Tanith Cole hadn’t spoken to her sister in some time, but even that wasn’t the greeting she’d expected.
It was a warm summer’s day, the sort of day where the sky was the deepest shade of blue, where it was impossible to ignore the birds singing from their perches in the trees that lined the roadside of this particularly idyllic street of the rural Midlands. The sort of day where all the woes of the world could only look brighter, just because the sun was out and the air was warm.
It made no sense. Then again, neither did Tanith’s visiting her sister, but nevertheless, here she was.
And here she was getting a baby shoved into her arms.
Technically, Tanith knew of little Leah’s existence. She’d received the letters from her mother informing her that Evadne had given birth, and wasn’t Amulius proud, and shouldn’t she visit. Which, yes, she should have. But first there had been Hogwarts and her exam revision, then there was moving house, and now Auror training, so it had taken her a while to get around to it…
‘I’ll drop her,’ Tanith warned as she held her niece with a wariness one usually reserved for high-yield explosives.
‘Of course you won’t. She’s your niece. Come on in.’ Evadne gestured for her to step inside the house without any further aplomb or niceties, and before Tanith knew it, they were in the comfortably and yet traditionally furnished country cottage of her sister’s family. Amulius Sprague was a, in her opinion, rather mediocre and uninspired man, but he made a not irrelevant amount of money from his middle management job at the Ministry, and that meant his household was well provided for.
‘…blood ties do not mean an increase in my dexterity,’ Tanith mumbled, wandering in and tightening her grip on Leah. The baby blew a spittle bubble before regarding her with a sombre, brown-eyed gaze of rather unsuitable intensity, she thought, for a six month-old.
Evadne turned to her, one eyebrow raised. When they had been younger, she had been considered the ‘pretty one’. Taller than Tanith, more aristocratic of feature, she was far more classically beautiful where Tanith was much more slight in build, her face much sharper, but married life had softened this. She had not recovered her figure after childbirth; contentment with her husband seemed to have prompted more time focusing on a comfortable home than the preening she had done for hours when a teenager. And it seemed to suit her. No more was there that aura of constant control, but rather, much more relaxed satisfaction.
‘Hold her to you. No, not like that. Look, she’s fine,’ Evadne instructed rather impatiently. ‘See? She likes you.’
‘I wasn’t aware blowing spit bubbles was a sign of appreciation,’ Tanith said, but nevertheless adjusted her hold to be a little more comfortable and close. For Leah’s own comfort, of course. Of course.
‘She’s just had breakfast, so she’s pretty happy.’ They wandered through the wood-panelled hallway into the kitchen, with its polished surfaces and windows angled to catch the optimal amount of sunlight. The scent of toast and bacon lingered in the air, though all was already squeaky clean.
‘Amulius not around?’ Tanith asked casually, leaning against a cupboard and absent-mindedly rocking Leah, who was by now reaching for a stray lock of dark hair and winding it around a tiny fist. Upon eventual extraction, this would likely hurt – but for now, it was hard to worry about such a problem with those wide, dark eyes seeming rather fascinated.
‘He had to pop into the office this morning. Tea?’ Without waiting for a response, Evadne bustled towards the kettle.
Tanith narrowed her eyes. Before marriage, never had her sister bustled anywhere. ‘On a Saturday? He really is a hoot.’
A tea mug came down on the counter with a sharp thump. Little Leah flinched a little in response to the noise, but to Tanith’s infinite relief didn’t react much more than that.
‘Don’t.’ Evadne’s voice was cold, but also intensely tired. ‘Don’t do that.’
Tanith blinked. ‘Do what?’
‘Put him down. Put my life down…’ Evadne lifted a hand to her brow, rubbing her temples.
‘All I did was point out going to work on a Saturday…’
‘You go to work on Saturdays. And Sundays. You barely take time off your work,’ her sister pointed out, staring at the empty tea mug and not looking at her.
Tanith straightened up. ‘I’m an Auror,’ she pointed out. ‘Amulius works in… which department does he even bloody well work in?’
Evadne turned sharply. ‘The Floo Network Authority. You know that. It was mentioned in my last letter. For the third time.’
