'See? Beer. Not all Russians drink vodka.' Dimitri set the bottle down on the counter in front of Tobias with a smug grin. 'That would suggest serious addiction!'
'Because drinking lots of beer doesn't also lead to alcoholism,' Aurora commented from the other side of Tobias, dryly taking a sip of her drink. Even dressed down, in Muggle clothes to better blend in, and holding a beer bottle, she still managed to look poised, aristocratic.
'It is a stereotype. Very unfair,' Dimitri protested, settling onto his stool with a grumble.
'I recall,' Tobias said slowly, 'that you inflicted not a small amount of alcohol on the Slytherin Common Room, smuggled along with you for the Tri-Wizard tournament.'
Aurora raised her eyebrows with broad smirk as she heard this, her head turning deliberately towards their liaison officer. 'I hope you paid import tax on that vodka, Dimitri.'
He grinned. 'It was a gift! A gift from the students of Durmstrang to our gracious Hogwarts hosts.'
'All of whom were of age, I'm sure,' Aurora said, grinning into her beer.
'It would have been a great affront to question the honour of our hosts.' Radimir nodded wisely.
'I think they learnt their lesson the next morning. You should have seen the detentions Snape gave out. He never found the vodka but the hangovers spoke for themselves.' Tobias chuckled, though it was still hard to recall his school days without the faintest hint of wistfulness. But this was from, at least, before his life took its more difficult turns.
'Either way, we are adults and I think we have earned these drinks.' Aurora inclined her beer bottle towards the other two. 'So. Cheers! To our new team-member, and to the success of the new project.'
The bottles rang out with their enthusiasm before they all drank deeply, and Dimitri sighed as he rested his on the counter with a thunk. 'Though I can only stay for this one. I have places to be.'
Tobias raised an eyebrow. 'Places?'
'Dimitri here actually has a real life, unlike you or I,' Aurora said wryly.
'In Russian International Liaisons,’ he explained, ‘it takes a little longer before I will be sent somewhere abroad and exciting. Maybe if this project works out.'
'I think we're making serious progress,' Tobias said earnestly. 'The meetings have been going well, and they've been really responsive to the new programmes we've been drawing up.'
'You've been drawing up,' Aurora corrected. 'Don't think less of yourself, Tobias, I don't think we'd be able to communicate with them half as effectively if we didn't have your MLE experience to hand.'
He shifted his weight, pleased but uncomfortable. 'It does seem as if cops talk cop wherever they are. So at least I only have one language barrier between us.' He smiled uncertainly.
'You'll pick up the Russian,' Aurora reassured him with a dismissive wave of the hand. 'It's not an easy language, but sheer exposure should do the trick.'
'My little phrase book didn't do me much good in getting a sandwich,' Tobias recalled in lamentation.
'It was probably accurate,' Dimitri said, nodding slowly. 'They just probably saw you as a tourist and wanted to cause hassle.'
He looked over at the larger man. 'I have just found my welcome to Russia... so warm.'
Dimitri grinned. 'Stop complaining! You have a drink, no, and somewhere to stay, and live just next to the park! It is not so bad as all that.'
'He has a point.' Aurora smirked.
The Russian's smile broadened as he finished his beer and set the bottle down loudly. 'I do. And now I have to take my wisdom and bring it with me somewhere else. A more exciting place with louder music.' He turned to Tobias. 'You should come with me some time.'
Tobias shook his head. 'Maybe when I can say more than "yes", "no", and "vodka" in Russian,' he said with a sigh.
'But those are the important words! Well, "no" is less useful. "Yes" is good for many things. Not just "vodka".' Dimitri’s 's grin looked like it was splitting his face by now, and he clapped Tobias on the shoulder. 'I will be seeing you tomorrow, then! Have a good night!'
Tobias sighed, rubbing his temples as Dimitri waltzed out of the bar and into the night, and he slouched against the bar. 'Does he actually have a drinking problem?'
'He's nervous,' Aurora said more gently, sipping her drink.
He blinked. 'Nervous?'
'You.' She pointed her bottle at him. 'He was nervous about you coming here. He said you two had history when he learnt you were my new assistant.'
Tobias grimaced, but shook his head. 'Old, old history.' He shrugged under her curious eye. 'Girl history.'
