Chapter 26: The Apple of His Eye
The sun was daring to shine again. Insolent though such a presumption was on these dark days of pain and misery, Tanith couldn't help but feel a little like its co-conspirator as she wandered out of the bedroom into her rather empty little flat.
It had never been the best-decorated or the warmest of buildings, and with Cal gone it should have felt worse. His bedroom door had been left half-open, and at every other moment she almost expected to see him out of the corner of her vision, rubbing his eyes and stumbling out to make her a cup of tea.
Like he had most mornings, only for her to take it for granted.
But she had decided to focus on her more positive thoughts about their last conversation. She could let herself feel as if she'd driven him away, as if his departure and going renegade was entirely her fault, and that she had judged harshly a man who was now set to put his life on the line, daily, for freedom. She could have let each of his jibes cut as deeply as they could, for even when he had been wrong there had been a kernel of truth to his accusations.
Instead, she felt free. It was not that she would take credit for Cal deciding to shake off his darkest thoughts and take up the fight, but each victory she would take. Another strong wand-arm with the Lions was a victory. And though she would worry about him, as she had worried about Gabriel, his fate was in his own hands.
That was a freedom she couldn't underestimate.
Besides, nothing this past week could so much as dent her good mood, in defiance of all that she had suffered.
Brynmor had been beyond apoplectic. He had deemed it a trick, a joke, some sort of cunning ploy, but there had been no denying the picture, and no denying the second issue of the Midnight Press which had come out just days later, again thrusting into the limelight the iniquities of the government and the successes of the freedom fighters who warred against them.
Occasionally, doubt had hit her. Perhaps this was some sort of trick by Tobias' allies, perhaps they were doing nothing more than altering some pictures and making the world think he was still alive to strike a blow against the Ministry. But then she remembered that picture, remembered that look on his face in it, and deep down she couldn't believe that was anything but the truth.
Work was not such an unpleasant prospect that day.
Jacob met her in the lobby at Canary Wharf, the huge room echoing with the footsteps and voices of the members of the MLE Department on their way to work. Marble walls and floors squeaked with the anticipation of a new day, and Tanith had to remind herself she was probably just imagining that they, too, shared her fervour.
Or, if they did, it was a fervour for working for a corrupt government, and so not a very good sort of fervour anyway.
'Something's up,' Jacob greeted her, handing over a mug of coffee as he fell into step beside her. 'Brynmor's been back and forth and they've been clearing out Robb's old office.'
'It's about time. And if Brynmor's sulking because they're not about to build a shrine...'
'But they've been moving boxes back in.'
Tanith frowned. The coffee tasted good, even if it wasn't her first of the day. She'd become unhealthily reliant on coffee to cope with atrocities, and then guilty because, of all things, it helped. 'They've finally appointed a replacement now that the Midnight Press is back?' She resisted a shudder at the thought.
'That was my guess,' said Jacob, 'but then I saw they were moving in files from the Lions case.'
That wasn't good prospect, and wondering about it brought them into the bull-pen of of their office, which swarmed with the morning staff - and, at the far end, by the blackboard Brynmor used as his point to glower from, as the big man himself.
Only not alone. Tanith recognised the man next to him only fleetingly, and bizarrely registered relief more than anything else at the sight of him.
It was a misleading feeling.
'All right, listen up,' said Brynmor gruffly, and even his grumbling was enough for all the Detectors in the room to fall silent and turn towards the front. 'Mister Yaxley has decided to institute some more changes around here, what with the recent resurgence in dissident activity. He will no doubt be appointing a replacement for Idaeus Robb, but in the meantime he's reinforcing our domestic defences. Appointed as the new co-director of this unit is Mister Rodolphus Lestrange here.'
Lestrange was a weaselly, rather oily looking man who made Tanith's spine crawl, and the only reason she was reassured to see him was because she had only ever, in the flesh and in the papers, spotted him in the company of his considerably-more dangerous, famous, and batshit wife. He was the lesser evil, and Tanith made an effort to choose the lesser evil.
She'd never seen him around without Bellatrix Lestrange. The apprehension was not pleasant.
Jacob leaned in as the group gave their obligatory claps. 'Yaxley must be pissed that Brynmor's not brought in the Lions. This isn't help, this is a slap on the wrist.'
