Tanith was relieved to see the Leaky Cauldron was quiet this time of morning, as she slunk through it with her coat wrapped firmly around her, and headed to the back yard. Few people stayed in the establishment out of anything other than necessity these days, and so if anyone was awake at this time they'd probably have left anyway, gone off on their business or whatever they needed. A pleasant breakfast and morning cup of tea were indulgences that could get you killed.
Nobody liked to linger in and around Diagon Alley if they didn't have to, not unless it was broad and busy daylight and you knew you had nothing to fear. Those who had nothing to fear were few and far between. But, at least, she wasn't going to Diagon Alley.
She just needed a good place to Disapparate.
That hadn't been possible in the pub she and David had been sat in 'til closing hour. Nor had it been possible at the bar they'd found where they'd whiled away even later hours of the night. Or at his flat, finishing off the evening with nothing more than a couple more beers and copious amounts of coffee. Doing nothing more than talking.
She didn't know she could talk so much while telling so little of the truth... and telling so few lies, to boot. But it had meant for an evening more liberated, more relaxing, than any she'd known in months. Maybe years.
Tanith couldn't pretend she was entirely sober, either. She'd taken it easy on the drinks, and wasn't so tired since she'd had a night shift the evening before, and had spent most of the previous day sleeping anyway. It was only just approaching bed-time by her body clock. But she felt groggy for the drinks, groggy for that it was barely dawn, and so had benefited from a walk in the crisp cold winter air before she tried to magically transpose herself across London.
The back yard of the Leaky Cauldron was safe from prying eyes, either Muggles to whom she'd be breaking the Statute, or wizards who might mock a few failed attempts. So she only needed to spin on the spot twice before she was away from the pub, and stumbling into the alleyway in Canary Wharf.
'Bloody Jacob,' she muttered to herself, and cursed internally cursed her on soft-heartedness in agreeing to pop into the office to sign some documents for him before she fell into bed. She didn't have to be at work 'til the following morning, giving her a good long while to reset her body clock, but it was approaching a time when she didn't want to think - just sleep.
The Magical Law Enforcement Office was quiet when she stepped in. Those in the lobby, hurrying in late for their shift or ending their night shifts, left with slumped shoulders and bent heads. In her haze she didn't really notice it, didn't really pay attention, until she climbed the stairs, wandered through the corridors, and opened the door to the office pens of the Detectors assigned to hunt the Lions.
And was met with an immediate hubbub far too excitable for seven o' clock in the morning.
She stopped. It was easy to see the serious expressions on the faces of those she trusted, and the quiet, smug jubilation of those she didn't. Lackardy and Mulready were on the far side, talking together with a few of their other cronies, speaking urgently but with the occasional chuckle and smug twist of a smile.
Others, those she'd known for too long to suspect had any Death Eater leanings, were grim-faced and subdued.
Then Jacob appeared suddenly at her side and touched her at the elbow. 'Tanith...'
'What's happened?' She looked at his expression and curiosity faded for concern and dread as she saw his sombre face. '...Jake?'
Her partner took a deep breath, but before he could answer the shadow of the burly shape of Mulready fell over them, and she looked up into the Death Eater's leering face. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. 'Cole. Mister Brynmor wants to see you. He's in the briefing room.'
Jacob scowled. 'Wait just a minute -'
'No.' Mulready glared at the smaller man. 'He said the moment you get in.'
Jacob straightened, eyes flashing. 'You cold-hearted -'
'Careful, Van Roden. We're all on the same side here. Aren't we,' said Mulready, voice quiet but enough to silence the younger man, who just glared daggers at him.
Tanith shifted her feet. 'What's this all about?'
She glared at Mulready's curt jerk of the head, but gave Jacob a reassuring squeeze of the shoulder and headed for the briefing room. They didn't use it often - or, at least, she didn't, it was usually reserved for the team leaders in the MLE to hold discussions. If a team itself needed to be told anything, they huddled in a corner of their office. It worked well enough.
Brynmor using it for personal audiences, lacking an office in Canary Wharf, was not so unusual. But her gut only twisted into tighter knots as she wondered what he wanted to see her for. Had they found the other coal? Had they finally decided that her family name and connections had been dredged through the mud enough with her father in Azkaban so as to no longer shield her?
She just managed to stop her hand from shaking as she rapped on the door and ducked inside at the mumbled summons.
It was a long, gloomy room, with a heavy oak table in the centre. The curtains were drawn, the meagre, pale sunlight failing to do more than silhouette the window. But they did reach the shadowy figure sat at the far end, too large and burly to be anyone but Thanatos Brynmor.
His head was in his hands and his movements slow when he looked up at her arrival. 'Cole.'
