Crawling on your elbows. Truly Auror-like.
There were still sparking spells and explosions going on from outside of her cover, all participants too well-versed in combat magic to need to utter their incantations loud enough that she might hear. That made it difficult to judge by sound alone what was going on, but the fizzing of magic from her left - and a quick, cautious glance over the edge of the crate - made it clear that Jacob was still up, and still fighting.
So if she didn't do something it would be two against one and she didnít like those odds. At least, not when she was the one.
But then another spell whipped just inches past her face, and with a hissed curse Tanith slid back down behind the crate. These two were good. Really good.
She slid off her coat, wrapping it up in a bundle as best she could while staying lower than three feet off the ground, then rose onto her haunches. It was clear what the tactic of these two Death Eaters had been. Incapacitate the weaker of the two Aurors quickly, so they could then focus their combined firepower on the more seasoned individual.
Unfortunately for them, Tanith Cole had one more take-down of a Death Eater under her belt than any other of the new trainees in the Auror programme. Bringing her grand tally up to... one.
It sounded more impressive when she told people how she'd hit him with a car.
But now wasn't the time to think about her reputation. She was trapped in a dingy cellar, a large, heavy crate thrown in front of the stairway she and Jacob had come down through, and this routine confiscation of some Dark Magic contraband had turned into a firefight. Clearly the warehouse owner upstairs had been coerced into drawing them here for what was likely meant to be a meat-grinder of a trap.
Tanith had always been fond of solving such scenarios by simply springing the trap. It seemed a less wise tactic, in hindsight.
She bundled up her coat more tightly, then suddenly hurled it to her right, letting it be a flurry of movement from behind the crate, and rose enough to see with her wand outstretched over the crate a split-second later.
As anticipated there was a spark of a curse flying through the air - but directed at the coat, not at her, an instinctive shot from the Death Eater which gave her his position.
He had just enough time to bring up a protection spell against her hex, but it was a languid, inelegant one, and so she pressed the assault, throwing attack after attack at him.
Then a spell hit the Death Eater from the side as Jacob switched targets, and the man slumped behind the crate to not rise.
Just as his companion sent a hex at the crate her partner was hiding behind that had it explode in a mess of splinters and sparks of fire, and sent Auror Van Roden flying back to smack into the wall behind him. He slid down and didn't rise.
Tanith had no time to do anything other than throw herself behind her crate, tossing hexes over the edge to try to keep the Death Eater pinned down, but one against one like this with nothing to break it up promised to be a stalemate until one of them got lucky.
And, as her instructors told her repeatedly, there was no such thing as luck. Only planning, ingenuity, and skill. And the Death Eater probably had enough years under his belt that he was more likely to hit her before she hit him.
So this was going to take lateral thought. Something, allegedly, she was good at.
Some of the darkness powder? No, that would just have her being shot at in the dark. Trying to close to hand-to-hand combat? Terribly dangerous in getting across the distance, and the figure shooting at her looked bigger than her. She only tended to be successful in a melee fight if she employed the element of surprise. So it would have to be more magical than that.
Her eyes landed on some of the crates in between them, before she dismissed that idea. Too clumsy. Too likely to make the fight go wild and out of her control, if he dodged a flying crate and she lost track of him.
Then she saw the canvas draped unsecurely across one of the crates in the centre, useless now it was no longer needed to protect against the rain.
When it was sent hurtling through the air at the Death Eater, it was too big and billowing for him to avoid it entirely. It smacked into his upper chest, beginning to wrap around him and pull him down, even as he brought his wand up to try to send it flying away.
Then Tanith rose from behind her crate, wand extended, wry smile on her lips. 'Hey. Incendio.'
She put him out, of course, the moment she'd incapacitated his flailing, flaming form. Besides, his mask and his robes had ensured only superficial burns.
Still, it was worth it, if only for the look on Jacob Van Roden's face as the older Auror was brought around by the Healers the Magical Law Enforcement Squad backup brought with them, and as they bound and secured the two Death Eaters with rather more conventional methods.
'You set him on fire?' he exclaimed, squinting at her with no small amount of dubious shock.
'I know. I'm going to get a reputation,' Tanith commented, leaning against one of the crates and massaging her aching shoulder.
'After setting fire to the Ravenclaw Quidditch stands? I'd bloody think so!' Jacob folded his arms across his chest. 'What were you thinking?'
'That he could beat me in a one-on-one mundane fight, considering I'm not even rated to fight Death Eaters yet and this was supposed to be a milk run. And my experienced, fully-qualified mentor had already been dropped by an exploding crate.' Tanith shrugged at him dismissively. 'I didn't have much of a choice. And Ididn't set fire to the Quidditch stand, by the way. I just burnt some of the drapes. The stand is fine.'
