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Chapter 6 : The Darkest Hour
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Tobias looked up from his paperwork with a jerk, crumpling one of the parchments and his expression rather guilty as he regarded the Ministry of Magic's Ambassador to Russia.
The office was empty and dark except for the little den of business that was Tobias' desk, illuminated by a tiny lamp, covered in various scribbled papers. Antonius Clint stood in the doorway, looking rather rumpled, rather tired, and overall more casual than he normally looked around the office.
Tobias hadn't even realised it was dark yet. He must have been staying behind for longer than he'd thought. A glance at the clock suggesting it was past ten showed how little attention he'd been paying.
He cleared his throat. 'I wasn't planning on it, sir. I just wanted to get the minutes for this meeting written up properly.'
'Of course.' Clint stepped inside, hands in his pockets, leaning against the door frame. There was a long silence where Tobias wasn't sure what to do - was it rude to push on with his writing with the Ambassador stood there? Then the older man drew a deep breath.
'It seems Ms Marlowe's project is proving somewhat successful.'
Tobias straightened up, his expression uncertain. 'I think we're making progress, but we haven't yet managed to secure a team of Russians to come to Britain. So it's not a success yet.'
'No.' Clint nodded, hands still in his pockets, shoulders hunched. Tobias couldn't help but frown at the body language, which seemed uncertain, uncomfortable.
'But I think you're doing well.'
'Oh. Thank you.' Tobias wasn't sure what else to say. Mysterious messages of unfounded suspicions aside, he had not had much to do with the Ambassador, and even less to do with him that had been positive. Clint had been making it clear at every step that he disapproved of the project; this sudden change of tune was quite unusual.
'I know I might have been making life somewhat difficult for Ms Marlowe and her team. I suppose that if you succeed I will have to eat no small amount of humble pie.' Clint sighed, then shrugged. 'But we shall see. Either way, son, I was just heading off for the night and I saw the light on in your office. You're not over-working, are you?'
Tobias hesitated. 'I did lose track of time,' he confessed. 'I don't intend to be here until midnight every night.'
'You should head off. Get some dinner, relax. Go see a girl. Something like that.' Clint waved a hand with a certain amount of wry self-awareness at the clumsiness of his words and his ideas.
He nodded. 'I suppose you're right, sir.' Tobias made a face, and began to stack the paperwork. 'I can do a lot of this in the morning.'
'It's the weekend, son. Don't over-work.'
Tobias grimaced. 'My friends and family are a long, long way away, sir. Everyone I know is here at work. There's no reason to not come to the office on a Saturday.' He stood up, and Clint didn't argue with this as Tobias reached for his robe off the hooks and pulled it on.
'I'll let you get off, then,' the Ambassador said, backing off down the corridor.
'Good night, son.'
'Good night, sir.' Tobias frowned at the oddity of the conversation, but didn't question it, just sighing and turning out the lights behind him as he made his way to the door to the embassy.
He had made it to the receptionist's desk, looking rather alone and forlorn without the Blonde Fiona behind it, before he realised his keys were back on his desk, pulled out of a pocket because they kept sticking in his leg when he was lounging on the office chair in working after hours. He mumbled a curse word under his breath, before turning back around.
If he'd remembered his keys and left, on his return he wouldn't have seen the dim glow of green light flickering from the door of Clint's office, which was only open the slightest crack.
If he hadn't received the unhelpfully signed letter several weeks previously, then he wouldn't have thought twice about it.
Instead, Tobias padded over to the door, drawing his wand. It was just paranoia, he told himself. Clint was a doddering old misanthropic git, perhaps even being genuine in being nice and trying to make him go home, but probably back to undermining them at every turn come Monday.
This was, then, just to put his mind at ease.
He pressed his ear to the crack. For a moment all he could hear was mumbling, then he nudged the door open just the slightest more, and could finally catch snatches of voices. They were low, quiet, and so it was hard to tell how many there were, but Clint definitely wasn't talking to himself.
'...defences were collapsed just as we expected.'
