Chapter 28 : The Die is Cast
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'We have thus far utilised nothing more sophisticated in our pursuit of these terrorist groups than gathering evidence, following patterns, and pursuing what leads we have been able to gather from analysis and helpful informants.'
Rodolphus Lestrange paced back and forth across the head of the briefing room, the huge map of Britain spread out on the wall behind him, little magical dots lighting it up in different colours that marked how old or how recent any lead or confirmed sighting of the Lions of Britain had occurred, and their location.
'This has proven woefully, woefully insufficient.'
Even though Tanith was not, in all truth, listening a great deal, she could practically feel Thanatos Brynmor, stood by the door, tense at the criticism.
The two men had been nothing less than at each others' throats since Lestrange had been settled into the MLE, and into the Detector branch charged with the hunt and eradication of the Lions. Their failure to have so much as a successful swipe at the group had clearly become a source of some vexation to Yaxley, and with the death of Robb it was likely that Brynmor, however respected and towering an individual he was to the Death Eaters in his own right, had lost a good deal of standing.
Some said Yaxley was only the head of the Department as a reward for allegedly hitting Thicknesse with the Imperius curse - which wouldn't have surprised Tanith. Others said that Brynmor hadn't wanted the job; that he preferred to be in the field. Certainly he was the second most important person in the Department.
And it looked like Yaxley couldn't wait to undermine his nearest rival by holding him responsible for their lack of success, and bringing in someone to berate and replace him.
Except that there was a high chance this would backfire, in Tanith's eyes, and end with Brynmor just ripping Lestrange's jugular out.
'We have been too forgiving,' the odious man said, turning to face the gathered Detectors with a smug little smile. 'We shall not be so in the future. We shall eradicate where they go to ground. We shall pursue every lead with the most dogged and violent determination. We have operated on only certainly so far - certainty is impossible with these people.'
Tanith couldn't bite back a faint snort, and then Lestrange's cold, reptilian eyes were on her.
'Did you have something to add to that, Detector Cole?'
She hadn't meant to be heard, but she was damned if she was going to squirm in her seat at Rodolphus Lestrange. 'It's just that we've pursued every lead, sir, which hasn't sounded like deranged ramblings. It's not as if we've been ignoring opportunities so far and that's why they've evaded us.'
She felt, rather than heard, the ripple of approval run through the room at her words. Nobody appreciated some outsider coming in to tell them what to do, and to criticise their work so far. But the small rumble of amused approval from Brynmor was certainly audible - to her, and likely to Lestrange.
Something was wrong when she felt vindicated by his approval.
'Perhaps not,' said Lestrange in a voice indicating he was happy to completely ignore her argument. 'But I will be instituting a new weapon in our arsenal: fear. We will make them so terrified of crossing us that they do not dare to. We shall make every hiding hole they utilise unusable. Anyone even suspected of helping them will be harmed so much not a single person in Britain will dare to lend them aid.'
She had heard this rhetoric before, and nothing was making her bat an eyelid at it yet. There was no point in pursuing the hiding holes of the Lions when they'd rarely encountered them any less than a month after they'd been abandoned. The best lead they'd had would have been around January - and then Cal had absconded with the maps and, it had become quickly apparent, edited or destroyed their records so they couldn't follow him or the Lions.
So Tanith held her tongue through the rest of the meeting and let Lestrange continue with his self-important ramblings, and got to her feet to dutifully leave the briefing room when he dismissed the team. Jacob fell into step beside her with a deep sigh once they were out in the corridor.
'That was a waste of time.'
'Mm-hmm. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,' Tanith mused - and tried to not flinch when she realised where she'd heard that before.
'Meet the new boss, crazier than the old boss. You looked about ready to nod off in there.'
'There's something wrong with your life when your boss is talking about how he's going to unleash a reign of terror across Britain and all you can think about is what you're going to have for your tea,' Tanith agreed as they entered the office bullpen and wandered over to their desks.
'Speaking of tea, did you want to get some dinner?'
He'd been like this for weeks, even since the news had come out of Tobias' survival. She couldn't go anywhere or do anything without her partner making sure she was eating and sleeping, making sure she wasn't alone. In truth, Tanith was in no mind to complain about it.
But she shook her head with a pang of guilt. 'I've got plans. I'm sorry.'
'Plans?' Jacob raised his eyebrows. 'That sounds ominous.'
'Family,' she lied, and he didn't press it any further as they packed up their affairs and left the Canary Wharf office for the evening. Neither of them were inclined to linger about the area with Lestrange's lizardy gazes hanging over the Detector team, or Brynmor's sulking filling the room with his anger and frustration.