'He got the girl?'
'Nobody got the girl. I managed to fail to get the girl perfectly well without his intervention.' Tobias took a swig of his beer. 'My luck, as you can tell, is excellent.'
'I don't have much grounds to argue with that,' Aurora conceded with a sigh. The bar was filling up by now, though most of the patrons she had pointed out as they'd come in as being officials of the other magical embassies. Apparently the bar staff weren't entirely in the know, but the various foreign wizarding representatives had done a good job over the years of claiming this clean, bright, modern establishment for themselves.
'It's strange,' Tobias continued, frowning at his beer bottle. 'I suppose if everything had gone... well... then I wouldn't be here. And, I mean, I like being here, but I'd probably be in some desk job in London for the department if I didn't have my Enforcer experience.'
'Probably,' Aurora agreed with a short nod. 'I find it is best to not over-think "what ifs". Because then you realise that so many of the best and worst things in your life can be sourced to one moment, one small decision, and if it had gone the other way the chain reaction would be... incalculable.'
'You don't believe in fate?' he asked curiously.
She gave a wry shake of the head. 'I think that we make our own paths. Certainly we can't blame our failings on anyone but ourselves.'
There was a silence after this, long and loud, and Tobias chewed uncertainly on his lower lip before he glanced sideways at her. 'It's not sounding like success brought you to Moscow for an indeterminate period of time, sitting out in a bar with a kid from work instead of... somewhere better?'
She glanced sideways at him. 'You're not a kid, Tobias. The things you've been through, you're not a kid.’
'I suppose not.' He sighed. 'Though I can't say I feel like - to sound pretentious - a man.'
'I don't think there is a point where you suddenly feel like a grown-up. To be cynical, perhaps about the time your hopes and dreams die.' Aurora finished her drink, pushing the empty bottle across the counter deliberately. This had to be a practiced gesture, because within moments there was a fresh one set before her.
'No,’ she confessed eventually, after delaying her response with another gulp of beer. ‘Living abroad and moving from place to place was not my first idea of an excellent life. But then that dream disappeared about twenty years ago.'
Tobias didn't look at her, not quite daring to lift his gaze from the bar counter. Then he took a long drink, finding the bottle empty sooner than he'd really like, and straightened up.
'You loved my Dad,' he said at last. It wasn't a question.
When he looked over at her the expression she wore was more sad than guilty, and she gave a faint nod. 'And he loved your mother. And she loved him enough to alienate herself from her whole family, from her whole way of life.' Aurora took a long gulp of her drink. 'You have to be quite something to try and come in between that. Either callous or stupid. And I'm not that stupid.'
Tobias frowned. 'Did he know...?'
'If we were going to be, we'd have been by the time he and your mother fell in love. She knew, of course. Women are a bit sharper about this kind of thing, especially about other women their husbands are particularly close friends with.' Aurora's expression turned wry.
'No, she... never mentioned you.' And went somewhat quiet when I mentioned I would be working for Aurora Marlowe in Moscow.
'She wouldn't. When your father died, I stayed away. From her, from you. If I ever made her paranoid, ever made her worry he hadn’t been hers, utterly - I didn't want to do that when she'd thrown away everything for him and then he'd died.' Aurora lifted her bottle to her lips. 'I left the country. And I didn't look back.'
'But...' Tobias hesitated, not sure what his objection was, and even less confident of how to phrase what was nothing more than a gut feeling. Instead, he said, 'You're a tremendous woman, Aurora. You should have - you should be happy, have a family, or - whatever makes you happy.'
'I enjoy my work.' Aurora nodded, wry smile going sad. 'I'm doing good. I get to see interesting places and deal with interesting people. You are absolutely forbidden to feel sorry for me.'
'So noted,' Tobias said, his smile returning a little as hers did. 'I don't mean to pry.'
She sighed. 'You don't. I'm sorry if I was overly frank. At the risk of sounding like a magnificent creep, you do - well, you remind me a lot of Bobby. You're easy to talk to, like him. And you're insightful.'
'I never heard anyone else call him "Bobby",' Tobias observed.
Aurora smiled a little more, some genuine strength behind it. 'He hated it,' she confided. 'But I called him that to tease him, and it sort of stuck. I suppose I'm being an arrogant jerk to keep referring to him as "Bobby"; only I could get away with it.'
