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Chapter 27 : The Balance of Power
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His spell hit the Death Eater in the throat, and the man fell with a gurgle onto the pavement, not moving as his whole body seized up and his windpipe constricted - not enough to suffocate him, but enough to give him a bad day.
Cal whirled his wand in his hand and smirked across the darkened street at Cormac McLaggen. 'How's that for proof?'
McLaggen brushed himself off as he got to his feet, expression rueful. 'It was a good shot,' he granted.
'I was thinking more about my timing.' Cal jerked a head down the alleyway. 'Come on. The Portkey's going to be active in only about a minute. We're done here.'
'You know, for a moment,' said McLaggen as he followed him down the quiet, night-clad street of Birmingham, 'I didn't think you were going to stop to get that guy off me. I thought you were going to just grab the Portkey and run.'
'Oh, come off it, McLaggen, I might think you're a dickhead but I'm not going to leave you to get collared by a Death Eater and shipped off to Azkaban. There are a lot of people I like a whole lot less than you I wouldn't wish that fate on.' Cal glanced up and down the road, checking the windows of the shops and flats above them, satisfied there was no flashing of lights or twitching of windows.
The Muggles would likely ignore all of this or not know what to make of it anyway, and the man he'd hit with a petrification charm would be able to get up and leave under his own steam likely before he was found, but it didn't hurt to be sure.
'Thanks? I think?' McLaggen snorted. 'You could have told them anything. Like you fought really hard and they still got me.'
'The more you talk about this plan, McLaggen, the more I like it.' Cal frowned at him. 'I'm on your side. Wasn't that enough evidence? Wasn't that the point of this little excursion? That only you were ballsy enough or stupid enough to come with the guy nobody trusts and join him in beating up Death Eaters?'
'Can we still call them Death Eaters now?' wondered McLaggen. 'I bet half of these guys worked for the MLE even before the takeover. It's not like we're dealing with You-Know-Who's inner circle, we're dealing with the whole of the government.'
'I know,' murmured Cal. 'Why do you think we're leaving them to pick themselves back up again?'
Not that he was exactly bouncing for joy at the idea of murder, especially killing someone he'd already incapacitated. Death for other people in this lifestyle was not a subject he had given too much thought, outside of self-defence, and Cal was not the kind of man to reflect over-much. It would come to him when it came to him. So he certainly had no desire to go looking for it when it came to an opponent who was likely just a poor bastard doing his job.
He nodded at the big wheely-bin at the far end of the alley. 'Where are we off to, anyway?'
McLaggen looked at him like he was an idiot. 'I don't know.'
Cal frowned. 'What?'
'We never know. You didn't not get told just because you're dodgy,' said McLaggen, wandering down the alley. 'Jen sets up the Portkeys. We grab them at the end of the job. We get whisked off to the new location. It's safer for us to not know where it is, because if it goes wrong then we can't be snatched and questioned, and if the time window of the Portkey expires they can't chase the others through that.'
'Then what happens if something goes wrong, we don't get captured, we just get delayed and then the Portkey goes poof?'
'Then there's the emergency rendezvous point,' McLaggen said. He gave a one-shouldered shrug. 'All right, you didn't get told that one because you're dodgy.'
'Great. So there's a disincentive to dump your body in a gutter somewhere and take too long about it.' Cal shook his head. The two of them stood by the big wheely-bin, and just exchanged glances before they both reached out to touch it.
He was used to Portkeys by now. Used to how disorientating they could be, but Riley made them smoother than apparating, and Cal's head was only whirling a little when he and McLaggen appeared in the middle of a play-park, late at night, alongside what looked like a housing estate.
McLaggen frowned, and looked around. 'I don't think we're camping here.'
'Not that the slide and the roundabout wouldn't be mental age-appropriate distractions for you and Wilson,' Cal muttered, glancing about their surroundings - then something caught his eye, and he wandered towards the aforementioned slide.
McLaggen scoffed. 'For a moment, there, you sounded just like Doyle.'
'Funny that, us being friends,' said Cal, still walking away. 'And you say that like it's a bad thing.'
'Well, yeah.' McLaggen shrugged. 'He's dodgy and creepy as all hell. You're at least up front about it. You tell Wilson and me to fuck off. He just insinuates it by acting like he's smarter than everyone else.'