But Tanith didn't go home when she and Jacob exchanged their farewells. When she disapparated, her living room was not the first thing on her mind, nor was it where she ended up.
It took about fifteen minutes, but soon enough she was stood at the top of a tall building with a good view of London sprawling out beyond her, waving her wand gently through the air to do what she could by way of Muggle misdirection charms. She had neither the time nor the skill to make them perfect, but she was high enough up that a small nudge to any of the people walking the London streets below, to make them disinterested in something as simple as looking up, would be sufficient.
Then she heard the door to the roof access swing open, and quickly she let her wand slide up her sleeve, hesitating.
'So it is you.'
Tanith gave a small, sheepish, guilty, uncertain smile as she turned around. 'You don't sound especially surprised.'
'A vague letter just saying "meet me on the roof" delivered through my window?' David walked gingerly across the concrete towards her. 'With no other explanation and just the assumption I'll trust you? That sounds like you.'
He looked much the same as he had when they'd last met those long weeks ago. Calm. Casual. The shade of dark stubble across his chin, his hair mussed with that lack of care for the expectations of the world around him she had found herself missing more than she could have anticipated. She felt as if a thousand years had gone by, herself, with all she'd done and suffered and recovered, but he didn't look as if a day had passed.
It was refreshing.
She shifted her feet anxiously. 'You're pissed.'
'You walked out on me with very little justification and expected me to just accept that. And now, out of the blue, you've come wandering back in.' His expression was tense, hard to read. She'd spent so long watching people's eyes expecting violence to be the retaliation if she put a foot wrong; simple emotional upset hadn't bothered her for weeks.
Until now. She didn't think she could stand anything less than she could stand him turning on his heel and walking away, right now.
'You're still here, though.' Her voice wavered, just a little.
'The letter was delivered by an owl.' David's frown deepened, though he seemed more bewildered than aggravated. 'So not only did I know it had to be you, Tanith - with whatever crazy shit goes on in your life - but how was I supposed to turn down a mystery like that?'
Her lips twitched, and she glanced at the edge of the building, barely a foot away from her. 'I admit that was a bit the point.'
'So, I'm here.' He shrugged. 'What do you want? I want... to help, I get that whatever's going on with you is complicated and messy and I'm supposed to stay ignorant, but I don't think I can do that. I don't think I can give you the help you need without being able to know, let alone understand. And... I have to think of myself. It's not fair to me for you to come running whenever you fancy and ask me to give you support without context, without explanation...'
Tanith flinched, and lifted a hand. 'I know,' she said. It was everything she'd expected he would say, everything she had dreaded he would say, and everything she didn't think she could take listening to him say. 'And I understand. So... I'm sorry.'
And she stepped off the roof's edge.
Her feet hit Cal's broomstick, hovering barely more than a metre down from the edge, and it swerved underfoot to keep her balanced, just as it was designed to do. Just as it was enchanted to do. David was yelling her name and bolting for the edge just as she nudged it to rise up, lift her back up in view of the edge to hover a foot above the ground and a foot away from the building.
David skidded to a stop, hand outstretched, jaw dropping. 'What... the...'
She nudged the broom to land, gingerly stepping back onto solid ground. 'I didn't... know how to explain it without a demonstration. A demonstration that couldn't possibly be anything but real. Because... I have a hell of a lot to explain.'
'Oh, God.' David opened and closed his mouth, moving towards her. 'You really do work for the government, or something. This is some MI-6 super-tech or...'
'No, it's a broom. It's... a magic broom.' Tanith winced. 'And I just broke about three hundred years' worth of law and tradition in telling you that.'
'Magic?' His hand dropped by his side, eyes still wide, utterly dumbfounded. 'Who are you?'
'My name is Tanith Cole. And I'm a witch. I was educated at Hogwarts' School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I was the first candidate from school in three years to be accepted into the training programme for the Auror Office, which is a branch of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement within the Ministry of Magic.'
He blinked, fast, and she could see he was fighting to keep up with her. 'Auror...'
'We hunt dark witches and wizards. People who use... evil magic. Harmful magic. For criminal ends.'
'So you're a copper.' David drew a deep breath. 'And you have enemies? Is that why you were stuck in things you couldn't talk about, some of these... evil wizards had got influence of you, or something like that...?'
'Not... quite. Almost. It's... complicated.' Tanith took a step towards him, gaze flickering over every inch of his face, studying every facet and twitch of his reaction, knowing she was looking for rejection, hatred, disgust in his expression.
