‘We knew there were going to be consequences,’ said Tobias said as he paced across the apartment’s living room, hands clasped behind his back.
‘It’s still not worth destroying all we’ve built here, though.’ Aurora watched him, a frown on her face as she shuffled through the pieces of parchment on the coffee table, on her lap, on the sofa next to her. ‘We do sometimes have to pick our battles.’
‘And I’ve picked this one.’
‘I’m not arguing that. I agreed with you, if you recall. You don’t have to be so defensive.’
He stopped, running a hand through his hair. ‘I’m sorry. I know I did the right thing. I know we have done the right thing. Six arrests, the company’s shut down, the smuggling’s come to an end. Just Will was so ardent - I expect everyone to tell me I’m wrong.’
‘We’re in a hard enough spot as it is without you imagining attacks, Tobias.’ Aurora waved a hand. ‘We can weather this. I’m just saying that we might want to step delicately. You’re still Sergeyev’s darling, don’t you worry, but he’s not the be all and end all of Russian politics.’
‘I’ve annoyed someone else? Not possible. My schedule is far too full for another mortal enemy. And they’d have to land themselves, oh, at least number six, and that would just be embarrassing for them...’ Tobias waved a hand whimsically.
‘Six?’ She arched an eyebrow.
‘You-Know-Who. Brynmor. Robb. Yaxley. Piotr. Then them.’
‘Piotr?’ Aurora frowned. ‘The receptionist down at the embassy? He’s your number five mortal enemy?’
‘Hey, he was really annoying.’ Tobias gave her a lopsided smile. ‘I’m sorry. I know this is hard work, and I know you have to clean up most of the politics while I just get to prance around in the background and write my articles to cause trouble for you.’
‘That is, by the way, exactly how I describe you to the staffers when they ask. Especially the prancing.’ She looked up at him. ‘The Death Eaters are desperate, apparently, to extradite you. Which is making Sergeyev even more intent to keep you here. You’re clearly angering them.’
‘Which means we’re making a difference.’ He sighed. ‘But you said it’s harder.’
‘Not everyone thinks like Sergeyev.’ Aurora rifled through some parchment and passed him a few sheafs. ‘I doubt the three men you identified down in customs were the only Dark Magic sympathisers in the system. Or even the only ones involved in the corruption.’
‘So Dimitri likes to tell me.’
‘Perhaps you ought to listen to him. I know he’s young, but he really is very good at what he does. His father works in the Federation, and I don’t mean he got his job through nepotism - he has an excellent idea of what’s going on in the government.’
Tobias rubbed his temples ruefully. ‘He’s older than me, you know.’
Aurora’s lips twisted. ‘I do know. I often forget that you’re not even twenty. You seem... older than him.’
He snorted. ‘Thanks. I feel like I’m going to go grey at any moment.’ Tobias sighed. ‘I know Dimitri’s good. That’s why I’ve asked him to keep an eye on the situation. He said he was talking to some friends in Russia’s MLE Department this evening; he ought to have sent me an update by now.’
She watched him as he got to his feet and wandered over to the wide windows, peering between the thick drapes that chased off the cold into the night air. ‘It’s not that late,’ she said. ‘I’m sure he’ll let you know.’
‘I know.’ Tobias frowned at the glass. ‘I distrusted him, you know.’
‘He mentioned. He seemed quite upset. I don’t think it’s wrong for you to be careful.’
‘I should have trusted him. If I can’t trust the people around me, I’m pretty much screwed, really. What if-’ He stopped as there was a rapping on the door, a quick, light beat that didn’t sound like knuckles knocking.
‘I told you he’d come through,’ said Aurora as Tobias crossed the room to open up the front door, and in fluttered a rather irritable owl, who alighted on the back of a chair and immediately began grooming itself. Its feathers were flecked with melting snow, though at this time of year owls were generally not used for long-distance trips in this part of the world. It couldn’t have come very far.