‘He’s a Floo maintenance supervisor.’ Tanith waved a free hand, ignoring the last pointed comment. ‘I’m sure the sky will fall in if some wizard can’t travel by Floo! It’s not as if we don’t have Portkeys or apparition! Such an important job, and obviously requiring weekend shifts!’
‘Don’t.’ This time, Evadne’s voice held every inch as much steel as any of the drill instructors in Auror training Tanith had come across. ‘I didn’t invite you here to disparage my life and my husband!’
‘Then why did you invite me here?’ Tanith challenged, straightening up.
‘Because I thought we might try to actually talk, like a family, now there’s a war on!’
Silence rang across the kitchen at those last words in a raised voice, hanging between them. Then, Leah gave a small whimper, the initial shock of her mother’s shout finally wearing off, and before Tanith knew it she had a tiny bundle of wailing in her arms.
And just like that, the tension of the argument was gone, Evadne was pulling her daughter into her arms and rocking her, and Tanith was rubbing her temples with new layers of guilt she wasn’t accustomed to. Upsetting her sister was no novelty. Hell, upsetting her family was no novelty. Insulting her brother-in-law was, it seemed, habit. But making her newfound niece cry delivered a twist to the gut that was particularly unwelcome.
‘I’m sorry,’ she mumbled as Evadne moved away, Leah calming a little at the comfort of her mother. ‘I didn’t mean to upset her…’
‘I shouldn’t have shouted, it’s alright, mummy’s sorry…’ It took Tanith a moment to decipher which words were for her and which were for the only slowly calming infant. ‘I didn’t want this, this was exactly what I didn’t want…’
‘I just thought… Mum goes on about how happy you are, I figured Amulius would be here at the weekend…’ The excuses seemed increasingly weak and desperate.
‘He just went to do some bloody paperwork, Tanith, I’m not a widow to work!’ There was a dose more strength in Evadne’s voice at last, along with exasperation. ‘And just because his work isn’t so preciously important as yours doesn’t mean he’s not allowed to take time off to finish it. There, there…’ By now, Leah was quiet, sniffling but composed, nestled against her mother.
Tanith looked at her feet. Since being out of Hogwarts, gone were the strict uniforms, the flowing robes. In their place were boots, sturdy and completely unfashionable, and padded trousers, and a coat in the dark green of the Auror Department. ‘I’m sorry,’ she repeated weakly.
‘You always do this,’ Evadne admonished. ‘You always act like we’re… beneath you, in some way. When we were at home you kept acting like I was being petty, and superficial, when… when I wanted to be happy, when I was working for a good life with a good husband and a good home! And now I have that, you keep acting like this is all… too shittily domestic for you and your exciting life!’
Tanith almost rocked back on her heels at the wave of words, blinking in complete confusion. ‘…you just invited me over for a cup of tea…’
‘Because I thought that, now you were out in the real world, you’d be a bit more realistic!’ Evadne sighed, still rocking Leah and turning to face her sister. ‘But you just… you have to keep trying, don’t you.’
There was a pause, and Tanith blinked. ‘Trying? Trying what?’
‘I worry about you, Tanith.’ Evadne’s gaze had lost its previous frustration, fading now for a tired concern. ‘You work, and you work… and I don’t think you even know what you’re working for.’
‘My Auror work is…’
‘I don’t mean that.’ She straightened up, shaking her head. ‘I mean for you. You’ve always been chasing something. I don’t think you’ve ever let yourself enjoy what you’ve got.’ Evadne stroked her daughter’s hair, the child by now quiet and seeming contented in being comforted. ‘And I don’t mean settling for what’s in front of you. I mean appreciating when you’ve got it good.’
Tanith blinked owlishly, then her eyes narrowed to fix a suspicious gaze on her sister. ‘You don’t even know what I’m up to…’
‘You became an Auror. Tell me you didn’t do that to upset Dad.’ Evadne met her gaze perfectly levelly.
