It was a strange and unusual city, Moscow. Standing on the cusp of east to west, it was definitely not London - and yet, Tobias was acutely aware that he was in danger, walking down these streets, of falling into the disregard that came with familiarity, even though he had no reason to be familiar.
He'd only been here a matter of hours, hours in which all he'd done was have a mangled discussion with the international Portkey supervisor and make it to the streets. And make an effort at some lunch, pawing through his Muggle phrasebook like some sort of tourist idiot.
This was not the beginning of a gleaming career in the diplomatic arena that he'd hoped for. And yet he was surprisingly comfortable.
Perhaps that was because, if he kept his head down, if he just focused on navigating the route nerves had burned into his memory, he was walking the streets of a city much like any other. With people just like any other, cars just like any other. Enough that, if he didn't concentrate, he could just be in some part of town he didn't recognise, far from Canary Wharf and the MLE office.
Then something would catch his eye as professionally-trained instincts kicked in and he became observant again. The lettering, not just in a foreign language but in foreign symbols; the short whiff of gossip of his neighbours on the streets he'd overhear but couldn't remotely understand. Those little nuances of architecture that he couldn't so much as place.
Tobias Grey wasn't the most well-travelled man in the world, but he'd seen enough of Europe and had read enough books to find Moscow disconcerting. It was not the gloomy Gothic architecture of some western cities, or the renaissance curves of others. Nor was it the twists and tumbles of the Far East, that he'd seen pictures of but never before espied. No, Russia was somewhere in between, somewhere that his rather westernised mind could only consider to be a hybrid rather than something whole, in and of itself.
It was a strange tingle in his spine that greeted this ignorant thought. Because he knew it was ignorant, and his curiosity was begging to be educated. And he lived here now. He would have weeks, months - maybe, maybe even years to throw himself into this culture so utterly foreign to him.
In between doing his job, of course. And if he did his job right - if he could secure help from the Russian Federation of Magic to send trained witches and wizards to aid the war against You-Know-Who - then he wouldn't need to be here very long at all.
The mild regret at such a prospect was met only with a twist of guilt. People were dying. He was hundreds of miles from his friends, from his family, from... It was no time to be excited about museum tours.
If nothing else, he had a job to do.
The Federation of Magic's offices for its Department of International Affairs - and thus the location of the international embassies - was located not far from Izmaylovsky Park, making for an even more pleasant walk. Ideally, he would have Portkeyed in with his boss, but there had been a mix-up of his paperwork, with his last minute hiring, and so he'd had to go through the standard security checks for international travel at the Federation's main office.
It was an innocuous building - or would have been if he thought the tall office block was actually his destination. Instead, he headed around the side, for the alleyway, where - conveniently and oh-so-pleasantly behind a few overflowing dustbins - a small set of stone steps led to a heavy metal basement door.
He tapped his wand three times against the brick above the electronic keypad on the wall, as he'd been instructed, and was rewarded with a click of the lock.
Inside was a far cry from the grubby corporate world of above, as a short corridor lead him to an open, wood-panelled lobby, classical music - likely some Russian wizard composer Tobias didn't have a hope in hell of identifying - spilling from an unknown source. The room was large, circular, various ornate doors leading off with signs next to them stating the different governments in cyrillic and latin texts. At this distance, he couldn't see the Ministry of Magic's.
At the centre of the room was a large, wooden, circular reception manned by a rather severe-looking gentleman surrounded by several piles of parchments and books. Occasionally, these parchments would, with a flick of his wand, form themselves into small folded humanoid shapes that would march off for the doors. Folding over to slip under the doors once they arrived, he assumed they'd then reform and be on their way.
Well, it beat the paper airplanes of home.
He hurried up, clearing his throat discreetly to get the man's attention even though it was impossible for his arrival to have been missed. ‘Excuse me...’
The man looked at him beadily for a moment, with the brief glint in his eye Tobias vaguely recognised as a lack of comprehension before he straightened up. When he spoke, his English held little accent. ‘Do you have a meeting?’
‘What? Oh, no. My name's Tobias Grey, I'm a senior assistant to the counsellor of the British Ambassador? Newly hired?’ He offered a hopeful smile, having learnt enough from his time in the MLE Patrol that just being polite could get you far.
Instead, the receptionist only looked mildly disinterested. ‘Then why aren't you heading inside? You should know the routine.’
Helpful. ‘As I said, sir. Newly hired.’ He just managed to keep sarcasm from his voice. It wouldn't help.
Though it would be satisfying. Tobias frowned, trying to push the internal voice - which sounded treacherously like Tanith - from his mind.
‘Then you should have Portkeyed in with your superior to be processed here.’ He began to form another origami memo with surpassing disregard.
‘There was a mix-up of paperwork. I had to go through the Federation's main offices. I was told to just come straight here... look, can't you just send a memo to Aurora Marlowe?’ So politeness was fading as Tobias folded his arms across his chest.
The receptionist looked scandalised. Or, rather, he looked like he was enjoying appearing scandalised in order to make Tobias' life more difficult. That was his read on it, anyway. ‘And interrupt her work? Surely -’
‘Ah, Brain-Box Grey!’