That was a more muffled voice, and if Tobias was any judge it sounded like it was coming across from Floo. He crouched a little, the better to steady himself and still himself and make silent his breathing while he listened. All the time, his hand was gripped tightly around his wand.
'...stay in your job in Russia. We will need a different sort of ally in the future.'
'Of course, sir. But I will need new staff. The Federation will not look kindly on me if I am seen to be contacting our brethren.'
That was Clint, and Tobias did frown now.
'We will send some more loyal men to you. Minister Thicknesse will, of course, be taking his foreign relationships very seriously as a justification.'
There was wryness in this voice, though it wasn't the same one as from the Floo and it wasn't Clint. Tobias barely registered this, though, as something twisted in his gut. Minister Thicknesse?
'Even still, the Federation might raise objections at Britain's sudden pardoning of so many alleged criminals. I will have to keep a low profile for some time.'
'It will wait, then. Are your staff loyal?'
There was a silence, and Tobias slowly rose to his feet, wand still gripped tightly.
It was Clint who spoke next, without hesitation. 'No. They have been working intently on a project to bring down our movement.'
A pause, this one seeming more thoughtful. 'Then detain them. If asked, name them enemies of the state who need to be returned to Britain for trial and incarceration.'
'Yes, sir. And, sir? It fills me with such a tremendous joy that this day has finally a-'
This was the other voice, the voice which was not from the Floo network and was not Clint, and Tobias realised with a start that this was somebody else in the office with the Ambassador. He had no idea whom, but there was an urgency there that made his stomach twist, and quickly he began to back off.
Which was just as well, because within three seconds the door shattered into a thousand splinters.
Tobias barely had enough time to whip out a physical protection charm, shredding the splinters into a sawdust which coated him. Only thanks to his glasses did he not have to wipe his eyes, which was just as well since there then emerged a tall, ominous figure in the doorway to the Ambassador's office who was definitely not Antonius Clint.
After all, Antonius Clint was behind him, peering from inside the office with confused, beady eyes. This man was in black robes and wore the glinting mask of a Death Eater.
Then the vase over Tobias' shoulder exploded as he had just enough time to cringe reflexively away from the spell, the flying sawdust having presumably obscured him as a target, and he bolted.
His shoulder hit the embassy door, still ajar from him turning back in the first place, and it swung open to let him stagger into the dark, abandoned lobby of the embassy. Immediately Tobias leaped to the side, out of the line of vision of the Death Eater, and his wand whipped towards the polished floor just by the door as he muttered an incantation.
The Death Eater, as expected, burst out with all speed - right onto the floor whose friction Tobias had reduced by about a half for approximately a metre squared. It was enough to send him skidding forwards, stumbling and landing flat on his face on the already quite smooth polished floor.
Tobias darted forwards, his foot coming crunching down on the Death Eater’s outstretched wand-hand, just as his opponent's free hand clutched at his ankle - part in desperation, part to try to pull him from his feet.
Enough to stop him from moving, though, so Tobias' wand moved again - this time in a sharp, downwards motion. Acting off instinct and training, the spell in his mind was one to cause as much short, sharp pain as possible to shock the Death Eater into letting go.
There was a shriek of metal as a gash was scored across the mask, then a shriek from the Death Eater as flesh was rent too. Blood trickled from the mask as the man clutched at his face, and Tobias didn't hesitate before he kicked the wand away and turned to run.
There was no sign of Antonius Clint. And Tobias had a horrible feeling he knew why.
He charged for the door out of the embassy, emerging in the gloomy alleyway and almost tripping into the bins that hid the door from sight from the street. But he didn't let himself falter, running at full speed around to the front, hurtling into the front lobby of the housing block, and falling into the lift. His wand came up behind him to press the button for the fifth floor even before he was fully inside.
Then Tobias' legs collapsed under him as the doors slide shut, and he realised his breathing was ragged and his hands were shaking. He didn't fight to stay upright, instead slumping onto the carpet of the lift, trying to slow his breathing, trying to shut out the tinny music which still emanated from the speakers even in a building owned by wizards.