But gone was his smug sense of superiority, his cold condescension. His voice was strained and - dare she think it - hoarse?
What the hell is going on?
'You wanted to see me, sir?' She hovered uncertainly near the door.
'Sit down,' said Brynmor curtly, and reached under the table for a bottle of Firewhiskey and a couple of tumblers. 'Do you want a drink?'
Tanith approached cautiously, pulling up a chair a few seats down from him. 'It's a little early for that, isn't it, sir?'
'Not today,' said Brynmor, and poured two glasses anyway. But the whiskey and the glasses weren't the only things on the table, and as she finally caught the glint of metal, her breath caught in her throat. Brynmor looked down and seemed to follow her line of sight, and he sighed.
'Robb was contacted by native sympathisers of the Dark Lord who he'd been inconveniencing,' he said, voice grating, and he threw back a mouthful of whiskey. 'They said they could get Robb in the country, get him on his own, and help divert government attention. He'd upset enough people in the Federation that for everyone wanting to protect him, there was someone who wanted to kill him. It was inevitable.'
Brynmor placed the glass down heavily. 'He was resourceful, by the survivors' accounts. Not without reinforcements, despite the best plans. And fought hard enough to drive Robb to utilising Fiendfyre to take him and his allies down. He fought back... and Robb lost control. The Fiendfyre consumed them all.' He reached for the last item on the table, and slid it across to her with the noisy ring of metal on wood.
'This was all we found. I thought, with his next-of-kin out of the country, that it'd be appropriate for you to have it.'
Tanith stared mutely at the silver pocket watch on the table before her, studded with tiny emeralds and smeared with blood.
It was unmistakably the gift she'd given Tobias when they had parted ways last summer, on the platform at King's Cross.
She drew a deep, shuddering breath as her mind whirled and her gut went cold and she was graced with half a moment's coherent thought before reality set in. 'You found... no bodies...?'
Brynmor shook his head, looking sullen. 'Fiendfyre is dangerous like that. Idaeus must have been desperate to even consider it. But we cast some charms on the waters of the frozen - or, formerly frozen - pond they were fighting on. We confirmed remains of Aurora Marlowe, Tobias Grey... and Idaeus Robb in there.'
Numb fingers reached out for the pocket watch, numb fingers that shook at the touch of the cold metal. 'Robb is dead...?'
Good. He took the bastard down with him.
Brynmor poured himself some more whiskey, gruffly. 'Yes. It'll be all over the evening papers.' He slid the other glass over to her, and when she didn't move, made a pained noise of aggravation. 'He fought well.'
He sounded like he was trying to reassure her. The thought was so ridiculous that she couldn't help but reach for the whiskey. 'Not well enough.'
'You know how many people I met who could handle Robb?' Brynmor glared gloomily at his whiskey. 'Two. Alastor Moody. William Rayner. And I wasn't there when he fought Rayner...'
'But he sent you to Azkaban.' Tanith's head jerked up, the words and thoughts numb in her head. 'And he killed your wife.'
It was a clumsy thing to say. Even she didn't hate Thanatos Brynmor to be so cold, not intentionally. But coherent thought or a capacity for emotion were mutually exclusive at that moment.
Brynmor just nodded. 'Robb came for him later. Years later, after the war. He was trying to find Caldwyn, to get him away from being raised by a mudblooded murderer. But... Rayner tricked him, kept him at bay 'til the Enforcers got there. Rayner was... is... good.' He took a swig of whiskey. 'Damn shame we didn't find any of his remains in the pond.'
The whiskey burnt its way down her throat, more painful than soothing, and she let the glass fall heavily on the table. Brynmor looked over at this, and made a face. 'Point I was making,' he grumbled, 'was that your boy... he had to be good. Really good. To get the better of Idaeus like that.'
'He wasn't "my boy",' she mumbled.
'Good enough,' said Brynmor, eyes turning skywards. 'We almost got him before. Our spies in Russia said, when we had you locked up, it almost got him to come running.'
Almost. Tanith's hand clenched reflexively around the pocketwatch. That's the best word to describe the two of us, isn't it. A world of 'almost's. 'But he didn't.'
He sighed. 'Guess not.' Brynmor finished his whiskey and got to his feet, big shoulders broad, taut. 'Take the next few days off, Cole. You'll be no use to me with your guts hanging out like that.'
It was an unpleasantly apt metaphor, but she couldn't do anything more than nod automatically at the suggestion. Coherent thought was fading, quickly, and even the idea of moving was making itself more and more of a challenge.
He left, and then she was sat, alone in that room, with nothing but an empty whiskey glass and the warming silver of the pocketwatch digging into the palm of her hand, the pale sunlight still failing to penetrate the curtains, still failing to penetrate the shadow of her thoughts.
