Chapter 31: The Shot Heard 'Round the World
'Hey, mate. Back with us? You gave us quite a scare...'
Gabriel blinked muggily as his vision swam back into clarity. The warehouse office swirled and danced in front of his eyes for long seconds until, finally, it returned to focus, and gingerly he sat up. He'd been stretched out carefully on one of the sleeping bags tucked into a corner, and, perched on the desk which had been shoved against the wall, was Cal.
'Ung. I feel terrible,' he said eloquently.
Cal grimaced and carefully passed over a water bottle. 'Yeah, you... it looked like you were having a fit, or something. It was pretty scary. Does that happen often? It was like the time you passed out in Snape's Defence class...'
The cool water and Cal's words worked together to bring memories dredging up from the darkness, and Gabriel almost choked on his drink as he went to get up. 'Wilson. Where's -'
'Outside, with McLaggen and the others.' Cal reached out to press a hand firmly on his shoulder. 'They're getting ready to move out.'
Gabriel shook his head and again fought to get to his feet. Cal didn't stop him this time, but he did keep a steadying hand on his shoulder. 'How long was I out?'
Cal winced. 'The better part of a day. What happened? Did you see something?'
Gabriel took a deep, shuddering breath and willed his legs to not fail him. 'They can't go. Not after Lestrange. They just - help me.'
He began to stagger towards the door anyway, leaving Cal with no option but to sling his friend's arm over his shoulder and half-support, half-drag him out of the door and out into the warehouse main floor. The hustle and bustle there was everything that Gabriel had come to expect from the Lions when they were gearing up for an operation - checking and double checking maps and plans, confirming their wands were in order, stocking up on any potions Percival had brewed for them to take out into the field.
Only this time it would not all go to plan.
Wilson was at the centre of the storm of activity, McLaggen next to him like a burly shadow, and in the swirl he couldn't see Riley. But he didn't have the luxury of waiting.
'Wilson,' Gabriel called out, but his voice was like sandpaper and he couldn't be heard over the hustle and bustle. He took a deep breath. 'Nick!'
That did get Wilson's attention, and the wiry young man turned to face him with a disinterested frown. 'Oh, Doyle. You're up. Feeling better?'
'You can't go.'
He and McLaggen lowered the papers they held. 'What?'
'You're going to Gullsmere, aren't you. To intercept Lestrange.' Gabriel shook his head. 'You can't go.'
McLaggen rolled his eyes. 'Oh, what, you had a vision?'
'I did.' Gabriel shrugged off Cal's arm, aware that the eyes of the rest of the Lions were turning in their direction. 'I don't know what it is - I don't know if it's a trap, or if you'll just mess up, or if we've got some bad intelligence. But something's going to go wrong.'
Wilson narrowed his eyes. 'That's some great feedback, Doyle. "Something will go wrong". Gee, like that's never a prospect on every op we've ever been on.'
'This isn't a prospect,' spat Gabriel. 'This is fact.'
They never did believe you, did they? Deep down they just thought you were a funny little mascot who saw funny little things which usually just told them what they wanted to know, anyway. They never lost anything before by listening to you.
'Then if it's fact, it's unavoidable, and we'll just have to deal with it when it happens,' said Wilson, and turned away to go back to the papers with McLaggen.
Cal gave him a frustrated look, and Gabriel ran a hand through his hair. He closed his eyes tightly, anticipating the wave of throbbing pain which was likely to come. 'If you go,' he said carefully, slowly, 'then you will die.'
The pain didn't come, but the full attention of the whole of the Lions did. All pretense of hubbub died down, and again Wilson and McLaggen turned to face him, their expressions dubious at best. Silence hung in the air for a few long moments, before Wilson gave a gentle snort. 'What. All of us?'
Gabriel scowled. 'Just you two. You'll get captured, you'll get lined up, and they will summarily execute you right there and then.'
'Huh.' Wilson looked over at McLaggen, then back to Gabriel. 'Do we get Lestrange?'
'Yes, it's for his murder you'll be executed,' Gabriel said tensely.
A ripple of uncertainty ran through the group, and Tom Everard stepped up to the centre a little nervously. 'Maybe he's got a point, Nick. Maybe we can push the plan back.'