Indeed, Brynmor was glaring daggers at the oblivious Lestrange, and within seconds waved a hand at the crowd to stop the clapping. 'All right. Enough of that, you're here to work, not to tongue-wag a load more. Mister Lestrange will be familiarising himself with the operation and the leads we've been chasing and we look forward to having him on the team, now work.'
The Detectors began to disperse, and Tanith turned to Jacob. 'I'm going to need more than one cup of -'
She flinched at Brynmor's shout, but when she turned he'd crossed the space between them and was only a couple of feet away, looking no happier up close than he had across the room. 'Your request to visit Azkaban got through,' he said gruffly.
'I... should hope so,' Tanith said, anxious but rather uncertain. 'I sent it in before Christmas.'
'What I mean,' said Brynmor, 'is they've approved it. You can go see your father in your lunch hour.'
A mixture of hope and horror surged in her, but she gave a bob of a nod and tried to not smile. 'I - thank you, Mister Brynmor.' A spot of deference didn't hurt when it could mean the difference between success or failure and gave her enemies nothing more than a stroked ego.
'Hmph,' was all Brynmor said as he slouched off.
Tanith couldn't fight a grin by now as she turned to Jacob, whose own smile was fond. 'He is not happy, is he?'
'Not at all. Here -' Jacob passed her one of the files that had been on his desk. 'Let's get all of this done this morning, shall we? Then I can cover for you for about half an hour after lunch, we just need to consolidate our findings and I'm better at that than you, anyway. So you can get a bit of extra time in.'
The morning flew by with simple analysis work, even with the shadow of Brynmor falling over all of them as he stormed around the office in even worse of a mood than he'd been in before. To make matters more disconcerting, Lestrange would hang around the edges, ever-present like an oily shadow hanging over them, and making the hairs on the back of Tanith's neck crawl. But even this was not enough to destroy her glee at the thought of, finally, getting to see her father.
Azakaban, however, was. She left at lunchtime and waited patiently at the coastal spot where she had, months before, watched the Lions overcome a prisoner escort and free Nick Wilson and the others. And enthusiasm died in the face of anxious apprehension at the sight of the small dots in the distance, coming from the looming tower that still threatened to overshadow her.
It was only one Dementor, and the Death Eater who must have upset someone very much to be given this assignment. But one Dementor was enough to begin sapping away at her happiness, not just over her father but over Tobias, over simply living, and she would have hated the broom ride across stormy seas even at the best of times.
'The visiting rooms,' said the Death Eater as he let her in through the huge wooden doors set into the rock of Azkaban once they set down on the prison-island, 'are reserved for the prisoners and their legal advisers. You're not important enough to get one.'
These rooms, Tanith knew, were protected thoroughly against the Death Eaters. It looked from the state of the Death Eater warden that nowhere else was, and being cold and dripping wet as she walked into the front hall of Azkaban would have been horrendous enough without the whispers that echoed in the shadows and her mind she wasn't sure anyone else could hear.
Shouts. Screams. Ghosts from fights and sufferings and self-doubt, all whirling together in the background like the voices in her head had finally been brought to nightmarish life.
'I guess that's why it's so hard to get visiting rights,' she mumbled, pulling up the collar of Altair's old coat to stop the water from dripping down the back of her neck.
'You can put up a Patronus if you want,' said the warden, ignoring her as he took his huge ring of keys from his belt and went to lead her down dark corridors and up winding, gloomy stairways. 'And then you can probably have a pretty nice conversation with them. But it pisses the Dementors off something rotten. They don't like being driven off, so they tend to hang around extra hard at the cell they were kept away from. For a good few hours, maybe days.'
He sounded neither hateful nor pitying. Tanith couldn't imagine that this was a job where it was easy to see the continuous suffering of those around you and not feel it - especially when some of that suffering filtered over to yourself. The warden, for his part, sounded more dull and dead than judging one way or another.
'So it's up to you on if it's worth it. On if you can stand it.' He pushed open a door at the end of a stairway, and she could see a long, dark stone corridor, water dripping and echoing, lined on either side with the bars of cells.
'He's down here. Third on your left,' said the warden, not having so much as consulted parchment. 'You got an hour, or as long as you can stand to be in there, whichever comes first. Most people don't do more than fifteen minutes.'
