'I don't understand,' said Will. 'How can there be this level of corruption this high up in the Russian government? The way they go on about the evils of Dark Magic would put Bartemius Crouch to shame. This is institutionalised mistrust to the point of paranoia.'
Tobias glanced across his desk in the press room at the older man, a quill in his hand, scratching away at the parchment in front of him. 'You sound almost approving.'
'That the government spits nails at the slightest implication of Dark Wizards in their midst?' Will gave a lopsided grimace of a smile that reminded Tobias rather reassuringly of Cal. 'I think that's exactly the right reaction to have.'
'So long as they're not so offended at the implication that they deny it's possible and refuse to act against it.'
'Is that something we need to worry about?'
'No.' Tobias put his quill down and shook the parchment lightly to dry the ink. 'Sergeyev says he's treating the information Riley sent you most seriously. There'll be an investigation, a proper one, and we can do more than root out corruption in Russia, we can cut off the Thicknesse administration from its allies.'
Will's smirk broadened. 'They are not going to like you.'
'I know.' Tobias turned the parchment over with a smirk. 'I'm hoping I can topple Shacklebolt for the Number 2 spot with this.'
'I thought you were only Number 4 now?'
'But I'm definitely going to outstrip Jen and the Lions with this one. They won't get much public credit, it'll be all "investigative journalism" and "political clout" of the Midnight Press cracking these buggers open.' Tobias gestured with a sweeping flat palm, envisioning a headline. 'So I'm guaranteed Number 3. But I reckon I can get 2. If there are some good arrests.'
Will laughed, but there was a sobriety in his eyes Tobias had seen coming, and he sat up. 'If you're getting them that angry, they might do something.'
'They'd still need to get into the country undetected,' said Tobias. 'And I have no intentions of leaving. Any more.'
'We should be careful, though. Do you think it's likely that they have other allies? Or is it possible these connections are a fluke, perhaps even a plant, or... personal friends, or the like?'
Trust an Unspeakable to be this paranoid. Tobias grimaced. 'I doubt they're a fluke. I don't know about the rest, but considering the way Dark Magic has worked in this country...'
Will leaned forward. 'Tell me. International history is not my forte.'
Tobias sighed. 'This isn't Germany, or Austria, or Bulgaria. The Dark Magics here aren't the sins of their fathers from some fifty year-old war. And it's not like in Britain, where we jumped at shadows before an all-out conflict. There was no all-out conflict here.'
'Muggle history bleeding over into wizarding, as has happened in every major event in our combined pasts, much as wizards like to think we're immune.' Tobias rolled his eyes. 'For Russia, you couldn't have a country of such staggering oppression, with such an astonishing gulf of wealth and prosperity, amongst the Muggles without this impacting on the wizards.'
'I'm a Muggleborn, remember, I grew up with the Cold War around me.' Will gave a sad smile. 'You're saying it trickled through?'
'As it does - with economics, with the impact of the Muggleborns in wizarding society. Dark Magic was a way for people to protect themselves from the Muggles - directly, or just trying to avoid being affected by the ripples. It also encouraged the anti-Muggleborn sentiments, as they and Dark Magic so often go hand in hand, because the Muggles were so... destructive. But instead of Dark Magic causing a splinter in society it became... interlocked. A part of it.' Tobias laced his fingers together demonstratively.
'A shadow war. Like before You-Know-Who's first rise, but without the final fracturing.'
'Exactly. Dark Witches and Wizards used their power and influence and nefarious methods to capitalise on the atmosphere of terror for years. They were ruthless and cutthroat in their bid for power, and if there hadn't been a massive backlash just under ten years ago, they would have either snuck their way to the top, or Russia would have had its own wizarding war. They were lucky in that they had no single consistent figurehead; leaders of the movement came and went, but there was no Grindelwald or You-Know-Who for them.'
'So what happened?'
Tobias sighed. 'The will of the people. Understand we're talking about a country which has had a truly spectacular hundred years. Paranoia is ingrained into the sensibilities of Russian wizards - I couldn't speak for the Muggles. Eventually, the forces opposing the dark ways consolidated their power and saw it formally banned. For the past ten years there have been ongoing and determined hunts to eradicate all traces of Dark Magic from Russia's wizarding population. Some of their measures make Azkaban look like a kindness.'
'I don't want to know.' Will lifted his hands, grimacing. 'So they take it seriously.'
