Chapter 30: The Elephant in the Room
There was something wrong with her that she was, on some level, glad that one of the Weasley twins had had his ear blown off. It meant she could actually tell the difference between her neighbours.
This one was George, and this late in the day he was conducting a stock take, going through sheets of parchment and examining what was on the shelves. Tanith had to remind herself every once in a while that the brothers were not just the layabout pranksters and tormentors she remembered from school, but also consummate and professional businessmen.
If they weren’t, after all, a joke shop couldn’t have possibly endured under the tender mercies of the new administration. Or, at the very least, nobody would have bothered spending their money on such fruitless past-times. But somehow the shop persevered, and somehow the brothers kept on living and working there, and somehow they had the enthusiasm and intellect to continue to experiment with their new toys that explosions occasionally soothed her to sleep late on in the night.
Like last night.
‘Oh, uh, Cole. Pleasure to see you, Detector.’ George Weasley looked cautious at best, his deference clearly nothing more than a gesture. They had never exchanged warm words, because Cal had been the one to like buying their goods - Tanith preferred to discreetly order hers by post, even if it was just being delivered to the shipping office and then across the road from the shop - and she was the one who was actually assertive enough to complain when they were noisy.
‘I’m sure it’s not, Weasley.’ She walked up the the shelf he was by, arms folded across his chest. ‘It seems I only come over here to complan.’
‘And you never take the free samples.’ George grinned haplessly.
‘That’s because your free samples are always for joke wands.’ Now if it was some Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder... but I already have plenty of that. ‘Last night. What were you two doing, killing someone? That noise didn’t stop until three in the morning!’
‘I’m sorry,’ said George, and didn’t sound very sorry. ‘We’re working on a new project. It’s called “make enough noise to keep the neighbours’ rent nice and cheap”.’
‘I think the occupation keeps the rent pretty cheap around here. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t pay good money to make either one go away.’ She met his gaze pointedly. This late in the day it was unlikely anyone was going to come in, but you never could tell. ‘I’m sick and tired of all of this noise. Can we sit down and hammer out some sort of compromise?’
He did stop at that - and had faltered at her indication she didn’t think the administration was the best thing since sliced bread. Perhaps he was just curious, or perhaps he had picked up on her not-so-subtle hint, but George stepped back to gesture to the rear of the shop.
‘Of course, Detector. Shall we step into my office?’
It was a small and cramped room, the walls covered with sketches and plans which were almost certainly either for goods already on the open market or which wouldn’t work anyway. The twins would like to show off their intellect and give the impression of being craftsmen as well as entrepreneurs. They weren’t dumb enough to put their secrets on view for all the world to see.
‘So what sort of compromise were you thinking of?’
Tanith sat down and reached for the papers in her coat inside pocket, but didn’t pull them out. ‘Can you get messages out to the Lions of Britain?’
George opened and closed his mouth haplessly. ‘What? They’re terrorists. I’m offended that you -’
‘Cut the crap, Weasley. You were in Gryffindor House with most of them. You were in the Quidditch squad with Katie Bell, and in that super-secret little club in Umbridge’s year with her and half of Potter’s little entourage.’
He opened his hands and gave a smile that wouldn’t melt butter. ‘That was a long time ago.’
He has no reason to trust me.
‘I am not trying to con you into making some admission of guilt. Look...’ Tanith rubbed her temples and glanced around the office. ‘I happen to like you, or at least your goods. They’re tremendous.’
‘I’m so glad to know the MLE approve of my toys,’ George said, a little coldly. ‘That makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. Shall I get a stamp? “100% of crackpot dictators approve”?’
‘I’m not...’ A thought occurred, and she leant forwards. Damn her for having gone to such measures to hide that she herself had been a regular buyer of their goods. That could have, for once, proven useful as a display of faith. ‘I know they’re not just toys. And I know you don’t just sell them as toys. Shield Cloaks? Peruvian Darkness Powder? Those things have saved my life before, and the lives of people I care about.’
