Chapter 23 : The Bitter End
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If I stop, I'm lost.
'I'm not going to see you any more.'
She stood in a tidy little flat in a tidy little corner of tidy, Muggle London, and summoned every inch of strength she had to look and sound like the cold-hearted bitch half the people in her life thought she was.
The other half thought she was a raging, hateful bitch, but that wouldn't be so much use right now. Right now, she had to appear as if she didn't care.
David - had she ever learnt his last name? Had she ever asked? Had she ever wanted to know, or would that have made him too real, would that have diminished the careful escape fantasy she had begun to construct around him - got to his feet, looking bewildered and bedraggled in a way which made her want to rumple his hair more than drive him away.
'What's going on?'
She made herself give a one-shouldered shrug. 'I'm leaving,' she said. 'For a while.'
'Leaving? Where?' He scrubbed his face with his hand, looking tired. She had knocked at midnight, after all, which perhaps didn't help her dispassionate guise. But it had taken her most of the evening to summon up the courage to come here. 'Why?'
She sniffed. 'I don't think the where is any of your business. Nor, really, is the why.'
Because it's safer. Because they will watch me, and they will find you, and then they will kill you. And that's pretty bad for you...
...but I don't think I could take it.
He frowned. 'Something's happened, hasn't it. With your work, with these... people you work for.' He crossed the flat in an instant, eyes blazing as they locked on to her. 'Are you in danger?'
How could he do that? See through her in an instant like that, despite all of her effort, all of her work, like nobody could except for -
She tilted her chin up defiantly. 'I'm fine, David. My company being dicks doesn't make this into some sort of corporate conspiracy. I've been offered a better job. And I'll be leaving.'
He narrowed his eyes. 'And is there any particular reason, if all of this is so innocent, for you being a Grade A bitch about the whole thing?'
Tanith hesitated. Perhaps she had over-played her hand. But if she weren't cold and detached she didn't know what she'd do. Didn't think she'd be able to see this through with the dispassionate reserve that was required.
Because if she felt so much as an inch of what lay beneath the surface, she'd crumble. She hadn't even touched her pain, not in the slightest, not in the past few days. She'd let it stay bottled up, locked away where it couldn't hurt her, and she wasn't about to break the tactic now.
If I stop, I'm lost.
'That's not really going to encourage me to talk, is it, speaking to me like that,' she said, rolling her eyes.
There was something so honest about his gaze, his demeanour, that she couldn't help but be taken aback.
She'd wondered, stupidly, a while ago, if what she was doing with David had been being unfaithful to Toby. Even though they'd been... she didn't know what. Separated by a thousand miles, she did know, with no spoken promises or even implications to one another. And even then, it wasn't as if anything had happened with David. Sitting up and talking for hours and end without either one of them losing interest did not sound like the affair of the century even if she had been spoken for.
So she'd not felt guilty. If nothing else, they were so different. Tobias had been like a part of her, pushing her further and better than ever before. David was...
Detached. Elsewhere. An escape. A dream. But also more honest, more open, more up front. It wasn't that she hadn't loved, with all her heart, the complexity of Tobias; even in its own way loved the mess of a dance that had gone on between them. But this was something else. Something different. Something refreshing.
Something she couldn't have any more.
David watched her as she hesitated, and then he nodded, grimacing a smile. 'I understand,' he said, and even though he couldn't possibly do so, she felt like he did. 'It's complicated. And it's hard. And you can't tell me any of it for... for whatever reason. But you have to do what you have to do.'
Somehow she managed to keep her expression haughtily level. 'Yes, I do.' She pulled her pocketwatch, Tobias' pocketwatch, from her coat, and glanced at the time. 'I'd best be off.'
'I'm not going to see you again, am I,' he said, and it wasn't a question, and it didn't sound like he was expecting an answer.
She didn't look back as she left. She didn't dare.
Apparating back to her flat was harder than she'd expected. The wand shook in her hand and her breathing suddenly came hard, and it was made all the worse as she looked down to concentrate and saw the sweeping folds of her coat. Altair's coat. Another relic of the dead she clung onto, shrouding herself in ghosts.
She almost lost it there, in that tiny dark alley in London, leaning against a wall and fighting for breath, for composure, for control.
If I stop, I'm lost.
And appeared in the middle of her flat to hear the most outrageously unsubtle sex sounds she had ever heard. This included weeks spent sharing a wall with Cal and Nat, and a much-regretted visit to Melanie and Ariane when the latter had been in her room and the former had long-sufferingly informed her Miles Bletchley was around.
They were coming from Cal's room. It didn't take a genius to figure out what was going on, but just the spark of an idea was enough to break through the walls of control carefully erected around all of her pain, all of her grief, all of her loss.