It wasn't there. Bewilderment was, of course. Confusion. Astonishment. But there was also still... trust.
Trust he'd always shown, even when she was giving him no reason to trust.
'I'll tell you everything, I promise. I'll answer any questions that you have. But I realised that I can't... my world, my life, is far too hard right now for me to get through it by driving people away. I thought that was the best thing to do, when I left. I thought it would be safer for you and I didn't...' She looked away, briefly, guiltily. 'I didn't like how you made me honest when I was trying to not even be honest with myself.'
'I'm sorry,' he blurted. 'If you were going through tough things, the last thing I wanted was to make it harder on you...'
'No.' She lifted a hand to cut him off, stumbling, but certain. 'I was... wrong. I was just trying to hide away, when that was pretty dumb. And it's got easier since then, but...' Tanith looked up to meet his gaze firmly, levelly. 'You manage to trust me in a way I'm not used to being trusted. By others, by myself. Or that I'm used to trusting others. You've managed to cut through to the heart of matters with me like almost nobody else could, and nobody else can right now and... I owed you better than I gave you.'
'No, you...' He took a step forward, bringing them closer - then hesitated, seeming unhappy with the words on the tip of his tongue. 'You needed help, so clearly. And I thought I could help. And you're... I thought I could read a thousand words in every one you left unsaid and saw a good person, a person struggling, but a person trying to do the right thing...'
'I am. Trying, I mean. But to do the right thing I've got to keep my mind, and...' Tanith drew a deep breath. 'You helped with that. More than I knew. More than I was prepared to admit. You helped, for weeks, to keep me sane, and to keep me doing the right thing, and I valued your friendship more than I realised. I'd like to... get that back.'
'I'm clearly a damn sap,' murmured David, voice quiet, wry. 'Because despite you telling me nothing and walking out on me I don't think I can say anything but "Hey, sure, crazy lady".'
She grinned, a stupid, broad grin despite herself, and he returned it, and for a few seconds they just stood there on the night-clad rooftop over the twinkling lights of London, wrapped up in the cold wind whistling around them, and grinned at each other like idiots.
'That's good. And... I'll tell you more. I promise. Everything you want to know, because it's fair and because it might actually help, telling someone. But I wanted to... let you know.' Tanith paused, the words now clumsy on her lips, and for half a heartbeat she wasn't here, on this rooftop, she was in a rain-clad forest getting shouted at.
She pushed that aside, and looked at the man in front of her. 'I wanted you to know how much you've helped me. How much I've relied on you. How much you've... meant to me. Because that only seemed fair, too.'
Tanith hadn't really known what she'd expected him to say in response. She'd feared him rejecting her far too ardently to think through the possible results of this gambit, of this thoroughly illegal confession, and had tackled it with no greater tactical consideration than effectively closing her eyes and leaping.
So she didn't know what to do in this moment, stood there before him, with all of her cards laid on the table and nothing to do but wait and see what his hand was, and how he was going to play it. There was nothing she could have anticipated.
Not him stepping forward. Not him lifting a hand to her cheek, his hands surprisingly rough but his touch surprisingly light and gentle. Not him coming closer, tilting her face up towards his, and leaning down to kiss her.
It wasn't like kissing Tobias. The times they'd kissed it had been desperate and fervent and more than a little fumbling, and maddeningly intoxicating beyond all sense and reason and almost in defiance of recollection, later.
It wasn't even like kissing Miles Bletchley, full of teenaged hunger and self-loathing and woe, and something altogether more empty and damaging and painful.
And for a moment she hesitated, for a moment her thoughts flew to Tobias, Tobias who was alive, Tobias who had made such an ardent declaration of love, and for a moment guilt gnawed at her for what she was doing to him, and what she might be doing to David...
Then she slid her arms around his neck, pulling him closer, and pushed away all feelings for someone a thousand miles away, all promises so unspoken and unacknowledged they weren't just merely implied, they didn't exist; all hopes and dreams that had gone round in circles and risen and been dashed over and over until she didn't know if up was down and he, Tobias, was almost certainly no better off.
It was the first time, in her whole life, she had kissed or been kissed without a gnawing sense of self-hatred or self-doubt, or without the knowledge that the moment could and would be snatched away within seconds to be never spoken of, thought of, or even acknowledged again.
For once, for the first time, her port in the storm, her escape from suffering, was here, was in front of her, was real, and wasn't going anywhere.
'We need to talk.'
