It was a Saturday, and Cal had thought Tanith would be pleased when he declared he had two tickets to a Quidditch game. He’d looked rather hurt at the baleful look he’d received in response, which wasn’t so unreasonable, but the last thing on her mind these days was Quidditch.
It would be a distraction, Cal had said. But all Tanith could think was that sitting in the middle of a roaring arena with fans enthused about, of all things, a Quaffle, would feel false. A betrayal.
So she had stayed at home, and as the sun grew fat in the horizon as summer slipped away and the nights came sooner and sooner, she was beginning to wish that she had, at least, tried for a distraction. Her own thoughts had not made fine company.
There had been a debriefing after the attack at Azkaban. Luckily Tom Everard’s confounding of Mulready had done the job, and nobody had suspected her of foul play. She stated she’d hit the deck when the shooting had started, had then fired off a few shots, but been stunned at the same time as the lead Death Eater. Nobody had questioned it enough to find any gaps in the story, and nobody had been suspicious enough to bring out the legilimency or the veritaserum.
Thanatos Brynmor had, however, been watching her ever since. Or perhaps that was her imagination; perhaps she assumed he was suspicious that the prisoner transfer she’d requested to be on was the one which got hit.
But it hadn’t been the last move by Riley’s team. A shipment of potions supplies due at one of the MLE alchemical laboratories in Sussex had been waylaid, and a group of Snatchers days later ambushed and killed in Hampshire. That the second one was Riley’s group had come as a shock to Tanith, but a lone survivor had confirmed it.
They weren’t pulling their blows. And whilst intellectually that discomfitted her, she knew that it was the only way they were realistically going to get out of this alive. Snatchers would never be people like her, people just trying to do their jobs. They were just below people with Dark Marks on their arm for indisputable enemies.
But they had attacked with unerring precision, enough to make someone suspect an informant, but the last two strikes had been so far away from anything she was involved in that nobody could logically try to blame her. The MLE was busy looking for someone else on the inside, even though nobody was linked to all the separate departments.
Tanith was just wondering how effective Gabriel’s time in Rio had been. Had he managed to master his gift enough to give Riley’s resistance team the information they needed? Why had he come back? Why had he got in touch with Jennifer bloody Riley and not her?
Of course, if he had not returned since after Thicknesse’s assuming of power, it was possible he had just been paranoid, and right. But she couldn’t shake the question of if he’d seen something, something that had made him go to Riley...
...or stay away from her.
It was impossible to say, but still the question danced around her mind, whirling until -
The fireplace flickered.
Tanith sat up from where she’d been sprawled out on the sofa, failing to read a book, and squinted at it. It had just been the briefest spark of green, as if a Floo message or arrival was about to start, only to be aborted.
Then, as she drew closer, it burst into shimmering green flame which died as quickly as it had arrived, but in its wake depositing a tall figure in the middle of her living room. She was on her feet within seconds, wand outstretched, poised for action. Then she froze.
It was Tobias.
A million thoughts ran through her head at once, from wondering how he was here and why he was here, to a deluge of memories haranguing her, not least the rather vivid one of their farewell at Hogwarts. But above all, ringing in her head, was one question: Is this really him?
He looked older. More haggard, more tired. The broken nose he’d suffered by means Cal still wouldn’t tell her about remained crooked, and his hair was long, longer than it had ever been, wavy at the neck and dangling across his forehead. These, combined with the several days’ worth of stubble on his chin, made for a rather rugged appearance she didn’t associate with Tobias at all.
But it still looked like him. The lofty height. The casually tidy clothes. The glasses perched on the bridge of his nose - and above all those bright, piercing blue eyes behind them.
Which were, at that moment, locked on her.
She found herself rooted in place until the gaze broke, and he looked down at the watch in his hand. The pocketwatch she’d given him, that gift from a lifetime ago. He pressed the top once, before popping it in his pocket.
Then he straightened up and looked levelly at her again. ‘...Hi.’
It was not the dramatic first words she’d expected out of his mouth. But her own vocabulary was failing her, and before she knew what she was doing she’d dropped her wand and practically vaulted over the coffee table and at him.
He staggered as she threw herself at him, but she could feel the relief as he wrapped his arms around her, returning the hug, and for a few long moments all she could do was bury her face in his shoulder and revel in the feel of him, the smell of him - and for those glorious seconds it was like there was no war, oppression, no strife.
She pulled back far too soon, expression hopelessly confused. ‘What are you doing here? How did you get here?’
‘Best I don’t tell you the “how”,’ Tobias said, wearing one of his crooked smiles. ‘But I don’t have long. Only ten minutes. I... I need your help.’
