'You don't have to go in, you know.' Evadne lingered by the door to the spare bedroom in the Sprague's cottage, needlessly stirring her cup of tea.
'I know.' Tanith frowned as she fumbled with the buttons on her blouse. 'Or, actually - I do have to go in. The final paperwork needs filing.'
'Are they really going to care if you didn't sign a form?' Her sister scrunched up her nose.
'Maybe. Maybe they'll use it as some cheap tactic against me, drag me in for not doing the paperwork right.' Tanith scoffed and reached for her sturdy pair of boots, set down at the foot of the bed. 'But even if they don't I have to go back to... you know. The outside world.'
Evadne didn't answer for a few long moments, just frowned at the window. Summer had well and truly died a death, not even its final writhings visible. The sky was grey and gloomy, English weather not summoning the will to so much as properly rain, or storm, or even yet become especially icy. It was just dark, and dank, and miserable.
Much like the world.
'I'm sure they wouldn't punish you if you quit. I'm sure Amulius could find you a job in the Floo network -'
Tanith gave an inexplicable bark of laughter, and shook her head at her sister's inquisitive look. 'No - sorry. It's a kind offer, it really is, that's not what's funny. Doesn't matter.' She muttered something venomous under her breath as she sat at the foot of the bed and fought fruitlessly with her bootlaces, left hand still bandaged up, the fingers fumbling.
'Let me get that,' Evadne insisted, going to crouch before her sister, and though Tanith looked disapproving she didn't reject the help.
'I can do good where I am, Eva,' she said. 'I can minimise the damage. If all the good people walk, then the MLE really is just a den of oppression.'
Her sister sighed, doing up the bootlaces. 'I knew you'd been brought in but they said it was something about you helping with an investigation, I assumed it was just something... in house. I didn't realise how bad it was until your friend Caldwyn came over and said you'd need a spare room... and asked me to prepare myself.'
'I think Cal thought it would be worse than it was,' said Tanith, flexing her fingers experimentally. They were stiff from the treatment she'd received at Saint Mungo's as much as the damage, but a few days more of rest and she could take the bandages off. The only reason it was taking so long to heal was because Robb hadn't just broken bones but stamped on them, and the injury had gone untended for several days.
But there would be nothing permanent, at least. So long as dark magic wasn't used, wizarding medicine could fix more or less anything without lasting damage.
'It was bad enough,' said Evadne, getting to her feet. 'You looked like hell.'
'Four days. It could have been worse.' Tanith gave a brief shrug. 'Apart from my hand I got some sleep, I got some food. It wasn't a holiday, but... it could have been worse.' She wasn't sure if it was a blessing that Robb had bizarrely abided by the laws which demanded more evidence before using Unforgivables against those of families with correctly recorded blood-histories. She'd seen such laws be stretched and bent in the field plenty - suspicion had often been enough - but perhaps he'd reasoned that doing it under the roof of Canary Wharf was not an acceptable gamble.
Perhaps he had, truly, doubted whether she was guilty enough to not risk his own neck. If he'd used the Cruciatus on her to weaken her concentration, then ultimately found she was innocent and this had got out... nobody cared if this was done to half-bloods, or criminals, or even those from lesser families, but despite her father's deeds the Coles were well enough respected that a little doubt could have gone a long way.
'Something's gone wrong,' said Evadne quietly, 'if we're looking at what happened and saying "it could be worse". It's bad enough.'
Tanith stood, flexing her sluggish left hand, and she sighed. 'That's why I have to go back, Eva. This can't stand.'
Her sister looked away. 'You did it, didn't you.'
'Whatever they accused you of. You are guilty of treason.'
For a moment, Tanith wanted to tell her sister that she was right. That she had, indeed, been giving underground publishers and resistance fighters information straight out of the office of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Not just to tell Evadne the truth, but so she might have someone, anyone, to tell the truth to.
But it wasn't like she was alone at home, even if she didn't like how closely Perkins had prowled around Cal, even if she didn't want to trust that his father couldn't have some means of getting information out of his son - by coercion, or something worse. And, above all, she wouldn't tell her sister anything which might make her, her husband, or especially her young daughter a target.
She shook her head. 'It was just bad luck. Grey's risking his neck and they thought that maybe I knew something about it.'
Evadne looked infinitely relieved. 'Good,' she breathed. 'Because I don't want to see any of this come down on our family.'
'It won't, sis.' Tanith forced a smile. 'I should get going. I want to get the paperwork done today so I don't have to fuss about it at work tomorrow. Where's Leah?'
'She's having a nap.'
'Then kiss her goodbye for me.' Tanith walked over to enfold her sister in something of an awkward hug. 'And take care of her. And Amulius. I'll see you at Christmas, at the latest.'
Evadne's expression was wry as Tanith pulled back. 'I didn't think you did Christmas with the family.'
'Things change.' Tanith smiled, and the sisters went downstairs for Evadne to show her out. Last time she'd been here she'd been too hot in her Auror's coat - now it was colder, she wished she had it instead of just the sweater her sister had loaned her as she made her way down the front path to the big oak tree at the end of the garden. Cal had brought her wand from the flat, but it was strange to stand in the shadows of the tree, to remember first appearing here worn and broken late at night - and then, how bright and easy everything had felt in comparison when she'd last apparated out in the summer.