'They do. But at the same time, it's an attitude which is entrenched and has been normalised for a long time. Plenty of perfectly young, upcoming wizards were raised with the values of dark magic. I think that makes them less brash than the British youths, who were only taught about it and didn't know how to live and breathe the lifestyle. The Russian ones had to hide to survive. So the ones who are left, are very good.'
Will wagged a finger at him. 'And are about to be very upset with you, my boy.'
'I know.' Tobias looked down at his parchment, and drew a deep breath. 'If they're trying to kill me, though - at least I'm doing something right.'
The office was more familiar to him than he'd have liked, and for all of its tidy opulence and professional appearance, just being in the room made Cal's skin crawl. He tried to not let it show as he stood, shoulders squared with almost military precision, in front of his father's desk.
'What do you want?'
Thanatos Brynmor lifted his head from the papers he'd been bent over slowly, arching an eyebrow. 'That's no way to greet anyone for a visit.'
'This isn't a visit,' said Cal tersely. 'I was ordered here.'
'I'm quite sure your presence here was requested. That was how I said the letter should be written. If my staff can't follow basic instructions, I'm sure I can have them punished -'
'Stop it.' Cal lifted a hand to his temples. 'I can read between the lines, I'm not an idiot. So? What's changed?'
Thanatos gestured to the chair, which Cal ignored. Snorting, the older man got to his feet, so neither of them had to look up to meet the other's gaze. 'What do you mean?'
'You've ignored me for the past four months. What happened? Did the festive spirit get to you, or something?' It had been bizarre to walk through the Ministry with the Christmas decorations up, some macabre mockery of a time of year Cal had always associated with happiness, contentment, and family.
'I haven't ignored you.' Thanatos straightened up. 'I sent Perkins to help you out. She was supposed to find you a job...'
'Well, that didn't work.' Cal shoved his hands in his pockets.
'And then you threw her out. So you can't really blame her for that.' He scratched his nose. 'I thought you didn't want anything to do with me, anyway.'
'Then why are you complaining about me leaving you alone?' He padded around the desk, gait deceptively quiet and light for a man of his size and presence. 'I thought that was what you wanted. I thought Perkins would be a good compromise.'
Cal eyed his father suspiciously. 'Were you actually respecting my wishes?'
'Ignoring your wishes won't help anything.' Thanatos sighed, and perched on the end of the desk, opening his hands. 'But however much you might resent me, disagree with me, you are my son, and that isn't just going to go away.'
'This isn't like that we have a difference of opinion,' Cal sneered. 'As far as I'm concerned, you belong in prison.'
'Perhaps.' Thanatos bobbed his head, and Cal gawped at him in confusion. 'I'm not pretending I'm a good man, Caldwyn. Or a nice man. I'm not pretending that I've not done horrid things.' He stood, and padded over. 'I believe in the Dark Lord's cause. I believe that I'm making a better world here, for our kind, for you, and even for your friends. I believe to make that better world, some people are going to have to die, and some people are going to have to suffer. I'm prepared to do that.'
Cal scowled. 'How noble of you, Father.'
Thanatos flinched. 'I do not pretend I am making the kind of world I would live in. I am not so far gone as Lestrange, or Yaxley. I do not ignore, or relish in the fear I see in people's eyes. That fear is necessary, yes - but it should not be eternal. There will come a day when the threats to our way of life are faded, when Muggles and those of tainted blood are kept in their own world, far away from us, and on that day no witch or wizard will need to live in fear.'
Cal watched him, eyes scanning his expression for a hint of anything other than ardent sincerity. 'And what happens to you, on that day?'
Thanatos shrugged. 'I would fancy not Azkaban. I would hope the good I do means I do not need to be punished. But - somewhere quiet. Somewhere far away. Somewhere I do no harm to the world, and it does no harm to me.'
'I don't see you as the kind of man to retire quietly.'
'You don't see me as any kind of man at all.' Thanatos lifted a finger. 'I have kept you at arm's length because this has been what you wanted, Caldwyn. But also because, most simply, I do not want you deeply involved and entrenched in the work I do, even if you wanted to be. Because, when all of my work is done, I want it to be you who harvests the fruits of my labour. You, and your family, and your offspring.'
'So long as my offspring don't have a Muggle-born mother,' Cal muttered.
Thanatos made a face. 'You will understand. Some day.'
Cal folded his arms across his chest. 'Why am I here, again?'