Tobias flinched reflexively at the new voice from behind him as, emerging out of one of the doors, came a familiar and rather unexpected individual. He turned sharply, brow furrowing. ‘Radimir. I didn't expect to see you here.’
The burly Russian hurried over, hand extended to grasp his in a shake where he did his best to break knuckles. Once upon a time, Tobias would have hissed in pain, or at least flinched. Months of Enforcer training meant that, though he'd never out-grip the beefier man, he could at least pretend to not be in pain.
‘I am here to meet you,’ Dimitri Radimir said with a toothy grin, his accent present but English notably better than Tobias remembered. ‘Ms Marlowe sent me out here to see Piotr did not give you any trouble.’ He waved cheerfully to the receptionist, who actually smiled at his countryman.
Tobias was beginning to feel like there was some sort of conspiracy going on. ‘You work here?’
‘Senior liaison to the British Embassy.’ Radimir gave a mock-bow, then jerked a thumb towards the door behind him. ‘Come in. Your room is ready, Ms Marlowe waits for you...’
‘Senior liaison?’ Tobias repeated, blinking a little owlishly as he allowed himself to be ushered from the somewhat opulent lobby towards the door he could now see was labelled as leading to his Ministry's embassy. ‘That's awfully high for your age.’ He managed to keep bitterness out of his voice.
‘For my experience with the British, yes?’ Radimir said with a smirk.
‘I would have thought plenty of Durmstrang candidates had as much experience as you following the Tri-Wizard tournament,’ Tobias said, internally cursing whoever had decided that hiring this Russian for the job was a good idea.
It had been two years since he'd last seen Dimitri Radimir, and the man had changed quite a bit. If possible, he was broader, his natural build honed from determined work, and much more clean cut, wearing well-fitting, officious robes. His strong jaw was clean shaven, dark hair cropped closely. Now he looked less like the burly foreigner who'd tried to charm Tanith under Tobias' withering eye.
He looked like... well, a professional.
Not that this made him any less of a toss-pot, in Tobias' opinion.
‘Not many go into diplomacy.’ Radimir shrugged. ‘And in new world with spirit of cooperation, the office was keen to give my job to someone who did not learn the ropes during the Cold War, da?’
‘Da,’ Tobias muttered bitterly as they turned a corner and entered their own embassy lobby. There was no warm browns and reds of wood panels and carpets here; whoever had decided on the decor of these offices had done so with black stone and dark emeralds in mind, presenting a gloomy, close effect that reminded Tobias not unpleasantly of the Slytherin common room. Radimir just waved cheerfully at the Blonde reception girl - Tobias felt her appearance deserved the capitalisation - and led him through a door just beyond the desk.
As was common with many underground magical locations, the walls bore windows enchanted to show them images of the outside world, perhaps to stop all wizarding kind from going mad with claustrophobia. The British embassy seemed to sport a park view, which Tobias found hard to complain about, especially as he was led into an office with floor-to-ceiling windows across the entire far wall.
And inside, locked in a loud argument he was surprised he hadn't heard from outside, were both his bosses.
Aurora Marlowe he recognised immediately. Tall and raven-haired, her usually austere features were currently twisted in absolute frustration, her strong and educated voice ringing loudly with anger across the room.
He didn't recognise the portly gentleman seated at the desk, but he could read, and the name placard read 'Antonius Clint'. It didn't take racking his brains to recognise the him. After all, the British Ambassador's name had been on pretty much every piece of paperwork Tobias had needed to fill in.
Radimir skidded to a halt and swore under his breath in Russian as he realised he'd walked into an argument without knocking. Tobias' Russian was not very good, but he'd spent enough time with the Durmstrang students over the Tri-Wizard tournament enough to know rampant cursing when he heard it.
Unfortunately, Radimir had never specialised in subtlety, and the two looked up.
Ambassador Clint was a reedy man with a mop of greying hair already in full retreat, years of his experience lining his face. Tobias had read a lot about him; he had been the Ambassador to Russia even during the Cold War, and apparently nobody knew Moscow in and out better than him.
Aurora Marlowe had to be confident in her job security to take him on.
Her expression split into a broad, measured smile the moment that she saw him, though, the tension dissipating immediately. 'Tobias, it's lovely to see you; I'm glad you made it here in time. Piotr didn't give you any trouble?'
'Oh, no. Not at all,' Tobias lied - he'd be damned if he admitted he'd needed saving by Radimir, who fortunately just smiled cheerfully.
Marlowe gave a self-satisfied nod before turning back to the desk, and gesturing broadly. 'Ambassador, this is Tobias Grey, my new senior assistant.'
Tobias stumbled forward, extending a hand. 'It's an honour, sir.'
Clint looked at the hand before he stood up, reaching out to give it only a perfunctory shake. 'I'm sure,' he grunted, then turned back to Marlowe. 'You're not going to have him pursuing your insane project, are you?'