‘What are you doing? You’ve been in Russia only a matter of months and you’re already one of the most wanted people internationally! But Robb’s been giving up on you since McGowan’s death - you’ve managed to lie low, they’re going to forget about you...’ She found her hands grabbing fistfuls of the front of his robes, a pleading tone creeping into her voice, because although the heat had been dying down for him there was no way he was just here for a social call.
‘I know. I was helping McGowan - you probably know that.’ He shook his head quickly. ‘I’m taking on his work. His paper. His contacts. I can put it together from Moscow, I can gather the information and write the articles and print them off and distribute them. I can get the word out there like nobody else can. I can tell the world the things the Ministry don’t want them to know...’
Of course he could. And of course he would. Although she had breathed sighs of relief as, over the past week, Tobias’ name had been uttered less and less, and other exiles had been mentioned more and more, she’d known this couldn’t be it. If he’d decided to take action, there was no way he was going to stop.
She drew a deep breath, steeling herself. ‘What do you need from me?’
He looked briefly surprised, and she resisted the urge to chastise him, mock him. As if she wouldn’t have known what he wanted. As if she couldn’t read him like a book.
‘We’ve only got so much. We need to hit them hard, really hard, or nobody is going to take us seriously.’ He reached into his pockets and pulled out two lumps of coal.
It wasn’t really the hard-hitting she’d expected.
‘These will securely send to us anything that goes across the Floo fireplace they’re put in. All conversations. All transportation. But we need someone to put them in place.’
Tanith reached out for them. They felt like ordinary lumps of coal. They even left her hands dirty when she turned to set them down on the coffee table. ‘Where do you want them?’
Tobias winced. ‘Brynmor’s office. And... and Yaxley’s.’ He drew a deep breath. ‘If you can’t do it, if it’s too dangerous -’
‘It’ll get done.’ She straightened up, dusting her hands off.
‘I know it’s -’
‘Tobias.’ Tanith turned to him, taking a step closer and looking up to catch his gaze. ‘I’ll get it done.’
He watched her for a long moment, then swallowed and nodded and lowered his head, pulling his watch from out of his pocket. He seemed satisfied with this, putting it back, before he cleared his throat awkwardly. ‘Are you all right? Is Cal all right?’
She nodded. ‘Cal’s coping. He’s clearly finding it hard, but he’s coping. And I’m doing my best to help where I can. You should get in touch with Jen Riley if you can; she’s gone on the run, a whole bunch of them have, and they’re really starting to piss people off out there. They’re doing good.’ She hesitated. ‘Doyle’s with them.’
‘Gabe?’ Tobias blinked. ‘He came back from travelling? I don’t know if I should find that commendable, or stupid.’
‘It’s not like you can comment; you could have stayed out of trouble yourself.’ Something tightened in her throat, and abruptly she was keenly aware that there was a very good chance neither of them were going to see each other again. Either one of them could die - hell, she could get caught and killed for just attempting what he was asking her to do.
‘You know I couldn’t have,’ he said, voice quiet and a little guilty. Impetuously he reached out to grab her hand, and it seemed like the urgency of the situation was not lost on him, either. ‘You have to be careful, Tanith, you understand me? I don’t - I can’t - I don’t know how to manage, being all the way out there, and knowing you’re living like this, knowing you’re in danger, every day.’
‘... all I ever hear about you is if they think they’re closer to catching you.’ Her throat was impossibly dry as she looked up at him, and his bright eyes so intense and piercing that she was astonished she could gather enough of a coherent response to answer him. ‘Every time I hear your name in the office I’m terrified it’s Robb saying they’re bringing you in, or that you’re dead...’
Then his hand was at her cheek, and only then did she realise she was cold, trembling, and when he stepped in closer it was like he was the only thing in the world that was warm. ‘I’ll be fine,’ he whispered, his head bowing to rest his forehead against hers. ‘I’ve got good people with me, smart people, they’ll keep me safe...’
He was close, so close, and although it felt right it was like she was running through darkness without a map and trusting only her instincts. And her instincts had her leaning up, straining on tip-toes to be nearer, and with their lips less than a hair’s breadth apart all she could manage was a breathy whisper of his name.
Then he tensed, and all she knew as he pulled her closer was his lips on hers. The scratch of his stubble on her chin, the musty smell of him. Her handfuls of his robes, his own hold on her tightening before one hand came to bury itself in her hair.
It had been as much of a stumbling, fervent embrace when they had kissed at the doors of Hogwarts, but that had been filled with the grief of the past. This time, the present and the future hung over them like a shroud, darkening everything so much she had to cling to him as if he was the only light left.
And, to her, he was. With him, all the worries and woes of the outside world faded away, and all that was left was them. Peace.
I love you. IloveyouIloveyouIloveyou...
A small whimper of protest escaped her lips as he broke the kiss, but he was still close, just close enough, and his earnest whisper was like a fresh caress. ‘Come with me...’