He looked at her cautiously. ‘I don’t remember you coming in here to buy things before.’
‘That’s because I never did. I was discreet. Or...’ She looked away. ‘Do you remember a man named Altair Ritter?’
‘Remember him? Of course I remember him, he was one of our biggest investors...’ George’s voice trailed off, and he looked her up and down, gaze settling on her coat. ‘I heard about his murder. Is that where you got that?’
‘For Merlin’s sake, Weasley, he was my tutor, my mentor. I know that this is not the great age for trust and optimism, and I know the wrong word to the wrong person could have you looking at the business end of a sentencing in Azkaban at best, but I am not the enemy here. I became an Auror before the occupation, I was taught by Altair how to help keep people safe, not oppress them. Now if you have even an inkling of the work he used to do, then perhaps you will understand that my intentions are not entrapment.’ She placed a hand firmly on the desk, injecting every inch of sincerity and earnestness she could muster into her voice.
He watched her for several long seconds, then glanced at the ceiling and seemed to curse. ‘Okay. But I genuinely don’t know how to get in touch with the Lions. We don’t use the same network of contacts. I never really knew Jennifer Riley - she hated us, in fact - and I haven’t seen Katie since she was in Saint Mungo’s last year.’
‘But you’re friends with Lee Jordan, you must...’
‘He doesn’t work with the Lions. He works with the Order, you have to know that, Cole.’ George shrugged. ‘The Lions take their tips and most of their exposure from your good mate Tobias Grey, the Lazarus-impersonator. And I don’t have a clue what their other sources are.’
Tanith rubbed her temples. ‘Damn it...’
George rolled his shoulders. ‘...but Lee might be able to get something out to Grey.’
This had not occurred to her. Not in a hundred years would she have put two and two together and realised that George Weasley, living not thirty metres away from her, would have been able to get a message through the chain from her to Tobias Grey.
Suddenly she felt very stupid.
‘You could...’ Her voice trailed off weakly.
‘But if I’m going to get something to Lee, you’d better give it to me now, because I’m not going to see him for another week after tonight.’
‘I... um. Okay. Give him this.’ Tanith pulled the envelope from out of her coat and set it down on the desk. ‘But let me write a note, I thought this would be going to Jennifer Riley first...’
He passed her some paper obligingly, and all of a sudden it was harder to write just a handful of words on a tiny scrap of parchment than all of her long, complicated school exams put together.
George glanced into the envelope as she wrote, and he quirked an eyebrow. ‘This is pretty serious,’ he said. ‘Especially since...’
‘I know. That’s why I’m doing it.’ Tanith shoved her note in without looking at it, knowing that if she began to second-guess herself she’d probably end up writing absolutely nothing.
‘If they catch you...’
‘They didn’t catch me before.’ She looked up at him and gave a grim smile. ‘So how about we make sure they don’t catch me now, huh?’
‘...I am telling you, Tobias, that it cannot be done.’
‘Well, it should be!’
He wanted to pace. Desperately wanted to storm across the terrace as he always had been able to do when frustrated. But his leg twinged at just the thought of it, and all Tobias could do was glower at Dimitri, sat so casually at a table with a glass of ouzo and water, his sunglasses hiding his eyes and most of his expression.
The Russian winced. ‘Many things should be done in this world, my friend. But many things are not possible. France has stated repeatedly that they will take in any refugees from Britain who can make it across the Channel.’
‘That’s not enough.’
‘Greece is condemning Britain. Russia is condemning . Italy, Spain, Germany, are condemning . How is this not enough? The countries of Europe have gone from ignoring Britain to doing all that they can to fight a dark magic administration.’
‘Except for actually fighting.’
Dimitri shook his head. ‘We do not want a war.’
‘Actually, that’s exactly what I want.’ Tobias whirled around as best he could. ‘I want all of these countries to stop wringing their hands about how awful it must be in Britain, and start doing something about it. I want them to go from reacting to acting. I want them to gather up all of their vaunted strength and help us kick the Death Eaters out of the Ministry.’