It was not the first fight he'd been in. On his own, or even with the MLE; there had been raids against Death Eaters, take-downs of various other magical criminals. He'd been in a life or death situation before, and for a long moment he couldn't even figure out why this one had left him so shaky.
Only when he closed his eyes and realised that his mind was shooting back to the fight under the Ravenclaw stands, and the sound of Tanith screaming under the Cruciatus, did he realise why another Death Eater in the dark had unsettled him.
Carefully he clambered back to his feet, swallowing bile, and was more or less steady on his feet by the time the lift doors slid open. He didn't have time to be weak. Or he was dead.
It wasn't his room that he headed for, but he moved down the corridor with equal confidence and familiarity, still running until he came to the right door, not even waiting before he hammered on it.
'Aurora? Aurora! Open up! It's Toby! Open up!'
He'd probably wake some of her neighbours up but he didn't care, keeping up the hammering for what was probably a minute until the door opened and he pushed his way in uninvited.
The lights were dim, and Aurora looked as if she'd been sleeping, which made sense when Tobias remembered it was almost midnight. She'd clearly only had time to pull on a silk dressing gown, and Tobias stumbled to a halt when he was face to face with her.
'What? What is it?' She reached past him to push the door shut, and Tobias faltered for a moment, blinking in the gloom as the adrenaline and the nausea both faded, and he looked at her.
She was almost as tall as him. He wasn't used to that, especially from women, and where she normally wore her hair up in a tight, severe bun it was now let down, long and dark and with the locks playing with what he could see of her bare neck and shoulders.
He had always thought of her as old, because she was his mother's age, but now he was up close he realised he hadn't actually considered just how old that made her. She could not be yet forty, and even without her cosmetics, even with a look of alarmed confusion, she was still as striking as ever. Aristocratic.
Oh, what the hell, Toby?
That wasn't his own voice chastising him in his head, and Tobias swallowed hard as he realised whose it was, drawing a deep breath. 'We have a problem,' he said quickly, snapping right through that moment and into the next. 'Clint's a Death Eater. Or working with them.'
She straightened up. 'What?'
'It gets worse. I think the Death Eaters have taken the Ministry. Clint's been given orders on the authority of Minister Thicknesse to stay in place and to make contact with dark wizards here, in Russia.' His words spilled out in a panicked tumble, before he fell silent, biting his lip.
He realised after a moment that though she did not exactly look happy, Aurora was also not looking especially surprised, and she turned on her heel in aggravation, storming back towards the bedroom. 'Rayner warned me this might be coming. Damn it!' she swore, throwing her hands in the air.
'What's worse, he's going to have us arrested for crimes against the Ministry of Magic and shipped back to Britain. He's probably on his way to the consulate right now to inform the Federation authorities.' Tobias waved a hand frantically. 'Whatever's going on, right now they're not going to question him, they have no reason to, and it's his legal right! We're going to have Enforcers on our door in minutes!'
'Alright! Stop!' She lifted her hands to forestall his panic, and her expression was set, confident. 'It won't take long before the Federation realise that whatever's happened in Britain isn't above board - that it's a terrorist take-over.'
'That won't do us much good if we get deported tonight,' Tobias pointed out.
Aurora drew a deep breath. 'Asylum,' she said at last. 'If we request political asylum for fear of what will happen to us if we go home, then the paperwork to sift through that alone should keep us here for a few weeks. I'd be very surprised if the Federation don't figure out what's going on then, and the Federation will not - will not - ship people back to a country run by dark magics.'
'They didn't do it to Egypt in the 80s,' Tobias agreed, a little wide-eyed but nodding quickly. 'Alright. Alright. But to request asylum we need to be in the Department of International Relations. Which is going to be exactly where Clint is going right now to get the manpower to have us arrested!'
