, this is...’ Katie gestured wildly. ‘It could be nothing. But I’m as stunned as you are.’

‘I doubt it,’ Gabriel growled.

‘Okay, you two? Try to not kill each other while I’m gone.’ Tanith took a deep breath and shoved the folder under one arm. ‘I’m going to try to figure out what the hell’s going on.’

She didn’t look to them to see if they were listening, just turned on her heel and went to the stairs that led down to the cells in Canary Wharf. Fate, it seemed, had a rather funny sense of humour. She’d have given anything, that morning, to be handed a reason to let Jen Riley out of jail.

Now she’d have given anything for Gabriel to not have that look in his eye. She didn’t know which way round she’d prefer it.

She was let into Jen Riley’s cell without fuss; even though she’d not been down there since the arrest, she was still the Senior Investigating Officer on this case, and that meant she was allowed to go see their prime suspect whenever she liked. There were minor perks to being responsible for this shit-storm.

Jen was sat on the cot pressed up against the wall, the amenities far improved down here since they’d been back when Tanith had been subject to the hospitality of Canary Wharf’s holding cells. She had a book, one of the few luxuries she’d been allowed, and lifted a hand when Tanith came in.

‘Let me finish the page.’

‘Oh, you can take your sanctimonious bullshit and go straight to hell, Riley,’ Tanith snapped, brandishing the folder. ‘You have sat in here and played the wronged little victim and I am not going to tolerate it any more.’

Jen’s brow furrowed, and she put the book to one side. ‘What are you talking about, Cole?’

‘I can almost appreciate your discretion, since you’d much rather be charged with murder than confess. But how, exactly, are you going to explain this?’ She threw the folder on the cot.

Jen, her movements deliberate, reached to open it up. Her brow furrowed. ‘Where’d you get this?’

‘Muggle cameras in the building. I’d like to say I did my homework properly, but I didn’t chase that one up. Gabriel did.’

Tanith watched her closely, watched to try to catch the mask crumple as her deception fell apart, watched to try to get a read on something she had never anticipated being faced with - not from her - and, to her infinite confusion, found nothing.

Jen looked up, gaze earnest even despite her frown. ‘I wasn’t there.’

Tanith made a scoffing noise. ‘That’s it? That’s really the best that you’ve got? “I wasn’t there”?’ She looked away, scowling. ‘I really thought better of you, Riley. I mean, I of all people know about doing stupid things and I know the two of you rowed that night, but I did not think this of you.’

‘You think...’ Jen’s jaw dropped. ‘You think this was an affair? Are you nuts?’

Tanith hesitated. Even though she’d not expected this revelation from Gabriel, Jen’s reaction was still not making sense. She turned to face the other woman. ‘Look me in the eye,’ she growled. ‘Look me in the eye and tell me that’s not what this is.’

Jen got to her feet, slowly and deliberately, and met her gaze. ‘I love Gabriel. I loved him when it wasn’t wise to love him - and yes, I loved him when it was a betrayal to love him. I loved him before Nick died, and I loved him when the war was raging and everything was falling apart around us. So let me put not one, but two arguments to you.’ She straightened. ‘First, do you really think that I would turn my back on him, hurt him in this way? And second, if I had the self-control and moral fortitude to keep my hands off Gabriel last year, I’m pretty sure I’d have the self-control and moral fortitude to keep my hands off any other man.’

Tanith watched her for several long seconds, eyes roaming over her face, looking for those familiar tells of a lie. Even if Jen Riley was one of the best liars she knew - and that sounded like fun, considering one of the only people who could give her a run for her money was Gabriel, which made their relationship an interesting match - she still reckoned she could best her.

But right then she could see no sign of deception.

She reached to snatch the folder back up, and shoved the photograph in her face. ‘So not only are you telling me that you’re not screwing Tom Everard, you’re telling me that this photograph - which, by the way, would provide an alibi for murder - is wrong and you never were at his flat the night I got attacked?’

Jen’s gaze was confused, but level, and she reached for the photograph to examine it again - but then her expression contorted with pain, her hand came slamming up to her temple, and the only response that Tanith got was a loud, agonised scream.


* *



‘Sorry about the time,’ said Tobias as Tom Everard finally opened the door to his flat. ‘But I wouldn’t trouble you if it weren’t important.’

Tom looked tired, worn, and confused, but he stepped back and gestured for Tobias to come on. ‘Oh. Yeah. Sorry, I forgot you were coming, I had some... stuff.’

‘No problem, this won’t take a moment. I’m sure you’ve been pretty busy. And I’m sure the office is in one hell of a state now, what with Jen and... and everything.’

Tom led Tobias back into a small, sparsely decorated flat, nothing of any note anywhere except for some folders and papers strewn out on the coffee table. ‘Yeah, it’s crazy. I never would have thought it.’

Tobias frowned at his back. ‘You believe it?’

Tom shrugged. ‘I don’t like to, but... you won’t get it, you weren’t around with the Lions in the war. It was tough, what we went through, what all of us went through. Jen fought harder and more determinedly than anyone, and at the end of it all, what’s she got? Processing people we know are guilty, and in the meantime watching the MLE make deals with half the people we try to convict to give them lighter sentences so they can go after bigger fish who, in turn, make their own details? It’s just ridiculous.’

‘So you think that makes her a murderer?’

‘I think that I get why it could really push her to the edge.’

Tobias leant heavily on his staff, brow furrowing. ‘I could understand how it might lead to someone killing Mulready, Phelps, and Lackardy, but Jacob Van Roden? Attacking Tanith?’

‘Hey, mate, I know she’s your girl and all, but let’s not forget that she did execute Nick Wilson.’ Tom hesitated. ‘I mean, Jen might not have been all that reasonable-minded about the whole thing.’

Tobias looked him up and down, and considered that this man, whom he had always believed to be rather fair - though they had barely spoken in the past eighteen months - was definitely tired. ‘Shall we get down to business?’

Tom blinked, then nodded, sitting down on the sofa by the coffee table. ‘Sure, sure. What can the Prosecution Office do for the Office of the Minister?’

Tobias leant his staff against the chair opposite and sat down, mindful of his leg. ‘We know there’s going to be a lot of turmoil in and around the Prosecution Office, losing your head, one way or another,’ he said. ‘But the Minister’s going to be in government at least for the transition period, so we still have to help you through that.’

‘Of course.’ Tom reached out for a stack of envelopes next to his folder, pulling them back. ‘So what -’

Whatever he was saying next, Tobias didn’t hear him as his eyes were drawn to the envelopes - and then locked on the name at the top of the address, the address that wasn’t this flat, the name that wasn’t Tom Everard, but a name he recognised anyway.

A name Tanith had told him last night, a name she was trying to find, still, a name that could be the key to the case. Stacey Whitman.

Then he realised a silence had hung between them as Tom had asked a question he’d not answered, but when Tobias looked up the other man’s gaze wasn’t inquisitive, it was dark, piercing, angry.

Tom looked between Tobias and the envelopes. ‘So, you spoke to Cole, huh,’ he said, voice rather flat and neutral.

Tobias gave a slow, careful nod. ‘Yeah,’ he said, tensing. ‘She did let me know some of the -’

Mid-sentence he threw himself left, over at where his staff was resting against the chair still, fumbling for it to try to bring it up and around and at -

Then he felt the definite impact of a Stun in his shoulder, a strong one, and everything went black.


Chapter 26: Ashes in Your Mouth
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What happened? Why’s your prime murder suspect out of her cell?’

Tanith pressed Jen down into the chair behind her own desk and ignored the senior Auror who stood in the entranceway to the team’s corner of the bullpen. ‘Stay out of the way, Savage; not your problem.’

‘What ha-’

‘Gabe, make yourself useful and go get a cup of water or something - Savage, will you let Bell through?’

Jen’s eyes had rolled into the back of her head by now, and Katie wriggled past Savage into the enclosure to put a hand to her shoulder, helping Tanith keep their prime suspect, who looked now on the verge of passing out, upright in the chair.

‘Now, seriously, what did happen?’ said Katie, her wand already pressed against Jen’s temple.

‘I showed her the photograph Gabe brought in. I mean, she’d seen it, but shoved it in her face -’ Tanith stopped herself, and looked over at Katie, whose brow was furrowed. ‘Check for memory spells. She was so adamant that she’d never been to Everard’s that night...’

‘She’s got a good poker face,’ said Gabriel, appearing at the entrance in the place of Savage, who had mercifully left.

‘Not as good as yours and I can see through yours. She wasn’t cheating on you, Gabe, something weird’s going on.’

‘Definitely,’ said Katie, looking up; Jen’s head lolled forward and Tanith wondered if she was supposed to do something about that. ‘There’s some pretty clear signs of residual magic of memory tampering here -’

‘Can you remove it?’

Gabriel scowled, putting the pointless glass of water on the desk. ‘It’s a hell of a thing to undo memory tampering; should we be getting some Obliviators in?’

Katie shook her head. ‘No, it’s already begun to crack apart - if it’s that night that’s been tampered with and she doesn’t think she was lying, then it’s possible proof like the photograph that she was wrong is what’s triggered this -’

‘Enough babble, Bell,’ Tanith snapped. ‘Can you remove it or not?’

‘Is this dangerous?’ Gabriel interrupted.

‘It’s fine, I know what I’m - you know what, can you two just shut up and let me get on with this?’

Both Tanith and Gabriel drew back as Katie glared at them, but without another word the trainee Auror turned back to her housemate and began muttering under her breath. Gabriel closed the gap between him and Tanith, eyes blazing, voice low. ‘She better know what she’s doing.’

‘You put your life in her hands over and over in the Lions; relax, Gabe, she knows what she’s doing.’ Tanith put a hand on his shoulder. ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but Riley’s going to be fine.’

Gabriel looked at the photograph he’d brought in that had been key to it all - a picture from Muggle CCTV inside the corridor outside Tom Everard’s flat showing him letting Jen in thirty minutes before the attack on Tanith. ‘...I don’t know if I should be relieved or not that she’s had her memory altered - she should be in Saint Mungo’s -’

‘I need to get to the bottom of this case and you know she’d agree,’ said Tanith. ‘We just -’

Then Jen jerked in the chair and Tanith stopped, the three of them that were still conscious whirling around. Katie got to her feet, wand in hand, eyes wide and surprised. ‘I think it -’

Jen’s eyes flashed open. Her skin was pale, shining with sweat, but there was alertness in her gaze, consciousness of what was going on around her, and as she wildly looked around the enclosed office space, a single, choked word made it past her lips. ‘Tom.’

‘Everard -’ Tanith frowned. ‘What about him, what did he do?’

‘I went to see him the first night of the Lackardy trial,’ she said, voice sluggish and tired. ‘After we -’ Jen glanced up at Gabriel, who had moved to her side, and winced. ‘After we rowed. With the injunction I didn’t think there was anyone else I could talk to. So I went to his flat.

‘He answered the door and, looking back, I think he was trying to fob me off, but quite frankly I just burst into tears and pushed past him and he didn’t stop me...’ She rubbed her temples. ‘He looked like he was about to go out. But he was dressed like he used to dress in the Lions; all those dark clothes. And that’s about all I remember, because he shut the door once I was inside and Stunned me.’

Katie’s jaw dropped. ‘This is crazy.’

‘No,’ said Tanith, voice tense. ‘You know how all the protections at Stacey Whitman’s office were ones you knew exactly how to break through, because they were done exactly the way you’d do them? And how the Scindo curse might have been popular amongst Death Eaters, but then the Lions picked up using it?’

‘Oh, Christ, he was in the courtroom with you, he has access from his job and all sorts of friends to files down here in the MLE and the power to get an apparition rune like the one in the cell...’ Katie rubbed her temples.

‘Stop. Breathe. And here’s what we’re going to do.’ Something surged in Tanith’s chest, a sense of movement after weeks of feeling like she’d been going in circles through mud, slowly going absolutely nowhere. ‘Gabe, Jen, you two stay right here, and if Harry and Ron come back, you tell them what happened and tell them to come after us.’

Gabriel quirked an eyebrow. ‘To where, exactly?’

‘To Everard’s flat. Where -’ Then realisation hit her, as heavy as a punch to the gut, and she swore, loudly.

Katie frowned. ‘What?’

‘Tobias. He’s gone to see Everard, right now.’ Tanith crossed over to her desk and reached under it, rummaging for a few seconds before she dragged out a thick, heavy trunk.

‘And you keep an emergency portkey to his location locked in there at all times?’ said Katie hopefully.

‘Not quite.’ Tanith pulled out two thick bundles of cloth. ‘This just got serious. Most of the MLE are out conducting security for the election, it’ll take time for a message to get to Harry and Ron, and we might be inches away from a hostage situation.’

‘A hostage situation with your nearest and dearest.’ Katie caught the bundle as it was thrown to her. ‘What the hell is this?’

‘Shield Cloak. One of Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes’ finest products. Don’t laugh, it’s not a toy, one of those things saved my life before.’ Tanith unrolled hers with a flick of the wrist. ‘Twist the clasp to activate it. If it’s up and your Shield Spell isn’t quick enough, you don’t die.’

‘Chief - you sure this is a good idea?’