'We're not going to get another chance like this,' said Wilson, a muscle at the corner of his eye twitching, and he glanced at McLaggen, who gave him a small nod. 'This sounds about worth it.'
'Worth it?' Gabriel exploded, his legs unsteady under him, and Cal moved half a step closer. It was difficult to not draw strength from his friend's presence - from the knowledge he wouldn't keel over, from the knowledge he was also somewhat shielded from the ire of the two men in front of him, thanks to Cal being so close. 'He will die but so will you. You have to stay behind, wait for another chance. Why don't you get that?'
'Because he fucking murdered them!' Wilson exploded at last, taking a step forward. 'My family! My parents! My little sister! He murdered them just because he could, because they dared to help us, and he did it to punish them, and to punish us. Well, turnabout is fair fucking play!'
'Is it worth dying over?' barked Gabriel. 'Is vengeance worth throwing your life away over?'
'This is the best chance we are going to get at him,' said Wilson, a muscle in the corner of his jaw twitching. 'If my life is the price I pay for stopping him from hurting anyone else's family, then so be it! Besides!' He jabbed a finger in Gabriel's chest, and Cal tensed. 'You foresaw it! It's a fore-drawn conclusion!'
'The first thing the man who taught me how to use this talent told me is "fuck fate",' growled Gabriel. 'These visions can be changed, I've seen it, I've done it, when the stakes were just as high. But that was with months of warning - the best way I can see for you to avoid dying there, today, is by just staying behind.'
'And maybe never getting another shot at him?' Wilson straightened, letting out a deep breath. 'No. No way. I'll take my chances.' He looked around the Lions, raising his voice. 'I don't want to speak for anyone else. But I'm still going to go.' His gaze landed, last of all, on McLaggen. 'I'll understand if you stay.'
'Stay?' repeated an incredulous McLaggen. 'I'm with you 'til the end, mate. Like he just said - fuck fate. We'll take it as it comes, and if that means we go down together, then we go down together.'
'This is throwing away your lives!' Gabriel's jaw dropped. 'There will be more chances! More opportunities! And you're prepared to just... just... Look at these people around you!' He sputtered, waving a hand at the crowd of the Lions. 'I just told you you're going to die and they'll follow you anyway! You can't throw your life away! Think about them!'
Then he saw Jennifer Riley, winding her way through the crowd with an expression of confusion which suggested she'd only just arrived, and Gabriel pointed at her. 'Think about her.'
'I think you do enough of that for us both, Doyle,' Wilson growled.
'What's going on?' Riley looked between them, folding her arms across her chest.
'We're just getting ready to go,' Wilson said, straightening up.
'I've had a vision,' snapped Gabriel, turning to face her. 'If the team goes, they'll kill Lestrange, but Nick and Cormac will be captured and executed.'
Her jaw dropped and she stared at Wilson. 'What?'
'Come on.' Wilson walked over to her. 'All his visions have ever told us before are things we already knew. That a job would go okay, that someone would do this, or do that. It's never been any kind of a game changer before.'
Gabriel frowned at her. 'What about... the Snatcher lead, the potions smuggling lead...?' His voice trailed off as she looked, while somewhat nauseous, rather guilty. 'You didn't tell them, did you. I've been giving you intel all year and you couldn't bring yourself to tell them that I'm not just some crazy bastard rambling in the corner, that I've been right so many times...!'
'Now isn't the time for your little ego-fest, Doyle,' sneered Wilson. 'We've got to go.'
'No, look -' Riley started, eyes widening, and she stepped in front of Wilson. 'He's right - he's been right, so many times, times I didn't tell you, he wouldn't say this was going to happen if he hadn't seen it, if it wasn't going to happen...!'
Next to her came a chirping from Everard's pocket, and the stout man pulled a watch out from his coat. It was still chiming. 'Time to go,' he said, though he looked at Wilson and phrased it as a question.
Wilson gave a lopsided smile, and brushed Riley's chin with his finger. 'It's sweet that you're worried, love,' he said. 'But whatever bad happens today, we'll handle it. And if not... you gotta go sometime.'
His kiss might as well have frozen her, as she just stared at him as he turned on his heel and started for the door, the other half-dozen of the Lions going on this op falling into step. Then Riley started, and looked to McLaggen. 'Cormac? You can't - you have to stop him, he'll listen to you...'