'Perkins.' Thanatos waved a hand. 'She's no good to you?'
He flinched. 'I don't want her around.'
'She's very good at what she does.'
'And what is that, exactly? Why do you have an Enforcer helping me do paperwork? Unless she's a spy, as well.'
'I would say bodyguard,' said Thanatos. 'But she's an excellent organiser and administrator, as well. I'm surprised she couldn't find you something.'
'That part isn't... her fault,' Cal said grudgingly.
'Then is it a personal problem?'
He grimaced. 'Yes.'
Cal looked up to meet Thanatos' gaze, and his father's eyes were so open and honest that, bewilderingly, he disliked the idea of disappointing him. '...if she's good at what she does,' he said awkwardly, 'then perhaps you can assign her back to me. If you must. But how about I come to her in the office, rather than her traipsing about my flat.'
'I imagine your housemate doesn't make her presence easy.'
'Tanith Cole is not known for making things easy,' said Cal automatically, and felt immediately guilty for speaking ill of his friend in front of Thanatos Brynmor. 'I mean - she doesn't trust her.'
'I appreciate Cole being protective of you, but I do worry about your closeness to her. She's such a questionable individual...'
'She's one of your Detectors,' Cal reminded him. 'And it's outrageous that you dragged her in for interrogation, just because she's friends with Toby, when I didn't even get so much as an interview!'
Thanatos squared his shoulders. 'It wasn't possible for you to have done what she was accused of,' he said. 'You hadn't been at the necessary places. But speaking of your friend Grey...' He lifted his gaze. 'He's started acting against us in the Russian government.'
Cal quirked an eyebrow. 'I didn't think there was anyone left in international governments too turn against you.'
'Not everyone is so closed-minded.' Thanatos' lip curled. 'Most countries have individuals in certain places who are sympathetic to our cause. I'm sure you read the articles, so I'm sure you know that he's struck against our most vocal supporters in the Russian government, who have since been ruthlessly removed.'
'You mean, he identified officials who were helping Dark Wizards smuggle goods out of the country, and now Russia's clamping down on the security gap the Midnight Press blew wide open? Which probably means that Russia is going to like him more and so be less likely to hand him over.' He smirked.
Thanatos eyed him dubiously. 'You seem awfully well-informed.'
'I read the article. I know you won't arrest me for that.' Cal rolled his eyes. 'I don't know anything, and even if I did, I'm not going to tell you.'
His father watched him for a few long moments, before he sighed. 'No,' he said at last. 'I suppose he wouldn't tell you.'
Cal's stomach flip-flopped, and his fists clenched. 'What's that supposed to mean?'
'I mean that I imagine he took your loyalty to me as a betrayal,' said Thanatos quietly.
'It wasn't loyalty,' Cal sneered. 'It was... stupidity.'
'It was a son wanting to know his father.'
Silence reigned, uncomfortable and supreme, for several long moments between them, before Cal straightened and squared his shoulders. 'Was there something else, Mister Brynmor?' he asked, his voice detached, clipped. 'Or was that all you wanted from me?'
Thanatos watched him for a few long moments, eyes dark and beady, before he gave a slow shake of the head. 'No,' he said at last. 'You can go, Caldwyn. Make an appointment with Perkins before you go. And... don't forget that if you need anything, you can come here.'
'Yeah, right,' he scoffed. 'That's why you let Tanith go for me, not for Bacchus Drake.'
Thanatos took a deep breath. 'You might want to remember, son,' he said carefully, 'that you never asked.'
Then he turned away and went back to his desk, and even as Cal fought for a response he realised that he had been dismissed - and all of a sudden, the fight had gone out of him. So he mumbled something incoherent and slumped out the door, into the corridors of the MLE wing of the Ministry, and made his way back down to the pit of desks he'd passed on the way in.
He'd spotted Perkins there, just out of the corner of his eye, and had then done his utmost to not look directly at her. She'd noticed him, though, he could tell, and he'd felt her eyes on the back of his neck all the way across the room.
This time he decided on the straight approach, and walked briskly over to her desk. The moment she'd spotted him she'd lowered her head and pretended to be hard at work, quill scratching over parchment with unnecessary fervour.
'We need an appointment,' he said once he stood over her.
Bright green eyes flickered up to meet his, full of caution and apprehension. 'If you wish, Mister Brynmor,' she said quietly.