‘I didn’t doubt you,’ he said, a little defensive as he pulled the message from the owl’s leg, and sent it off to the kitchen where he kept out some water and feed as a rule. This was not the first owl to come flittering into the building as a messenger, and most had travelled outright internationally. A wizard who mistreated his courier owls was a poor wizard indeed.
‘What’s he got to say?’ she asked as he unfolded the letter.
Tobias frowned. ‘He doesn’t say anything. Just says his meeting didn’t go as expected. He wants to meet me. Back out in the park.’
Aurora cast a glance outside. ‘It’s freezing out there.’
‘It’s always freezing out there. But he’s right, it’s safe from us being overheard. Dimitri wouldn’t ask to meet me out there if it weren’t important.’ He turned to where his thick coat, by now his best friend in Russia, hung by the door.
She got to her feet. ‘I’ll come with you.’
‘No, no.’ Tobias waved a hand. ‘It’ll be fine. You have to finish proof-reading those, anyway, if we want to release the next issue by the end of the week. He’ll just want to badmouth the administration without them hearing about it. We can get away with that, but he might get fired.’
Aurora nodded ruefully, sitting back down. ‘Don’t be long, then.’
‘I won’t,’ he assured her, and left. Not before making sure he had easy access to his wand, that his thick coat didn’t stop him from going for it swiftly, of course. Even if a trip to the park to meet Dimitri was not exactly unusual, it was still dark out there, and it paid to be cautious.
He couldn’t help but worry, as he emerged from the building and crunched into the night-clad streets of Moscow. The meeting hadn’t gone ‘as expected’? What did that mean? Had the MLE found more to the underground dark magic movement than they’d expected? He was already watching his back as much as he could without locking himself away or hiring some sort of all-hours protection; both sounded tiresome.
Or perhaps Dimitri Radimir was just being paranoid. Tobias didn’t really believe anyone was actively eavesdropping on either their press office or on their embassy rooms; it would violate too many international laws to do so. Even if they weren’t formally the British embassy, other wizarding nations would be outraged at the revelation, and they had living and working with them Will Rayner, an Unspeakable of the Ministry of Magic. If anyone was going to uncover illicit magical surveillance being used against them, it would be him.
But it didn’t hurt to indulge Dimitri’s worry. And although him being fired was hardly worse than the three British wizards being murdered in their beds, he had no desire to make life difficult for the other man - and it especially worked to his disadvantage if he was going to have to learn how to work with a new liaison. Dimitri supported them as best he could. He needed allies in Russia.
There had been fresh snowfall which fell across the path into the park, and Tobias’ feet crunched a new route as he wandered into the dark, deep expanses of the wintry wonderland. But it was a bit too late, a bit too gloomy for him to feel relaxed by his environment, and he slipped his wand up his sleeve, muttering a quiet ‘Lumos,’ under his breath, and let the light filter across the path and the darkness of the shrubbery around him.
He doubted any Muggles would be out here this late - he was pretty stupid to be out himself - and if they were, it was so dark they’d probably just assume he had a torch.
The scribbled letter hadn’t made it clear exactly where to meet in the park, but Tobias set off down the route he and Dimitri had taken before, down a path which wound its way around one of the ponds, frozen solid at this time of year, and before long was rewarded with the sight, just on the curve of the path around the waterfront, of a glimmer of light not unlike his own.
His shoulders relaxed and he wandered up to the shape of Dimitri, silhouetted against both their wand-lights, towering and imposing in the gloom. ‘Hey. What’s happened?’
Then the figure turned to face him properly, and Tobias’ blood ran cold when he realised it wasn’t Dimitri who stood before him at all.
‘A great many things, Mister Grey. We must stop meeting like this,’ said the tall, shadowy shape of the Death Eater Idaeus Robb.
Tobias’ expression twisted, and he let his wand slip down from his sleeve into his hand even as he whipped his arm up. Without hesitation he let loose a Stunning spell, but Robb’s wand was already up, and the magic crashed harmlessly off a competently conjured shield.