McLaggen gave a one-shouldered shrug. 'We've got out of tough scrapes before,' he said, though there was something dark and haunted about his gaze. His gait was determined as he turned to follow Wilson.
Tears were forming in Riley's eyes by now, and she reached out to clutch at Everard's arm. 'Tom? Tom, you have to...'
'I'll take care of them, Jen,' said Tom Everard, gaze earnest, reassuring - and, Gabriel could see, afraid. 'We'll come back. We'll all come back.'
But then he, too, left, along with the other four, and the rest of the half-dozen of the Lions just stood and stared as the contingent crossed the warehouse to slip out the door, the sound of it slamming shut behind them echoing about and filling the room with a rumble like thunder.
Jennifer Riley stood stock-still for several long seconds, staring at the closed door, while everyone else shifted their feet. Then she turned on her heel and stormed back towards the warehouse office, hair wild, and slammed the door shut behind her with equal fervour.
Gabriel stood in the centre of the staring eyes, the muttered confusion and worry, and rubbed his temples. Finally, finally he realised that he felt no pain; that the throbbing in his temples he'd felt in the Slytherin common room hadn't come, that despite everything he'd said, everything he'd told them, everything he'd tried to do, that familiar incapacitating ache hadn't even begun to demonstrate himself.
And that could only be for one reason: There wasn't a thing he could have done to change Nick Wilson's mind. It wasn't even, Gabriel suspected, that Wilson hadn't believed him, had thought that he could wing his way through, though perhaps it was, indeed, a rather natural assumption somewhere in his and McLaggen's thoughts.
But certainly, even if he had believed him, Wilson hadn't cared.
'Cole! Van Roden! Off your arses.'
They lifted their heads blearily from their desks to see Brynmor storming past them, a small contingent of Enforcers behind him. He wore a disconcertingly jaunty smile, but other than exchanging looks, they didn't stop to question or challenge their superior as they grabbed coats and wands.
'What's the situation?' Tanith asked as she fell into step beside Brynmor, disliking how this had become almost second nature by now.
'No situation. No emergency,' said Brynmor, still with a smirk. 'We're just going on a routine patrol. Mister Lestrange is conducting an inspection at Gullsmere this afternoon, and we're to make sure absolutely nothing goes wrong.'
Jacob's brow furrowed as Tanith's gut twisted unpleasantly. I've read that name before...
'Isn't it meant to just be an equipment inspection, sir?' Jacob was saying. 'Nothing especially out of the ordinary, warranting the arrival of half a dozen more Enforcers?'
'Certainly not,' Brynmor agreed as they wound their way down to the Apparition Chamber. 'I expect everything will go entirely to plan. This is an important opportunity for Mister Lestrange to become familiar with our procedures, however, so I would hate for it to be interrupted.'
This was the best opportunity on that itinerary for the Lions to make a counter-strike against Lestrange...
'For all six of us?' Jacob said quizzically.
'Wouldn't you rather stretch your legs?'
I found that schedule in one of the filing cabinets... which wasn't locked. Why wasn't it locked? Why didn't I think about how it was unlocked?
Brynmor was grinning at her as he opened the door into the Chamber. 'Pleasant walk in the woods. Sounds nice, don't you think, Cole?'
Did he know I was going to make those copies?
'Wasn't Mister Lestrange taking the Gullsmere inspection your idea, sir?' said Jacob, squinting at the bigger man.
'It was. Now I want to make sure it all goes well. Line up for mass apparition. I want wands at the ready.' Brynmor nodded curtly, and gave them little to no warning before he swished his wand and sent them hurtling into the swirling mental vortex that was apparition.
It's a trap. It's a trap. It's a -
They appeared at the outskirts of the village at the edge of a firefight.
The Ministry weren't doing so well. She could make out all of two figures crouched behind the corners of solid stone buildings - the populace of Gullsmere had likely locked their doors and decided to hide in cellars, attics, or under tables while the chaos was unleashed. Prone forms in MLE uniforms lay sprawled across the single road that wound its way between the tiny smattering of houses, and very few of them moved.