It was best to not reflect.
She let herself in the main entrance of the Ministry of Magic, and was relieved when her sheer presence didn't set off the security alarms. Clearly the MLE hadn't taken advantage of having access to her wand to make her persona non grata in the centre of magical government, or if they had, they'd then lifted that security. Nobody stopped her. Nobody dragged her back in for arrest.
She was free. Free to live in fear under tyranny.
The MLE was in the habit of keeping its administrative offices that dealt with the public in the Ministry, just to cut down on unnecessary civilian traffic in and around Canary Wharf, and for ease of the public's access. In her capacity as a former inmate of the cells of Canary Wharf, she counted this time as a civilian.
This was a kindness, at least, because she didn't fancy going through the final processing in front of, or perhaps even at the hands of, people she had to work alongside. She needed neither their dark judgement nor, perhaps especially, their pity. At the Ministry she could get in and out and be home in time for dinner with Cal.
There was some sort of commotion when she entered the main entranceway, the long narrow hall flanked by Floo access points leading up to the administrative desks and the oppressive monolithic form of the new statue. A mob far bigger than normal after-lunch traffic had gathered, blocking from sight whatever was going on, but she could hear the tense, hushed muttering, and the noise of dragging metal on stone floor.
'Out of the way! This man needs processing!'
She recognised the voice as Mulready, the Death Eater who'd been the last man standing in the Lions' attack to break Nick Wilson free, and whom she'd had to Stun to take down. He worked in the MLE - if he was in the middle of this and talking about 'processing' someone, then the only logical conclusion was that this had something to do with a prisoner.
Tanith wrinkled her nose and pushed forward. Sometimes they did this, sometimes they liked to cart a high-profile prisoner through the middle of the Ministry before they made a show of some paperwork and shipped them off to Azkaban. The process was sped up by bypassing Canary Wharf, and everyone got to see.
She didn't especially want to witness it. Whoever it was, they were doomed, and she didn't want to give Mulready the satisfaction of his gruesome theatrics getting a bigger audience. But as she went to push through the crowd it was impossible for her gaze to not be drawn to the centre, where the Enforcers dragging a figure by the elbows along in chains were given a wide berth, and she realised she recognised more people in the mix than Mulready.
He was at the prisoner's right arm, issuing the bellowing, but he did not lead the procession. No, that was Robb, tall and proud, expression thunderous as if the presence of the crowd, whom he had to want to witness what was going on, personally offended him. No prizes for guessing who was behind the arrest of this particular prisoner.
It was the prisoner she recognised next, and catching just the briefest glimpse of his face was like a punch to the gut.
'Let me - let me through!' She shoved and elbowed her way forward, and even those standing and watching didn't try to stop her. They might be transfixed, they might be horrified, and even a few of the onlookers might have been genuinely believing they were witnessing public justice, but nobody wanted to be near the front at this.
But her movement made enough commotion for her to be noticed, and as she burst from the crowd, the Death Eater in the procession nearest broke over to grab her by the shoulders. 'Stand back - Cole?'
It was Lackardy, the young Enforcer who had been all-too keen to throw his lot in with Thicknesse's regime and whom she'd suspected had long been a Death Eater himself, but as he recognised her his expression twisted with confusion and, somewhere in there, sympathy.
She pushed him off, whirling around to face Robb. 'What the hell do you think you're doing?'
Robb, who had feigned not noticing her, lifted a hand to make the macabre procession stop, and the crowd as a whole took a step back. They were in the centre of the hall by now, standing in the shadows of the gloomy statue, and there wasn't a pair of eyes in the Ministry that wasn't locked on the interchange.
'You shouldn't interfere, Detector Cole. It would be rather unfortunate to put you right back in prison.'
'I've done nothing wrong for you to put me there,' she sneered, and realised it didn't feel like lying to say that when she didn't believe she had done a thing wrong, per se. She waved a hand. 'And neither has he!'
'Oh, really?' Robb stepped forward, and a nervous Lackardy backed off as the tall Death Eater approached. 'Conducted espionage on the rightful leaders of this country? Utilised this information to the detriment of the government? Delivered such sensitive knowledge into the hands of terrorists? I think that this is exactly something wrong.'
'...Tanith.' The figure in chains, flanked by Mulready and Lackardy, lifted his head weakly. His face was a swollen mass of cuts and bruises, and from how he'd moved, how he needed help to stand, let alone walk, made it clear that they had not been kind when they had apprehended him. 'Don't...'
'Dad.' Her voice broke, and ignoring the brief snickering from Mulready she moved to kneel in front of his slouched form. Lackardy looked for a moment like he might stop her, but then didn't move, having the good grace to stare at his boots. 'What did they do...?'
'Came this morning.' Daedalus Cole's left eye was swollen shut, but his right eye locked on her, glinting with dark intensity. 'It was only a matter of time...'