She didn't even have an hour of her lunch, not even with Jacob's help, but Tanith gritted her teeth and promised herself she would stay until she didn't possibly have the time to linger any more. Giving the warden nothing more than a silent nod she stepped into the corridor.
The cells were dark. Just a glance to her left caught a sight of movement, of a figure hunched up in the corner, arms wrapped around their knees, rocking back and forth. She thought she caught a whisper of muttering under their breath from them, but blocked it out before she could make out words. On the other side she couldn't see anything, but every few seconds there was the sound of a thick, rough, choking sob.
She carried on.
The next two were no better. On the right there was a man, thin as a rake, his clothes hanging loosely off him, splayed out on the cold, stone floor. He was barely moving, though she saw the rise and fall of his chest, heard the ragged, whooshing breathing, and saw his fingers twitch occasionally by his sides. His eyes were wide open, staring at the ceiling, motionless.
The left was nothing but the sound of breathing. She wasn't sure ignorance here was an improvement.
And she didn't dare to look to her right as she reached the third row of cells, only into the darkness of her left, and the silhouette of the figure she could see perched on the bed set into the wall. She saw them move, saw their head sweep up towards the corridor, and her breath caught.
'You're -' It was her father's voice, but hoarse and broken like he'd drunk nothing but a desert of rocks for three months.
'It's really me, I - I just got permission to come visit you, I'm sorry I didn't...' Her voice betrayed her, and she fought the urge to take a step back as the figure stood abruptly, fought the urge to look away as he came forward, made herself stand her ground and see what Azkaban had done to him.
But it was him. Gaunter than she remembered, his hair greyer than she remembered, his thin face flanked by a thick, wild beard that seemed so unlike him it was hard to recognise him for a moment. But his eyes, dark and hard and deep-set were the same, and the next thing she knew he had reached the bars with hands extended and she'd clasped them tightly.
She just about managed to not burst into tears just at the sight of him, at the relief of seeing him alive and better off than she'd feared, at the release she felt even know with the prospect that it didn't matter what she did or what the world did, this was her father and he could make everything all better.
Despite her efforts, he seemed to tell, and even through the bars he could reach out to wrap his arms around her. 'Oh, sweetheart, everything's going to be okay...'
'That's not...' Again, her voice tried to betray her, but she clung to her father for long, rejuvenating moments. 'I'm supposed to be here to make you feel better!'
She'd been serious, but the words sounded ridiculous even to her own ears, and her father gave a deep, throaty chuckle, a laugh so clumsy it was like he'd forgotten how to do it. 'Nonsense. Just you being here makes me feel better.'
She could hear the voices, still, the whisperings from the corner of her mind made manifest, but for those long seconds it didn't matter. Only reluctantly did she pull back to look at him. 'How - how are you?'
Even the question sounded stupid, but her father gave a small nod. 'I am enduring,' he said, and it was the best answer he could have given, encouraging but no platitude. 'They didn't break my spirit before and they won't break it again. How are you, my dear?'
'I...' She closed her eyes against tears, only this time they spilled out, silent across her cheeks. 'I don't even know, Daddy.' She couldn't remember being young enough to call him that. 'I'm trying to do my best, trying to not let them win, trying to help, but I don't want to do too much in case they get angry and it falls down on you, or mum, or Evadne, or Leah...'
She was in danger of babbling, and her father's hand came to her cheek to stem the tears. 'I know. I know. And you'll do your best...'
'What if my best isn't good enough?'
This was not a fear Tanith Cole was prone to voicing. Her father smiled crookedly. 'It will be. Because I know you. I raised a smart girl who learnt all of my lessons and then did one better, because while I hid my defiance in the dark, you had the boldness and the certainty to take your principles and stand up straight with them...'
'But standing up straight right now will get someone killed...'
'...but I did also teach you how to be just as cunning as me. And that might not be much reassurance when I'm standing inside a cell in Azkaban, but you know it took them almost twenty years to catch me.' His crooked smile broadened. 'Trust yourself, my dear. Trust your instincts, trust your teaching, trust your training...'