On the opposite side were figures she recognised. Tom Everard taking cover behind a First War monument, Diana Sawyer crouched over a fallen Percival Anderson and trying to remove the curses that were choking him. Richard Keating somehow on a rooftop, hurling precise curse after precise curse down. Nick Wilson and Cormac McLaggen, front and centre, throwing curses like wildfire at the two Enforcers remaining.
The cold, still body of Rodolphus Lestrange, eyes wide and unseeing, lying in the gutter not ten feet away from them.
Run. Run, you stupid bastards, you've got him, what are you...
Brynmor seemed astonishingly unsurprised as he slid his wand more firmly into his hand, and gave a firm nod right ahead. 'Get them,' he instructed, and as one the reinforcements he'd brought surged forwards, whipping wands out and already throwing curses up into the air. Tanith hesitated for half a heartbeat before she, too, started forward, settling on the heels of Jacob, who was already on the move.
When the Lions spotted them - about the blink of an eye later - they scattered. This was what they'd always done, this was how they'd always survived. When it got hot, they ran. It was the most sensible thing to do, and that they hadn't already pulled out of Gullsmere, that they had bothered to stay to finish off the last two of the Enforcers, was a testimony to something being wrong.
This wasn't a normal operation. It was revenge.
And it was going to get them killed.
For a moment, as she and Jacob headed for round the back of one of the cottages to come up behind them, it looked as if Wilson and McLaggen were going to stand their ground as they whirled to face the three reinforcements coming hurtling down at them. It would have been likely brief and painful, especially with Thanatos Brynmor making his slower, more measured approach to join the battle.
Then the monument that had stood tall and proud in the middle of the village suddenly wasn't stood there any more. It was flying through the air, a giant pillar of rock, pinwheeling around down the road and at the Enforcers. They shouted and yelped, one of them hitting the ground, the other two leaping into the gutters and behind cover to avoid its huge, crushing wave, and in that moment, Wilson and McLaggen took advantage of the situation to run, splitting off in different directions.
Tanith paused for half a heartbeat, peering around the corner of the building she was taking cover behind to watch the road, before breaking into another run. All she needed to do was break into the woodlands in pursuit of the other four and then she could be lost in and amongst the chaos, could claim she was tricked to go in the wrong direction.
She didn't think Brynmor would believe her, but so long as he couldn't prove it -
Then she ran smack into Tom Everard as she went to round the corner. Solidly built as her former fellow prefect was, she bounced, hard, and he too went stumbling, having been running at quite a pace. But this did, mercifully, bring them out of sight from the main road.
'Tom! Hells!' Despite her familiarity, she kept her grip on her wand tight, even as she had it aimed low. 'Was that you with the monument?'
Everard got his footing and his breath, straightening and looking at her like a deer trapped in the headlights. 'I heard this story, once,' he panted, nodding. 'About you and a Death Eater and a car.'
Then he punched her in the face.
Tanith would have liked to say that if any of the Lions had got away, it would have been because she'd let them. They were good - they'd had to be, to have survived for this long, and it wasn't as if they weren't battle-hardened by now - but she had been trained by the best, and had worked for far longer than them to be the best.
But she would have also been lying if she'd pretended the blow took her anything but by surprise, and she dropped like a stone as her vision exploded in front of her eyes. The world spun as she hit the ground, and for a few seconds all she could do was fight for clarity. Her beefy former classmate had the weight behind him to hit like a freight train, and without being able to roll with the blow it had knocked her thoroughly for six.
At least, by the time she got back to her feet, Tom Everard was nowhere in sight and all of the sounds were coming from off into the woodlands. She thought she could hear Brynmor yelling curses, but she didn't know who at, and that was off to her left, on the other side of the village.
Then, on the right, into the woods, she heard Jacob's voice, clear and loud. 'Officer down!'
Even if he was talking about one of Brynmor's lackeys, she still took off at high speed. Tree branches whipped at her face and she went lunging through the undergrowth, sidestepping treacherous roots and leaping over fallen logs, and within seconds she could see the flashes of magic in the air from a fight.
It was Jacob for certain, his wand held with two hands, teeth gritting as a cord of magic snapped and shook through the treeline to connect it to Cormac McLaggen's, both of them vying for control of the magical lock. And, on the ground a few steps behind him, Lackardy lay in the dirt in a slowly-expanding pool of his own blood that seeped from a gash in his upper chest, gasping for breath.