Robb’s curt wave of the wand in retaliation was enough for Tobias to feel his feet yanked out from under him. He hit the slippery, icy path hard, hard enough to knock the breath out of him, and struggled to get his legs back on solid purchase as he brought his wand up again.
‘I would stop while you’re ahead, Mister Grey. Else we will be forced very much to hurt you,’ said Robb. Tobias was going to ignore him until the shadows around him shifted and he realised that ‘we’ was, indeed, the right term for Robb to take. Two individuals stepped out of the gloom to have him encircled, both large and burly, both clutching wands.
‘Dimitri,’ Tobias spat. ‘Where is he?’ He didn’t know if he should be afraid for the Russian, or furious.
‘I don’t know,’ said Robb, bluntly. ‘Probably still at his meeting with the Enforcer Department. Don’t look so shocked that this time you’ve not been betrayed, Mister Grey. Consider it an early Christmas present.’
If he made it to next year, Tobias promised himself, he would spend the Christmas season somewhere warm, somewhere far, far away, and somewhere safe. ‘You haven’t hurt him?’
‘We haven’t done anything to him. But he’s played his role admirably, simply by being trusted enough by you that you would come into the middle of nowhere to see him. Alone. Company would just ruin this conversation, you see.’
Tobias went to get to his feet, slowly and gingerly, and with his wand arm clearly visible for all three wizards, they didn’t stop him. ‘I would have hate to have interrupted this opportunity for you.’
‘It’s not just for me. My friends here would like a word.’ Robb extended a hand to the other two. ‘These gentlemen have been quite upset by you. It seems you’re responsible for landing several of their very good friends in prison with your meddling. I, on the other hand, should thank you. Had you not given us this common, uniting purpose, then I doubt they would have helped me get into the country unnoticed.’
Tobias gritted his teeth. It was remarkable, he reflected, how this dull sense of dawning inevitability and doom in his gut was a feeling he’d gotten used to. And just because he’d felt it before, and thwarted it before, didn’t mean that he was any more optimistic that this time he’d be just as lucky. Just as alive.
But it did mean he could think clearly enough through the dread. Clearly assess his situation, clearly assess his options.
Options: Bugger And All.
‘I assume the purpose is “horrible death for Tobias Grey”,’ he said.
‘I’m afraid so. They wanted to have a personal hand in it, you see. Because I’d love to cart you back and string you up by your balls from the Ministry Dedication Statue, so nobody would even think of putting pen to paper with negative thoughts about the Dark Lord, but I imagine the Russians wouldn’t be very happy. So we can’t set an example of you. You’re just going to have to disappear. I thought, since our friends have done so much for us, it would be cruel for them to not have so much as the joy of reading extensively about your final minutes. So I invited them.’
Tobias’ eyes roved over their surroundings, desperately hunting for anything that might help him. All he had was the frozen pond on one side, and a steep rise through thick, snowy undergrowth and heavy bushes on the other. The path itself was open and clear. ‘You’re good at sharing like that.’
‘I can’t say I’m not disappointed,’ said Robb, and Tobias was relieved to realise the man was just as fond of talking as he’d been six months ago, a year ago. ‘I would have looked forward to showing you the error of your ways. Just how fruitless what you’ve been doing is, and the foolishness of your endeavours. How empty it all is, and just how empty that makes you. An empty cause for a hollow man.’
Tobias snorted. ‘With my headpiece filled with straw?’ He shook his head as Robb’s face creased with consternation. ‘It’s a poem, Robb. I wouldn’t expect you to get culture. “Our dried voices when we whisper together are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass, or rat’s feet over broken glass.”’
‘Muggle pretension,’ said Robb dismissively. ‘Though this will prove that you are, indeed, quiet and meaningless. About to be as quiet as the grave.’
Tobias gritted his teeth again, and tightened his grip on his wand, still painted down at the ice.
‘You should thank me, really,’ Robb continued as he lifted his wand. ‘Now, at last, you get to join your girl.’