'I think it would be best,' he said, though he wasn't sure why. 'Do you have an office or something in here we can go to?'
She nodded once, then seemed to realise she'd be required to speak. 'I can arrange it.'
'Next week, then.' Cal shifted his weight. 'Wednesday. Lunchtime?'
'One o' clock,' she confirmed. 'I'll see you then, Mister Brynmor.'
He wasn't sure he liked "Mister Brynmor", but he couldn't pretend he was thrilled by the idea of her calling him by his first name, either. It had led to... complications. Ones which added to the noxious cocktail of swirling guilt mixing and broiling in his stomach. So he didn't argue, just nodded briskly and left, hurrying out of the MLE quarter, out of the Ministry, and back to Diagon Alley as quickly as he could.
The street was no longer a hustle and bustle of fuss and noise and sounds, that condensed wizarding experience which came together whenever you got magical folks living and working in the same place. Magic had been the norm in Cal's life for as long as he could remember, but Will had brought him up with enough exposure to Muggle life and Muggle environment that he could appreciate the difference between the two.
But it wasn't just Diagon Alley felt like a Muggle road, with people refusing to stick their heads out their own front doors if they didn't have to, and half the shops with closed signs in windows or boarded up. It felt like a street, a land, of the dead and the dying. As if someone had taken a vibrant picture and then drained all of the colour out of it.
He ignored the Wandless, as he always had, and made for that one, defiant spot of colour and brightness in area. Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes was hardly the extravaganza of fun and indulgences it had been when Cal and Tanith had first moved in. It wasn't open as often as it used to be, the fireworks - and less identifiable but equally loud and annoying noises - went off less often. The decoration had fallen down and not been replaced. And there'd been a hardness to the brothers' eyes he'd not seen before whenever he passed them in the road.
But there were still smiles, grim as they were. There were still toys in the windows, there were still bright colours, there were still the odd noises. There was still light.
His own building was an even more gloomy affair in contrast. The law firm his flat sat above had been abandoned for two months; he didn't know if the owners had shut it down or just fled. Their landlord had threatened to raise rent, likely feeling the pinch without the company giving him an income. Tanith had done something to take care of that; he didn't know what, and he didn't want to. She'd probably just implied someone from the MLE would come give him trouble.
But that was as good as committing a man to torture some days.
And, as always, he hadn't over-thought the issue.
He never did.
Tanith was sat at the sofa when he came in, the radio on the coffee table, fiddling with it. It crackled and whizzed with a tremendous amount of fuss, and he only got a grunt of greeting and acknowledgement as he closed the door behind him, so deep was her concentration.
Cal frowned. 'Hey.'
'How was your day?'
Yet another grunt.
'Mine was fine.'
'I turned into a swan and went on a mad rampage through the Ministry. It was great.'
'That's ni - what?'
'Got your attention.' Cal pulled his coat off and tossed it onto the stand by the door. 'What's up?'
'I was just...' Tanith frowned at the radio, then set it back down again. 'Nothing. Sorry. I had a night shift last night, I only just got up.'
'Right.' Cal went to sit down next to her, gaze sweeping across their rather stark flat. 'We should decorate.'
'You've been saying that since summer.'
'I mean, for Christmas.'
Tanith snorted. 'Because this is a proper den of festive cheer, isn't it. We won't even be here on Christmas Day.'
Cal shifted his weight. 'You won't be. Where do you think I'm going to go?'
She hesitated, and he could see she'd not given his own holiday plans any thought. To be honest, he'd barely given them any thought. Mostly to avoid contemplating his options. Last year, he'd spent it with Will, who was on the run abroad. This year he'd considered spending it with Nat - who was in Azkaban. That meant his only choice now was to spend it alone, as the alternatives were too peculiar or horrifying to consider.
'I guess. I don't really have time to decorate, though. I trust you to do it.' She stood, and went to put his radio away, to one side by the window. 'How was the Ministry?'
Cal grunted. 'You know. A waste of time.'
'Did you see Perkins?' He'd not told her a thing of what had happened with him and his 'adviser' - he barely wanted to think about it himself, let alone share it with Tanith's judgemental attitudes - but she was still not stupid. He doubted she'd guessed the truth, but she knew something was up.
'Yeah,' he said awkwardly. 'We're going to have more meetings.'
Cal nodded at the radio. 'What were you trying to find?'