McLaggen saw her, even when she was too far away from the two to start casting, and suddenly jolted his wand upwards. The magical cord went flying into the sky, severing branches as it went and spraying them both with wood and leaves and dirt, and as Jacob staggered with the sudden severance, McLaggen moved. He charged forwards like a rugby player to tackle the smaller man square in the gut and drive him down to the ground.
Jacob was a fine duellist, but Tanith had never before seen him in a fist-fight, and even as she desperately put on another burst of speed McLaggen was straightening up, one arm wrapped around Jacob to keep him pinned helplessly against him, the other pressing his wand against his new hostage's chin.
Tanith skidded to a stop in the undergrowth, crouched low, wand held before her. Jacob's hands were empty, and for a few seconds as he struggled ineffectively against McLaggen's iron grip and McLaggen fought to keep his hostage successfully pinned, all they could hear was Lackardy's laborious breathing.
'It's over, Cole. Let me go!' McLaggen shouted at last, as he dug his wand into the soft skin under Jacob's jaw, and the Auror writhed.
'I don't want to hurt you, Cormac. You know this.' Tanith rose slowly, but her wand didn't move an inch. 'Let him go. And you can go. Apparate away; I won't stop you.'
'I'd really love to believe you,' he snarled, eyes wide with panic and adrenaline, gaze roaming around the undergrowth. 'But I'm having a little trouble trusting you right now.'
'Tanith, don't be crazy.' This was Jacob, his voice strangled from the pin. 'He practically just cut Lackardy in half-'
'He's a Death Eater!' McLaggen roared. 'He's got what he deserved; I saw it, I saw the pictures of what you did to Nick's family...!'
Her blood went cold, at both the recollection and the sheer, vitriolic hate in her old classmate's voice. 'I know. I saw it too, Cormac, but you don't need to punish all of us for it - you've got in your arms one of the good guys, and you do not want to hurt him.'
But despite herself, her words sounded less like a reassurance, an effort to convince him, and more of a threat as Jacob writhed with the wand pressed right against his skull.
'I don't? I thought you were meant to be on our side, Cole -'
'Then for Merlin's sake, McLaggen, get your wand the hell off my partner!'
Then the sound of footsteps tearing through undergrowth came from behind her, back in the direction of the village, and the familiar voice of Mulready with it, shouting, 'Lackardy! Van Roden! Cole!'
McLaggen started, gaze going over her shoulder, but she didn't react, didn't budge an inch, just kept her wand levelled on the small target of his head behind Jacob. But in his panic McLaggen's lips moved to form words, and the tip of his wand under Jacob's chin sparked with the promise of magic to come.
'Stupefy!' Her aim was good. The curse smacked right in between McLaggen's eyes, and he went sprawling into the undergrowth, stiff and still and with his hold on Jacob abandoned.
Tanith ignored him, vaulting over a fallen log to fall to her knees in the dirt next to Lackardy, who was by now almost sobbing in his wheezing gasps for air. The moment she lay her hands on his chest they were covered in blood. She could feel it sinking into her trousers, her coat, and all she could do was wave her wand over the horrendous gash across his chest.
'Not... you...' Lackardy whimpered as his eyes locked on her.
'Yes, me, now don't make me save your life, you vindictive little son of a bitch,' she hissed between gritted teeth, and tried to remember any emergency aid charms she'd been taught in basic training.
Over her shoulder Mulready came to a halt, joining Jacob as he retrieved his wand and moved over the fallen form of Cormac McLaggen, securing his still form with the simple summoning of some magical bindings. 'One more down,' drawled the older Death Eater, sounding impressed. 'That makes two. We'd better send Lackardy off to Saint Mungo's but we should get back to the village after - Mister Brynmor has something planned.'
Nick Wilson and Cormac McLaggen were forced to their knees in the middle of the charitably-named main road that ran through the middle of Gullsmere. By now the survivors of the attack had been picked up or sent off to Saint Mungo's for medical help, and the citizens of the village were only just beginning to dare to peep out of their windows at the sight before them. Nobody had made sure they were unharmed by the day's fighting. That wasn't the priority of the new government.