Tanith stopped, finding herself halfway through a gear check. Without thinking about it she’d been shoving products from the trunk into the pouches on her belt; Peruvian Darkness Powder, Shocking Orbs, Decoy Detonators. She’d pawed through this trunk once before for anything and everything that could help her when Tobias had got himself in mortal peril. And they’d both walked away alive.

Annie MacKenzie hadn’t.

Tanith drew a deep breath and didn’t look at Jen. ‘I know what I’m doing,’ she lied, and kicked Altair’s old trunk shut.


* *


The world spun. Except spinning implied speed; it was more like it was swirling around weakly in front of Tobias’ eyes. And, dark and shadowy as it was, it was difficult to make out anything other than indistinct shapes, corners of a darkened room -

A figure stood over him.

‘I really am very sorry,’ said the huge, looming shape of Tom Everard, sounding about as polite as if he’d just held Tobias up for dinner. ‘You weren’t someone I wanted to drag into all of this.’

Tobias sat up slowly, creakily; partly because his body was aching, his leg throbbing in the usual way and his shoulder throbbing in a whole new way. Partly because he wasn’t sure if Everard was going to Stun him again if he moved too quickly.

With reality crawling back in at the edges, he could begin to piece together where he was: an empty room, the windows hidden by shutters, only moonlight streaming in from beyond. This was neither helpful nor reassuring.

‘What is “all of this”?’ he asked, rubbing his temples.

‘If you know to jump at the name Stacey Whitman, then clearly the Auror Office is doing better than I’d thought.’ Tom hunkered down a few feet away from him, his broad face calm, earnest. ‘I didn’t realise they’d got that close to me. And that’s just what they told you.’

‘Tanith... mentioned the name... said it could be the key to unravelling everything.’ Tobias frowned, thoughts coming sluggishly. ‘It’s you? You’re Stacey Whitman?’

Everard gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘Sort of. Not quite. Good enough for the Auror Office.’ He sighed. ‘Look, I’d have liked very much to just Stun you and then wipe your memory of having ever seen anything that might incriminate me, but if they’re chasing Stacey Whitman they’re hot on my heels anyway, even if they don’t know it.’

‘Wipe my...’

‘I already had to do it to Jen. You, her - you’re not my enemies. I know the system is flawed and difficult and that you, her, me... we’re all subject to it sometimes. I know you want justice.’

‘Wait.’ Tobias lifted a hand sluggishly. ‘You’re the murderer.’

‘Vigilante. I’ve not gone after anyone the system shouldn’t be going after anyway.’

Tobias tried to blink back the muggy feeling from around his eyes. He suspected Everard had hit him with more than one Stun; it didn’t normally feel like this to recover. ‘Was it you? Who went after Tanith that night?’

‘Look.’ Everard drew a deep breath. ‘I know you two have had your messed up little thing for years, and I know that can be... difficult. It’s difficult to see how people have changed. But the war happened, and people are different. Things you thought they could never do, would never do - suddenly, they’re entirely capable of them. And she’s not the person you thought she was. She killed Nick.’

Tobias’ gut twisted. ‘On the orders of Thanatos Brynmor; she had no choice.’

Only following orders? Do you believe that, Toby, do you really believe that when it applies to anyone other than your fiancée?’ Everard’s expression screwed up. ‘I know you know so much of that is bullshit. And that’s why we’re here.’

Tobias looked around. ‘Where is this?’

‘I mean, we’re here talking.’ Everard ran a hand through his hair. ‘They’re going to find me. Maybe not today, but soon, days, if they’re as good as they seem to be. And I could run, but then I’d just... disappear. Even if you all know it’s me, I can leave you trussed up here and by the time anyone knows to look for me I’ll be on the other side of the world. And then Britain will just know me as a crack-pot murderer.’

‘I don’t get what this has to do with talking to me.’

Everard sighed. ‘You wrote The Midnight Press. You know all about what good the message can do, even if physical deeds have done all they can. And you sit in the Minister’s Office.’

‘Actually, that might be due to change tonight,’ Tobias sniffed wryly.

‘My point,’ said Everard, ‘is that you can make sure, when the Auror Office finds me, when they try to convict me, that this doesn’t get swept under the rug. That people hear about what I’ve done, and why. That they understand.’

‘Understand. Why you’ve murdered four people, including an Auror, and tried to kill another?’ Tobias drew a deep breath. ‘I’m pretty sure I don’t understand.’

Everard drummed his fingers on the floor, frowning. ‘I can rectify tha -’ Then he stopped, stiffening, and all of a sudden he wasn’t sat cross-legged on the floor as if they were just having a polite chat, he was on his feet, grabbing Tobias by the scruff of his collar and hauling him up.

‘What’re you -’

‘Wards. Broken. I thought we’d have more time -’

Then he was pulling Tobias to him, wrapping one muscular arm around his chest and jabbing his wand into the soft flesh under his jaw, whirling to face the door as it crashed open and in burst the two familiar shapes of Aurors Tanith Cole and Katie Bell.


* *


She’d been here before.

Only it had been in a woodland, not in the run-down office hired by Stacey Whitman. And it hadn’t been Tom Everard she’d been confronting - Tom Everard had got away after punching her square in the face and apparating away. But it was otherwise remarkably similar. An enemy she couldn’t quite bring herself to hate. A human shield she couldn’t afford to lose.

This time, at least, she had backup.

The backup swore the moment they were in the room and, through the gloom, they could make out the figures before them. ‘Shit, Tom, I was hoping we were wrong.’

Tom Everard dragged Tobias, who was struggling aimlessly against the much stronger grip, back a few inches. It was enough to stop his hostage from getting purchase on the floor, his bad leg keeping him off-balance. Everard grimaced. ‘Sorry, Katie. You were better than I thought.’

‘You know, I don’t care about whatever feelings you two have about this turn of events,’ snapped Tanith, her wand pointed straight at Everard’s head, though she knew just a breath would mean it was Tobias’ skull in the way of her wand. ‘Let him go.’

‘I really don’t think so,’ said Everard with a scowl. ‘I don’t want to hurt him. Or Katie. You, I have less qualms about. How’d you find me, out of curiosity?’

‘Jen - you know Jen, our friend, our leader? Shook off your Memory Charm. Remembered you attacked her. The pieces came together.’ Katie ground her teeth together. ‘Nobody was at your flat. The surveillance team outside could only watch the damn letterbox downstairs for another drop, not inside this office. We checked here.’

‘So there’s reinforcements downstairs. Good to know.’

‘Merlin’s sake, Bell, shut up,’ Tanith growled. ‘But yes, the area’s being secured, and there’ll be more backup coming. How do you think this is going to end, Everard? You think you walk away from this?’

‘I’d pretty much assumed, at this point, that I wouldn’t,’ Everard conceded. ‘But I do still have standards, and those standards include not being brought in by you, Cole. Katie, sure. Potter and Weasley, great. You? Hell, no. You don’t get to have your face plastered all over the front page as the person who stopped me.’

Tanith’s eyes flickered to Tobias. He’d stopped struggling so badly, seemed to be focused on staying very, very still, and was looking right back at her. She didn’t dare talk to him, give him an expression, give him anything Everard could possibly use right then, but when she met his gaze, she knew he understood that she was going to do anything to get him out of this situation.

But for her part, looking at him just reminded her of how much she had to lose.

She looked back at Everard. ‘So, you’re baby-cooking crazy.’

Everard gave a lopsided grimace. ‘That’d be convenient, wouldn’t it? If I were just a loon? But you know better than that, Cole, you really do. You know someone doesn’t need to be crazy to want you dead. And you really know someone doesn’t need to be crazy to want Phelps dead, to want Lackardy dead, and definitely not to want Mulready dead.’

Tanith swallowed hard. ‘I used to sympathise with you. I used to think that if I was face to face with the man who killed Bart Mulready, I wouldn’t cuff him, I’d shake his hand. But then I learnt that it wasn’t Lackardy who killed my partner.’

‘He was just an opportunity. I was going after Lackardy that night, but he ran - right into you and Van Roden. I saw it all through the window, I thought I wasn’t going to get a chance... and then I did. For Van Roden. Not for Lackardy.’

Tanith’s gut tightened into a Gordian knot. ‘You’re right. I wouldn’t judge someone too badly for killing Lackardy, Phelps, and Mulready. I’m not sure I’d even judge someone too badly for trying to kill me. But Jacob? Jacob was -’

‘Present at the murder of the Kelly family, ran escort operations on a multitude of prisoner transfers, conducted several key arrests -’

‘He had no choice,’ Tanith snapped. ‘You know we’d have been killed if we’d -’

‘And even you, Cole, you, who killed Nick, at least did something. I don’t think it tips the scales, I don’t think the information you gave out is as good as a life, but you did something.’ Everard’s expression twisted. ‘What did Van Roden do? What information did he give out? When did he ever risk his neck to try to minimise the damage, when did he ever do anything but keep his head down?’

Her breath caught in her throat as Everard’s words hit her like gut punches. ‘The June Inquiries cleared -’

‘Even at the June Inquiries he had nothing to say except that he wasn’t that bad. But he had nothing to say that he was that good. Do you think he was a good man?’

There was something remarkably honest about the question, but Tanith gave a stiff nod. ‘He was. He -’

‘“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Edmund Burke, on the subject of the French Revolution.’

‘Actually,’ Tobias gurgled through the wand pressed against his throat. ‘Burke never said -’

‘Grey, I love you, but if you antagonise the man holding you hostage I will kick your arse when this is all over,’ Tanith growled, cutting him off before Everard could, then she looked back at the man himself. ‘We can debate this all we want, but it’s beside the point -’

‘It is exactly the point,’ Everard thundered. ‘Jacob Van Roden might not have been a villain, but he was a passive man who was present for plenty of travesties of the Occupation and did nothing to stop them. He didn’t fight against the Thicknesse regime and didn’t even have the strength of character to remove himself and actually do nothing. I think that you, Cole, are fucked up and cowardly and deluding yourself as to how good and evil really balance, but I think he was weak and exactly the sort of man who was the reason Thicknesse’s regime succeeded where it did, and I think that there were no consequences.’

‘So you murdered him.’

‘Like I said,’ Everard growled. ‘He was an opportunity. I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to hunt him down. But I don’t regret it.’

Tanith knew she needed to delay. The word was going out from the two Enforcers who’d been on surveillance outside to the rest of the MLE for backup. But they were scattered to the four winds with the election security, and there was no telling how long it would take before they were here.

But every one of her instincts was screaming at her to just Stun Everard, and only fear for Tobias’ life held her in check.

‘And do I really need to account for myself with Mulready? You were there, Cole, you saw what happened at the Wilson home -’

‘Justice was going to find Mulready -’

When?’ Everard thundered, and Tobias gurgled as the wand pressed deeper under his chin. ‘He was dismissed after the June Inquiries, as was Lackardy, and not a single charge was brought against them. Even if old man Vaughn wants to claim Lackardy was leading the Aurors to Avery, nobody was chasing Mulready, nobody was bringing charges against him -’

‘You’re in the Prosecution Office, Everard, you were bringing cases against Yaxley, Dolohov, Brynmor, Nott, all of the inner circle, all of the major offenders!’ Tanith snapped.

‘Yes, I saw those cases. And I saw how anyone but the inner circle got to make deals and get their sentences cut, I saw how old man Vaughn was happy to let little fish go if it meant he would get bigger fish. That wasn’t about justice, it was about results, and half the time the bigger fish were either stitched up already, or they’re in the Remnant, and I don’t see the Remnant on the inside of a cell yet!’

‘I can’t believe,’ said Tanith slowly, ‘that I am going to call a serial killer naive. But that’s what you are, Everard. You know that this takes time. You know that “just because we know” is not good enough grounds to convict them, so yes, the lesser offenders get lighter sentences so the real evil definitely goes away forever. You know there’s no black or white, that we have to sift our way through the shades of grey to get to the best of a bad situation. You know there is only so much we could do at once, and then we would get to the second-rate offenders like Mulready -’

‘You can’t have stood there in the Wilson home and tell me that what he did there was second-rate. You cannot defend the decision to not so much as throw him in a cell, when for six months of so-called peace, a time of so-called justice, he was allowed to walk free!’

‘So you murdered him?’

‘You don’t even believe that’s murder, Cole! You know that’s justice!’

Everard’s words echoed around the room and through Tanith’s skull, and silence fell upon the four of them for long seconds, broken only by the ragged breathing of Tobias, who had given up struggling or arguing in exchange for trying to stay alive.

He’s right. If he hadn’t gone after Jacob you’d still be ready to turn a blind eye to the whole thing. Even for going after you, you can’t really blame him...

‘What about Jen?’ That was Katie, speaking at last, her voice small. ‘She’s been arrested for things you did, Tom. Was that okay?’

‘I knew it wouldn’t last,’ Everard said, now more quietly, now looking at Katie for the first time with an air of, at last, regret. ‘I knew there’d be no case, no real case, and I needed time. It wasn’t okay, but it was necessary. And I was going to give her justice.’

‘Justice?’

Everard looked back at Tanith. ‘You don’t think I was going to give up at just the one attempt?’

Tanith swallowed hard. ‘Yes. That’s right,’ she said slowly. ‘You were going to punish me, because I killed Nick Wilson. And now I’m walking around, not a mark on my record, not a single court hearing - nothing but a conversation in a closed room with sealed records to discuss what happened in the war.’