She shivered again, and almost agreed, almost let her feet carry her to the fireplace to join him. Be whisked away from here, help him in Russia, leave all of this behind. But she gave a faint shake of the head, their noses brushing against each other. ‘I can’t.’ Her voice was pained, hoarse. ‘If I run, especially to you, they’ll hurt my family... and I can’t abandon Cal...’
Dimly, it occurred to her that Cal, locked in an impossible situation she had hardly been sympathetic to, might have invited her to the Quidditch so they could have some time together without the stress and strain. It was hard to concentrate on this fact, but the cogent part of her resolved to make up for this.
They would need each other.
‘I know,’ Tobias groaned, sounding like he hadn’t expected his offer to be expected. ‘But you’ve got to stay safe, you hear me, you’ve got to...’
But his voice trailed off, and he gave up on words and instead poured his earnestness into another kiss, this one just as fervent as the last, and she pulled herself as close to him as she could, hiding from the world in his embrace.
Then she heard the beep from his pocket that had to be his watch, and before he could step away, break the moment, she let him go. He pulled back, his hand coming from her hair to his pocket, and he blinked owlishly. ‘That’s... that’s ten seconds.’
It would be less by now, of course, and all she could do was nod mutely, forcing her hands to let go of his robes, letting him step back. He backed off into the fireplace, and for several long seconds they just stood there, in silence, waiting.
He was frowning, staring at her, as if struggling with something, but she found herself only able to watch him, soak in every inch of him before her, knowing this might be the last time she saw him in the flesh. There was a flicker of green at his boots, and he looked down very briefly before intense blue eyes found hers, and the Floo began to flare around him.
‘I love you.’ He almost tripped over the words, but they were there, ringing loud and clear and almost enough to banish any of the darkness from her mind.
But then the Floo burst into life, consuming him with green flame, and though it only lasted a fraction of a second, when it died down into nothingness, he was gone.
‘...I love you.’
Her voice was hoarse, lost as she said these words to absolutely nothing, and for a long time she just stood there alone in the flat, the room cast a dull shade of orange by the rays of the dying sun.
She was summoned to Yaxley’s office the very next day. Despite that it felt like the lump of coal in her pocket was about to gleefully lunge straight into his fireplace of its own accord, she couldn’t help her stomach from flip-flopping as she glanced across her desk at Van Roden.
‘Any idea what this is about?’
He shrugged haplessly. ‘Not a clue. Hope they’re not blaming you for the rain cloud.’
Tanith scrunched her nose. ‘Yaxley’s still pissed about that?’
‘He’s pissed he can’t find who did it. He’s not making a fuss because it then draws attention to the fact he didn’t catch the prankster.’ Jacob gave a lopsided grin. ‘If you don’t sell me out, I’ll buy you a beer.’
‘See, I was totally going to give you in, but you’ve bought my loyalty.’ Tanith gave a smile to hide her nerves, then set off down the DDD office to find the Portkey to the Ministry.
In the few short weeks before the takeover, her work had barely brought her near the Ministry. The MLE HQ at Canary Wharf was the only place an Auror needed to work unless they were on the most important cases or required regular communication with other government staff. It was usually a sign of prestige to have business at the Ministry itself.
These days, everyone who had to go to the Ministry just dreaded it. But at least the notables like Yaxley and Brynmor kept their official offices there, even if Brynmor especially was still often seen storming about Canary Wharf, Robb following him like a grim shadow. She still didn’t know which one of them she should be more scared of. Instinct had her terrified for the unknown threat Robb represented, but there was nothing comforting about being able to guess exactly what Brynmor could and would do.
Yaxley she’d barely seen. But, then, if she’d done something wrong, they’d just openly arrest her, wouldn’t they?
Worry of this sort kept her occupied all the way to the man’s office, through the Ministry with its oppressive artwork and the near-silence of all who worked there. Nobody dare put a foot or a word out of line these days. Brisk officiousness had been swapped for sheer terror.
She fought the shake out of her hand as she knocked on Yaxley’s door, only to be summoned immediately. It was a small, wood-panelled room, the walls lined with bookshelves. To her left was the crackling fireplace, and above it a portrait of Barnabus Rourke, the first Head of Magical Law Enforcement, a hard-eyed, serious-looking wizard in padded, close-fitting robes that were ancestors of an Auror’s equipment.
And there was Yaxley, sat behind his large desk, several quills scratching ink across parchment of their own volition. ‘Detector Cole,’ the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement said, voice cold. He extended a hand. ‘Please sit.’
Tanith gulped and glanced sideways at the fireplace, but there was nothing to be done while those beady eyes were upon her. She took the hard-backed seat on her side of the desk. ‘You wanted to see me, sir?’