‘I became an Auror because it’s important, not…’ Tanith stopped, the half-truth choking in her throat. There was a pause as she scanned the room as if it could provide her with an escape, but no such opportunity seemed to be presenting itself, and her shoulders sagged. ‘Once. Yes. I never liked the way he behaved.’ The way I thought he behaved. You don’t know, do you, Evadne? You don’t know how much he risked for what was right…
Her sister tutted. ‘That’s a bit low of you, Tanith.’
‘I know.’ She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Demonstrating that she was no longer frustrated with their father would probably just prompt questions. ‘Then I did more reading. And decided to do it for me, not for anything quite so immature.’
‘It’s long hours. Even when you’re out of training. Especially when you’re out of training. I remember talking to Jacob about the sort of schedule he had…’
Tanith blinked at the abrupt change in tack, and so only barely processed the fact that her sister had ever spoken to Jacob Van Roden, an old mentor from school and her current mentor and partner in the Aurors. ‘He still has it. And I know it’s long hours. I prepared for this.’
‘So you don’t have to think about anything different? So you don’t have to focus on anything other than work?’ Evadne seemed to be changing her tactics rapidly, an aggressive skill that Tanith hadn’t known her sister was even capable of, but it was definitely working to her advantage, keeping her off-balance.
'I have things other than work,' Tanith said defensively, moving across the kitchen to take over the preparation of tea. It gave her something to do with her hands instead of gesturing anxiously, and it meant she didn't have to look directly at her sister.
'I thought most of your friends had left the country?' Evadne went to put little Leah in her tall baby chair at the kitchen table, her daughter more settled now, babbling happily to herself.
Tanith grimaced at the accusation there. 'Two,' she correct stiffly, and she sure as hell wasn't going to acknowledge that this was two-thirds of what she considered her friendship circle. 'That's all. Besides, I'm living with Cal Brynmor now...'
Tanith paused, the kettle in her hand. She knew that “oh”. Knew that tone of mock-innocence. For too long Tanith had been accustomed to dealing with duller girls, like Melanie Larkin or Ariane Drake, or ones who didn't want to deconstruct every part of her life, like Nat Lockett. She'd grown clumsy in the face of her sister's sharp interest.
'...and his girlfriend seems set to spend half her time there,' she continued deliberately. 'And I'm getting to know her.'
Evadne seemed somewhat mollified by this, accepting the mug of tea pushed into her hands with an expression that did border on sheepish. 'I am glad,' she said, and it was probably the closest thing to an apology that Tanith was likely to get from her sister.
That was fine. It wasn’t as if her suspicions of Tanith being alone weren’t right.
'I imagine you're supposed to be busy at this point in Auror training, and with everything that's going on,' she continued.
Tanith nodded. 'This new on-the-beat training regime isn't making life easy,' she accepted. 'And it's not like I've been at it for long. But I have more responsibilities, not just for myself but people around me. At least right now the trainees are just doing very minor jobs.'
Evadne frowned. 'Is anything going to be minor while there are Death Eaters around?'
'...not for long.' Tanith grimaced. 'I'll be fine, Eva. Really. If you're worried about me working too hard, then - well, that just means I'll be more ready for when trouble comes along...!'
Evadne looked down, stirring her tea unhappily. 'I just don't want you having chosen this way of life because of Dad.'
'I haven't,' Tanith said. It was only half a lie. The rest would take explaining too much. 'This is me. This is what I want to do.
'Just so long as you don't kill yourself doing it.' Her sister sighed. 'You keep people too far away from yourself, Tanith.'
There, her expression flickered. 'I wouldn't say "too far".'
'I don't know if it's my fault, or Mum and Dad's fault, but it's a bad time for that. Family should be close together. And friends should be close together.' Evadne's frown deepened. 'I don't know if I approve of those friends of yours who left the country.'
'Well, Doyle was always weird,' Tanith mumbled. There was no way she was going to begin to try and explain what was going on with Gabriel Doyle. That would require her understanding it. 'And Grey - he's not got any family in the country anyway, and he's... he's doing important work.'
'With the DIMC, isn't it? Amulius has some friends in there. I suppose he's lucky; most new applicants have to wait years before they get to go abroad. Where is it? Warsaw?'