'Why...' Realisation sank into Tanith's gut, and her head snapped around to Robb. 'You did this! You couldn't get charges against me to stick, so you targeted my family!'
'I targeted a well-known spy against the rightful establishment,' said Robb with a sneer. 'He's lucky we didn't come for him sooner, and he's lucky that, if he cooperates, he'll dodge the Kiss. Out of our way, Detector Cole. We have to get him to Azkaban.'
Her father croaked her name, and even as Lackardy reached for her shoulder she flung herself forward to wrap her arms around him. 'I'll get you out - I'll get this dropped, I will -'
Then Lackardy was pulling her back, and her father was shaking his head. 'Keep safe. Don't give them reason to target you, to target the others, to kill anyone else...'
Tanith's blood ran cold as Lackardy yanked her to her feet. 'Else? Mum?'
'She's fine... they wouldn't hurt a Harper... but Altair...'
Robb gave a bark of a laugh. 'Oh, of course. This needs disposing of. You can take care of it, Detector Cole, saves us a job.' He jerked a nod to the burly Enforcer who stood at the back of the procession, a wrapped bundle slung over his shoulder she had assumed was just luggage. The man nodded and let it fall to the floor, where it hit the marble with a rather soft thump.
'Make sure it's not here by the time we're back,' said Robb. 'And don't do anything stupid, Cole. I'd hate to have a reason to investigate the wrongdoings of the rest of your family. Your mother. Your sister. Her husband.' He gave a dark twist of a leering smile. 'If something happened to them, what would come of your niece?'
It was, perhaps, just as well that Tanith was too stunned by the sight before her to react to Robb's words. Because they did spark something deep in her gut, furious and twisting and swirling at the sheer notion of a threat against little Leah, and had she not been numbed then there was a good chance that, disregarding of any possible danger to herself, she would have gone for Robb.
But he was gone before she could sluggishly look at him, and the anger in her eyes flashed only briefly before it died, and her eyes were inexorably drawn to the abandoned bundle. Most of the crowd had spread out by now, people trying to pretend they weren't stopping and watching, others legitimately moving on, not daring to watch the macabre display, and so heads turned more in the direction of Daedalus Cole's dragging chains as the procession began to move again.
She didn't know how long she stood there. It felt like an eternity, but couldn't have been more than a few moments, because the sound of her father's chains were still echoing in her ears as she approached the Enforcer's abandoned burden. It was wrapped in what looked like a drape she thought she recognised from her father's study, and was exactly the wrong size and shape, lay in exactly the wrong way on the marble.
Tanith knew who and what she was going to see even as she knelt before the bundle and reached for the drape. She could have used her wand but that felt crude, impersonal... and even rude. This had to be done with her hands. This had to be normal, mundane, flesh and blood.
There was no blood in the face that she unwrapped. No warmth. No semblance of life. Just the cold, dead, unseeing eyes of the squib Altair Ritter.
They wouldn't have thought twice about killing him. He wasn't a wizard, and he was easily proven a criminal to boot. They could have put him down with impunity and nobody would care, nobody would question. Daedalus Cole was a man of too much importance to just be destroyed, especially when public eyes were on her family after her own arrest, but Altair Ritter had no such protection, legally or in the court of public opinion.
Hell, they'd probably killed him specifically because they could only do so much against the Coles.
His face was a rictus of pain, though. And as she unwrapped him more she could see his long, thin body was twisted, contorted in agony. There wasn't a single mark on him - but there wouldn't be, would there. They would have wanted this man, who had thwarted them time and again without a drop of magical power, to be broken and tormented by that power itself. To be finally beaten by it.
But not to submit to it.
Her eyes were distressingly dry as she tossed the drape to one side and lay Altair Ritter's body out in the middle of the Ministry, directly before the statue that so perfectly demonstrated every indignity and injustice committed by this place. Once this would have been a scene for the Ministry workers not just of peculiarity, but of horror - but now the Death Eaters were gone, now the theatrical show was over, people just hurried past her, gazes turned aside.
And she ignored them in turn. Her tutor deserved more dignity than this, but she would preserve whatever little shred there was, and show him every respect she could.
So she straightened his twisted form and dismissed the drape before she got to her feet and, with a careful swish of the hand, levitated him in a better state.
But, first, she took his coat. The long, leather coat that had always been too small for him - and was a bit broad on her - but had forever secreted away his belongings, the tools of his trade; which she had always suspected was slightly enchanted for a hint of protection. But aside from its purposes, it was his. It represented him.
And she'd be damned if she wouldn't stand before Brynmor and Robb every day and remind them of the man who had humiliated and beaten them over and over again by wearing it. Her own sign of respect. The biggest rebellion she could, at this point, dare to attempt and get away with.
In the meantime, however, she had a body to bury. A body that she needed to walk with as she levitated it slowly out of the hall of the Ministry, and back towards the Floo points, walking with her head held high, as if she had not a thing to be ashamed of.
And life in the Ministry trundled on, as if a corpse on display in the middle of its offices was nothing that hadn't been seen before a dozen times before.