'Bobby Grey. It's not a great name.'
'Hence the hating.'
They chuckled to themselves, before Aurora finished her beer and looked at the empty bottle with a sigh. 'I should go. There's still paperwork for tomorrow, and if I stay I'll have another drink, and I think a third might turn into a fourth at this rate. Then you'd have to run the meeting tomorrow.'
'In a foreign language I don't speak? Easy,' Tobias said with a snort. 'Alright. I'll see you in the morning.'
His own departure was not long after. He nursed his beer rather more slowly, and sat and watched the bar. Watched the patrons and tried to determine which were Muggles and which were wizards, those living abroad tending to be better than British wizards at hiding their magical nature. Not all magical cultures were as isolated as Britain's, and though Russia seemed just as divided, ambassadors tended to need to be ready to mingle wherever they were.
So he watched the different styles of clothes, listened to the babble of different languages, and watched the bar staff to see if he could tell which of them was in the know and which wasn't; if any of them were witches and wizards or if they were just all Muggles.
It was a harder game than when he played it in Muggle establishments wizards frequented in London. The divides were usually starker there.
But the game didn't last too long. He pulled out his book - Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, just to be pretentious and because it had been amongst his father's book collection, and he'd never read it - and settled down with a third drink. War and Peace could come when he'd got to the 'peace' part of his own life.
That only lasted a drink before the hubbub of the bar had him deciding to read at home, so he slouched out of the doors and onto the street. It was a warm night, at least, and he only needed his light jacket as he sauntered the distance from the bar to the embassy building.
He could go in through the front door this time, taking him just to the lobby of this high-rise block of apartments. From the outside it looked more likely to be offices, and apparently there were some in the building, but Tobias' destination was a room on the top floor.
It was a small flat. Cramped and dark, and barely worth what it cost him in what was taken out of his pay package. But it was secure for a wizard, and everything he needed from luxuries to laundry were provided.
Besides, it wasn't as if he'd be entertaining while he was out here.
He turned the light on to show the single room that was his living space, kitchen space, and bedroom. A door to his right let him through to the tiny bathroom, and the entire affair was more reminiscent of a large hotel room than somewhere one might be expected to live long term.
He'd only had a cursory glance around the place before going down the bar with Aurora and Dimitri, though, so he took his time to look over the room, familiarise himself with its nuances. Partly just to be comfortable, but training as an Enforcer died hard, and he knew deep down he was making it secure. Making sure that he'd know when he came back if anything had changed from when he left.
Like the letter on his bed.
Tobias came to a halt, frowning at it. Had that been there when he'd left? Was it possible he'd had something delivered while he was out, perhaps additional papers from either the Ministry or the Federation's Portkey services?
Carefully he pulled out his wand, and used it to slit the envelope open from a distance and tug the paper out. He didn't unfold it, instead pulling up a chair and sitting down in front of the bed.
It took him ten minutes to run through all of the curse and hex detection spells he knew until he was confident that the paper wasn't charmed, nor would the writing itself do him any harm.
In fact, it was probably just an entirely mundane piece of paper.
Gingerly, Tobias reached out and unfolded it, to reveal just a few short lines written by an unfamiliar hand.
Do not trust Clint. He is one of the Dark Lord's creatures.
Be careful. Someone important to us both would be most upset if harm came to you.
And that was it. No more identifiers. Nothing else written, on the letter or on the envelope.
Tobias stared at it for a few moments more. Then he got to his feet and walked into the white starkness that was the bathroom, just cold ceramics, bright lights, and a mirror showing him to look older and more tired than he especially remembered appearing.
The pile of ash the letter burned into washed down the sink without leaving a trace.
'Abusing the international mail system again?'
Tanith looked up from her tiny, cramped cubicle in the Auror office to see a familiar face she hadn't expected to be around this corner of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. So, rather than a pleased smile, her reaction was a confused frown. 'Riley?'
Jennifer Riley, former Head Girl of their year at Hogwarts, gave a lopsided smile as she leaned against the cubicle doorway. 'Don't look so pleased to see me, Cole.'
Tanith folded the letter she'd been scribbling rather abruptly, turning in her chair. 'I'm just - what're you doing here?'