‘We’re meant to be in a new age of accountability,’ Everard growled. ‘And I’m not seeing much of that.’

‘Perhaps you’re not wrong there.’ Tanith looked between Katie and Tobias, and silently wondered where the hell her backup was. All the two outside were doing was watching the exit in case everything went horribly wrong.

Because, with Tobias as the hostage, if everything went horribly wrong it would have to be over her dead body. ‘But then you hold accountable the people who’ve done wrong. And the only person I see you about to punish, right now, is probably the most innocent person in this room.’ She jerked her head at Tobias. ‘He doesn’t belong on your kill-list. So let him go.’

‘And then we come back,’ said Everard slowly, ‘to you bringing me in, to you getting fortune and acclaim instead of the inside of a prison cell, which is the best you deserve.’ He shook his head tightly. ‘No, no. I have a much better idea.’

Something cold settled in Tanith’s belly, but it was Katie who next spoke. ‘Tom, I know you’re frustrated, but you’re a smart guy. You know it’s over. Nobody else needs to suffer here.’

‘They really do.’ He jerked his head at Tanith. ‘You do.’

She drew a deep breath. ‘All right. Okay.’ Tanith leant down to put her wand on the floor and skidded it across the gap between them.

‘Chief, what the fuck are you -’

‘Shut up, Bell.’ Tanith straightened, extending her arms outwards as Tobias’ eyes widened. ‘You’ve got a deal, Everard. You let him go. Then you take your best shot at me. That’s fair. The innocent go free. The guilty are punished. It’s justice.’

‘Chief, are you fucking -’

‘You’ve got a job to do, Bell, it’s to make sure he doesn’t get away -’

‘Tanith, don’t be a bloody idiot -’

‘No.’ Everard cut off the protests from Katie and Tobias with a simple shake of the head. ‘Because then you get to die a martyr. Like Nick did, like Cormac did. And you don’t deserve as good a death as they had.’

‘You don’t know how good a death they had,’ said Tanith. ‘You weren’t there.’

She never thought she’d be trying to antagonise someone into blasting her while she was defenceless, maybe even killing her. But one look at Tobias made it clear that, unless the rest of the MLE came in, the cavalry riding to the rescue, she didn’t have a lot of options.

And if someone needed to be punished by Everard here tonight, she’d be damned if it wasn’t her.

Everard’s expression did twist with anger, but he drew a sharp, careful breath. ‘I will not have you, who murdered Nick, be the woman who took me down, or the woman who sacrificed herself to take me down. If I don’t get the chance to tell the whole world what you did to Nick Wilson, then the whole world will know what else you’ve done.’

Tanith cocked her head. ‘Without Nick Wilson, my conscience is clear, Everard.’

‘Then perhaps I should say, what else you’ll do.’ Everard gave a grimace of a smile. ‘Here’s how it’s going to go. You have two options before you, Cole. In one of them, you do get to be the woman who took me down, the champion, the hero. You can have all of the adulation that you’d deserve for stopping an infamous serial killer. But it’ll be ashes in your mouth.’

Tanith narrowed her eyes. ‘You can get to the point at any time.’

‘Simple. I kill him -’ Everard twisted his wand under Tobias’ neck, and he gave another gurgle of pain, fear, and objection. ‘And then you can take me down, nice and easy.’

Cold fear flared into white-hot anger and her voice went flat. ‘If you think that you will be able to walk when this is over if you so much as bruise him, Everard, you are so mistaken -’

‘What’s option two, Tom?’ said Katie too cheerfully, clearly remembering that delaying was still their best option rather than sparking a fight here and now.

‘If you don’t want me to kill Tobias here tonight, Cole, then there’s only one thing you can do: kill Katie.’

Katie drooped. ‘Oh, Tom. And to think I hoped the Chief was wrong, but it turns out you are baby-cooking crazy,’ she said, sounding more disappointed than anything else.

Tanith squinted. ‘I don’t understand -’

‘Then I might go down, and that’s fine - but there’s no way you’ll be allowed to go free for killing your partner, there’s no way you’ll be identified by the Auror Office as anything except for an unhinged woman who needs to sit in a cell as punishment for a good long while.’ Everard inclined his head to Katie. ‘Sorry, Katie.’

‘Oh, fine, Tom, don’t mind me, I’ll just be the pawn in your little loony trip,’ Katie sneered. ‘What the hell happened to you, Tom?’

‘I saw all that we fought for get spat on by the same system we put in place to correct the injustices we suffered,’ Everard snarled. ‘I saw the murderers of our friends walk free or get slaps on the wrist. I sat in rooms with important people where we discussed that this family wouldn’t get justice or that family wouldn’t get justice because we had bigger fish to fry. And I decided it was enough.’ His eyes locked on Tanith. ‘And now’s enough for you, Cole. I know you’re waiting on your reinforcements, but no cavalry’s going to kick down the door. It’s just you two, your fiancé, and me with a wand to his neck. The choice is yours.’

Tanith met his gaze flatly. ‘No, Everard. It’s just you and me, and there’s only one way this ends.’

Tobias drew a deep, shaking breath. ‘Tanith, you don’t have to do anything stupid -’

‘I’ll count,’ Everard said calmly, twisting the wand into Tobias’ neck again. ‘Five -’

He didn’t get any further before Tanith moved. Her wand was still on the floor, still a good lunge away, and she knew she wouldn’t be fast enough to close the distance between her and her wand or her and Everard before he could think a spell to slit Tobias’ throat. And she’d seen Katie fight, knew she was good, but Tanith also knew she valued Katie more for her technical knowledge of magic than her practical. She didn’t trust her to make a shot like the one over Tobias’ shoulder.

So Tanith did the only thing she could do: tackled Katie Bell.

The trainee folded with a grunt at the impact, clearly having not expected it, and the two women went down. One of Tanith’s hands grabbed the front of her cloak, the other grabbed her wrist, and with her training and experience in hand-to-hand, and the element of surprise, the scramble didn’t last long.

Within seconds Tanith had kicked Katie back down to the floor and stood over her, her trainee’s wand in her hand, both of them panting for breath.

Katie’s gaze flickered up to her wand in her tutor’s hand, then across to Everard, and there was a pause as she fought to speak clearly. ‘Holy hell, Chief -’

‘Shut up,’ Tanith snapped, and she glanced over at Everard only briefly. ‘Let him go, Tom. Please.’

Everard blinked with apparent surprise. ‘You were awfully happy to do that, Cole. No funny moves, it doesn’t take more than a twitch for me to kill him -’

‘Tom -’

‘It’s not over, Cole.’

Tanith looked to Tobias, whose eyes were wide and unbelieving. ‘It’ll be okay, Toby. Trust me. And no matter what, I love you.’

Then she looked at Katie, who hadn’t moved from her place on the floor, frozen in apprehension, and tilted her captured wand. ‘Sorry, Bell,’ was all she said, before drawing another sharp breath. ‘Scindo.’


Chapter 27: Road of Sweat and Tears
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The spell rocketed out of the end of the stolen wand and struck its owner straight on - or so it seemed, but then Tobias blinked and everything changed. Katie wasn’t hit with the spell cast from her own wand, there was no blood like he’d expected, just the shimmer of a Shield Charm he hadn’t seen anyone cast, that she couldn’t cast without a wand.

But Tanith’s Scindo didn’t absorb itself on the shield - it bounced.

Everard hadn’t been ready for the spell to deflect at him from Katie’s direction, not when he’d been shielding himself against a possible attack or trick from Tanith. So all he had time to do was throw himself and his hostage to the side, out of the way.

Tobias knew that, once Everard got his senses back, it’d be time to kill the hostage - so as the two men hit the floor he jerked his elbow to drive it into Everard’s gut. The bigger man grunted, air driven from his stomach, but his hold was strong, and he still had his wand in hand and wasn’t letting go -

Then there was a figure looming over him, and another thump and a grunt from Everard, and Tobias realised that, while Tanith might not have been prepared to shoot a spell at them when they were two indistinct shapes on the floor, she had absolutely no qualms about closing the distance and feeling which one of them was which by her fist.

She’d figured out which was Everard, as Tobias felt the burlier man dragged off him. He struggled to sit up to see Tanith grabbing Everard by the front of his shirt before she slammed him against the floor, hard, his head cracking against the laminate surface.

‘You try to force me into that? Again?’ Her fist came thudding down into Everard’s face and there was a crunch as his nose exploded with a shattering of blood. ‘As if that makes me the villain? As if that doesn’t make you as bad as Brynmor?’

Everard was flailing back now, but he wasn’t as practiced as her in hand-to-hand, wasn’t as downright furious. He clawed at her face, but she had a knee on his chest now and batted his arm to one side as if it was nothing before slamming her fist down again.

This time there was a crack and Tobias thought he saw broken teeth in the deluge of blood that was now streaming from Everard’s nose and mouth. ‘You think you can hold my fiancé hostage, threaten him to my face and I will just let you, I will not make you fucking beg for me to stop before I’m done with you -?’

‘Chief!’

Katie was moving before Tobias could, before he could get his limbs - sluggish at the best of times, unresponsive after the spells Everard had pumped him full of - to cooperate enough to let him stand. Another sickening punch was planted in the middle of Everard’s face, then Katie had a hand on Tanith’s shoulder, trying to pull her back.

But Tanith shoved Katie away without even looking at her, returning to the rain of furious, bloodied blows, and Tobias honestly wondered where it would have ended - if Katie would have fought back, if she’d have gone for Tanith’s wand on the floor, if Tanith would have been stopped from beating Tom Everard to death - if the door hadn’t then burst open to let in Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and a host of other reinforcements.

Between the lot of them they managed to drag Tanith off Everard and pin him down, though he himself wasn’t doing anything but lying there writhing, his features impossible to make out under the mask of blood that covered his face.

Tobias managed to clamber to his feet at last, halfway up by the time Ron was at his side, lugging him up the past few inches. ‘Up you come, mate. You all right? We’ve got some Portkeys for Saint Mungo’s...’

‘I’m fine,’ he said, managing a sincere, if rather wan smile. ‘Just a bit creaky, I can walk it off.’ Limp it off.

Tanith was finally shaking off Harry’s grip, finally calming down, her chest heaving, and finally her gaze met Tobias. ‘Get him to Saint Mungo’s if he needs it, drag him there by his ankles if he needs it...’

Harry and Ron hesitated, exchanging glances, and Tobias limped past Ron towards Tanith, hands raised. ‘I’m okay. I’m okay -’

Then she’d closed the gap between them to throw her arms around him, and he staggered onto his bad leg and had to lean on her so they didn’t both fall over. There was blood spattered across her face, across the front of her shirt, encrusting on knuckles he knew would bruise. Her voice was hoarse, desperate. ‘You don’t get to have anything happen to you, not again, I don’t lose you again, you hear me -?’

But before he could return the embrace, just as suddenly as she’d thrown herself at him, she pulled back, and he could see the professional mask sinking back down over her fear. ‘Kennedy, Colquhoun, can you get Mister Grey back to Canary Wharf?’

Tobias frowned. ‘I can wait -’

‘I need to make sure Everard’s secure and go through every inch of this office, his flat, and his affairs at the Prosecution Office before the press get a sniff of this, I am not letting him slip through my fingers...’

And beyond her the Enforcers were hefting up Everard, securing him with magic bindings, while the three Auror trainees gathered around their bloodied Training Officer.

‘I have just one question,’ said Tobias, blinking. ‘What the hell happened?’

Katie, who had retrieved her discarded wand, extended Tanith’s towards her. ‘I was wearing a Shield Cloak. She activated it while we were scuffling.’ She smirked at Tanith. ‘You know, for a second there, Chief, I didn’t realise what you’d done and thought you were actually going to shoot me.’

Tanith took the wand, expression impassive - but it was the impassive expression Tobias knew well, the one which was all about keeping up appearances instead of being legitimately cold, and it just made Katie grin as Tanith said, ‘I did think about it. It would have been a pretty good deal.’

He felt a sudden surge of emotion, of relief at this all being over, of their both being safe - of affection, and utter admiration for how she had, yet again, pulled through the odds in ways he’d have never thought of, but knew now was not the time. Anything to say and feel could come later.

Now was the time he let her put her work first.

‘I’ll be back at the Wharf,’ he assured her.

‘This might take a while,’ Tanith said. ‘Don’t wait up.’

Colquhoun was waiting for him by the office door, and extended an arm as he saw him limping. ‘You just look in a worse and worse state every time I see you, boy.’

There weren’t many people Tobias was prepared to lean on, and even fewer he would accept to call him “boy”. His old mentor from the Enforcers was perhaps the one and only, and he took the arm with a grateful grimace of a smile. ‘I just did two rounds with a serial killer, give me a break.’

‘It looks like you lost - didn’t I teach you not to lose?’

‘I’m still here, so that counts as a win to me. I tried losing, once. I didn’t care much for it.’

As I recall, Tanith had to save me then as well.

Colquhoun just laughed, but he had a Portkey on hand back to Canary Wharf, and before Tobias could over-think it he was being brought down to the bullpen, to the enclosed corner where Tanith’s team had conducted the investigation he supposed was now in its epilogue, with a cup of tea in his hand.