Aurora smiled a slow smile which tugged at her lips with playful confidence, as if the danger was something to be merely toyed with. 'So much the better,' she said. 'Since then we can make sure that we get there first if it's a race.' There was a pause, and she frowned at him abruptly. 'Now turn around so I can get dressed.'
Government buildings - most buildings, in the wizarding world - were enchanted so that not just anyone could apparate in and out. Generally these wardings were only lifted in emergencies, and only law enforcement officials had any power to move in or out.
Russia was no different to Britain in that way, and thus entire embassy building was under such wards, from the offices underground to all of the apartments above. It wouldn't do for just anyone to be able to magic themselves into the rooms or offices of a foreign official.
Their destination would be much the same, the offices of the Department of International Relations not liable to allow them to just apparate in. So they'd have to rely on back alleyways to apparate into, then do the rest on foot.
Fortunately, so would Antonius Clint. Unfortunately, he had a head start, having not been attacked by a Death Eater or needing to pick up someone along the way.
'It's possible he took the Floo,' Tobias said hopefully as Aurora headed to the door, now in her flowing robes of a diplomatic official.
'We can only hope,' she muttered, wand in hand when they emerged into the corridor.
He glanced up and down, then frowned. 'Why?'
'Have you ever tried the Floo system in Russia? They've got crazy security protocols since the Cold War and foreign infiltration. If he's gone that way he'll have been suspended for at least some time,' Aurora said, leading the way back towards the lift.
'How long is "some time"?' Tobias asked quickly.
Aurora hesitated, and didn't look at him as they came to a halt outside of the lift, reaching to just tap the summon button repeatedly.
'Anything from one minute's security check to an hour's shakedown,' she admitted quietly.
Tobias just frowned and said nothing, gaze flickering up to the display saying what floor the lift was on. It looked as if it had gone right back down to the ground after he'd made it up here.
All of five minutes previously.
Then the bell rang, the doors began to slide open, and only because Tobias was already moving did he manage to bodily tackle Aurora out of the way of the blast which had to have already been on the lips of the same Death Eater he'd fought downstairs as he emerged onto the corridor.
Searing heat scorched across his back as he realised he wasn't quite fast enough, and he hit the carpet with a thump and a scream of pain he wasn't conscious of allowing to escape his throat. Beside him he heard Aurora hit the floor too, but immediately after there was the crunch as her boot met the Death Eater's leg, snapping his knee back to lock and only just not break.
But it was enough time for her to get to her feet as Tobias rolled onto his front in agony, desperately trying to gather his wits enough to think through the pain or, indeed, do anything other than writhe, able to summon only the faintest awareness of what was going on around him.
It made the fight more than a little disjointed, from his perspective. But one thing was clear: Aurora Marlowe might have been a fine diplomat, and perhaps even a fine witch. But she was no trained duellist.
The few spells she got off once she was upright were enough to stagger the Death Eater, ensuring that she wasn't just hit with the same scorching spell that had smacked Tobias to the floor. But then the man was back on the offensive, and he could see her backing off down the corridor, only the strength of her protection charms keeping her upright.
Then one broke through, smashing into her chest to knock her down. It looked like it had been nothing too complicated, just a strong, sharp paralysis charm to sunder her defences, and nevertheless she went down like a log.
Shock and fear twisted in Tobias' belly as he saw her fall, saw the Death Eater standing just past him raise his wand to point it at her.
No. Not again.
Terror brought clarity, and clarity brought with it a spell, and then Tobias' wand was pointed at his own chin for him to mutter a charm to dull the pain. Relief washed over him as the agony faded, and he fought to get to his feet behind the other man.
Only to find himself face to face with the wand of the Death Eater, who had to have heard him and simply turned around. 'Nice try,' came the tinny voice from under the mask, then Tobias had to reel back to avoid being hit by the spell erupting from the end of his wand.
He stumbled, smashing into the wall and staggering, and then the Death Eater was on him. His wand flew from his hand and then before he knew it the man's arm had wrapped around him in a neck-lock, wand pressed hard against the back of his head.