‘The Death Eaters are the Ministry. By all edicts of international law, Thicknesse’s administration is legal,’ barked Dimitri. ‘What you are proposing is for magical nations to express their own disapproval of another country’s rulership and invade.’
‘You know that this would be a gross violation of magical sovereignty,’ said Dimitri, shaking his head. ‘You know that this would pave an unfortunate road. You know that the countries more sympathetic to Britain would bring outrage to the international conference. This would overturn all balance of European power!’
‘Then maybe it should be overturned,’ snapped Tobias, hobbling to the table. ‘If these governments are too weak-willed to take action when it should be taken, then perhaps the status quo ought to be thrown over.’
‘And that,’ said Dimitri, ‘is exactly the justification used by your Lord Voldemort.’
Tobias glared at him. ‘Thank you for the reductio ad absurdum,’ he growled. ‘But right now I’m not even asking Europe to invade. I’m asking them to help us get refugees out.’
‘That is tantamount to invasion. It cannot be done.’
Tobias threw himself down on one of the deck chairs, and immediately regretted it as he wrenched his leg. He leant back and let Dimitri pour him a drink. ‘When’s the next International Conference?’ he muttered.
‘I have meetings with ambassadors and representatives weekly. The next Conference is in late April.’
He nodded curtly. ‘I want to be there.’
Dimitri opened his mouth. ‘You have no ambassadorial...’
‘Then make me an expert speaker. I want to address them.’ Tobias took a big swig of ouzo, even though he hadn’t become the greatest fan of the stuff.
‘You are moving,’ said Dimitri, ‘from editor to dissident to trying to spark international war.’
‘I call it international aid. But that’s months away now.’ He looked sidelong at his friend. ‘Did you have any good news from the meeting?’
‘As I said. More and more countries are prepared to take in refugees and grant them asylum. And Germany is prepared to provide supplies and equipment - under the table, of course - to anti-Ministerial groups.’ Dimitri grimaced. ‘It is not much, but it is the beginning of these governments rejecting the legitimacy of British rule.’
‘They already morally reject it, they just don’t reject it on paper.’ Tobias tapped his cane on the floor, and sighed. ‘All right. I’m sorry. I know this is going to be long and hard and I know... I’m probably being a bit audacious.’
‘I think, by now, that is your specialty.’ Dimitri refilled his glass.
‘I just want to do something.’
‘And writing the most condemning paper against the administration, as well as passing government secrets to resistance fighters, is not sufficient? Certainly that is an indication of being audacious.’ He smirked, but the smile faded after a few seconds. ‘This is about the Wilsons.’
‘I hate...’ Tobias ran a hand through his hair. ‘That’s the worst part of this. Sure, I can write words to inspire and encourage and condemn. Sure, I can even help those who fight. But then when that’s done all I can do is sit back and... and watch. And when things go badly, there is nothing that I can do.’
‘No man can do everything.’ Dimitri jabbed a finger at him. ‘You have not learnt this yet, I think.’
‘I’m not most men,’ he said, without a trace of arrogance. ‘I got told, for years, by most people, that I was special. Talented. Capable. It’s time I put those words to use for something other than padding my ego and did something with it.’
‘You think, perhaps, they just meant you were very good at writing exam papers?’
‘Perhaps.’ Tobias’ lips twisted. ‘But I’ll never know my limits if I don’t try to find them. And I haven’t met them yet.’
‘I think,’ mused Dimitri, ‘that I would not want to be there when that happens.’
They twisted in their seats in the direction of the path that lead down to the village to see Will staggering up the final rise towards them. His chest was heaving, his forehead slick with sweat, and he was waving a chunky envelope at them.
‘I’ve got... it came from PotterWatch... they said explicitly it was for you...’
Will slumped into the chair Dimitri pushed out for him, and accepted a glass of just water with relief. He pushed the envelope over to Tobias, who picked it up with a frown.
‘PotterWatch? What do they want?’
‘I don’t think it’s from them,’ gasped Will, getting his breath back. ‘They’re just passing it on. Clearly someone knows that we have connections.’