Gabriel and Jen were sat around the desks, and looked up with tired eyes as he limped in. ‘What happened -’

‘It’s over,’ Tobias said, and slumped into the nearest chair, his leg screaming from the beating and from his leaning on it more than he should have done with his staff abandoned when he’d been attacked at the flat. ‘They’ve got him. Everyone’s okay. It’s done.’

Jen winced, looking him over. ‘It was Tom?’

‘I’m afraid so.’

Jen let out a deep breath, expression dropping, and she slouched in the chair. Gabriel’s hands came to rest at her shoulders, touch reassuring but also a little possessive. ‘I never would have thought...’

‘None of us did,’ said Tobias. ‘That it could be one of us? Someone we thought shared our ideals, shared our experiences? Our risks?’

‘I always thought he was just letting off steam when he got angry about this plea-bargain, or that deal to get charges dropped for information. I knew he didn’t like it, but nobody liked it, I thought it was like...’

‘Like he used to get in the Lions,’ Gabriel rumbled. ‘When he wanted to do stupid things on some moral principle but knew you’d stop him.’

Jen nodded, and silence fell for a few seconds before she drew a deep breath. ‘Have we really managed to mess everything up so badly if someone like Tom is -’

‘Tom made his own choices,’ said Gabriel.

‘But he reacted to where he was,’ said Tobias, slouching in the chair. ‘We’ve tried to make the government good, we’ve tried to bring justice -’

‘And not just justice,’ said Gabriel, looking between them. ‘I’ve heard the two of you talk about it. What do you think, does Tom think, we can do, go through every single witch and wizard in Britain and scrutinise everything they did in the Occupation? Assess and judge every decision everyone ever made to see if they reached some sort of predetermined level of morality?’

Tobias’ lips twitched despite himself. ‘You know what Muggles would call that?’ he mused. ‘A witch-hunt.’

‘But people he killed, like Phelps, like Mulready -’

‘Maybe it’s not perfect,’ said Gabriel, cutting Jen off. ‘And maybe some people have slipped through the cracks. But you know what the perfect system is, if you mean that nobody guilty ever gets off?’

Jen’s expression twisted. ‘It’s one which looks an awful lot like Thicknesse’s.’

‘Exactly.’

Jen looked up at him, eyes going bright. ‘When’d you get so smart about this kind of stuff?’

Gabriel gave a lopsided smile. ‘I’m just parroting you, love. If I make sense, that’s all I’m ever doing. Just sometimes you forget what you said and I’m here to remind you of that.’

‘He’s right, though. Or, you’re right,’ said Tobias, wearing a weak smile. ‘There might be mistakes, but there will always be mistakes. We can’t forget that for every Mulready there are three Dolohovs, behind bars now and forever after a fair trial where they were brought to account. And while justice is important, we can’t get bogged down for years and years in finding who to blame for what crime - we need justice but we also have to be able to move on.’

‘But so long as there are mistakes, we have to keep on trying, and remain vigilant,’ said Jen.

Tobias turned his smile on her. ‘It’s awfully convenient you’re in a key position to keep us and the system honest, isn’t it?’

‘And you’re not?’

‘After tonight? Who knows?’

It was amazing, Tobias reflected, how being abducted by a serial killer he’d once considered, if not a friend, then a respectable acquaintance, could bring certain issues into perspective. Certainly his continuing political life was not as urgent a consideration right then as his continuing actual life.

But that was the moment Colquhoun appeared in the entranceway to their little corner, craggy features wearing a lopsided smile. ‘Speaking of which,’ he said, ‘it was just on the wireless. They think the results are almost in. They’re getting ready to make an announcement in the next fifteen minutes.’

‘Oh good,’ said Tobias amiably. ‘We can turn the wireless on.’

Jen quirked an eyebrow at him. ‘You’re not going to Shacklebolt’s party?’

Tobias grimaced. ‘I said I’d wait for Tanith -’

‘Who could be stuck in the field for the next six hours and this is election night, Toby,’ said Jen, eyes widening. ‘You’ve worked for this, you’ve slaved for this, for the past six months, and I know tonight’s been all sorts of crazy. But this is it. The end of that road of sweat and tears. Are you really going to miss it?’

He swallowed. ‘If he’s won, the Minister isn’t going to need me -’

‘No, I imagine he’d like you there, but he won’t need you. And the same if he’s lost. But really, either way... I know you, Tobias. You’re going to want to be there.’

Gabriel, next to her, shrugged. ‘I think she’s right, mate. I know politics seem a bit silly right now, but I think you’ll regret it if you’re not there to celebrate your well-earned victory after all that hard work - or if you’re not there to talk with Shacklebolt if you’ve lost.’

Tobias hesitated. ‘I told Tanith -’

‘She’ll understand,’ said Gabriel bluntly, and though Jen nodded it looked like her answer might have been more along the lines of “Bugger her”, a charitable nature not holding up too well after wrongful incarceration.

He paused, thinking, but got to his feet creakily with a nod. His expression twisted wryly. ‘I wonder if this is how it’s going to be,’ Tobias mused. ‘From now on. Me going to political parties while she’s out late at night chasing crooks.’

And a bit of him wondered if either one of them would have it any other way.


* *


‘Fifty-seven per cent. Fifty-seven,’ crowed Dimitri. ‘You have done very well for yourself, Brain-Box Grey.’

‘Aren’t you supposed to be impartial, as a representative of a foreign government?’ said Tobias, but he couldn’t help himself from smirking as the two of them stood in the middle of the swirling mass of Kingsley Shacklebolt’s celebratory Election Party.

‘And yet I find myself not caring. Budem zdorovy!’ They clinked champagne glasses together, and Dimitri poured his down his throat without seeming to notice it.

‘I think you were supposed to sip that.’

‘But now it is gone,’ he mused, and turned to grab another two glasses from the nearest passing waiter and tray.

Tobias looked at his still nearly-full glass. ‘I don’t need another.’

‘Who said it was for you?’ Dimitri grinned. ‘You are looking well, my friend.’

‘Really? Because I got beaten up and abducted tonight.’

‘You have this glow of victory about you. Or perhaps it is swelling from the beating, I do not know. If the latter, enjoy being handsome while it lasts before the bruising sets in.’ Dimitri clapped him on the shoulder and Tobias had to lean on his cane to stay upright.

He’d never dressed up more quickly in his life. He’d apparated back to his flat, brushed his hair, found his dress robes, and managed to wriggle into them without hurting his injured leg any more before grabbing his cane and making it to the party, which had been on tenterhooks just as the wireless had crackled with the beginnings of the announcement declaring the results. Tobias had only made it past a few staffers before it had been stated that Kingsley Shacklebolt had won the election, that now he could drop the ‘Acting’ title from his position as Minister, and that all of the last six months had been worth it - had been vindicated.

Dimitri had been the first person to find him and shove a celebratory drink in his hand, unsurprisingly.

Tobias tilted his glass to his friend in an amiable manner, but smiled apologetically. ‘Thanks for the drink - and the kind words, mate - but I’d better try to get to the Minister, give him my congratulations.’

‘He should be giving you the congratulations!’ Dimitri called after him, and Tobias just laughed as he limped his way through the crowd.

It felt a little unreal. The night had been going a mile a minute and half of his mind was still trapped in the fight-or-flight response from being grabbed by Everard. It was only just beginning to filter into the public awareness that the vigilante had been captured, and Tobias could only reflect with a hint of smugness that Tom Everard’s determination to be loud and public with his motivations was likely to be overshadowed by Shacklebolt’s electoral victory.

But half of his mind was still there, in the fear of the moments spent in that flat, in that office, while the other half was spinning through everything he’d worked for in the past six months and whether he could keep it up, whether he’d done right, whether he could do better. And so when he found a thick crowd surrounding the Minister, eager to shake his hand and offer congratulations even if they were people who hours ago would have made a sharp comment about this policy or that policy, he would have been happy to wait.

Then Shacklebolt saw him through the crowd, smiled, and extended a hand - and just the gesture was like parting the Red Sea as Tobias found the way clear for him to move to the Minister’s side.

The handshake was firm and enthusiastic. ‘Congratulations, Minister. Really, truly, congratulations.’

‘You ought to be congratulating yourself, Tobias, you’ve earnt it - and I couldn’t have done it without you.’ But, ever the Auror, Shacklebolt frowned as he saw the developing bruise on the side of Tobias’ face. ‘What happened to you?’

Tobias glanced around, then leant in and dropped his voice. ‘It’ll be coming out in bits and pieces, but the Auror Office have the vigilante in custody.’ He only dared mouth the name, keen to avoid any explosion of this story sooner than was necessary. ‘Tom Everard.’

Shacklebolt’s expression flickered, but he knew how to keep a poker face, had managed to react calmly to all sorts of horrendous news reaching his ears over the past six months so the public around him didn’t cotton on. ‘My congratulations to the Auror Office, then,’ he murmured. ‘And, I assume, Auror Cole. You’re both all right?’

‘Perfectly fine, Minister,’ said Tobias, and although he knew Tom Everard’s words were liable to echo in his ears for weeks, months, maybe years to come, he was surprised to find that he was speaking the truth. ‘All the more keen to get back to work.’

Shacklebolt smiled and straightened, a hand on his shoulder. ‘Speaking of work, you’re not still determined to leave the DIMC?’

Tobias gave a lopsided grimace. ‘I’m afraid so, Minister. I will happily stay on at your office, if you’ll still have me, but I can’t wear too many hats. And I’m taking time off over Christmas. That one’s not negotiable.’

‘You’re lucky you’re asking me for these things tonight,’ joked Shacklebolt amiably, ‘else I would have to negotiate. You’ll at least help me find a replacement? I’d rather hoped you’d change your mind.’

‘I did have an idea,’ said Tobias. ‘Will Rayner.’

‘The Unspeakable?’

‘He’s got a friend in every port. We’ll talk about it. And I’ll let you get back to the party.’ Tobias smiled at Shacklebolt, who looked like he knew full-well most of the party was, despite the euphoria of his victory, going to consist of talking to people he didn’t want to talk to, and left.

Now people had noticed him, noticed how warmly the Minister had greeted him, or perhaps now managed to recognise him, it was easier to move through the crowd. Being important and rubbing shoulders with the leader of the country was a better way to clear a route than even limping around on a cane was. But it also meant sound carried as he passed near the entrance to hall, and he forgot to ignore people calling his name in a public environment.

‘Tobias! Toby!’

He looked around, kicking himself for reacting to what was probably the press, but instead saw two familiar figures standing by one of the burly Enforcers on security. He sighed, and limped over. ‘What’re you two doing here?’

Ariane Drake had the gall to look indignant. ‘It’s the celebration of a whole new government in Britain, Toby! We just want to -’

‘No, we’re not on the guest list, so sue us, Grey,’ said Melanie, tossing her hair. ‘But this is the best party in town tonight.’

‘You were on the Harrigan guest list, weren’t you.’

They exchanged looks, but their hesitation was all Tobias needed to know - and still he lifted a hand to the Enforcer on door duty. ‘It’s all right, Barry. They’re with me.’

‘Oh, you are a good sport, Toby,’ gushed Ariane as Barry opened the red velvet rope for them. ‘Don’t ever let us be heard speaking ill of you again.’

‘What, you speak ill of me now?’

‘We don’t get heard doing it,’ said Melanie with, he thought, a rather ungrateful smirk. ‘Don’t suppose you know any rich and sexy men to introduce us to?’

Ariane swatted her on the arm. ‘Really, is that all you think about?’

‘At a party like this?’

Tobias had never been sure what to think of Ariane and Melanie, not for the seven years they’d spent at school together, and it had been even more complicated since the end of the war. Ariane had impersonated Tanith, would have led him to his death if it hadn’t been for the Battle of Hogwarts, and yet she had almost paid for that betrayal with her life. It made it hard for him to hold a grudge. And Tanith was still friends with them, to boot, still valued them both as much as Tanith seemed inclined to value people outside the three of them, and he liked her to have other friends. It seemed only healthy.

So the least he could do was try to make an effort, and try to not think about how much Ariane Drake, purveyor of negligées, knew about his sex life.

His compromise was not especially kind.

He found his target more or less where he’d left him, still in a throng of people, at the outskirts of where the dancing had started, and still with a couple of glasses of champagne in hand. He wasn’t alone, however, and stood next to the only person in the room Tobias wagered could give him a run for his money on size and alcohol tolerance.

‘...you have to enjoy the good champagne; I know you English do not really understand wines...’

‘Bollocks to that; I’m Welsh, and I prefer a good pint...’

‘You can’t have a pint at a party like this, Cal. I thought you knew all about keeping up appearances?’ Tobias grinned at his best friend, then turned to gesture to the two women in his wake. ‘I found a couple of strays outside. You remember Ariane and Melanie from Hogwarts, don’t you, Dimitri?’

It occurred to him only too late that introducing Ariane to the man who had saved her life in Canary Wharf six months ago was perhaps rude (and he tried to not think too hard about how the other man to pump her full of healing spells had been newly-arrested serial killer Tom Everard), but the die was cast by then, and Dimitri gave one of his most charming smiles as Cal rolled his eyes good-naturedly.