'Those four alchemists arrested last week. I'm part of their defence team.' Riley nodded at one of the newspaper clippings on the wall. Only a month and a half into her time with the Auror department, Tanith hadn't exactly acquired a rogue's gallery to shock and awe, but the few cases she'd been in which had received media coverage were up there, including the late July's capturing of a team of, if not Death Eaters, then Death Eater-affiliated wizards brewing some illegal potions.
'You're already getting cases like that? Congratulations,' Tanith said begrudgingly. 'You know they could do with someone like you down in legal counsel to help prosecute cases like this.'
'This isn't my first case. Those two brothers who the MLE accused of smuggling last month? They were found not guilty. The Hogwarts drop-out accused of attacking an elderly witch in Hogsmeade? When examined the evidence was purely circumstantial and the charges were dropped.' Riley folded her arms across her chest.
Tanith shrugged. 'Mistakes get made. These four? You know what they were brewing? Poisons. Elixirs of dark mutations. We have the actual potions, we confiscated it.' She reached over for one of the files stacked up in the corner of her desk. 'I assume that you're here for our official releases, anyway.’
'That's right.' Riley shook her head. 'Some are good. Some are bad. Maybe these boys did it, but that's not for you and me to decide, that's for the courts to decide.'
'Actually, that is for me to decide, because I have to make the call to arrest them. And yes, there's good and bad, but why do you find yourself defending the real scumbags, Riley?' Tanith sighed with frustration, picking out one file and handing it over to her. 'We could do with you on-side in putting people like this away.'
'Unlike you - unlike the media at large - I don't happen to think that a war is a reason to unquestioningly fall in line with the establishment and the government. Because they make mistakes. The MLE Department make mistakes.' Riley accepted the folder, opening it up. 'Someone has to keep an eye on you people.'
'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes,' Tanith muttered under her breath, earning her a squint. 'Yes. I'm familiar with Latin. Try to not faint.'
'It'll be hard work when I'm hearing Latin from the most pure-blooded of pure-bloods who's not an utter moron,' Riley said, still frowning in some confusion.
'I'll take that as a compliment, and as proof you don't really know me.' Tanith leaned back in her chair. 'Just you know this will stink to high heaven if these boys get let off on a legal technicality.'
'Then just make sure your case is built so well that it doesn't. Because what stinks even more is an innocent man going to jail because the MLE were just so determined to close a case and prove to the media that they're not toothless,' came the cool retort.
'Oh, it's so much easier to stand on the outside and throw stones than come in and build the house, isn't it!' Tanith chuckled as she exclaimed this, more amused than genuinely irate.
'Just making sure the clunk of your jack-boots isn't heard across the land. Can't have us emerging from a war with You-Know-Who to just find the Ministry now have the authority to control everything.' Riley shrugged, closing up the file and putting it under her arm. 'The new surveillance laws are beyond ridiculous.'
'It's been leading to more arrests,' Tanith replied, reaching for the letter she'd been writing, by now hoping that making it clear to Riley that she had things to do would make the other woman leave. 'Come complain at me after we've won this war.'
'You know I will.' Riley smirked, then nodded at the letter. 'How is he?'
Why does everyone assume... Tanith made a face, not looking up. 'He's fine,’ she said, rather brusquely. Then guilt sank in because, after all, Tobias had liked and respected Riley. ‘Still working hard. Making some headway in securing a task force of Russian Aurors - or whatever they call them there - who are particular specialists in fighting dark magic. It's looking like it might just be aid in training so far, but it's progress.'
Riley nodded, looking completely at ease with Tanith's frustration at her assumption. 'Good. Tell him I say "hi" and that I hope he's back soon. Though I guess you've already told him the latter.' She grinned.
'I'll... tell him,' Tanith said awkwardly.
'Good.' Riley hefted her folder. 'What're you doing tonight?'
If you're about to ask me out socially then I think the world might end. 'Nothing.' Tanith frowned. 'Why?'
She shrugged. 'It's a Friday night. I was just curious.'
'It's the first of the month, which means I have evaluation reports due in, and half of the key members of the department seem to be off work today for a damn Weasley wedding,' Tanith grumbled.
Riley tilted her head. 'So you pulled the cover shift this evening?'