Will Rayner turned, cocking his head at Tobias. Somehow he hadn't heard him approaching him across the terrace, focused as he had been on the view of the island beyond the house, currently bathed in the golden, flickering light of the setting sun filling the sky and the sea and glimmering all around.
He gave a relieved smile. 'Tobias. Yes, we do, it's good to see you up and about again.'
'Thanks.' Tobias tapped his cane on the paving stones lightly. 'I feel better. Like getting out of bed doesn't make me so tired all I want to do is get back in bed. I can hobble around pretty well.' He looked up at Will. 'And that's what I want to talk about.'
'I figured as much.' Will sighed, putting his hands in his pockets. 'I know it might seem a bit late now, considering that the latest issues have already been sent off, and the whole wizarding world knows that you're back. But I think you should reconsider the next issue.'
Tobias frowned. 'What?'
'I know, I know.' Will lifted his hands. 'But if they come for us again, we can't guarantee your safety. Dimitri is shooting back and forth across Europe these days, not just to Moscow but to Athens, even Paris - anywhere he thinks he can rally support for us. I'm up to my elbows in getting information out of our old sources, most of whom are pretty damn rattled these days and disinclined to stick their necks out.'
'Nobody said this was going to be safe, or easy. But -'
'And right now, if Death Eaters somehow find you and bust through the defences of this island, if neither one of us is here, then you don't have much of a chance of defending yourself.'
Tobias looked down, looked at the leg he still couldn't comfortably put his weight on, looked at the walking stick that had become his life-line. 'If they find us, they'll probably come in force. If they find us, Dimitri is a diplomat; there's no way he could go toe-to-toe with a Death Eater.' Like Aurora couldn't. 'The only one of us who stands much of a chance is you, and that's even one-on-one...'
'Exactly. They won't send one. They'll send half a dozen and then it won't matter how many of us are here, we'll just die.'
'This wasn't what I wanted to talk about.' Tobias frowned. 'This isn't even up for discussion. The Midnight Press is going to continue. I'll let you calm down, and we can talk about matters in the morning.'
He turned to go, only for Will to reach out for a strong hand at his elbow. Once he might have just yanked himself out of the older man's grip, but he couldn't brace his weight comfortably on his stick being held like that.
'No, hold on a second -'
The anger which surged in his gut at the choice Will had foisted upon him - be a captive audience or strain his bad leg - was entirely new, but thoroughly real, and Tobias whirled, as best he could, around to face the Unspeakable. 'You'll let me the hell go, right now,' he hissed.
Will looked startled, then apologetic, and his hand dropped - but he did not look defeated. 'This is important, Tobias. This is your life. I don't want to see them coming for you again, and I don't want to see you die.'
'Then you should have brought this up before we sounded the horn and told the world I wasn't dead.'
'You didn't seem in a state to listen. And I've still been thinking about it. It's not too late; if you just drift off silently, they won't waste resources going across the continent to find you. They won't stick their necks out on foreign influence trying to get you extradited. They'll leave you be, just like they've left every other exile, until an easier opportunity comes up.'
Tobias gritted his teeth. 'So I just take a holiday while my country suffers. While the people I care about are exploited and condemned. I sit on a beach and wait for it to end.'
'You almost died for this, Tobias. You almost lost a leg, you might well be maimed for the rest of your life, and all because of what you did.' Will waved a hand, expression aghast. 'Nobody, not nobody could try to pretend like you haven't done enough. That you haven't earned the right to say "I've fought my fight and now it's over". Anyone who tried to pretend you were a coward for suffering like you have and then backing down would be a fool.'
'I don't do this because of what anyone says, I do this because of what's right. You're right in that if I continue, they will probably try to kill me again.' Tobias took a hobbling step forward. 'And why? Because it hurts them. Because I drag every one of their iniquities and failings out squirming into the harsh light of day. If it didn't mean anything, if it didn't do good, then they wouldn't try to stop me, try to kill me. They waste so much of their resources trying to go after me, after us. Three men. That means they fear me. That means I hurt them. That also means that so long as they're going after us, they're not going after someone else.'
Will frowned. 'So you're happy to die for this.'
Tobias gave a dark smile. 'I already died once, Will, and came back. Do you think they can, now, ever kill me? Even if they rip me limb from limb and put my remains on public display, they have already proclaimed to the world that I was dead and defeated. And I came back. If they make such a claim again, they will not be believed. The messages I wrote will live on - in words, in hope. Don't you understand? In failing to kill me, they have made me immortal.'
'Except that you're not, because it doesn't matter what people believe if they rip you limb from limb, you'll still be dead.'
Tobias straightened, best he could with an aching leg. 'Not in the ways which matter the most.'