'Moscow.' Tanith flinched a little. 'And... well, Tobias Grey's not most applicants.'
She didn't like how her sister looked at her then, and so she hid her expression behind another gulp of tea. 'I don't really know what he's up to there.'
'Weren't you two close?' Evadne stroked her daughter's hair gently as the little girl reached out at her for some attention.
'Once.' Tanith straightened up to try to throw back the onslaught of memories. She remembered her hands covered in Tobias' blood. She remembered the sound he made in utter despair as if his soul had been ripped in two. She remembered the twist of his smile, the glint in his eye when he had a bright spark of an idea, the taste of his lips...
'He left Hogwarts for the Magical Law Enforcement Squad last April. I've barely seen him over the last few months.' She did her best to sound dismissive. 'Grey will go wherever he thinks he needs to be, and to hell with anyone else.'
There she failed to keep the bitterness out of her voice, and so quickly she drained her tea mug. It was a little too hot for that, but Tanith just made a face and set the cup down lightly on the kitchen counter. 'I should... get going. Cal's getting a new bed delivered today and there's no way he's got the charms to get it up the stairs.'
'Didn't your flat come fully furnished?' Evadne frowned. 'What happened to the old bed.'
'I'm quite sure I don't want to know.' Tanith reached to pull on her long robe-coat, draped across one of the high kitchen stools. 'Look, I... we should do this some more. Maybe you should come down to London and we can do lunch.'
'With this little one?' Evadne smiled fondly at Leah.
'You could bring her down. Or get someone to look after her.' Tanith paused, and frowned. 'Get someone to look after her. I don't - I mean, London's safe, but...'
She could cope with the idea of risk to herself, or even her friends, or even her family. In reality there wasn't exactly a high risk to sitting down for some tea in the middle of Diagon Alley. It wasn't as if the Death Eaters were going to maraud those having a shopping lunch.
But the idea of little Leah being thrown into the potential line of danger made any ideas of seeing her for lunch in London turn sour quickly.
'Or you could come here,' Evande said gently.
Tanith hesitated as she pulled up the collar of her coat, before giving a short, curt nod. 'Yeah,' she said thickly. 'I mean, I could do that. When I've got the time.'
She straightened up to face her sister, but was still startled when the older woman crossed the distance between them to pull her into a hug.
The Coles were not known for being an especially demonstrative family. They had lived quite comfortably with the presumption that they all knew how the other felt about them, and so making grand gestures was thought to be, if not beneath them, then rather unnecessary.
There was a reason they didn't talk much in general.
Still, Tanith fought through her surprise to return the hug, and when she pulled back she turned to the little bouncing form of baby Leah.
'And don't you give your mummy too much trouble, hmm?' she said, fondly but with the awkwardness of one who's not used to dealing with children however much they might be sincere in their affection, and she stepped forward to give Leah a kiss on the top of the head.
Her niece gurgled happily, and Tanith found herself grinning despite herself as she was let out of her sister's cosy Midlands home.
Her coat wasn't really needed in the middle of July. But it was a distinctive cut, a distinctive colour, and there were still more people out there who saw an Auror as someone to not mess with rather than a target.
If a Death Eater knew their business, they'd know the Cole family to be targets anyway, courtesy of Daedalus Cole's work. If they didn't, then maybe they'd think twice about causing trouble for Amulius Sprague's household if they'd had a visit from an Auror.
So Tanith wasn't discreet as she made her way to the big oak at the foot of the front garden, though she did then glance around to make sure nobody was in the area. This was a heavily wizarding street, one of those parts of the world where the magically inclined tended to congregate, if only so they didn't have to be subtle and so they had someone else to borrow some Floo Powder from if they ran out.
But it didn't do to not make sure there weren't any Muggles around when you turned on the spot and disappeared into thin air with a sharp crack.
Her thoughts had been on the living room of her flat, the cramped little affair she'd managed to wrangle, just above a solicitors and opposite Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes. The banging and noises went on into the night, sometimes, but it meant the rent was cheap. And after one particularly bad night, the brothers had knocked on the door to sheepishly deliver them a free sample pack of their products in apology.