He’d been concentrating, and concentrating hard, since the last remnants of the poem had escaped from his lips. “Broken Glass” had been what had given him the inspiration, but trying to cast not only silently, but without obvious wand movement, was far too difficult when his intentions were so ambitious and complex.
Robb’s gibe stirred the dark rage within that had laid dormant for a year, furious enough to simplify everything. And then magic sparked out of the tip of his wand.
It was a simple spell, for simplest spells were often the strongest at these times, and the easiest to do under stress and constraint. And not one of the three attackers identified what he’d done until they reacted, wands coming snapping up at him, curses on the tips of their tongues, bracing into a combat stance.
And shifting their feet on the ice he had just nudged that inch closer to being melted. To become slick and unsteady underfoot.
One of the Russians did slip and fall, the other - as well as Robb - just instinctively staggered as the ground became slippery. Robb did get a curse off, but it flew overhead, sparking off in the bushes around them.
Tobias threw himself for these bushes, diving into cover and snapping off several curses behind him as he did so. There was no time, then, for silent casting, but it didn’t matter that his enemies could hear him hollering “Stupefy!” when the light from his wand crashed into the fallen Russian and left him lying in the melting ice, motionless.
Robb was shouting obscenities along with his curses, but his rage made him easier to anticipate, and Tobias kept moving. He didn’t trust himself to be able to make it up the steep, frozen bank without slipping, and a foot placed wrong with magic flying around could be the difference between life and death. He needed to win time, or a distraction, before he could make an escape.
So he ducked as Robb threw sparking magic into the undergrowth, and several of his own spells came flashing back. With two out there hurling curses at him he had to dodge as much as use his shield spells, relying on the darkness and the trees for cover and defence as much as his own skill. Behind one tree - pop out, throw a spell, move to fresh cover, let their spells thud into where he had been for a moment, repeat the process.
He couldn’t keep it up. It just wasn’t feasible. They could stand firm, keep their shields up, and pick him off at their leisure, and once Robb cooled his head it was likely what he’d do. Tobias grimaced in the dark, flashing his wand to magically snatch up an array of fallen branches and dirt and dead leaves, mixed in with ice, and hurled them all at the standing Russian.
It was what Tanith would do.
The Russian staggered, hand coming up to protect his face against the debris hurled at him, and Tobias saw his opening. He side-stepped from behind cover, needing a clear line of sight, and channelled every inch of his desperation into the next curse.
The slashing curse slammed into the man’s chest with a mix of ice, mud, and blood, and he dropped immediately, the vicious cut across his torso streaming. Tobias didn’t care. He was still standing. His enemy was not.
Then Robb’s next attack hit him.
He’d known pain. He’d suffered the Cruciatus, he’d suffered broken bones, he’d taken magical beatings. Aches and pains from an extended battering. But the agony that struck his left leg was like all of it rolled into one single, exquisite slash of agony that knocked him off his feet and saw him hitting the ice, hard.
As if the impact mattered. As if anything mattered but the sharp pain in his leg, the spinning of his head, the blood seeping from the vicious gash at his thigh and spreading out into the ice, crimson life stark and bold against the perfect white frost.
Against all odds he heard the faint tinkling of metal, and blinked groggily around him to see the blast had knocked his watch from his pocket, left it lying in the ice with his blood streaming around it. The watch Tanith had given him, the watch he’d clung on to as his one last tether to everything from before, everything that mattered, everything that motivated him, with that one word inscribed on it...
He could hear ragged breathing, and was surprised to realise it wasn’t his own. A shadow fell over him, blocking out the bright, silvery moon, and Tobias realised Robb had closed the gaps. His chest was heaving from the exertions of the fight, but he seemed to be a very long way away, so distant and irrelevant compared to the seeping agony of his wound.
‘I have... enjoyed fighting you... Mister Grey,’ Robb gasped, straightening achingly. ‘I’d offer you, again, the right to die on your feet, but I don’t think that will happen.’