‘But how could I forget?’ One champagne glass was thrust at Cal, and Dimitri stepped forward to take one of Ariane’s hands and bend down to kiss it melodramatically.

Ariane giggled. ‘Well, it has been some time -’

Years, really,’ interrupted Melanie, who literally elbowed her best friend to one side so she, too, could get greeted with a kiss on the hand by a mysterious foreigner.

‘Truly? It does not seem so long.’ Dimitri’s grin broadened. ‘But you fine ladies do not have drinks; this is something we must correct.’

‘Oh, by all means, the bar’s somewhere... over there,’ said Tobias, waving a hand, and soon enough it was just him and Cal stood in the crowd as Dimitri walked off, a woman on either arm.

Cal looked into his champagne glass suspiciously. ‘Ever feel like chopped liver?’

‘When hanging around with you or Dimitri? Often.’

Cal sniffed. ‘Yeah, well. It’s just because he’s foreign and they know me too well.’

‘And it’s not like you’d actually want Ariane or Melanie’s affections.’

‘True.’ He sipped on the champagne. ‘...I saw Nat.’

Tobias winced. ‘Yeah?’

‘Yep.’ Another pause as Cal looked like he was mulling over what he wanted to say - then the thoughtful expression faded and he clapped Tobias on the shoulder. ‘Aw, hell, it doesn’t matter. Congratulations, mate. You ought to have a good time tonight; you’ve earnt it.’

Tobias looked up. ‘If something’s bothering you, if you met Nat, of course it matters -’

But Cal looked reluctant - and then his gaze landed over Tobias’ shoulder, and he grinned. ‘Oh, hey, look at that - a distraction with a cracking pair of legs...’

Tobias turned, and on some level he was a little disturbed that Cal noticed Tanith’s legs, but then he’d noticed her legs too and had to concede that they were rather diverting, especially in a slinky black number of a dress like the one she was wearing.

Then Cal was gone, judiciously gone, and his fiancée had wound her way through the crowd up to him. If she’d rushed to look good for this event, he couldn’t tell, though as she stepped in to slide her arms around his neck he could see the marks on her knuckles which would no doubt turn to bruising in time.

‘...hey.’

He gave a stupid grin, his free hand coming to wind around her waist. ‘Hey yourself. Didn’t expect to see you here so soon. Or at all.’

‘Everard’s in a cell. There’s paperwork. It can wait until morning. All my trainees wanted to come here anyway; I bet you’ll see Potter and Weasley making an appearance once they’re all gussied up, but... I wanted to see you.’ She gave a sleepy, satisfied smile, and kissed him. ‘Congratulations.’

He was hit with the sudden desire to make everyone else in the large hall disappear - but, alas, didn’t have the power. ‘It’s just an election.’

‘Just a...’ Her expression twisted. ‘All the late nights, upset, tears, arguments? It’s not just an election, Grey, and if we were both so silly over just anything, I really will kick your arse.’

‘So, that congratulatory spirit didn’t last long, did it?’

She brushed her nose against his, and her voice dropped. ‘I have a confession to make.’ His chest tightened at her tone, but she pressed on. ‘Today’s been... a difficult day. With my work. With you. And I spent a lot of time thinking. And a lot of time working. And it’s been... really hard. But... what I’m trying to say is, Toby... what I need to admit to...’

Her voice trailed off, and she bit her lip for a moment before continuing. ‘I didn’t vote.’

He laughed, and it was a good laugh, a laugh for once not tinged with tension or apprehension, and he kissed her again. ‘If you won’t participate in the process, how can you think to complain about the administration?’

‘Oh, I’ll find a way.’

His smile softened. ‘I think we did it,’ Tobias mused. ‘The worst is over, for us both. Your big case. This election. The Minister’s accepted me leaving the DIMC, I’ll just be in his office, it won’t be light work but it won’t be... everything at once...’

‘And I’ll have to see what Vaughn wants me to do next, but it can’t be too huge. After all, he’ll never make me work with Proudfoot, so that rules out the Avery hunt.’

‘So, hey.’ His hold on her tightened. ‘Maybe now we can look at the rest of our lives. I mean, our life. Where we go next. Making big decisions.’

Tanith’s expression flickered, but she still smiled. ‘I’m still coming down from punching a man in the face lots,’ she said, ‘so I’m not up to too many big decisions right now, but I do know what we’re going to do next.’ She glanced to the open space to his left. ‘Dance. Since we didn’t get to dance at the last victory party.’

Tobias grimaced, looking down at his cane. ‘I’m about as mobile as a stunted rhino without this thing.’

She stepped back, still holding his free hand tightly, and smiled. ‘That’s fine,’ she said. ‘You know you can always lean on me.’


Chapter 28: The Only Sign in the World
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‘I think we can make it to the party still, if we -’

‘I really, really don’t care about the party right now.’ Jen closed the door behind them as she and Gabriel slunk into the flat, and sagged against it. ‘I think I’d rather just sleep.’

Gabriel stopped, then moved to her side and reaching to help her out of his coat. ‘Are you feeling okay? If your head hurts we can get you to Saint Mungo’s -’

‘The medic took a look at me, and I’m fine; anyway, it’s not my head hurting, it’s my... everything.’ She grabbed his forearm as he went to turn away, keeping him close. ‘And right now I’m worrying more about you.’

Gabriel blinked. ‘Me? You’re the one who got locked up unfairly -’

‘And you’re the one who got me out.’ She stepped in closer. ‘And I’m sure it wasn’t easy.’

He heard the question in her voice and hesitated, keeping a distance even if he desperately wanted to pull her to him. ‘I went to see Daedalus Cole,’ he said.

He felt her touch at his arm tighten, saw her eyes widen. ‘You didn’t...’

‘And he had the answer,’ said Gabriel with a defiant tilt to his jaw. ‘The picture, the evidence.’

‘And he just gave you that for free?’

For a second he wondered how she knew to ask that question, because she’d never met Daedalus Cole, had never had a chance to get a read on the man or his motivations or his methods. Then he realised that his own defensiveness had given him away, and at last he pulled back, went over to slump on the couch with a defeated air.

‘Not exactly.’ He scrubbed his face with his hands and didn’t look up, not wanting to see the anger he knew he’d find in her eyes. ‘He did say that he’s not there just as a... tool, something to be used and then discarded and then picked up again.’

He heard her snort. ‘Of course, we couldn’t expect him to do it because it’s the right thing to do,’ Jen said, but there was a cautious edge to her voice.

‘But he was right,’ Gabriel sighed. ‘About how he does need to operate the way that he does. Because the system had failed you, failed me, failed to capture Tom Everard...’

‘Except that the Aurors were on the case anyway. They had a lead anyway. It wasn’t over...’ But then she stopped herself, and he still didn’t look up. ‘What did he ask for?’

‘He asked that I reconsider our deal. That I use this situation to look at why he does what he does, why he’s really necessary, and to try to understand why his work needs to continue.’

‘That’s ridiculous. As if you couldn’t change your mind afterwards anyway, as if it was some commitment, and what would he do if you changed your mind? Go after you? Truly he’s a bastion of righteousness if he’d go after you for that.’

Gabriel squared his shoulders. ‘I’m not changing my mind,’ he said, and finally looked up.

But instead of anger in her eyes, he found only a lack of surprise. She crossed the living room to perch on the armrest of the couch, inches still stretching between them. ‘It doesn’t bother you? That he had the chance to just cut through a fair and legal investigation like that -’

‘No, because it ended well, it ended properly, and it helped take down Tom Everard before he killed Tobias. Or more people,’ said Gabriel. ‘I have no regrets about how it stopped him and how it saved you.’

‘And today it was right, yes,’ Jen conceded. ‘But that’s one man who’s demonstrated himself as having all sorts of influence, the capacity to make all sorts of choices, with zero accountability.’

‘And he’ll continue to do that with or without me,’ said Gabriel. ‘So it’s less about trusting him, and more about trusting me.’

She tensed. ‘I don’t mean that. You know I trust you. It’s just an awful lot of power and influence for one man to hold, any one man. Even all the secrets and lies aside, it’s a difficult road to walk.’

‘I think I’ll be okay,’ said Gabriel, and looked up at her. ‘Because it won’t be power and influence held just by one man, unaccountable to anyone. Because that one man is me, and not only am I accountable to you, but you are the reason my moral compass points north in the first place.’

‘That would be both sweet and very disturbing if it were true,’ she said, ‘but fortunately I have a bit more faith in your sense of right and wrong than you do. I do trust you.’ Jen hesitated, looking down at her hands. ‘I suppose I need to just earn your trust in response.’

His gut twisted, first from surprise, then from gloomy realisation. ‘I don’t...’

‘Did you really believe it?’ she asked quietly, grey eyes meeting his. ‘That I could betray you like that? That I could ever possibly want any man but you?’

Gabriel swallowed, his throat dry. ‘I didn’t know what to think, what to believe. But I guess, no, I didn’t think that was what had happened. I feared it.’

She nodded, then her hand came up to his cheek and he closed his eyes at the touch, realising just how much he’d missed her even in the short time they’d been kept apart, realising just how tense he’d been and how much the simplest brush of her fingertips could take all the stress away. ‘You don’t ever have to.’

Then she slid down the couch to straddle his lap, hands coming up for her fingers to play with his hair. ‘You chased me, I know. So you were the one who had to put your heart on the line, make all the impassioned speeches, and I was the one who got to feel... pursued. Wanted. Who didn’t have to have doubts about the other. That you could have doubts, even worry... it means I’ve not done enough.’

She leant forwards, and just the brush of her lips, soft against his, was enough to call back every time he’d held her in his arms. But for once that didn’t reassure him; as ever it reminded him how tremendous she was, how she would amaze him time after time, and so tonight it left him wondering how she settled for a closed-off coward like him.

‘You don’t have to think that,’ he mumbled against her lips.

‘Look at me.’ Just inches apart, her eyes were bright and honest in the dim lighting. ‘You have been my companion, my guide, and my friend, before ever you were my lover. And even then you managed to find the parts of me that were... shut off. Alone. Cold. And brought warmth to them.’

His breath caught, and for a moment he wondered if she’d been stealing his thoughts, but she continued before he could stop her. ‘You understand me like nobody has. You got in my head, yes, but you also got under my skin and in my bones, and you’re there, now. You’re not going anywhere.’ Her hold on him tightened, and finally, finally he felt the vestiges of fear begin to dissipate.

‘Because it’s not down to some abstract ideal that I fight for my causes,’ she said. ‘It’s to make the world a better place. For me. For you. For us, together, for our future, for anything we build together, for our family together...’

They both stopped at that, Jen biting her lip as if she realised she’d said more than she should, Gabriel freezing with downright surprise, and he worked his jaw for a few seconds. ‘Family?’

‘I mean. You know. Hypothetically. Eventually. Maybe.’ Jen straightened up, though her efforts at looking haughty rather failed when she was still straddling him. ‘I’m just saying.’

‘You’re saying you work late nights for some imaginary, non-existent future babies,’ said Gabriel, a smirk tugging at his lips. Then he hesitated. ‘Fuck, they are imaginary, non-existent, future -’

‘Yes! Merlin, yes! It was just a...’ Jen gestured wildly. ‘A figure of speech!’

‘No, it wasn’t.’

‘Then a future hypothetical, I mean, yes, I think about these things sometimes. But we’re both young, it’s not like there’s a rush or anything.’

He narrowed his eyes. ‘Tobias and Tanith getting engaged has done things to you, hasn’t it.’

Jen tilted her head, smirking softly. ‘Can’t you just get back to being flattered as I pour my heart out at you?’

‘I don’t know; it’s a lot to take in, I might need to be calmed down and mmf-’


* *




‘What, we’re having lunch and you’re not having any wine?’

Cal gave Tobias a weary smile. ‘I have work this afternoon.’

‘That doesn’t usually stop you. Or me, for that matter,’ Tobias mused, sipping his sparkling water with what looked like relish at the novelty. ‘Though I get less of a choice in the matter.’

‘How is work?’ said Cal, trying to not drum his fingers on their table at the Golden Fork.

‘Calmer,’ said Tobias with a nod. ‘I mean, the worst of the aftermath of the election’s calming down, everyone loves a winner so the press are being all lovey and the polls are being friendly -’

‘Wait, you just won an election and you’re still fussing about polls?’

‘It’s my job to fuss.’ He waved a hand. ‘We still have to monitor the fallout from the Everard case.’

Cal winced. ‘How’re the press taking it?’

‘Pretty well. Since, you know, he was possessing of all sorts of confidential information about people who’ve been through the justice system, cleared and convicted, and so we’ve managed to get a press ban from him having any interviews.’ Tobias made a face. ‘I hate to suppress any kind of information like this, but Tom - Everard - he’d just use it to hurt people.’

‘Tom Everard.’ Cal gave a low whistle. ‘It’s a hell of a thing.’

‘I guess war changes people.’

‘I guess some people didn’t notice the war’s over. But you’re right. Screw your pissy little ideals, Toby, the man would want to use his infamy to try to cause harm. To the government, to people who’ve been cleared of wrongdoing, to ongoing investigations. To Tanith.’