Tanith had quickly taken all of their Peruvian Darkness Powder while Cal was still giggling over transforming wands. The brothers Weasley would never know just how useful their products had proven to be to her over the years.
It was in that tiny room that she finally appeared after she disappeared into thin air, by now mostly used to apparition in general and her own nuances in particular. Her stomach might churn on occasion if Van Roden was whisking her along with his usual care-free ease, but she had worked hard to make sure she wasn't disoriented after a Disapparition.
It wasn't exactly good to be a nauseous Auror in a danger zone.
If she hadn't had such practice, then she probably would have been smacked in the face of the bed that was being charmed through the air towards her the moment she appeared just inside the flat's front door. Fortunately, she had just about enough time to stagger back, tripping and falling into a roll, instinct honed by training bringing her to the side and in a kneeling position.
She at least managed to bring down her wand, which was raised in anticipation of a threat, before either of the two responsible for the bed noticed her. It wouldn't do to appear jumpy.
Even if there was little reason to be calm.
'Bloody hell, Tanith!' The burly shape of Cal Brynmor exploded around the side of the bed, which began to waver in the air as he outright abandoned his concentration of keeping it suspended. 'What were you doing?'
'Coming home,' she said, standing and dusting herself off. 'I didn't expect to have such bad timing.'
'We almost hit you!'
'I did notice that.' Tanith walked carefully around the bed, now hovering unstably halfway through the door, and pulled off her coat to toss it onto the stand in the corner.
'Er... Cal?' A voice wavered uncertainly from back in the hallway. 'Little help?'
Cal swore, turning and lifting his wand back up to stabilise the furniture, and slowly it continued its floating into the flat. 'Sorry! Just making sure I'm not braining a government official!'
Tanith chuckled to herself as she watched the bed hover in the room, followed by the diminutive figure Nathalie Lockett, who was looking supremely unimpressed with having been left to suspend furniture on her own.
'You don't have to stop supporting the bed to do so. Or am I going to have to do this on my own?' Nat asked dryly as Tanith hurried around to open up their bedroom door before them, the other two fighting to navigate the large double bed.
'I'm sorry I wasn't back sooner,' Tanith apologised. 'I know I said I'd help...'
'You're getting doors. You're helping.' Nat grinned at her as Tanith then lifted her wand to contribute to the levitation charm, and the bed's progress through the lounge became faster and smoother. '...that helps too.'
They managed to get the bed in position without too much difficulty between the three of them, though Cal came awfully close to getting pinned against the wall by it, before Nat declared she wasn't making Cal's bed for him.
'I'm not bloody well changing the bedding now,' Cal huffed with a smirk, heading over to the kitchenette and pulling open the fridge. 'I'll do it before bed.'
'You'd better,' Nat admonished as she and Tanith sank onto the sofa. 'As you know you can't come round to mine tonight. Emily has Healer admission tests to do and wants the place to herself.'
'How's she doing with that?' Tanith asked, leaning back with a sigh and putting her feet up on the coffee table. She had seen where Nat Lockett lived, in a cosy London house alongside some of her former Ravenclaw housemates. It was a true den of girls, determinedly clean and with everything belonging in a proper place. Boots on the coffee table would be an absolute no-no.
Here, however, the cleaning routine seemed to be that Cal made a mess while she worked, and they eventually shouted at each other about the state of the flat until they worked together to scourgify the entire place.
'It's hard. But still, it's Healer admissions, and they need all the help they can get. Thanks.' Nat grinned at Cal as he returned from the kitchen, passing each of them a bottle of beer before he sat down, slipping an arm around his girlfriend's shoulder.
'Bit early for a beer, isn't it?' Tanith commented, but she took a swig of the cool, refreshing drink anyway.
'It's a hot summer's day and I've just done manly work lugging furniture up the stairs,' Cal said with a smirk. 'I want a beer.'
'Manly work. Helped by two women better at charms than you,' Nat pointed out, poking him in the side.
'Hey! Watch the beer!' Cal admonished, but his smirk only broadened as she settled down. 'It's not like you don't benefit from the bed.'
'I don't,' Tanith volunteered. 'And I'll thank you kindly for not elaborating.'