‘Ours are better,’ Tobias grumbled. The rivalry between the Midnight Press and PotterWatch was mostly imaginary or for simple fun, and the truth was that the two resistance media sources shared a lot of their information. PotterWatch was good at getting the short, sharp, key bits of information out - then the Midnight Press skewered the subject on the details. This was also one connection which hadn’t come from Will, but rather, the lingering contacts Tobias had made from the Slug Club and its expanding, spider-like network across magical Britain.
He opened the envelope anyway to pour out what looked like an MLE schedule, and the name at the top of it made him start. But before he could reach for it a note tumbled out, too, folded over but with his name on the back of it written in a familiar hand.
‘My God,’ he breathed, and snatched it up.
Get this to the Lions. It’s their right to do something about this, and they may be the only ones who can.
I thought you were dead. Since you’re not, that’s no excuse for losing my presents.
‘There’s something else in it,’ said Will with a frown, and reached out to shake the envelope again.
A scratched and scuffed silver pocketwatch fell out and rattled on the table loudly, and Dimitri swore as it hit the ouzo bottle and he had to lunge forward to stop it from being knocked over, but Tobias didn’t think he’d ever been so pleased in his life to see an inanimate object.
The impact knocked the battered latch and the lid of the watch swung up, the sunlight glinting on metal, and making the engraving on the inside stand out all the more.
‘I wouldn’t go in there for all the tea in China.’
Gabriel glanced at Cal sideways. ‘Is there a lot of that?’
‘Tea. In China.’
‘It...’ Cal squinted. ‘It wouldn’t be a saying if there weren’t.’
‘I don’t know. Muggles have silly sayings. Like “the world is my oyster”. No, it’s fucking not. I don’t even like oysters. They taste like sea-snot.’ Gabriel nodded at the door to the one isolated room in the Lions’ warehouse hideout. ‘So maybe there’s no tea in China. That’s why going in there would be a really shit deal.’
‘I think there’s no amount of tea which could make going in there not really shit.’ Cal frowned. ‘And yet, she’s doing it.’
‘Well, yeah.’ Gabriel rolled a shoulder. ‘You have the bad judgement to pork Nick Wilson, that means you’ve got to stand by him when he’s gone through something truly horrendous.’
But even when the two friends returned their attention to their dinner, sat a little away from the rest of the sombre Lions of Britain, Gabriel couldn’t help but cast a glance occasionally in the direction of the tiny office which had been Wilson’s Cave of Sorrow since the news had come through of what had happened to his family.
‘It’s weird here,’ Cal muttered into his tin of beans. ‘One minute they’re like best bosom-pals, the next everyone’s growling at each other.’
‘Usually just at me,’ Gabriel pointed out. ‘But it’s the stress. You see the same people day-in, day-out, for months at a time when putting a foot out of line can get you killed, you see how chirpy you are with the people around you.’
‘Sounds like seven years in Slytherin House.’
‘Yeah, well. It’s pretty make-or-break for a relationship.’
Cal gave a brief nod across the warehouse as the office door was opened for Riley to slip through. ‘Like this is make-or-break for them?’
Gabriel made a face. ‘His folks are dead. I think that ties them together ‘til more or less the end of time.’
Cal watched his friend for several long moments, then drew a deep breath. ‘That really pisses you off, doesn’t it.’
‘What?’ Astonishingly, it sounded like Gabriel actually hadn’t heard him, distracted as he was with his gaze still on Riley. He didn’t even bother to chase this one up, putting his can down and getting to his feet. ‘I’ll be... sorry, Caldwyn...’
Cal peered at his own dinner as his friend trundled off, unsurprisingly towards Jennifer Riley. ‘It’s you, isn’t it, beans. You’re giving me gas. It’s driving everyone away.’
Gabriel was mercifully out of earshot as he slunk around the perimeter of the gathered Lions and moved to intercept Riley, who was headed for the door out. ‘Mind if I join you for a spot of fresh air?’