Now it was time to cry, surely. To scream, to shout, to throw the glass at the wall, to punch that a few times, too. To upturn the chairs and tables, to wreck everything, to let out every little inkling of hurt and pain and anguish.
But she didn't move.
She just sat and stared at the watch.
The magical tents had been the best thing the Lions of Britain had ever stolen. With just three of the small things they could set themselves up to stay on the move, undetectable, and always guaranteed a bed rather than a sleeping mat in the corner of a soggy warehouse.
But Gabriel didn't want to be anywhere near them that evening.
They were subdued, certainly. Nobody had taken the news well when Percival Anderson had apparated just outside their protections, panting for breath and clutching the latest copy of the Daily Prophet. They had all been shocked and appalled to learn that one of their best informants and the man who kept their achievements in the public eye had been finally found and killed.
But within two hours of sitting around looking glum, they were beginning to plan. Making their preparations for how they would cope. What they would do next, how they would counter this blow, how they'd get the information to keep on going and get the word out to keep up hope. They huddled around a campfire enchanted to keep them all warm enough against the winter's chill, and discussed.
And Gabriel had taken one look at the gathering and left it. Left the array of enchantments protecting them, wandered across the chilly cliffs near where they had made their camp, and found his way down a narrow, winding, rocky path to the pebble beach a stone's throw away.
His gaze swung around the rocks all around him, protecting him from not just the wind, but from sight of others, from earshot of others. Secure and alone.
Then he snatched up a rock from underfoot and hurled it with all of his strength at the cliffface.
'-how it's supposed-'
At his last flinging of a rock the pebbles underfoot gave way and he slipped, falling onto his side on the unforgiving surface. He kicked out again in frustration, sending an array of pebbles skidding and scattering across the cold, empty beach, and lay there for several long moments, fighting for his breath.
His composure was not so difficult. 'Composed' was a word which easily found association with Gabriel Doyle. Even seconds after having landed on his arse on the beach because he lost his footing throwing rocks around, he could find his control.
Really, struggling to not cry wasn't the problem.
'How was it supposed to happen?'
He still started at a voice, jerking back to his feet and whirling around to see the shadowy, silhouetted form of Jennifer Riley making her way across the beach towards him from the windy path down from the cliffs. Her pale skin was even paler in the moonlight, and for half a moment she looked ethereal, ghostly. For half a moment he wasn't even sure it was her.
He ran a hand through his hair. '...everything was supposed to happen differently, wasn't it.'
'Perhaps.' She stopped a few feet away. 'But you have a different perspective on "supposed to", compared to everyone else.'
His hand curled into a fist. 'If you came down here to poke me 'til the predictions come out because all of you are now worried about the mission -'
'We're always worried about the mission.' Her voice was cold and flat. 'We have to consider what we do next, because if we don't, we will be dead. We will fuck up, the Death Eaters will find us, and we will, all of us, be executed or Kissed because of what we have done.'
'One night.' Gabriel's lip curled. 'We just found out he's dead, the man who got us half of what we've done is dead, and you couldn't give us one night to suffer and grieve before we move on? You couldn't give me five seconds of peace?'
'I was coming to make sure you were all right!'
'So that your goose keeps on laying its golden eggs? Don't you worry. I'll be back with predictions tomorrow.' He turned away, shoulders tense. 'You should get back to the others. Make sure that they're playing good little soldiers and getting on with things.'
'Someone has to make sure they get on with things,' she said, and though she was still cold and indignant, there was a shake and a waver to her voice and composure, and he hesitated. 'Someone has to be the first person to step up and say "we can't stop". Someone has to make sure we're all still thinking, someone has to make sure that we do keep on going.'
He faltered, about to answer, before she cut him off. 'And who is it going to be, except me?'
Gabriel looked down as he turned. 'It's not going to be Wilson, I suppose.'
'He's talking about some sort of counter-strike. As if we could hit them back right now. As if that wouldn't be walking right into a trap.' Riley waved a hand, expression crumpling. 'I have to make sure, not only that they keep moving, but that they don't do something stupid. Because I care. Don't you dare insinuate again that I don't care about what happened to Tobias, but I have to care about the people who are still here.'
He didn't raise his gaze. 'I keep forgetting you were Head Girl to his Head Boy.'
'You're not the only person here who cared about him. But I have to - I have to look at the big picture, I have to...' Her voice trailed off as it grew thick, and she continued to gesture, flustered.
Impulsively he crossed the space between them, hesitating only a foot or so away, brow furrowed. 'You don't have to always be the strong one.'