She had never explained to him the tight-rope she'd been walking, not once, and inside Tanith kicked herself for not having gone to him when he was free, not having asked him about all she was doing, because he had lived and breathed this himself in the last war. It was more comforting than she could have imagined to realise that she hadn't needed to tell him. Because he'd guessed of his own accord that she would follow in his footsteps, in her own way.
'The most important thing I can tell you,' said Daedalus Cole, 'is to be patient. To bide your time, keep your eyes and ears open, and be ready. You may have to pass on small opportunities. And it may break your heart to do so, to let all these injustices slide while you wait for the big chances. But when those chances come, you will strike such a blow, you will do such good, that it gives you the strength to carry on...'
I haven't done that in a long time.
'What about Mum? The others? I don't know if I can keep trying to help without putting them in danger, but I don't know how I can sit idly by...'
'They know.' He gave a tight, firm smile. 'Your mother knows. She knows what I'm like, and she knows what you're like, and I fancy that if she didn't accept that then I'd have been out on my rear years ago. As for Evadne and Leah, Alcaeus is a smart enough fellow to keep his family safe. The government might try to pretend that they will unleash hell on anyone and everyone for putting a foot out of line, but they still have to govern...'
'They put you in here,' she whimpered.
'Because they could prove I'd done something wrong. When purebloods of notable families do nothing wrong and are still punished solely for association, the wheels will come off this wagon. They might punish others if they can't get to you... but you are here to own your own actions. Be careful, my dear, of course; give them no excuses, and know what risks you're putting yourself at, but fight the fight for yourself.'
Tanith scrubbed at her cheek. 'It's not like I'm fighting a lot -'
'You couldn't. You have to be patient, watch, and you have to pick your battles.'
'...and while I wait?' Her breath caught. 'Knowing all these people I care about are suffering, are dying...'
'You need to live,' her father said simply. 'When I wasn't listening to their scheming and their plans, I wasn't locking myself away in my office, dwelling on every possibility of something going wrong. I had your mother for companionship. Your sister and yourself to look after. The farm to run. I had a family and I had a life, and you need to have a life if you're to get through this. You understand?'
It was so like what her sister had told her even before the occupation that Tanith couldn't help but give a slight, rueful smile. 'I'm not very good at that.'
'You can't wait around for your life to begin, Tanith, and hold it off until this mythical "right moment". Your life has begun, it is now.' Daedalus' smile turned sad. 'I would have thought I'd have been giving you this lecture because you'd be elbow-deep in your career, and that it would take a few more years...'
Tanith dropped her gaze guiltily. 'Are you going to be all right in here?'
It sounded like a stupid question, but he nodded. 'It's not easy. This place was designed to be... horrendous. But they've been happy to lock me up and throw away the key and... I have faith. Hope.' Daedalus looked down at her. 'In you, in my family. The good fight is still being fought. They can't take that away from me.'
'I can't...' She blinked quickly. 'I was so horrid to you, Dad. For years I judged you, I thought you were a small coward, I thought...'
'You thought that because I wanted you to.'
'...but you were doing all of this, you and Altair... Altair...' Her hand came to her forehead at the surge of nausea and grief that met the memories of her mentor. 'Merlin... if he'd had my blood connections, he'd still be alive...'
Daedalus grimaced. 'Very likely.'
'...and if I were a nobody like him they'd have just killed me, too... that doesn't seem right,' she murmured, and guilt rose up to join the near-overwhelming cocktail of dark emotions in her gut, and all the while the whispering of the Dementors in her ear grew louder.
Her father reached out for her hand. 'It's not. But it's the truth. It is a defence, and it is a weapon, and if Altair taught you anything it would be that you use every advantage in your arsenal, without regret and with pride. If he were here he would agree that it is regrettable that some in your position would be killed for doing the exact same had they not your blood connections, but you do have those and you are using them against evil. That is nothing to feel guilty about.'
She stayed only a little longer, letting the dark cell be filled with the light of talking about absolutely nothing in particular, of incidental, pointless parts of her life in a way she'd never spoken to her father about before. But this light still cast long shadows, and her father's expression of dogged perseverance was fading by the time she pulled away from the bars and realised she had to go.
It was best to keep the farewell brief. After all, she had no intention of this being their last meeting.
Count the number of meetings you've had you did intend or anticipate being final.