Van Roden threw his hands in the air. 'I'm going to assume we'll have to revisit those policy discussions about "appropriate force".'
She tilted her head at him accusingly. 'You mean how, if I judge lives to be in danger, I can employ any force short of outright lethal or the Unforgivables? He's got some burns. I can guarantee you I wasn't going to take him down by trying to hug him into submission.'
There was a pause as the two stared at each other, then Jacob gave a short, sharp snort despite himself, and within seconds the two of them were chuckling those dark, throaty chuckles which were born of nerves. 'I'd pay good money to see that, you know.'
'I'll just have to work on the lethality of my hugs,' Tanith muttered dryly, running a hand through her hair, and she finally looked up at him. 'You okay, anyway?'
Jacob nodded. 'I've had worse than be thrown at a wall. You did good, kid.' He stepped forward, clapping her on her uninjured shoulder.
'"Kid". You just love that, don't you. What are you, two minutes older than me?' Tanith asked wryly, as the two of them began to make their way out of the tiny cellar, now increasingly crowded by Healers and Enforcers, and back up into the bright daylight spilling in through the warehouse's large windows, the upper level also bustling by now with Auror activity.
'Try three years. That's three years on the beat more than you.'
'You're a regular veteran, then.'
Van Roden rolled his shoulders as he drew a deep breath of what turned out to be rather murky London air. 'If you weren't an Auror the last time around, really, you're no more experienced than anyone else in what's going on here. And we don't have so many veterans as we'd like.' He glanced over at her. 'Hell, coming in having taken down one Death Eater put you ahead of some Aurors who'd been doing this for years.'
'The car helped.'
'You were ill the day they taught subtlety, weren't you?'
'Cole! Van Roden!'
Both looked up to see, moving through the bustle of the law enforcement officials beginning to search the warehouse from top to bottom on the hunt for the Dark Magic contraband which had lured them there in the first place, the large, austere figure of Cassius Vaughn approaching them.
Tanith had first met Vaughn in her interview for the Auror training programme. His manner then had left her unsurprised when she'd learnt he supervised the field training itself, as despite his grey hair and lined face he was still tall, broad, and vital.
'You two still upright?' he asked gruffly as he stopped in front of them.
'It's not the first crate to explode in my face,' Jacob said. He wasn't the tallest of men, but he had to crane his neck even more than usual in the face of the large Vaughn.
'I won't ask what you got up to in your training regimes, then, Auror Van Roden. But you're still breathing, so I will consider that sufficient.' Vaughn scratched his bristly beard.
'Your concern is just... blinding in how touching it is, sir,' Tanith couldn't help but observe dryly.
He squinted at her. 'I heard you got set on fire.'
She sighed. 'No, sir. That was the Death Eater.'
'You set him on fire?'
'Yes - why does everyone have a problem with this, he's fine!' Tanith scowled.
'Is he?' Vaughn squinted, then sighed. 'Pity. I set fire to a Death Eater's boots, once. I didn't put them out until he was in a cell. Still wearing them, too.'
Jacob threw his hands in the air. 'I'll just be over here, sir, ignoring the massive procedure violations.'
Vaughn snorted. 'Don't be such a hippy, Van Roden. They'd kill you if you had the chance.'
'I like to think, sir, that I'm better than them,' Jacob said with a grimace of a smile, and in that moment Tanith was acutely reminded of the fact that her partner had once been a great mentor to Tobias Grey.
'Really?' Vaughn grunted. 'Then learn to duck exploding crates better.' He turned to them both as Jacob faltered, gobsmacked, before the older Auror pressed on. 'Good work, anyway. Two Death Eaters down is better than any contraband you could have rounded up. Though we'll find out if that was real, or just bait for you. They meant to kill you, I've no doubt, and turning the tables on them like that tickles me.'
Tanith blinked. 'Then we're glad to have... tickled you, sir.'
'Aren't you just.' Vaughn gave a broad twist of a dry, self-aware smile. 'Healers tell me you two should have the rest of the day off. Stress recovery, or some hippy bullshit like that. I just think Cahill forgot to get me my morning coffee sohe should do the paperwork processing the arrest, and I don't care if you write your reports in the office, at home, or in the goddamn Leaky Cauldron so long as I have it by nine.' He looked between the two of them beadily. 'Deal?'
Jacob sighed. 'It's a deal, sir,' he mumbled, then rolled his eyes as the burly senior Auror disappeared off into the crowd. 'You senile lunatic.'
Tanith grinned. 'I like him.'