'He's smarter than you, that's the difference.' Cal reached out for the frame of the slide and tugged out a folded note that had been jammed between the metal bars and the plastic tube. He glanced over at McLaggen. 'Wait a second. Are you saying you like me more because I insult you bluntly, whereas Gabe is snide?'
He shrugged again. 'Pretty much.'
'So bloody typical Gryffindor,' sighed Cal, and unfolded the note. 'It's from Riley,' he said after a second. 'At least, I hope. Just says "13 Richmond Street".' He looked up, gaze sweeping across the row of houses, most of which were plunged in absolute darkness but some of which had light twinkling from the windows. 'Must be one of these.'
The two of them left the park, walking in silence for a few moments as they peered at street corners, looking for the sign for Richmond Street. But within a few seconds Cal was glancing over at McLaggen. 'So he's been telling you about his visions pretty much since he came to you.'
'He said that's why he joined us in the first place,' said McLaggen. 'I don't know why, I guess he saw himself with us and decided to go along with it. But yeah, that was what he brought to the group. He was in touch with Jen before any of us, before she went officially rogue, and she says he'd predicted some stuff he couldn't have anticipated. He had to be legitimate. So he came to hide out with me and Percival and the others, right after Nick had been grabbed, and joined us on the job to bust him out in his prisoner transfer.'
Cal frowned. 'And it was Tanith who gave you the information on that job.'
'Yeah. And she shot one of her own in the back when she thought she could get away with it. And lay low until then so it lowered the number of bad guys to zap.' McLaggen looked at him quizzically. 'They're your friends. You didn't know all of this?'
'We've not exactly been living in the best of circumstances for sharing,' said Cal. 'And I don't think Gabe was telling anyone about his visions.'
Well, he had the sneaking suspicion that Gabe had told Tanith, from the things she'd said, but he wasn't going to voice that insecure little suspicion to CormacMcLaggen, of all people.
'Huh, I'd have thought - oh, hey, it's Richmond Street.'
Cal let them fall silent as they padded down the quiet, peaceful little road to number 13, a semi-detached house with a car in the drive and lights on inside. McLaggen blinked and lifted a hand as he saw it. 'Oh, I know where we are,' he said. 'This is Nick's family's place.'
'His home?' Cal frowned. 'Isn't that horribly dangerous?'
'I bet Jen's put all sorts of protection around it. C'mon, don't tell me you don't want a hot dinner and a bath, even if Muggle ovens look like they're going to explode at any moment...'
They were greeted at the door by Katie Bell, who encouraged them inside quickly, and within seconds they were pushed into a comfortable, if overly-full living room with the rest of the Lions, the smell of cooking coming from the kitchen, and were run through rather swift introductions to Nick Wilson's only slightly overwhelmed parents and younger sister.
But just as Cal was perching on the armrest of a sofa with a bottle of beer in his hand, his elbow was tugged at by Nick Wilson himself, who was soberly gesturing out of the room. 'Don't relax yet. You've got to be debriefed.'
'Debriefed. Are you...?' Cal glanced to where Wilson was gesturing to see McLaggen slumping into a room. He could see Riley and Gabe already inside, and he realised that their host was, in fact, not kidding. He got to his feet. 'Fine. But I'm bringing the beer.'
Wilson rolled his eyes. 'Whatever.'
'You're not coming?' Cal hesitated in the doorway. 'What, Gabe gets to sit in on these debriefs with Riley but she doesn't let you?'
It hadn't even been intended as a gibe. Cal knew how to push Wilson's buttons, and it had perhaps been a misjudgement to make a crack related to Jen Riley around him if he didn't meant to antagonise him. The other man's startling insecurity about his relationship with the girl who had been widely acknowledged as the brightest catch of their year at school was an ill-kept secret.
But normally Wilson wouldn't have done more than glare and glower. If really irritated he might have said a harsh word back. The last thing Cal had expected, upon realising his words to be ill-advised, was for Wilson to duck his head and leave.
Cal frowned all the way into the dining room that had become Riley's command centre over the mere two hours since the Lions had moved into the Wilson abode. She herself was sat at the head of the long oak table, papers and maps spread out around her, and Gabriel stood at her shoulder, pointing something out. McLaggen leant against the wall silently, looking unimpressed.
'Hate to interrupt the party,' said Cal, looking between her and his friend, 'but you wanted to see us?'