Tanith froze with, he thought, unnecessary guilt at a simple station surfing, before turning and shrugging. 'Nothing. I was just... browsing, you know. Seeing if there was anything on.' She paused. 'There's not.'
'Yeah, it's a bit... quiet.' He watched her with a frown, and scratched his nose. 'Are you out again tonight?'
'I'm not back in the office 'til tomorrow.'
'That's not what I meant. You've been out a lot, lately. Of an evening. Where do you go?'
Tanith shrugged in the world's worst evasion tactic. 'Out. I go for walks. I find it helps.'
Cal got to his feet gingerly. 'You can talk to me, you know. About work. About... anything.'
She met his gaze, and he could see the guarded air in her eyes. 'I know.'
'Because I know it's got to suck for you right now. Working for my father. Working in the MLE. Hunting people like Riley. And I don't want to imagine what happened to you when they dragged you in for working with Tobias.' Cal scratched his nose. 'You don't talk about it.'
Tanith shrugged again. 'There's nothing to talk about.'
He frowned. 'Either you got arrested for something you didn't do, which sounds like a hell of a good conversation topic - or you are in touch with Tobias, and you've not told me. Though if you are, I've got to say, no bloody wonder you wriggled out of them fingering you for it. I've not been able to tell.'
She lifted a hand. 'If I knew something delicate, and I told you, that puts you in an impossible position.'
'What do you mean?'
Tanith cocked her head. 'There are important people you come into contact with most days. Lying like that couldn't be easy.'
'In this hypothetical conversation,' Cal said, rather sarcastically, 'you manage to hide what you're doing from people. All day, every day. And your people are more likely to dob you in than my people are.'
'Yes, but none of those people are my father.'
Cal flinched. 'I wouldn't sell you out to him.' It was hard, he realised, to get indignant about that. Does she know?
'No, but I know the situation between the two of you is...' Tanith gestured. 'Complicated.'
'Complicated.' He rolled a shoulder. 'What you're saying, Tanith, is that you don't trust me. After all we've been through. After all you know about me. After everything I have done to demonstrate how I hate the Dark Arts, how I want as little as possible to do with my father -'
'How did you break Tobias' nose?'
There it was. Not the million galleon question, but certainly one of the big ones. Because he couldn't explain that without the whole pack of cards coming tumbling down.
Cal turned away. 'He didn't tell you? He tells you everything else.' It was hard to not sound bitter. To not be bitter.
'I know it was bad. And I know he was trying to have as little to do with you as possible after what happened to Annie.' He could feel Tanith's eyes on his back. 'I doubt it was just to do with the fact that Brynmor was there, that Brynmor as good as killed her.'
'Isn't that enough? After all my family's done to him?'
'I thought it was,' she said, and he glanced at her. Her arms were folded across her chest, her brow furrowed, her stance taut - everything he had come to recognise about her as antagonistic, untrusting. Apprehensive.
'And then there was that night at the Ravenclaw Quidditch stands.'
Cal did turn at that, because he knew that tone of accusation in her voice, and his brow furrowed. 'What the hell does that have to do with anything? You know what happened! They found me down there! What did I do that night?'
'It's not what you did,' Tanith said evasively. 'It's what you could have done.'
'Could...?' He frowned. 'I could have turned into a bloody squirrel and thrown nuts at them; what does could have to do with anything?'
'Everything,' she said. 'When it comes to what you could feel compelled to, or be tricked, or manipulated into, telling your father.'
He wanted to shout. Wanted to rant and rave, wanted to demand how she dared make that kind of accusation at him. Because he wasn't that kind of man, that kind of boy, so weak-willed and desperate to know the father he'd never had, to find something good and decent in the father who'd been nothing more than a demon in his head since his childhood. Wasn't a traitor, wouldn't sell out his friends, wouldn't hurt them, wouldn't give others the means to hurt them.
Except he was. Except he'd all but given Annie MacKenzie to Brynmor and Robb. And that had shattered more than one life. Everything, every event or action or word of the past year, could be traced to that one night, or had been irrevocably altered by it.
And it was his fault.
He looked down. 'You're saying you don't trust me.'
Tanith looked away, then made a noise of frustration, and stormed over to where that old coat of Altair Ritter's hung on the stand. She yanked it on with a flapping of leather and a flurry of frustration. 'Don't take it personally, Cal,' his closest remaining friend of seven years said, cold and detached. 'Right now, I don't trust anyone.'