'No, I - I'm just busy,' Tanith conceded. She did not, officially, have any need to be in the office later than five. She'd just assumed she was going to get paperwork done.
The other woman paused, then shrugged again. 'Alright. Just don't go mad, Cole. You're one of the good ones,' she said, before waving and turning to go.
Tanith scowled at her letter once Riley was gone. Why did everyone assume she was working herself to insanity? It was Auror training. It was meant to be gruelling, and she would hardly be the first of her peers to say her social life was practically non-existent as a result. It wasn't like she was a complete recluse. She spent time with Van Roden. Cal usually tried to make sure they did something fun in the evenings, or when she had weekends free. She even had a meeting due the next week for coffee with Ariane and Melanie...
...even if she'd cancelled it several times before.
She made a sound of frustration, finishing her letter quickly. It was just the sign off anyway, which she had been staring at and over-thinking before she decided to do away with anything like 'Regards' or the dreaded 'Love' and had just simply put her name at the bottom of it after a sincere 'Take care'.
Fine. She'd go home instead of starting on those evaluation reports. But then it would be a quiet night in.
'Mmm... that was... nice.' Nat gave a self-satisfied sigh as she flopped down on the bed, sinking to rest her head on Cal's bare chest and curl up next to him closely.
'Nice?' He spoke a little sluggishly, but still managed to lift his head to look down at her with some indignation. 'Is that all I get? Nice?'
She moved up a little, stifling his objection with a quick kiss, and made another small sound of satisfaction. 'Better than nice.'
'An actual word would do,' Cal said, still speaking with some mock-outrage. 'Like "wonderful". "Unforgettable". I would also accept "magnificent".'
'Heh.' She chuckled. 'Cal the Magnificent.'
'Tell your friends.'
'The walls of my house aren't that thick. I think they know.'
Cal grinned toothily, all jokes of outrage faded as he lay back on the pillows, utterly disregarding of the sheets twisted around them - or the fact that sunlight still crept through the gaps in the closed blinds, since it was only early on this summer's eve. 'That'll explain the expressions of awe I get when I come down in the morning.'
'Especially since nobody's heard Emily and Craig.'
'Maybe he hasn't drugged her yet. 'cos that's the only way I see Craig Sharpe getting a shag.' Cal chuckled to himself.
She slapped him on the arm without much resolve. 'We're only a month and a half out of Hogwarts,' she pointed out. 'And it's not like it was easy to secure much private time there.'
'You and I managed it.'
'And even so, I didn't fancy my first time being under the bleachers of the Ravenclaw stand or in the greenhouses after curfew.' There was a pause as she mentioned the Ravenclaw stands, and the both of them sobered despite themselves. Nat's breath caught. 'I'm sorry.'
He frowned, pulling her closer. 'Don't be. It's a Quidditch stand. It's silly to over-think it.'
Nat nuzzled his cheek gently. 'Has there been any word?'
When she'd been getting to know Cal Brynmor, she'd just thought he was a nice guy who tended to distract people from knowing him better with jokes and a boisterous manner. Even she hadn't anticipated what was going on underneath, though. It had taken a while before he’d volunteered the truth about his father, and she'd respected his privacy. But it had been impossible to not piece things together herself, and so she hadn't been so surprised when he had finally told her the story of Thanatos Brynmor, loyal Death Eater of the Dark Lord.
'He's just disappeared off to whatever hole the Death Eaters on the run go down,' Cal mumbled. 'I imagine he'll show his head when ready.'
'Do you know what you're going to do?' she asked quietly.
'Me?' He frowned. 'There's nothing for me to do. I'm just a blood relative in this. From a criminal investigation perspective, unless I can lure him out I'm more of a liability than a bonus. Especially since it's not like I know him better than anyone else. One conversation in my entire adult life doesn't count.'
Nat bit her lip. 'I'm sorry I couldn't be there that night.'
'You saw the Dark Mark and you went back inside. It would have been crazy for you to go looking for me in that.' He looked over at her, both reproach and reassurance in his eyes.
'Tanith and Tobias did.'
'Tobias is a trained Enforcer. Tanith ended up having the Cruciatus turned on her and got stuck in the Hospital Wing with a broken arm and three cracked ribs. Along with other injuries. And you had no reason to think I'd been running so early that I got down there before the Dark Mark went up.' Cal's voice was low and firm, and despite her guilt, despite her endless helplessness in the face of this most important of issues to him, Nat couldn't help but still feel warm and reassured in the face of his argument.