Before he could wonder just why he hadn't been killed there and then, he saw the flash of movement from down the corridor that was Aurora, getting shakily back to her feet, and the wand was dug in a little harder.
'No closer,' the Death Eater's voice echoed. 'Or I will rip his skull in half.' He took a step back, and Tobias, bent over and still in pain from the back injury, had no choice but be dragged along with the strong grip.
'You need a hostage?' There was the faintest shake in Aurora's voice as she stopped, but her wand didn't move. 'How about me? Leave the boy.'
'I didn't figure on the boy going to get backup,' the Death Eater swore, dragging Tobias back into the lift and turning to face Aurora again. His wand left the back of his head and was turned sharply on the diplomat. 'Lower your wand. Or he's dead.'
Aurora's expression flickered, but she did as she was bid.
And that might have been fatal if Tobias hadn't been so close. As it was, he was near enough to hear the mutter under the Death Eater's voice, even through the mask, near enough to recognise the blasting curse he was going to throw at her.
Painful. Enough to kill if she wasn't protecting herself.
Tobias' hands came up abruptly, grabbing the Death Eater's wrists and shoving his aim off. The spell went off but hit the roof of the lift instead, shaking the entire contraption.
Then it listed heavily as the spell buckled not just the lift, but the cables.
Tobias abruptly found the hold on him loosened as the Death Eater looked up in shock. So he was ready when Aurora's wand snapped back up again to smash a spell into the dark wizard's chest, sending him flying back into the wall of the lift just as Tobias threw himself forwards, almost hitting her as he crashed into the corridor.
The air was filled suddenly with the almighty screech of metal as the cable snapped, and there was a moment where the lift seemed to hang in the air, the Death Eater's eyes wide with fear under the mask. Then, with another shriek, it plummeted down, down, into the gloom.
Tobias swore, picking himself up onto his hands and his knees. Adrenaline and the remains of his spell stopped his back from being more of a dull, throbbing ache, and so he scrabbled along the carpet to retrieve his wand.
'...why the hell didn't anyone hear that?' he asked, breathing coming raggedly.
Aurora crouched down beside him, helping him to his feet gingerly. She looked pale, and shaken, but her voice was steady enough. 'There are enough charms in these rooms to make World War Three go unnoticed if it's going on in the middle of the night. Ambassadors like their sleep.'
'Oh. Lovely.' Tobias blinked muggily, then looked over at the lift. Presumably these charms reached far enough for him to not hear the impact of the lift at the bottom of the shaft, something for which he was quite eternally grateful. 'I hope they like getting the stairs, then.'
Aurora grimaced. 'We're going to have to. Can you walk?'
'If it's that or die?' Tobias straightened up with a wince. 'I could sprint a marathon.'
They didn't. Not quite. But they did hurtle down the many, many flights of stairs in somewhat record time, Tobias' back throbbing with pain all the way, and he could only feel relief at bursting through the fire exit into the cool air of the Moscow night. But Aurora didn't stop; didn't even seem to have tired, just grabbed him by the wrist and he could only give a yelp of panic and pain as he was twisted and writhed through a side-along apparition.
He'd been to the Department of International Affairs. That was where he'd Portkeyed into when he'd first come to Moscow. It was a rather dingy, understated affair in the industrial part of the city, and so when Tobias fell to his knees upon appearing and retched, he did so in what could hardly be called one of the cleanest gutters in Russia.
Fortunately, though, the Russian Federation was less inclined towards the smoke-and-mirrors tendencies of wizarding Britain. They had long found simple warding around buildings to make Muggles disinterest was generally sufficient to keep themselves hidden. This also meant a lot of designated apparition zones, and higher expectations for their wizards and witches to be able to at least appear normal.
Tobias sure as hell didn't feel normal, though, as Aurora practically dragged him into what looked from the outside like a massive steel-works, and then into the blinding juxtaposition that was the utterly pristine department lobby.
During the day this wasn't just a welcome room, this was a communications hot-bed. Floos and Portkeys were going off almost constantly, and wizards were perpetually at desks with tiny fireplaces to conduct Floo conferences, and owls fluttered in with regularity.