Robb’s wand - Tobias’ old wand, the wand he’d lost a year ago after he’d broken Robb’s own - came down to point straight at him, blurry before his eyes. ‘Goodbye, Mister Grey.’
Idaeus Robb had not lived as long as he had, Tobias thought, without becoming very good at what he did. For although he only had half a heartbeat to react to the hollered curse thrown at him, he still managed to snatch his wand up and get the beginning of a protective shield in the way. The spell hit him regardless, and with enough strength to send him flying back, onto the surface of the frozen pond where he hit the ice and skidded metres more.
Skidded far away.
‘Not him! You will not have him!’
It was Aurora, storming down the path Tobias had come from, wand in hand, advancing on Robb. Her hair was wild, her eyes wide, and she didn’t stop letting off spell after spell. She strode forwards, past him, onto the ice, as the Death Eater struggled to get to his feet - failed, and remained kneeling - and could do nothing more than try to snap off protective spell after protective spell.
Tobias blinked back the pain, gritting his teeth, remembering how he’d fought through agony before and survived to tell the tale as he struggled to move. Though he’d not bled so much before, left so much blood, and his left leg refused to move, refused to cooperate. All he could do was tighten his iron grip on his wand and, with his free hand, begin to drag himself across the ice towards where witch and wizard fought.
He didn’t know what he could do. But he had to do something.
He was a good few feet onto the iced-over waters himself by the time Aurora reached Robb. She threw another curse at him, he blocked this one but was still knocked onto his back, and then she was there, standing over him, wand snapping down at his face.
‘Not this time,’ she declared, her voice ringing loud and clear across the ice. ‘This time, I can stop you -’
Then Robb’s foot lashed out to crack into her knee, and everything changed. He wasn’t on his back with a wand levelled at him, he was rising to his feet and Aurora was falling. He snatched her wrist as she went down, kicking the back of her knee to force her into a kneeling position, splayed out before him.
His wand pressed against her forearm, and in the moonlight reflecting off the ice onto his pale face, he looked even more monstrous than he ever had in Tobias’ dreams. ‘No,’ he told Aurora softly, head tilting half an inch. ‘You can’t.’
And fire curled out from the tip of his wand, the flames horrendous in shape and length, and erupted onto Aurora’s hand, along her arm, billowing around to engulf her within seconds.
Tobias jerked half-upright as the Fiendfyre burst forth and swirled around his mentor’s shape, not even giving her the time to scream as Robb pushed her away and straightened with a dark, satisfied smile. ‘No! No!’
Robb’s head snapped up at the shout, but his smile didn’t fade, and with a whip of the wand he made the Fiendfyre contort and spread, beyond Aurora’s already smouldering, ashing, collapsing corpse to move in a direct wave across the ice towards Tobias’ injured form.
It wasn’t fear that guided his reaction, however, but rage. Rage, and desperation, and hate, and with a wordless cry that gave no precision to his magic but plenty of strength, he brought his wand slamming down on the ice. The impact gave a deep boom as the ice cracked and shook all around, then all was still for half a heartbeat.
This is the way the world ends.
The first pocket of ice to explode was only ten feet away from Tobias - the next, twenty, then thirty, ice shattering from the pond and erupting into the air. Clouds of buffeting, eviscerating shards as sharp and perfect as glass swarmed first towards Robb, then were too thick to have any direction and consumed the lake as a whole.
And now the Fiendfyre wasn’t just racing towards him as Robb’s concentration was broken, it began to spread and surge all around. The waves of ice exploded and mingled with it too, and within seconds Tobias lost sight of the Death Eater in roiling mass engulfing the lake. Which kept coming.
Not with a bang but a -
The swirling storm of ice and fire and oblivion hit him only seconds later.
A/N: The quotes contained within and the quote in the chapter summary are from T.S. Eliot's 'The Hollow Men'. This is also the poem from which this fanfic draws its title.
In this chapter, of all chapters, they appeared the most appropriate.