'To explain that, see your joint interests. Namely, it seems, being obnoxious and, of course, fire.'
'You're getting fixated.'
Jacob laughed, looking like the gesture sucked a lot of the tension out of him, and his shoulders slumped. 'You have any plans for what you're going to do with this glorious day off?'
'Day? It's 3:15. A couple of hours off, at best. So I think I'm going to write up my statement at home. If I'm really good, I give myself a beer.'
He nodded. 'That's the best plan I heard all day.' He paused, then smiled and looked back at her, the amusement fading for a more relaxed satisfaction. 'You did really well. I mean, you know that, you took him down. But I reckon anyone else in the tuition programme had been with me... we'd both be dead.'
'Apparently I'm not like anyone else,' Tanith said, with a hint of wry self-consciousness.
'You're not.' Jacob smiled to himself, shoving his hands in his pockets, a self-conscious gesture he'd never managed to shed when it made people take him less seriously as a prefect, and apparently even into life as an Auror. 'I think we're turning this tide. It might be... one little bit at a time, but there's no sign the Death Eaters are receiving a massive influx of members. If You-Know-Who has a plan, then it's cloak and dagger.'
'That doesn't reassure me, you know.' Tanith awkwardly brushed a lock of hair behind an ear.
'Still. His cloak and dagger business isn't our problem.' Jacob forced his smile a little bit, then sighed. 'It really is all work for you, isn't it.'
'Isn't that meant to be the Auror's lifestyle?'
'You still never come down the pub with the guys,' he pointed out. 'Work hard, play hard, that's what we're supposed to aim for. Not work hard, disappear at home under a pile of stress. After over-time.'
Tanith shrugged. 'There's just not so much I fancy doing with my free time. I can worry about that when the war's over.'
'You know the last one lasted... oh, five years? I mean, it's debatable when itstarted, but... something in that region. So your life's going to kick off when you're twenty-three?'
Tanith sighed, looking up at her partner. 'They say this one's going to be worse. So maybe twenty-eight.' She flashed him a wry smile. 'I'm going to head off, then and disappear at home under a pile of stress. I'll see you in the morning, Jacob.'
He sputtered, a little with surprise, a little with guilt, but didn't stop her as she walked past him and towards the pile of crates the MLE had designated as an apparition zone.
Her flat was warm when she appeared, bathed in the afternoon sun. Cal had to be out at work, not back for at least an hour or two now, and she wasn't so used to having the place to herself during the day. Only if Cal went out to see Nat of an evening did she get much solitude, and so she let out a deep sigh upon realising she was alone, relieved at the prospect.
Then she heard a footstep on carpet behind her.
She whirled around, wand in hand only for her wrist to be caught and for the half-muttered spell to shoot harmlessly over the intruder's shoulder. The assailant twisted her wrist, hard, and Tanith let out a yelp of pain but let herself be disarmed rather than find a broken wrist.
They were bigger than she was, but she nevertheless stepped in closer, placing a foot behind their heel as she planted her shoulder into their chest, trying to pivot them off-balance.
It worked, but his iron grip on her didn't weaken, and they both went spinning down onto the carpet. The intruder, though, braced her weight against his forearm before pushing back, and up close it became a wrestling match where his greater strength was against her, and before she knew it he had hauled her onto her back, pinned down, unable to move.
Except she didn't need to, as in the roll she'd retrieved her fallen wand and it was poking most pointedly in the man's gut.
'Wands do win some fights, old man,' she managed to gasp, abruptly breathless at the unexpected tussle.
Her mentor looked down with a twist of the lips. 'If this had been a real fight, I'd have snapped it.' Then he pulled back, letting her go and clambering to his feet, extending a hand to help her up.
Tanith took it gratefully. 'I thought you said there was no such thing as practice?'
Altair Ritter, family tutor of the Cole household whose two daughters had ceased living at home some seven years ago, straightened his coat with a derisive sniff. 'I doubt your Aurors would be happy if I broke your wand, though. Aside from paying for a new one, the period of adaptation would set back your training unnecessarily.'
She sank onto the overstuffed sofa, rubbing her aching wrist ruefully. It was not, though, anything she wasn't used to; her tutor had been training her in hand-to-hand combat for the better part of the last year. It sometimes made Auror training look minor in comparison. 'How did you get in?' she asked at last, nodding at the door. 'That thing's enchanted up solidly.'
Altair raised an eyebrow at her, before he opened his coat. It was a comfortable, long black leather affair he had worn for as long as she'd known him, perhaps a bit too small for him but full of interesting pockets and straps. On the inside was what she remembered - leather strips sown into the lining onto which were attached all sorts of the devices he tended to favour.