At this time of night, enough of Russia's immediate neighbours were fast asleep that a good two thirds of the room was silent, and nobody was here to use the communications or the transport links. Over down the end furthest away from the door were a few officials bent over desks and having discussions in what sounded like Spanish, but that was all Tobias could hear.
There was one desk, though, elevated above the others: main reception. It was staffed, and it was to here that Aurora dragged the increasingly bleary-eyed Tobias.
Then she rattled off some words in Russian and Tobias was certain he didn't have a clue what was going on. He did, though, understand the urgency in her voice, and the confusion in the voice of the young man who'd been stuck on the graveyard shift. The man pointed at one of the back doors and, with the sincerest uncertainty across his expression said something else. Tobias couldn't understand it, still. But he did pick out, in the middle of it, the name 'Clint'.
'He's already here, isn't he,' he said, his gut twisting.
'On his way down to speak to Deputy Sergeyev,' Aurora said, again grabbing him by the wrist and dragging him past the hapless receptionist and through one of the doors. By now Tobias' vision was beginning to swim before his eyes as the spell to dull the pain in his back started to wear off, and he stumbled all the way.
'It's midnight,' he slurred. 'Why is anyone here?'
'Someone has to be on hand at all hours to be the point-man on matters of international dispute. Deputy Sergeyev can't officially grant us asylum, but he can give us protection until the morning when his boss can begin the proper investigation. He'll do!' Aurora exclaimed, dragging him past a whirlwind of corners and corridors that Tobias would not, in a million years, be able to identify ever again.
They stumbled to a halt only as they reached a door which looked identical to all the others to Tobias. Though at least they had latin text under the various signs, and if he squinted - and he did, once he realised it was important - he could see the name 'Sergeyev' on the plate on the wall.
Aurora didn't even wait to knock before bursting in.
Inside the rather small, cramped office, standing before the desk behind which sat a man who could only be presumed to be Deputy Sergeyev, stood Antonius Clint. As crisp and presentable as ever, and looking more than a little distraught at their arrival.
Nausea swam up in Tobias as he saw him, and by now Aurora was almost holding him upright as his vision swam before his eyes and his gut twisted.
Sergeyev looked up with some confusion. He was a severe-looking man in his forties, but Tobias didn't reckon someone pulled the night shift around here because they were popular. 'Ambassador, can you explain this?'
'I... as I was getting to, Deputy...' Clint straightened up and fixed Aurora with a gaze which was beyond withering, and she looked too stressed, exhausted, and shocked to be, right now, doing anything but trying to get her breath back.
He hasn't told him yet. Realisation exploded in Tobias' brain like a pulse, but it didn't stop the pounding in his brain or the writhing in his gut.
Aurora was cut off as Clint lifted a hand, his gaze suddenly sharp, imperious. 'Deputy, this is why I'm here. I require the aid of the Russian Federation for a criminal matter.'
It wasn't as if, once he officially asked for the help, there was nothing that they could do. But still Tobias knew he needed to distract him, divert him - give Aurora the chance she needed to interject.
He lurched forward, and Clint flinched as if he expected violence - either by genuinely being apprehensive after the night's excitement, or this was put on to make him seem more dangerous. And indeed, Tobias had to look awful - pale, wide-eyed, his wand in his hand so tight his knuckles were white, scorch marks across his back.
He did not attack Clint. He didn't lift his wand, he didn't throw a punch. He didn't even say a word.
He did, though, abruptly bend over and vomit all over the Ambassador's shoes.
As Clint reeled back in disgust and Tobias felt his vision swimming even more in front of him, the nausea from the extreme pain abating but the agony itself not subsiding, he heard Aurora Marlowe step forward.
'Deputy Sergeyev. We have reason to believe the Ministry of Magic has suffered a hostile takeover from dissident forces,' she declared with a hint of triumph. 'As such, Mister Grey and I would like to officially request political asylum from the Russian Federation.'
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