‘I -’ Riley hesitated as she looked up to see it was him, then gave a one-shouldered shrug. She looked pale and drawn, with heavy bags under her eyes that had always been present but were now only more prominent since the attack on Wilson’s family. ‘All right, Doyle.’
They slid out into the alleyway. It was cool and crisp this time of the afternoon, but hidden from sight from all - the Muggles, any wandering Enforcers looking for them, and even their own allies, huddled back inside.
‘That looks like it’s fun,’ said Gabriel, jerking a head back to the door.
‘His family are all dead,’ said Riley, lifting a hand to her temple. ‘How do you think it’s going? He’s destroyed.’
‘I can only imagine.’ Gabriel bit his lip. ‘Times like this, I wish I could properly control my visions. Then maybe I could see things like this before they come.’
‘Nobody expects that of you, Doyle.’ She looked over at him. ‘Nobody thinks your visions are an on-demand kind of thing. It’s a gift, it’s a perk. It’s not a tool for us to berate when it doesn’t work the way we want it to.’
He frowned at her. ‘You’ve just had to tell him that, haven’t you.’ There had been a ring of long-suffering about her voice. ‘He’s pissed that I didn’t anticipate this.’
‘He’s pissed about a lot of things right now. Don’t take it personally. It’s not about you.’
Gabriel nodded reluctantly, and drew a deep breath. ‘Does he know?’
Riley hesitated. ‘About what?’
He watched her reaction closely. ‘That it took you fifteen minutes after you got word of the attack to tell everyone? To tell him?’
She froze, the lingering colour draining from her face, and her mouth dropped a little. ‘How did you... did Katie...’
‘Bell didn’t say anything.’ Gabriel shoved his hands in his pockets. ‘She’s a smart girl. But I saw you two talking when she gave you the news. And then I saw you do nothing for fifteen minutes until you went over to Wilson to tell him.’
Riley lifted her hands. ‘You have to understand -’
She blinked. ‘What?’
‘Twelve Enforcers breaking into that place? Come on. There’s no way we could have taken them on.’ He shrugged. ‘And I bet that’s what they wanted us to do, or they at least thought it was possible. For us to come riding to the rescue. They would have been ready for us. We don’t have twelve people capable of taking on an Enforcer one-on-one, and we don’t have the numbers to overwhelm them.’
‘If I’d told Nick -’
‘Then he’d have wanted to go tearing in there with that gnat’s chance of saving them. Regardless of if it got him or anyone else killed. Because he’s a Gryffindor to the hilt, and that sometimes means being a bloody idiot.’
Riley’s voice shook. ‘If he’d gone in there,’ she said, ‘then others would have followed him. And then we’d have all died.’
Gabriel cocked his head. ‘I’m not condemning you, Riley,’ he said. ‘I understand. I just wanted to know if he knew.’
She looked at him peculiarly for a moment, before squaring her shoulders and setting her jaw in that line which said she meant business. Her officious stance. The stance of a leader.
The best mask she wore, and the one he fancied not many of them could see through.
‘He doesn’t,’ she said at last. ‘And he never, ever will. Do you understand me? I will take this secret to my grave, and so will you, and so will Katie.’
He nodded. ‘I owe you that much. At least.’
Inexplicably she made a small noise of protest, and her mask crumpled before she turned on her heel, lifting a hand to her forehead. ‘Why... why do you have to be the one who understands me best?’
‘Because the world, for them, is still a hell of a lot more black and white than reality would demand,’ said Gabriel, jerking his head back towards the warehouse. ‘But you don’t have the luxury of looking at the world that way, do you.’ He took a step towards her. ‘I see what happens in those debates. When they argue for something stupid, claiming the moral high ground, and you have to shoot them down even if it makes you look like the bad guy. Because if you didn’t, their moral high ground would get them killed. And they know you’re going to shoot them down. They’re counting on it, in fact; if they were in your shoes, if they were in command, they would make the exact same calls you do, time after time. But because they know you’re going to make the hard decisions for them, the choices that need to be made, they play oblivious. Naive. So they get to feel good about themselves while you make sure the world keeps turning.’