After all, a Squib needed every little edge he could get when he was gathering intelligence off, and sometimes fighting, Death Eaters.
She caught a glimpse of a Muggle gun under there, something she was confident he didn't used to carry - or at least had never brought to Hogsmeade - before he gestured to the small leather wrap she knew would contain his various different lockpicks.
'I'm almost disappointed you didn't take further precautions,' he said, but his smile was warm and genuine.
'Yeah, I didn't expect to be attacked by a deranged Squib. Everything you taught me is wonderful, but at the end of the day Death Eaters believe in magical supremacy. That's sort of their raison d'etre. I'm not convinced they're going to pick the locks to my door. Have a seat.' Tanith gestured to one of the armchairs which rarely saw attention in the flat.
Altair's smile broadened a little. 'How have you been?'
'Fine. Busy. Listening to Cal bellyaching about a job he hates while I'm at home, and working my fingers to the bone in the office.' She gave a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. 'Did you break into my house just to have a catch-up?'
'I came over to have a catch-up. I broke into your house because I wanted to make sure you weren't getting soft.' He inclined his head a little. 'You're not, you know.'
'I know.' Tanith's expression flickered. 'Is there any news?'
She sighed, leaning back on the sofa, and let her gaze drift around the flat. It was rather bare, still. Neither she nor Cal had had their own living space since before Hogwarts, and so much of what they owned at home was the kind of thing an eleven year-old might like. Now they were both eighteen they were just about learning how to have personal tastes in decoration again.
So far the only nod to it was a small picture on the mantelpiece, framed and on a stand. One of their enterprising classmates had taken it the New Year's before last, down at Hogsmeade. Her, Cal, Tobias, and Gabriel Doyle all sat around a bench, Cal with his broad arms around them all so they couldn't escape, each looking various degrees of amused, sheepish, and annoyed.
And, in the background, not in the shot but looking on from the outskirts, stood the ghost that was Annie MacKenzie.
Was that the last time we were all happy together, the four of us?
Or do I have to go back even further than that?
'Everything,' she said with a sigh. 'They don't tell us a thing in the Auror office.'
'That's because they don't know anything,' Altair said, shaking his head. 'And, to be honest, I cannot be arrogant about this. I cannot employ the same tactics I did in the First War; your father is no longer respected amongst those families who would discuss their Death Eater business at a dinner party, or in front of a delivery boy.' He gave a modest incline of the head. 'I have to be far more physical in gathering my knowledge.'
'And have you found anything?' Tanith raised her eyebrows.
He hesitated, and she straightened a little. It was not like her old tutor to be uncertain. 'I think there is a spy in the Magical Law Enforcement Department,' he said at length. 'And this will not come as a surprise to you, I know. But I fear it is someone close to Thicknesse.'
Tanith leaned forwards, scrubbing her face with her hands. 'Ominous,' she said. 'And yet, of course, of very little use without more information than that.'
'I know.' Altair grimaced. 'And yet here we are.' He glanced over at her. 'Your father would like you to visit,' he said at length.
'Did he send you here to tell me that?'
'No. I came of my own volition. I just know he'd like you to. I know he's glad you visited your sister. How is she?'
Tanith gave a smile despite herself. 'Fine. And so's little Leah...'
'She is a gem.' Altair nodded softly. 'Children are the future.'
Tanith laughed. 'It's a little early for that, Al.'
He smirked. 'That was not a pointed comment.' There was a moment where he looked at her, and she squirmed under his examination. 'But family are important. More so in a time of war like this.'
'I know you're looking after them.' She looked up as he rose to his feet, suddenly unsure of what he was getting at.
'I am. Though I am, after all, just a Squib.' Altair gave a mock bow of even more modesty. 'But I am not the only family you have.' She frowned, and he nodded at the picture on the mantelpiece. 'You miss them.'
I miss him. Tanith swallowed. 'Yes.'
'That's why we do it, you know. I sometimes wonder if you got that memo, working so hard, trying for... the sake of trying?' Altair sighed. 'The people we love. That's why we fight.'
'I know,' Tanith lied.
Altair straightened up, and nodded again. 'I had best be going,' he said at last. 'I was on my way to some business, after all.' He gave his usual evasive shrug. 'You will take care of yourself?'
'So long as you take care of them.' She got up too, heading with him over to the door.
'That is what I do.' Altair smiled at her, before pulling her into an affectionate hug. For a moment she wasn't sure how to take it, and was even less sure when he kissed her on the top of the head, but then he let her go and turned for the doorway.
As she closed the door behind him, Tanith reflected on how he'd never done that before.
And how, for her, it was much easier to fight so she didn't have to think about the people she loved.