'Of course.' Riley looked up. 'How'd it go?'
McLaggen shrugged. 'Like clockwork. We wrecked the place. There were a couple of them in the cellar who came bursting out just as we were leaving, and we had a bit of a running scrap on the way back to the Portkey. But he got incapacitated.'
Riley still looked a bit expectant, and McLaggen sighed. 'And Brynmor was fine,' he said reluctantly. 'Did his part. Followed the plan. Zapped a few Enforcers.'
'Does that mean everyone gets to stop treating me like a pariah? Because, you know, that would be great,' said Cal tensely.
Gabriel snorted. 'Don't count on it, mate. I've been here the better part of six months...'
'...and you're a valued and trusted member of this team,' said Riley, cutting him off smoothly.
Cal quirked an eyebrow at her, and in doing so caught McLaggen's rather dubious expression. 'So I'll give it another few months and you'll all love me. Super.' He lifted his hands. 'It's done, okay? One less hidey-hole for these Enforcer hunting teams. They chase us, we turn around to give them a bloody nose.'
'That is, more or less, the idea.' Riley nodded. 'What happened with the ones in the cellar?'
McLaggen sighed. 'We didn't have exact numbers, did we? We took down the four in the room without trouble as they weren't expecting us. Set about ripping down all of the magical protections and enhancements to make the place just a useless building. Were leaving when two of them came out of the cellar. Since we were in the street, out in the open, it made more sense to run and get cover than stand our ground.'
'McLaggen here got a good shot off over his shoulder when we were running,' said Cal. 'But the other one hit him in the leg and he went down. I was a bit further ahead, I stopped, I Stunned the second. We got to the Portkey.'
Riley and Gabriel exchanged meaningful looks, and whatever the message was between them, Gabe sighed and lifted his hands. Cal raised an eyebrow again, but couldn't say anything before Riley returned her attention to them. 'Thanks, guys. That's good work. We should go get some dinner.'
'Yeah,' said Cal, and gave Gabriel a pointed look. 'In a minute.'
Once Riley and McLaggen had left, Cal folded his arms across his chest and turned to his friend. 'What was all that about?'
Gabriel paused halfway to the door, looking a little guilty. 'What was what all about?'
'That look Riley gave you.'
'Oh.' He ran a hand through his hair. 'I - I'm sorry, mate. I guess I'm used to keeping my cards close to my chest on this one. I had a vision about this job.'
Cal frowned. 'And you didn't tell us?'
'That was... kind of the point.' Gabriel shrugged. 'You had good intel on this job without my vision. Riley suggested we'd see if this job would go down the way I foresaw it would even if we didn't tell you. All I saw was you and McLaggen fighting those guys in the street and winning, it was nothing bad. And she signed off on it.'
Gabriel sighed. 'This is all pretty weird to me too, you know. It's not like I'm churning out foresight and we're all just happy with it. It happens randomly, it's confusing, and while I'm getting better at understanding all of this, I really don't have all the answers. No true Seer does.'
'You didn't know Toby was alive after all, I guess.' Cal couldn't fight a lopsided smile. The first they had heard was the new issue of the Midnight Press. It had been confirmed through whatever channels Riley had been using all along to keep in touch with Tobias. None of the Lions had celebrated as hard as Cal and Gabriel at the news.
'I sort of did. I'd just assumed that the visions I'd seen him in which hadn't come to pass yet were wrong.' Gabriel shrugged. 'I've been second-guessing myself on how this works. On how if using these visions and telling people about them to help them come to pass is... fucking things up. It's complicated, mate, I can tell you more about it but it's a long kind of process...'
Cal lifted a hand. 'I don't... you don't need to answer to me. I was curious. I appreciate you telling me. I know you don't have to, you don't owe me anything.'
Gabriel's shoulders sagged. Cal had been astonished at how much older and more worn his friend had looked when he'd first joined up with the Lions. His smirks and his smug superiority were all there, especially in front of the rest of the group, but his eyes were dark, his face more sallow, and his frowns deeper and more troubled. Thinking back, Cal could see the signs there from the last six months at Hogwarts, but at the time he'd been too preoccupied with his own troubles to properly notice.
No wonder they didn't trust you.