Her eyes had been downcast as he’d been speaking, her breathing ragged. ‘I am so, so tired of keeping everything together...’
They were close, now, closer than Gabriel had realised he’d stepped, and if he just lifted his hand a few inches he could bring his fingers to brush her cheek, tilt her face him, seek her gaze and then find the words to make her life that little bit easier, her day that little bit brighter, her horizon that little bit more full of hope, like he’d been fighting to do for the months since he’d...
They jumped apart with a start, whirling to the door to the warehouse to see Katie there, hanging onto the handle. ‘You’d better come back in,’ she said, jerking a thumb. ‘There’s a message in from Grey.’
Riley had pushed past him before he could say a word, protest, or even really think, and with a groan Gabriel fell into step to troop back into the warehouse after her. He tried to ignore the pointed look he got off Katie Bell as he did so.
Wilson was out in the main room, in the middle of the others, who were around him in a big gaggle. He looked pale and worn and like he hadn’t eaten in days, but there was a fire in his eyes as he paced back and forth in front of them, clutching some papers.
Even the sight of Gabriel and Riley coming back in together could only darken his gaze briefly, and he lifted the envelope aloft as they joined the huddle, Jen going forward to stand by his side at the front. ‘We’ve got him,’ Wilson declared triumphantly.
‘Got who?’ Riley took the papers off him with a frown.
‘Cole finally decided to get off her arse and do something,’ said Wilson, with a dismissal tone that made Gabriel’s gut twist in irritation. ‘She routed through to us some papers from the MLE office. It’s Lestrange’s schedule for the next fortnight. A lot of it’s vague, as I bet he’s going to keep chasing us around wherever we go, but there is scheduled a security inspection down in Herefordshire the day after tomorrow.’
Her frown deepened. ‘We know where, exactly?’
‘Yep. And it’s with Detector Team Two. We know their makeup, we’ve kept an eye on them. We’ve taken them down before.’ Wilson’s eyes remained lit up, exuberant at the prospect before him. ‘We know where he’s going to be, when, and who’ll be with him. So we can make a hit.’
Cal glanced about the gathered Lions. ‘And what’s your intention?’
Wilson lifted his chin a little defiantly. ‘Simple. To find him. To kill him.’
It wasn’t the first time the Lions had set out with lethal force in mind, though it was the first time Gabriel could recall them specifically going after one lone target to eliminate them. Cal looked uncomfortable, but he would no doubt learn that leaving an enemy behind, all too often, just meant that they’d get back up again to hit you back some day.
And in the case of Rodolphus Lestrange, justice wasn’t going to be forthcoming any other way.
‘We’ll work on a plan,’ said Riley, looking a bit reluctant.
‘Of course we will.’ Wilson gave a humourless smile, and smirked at Gabriel. ‘What do you know? Finally Cole pulled her weight.’
Gabriel’s jaw set. ‘She probably risked her life considerably just to get you that information. It’s likely she saw or heard what happened to your family and is trying to make things right. You could sound a little bit more grateful.’
For a moment Wilson’s eyes flashed with irritation - his temper had been, understandably, all over the place for the last few days. Gabriel had tolerated it, or at least avoided him, until now. But after a second Wilson made a face, nodded, and sauntered over.
‘All right. You’re right. I guess this will mean I’ll owe her one.’ He gave a one-shouldered shrug, then winked at Gabriel. ‘Maybe you can join us on this one. Get a little bit of field experience at last, instead of kicking back and telling us what to -’
The punch to Gabriel’s shoulder had probably been intended as playful. But physical contact it was, and physical contact was enough. The moment he felt Wilson’s hand on him, that familiar sharp, searing pain shot through his temples, stronger than it ever had before - and with it, images and sensations that were stronger, sharper, clearer, and more horrifying than anything he’d felt before.
It was also, unfortunately, more than enough to send him collapsing into the darkness of unconsciousness.