Cal laughed, Nat chuckled despite the pinkness in her cheeks, and the three of them fell into a comfortable silence, tired by their various trials and enjoying the break and the drink.
Eventually, though, Cal gave a sigh, looking over at Tanith. 'Seen the post today?'
'Yep.' Tanith grimaced as she took a swig of beer. 'Nothing.'
Cal scowled. 'Is he ever going to write to us?'
'I'm sure he's busy,' Nat interjected soothingly. 'It can't be easy, moving to another country.'
'Two lines by owl wouldn't kill him,' Cal grumbled. 'We're busy and we've written to him.'
'You're not busy.'
'Fine. Tanith's busy and she's written to him!'
'Once,' Tanith said quietly. 'Just to make sure he's settling in.' She straightened up a little. 'I'm sure he's busy. Which is fine. So am I. Training is picking up, and this is likely to be my only day off this month.'
She didn't need to spot the exchanged glances between Nat and Cal to know they were there, and she gritted her teeth. 'How's the job, Cal?'
It was an unfair change of tactic, but her flatmate had to know he'd earned it, because he sighed. 'Boring. Boring, boring, boring. I process the post.'
'I'm sure it'll turn into something,' Nat said soothingly, sounding like this wasn't the first time she'd said this.
'...if Gabe had told me that the job he could get me in his Dad's office was going to be this dull - this monkey work - I'd have told him where to go,' Cal grumbled. 'I'm worth more than this.'
'Then get another job,' Tanith said quietly.
'Like what?' Cal's expression twisted. 'I've got no NEWTs anyone else from the last graduating class doesn't have in spades. Which other talent should I have recommend me on my CV, my half-baked guitar skills, or my on-and-off Quidditch skills? It's easy for you two, I don't know what I want to do!'
Tanith held her tongue, but it sounded like Nat had heard this rant a few too many times to listen to it in silence. 'Easy. Yeah.' She drained her beer, getting to her feet with a scowl. 'Potions research is easy. I get paid less than you, Cal, as an entry-level flunkey, and work more hours. And you know I needed to work really hard to qualify for this post, and it's not going to pay off for years yet!'
And my Dad wonders why I didn't want to be a Potions Researcher, Tanith thought dryly to herself, but mostly tried to pretend to be fascinated by her beer bottle label instead of listening to the argument.
'But it's what you want to do!' Cal said defensively, sounding like he knew he'd crossed a line but too proud and irate to step back. 'And you knew you were getting in to this when you started!'
'And maybe, if you'd spent half as much time at Hogwarts thinking about what you wanted to do and working towards it and applying for it, instead of obsessing about Quidditch, maybe you wouldn't be in a job you hate now.' Nat made a face, before getting to her feet. 'You know what? I don't have time for this. I'll see you tonight,' she mumbled, starting for the door.
Tanith frowned. So you could put a beer label on upside-down if you didn't rip it off too badly, the condensation sticking it back on to the glass...
Then the door closed - not slammed, but definitely closed firmly - and she looked up to see Cal on his feet, running his hand across his dark, bristly hair.
'...women!' he exclaimed in exasperation.
'I'm not saying a word,' Tanith mumbled.
'Good.' Cal frowned. 'I'll go see her later,' he decided after barely a moment's thoughts. 'Flowers?'
'Chocolates. And take her out for dinner. You might as well make the most of getting paid well. And you know she's been ridden hard at work.' Tanith wasn't usually one to wade into such scenarios. She wasn't even one to usually have to deal with much more than boys. Nat Lockett was the first girl in many years, though, she would readily call a friend, and though Cal had her first loyalty she had no qualms about calling him an idiot in the pursuit of his own happiness.
'...yeah.' Cal's shoulders sagged, and he threw himself onto the beaten-up sofa next to her with a sigh, reaching for his beer.
Silence prevailed for a few long moments, until he took a deep breath and glanced over at her. 'You know Toby's going to be fine, right?'
Tanith tensed a little. 'I know.'
He took a swig of his beer. 'And you know he's just going to be really busy, rather than avoiding you, right?'