It manifested in pure, unbridled rage.
She didn't blast the door open with her wand. She kicked it, and stormed into the gloomy bedroom without waiting. 'Brynmor, what the everloving fuck do you think you're doing?'
The one shape on the bed yelped and writhed with surprise until it became two, and for once Tanith didn't care about seeing more than she fancied as she confirmed that one was, indeed, Cal - and the other, to her lack of surprise and intense disgust, was Perkins.
'Don't answer that,' she said coolly, and looked at the woman. 'Get out. Now. You can get dressed in the corridor, or something, I don't care. Get out.'
Perkins was getting to her feet and snatching up her robes, discarded on the floor, rummaging for her dignity along the way. 'I don't see why I have to -'
She didn't argue again, and by the time Tanith had glared her out of the room, out of the flat, Cal had mercifully put on some underwear. This meant she had no regrets in whirling around to face him, utterly livid. 'I'll ask again. What the hell do you think you're doing?'
Cal straightened up with as much dignity and reproach as a nearly naked man could muster, glowering. 'I don't see how it's any damn business of yours what -'
'Nat! What about Nat, your girlfriend? You remember her?' Tanith gestured furiously with her wand and the lamp on the bedside next to Cal wobbled as her control wavered. 'The one who's in Azkaban because of you?'
'She's not in Azkaban because of me.' Cal's voice had taken on a clumsy, wheedling tone. 'She's in Azkaban because she's a Muggleborn -'
Tanith didn't even try to stop herself as the lamp was magically propelled across the room and smashed against the wall next to Cal, who flinched away. 'Do you really think that she's gone to Azkaban instead of just being stripped of her wand for any reason other than you and who your father is? Really?'
He lifted his hands. 'I appreciate you batting for Nat, but it's really not -'
'Don't give me that,' Tanith snarled, 'or I swear to God, Cal, I won't even need a wand to kick ten shades of shit out of you. And with Perkins, really? You disgust me.'
Finally, anger tugged at Cal's brow. 'You're not the only one who's allowed to feel bad because he's gone, you know. He was my friend too.'
'This is about Toby?' she said, incredulous. 'You feel so bad about what happened to Toby that you had to go fuck some little administration sycophant?'
'I feel so bad I need to do something!' Cal snapped, throwing his hands in the air. 'Something other than feel like the most useless piece of shit in the country!'
'And getting your end away is supposed to feel helpful?'
'It's supposed to feel like something!'
This shout was loud enough to echo in the small room, deafening for a moment and ringing out between them for several long seconds. It was enough to take Tanith aback for half a heartbeat, but not for anything more as her grip on her wand angrily tightened. 'You could turn to me, you know,' she said curtly. 'Your friend.'
'Like you've turned to me in any of this?' Cal scoffed. 'Pull the other one, Tanith. You're not turning to me. You're not turning to anyone. You're locking it all up inside and it's going to eat you up, and that's fine if you want to do that, but don't pretend you're someone I can talk to in this, because you're not. After all.' He looked away bitterly. 'You don't trust me.'
'No, I don't, and after all of this I trust you even less,' she said. 'Perkins? What were you thinking? Or were you not thinking, again? Doing what you do when you don't think, and becoming your father's creature even more? I don't know if it's something in the bones or the gut, Cal, but when you act like an idiot, you go running to him.'
Cal looked down, his fist clenching. 'That's not true.'
CAL WILL KILL TOBIAS.
'You know it's true,' Tanith growled. 'Which is why, instead, when people are fighting and dying, when Toby was fighting and dying, you stayed at home and did absolutely nothing.'
'Nothing.' He snorted. 'Like you. Except not, because out of the two of us, which one of us has arrested people fighting against the administration?' His expression curled into one of frustration. 'You come in here and tell me off for being a shit of a guy, and I'll own that, but don't you dare accuse me of helping my father when you go out there every day and work for him.'
Her gut went cold. 'You have no idea what I've done.'
'I know Nick Wilson got locked up because of you.'
Her grip on her wand tightened. 'Shut up.'
'I know even when they went looking for how you'd betrayed them, they didn't find it, because for all your judgemental crap you are still their creature!' snapped Cal, eyes locked on her furiously. 'I might sit at home and do nothing, but you help them hunt down the people who'd fight them! You sit at those desks while the people around you, the people who do something, get locked up and killed in your place.'
'That's not true.' Or, that was what she'd told the little voice that crawled inside her every night and whispered the same things, and that voice wasn't even silenced by the knowledge of what little she'd done.
'Really?' Cal jerked a head at her. 'Then where's your father now, Tanith? Where'd you get that coat?'