Tobias blinked. ‘What do you know -’

‘Thanatos told me,’ said Cal and immediately regretted bringing up his father. ‘But you’re coping with the aftermath of the election, and Everard?’

‘It’s actually a really good time for us,’ said Tobias, easily distracted. ‘Everyone likes a winner. We don’t get our every move nit-picked - we can start to move on legislation, we can properly govern, you know?’

‘No,’ said Cal with a grin. ‘But you seem really happy about it, so that’s cool. And all’s okay with you and Tanith?’

Tobias gave such a dopey smile Cal had to resist the urge to mock him. ‘It is. It really is. We’re finishing work at sensible times - seven o’ clock, Cal, you know what seven o’ clock looks like?’

‘You know, some people think nine to five is perfectly fine if you’re not crazy.’

‘...and it’s just great,’ continued Tobias, ignoring him. ‘It’s been too long since we just... spent time together. Years, literally years. But no. I can have a long day at work and odds are good that I can come back to the flat to find her waiting with a bottle of wine...’

‘Or, like last week, find me waiting with a dry martini.’ Cal fiddled with his sleeve. ‘You know, if it’s a problem, me being there...’

‘It’s not a problem. It means there’s a dry martini when there’s no girlfriend.’

‘Good.’ Again Cal shifted his weight. ‘Because I was thinking. I know you only moved in to our place because it was convenient, and because you two wouldn’t fit in your old place... but you know Tanith and I only moved there because it was cheap. Back when she was on a trainee’s salary and I was some desk-monkey at the DMT. Now we’re all earning more, especially me, and I was wondering... I mean, if you guys moved house, would you just want to get somewhere the two of you or...?’

‘Cal.’ Tobias leant forward, gaze firm. ‘If you’re asking if you can find a better place for the three of us to live, then you don’t have to worry about being elbowed out. It’s not just because we’re too lazy to find somewhere without you, or too polite to kick you out. Funnily enough, we lived with you for seven years, and we kind of liked it. Besides.’ He stretched. ‘We’ve got all the time in the world to fuss over living in just our own space in our own home. In the meantime I like having a friend around.’

‘Oh.’ Cal smiled awkwardly. ‘Good.’

‘That’s not what’s really bothering you,’ said Tobias, eyes narrowing.

‘What?’

‘Nat. You said you saw her.’

Cal was surprised to find himself relieved at the accusation. It was unfortunate, but he didn’t want to talk to Tobias about what was really on his mind. ‘Yeah. We sort of ran into each other,’ he lied. ‘And... it was about as awkward as it was going to be.’

‘Did you talk?’

Images rose, unbidden, to Cal’s mind, and he smirked. ‘Yeah.’

Tobias sighed. ‘You can’t do that, Cal,’ he said, just as stuffy as Cal expected him to be. ‘You can’t break up and then fall into bed together every time you come within a ten-yard radius -’

‘Obviously, we can.’

‘I mean, it’s not sensible.’

‘Why not?’ Cal shrugged. ‘You might have strange, uptight opinions about sex, but I, on the other hand -’

‘Are screwing your ex-girlfriend whenever you see her even though she’s now off to Morocco for, what is it, two months? While you have a pretty full schedule with Puddlemere and you’ve both demonstrated you’re not going to sacrifice your careers for one another? Because the kind of lifestyles you two have pursued, it’s not a case of compromise, it’s full-on give up.’

‘You’re awfully chirpy today.’

‘I am.’ Tobias sagged. ‘I’m sorry, mate. But I don’t want to see you sliding back down to how things were when you first broke up. You were miserable.’

‘You’re just saying that because there was the time I came home drunk and interrupted dinner between you and Tanith.’

‘You make yourself sound awfully pitiful. As I recall, you came home drunk with two women.’

Cal scratched his chin. ‘I’m okay with sliding back to that kind of behaviour...’ But he lifted his hands, knowing he couldn’t fob Tobias off for too long. ‘Okay. Okay. I know it’s... not ideal. I do. But like you said, I’m not going to see her for months now, and even then only if I go and try to see her...’

‘I don’t want to see you hurt. I know she meant a lot to you.’

‘She does,’ Cal sighed. ‘Which is why it’s hell to see her and not do something about it... but then, it’s hell to not see her if I can...’

Tobias nodded, and Cal managed to tune him out from the rest of the conversation because, really, there was nothing he could say that he hadn’t said before, that Cal hadn’t thought of before, and he had to reach the exact same conclusion he’d reached all those months ago. Tension had turned to upset had turned to rows, angry and bitter rows because they’d both realised the truth - that either their relationship or their ambitions were doomed - and instead of confronting it, they’d lashed out.

That had just made sacrificing the relationship all the easier. And Cal knew, sort of, that it was the right thing to do, because how could he follow her across the world, or how could she stay at home while he played his Quidditch matches? So all he could do was suffer it. Square his shoulders. And move on.

And hope, somewhere in his heart, that as the years rolled by they’d have the chance to find one another again.

But it was fine for Tobias to talk about it, to give his well-meaning advice, even if Cal wasn’t listening. Because that wasn’t even what was particularly preoccupying him, it wasn’t why he wasn’t drinking, and his best friend was one of the last men on Earth Cal wanted to discuss that particular topic with.

They ended lunch at a civilised time, instead of making it a liquid meal that dragged across the afternoon, like Cal had managed to make him do three days before when he’d lured Shacklebolt down. That had been successful enough that Cal was of the opinion that all future policy meetings should be conducted when down at least the one bottle of Rioja.

But Cal knew how to play Tobias well enough to make him hurry back to the office when it was time to go, and he set off on his way. He’d wanted his attention diverted for as long as possible, and that had happened.

Before too long he was down at Canary Wharf, but this time it wasn’t Tanith he went with, just some faceless Enforcer who’d drawn the short straw on the unpleasant duty of escorting him to Azkaban. This time he didn’t want the proximity of a friend. This was a decision he had to make alone, and so he wanted to face it alone.

Beyond the eyes of anyone who could judge him. And whilst Tanith was a good friend and ally, ‘judging’ was also one of her fortes.

So it made for a silent journey, waiting on the windy shores, taking the broomsticks across the ocean, winding their way through the seemingly endless corridors of Azkaban. The refurbishment of the institution continued, the efforts to bring it in line with international law and basic expectations of human decency, but there was nothing about this place that Cal would ever describe as anything but soulless.

Is that a good thing?

And then there was his father. Thanatos Brynmor, again sat at a table in the meeting room, again shackled, again looking as if, for all the world, he was there for a spot of afternoon tea.

But the smile that crossed his face was nothing if not hopeful. ‘You came back.’

Cal sat down awkwardly. ‘I did.’

Thanatos hesitated. ‘I thought last time might have been for good.’

‘You upset me,’ Cal said, his honesty surprising even himself. ‘That didn’t change facts. You’ve done more than upset me in the past and I still came here in the first place.’

‘You did.’

The two men sat staring at each other for long moments, matching dark eyes, matching strong brows and foreheads, at one so similar and yet so very different. Eventually, Cal took a deep, uncertain breath.

‘I got some good advice,’ he said. ‘It was really good, in fact. About how I shouldn’t be making whatever decision I make for anyone but me. Not for you. Not for how people might perceive me. But for what I want.’

Thanatos gave a crooked smile, and Cal’s heart twisted at how disarming he found it, as he recognised it as the same lopsided, reassuring grin he gave his friends when they were thinking through something difficult. ‘Except that you don’t know what you want.’

Cal swallowed. ‘Except that.’

‘Then... may I be frank?’ Thanatos opened his hands.

‘You’ve not been shy before.’

‘True enough.’ He leant forward, and sighed. ‘I’m an old man, Caldwyn. Or, at least, I feel it, and I might as well be, because I don’t think I’m ever getting out of here. If the Dementors still ran Azkaban, I reckon I’d have been given the Kiss for all I’ve done. In other countries they would be executing me. My life is, effectively, over.’

And there it was. That twinge of sympathy he could never kill. But before Cal could answer, Thanatos continued. ‘And we can debate the philosophy of what I did -’

‘I think once people are tortured and killed it stops being a philosophy.’

Thanatos lifted his hands. ‘Not my intention. I apologise.’ He was being careful, Cal could see - where before he’d tried to wheedle and even antagonise, that was all done. There was no anger, no malice, none of the obvious signs of manipulation which he had grown to recognise over the years. Those had only been available to him when he’d had power, even in the last few meetings here in Azkaban.

But he had to know that to push too hard now was to lose forever, and Cal was left with the uncomfortable sensation that Thanatos Brynmor was being, in fact, completely honest with him.

‘The point is that whatever I believed, I failed. And history will record me, and my cause, as evil and gone, if it even records the cause at all, if it even records me at all. I imagine there are an awful lot of people who would much prefer I’m locked up, the key’s thrown away, and the mere thought of me never crosses anyone’s mind ever again.’ Thanatos shifted uncomfortably in his shackles. ‘I confronted death. I confronted suffering and torment. Those dangers I accepted willingly. Being forgotten? Leaving this world with no mark upon it a single person can point at and say “this place is better for that he was there”? I can’t think of anything more terrifying.

‘Except that there’s you, Caldwyn.’ Thanatos slumped. ‘You might be the only sign in the world that I ever existed. The only way in which I have left the world behind me a better place.’

Cal drew a deep, shaking breath. ‘If I leave here today and never come back, you will be left in these cells to rot, alone, for the rest of your life. Plenty would call that justice.’

‘And I visited worse upon others,’ Thanatos agreed. ‘It’s a meagre price for me to pay.’

He didn’t regret his actions, Cal knew. Will had been right - if Voldemort rose from the dead and broke all of his Death Eaters out of Azkaban, Cal suspected Thanatos Brynmor would be by his side once again like a shot.

Except, now, to look at him, it was only a suspicion. He didn’t know. Now Thanatos sat weary, beaten, even afraid, in a way he never had. This was a spirit which had endured for fifteen years between the wars, and now, finally, was broken.

It’s not your job to change him, mate. It’s not your job to save him.

The voice chastising him was familiar, and Cal’s lips had to twist, because of all the people in the world to talk him down - even only in his head - on a matter of idealised principle, Tobias Grey was the last one who had a leg to stand on.

‘I’m not going to make you a single promise,’ said Cal at last. ‘I’m not going to commit to coming down here regularly, or even often. If I visit you, it’s going to be because I want to, and not because I feel guilty about your justly deserved fate. And if I stay away, it’s going to be because I want to, not because I’m fussing about what anyone might think of me.’

Thanatos Brynmor gave the first broad, honest smile Cal had ever received off him. ‘I’d expect nothing less of you, Caldwyn.’

‘Don’t think this means that I forgive you, or understand you, or anything. But if there’s one thing I have been unable to shake, no matter how much I have tried, I have agonised, I have reasoned...’ Cal scrubbed his face with his hand. ‘It’s that you’re my father. And I don’t even know what that means when you’re a psycho murderer. But it means something.’

Thanatos was staring at the desk between them, staring hard, and Cal didn’t think he could feel more uncomfortable if he tried. He went to speak, made just a weak, croaking noise - then he nodded, firmly, and much to Cal’s relief met his gaze with clear dark eyes.

Cal drew a deep breath. ‘But there is something I want to ask you about.’

Thanatos swallowed. ‘Anything.’

He hesitated. He stared at the walls, stared at his hands, stared at anything but his father as he questioned, not for the first time, if he was crazy and stupid and still being manipulated. If he owed it to the world to walk away from this cell and never look back. If he owed it to himself.

But he couldn’t. And that didn’t mean Will Rayner was, to any lesser degree, the man who had raised him, shaped him, given him his principles, been his dad...

...but it did mean that, at the end of all things, he could not ignore that Thanatos Brynmor was his father.

Cal’s breath caught. ‘Tell me about my mother.’


Chapter 29: Times Like This
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‘You’d think I’m crazy.’ Tanith took a swig from the bottle of cider and let her feet dangle over the pier. ‘Out here like this. At night. In the cold. And the wet. It’s totally raining. But I guess we need to talk.’

Unsurprisingly the river Thames didn’t answer.

‘Okay. You’re going to be like that. That’s fine. I guess you’re allowed. I guess I’ll carry the conversation.

‘So I got the guy who got you. Got him good. Punched the living shit out of him. My hand swelled up something chronic the next day, Toby had such a fit and I ended up at Saint Mungo’s. But my hand wasn’t broken. You want pain? That’s pain.

‘And he’s going to go to prison, he’s going to have a closed trial, he’s not going to get to spout the delicate information he’s learnt or try to bring down the system or anything like that. Which is good.’

Another swig of cider.

‘I mean, I don’t care if he wants to talk shit about me. He can do that. I deserve it. It’s been everyone else who’s been so keen to keep what I did hidden; I won’t stop them, but I won’t make anyone compromise themselves for me. But for you...

‘Well, you didn’t do anything. And that’s sort of the problem.’ Tanith fiddled with the label on the bottle. ‘That’s why you died. I mean, no, Tom Everard killed you because Tom Everard apparently lost the plot, apparently couldn’t see more than the issues right in front of him and so decided to make himself judge, jury, and executioner because he figured our judges and juries were just being shit. But it’s why he picked you. Because you didn’t do anything.