'I...suppose you're right,' she managed at last.
'I know I'm right.' He gave a grin, and she knew this was his signifier that dark conversation topics were to be dismissed. 'I'm just glad that you seem more turned on than turned off by this whole "son of a Death Eater" thing.'
She snorted. 'I'm impressed at your overcoming it. Women have standards, Cal.' She stuck her tongue out at him, earning a quick kiss on the nose in retaliation.
'Obviously not if Emily's going out with Sharpe,' he said. 'But then not every woman can be lucky enough to secure a stud like me.'
She laughed - and it was definitely an amused giggle more at his expense. 'Yes, Cal. Stud. That's you.'
Then he rolled over to pin her under his weight, and all of a sudden she was again acutely aware of how close they were, of how warm he was, of the beating of his heart and the intensity in his dark eyes.
'You didn't seem to disagree so much earlier,' he murmured with a teasing edge, before lowering his head to give her a kiss at the corner of her jaw which made her shiver.
'Wait,' she mumbled, despite herself, despite his hand at her hip which was sliding across and making thought and argument both increasingly difficult. 'Won't Tanith be back... soon?'
'She'll be at work,' he managed to say, voice muffled as he began to litter a trail of kisses from just under her ear down her neck, along her throat. 'You know she's never back this early...'
'I... suppose...' she murmured back, just about ready to abandon all protest...
...then there was the definite sound of the flat door being slammed shut loudly behind someone.
Nat froze. 'What was that?'
Cal raised his head with a start. 'I didn't hear anything,' he said, clearly lying.
That muffled voice was definitely Tanith's, and Nat swatted at Cal's shoulder. 'Bugger. Get off me!'
'What?' Cal nevertheless rolled over, looking discontented as Nat sprung out of bed and went on a search for her clothes strewn about the bedroom. 'It's Tanith! She knows what we're like.'
'And she works hard and it's not fair for us to lock ourselves away to shag all evening and leave her on her own. She'll go mad!' Nat lifted a t-shirt, then squinted at it uncertainly before throwing it at Cal. 'Get dressed!'
It was a hurried affair, Nat fussing at him all the way, until they eventually hurried - or, rather, Nat hurried, Cal slouched uncaringly - out of the bedroom and into the lounge of the flat.
'Oh, for - Cal, your shirt's on back to front.' Tanith rolled her eyes as she looked up from the sofa, having only just got in through the door, taken off her coat, and sat down.
'I... oh.' Cal's shoulders slumped, and he seemed to give up on presenting an objection or excuse. However, he also had no qualms about just pulling his shirt off there and then to put it the right way around.
'How was work?' Nat asked, sitting down on the armchair, feeling her cheeks colour. She'd like to think it was embarrassment and that she was too charitable to be annoyed at Tanith for her untimely interruptions.
'Fine. What's going on tonight?' Tanith leaned forwards to rifle through her post on the coffee table somewhat irritably.
'Er... not much?' Cal blinked, sitting down.
'We should do something.'
Who are you, and what have you done with Tanith Cole? Nat looked sideways at Cal with suspicion, only to see him looking just as confused as her.
Tanith gave an annoyed sigh. 'Yes. I know. But I had a run-in with that bitch Riley and she made a dig about my social life.'
Nat doubted that this was what had happened. Jennifer Riley was an infamously even-handed goodie two-shoes, which meant she was so nice she was generally deeply annoying. And that was definitely going to be deeply annoying to someone like Tanith.
She'd probably invited her out and Tanith had refused her, taking it as a dig. According to Cal, Tanith being even more prickly than usual wasn't so abnormal when under a considerable amount of stress. Apparently she'd been downright horrible throughout the time Tobias had been going out with Annie MacKenzie.
Nat wasn't sure how the girl had coped with only the oblivious Cal and the obtuse Gabriel Doyle for emotional support during such a time.
'So now you want to go to the pub?' Cal squinted, obviously not understanding.
Tanith frowned thoughtfully. 'No,' she said at last, and looked back at them. 'You mentioned this rock club that's just started up. Let's go out.’