'Do you think Aurora would agree?'
Although he couldn't help but feel angry at the accusation, Tobias certainly couldn't feel surprised. He had known, on some level, that Will was going to try to bring up Aurora Marlowe as a weapon in his arsenal to convince him to stop. He shifted his bad leg. 'She gave her life for this work.'
'She gave her life for you,' Will thundered. 'To protect you, to keep you safe. Continuing to paint a bull's eye on yourself is tantamount to throwing that sacrifice away.'
'No, it's not.' The words were nothing new to him, were nothing he'd not told himself dozens of times over. 'She knew me. She knew what I was like. She knew what I would do. And she acknowledged that, and accepted it.' Just like she knew what my father was like, what he wanted, who he loved, and supported him anyway. And loved him anyway. Tobias's eyes roved over Will's face, searching every inch of it for some give in his stern expression.
'Come on, Will, what's this about?' he asked at last. 'If I didn't know you better, I'd swear this was you trying to get an out for yourself...'
Will bristled. 'Even if this stops,' he said, 'I will continue to gather information from my sources, our sources, and pipe them through to the people who benefit from them. That still does good, and doesn't draw attention to us.'
'Then what? What's changed this? Don't say you've had time to think about it, because I thought we'd already done this argument. Why are you suddenly so intent on protecting me from threats I already accepted?' Tobias watched him for several long moments, before he drew a sharp breath. 'What's happened to Cal?'
'What?' Will's head snapped around.
'This. This over-protection. I'm not your son, but you're sounding an awful lot like a lecturing father, and... has something happened?'
Will flinched, and Tobias knew he had him. 'No. There's... no bad news. It's actually good news or... it's mixed news.'
Tobias clenched his walking stick hard. 'What's happened? We've heard nothing from him, about him...'
'Except that he was stuck in London, under the careful supervision of Thanatos Brynmor,' Will growled, his gaze going to the horizon, and again Tobias was starkly reminded that Will had been more to Cal than just a guardian, just the owner of the house the boy had grown up in. He had been the father Thanatos could and should rightfully never be, as a Death Eater in Azkaban. 'And not more than whispers of him still being there had come out for months.'
'Cal's smart,' said Tobias. 'And I know he's had a long, and hard road with Thanatos Brynmor. But he is no fool. I trust him.' I forgive him.
'Whether or not he's a fool is up for debate,' said Will tightly, 'as I just got the latest word from Jennifer Riley. They've been doing well, it's all in the paperwork, I'll let you go through it so you can put things together for the next issue. She congratulates you on not being dead, by the way. But it seems the Lions have gained a new recruit.'
Tobias blinked. 'Cal? He's joined up with them?'
'Out of the frying pan and into the fire, that is.' Will gave a grimace of the smile. 'He's no longer under the watchful eye of his shit of a father, he's going to be hunted by him. I don't know if that's better or worse.'
'I don't think there are good answers in this situation.' Tobias limped up to step next to Will, letting his own gaze sweep over the warmth and welcoming rays of the setting sun, and wherever they fell on this island - this paradise so far away from war and pain it was easy to forget they were out there.
'Trust him,' Tobias said. 'Trust him to be making the right choices, to be keeping himself safe. And if you can't trust him, trust Jennifer Riley. Not a single member of the Lions has been captured or killed since she took direct command. If there ever was a champion amongst us in this fight it's not me, writing papers a thousand miles away from danger, and it's not you, gathering information from the shadows. It's her, giving me the stories to write about, acting on the information you give her, and your son, my friend, is under her wing. Trust her.'
'"My son",' Will echoed with a sigh - a deep, regretful sigh. 'I never called him that. I don't know why. It felt like... intruding, or something. Presumptous. Isn't that bloody ridiculous; I raised him since he was a baby. But I always feared that he'd somehow, deep down, want his real father.
'Murderous, racist lunatic that he is.'
A/N: I'm out of the country next week, so assume there will be no updates until the 14th/15th. You might get lucky, wi-fi permitting, but in the meantime, enjoy, and see you then!
To appease you ravening masses (well, a small mob, at least. A mobette?) I will confirm that Falls the Shadow is 100% written at 44 Chapters (barring proof-reading as I go along), and there WILL be another, post-war story to wrap up all those Happily-or-Not Ever Afters and loose plot threads which couldn't really be satisfyingly concluded with an epilogue. Though the desire to parody The Epilogue was... powerful. Anyway, the fourth and final story is currently being written under the Working Title of 'Invictus', so we've got a good long haul 'til the Very End yet.
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