Her wand moved almost of its own volition, a jerk of instinctive, angry reaction. But the furious words of the spell were consciously blazing in her mind to knock Cal off his feet and send him slamming back into the wall. 'Shut up!'
Cal staggered and she didn't give him the chance to recover, the chance to get his footing, before this time she grabbed the nearest thing to her, sat on the dresser, and physically hurled it at him. It was a photo, a photo of him and Nat, and it hit him square in the gut.
'I did bug his office! And I bugged Yaxley's too, and they never found that!' Pride crept into her voice alongside the broiling, spitting rage that had twisted and churned inside her for far too long, despite all of her efforts to control it and kill it. 'I helped the Lions free Nick Wilson when he was transferred to Azkaban! I spoke to Tobias not three months ago and I helped him!'
Her breathing was ragged now, the words tumbling from her torn throat, and in anger she whipped her wand again. The invisible, magical blow hit Cal in the stomach and he folded over, collapsing to the ground.
'I've fucked up! I've done things I'm not proud of! I'm doing things I'm not proud of and maybe I'm doing harm but I am fighting to pay back every sin I have committed!' Tears were streaming down her cheeks by now, tears of loss and pain and rage, and Cal just sat there, hunched over on the floor even though he'd have nothing more than a couple of bruises from what she'd done so far, saying nothing, doing nothing.
She saw his wand sat on the dresser, and snatched it up. 'I might not be perfect in this but at least I am trying, at least I am fighting, when I have family still to lose and you have nothing, and have done nothing!' She threw the wand down on the ground, by his feet.
'Tobias died for this and you have done nothing. So if I'm such an evil, such a part of the problem, this is your chance to do something. At last. If I have been doing such harm, then stop me.' She gestured her wand at him. 'Pick it up.'
He stared dumbly at the wand before him, before lifting his gaze to lock on her, and there was something lost and detached in his eyes, as if he'd seen all of this before and it was then he was seeing, not the present. She couldn't help but remember she had never learnt what took place between him and Toby in their confrontation before he'd left Hogwarts.
Cal drew a deep breath, but when he spoke his voice was small and quiet. 'No.'
And then Tanith remembered two things. The first was that only days after whatever that confrontation was, the confrontation that had left them bruised and battered and cut, when Tobias had left they'd hugged, and parted as friends.
The second was that it hadn't been Tobias who had got her out of prison, and it hadn't been Jacob, or her father, or Altair, or the Lions of Britain. It had been Cal. Cal who'd gone batting with Bacchus Drake against his own father, Cal who'd almost physically carried her out of the jail, Cal who'd made sure she had somewhere warm and safe to stay that wasn't this miserable flat.
Had she ever thanked him for that? Properly?
Her wand wavered in her grasp, only briefly - before she lowered it, and shoved it back into the holster inside her coat, and she didn't utter another word before she turned on her heel and stalked off, through the door, into the night.
She didn't know where she was going. She didn't know what she was doing.
If I stop, I'm lost.
Her feet carried her down the road of Diagon Alley, this way and that, and before she knew it she'd taken herself to the back garden of the Leaky Cauldron, to one of the safest places to apparate from without being seen, and managed to summon up half an image in her mind of where she wanted to go and swish her wand.
She appeared in the alley outside the MLE office in Canary Wharf, somehow not splinching herself. It felt like she was in a daze as she stormed her way into the road, through the front doors, and across the lobby, the building all but empty at this time, occupied with nothing other than the poor saps stuck behind to supervise during a night shift.
She ignored them all as she walked. This time her pathetic desk in her pathetic office wasn't her goal, but one of the few other rooms she could walk into where nobody would stop her, or look at her funny, or where it simply wouldn't be locked. Because, after all, what harm could even a suspected dissident sympathiser like her be with access to the closed case storage?
None. But harm was not her intent.
The file was easy enough to find. It was big and it was fat and the folder didn't have the faded edges and colours of the others. It had, after all, only been there for a few days. But if her footsteps had sounded loud, ringing out on the floor of the records room, then the sound of her yanking open the filing cabinets, rifling through the records until she got to the one she'd looked for, was even louder.
It wasn't as if she'd disturb anyone. The room was remote enough. And it wasn't as if she'd care. But the sound was enough to begin to, slowly, jerk her back to coherence, bring her back to the brink of reality as she finally selected the right folder and opened it.
And there, staring up at her, was the latest picture of Tobias Grey that the MLE had been able to get its hands on.
It had to have been from his records from his time with the Enforcers. His hair was short, then, but there was that crooked twist to his nose that hadn't been there when he'd been at Hogwarts. He looked a little nervous, the picture probably taken at some formal occasion where he'd been expected to be crisp and presentable.