‘I guess I knew. Somewhere. That you weren’t really fighting the good fight, that you were just keeping your head down and trying to minimise the damage. But there comes a point where keeping your head down is letting the other side win. And I know you had family, and I had all these contacts and these opportunities, but you never went to me asking to help. Even if you knew - you had to know, I got locked up for it, you had to at least suspect and you never, ever asked...

‘...and I never ever offered.’ Tanith chugged several more greedy mouthfuls of issue-dismissing cider. ‘Shit, Jake. I didn’t offer because how the hell do you offer to make a man risk his life, risk his family’s life? It’s got to be a choice. So how the hell do I respect your right to choose, and yet not respect you for not making the choice I approve of?

‘I don’t, that’s stupid. And I would never think you deserved punishment for it, you were a good man, you made the world a better place, you would have continued to make the world a better place if it had been you and me against it all.’ A pained smile tugged at her lips.

‘I guess... I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you let down The Cause, or what the fuck ever... I don’t care. I might not approve of it, I might have thought better of you, I might have wanted better of you... but you still stuck by me through thick and thin that year. You were my partner. My friend. My sanity, sometimes. And if that’s not a good enough deed to clear you of wrongdoing in the eyes of Tom Everard, then fuck that psycho anyway. And fuck the world if they don’t agree.’

She lifted the nearly empty bottle aloft in a toast. ‘So, there it is. I forgive you, Jake. And... I miss you. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for you. I’m always going to miss you.’

The last of the bottle was poured into the Thames, as if Jacob Van Roden, his mortal remains scattered weeks ago into its gloomy waters, could share the toast.

And then Tanith promptly burst into tears.

She let herself, this time. Let herself hunch over on the edge of this pier a stone’s throw from the Canary Wharf office, and let her grief at the loss of her partner wash over her. She’d been here before - with him, with others. Buried too many, said goodbye to too many.

And then she’d carried on.

The tears helped. And when they dried up she stayed there, perched at the pier, alone with only the ghosts for company.

It was fine. They were old friends by now.

She cracked open another bottle. And when, maybe half an hour later, she heard footsteps echoing down the pier towards her, for once she found herself not jumping, not expecting it to be a sudden threat.

It wasn’t the war any more.

‘Thought I’d find you here.’

Tanith snorted and reached for another bottle of cider. She cracked it open and put it on the pier next to her. ‘No, you didn’t.’

‘Of course I did. Eventually.’ Katie sat down and picked up the bottle. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I checked a whole lot of other places first. Your desk. The morgue. Filing. The Ministry. Your flat. That pub -’

‘You checked the pub?’

‘You like that place.’

‘I don’t go there anymore,’ said Tanith, gulping on her cider. ‘I’ve heard all the music before.’

‘Yeah, well. The Old Man wants to see you. Eventually, I mean. He’s clearly not in a rush.’

‘And yet you searched for me for, what, an hour?’

‘I’m your trainee. It’s what I do. Need to make sure you’re all hale and hearty, right, Chief?’ Katie nudged her with an elbow. ‘Oh, right, I forgot. Sarge. Congratulations.’

Tanith gave a lopsided smile, feeling the weight of the new pewter badge in her pocket. ‘Thanks. You know, I couldn’t have done it without you.’

‘Without me to shoot at, you mean?’

‘That’s right.’

‘I really thought, for a second, that you were going to kill me,’ Katie mused. ‘Like, before I realised that you’d grabbed the Shield Cloak when you tackled me, I actually thought you were going to kill me.’

‘I wouldn’t have killed you,’ said Tanith, and took another drink. ‘Maybe maimed.’

‘Real reassuring, Sarge.’

Anyway.’ Tanith set her bottle down. ‘You’re not my trainee any more.’

‘Technically I’m not anyone’s trainee any more.’

‘You’re not going with Harry and Ron to Proudfoot’s team when you’re done with the next course with Dawlish?’

‘I’m not sure it’s my kind of thing.’ Katie kicked her heels against the pier. ‘It’s very... all-go, macho, big-team, hunt-the-bad-guys kind of stuff. It’ll suit Ron and Harry, I think, being part of a team when they’re used to being on the top of one, but I don’t need to learn that. I was looking at the analysis teams.’

Tanith made a face. ‘Analysis? You really want to be stuck behind a desk all day?’

‘I don’t know.’

She picked up the bottle again, once more fiddling with the label. ‘You’re a good field officer, Bell. It’d be a waste for you to go into one of the analysis teams. Besides, that’s not why you joined the Aurors, is it?’ Katie didn’t answer at once, and Tanith took a swig of cider. ‘You could... you know.’

‘Psychic powers not working today, Sarge.’

‘I mean.’ The label really was sticky. ‘I’m going to be taking it easy for the next while. Simple cases. Maybe helping down with training. Definitely until the new year - Merlin, that’s only a month away.’ Tanith cleared her throat. ‘My point is. Being. Such as...’

‘Sarge, you really suck at asking a girl out, you know?’

Tanith smirked, rubbing the back of her neck. ‘I think you and I make a good team. I think you’re a good officer. I think you need experience and confidence, but I think that you back me up in ways I need backing up. And...’ Her voice trailed off, clumsy as ever in making an open statement like this.

‘If it helps,’ Katie said gently, ‘imagine me naked.’

Tanith sputtered. ‘If it helps?’

‘You know. Makes this less tense.’

‘That would not make it less tense.’

‘It already has. See?’

Tanith lifted her hands. ‘You know what? Forget it. Fuck off, Bell. I don’t want you as my partner anyway.’ But the corners of her lips twitched.

‘S’fine, I didn’t want to be. You tried to maim me.’ Katie took a swig of cider, also smirking. ‘Lazy, easy month, huh?’

‘Get some pavement-pounding done. Some good, old-fashioned policing. Our own cases instead of having to march to the beat of Proudfoot’s drum. The man’s an uptight control freak and jackass anyway.’

‘Whereas you are the soul of calm relaxation.’

Tanith swatted her on the arm. ‘I’m trying to be nice here, Bell. You and me. Here on out. Kicking ass and taking names. What do you say?’

‘Well, if it’s good ass...’ Katie relaxed a little. ‘We did do a pretty good job on the case, didn’t we?’

‘If it hadn’t been for our work, we’d have never found Toby in time,’ said Tanith, the ice that had settled in her belly when she’d started to be afraid for him never, ever quite melted. But that was okay. It had been there for years. A constant companion, reminding her of what she had to lose.

So she had to value it all the more.

‘I guess not. He’d have disappeared,’ said Katie. ‘He had all these resources we didn’t even know about. I didn’t imagine he’d have these things. The contacts down in MLE. Stacey Whitman - I mean, just by using a Muggle identity he managed to avoid so many of our efforts to trace him. If it hadn’t been for Tobias stumbling across him, if it hadn’t been for Ron and Harry finding out who Stacey Whitman was, we’d have never known it was him.’

‘I think we might have, eventually. Only so many people had been in Lackardy’s cell to drop that rune. And there was still the memory charm on Jen. But no, knowing Stacey Whitman was his mother was a smoking gun. Harry said we were lucky on that one, that he didn’t make a fake identity and just used someone whose documentation he had easy access to. I suppose he didn’t expect us to trace it.’

Katie grimaced. ‘I guess we did follow the Stacey Whitman trail. But so much of it was luck - bad luck, for him. Toby seeing those papers. Jen coming to see him just as he was going to find you. And even then, he covered his tracks, messed with her memories, messed with his neighbour’s memories. He was always pretty good at memory charms.’

‘He knew how to use them properly - use them so subtly we didn’t even look for them,’ Tanith sighed. ‘Jen’s only failed because of the proof in front of her. If she hadn’t been there that night -’ She stopped, and quirked an eyebrow at Katie. ‘How the hell did Everard know where to find me?’

‘Oh.’ Katie made a face. ‘That one might have been my bad. I mentioned over coffee with him and Jen where you took us that night you broke up with Tobias. I guess he reached the exact same conclusion that the guys and I did.’

‘I suppose if it hadn’t been there and then, it’d have been someplace else. But don’t hold it too hard against yourself, Bell. So much of coppering is luck. I bet Dawlish didn’t give you that little revelation in training.’

‘No, he told us all about the virtues of hard work. And I suppose those did pay off. Like I said, we’ve got a paper trail with the Stacey Whitman identity, we’ve got him using it to purchase goods used in his attacks, we’ve got that office being used for people to deliver all those confidential MLE files to.’

Tanith made a face. ‘That bit does bother me. That he managed to get the information on so many targets and potential targets, that he had accomplices.’

‘Tom’s a... was... Christ, I don’t know what word to use. He’s likable. He makes contacts easily. And he worked in the Prosecution Office. I bet most of them thought they were doing a good guy a favour. I mean, passing a member of the Prosecution Office information about people who got let off in the June Inquiries? I bet people thought he was putting together a case or something. I bet they thought it was about justice.’

‘We’ll still have to find them. They shouldn’t be passing that information to anyone.’

‘Not everyone has faith in the system, Sarge.’

‘No,’ Tanith sighed. ‘And I suppose that’s the point, isn’t it? Everard had no faith in the system. So he took matters into his own hands. And in doing so, managed to point out why we have a bloody system, why these decisions can’t be taken by one man - one man with all of his bias, one man who sometimes gets it wrong.’ She glanced over at Katie. ‘Are you all right?’

Katie forced a shrug. ‘I didn’t think it would be him,’ she said quietly. ‘I did wonder, a bit, briefly. When some of the techniques were things we used in the Lions - I mean, I figured they were just sensible techniques, we didn’t do anything unique. I wondered if it was one of us. And I thought it was possible that maybe Richard or Percival could be that angry, though the idea of Percival being a serial killer is actually hilariously implausible. But it never crossed my mind it would be Tom.’

‘No,’ Tanith breathed. ‘But I suppose there isn’t a type.’

‘I knew he changed. A lot. When Nick and Cormac died. He liked to pretend he didn’t worship them when he was a kid, but he really did. He trotted after them like they were golden boys, and they had little to nothing to do with him. He was just the pudgy loser who stood in their shadow. And then he grew up, and he discovered he had things in common with other people, and then he was prefect and Head Boy - eventually, third choice, not a ringing endorsement. But it definitely came back in the war.

‘They were so... righteous. Jen held us steady, in ways we never realised until they were gone, and we did calm down, gain focus, get better without them. But they inspired us, they were like blinding lights.’ Katie’s voice had gone quiet, wistful. ‘That’s why so many people followed them that day, Gullsmere. Tom did. We believed they could get through anything. Even one of Doyle’s visions.

‘And then they didn’t. And Tom tried to... I know he tried to take their place. And it didn’t work, not just because we all began to realise just how much Jen had been doing all along, and not just because I guess Cal was there to shoulder a lot of the grunt-work, and suddenly Doyle wasn’t the weird outsider any more. But Tom just wasn’t that guy.

‘And he kept trying to be. Kept trying to be them. Fight the good fight. For them.’ Katie sagged at last, and took a swig of cider. ‘I shouldn’t be surprised he didn’t stop fighting. Because that was what it was about. Just us, alone, against the world, against the government, no higher power there to tell us what was right or what was wrong. They used to count their kills, you know?’

Tanith made a face. ‘I didn’t.’

‘They had a little table. Nick topped it, of course, then Cormac, but Tom was third. Real macho thing. I know Jen hated it. But we had to go out there on missions intending to kill people. Snatchers wouldn’t stop just because we Stunned them and let the Muggle-borns go. But if we killed them? One less team. It was a war. We fought. We killed. I know you didn’t quite go through that.’

‘No, for me the trick was trying to not kill the other side.’

‘So I can see how Tom found it easy, now. It’s not murder to him. It’s just what a soldier does in a war. Identifies the enemy, and then goes out and kills them. Even dagger-in-the-dark stuff isn’t going to be an issue - we laid ambushes all the time. What difference is waiting in a spot you know a Portkey’s going to drop a bunch of Snatchers and killing the lot of them, and then breaking into some bad guy’s home to kill them? The end result is the same. There’s no moral high ground, no real moral high ground. You kill the bad guy to stop them from doing more bad. End of.’

‘Except that he wasn’t trying to prevent any more,’ said Tanith. ‘Not entirely. He was also seeking to punish.’

‘Yeah.’ Katie took a swig of cider. ‘He definitely went off the beaten path. And none of us, not us who worked with him for an age, lived with him for an age, saw it coming. I mean, from your end, it’d be like... I don’t know. Not Cal going off the deep end, but I bet you’d be surprised if, say, Larkin went on a killing spree.’

‘Only because I don’t have that much faith in her capacity to get away with it,’ Tanith mused. ‘But I see your point.’ She glanced at her new partner. ‘You know Vaughn’s got him locked down. He’s not going to get to spout all that shit he slung at us.’

‘I know.’ Katie wrinkled her nose. ‘I don’t know how I feel about that.’

‘Me neither,’ Tanith breathed. ‘It’s like... that’s the kind of thing Thicknesse did. Or, to not push to such an extreme, Scrimgeour and Fudge. But at the same time, Everard knows so much. About cases, about convictions, about people who made their deals fair and square and got let off fair and square and he’d just blow it open.’

‘But you didn’t like some of it,’ Katie reminded her. ‘Like Mulready not having been brought in. You thought he deserved what Tom did to him.’