'I never meant to be lying to my friends,' said Gabriel. 'That's the truth. I didn't tell you about tonight because I thought it would be safe, and I want to know how much I can rely on my visions. I want to know that I can be useful, that I can use this as a gift instead of seeing shit things and not being able to do anything about them...'
Gabriel hesitated. 'That's... not a road you want to go down. It's not a road I want to go down. I have no portents of doom up my sleeve right now, but...' He looked away. 'Just as a taster. I foresaw Annie's death. I didn't know that was what it was at the time, and it didn't make sense to me until afterwards. But I saw it, and I couldn't do anything about it...'
Cal made a face. 'That's pretty shit.'
'Yeah, tell me about it.'
'You don't have to tell me anything,' Cal said again. 'But you know I'm your friend. And I want to help you. I've been doing nothing back there for so long - you can't imagine how good it feels to get out, to fight back, to not feel useless and like my uselessness is making the world worse. So helping a mate is no big extra deal. I want to.' He glanced over at the door, and a sly smile tugged at his lips. 'Though it looks like you got all the help you want.'
Gabriel looked nonplussed. 'What?'
'Riley.' Cal jerked his head at the door. 'You two. All exchanging glances and working in synch and doing the debrief together. Wilson must bloody hate you.'
'I've never been his favourite person. Riley's...' Gabriel frowned in the direction of the others. Their revelry still drifted through the walls. 'She trusted me when she didn't have to. She trusted my visions. Without her, I don't think I'd be helping anyone right now. And... she was there for me. When we thought Tobias was dead.'
'There for you, or there for you?' Cal winked.
Gabriel straightened a little haughtily. 'It's not like that.'
'Because Wilson would rip your tits off?'
He snorted. 'I can neither confirm nor deny that this is a motivating factor. But no. It's not like that. She's smart, she's damn good at this, she's been carrying the Lions through. She really deserves all of the credit for everything we've achieved. I'm just happy to help.'
'And Wilson might rip your tits off anyway, for shits and giggles. So why're we at his folks' place?'
'We needed somewhere off the grid. Somewhere we can get a breather and scout out some more long-term prospects for hidey-holes. Wilson said that his family have been left alone, as far as we can tell, and it's not like the Ministry are shit-hot at looking into Muggle affairs.'
'A bit dangerous for his family, no?'
'They want to help,' said Gabriel, sounding bewildered. 'I guess they heard enough from Wilson about what's going on, and he's their son, and putting us up for the night isn't too bad. Besides, Riley and Bell went to town on the protection of this place.'
'It's kind of nice.'
'It's dry. It's warm. It's not a tent. It's a roof over our heads, it's a hot shower, it's a home-cooked meal. And it's a bottle of beer.' Gabriel gave a lopsided smirk, and looked more like his unflappable old self. 'I don't reckon we've got any right to complain.'
'You shouldn't be straining yourself, Mister Grey.'
Tobias squinted in the bright sunlight that greeted him on the terrace of the house he, Will, and Dimitri had staked out, and smiled up at the sky. 'I'm getting some fresh air. I'm enjoying the outside world. We're on a delightful, isolated little Greek island. I can't do all of my writing indoors. Besides.' He looked over at the older wizard, the sprightly fellow whom he'd seen several times before but had never had a proper conversation with. 'We have an appointment.'
Hypatos, the Healer who had been travelling once or twice a week to look at his leg, gave a deep sigh. 'I could have come indoors.'
'We've been indoors every time so far,' said Tobias, leaning heavily on the walking stick he had asked Will to procure for him as he limped over to the outdoor table and chairs. While being outside was a relief, so was sitting back down again, and he gave a deep sigh. 'But it's a nice day, and I'm tired of being cooped up.'
'You will be in sore danger of exhaustion, Mister Grey. You mustn't exert yourself too much if you want the leg to heal.'
Tobias glanced down at his left leg, knowing the wound left by Robb was still more livid than any injury had a right to be after magical healing attention. 'But it will heal,' he said, looking up at Hypatos. 'Won't it?'
Hypatos sighed, and pulled up a chair next to him. 'Injuries caused by dark magic are complicated,' the Greek said. 'There is no uniform assessment on how bad they are or how easy they are to heal. There are so many curses, and many of them are affected directly by the emotions and intentions of the wielder. A dark curse used in passing will hurt for some time, and it may resist healing which other, milder hexes would succumb to, but it will likely go away with barely a scar. This...'