Of course, he was perfectly crisp and presentable, but, being Tobias, he would have fussed over it.
Just that thought, that simple consideration of how silly he'd have been about the whole thing, was enough. Anger surged again - anger, that easiest and safest of the strong emotions she felt, the one that had her lashing out and doing something, anything about the pain, and with an incoherent sound her hands curled around the folder to hurl it across the narrow record room.
Then her legs shook, and the anger twisted and faded and the floodgates opened. The tears came, hotter and more anguished than the had when she'd been shouting at Cal, and with a wordless moan she slumped against the cabinets and let herself slide to the floor, burying her face in her arms as she sobbed.
For Tobias and Altair, murdered for doing the right thing. For her father, locked away in Azkaban. For her family and friends, suffering in a climate of fear. For every person trodden underfoot by the world around them, for every injustice she had been a part of, for every hope shattered and devastated.
And, at last, for herself.
Once she'd started she couldn't stop; just sat there, curled up in a corner of the Magical Law Enforcement HQ's records office, the file detailing Tobias' iniquities scattered across the floor, pressing the pocketwatch that was the last memento she'd had of him against her forehead as if through it she could reach out to him one last time.
But there was nothing. No sense of him, no feel of him, not even easily summoned memories, every recollection daubed in blood and death. It was just her and the cold, starkly-lit, unforgiving room in an unforgiving building in an unforgiving life.
There was nothing to be done, now, except to keep on going.
Just not yet.
Tanith didn't know how long she was in there, but it had to have been hours. Hours to weep, hours to just sit there, curled up in a corner, hours to finally summon the strength and will to regain her composure and get up. She carefully, fastidiously gathered up each piece of parchment in the file and returned it to the folder, the photograph last.
She looked at it for only a lingering moment before she put it away.
There was the light of a pale dawn creeping in between the buildings and crawling in through the windows when she returned to the corridors of the MLE HQ. The night shifts were ending and the morning shifts beginning, and so there was, at last, staff trickling in and out. She kept her head down, shoulders hunched over, hoping to make it out without being noticed.
Unfortunately, when she entered the lobby she turned to walk smack-bang into Thanatos Brynmor.
He had been storming around like a bear with a headache himself since the news had come of the deaths, though she'd struggled to find sympathy even as he, too, grieved for his friend. She couldn't pretend she was sorry that Idaeus Robb was dead. But he had, if anything, been kinder to her in the past week - or thus did she interpret being ignored more.
Now he grabbed her by the shoulder and slammed her against the wall. 'What. Did. You. Do?'
Her head rang out as it smacked against stone walls, and for a moment all Tanith could do was flail reflexively. But he was bigger than her, less tired than her and, at that moment, angrier than her, and so she struggled for purchase on slippery marble floors. 'What the hell are you talking about?'
Brynmor leaned down, his craggy face shoved in hers. His breath smelt of firewhiskey. 'Caldwyn. Where is he?'
Tanith blinked muggily, uncomprehendingly. 'What? At home? Isn't he?'
'No!' He let her go, only to yank her forward and shove her into the middle of the lobby. She slipped and fell, catching herself on her hands. As the morning shifts came in and the night shifts ended, most of the Enforcers wandering through the lobby hesitated and watched, forming a humiliating ring around her.
'He came to see me last night,' Brynmor growled, advancing on her. 'In my office. Said he'd want to talk some time, but he knew it was late... looked like he was getting a shiner of a black eye around his face.'
'So what?' Defiance was the only thing that made the churning in her gut not so bad she would vomit.
'About ten minutes after he left,' Brynmor hissed, leaning down over her, 'I went through my files. Our map? Tracing the movements on the Lions of Britain? Was gone.'
Bewilderment now took over as the reigning emotion. 'What?'
'I went to your flat, and he's gone,' he added, and hurled a scrunched up note at her, which she scrabbled to pick up and unfold.
It was short, but there was no mistaking Cal's handwriting: You were right. Time to stop doing nothing.
She looked up. 'I don't understand.'
'You've been hammering dissident thoughts into his head, I know it. And now he's stolen our documents and gone on the run, like it means something.' Brynmor pointed an angry, meaty finger at her. 'This one's your fault, Cole. Don't even begin to deny it. And I'm holding you responsible, but you're not all out of luck today, because I'm not going to do anything to you. You know why?'
Then he spat a thick, unpleasant globule of saliva and mucus that mercifully only smacked on the marble floor next to her. But he didn't spare her a second glance as he turned on his heel and went to storm back into the depths of the MLE HQ.
'Because now you really are alone.'
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