‘I did,’ Tanith said. ‘I do think the MLE dropped the ball on that. Us. Vaughn. Auror Office. Enforcers. Prosecution Office. I think we made mistakes. And so I don’t like the idea that we’re silencing Everard to cover up our fuck ups.’

‘Yeah. That’s what leaves the bad taste in my mouth.’

‘It’s not all that difficult, though,’ said Tanith, and took a gulp of cider. ‘We convict him for killing definitely one good man, and for taking the law into his own hands. He deserves to rot in a cell for killing Jacob anyway.’

‘I guess our high horse is kind of lucky he killed him.’ Katie winced. ‘Sorry. You know what I mean. I mean this would be a lot messier if he hadn’t become quite so reprehensible.’

‘If he wasn’t so crazy as to have killed him, then we probably wouldn’t need to be locking him away without press access and we probably could be using this to catalyse a closer examination at how and why we do what we do. How we make compromises in justice.’ Tanith frowned. ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

‘Bless you.’

‘It’s Latin. Who watches the watchmen? That’s what this is about. Accountability.’

‘And did he answer that?’

‘Who?’

‘Whatever Roman spouted that question?’

Tanith frowned. ‘I don’t know who said it,’ she admitted. ‘But I think the answer is... us. The watchmen. We watch the watchmen. And if we’re going to move forward from this, we have to study ourselves, our comrades, our methods. Our principles.’

‘So.’ Katie kicked her heels against the pier. ‘You’re saying you want us to take that job down in Internal Affairs.’

Tanith blanched. ‘Everyone hates Internal Affairs.’

‘And you’re a big fan of caring what people think.’

‘Point.’ Tanith shook her head, and lifted her cider. ‘No. For the next month, you and me hit the streets. I’ll pull some strings, get you out of Dawlish’s pointless course, and you can do proper work. Get proper experience. Do stuff the like of which we signed up to do. No deranged serial killers. No hunting our friends. Just chasing bad guys.’

‘Because it’s always that easy,’ said Katie, and clinked their bottles together anyway. ‘Sarge, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.’


* *


‘You’re not allowed to stay in late tonight, you hear me?’

Tobias looked up to see Kingsley Shacklebolt stood in the door to his office, arms folded across his broad chest. He gave a sheepish smile. ‘I’ve still got to finalise your comments on the Potions Import Tax for tomorrow -’

‘That’s tomorrow evening. Not even the afternoon. I know you refused to take the day off for this, but you’re going home at a sensible time, and you’re coming in tomorrow at a decidedly later than sensible time.’

‘Since when did you start lecturing me about my hours, Minister?’

‘Since I realised I was making enemies down in the Auror Office, and I like the Auror Office. They’re responsible for my safety. So I’d rather keep them happy.’

Tobias looked down at his desk, at the several quills still at work away on the parchment, at the duplications of the extant comments being made and the blank bits of paper in front of him still awaiting his input. He sighed. ‘Since I’m not going to get this done in less than a couple of hours, I might as well leave it until the afternoon.’ He looked up sharply. ‘But if I have this on your desk at only four o’clock tomorrow, you will memorise -’

‘Memorising my comments, Tobias, is the least challenging part of this job, and my approval ratings suggest I’ve been doing pretty well at the whole thing.’ Shacklebolt gave one of his most charming, disarming smiles, and opened his hands. ‘Head on home. There’s a good fellow.’

‘And you’re going to get out of here at a sensible time?’

‘You know I do. I have a rather fat cat waiting for me at home, and he hates being left waiting for dinner,’ Shacklebolt pointed out.

Tobias looked up at the clock on the wall. Half seven. Not a bad sort of time to end the day, though he had assured Tanith that he would probably be late this evening with the Minister’s address of the Wizengamot the next day. She’d been unexpectedly okay about it.

But still he grinned at the thought of surprising her.

So he left the Ministry with his work undone and yet a spring in his step, and for once thought he’d let himself just take the Floo route directly to the Leaky Cauldron, as a glance out the window suggested it was a rare nice evening. Cold, because November was still dying, but bright and crisp.

At this time of evening the Ministry was quiet - hardly empty, for there were always some staying to burn the midnight oil or just wrapping up projects, or still the poor workers of the DIMC committed to irregular hours courtesy of international time zones. But he relished the chance to wander the stone corridors, make his way to the lift without needing to queue, enjoyed the sound of his footsteps echoing across the lobby of the Ministry as he reached the main floor.

The statues were gone, of course; the macabre vision of Voldemort’s oppression had been torn down in the chaos of the night of the Battle, and Tobias had cheered along with the rest of the crowd as the grotesque had been battered and then brought crashing to the ground. He’d stood there with one arm around Tanith, ostensibly to help keep both of them upright, but in reality just to be close as the freedom fighters had cheered and surged around them, not knowing how the day would end, not knowing if Voldemort would be defeated at Hogwarts, but defying him anyway.

There had been extensive debate over what to replace the statue with. Some had pressed for the old statue to be brought back, and that might have worked if someone hadn’t broken into the Ministry and destroyed it in storage. Tobias had only been relieved by this; he had seen its problematic elements but knew plenty of people had hankered for the old days, liked to pretend everything was as it had been.

In the end, Shacklebolt had commissioned a tall memorial, an obelisk of white marble which reached up almost to the tall foyer’s ceiling. Upon it was inscribed the name of everyone - witch, wizard, Muggle, or Being - who had died in the Second War, starting with Cedric Diggory and ending with the last person to perish of their wounds at the Battle of Hogwarts. Tobias’ eyes were drawn, as they so often were, to the top third - a space near one of the corners on the north-facing side. He’d seen that particular name be inscribed, had gone down to the workshop when it had been time, and watched as the craftsmen had carefully carved ‘Anne MacKenzie’ into the stone.

So he lingered, like he always did when it was quiet, and let the sound of his footsteps echoing on the stone ring off into the gloom of the foyer as he looked. To Annie’s name, then further down to where he knew Altair Ritter’s name had been inscribed, because Tanith had come down on that particular day. And the others.

Connor O’Neal. Percival McGowan. Aurora Marlowe. Nicholas Wilson. Cormac McLaggen. Heroes and victims. The people who would never have a chance to live in the peace he fought every day to forge that bit brighter.

He owed it to them, he supposed, to keep on fighting. To grant others the futures they had been denied. And, perhaps more importantly, he owed it to those living to keep on fighting.

Tobias’ lips twisted, and he shifted his weight on his bad leg. In so far as you fight any more. But it didn’t hurt as much as it had in months, the meetings with the Healers, the potions that ruled out quite so many sleepless nights, the therapy and the efforts to just put less strain on his wound all doing better.

It was a scar that would never disappear, never fully heal. But it was a part of him now, a part of what made him who he was, and he could still do everything in his power to stop it from dictating the terms under which he lived his life.

Scars didn’t disappear. But they did fade.

It was, as he had suspected, a brisk, cold night once he was out in the beer garden of the Leaky Cauldron. He had a few greetings on the way out, people recognising him from the papers, or from The Midnight Press, still, and at least with the election over it led to words of approval or encouragement instead of the occasional abuse he’d had from supporters of Philon Harrigan.

It was fine. Harrigan now had a comfortable job in the Ministry anyway. That was the way politics worked.

Diagon Alley was busy, the populace having abandoned their work and now keen to enjoy the evening. With Christmas around the corner shops were looking to be open later, pubs and bars looking to bring in patronage, and still the wizarding world was gripped by the fervour which demanded they live life to the fullest in the aftermath of war. But it wasn’t so crowded that he struggled to make his way down the street, and even from way back here he could see where he was going.

Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes remained, as ever, a brightly lit beacon to guide him on his path.

It was taking part in the late night openings, unsurprisingly, and even from several junctions down he could hear the bangs, the hoots, the cacophony of a medley of merriment that usually accompanied a particularly busy night of trade.

Tobias was rather fond of the place, but the idea of moving somewhere that didn’t explode late into the night was still heartening. But the sound would, at least, mask his footsteps - and his thunk of a staff - on the stairs, perhaps allow him to make it to the front door unnoticed, and as he reached the building, the offices on the ground floor dark at this time of evening, he tried to make his gait as light as possible.

It was impossible to tell on any given night if Cal was going to be in, if he was globetrotting with Puddlemere United or if he was out with his teammates or if he was just at home with the wireless and a beer. Normally Tobias welcomed it, liked having his old friend around, but he had to admit that he was hoping for a quiet - though not totally abandoned - flat to greet him.

As he opened the door to let himself in, his hopes could not have been more dashed.

And were promptly replaced with a whole new exuberance as he realised what was before him.

‘Ha! I knew that was you on the road! Happy birthday, mate!’ That was Cal, closing the distance to wrap him in a bear hug, and Tobias staggered at both the impact and his surprise.

As Cal pulled back he fought to gather himself, fought to hide his surprise. The flat hadn’t exactly been decorated - here he suspected the hand of Tanith, who would have put her foot down on anything too tacky - but it had definitely been tidied. The evidence of the festivities was the figures stood waiting for him, all wearing broad smiles, all holding flutes of champagne.

Cal himself, Tanith, Gabriel, Jen, Dimitri, Katie. And just as Cal did pull back the others lifted their glasses, and Dimitri stepped forward to hand him one of his own.

Cal rounded on Tanith, his grin devilish. ‘You told me that bribing Shacklebolt wouldn’t work.’

Tobias blinked. ‘You - wait, you bribed the Minister -’

‘To let you out early. Of course, the moment he realised it was your birthday he was completely on board, but I think he liked those complementary tickets for Saturday’s game anyway. It’s the Falcons, we’ll smash them, you’ll like that.’

‘Your optimism is... notable...’ Tobias turned to the others, working his jaw. ‘I’ll be honest, I completely... I forgot about today...’

‘I know.’ That was Tanith, who took the staff away to lean it on the wall and slid to his side to replace it. ‘And I knew you wouldn’t want too much of a fuss. So I thought I’d get everyone together.’

‘No, you thought you’d fuss over whether or not it was worth it because he’d try to work late because of this Wizengamot bollocks tomorrow and I had the actual idea of going over his head to talk to the boss -’

‘His boss is the Minister, Cal, I couldn’t exactly -’

‘Anyway!’ That was Jen, smirking at the bickering as she cut it off. ‘We thought we’d get together and have a drink to celebrate. Because there’s not been much celebrating lately which hasn’t been tinged with sadness, and we wanted to change that.’

‘There you go, dear,’ said Gabriel, slipping his arm around her waist. ‘Take over and speechify, you’re good at that.’

‘If there is to be speechification tonight,’ said Dimitri, ‘I would much rather we skip it and go straight to drinking the rather good champagne. But, it is traditional under these circumstances that we have a toast. No?’

‘It is,’ said Tobias, and blinked as he realised all eyes had fallen on him. ‘What, you want to celebrate and you expect me to pull something out of the hat?’

‘You always were good at falling in love with the words, Toby,’ said Katie. ‘Now hurry up, the Sarge hasn’t let us have more than sip of the champagne and like Dimitri said, it is pretty good.’

‘You’d just drink it all before he got here otherwise,’ Tanith hissed at her partner, but her hand had slid into Tobias’, their fingers entwined, and she didn’t push the point, instead looking up at her fiancé with an expectant, happy glow.

It was unusual from her. The smiles, the relaxed airs, they seemed unusual from all of them except perhaps Katie and Dimitri, who carried theirs around like shields against all the ills of the outside world. But they suited the whole lot of them, and it occurred to Tobias that this, perhaps, was how they were supposed to look. Not assailed by war or by grief, not struggling against inner demons and outer challenges.

Just men and women, together, happy. With friends and loved ones.

‘Then I had best keep it brief,’ said Tobias Grey, and lifted his champagne flute aloft as he regarded his friends. ‘To times like this. When the night outside is cold but we can all stand here, together. Warm. May there be many more.’



Finis




A/C: And that, as they say, is that.

This really is the end. I may find myself tempted to write further short stories, perhaps, snippets of the lives of the gang. But their stories, as a whole, are done and dusted, over with 'Beyond This Place'. The end of not just this tale, but the Anguisverse as a whole, a story spanning almost ten years of the characters lives - and ten years in the writing. On and off, of course.

It's been a hell of a ride. I am immensely grateful to everyone who has read and enjoyed this story, and especially those who have offered a word (or more) in support. I wrote this for myself, for my own entertainment - because if one is desirous of a big audience in fanfic, they don't write OC stories. But if just one other person out there found this story half as fun to read as I found it to write, it was already doubly worth it.

There'll be more from me, no doubt. 'Ignite' and the tales that will spin from that are still to come - and with them there are snippets of Anguisverse canon, for Nat Lockett's story carries across, and her story doesn't exist in a vacuum. There should be 'Easter Eggs' within for fans of both series. I'm still working, as I said at the end of Shade, on a bold surge towards publication. Maybe I'll have news for my friends here some day soon.

But regardless. This saga is over, which is always sad. I have no regrets, merely the satisfaction of a job well done. I love these guys, and I am happy to send them off into the sunset - and I hope you, too, are happy to wave them off into the sunset. Don't you worry. They get their happy endings.

All is well.


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