Either his proximity helped or it rattled her so badly she had to retake control, but either way Riley drew a deep breath and within a few moments, composure was back. Her masks were good, he'd been beginning to learn. Almost as good as his own, and when she lifted her gaze to his, he saw the wavering behind her eyes fade and then disappear. 'What was supposed to happen?'
Gabriel flinched. 'I'd... he wasn't supposed to die. I'd seen him, in things which haven't happened yet, he wasn't supposed to...'
'Like this big vision of yours?' He looked away, and nodded. 'What was that?'
'It doesn't really matter any more, does it,' Gabriel muttered. 'It's not going to happen. I've managed to fuck that one up.'
Riley frowned. 'How is this your fault?'
He wrung his hands together. 'Visions. My acting on the visions. I knew it could get more complicated, could mess everything up, but I kept on doing it anyway, kept marching along regardless of the consequences, and thought that we were immune...'
'Immune? I don't understand.'
'Consequences. Probability.' Gabriel waved a hand through the air. 'My visions are just the most likely outcome of the present circumstances. They're not written in stone. They can change. They have changed. But it's so rare for something to alter probability that they might as well be visions. Except that probability has been altered. I altered it.'
'By acting on the visions. I thought I was being so smart!' Gabriel kicked another pebble, sending this one splashing into the rolling, gentle waves of the sea. 'I thought that by following the visions, when they were good and when they helped, that I was cheating the system. Playing fate by doing what it wanted...'
'I still don't understand.'
'Don't you see?' Gabriel whirled around to face her. 'By telling you about these visions, I might have been making them happen, but I altered them. Just by the fact of me knowing, of everyone involved knowing, it's altered. If we made a raid because I saw it in a vision, then who knows what I've changed? Who knows how we were supposed to get the idea to make the raid? Who knows whose behaviour was affected, maybe even outside of the vision itself, because they'd been told about the vision? And then that has a knock-on effect. Every time I have used my knowledge of the visions to affect the events, I have changed something.'
Riley folded her arms across her chest. 'I don't see how this makes Tobias' death your fault.'
'I had that vision about the warehouse where we got those potion ingredients. That invoice, which we sent to Tobias, which might as well have been his death warrant. If I hadn't acted on that vision, maybe it would have been gone by the time we got there. Maybe someone would have fucked up, and we wouldn't have got that crate. Or maybe it was something else, something I changed months ago, which has had a knock-on effect.'
'I thought you couldn't change the visions. Or, at least, it was very hard.'
'It's hard. But not impossible. But it's only difficult to change them when I'm actively working against events I've foreseen. Maybe... maybe it's been a subtle change. Little things I've done, because I cheat the system, and so after many, many little changes, that vision I saw months ago is no longer the most likely outcome. He was going to live.' Gabriel ran a hand through his hair again. 'And now, because I changed things... he's dead.'
'It is not your fault.' Her hand on his wrist was sudden, firm, and he flinched away instinctively, jerked back from contact. He saw her eyes widen, saw that now for the first time she'd realised just how much he hated touching anyone.
How much he feared it.
'It was the fault of the Death Eaters. And nobody else,' Riley continued, her voice softer. 'I don't know about prophecies and visions and being a seer, Gabriel, I really, really don't, but I do know that you have given us information which has saved lives. I know we would not be half the thorn in the side of the Ministry without you. I know that you have made all of the difference in the world, and even if it did change events that made your vision wrong, that is not your fault. They killed Tobias. Not you.'
Silence hung between them as Gabriel looked at her awkwardly, a silence filled with the whistling of the wind and the rushing of the waves down at the end of the beach. He shifted his feet on noisy pebbles. 'He was my friend,' he muttered, the words sounding empty to his ears. 'For years.'
'I know.' She looked like she wanted to reach out, but didn't. He didn't know if he'd wanted her to or not, but there was a twist in his gut as he saw the evidence of yet another barrier up between him and the world outside. One at a time these walls were coming up, just like he'd been warned...
'Even when I thought he was just a bookish idiot. Some speccy little git, even when he was more Cal's friend than mine...' His hand came up to his temples, the headache suddenly a thousand times worse than those of his visions, and he knew this pain wasn't from magic, but from loss.
Then she'd reached for him again, her hand at his forearm, and just the brush of contact was enough for all the careful composure of all of the years of all of the hard effort of just being the unflappable Gabriel Doyle began to crumple. His breath caught, and then she wasn't just gingerly reaching to offer comfort, she was stepping forward to wrap her arms around him.
'I know, shh. It's okay. It'll be okay.'
It wouldn't, but just hearing her say it helped, helped even just a little, even though Gabriel buried his face in her shoulder and, for the first time in as long as he could remember, let himself weep.