'He was rather angry,' Tobias conceded.
'This has all the hallmarks of a wound inflicted by a man who very much hated you,' Hypatos said. 'That it struck your leg is telling. It might indicate a desire by him to incapacitate you, but it also likely meant a desire to make you suffer. That level of malice can empower a curse very, very deeply.'
'He probably could have pulled off the Killing Curse in that second if he had chosen to,' Tobias reflected.
'Perhaps, perhaps not. That is a complicated curse requiring a great deal of hatred. A dark magic user is likely familiar with a variety of lesser curses they can use with far less effort and with more confidence of getting the result they wish.'
'He wanted to do me harm, no doubt about that.' Tobias rested a hand on his thigh. It felt peculiarly numb right then. 'So you're saying this is going to have a harder time healing because this was a bit of dark magic pulled off by someone full of hatred at the time of casting.'
Tobias drew a deep breath. 'When we say "harder time", can we stop mincing words? What do we mean, exactly?'
Hypatos made a face. 'I am reluctant to give you a -'
'I am not dead, sir. I will take that as a victory, but I would rather know the truth.'
The older wizard sighed heavily. 'There is,' he said delicately, 'a very high probability that you will require the use of a walking aid for years to come. I would not consider myself too fatalistic to venture that you might need it the rest of your life.'
Tobias grimaced, letting his gaze drift from the neat little terrace, bathed in sunlight, or the comfortable cottage he and the others were hiding out in. They were at the top of a rise granting them a view of the island as a whole, and it stretched beyond them like a paradise of a hideaway. Warm. Pleasant. A land of culture and good food and secrecy. Far more pleasant than Russia, a far easier place to live and rest and do his work.
The view only helped a little. It helped less when his leg twinged and he thought not just of his injury, but of that night as a whole. Of Aurora.
'I am sorry, Mister Grey,' said Hypatos, jerking him back to reality.
'I wasn't planning on running around a great deal while writing the Press anyway,' said Tobias, with forced firmness. 'And what comes after, comes after. I'm still alive. That is a boon.'
'It is. Otherwise your injuries are healing up very well, as I'm sure you have noticed.'
'Yes. Only my leg hurts. I'm not tired so often. You and I can actually have a conversation instead of me getting work done and then sleeping through our appointments.'
Hypatos gave an unhappy nod. 'I will continue to work with you and monitor this. There are techniques you can use to keep yourself mobile, keep yourself healthy. To walk better on that leg with the aid of a cane.'
'I imagine I'm going to have to get used to it.' Tobias sighed. 'At least I can walk.'
'Indeed,' said Hypatos, seeming relieved that the positives were being paid attention to. 'I would still encourage you to rest as much as you can. Fortunately your work does not require too much physical exertion. Sitting outside is no bad thing, but you should have your room moved to one of the ones downstairs. Ideally I would have you in a house down in the village...'
'I don't want my presence to be a problem for the locals.' Tobias lifted a hand. 'I will learn to cope with the hill. And I guess that... after a bit, the cane is going to be pretty normal for me.'
'Plenty of wizards have lived fulfilling, active, and perfectly capable lives with all manner of physical impairments,' said Hypatos.
'At least I won't be hobbling around like Alastor Moody on one peg-leg.' Tobias shrugged at Hypatos' nonplussed expression. 'A British dark wizard hunter. I guess that didn't slow him down.'
'Exactly. Ours is a world of many marvels, Mister Grey. I know most wizards don't experience just how easy we can make life for the physically impaired, because for most wizards any injury can be rectified in just a few hours, days, or, at worst, weeks. But dark magic has hit and hurt many across the world, and many intelligent and capable wizards have endeavoured to counteract the harm it has done. Or, at least, to minimise it.'
'I know. Or - that makes sense.' Tobias gave a grim smile. 'Thank you, Mister Hypatos. I look forward to working with you so I'm not going to pass out just from hobbling out into the garden.'
'I am sure we can overcome that particular challenge,' said Hypatos with a kindly smile, and got to his feet. 'I have left the potions for the next week with Mister Rayner.'
'Don't worry. He'll make sure I take them.' Tobias let his gaze drift back off to the paradise of the island, and tried to ignore the throbbing in his leg. 'I don't think I have a choice but to take care of myself, with him around.'
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