He hadn't known Aurora Marlowe for very long. But there was nevertheless something familiar about her, about how she acted, and so even Tobias' fleeting acquaintance recognised the bristle she tried to hide. 'As I said, sir, we've been making significant progress with the Federation's law enforcement,' she said, and it sounded like they had been at this for some time. 'They are talking even about searching for volunteers from their ranks to form a task force.'
'We don't want them in Britain.' Clint's lip curled. 'You might have the go-ahead from the Minister of Magic on this, Marlowe, but I don't want to see Dark Magic practitioners who've only been half-rehabilitated coming to help in Britain. They'll make things worse.'
'Perhaps.' Marlowe stiffened. 'But as you say, my project has the backing of Rufus Scrimgeour. He thinks that the expertise of the Russians who have fought against Dark Magic in the past will help in the war.'
'And when it goes wrong I'll have your head.' Clint muttered something under his breath, sitting down heavily. 'Fine. Go show your boy the ropes.'
'When -' Marlowe looked like she was going to argue the point for a moment, before falling silent. She grimaced, then turned to the door, gesturing for the two young men to follow her.
'That cantankerous old git,' she snapped the moment Radimir had closed the door behind them, and she began to lead them down the rather small offices of the British Embassy. 'He still thinks we're in the damn Cold War!'
'I didn't realise that we had opposition from the inside to this project,' Tobias stumbled, scurrying to keep up with her.
'We don't. Just today he decided to be extra-difficult. It's easy for Clint - you know he hasn't lived in Britain in twenty years? - he doesn't have to worry about the war. And yet he still sees Russians as the enemy. No offence, Dimitri.'
'None is taken,' Radimir said cheerfully. 'The International Liaison Office, we see him as the enemy still, too!'
'I'm sure that thrills him.' Marlowe grumbled under her breath until they reached another door, which she pushed open. This was a pen of offices, at this point all empty, with space for three desks at the front and then a larger one at the far end which had her nameplate on it. 'Here we are.'
Tobias squinted. 'This is it?'
'There's your desk. Dimitri keeps a desk here as well as with his people.' Marlowe gave a grandiose gesture before she walked past to her desk, perching against it. 'Pick any of the other ones.'
'We're not fully staffed?' Tobias asked, choosing the one which hadn't been used as a dumping ground for dirty coffee mugs as Radimir collapsed into his over-stuffed office chair. It looked like he'd drawn the short straw on those, too, as his squeaked as he sat down.
'International relations are not Britain's biggest concern,' Marlowe admitted. 'And until this project starts to see results, I think it'll only be you and me.'
'And me!' Radimir reminded them, beginning to spin languidly on his chair. 'I think it is a good plan. We have many specialists in fighting dark magic. Some even fought Grindelwald. The rest were taught by those who fought Grindelwald. It makes your Voldemort wars nothing in comparison.'
They both flinched, and Radimir winced. 'Oh. Sorry - I forget. Here, he is just dark wizard. Not a man with a scary name. Grindelwald did not hide his name. He wanted everyone to know who he was. Perhaps it is British modesty?'
'Modesty is not one of You-Know-Who's traits,' Tobias mumbled with a frown, then he glanced up at Marlowe. 'So. I'm here. Where do we start?'
She tilted her head at him. 'We have a flat for you around the corner. Well, actually, in the block above. Most of the international officials stay here, but if you want your space we can arrange somewhere else.'
Tobias shrugged. 'Great. Is that where my stuff was shipped off to? I'll take a look later.'
Marlowe exchanged an amused look with Radimir. 'He wants to get straight to work. Think that'll get beaten out of him before too long?'
Radimir waggled a finger. 'You under-estimate Tobias Grey. Very determined when he wants to be.'
'Oh, I think I know what I'm dealing with.' Marlowe looked back at Tobias, giving him a warm and slightly apologetic smile. 'Alright. You can settle in later. In fact, we'll hit the League Bar after work. It's a real favourite, just round the corner. First drinks are on me then we'll move you in.'
Radimir grinned more at his apprehension. 'You do not need to look so worried. We do not only drink vodka here. But when we do, it is usually very good vodka.'
'I'll take your word for it,' Tobias said, leaning back on the squeaky chair. He'd expected a certain amount of hazing. He hadn't anticipated it from a large Russian man he'd once spent several months planning the gruesome demise of.
'And not too much. As the world doesn't stop in the morning for a hangover because Dimitri gave you too much to drink.' Marlowe turned back to her desk and picked up a large stack of papers, which with a flick of her wand danced in the air across to Tobias' desk. 'So, until then? We need to streamline our expectations of what we'd want from any Russian aurors coming across to Britain. What they can reasonably be expected to provide, and what support we can give them.'
Tobias flipped the file open. 'And what kind of deals do we have the authority to have?'
'Well, Clint can technically overrule this, even if I have been given the go by Scrimgeour. But Scrimgeour wants these Russians pretty damn badly, so I don't think Clint will be a problem.' Marlowe straightened up, the sunlight from the illusionary windows behind her casting a faint glow into the rather dull and undecorated office.
She smiled. 'So I think we can get away with pretty much anything. After all... we're trying to save the country.'