Yaxley gave a slow, careful nod. ‘Correct. You are a recent graduate of Hogwarts, according to your records.’
It wasn’t a question, but he didn’t keep speaking, so she nodded. ‘Er, yes, sir.’
‘A prefect of Slytherin House, to be precise.’
‘And Jennifer Riley and Thomas Everard were the Gryffindor prefects in your year.’
A guess at what was going on didn’t reassure her. ‘That’s correct, sir.’
Yaxley plucked a sheet of parchment from her table. ‘Are you familiar with the group calling themselves “The Lions of Britain”, Detector Cole?’
She cleared her throat carefully. ‘They’re a group of anti-establishment dissidents who are responsible for several attacks on the institution, its members, and its resources. They are one of the most important targets of the DDD,’ Tanith said mechanically.
‘And do you know who their members are?’
She tried to not wince. ‘Riley and Everard are amongst them. Riley in particular is considered a ringleader. And...’ Tanith hesitated, but there was little she knew they did not. ‘And several of their former classmates have also been identified in the group.’
‘Yes. And so far we have had little success in catching them.’ Yaxley seemed to relax a little, voice going more business-like. ‘I am reallocating you from general service, Detector Cole, to the team Mister Brynmor has put together to explicitly hunt the Lions. Your partner Van Roden, too; your results have been promising.’
Tanith hesitated. ‘You didn’t bring me up here just to tell me that, sir. A memo would have sufficed, or Mister Brynmor...’
‘Correct. I wanted to meet you for myself before I gave you your first assignment - the specific reason you’ve been posted. Of all of the members of the MLE, you have the most personal familiarity with these renegades. You went to school with them, the ringleaders you shared prefect responsibilities with.’ Yaxley smiled. It didn’t suit him. ‘I recall the bond of Hogwarts. Even the antagonistic bond with Gryffindors.’
‘Certainly we weren’t friends,’ said Tanith, and it wasn’t a lie. ‘But I knew them, yes, sir.’
‘Recent methods haven’t worked. We need to understand what they do, how they think, get into their heads.’ Yaxley tapped his temple. ‘Your first assignment is to provide a full account of everything you know personally about the confirmed and suspected members of the Lions. This includes interviewing classmates and family members. From there we should be able to draw up a better picture of their methods and actions. Especially their latest member.’
Tanith’s breath caught in her throat. ‘Latest member?’
‘Indeed. Someone you ought to be able to anticipate especially well. I’m not surprised you haven’t heard, but it will be such a blow to the Doyle family to learn that their scion has fallen in with a bad crowd. I refer, of course, to your old schoolfriend, Gabriel Doyle.’
It wasn’t hard to look surprised, even though she knew of Doyle’s involvement. But she hadn’t realised he’d been identified. She supposed it was only a matter of time. ‘Doyle is...’
‘Involved. Yes.’ Yaxley nodded, and got to his feet. ‘So you’ll have yet more valuable insight to give the team. Report with Van Roden to Mister Brynmor, and he’ll have a better outline for you of what sort of information’s expected. But I am glad we had this meeting, Detector Cole. It’s allowed me to get... a good grasp of you.’
He extended a hand, and she shook it with a displeasure she fought to hide. But though he then dropped his gaze to the desk and the papers on it, the room was too small, and too quiet for her to think that she could deposit the coal she thought was practically burning in her pocket. She turned to go.
Instinct alone had her acting. The notion appeared in her head when she was by the crackling fireplace, and some part of her refused to let her think it through before she acted. If she’d thought about it, she might have refused to act. The swish of her cloak hid her wand from view, and though she knew major, or dangerous, or invasive magic in this room would be detected, surely something so simple as a wandless charm to briefly disrupt one of the free-flowing quills on Yaxley’s desk could...
The quill jerked in the air, then began sputtering out ink, and Yaxley swore, reaching to snatch it up, away from sensitive documents. Tanith turned - hand off her wand now - in a false impression of surprise, and as she did so almost casually slipped the coal from her pocket and tossed it into the fireplace.
‘Damn - malfunctioning - it’s fine, Cole, just go,’ cursed Yaxley, tapping his wand against the misbehaving quill. The damage looked like it was superficial, and she doubted anyone would suspect foul play in what, on its own, could barely even be considered a prank. Five seconds’ of inconvenience to the Head of Magical Law Enforcement was nothing anyone with half a brain would put themselves at risk for, and Tanith liked to think her superiors imagined she had more than half a brain.
But she didn’t question it, just turned to go, and as she did she spotted the portrait of Barnabus Rourke, gazing down at her, giving her a hint of a crooked smile. Soft, too soft for Yaxley to hear, but echoing in her ears as she left, came the approving, muttered words in a Scottish brogue, ‘Justice will prevail, lass.’
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