What had also been sent off was the cold body of Rodolphus Lestrange, killed, according to the reports of the survivors, by Nick Wilson's own Killing Curse, thrown in the opening salvo of the sudden attack by the Lions, come from the woodlands as if from nowhere.
The others had got away. But for the first time, the resistance fighters had left men behind. Wilson, according to Mulready, had stood his ground against Thanatos Brynmor himself, and for his troubles had blood streaming down the side of his face to go with his captivity.
Procedure dictated they be brought back to Canary Wharf for processing before, likely, being shipped off to Azkaban. But Brynmor clearly had something else in mind as he looked up and down the line of MLE officers, and puffed his chest out.
'What you see before you,' he boomed, 'are two ring-leaders of the terrorist organisation known as the Lions of Britain. These dissidents have murdered civilian volunteers, destroyed infrastructure, and stolen civil secrets to send them off into foreign hands. Just today they have brutally assassinated Rodolphus Lestrange, a member of the Dark Lord's inner circle.'
Tanith looked down at the two, on their knees with their hands on their heads, and thought she saw Wilson's lips twitch at the latest accusation. Despite their doomed situation, she saw no fear on his face. Only pride.
'It is only good fortune that we arrived here when we did, to save the remaining Enforcers and civilians, to drive off the attack party, and to apprehend these two dangerous criminals.'
She looked up at Brynmor. He seemed to have no regret about the death of Lestrange. Indeed, despite his posturing, he looked positively pleased with himself.
You let this happen, didn't you. You wanted Lestrange gone, and you've just gone and used the Lions, used me to do it. You knew I was going to take that opportunity of those files after what happened to the Wilsons - and you knew, after what happened, that there was no way they weren't going to come after him.
'We could have them brought back to Canary Wharf for processing. And then shipped off to Azkaban, where both of these disgusting individuals would likely have the Kiss administered to them. But one of them has already slipped away from that fate once.' Brynmor's voice took on a new level of disgust. 'So I remember the events here today a little differently.'
'I remember that we arrived, and that we fought. And that we drove off the bulk of the Lions. But I remember that these two stood their ground. That they fought back. And that, tragically, we were forced to employ the Killing Curse to stop them from being an even greater risk to us and the people we would protect.' Brynmor gave a sneer of a smile. 'Does anyone else remember this?'
Her gut twisted and went cold as there was a rumble of assent from the crowd. Beside her, Jacob scowled and stayed silent. Inexplicably, Wilson and McLaggen exchanged glances and seemed neither surprised, nor distressed.
'Do I have any volunteers for the honour?'
Too many voices chimed up at this, loudest of them being Mulready, begging for the chance to dispense some justice, and Brynmor gave him a nod and he stepped forward. The big man swept his gaze down the line again, and Tanith thought she might choke on air itself as his eyes landed on her.
'Detector Cole, you had the pleasure of apprehending Mister Wilson back in September,' he recalled. 'Only to see satisfaction be plucked from your fingers at his escape from the Dementors of Azkaban. I think it only appropriate that it be you who has this final honour?'
Tanith gaped at him. 'Sir, I couldn't -'
He was in her face in an instant, leering down at her, and when he spoke his voice was nothing more than a hiss which only she could hear. 'You've had a good day, Cole. You've done well. Continue to do well.' If anything, his whisper dropped a decibel. 'I know you thought you were clever, finding those files. And I know it was justice to get rid of Lestrange. Consider it payback that I will forgive this transgression, rather than visiting it down upon you, upon your father, your mother, your sister, and that whelp of hers.'
Anger stabbed in her, and for a moment her wand twitched towards Brynmor at the threat towards her family, her niece, her eyes flashing as they locked onto his. But all she saw there was pitiless disgust, and rational thought screamed at her to not move, screamed at her that she would gain nothing.
When Brynmor spoke again, his voice was more level. 'So long as you enact justice here, now.'
This is it. You used me to achieve your goals. Played me right down the line. And this is the punishment I get for betraying you, even though you wanted me to. Because you couldn't possibly let this one slip by without punishing me one more time.
'Come on, Cole.' This was Wilson, and his voice was astonishingly light and casual. 'You've got more balls than the rest of these fascists put together. I might as well go down to you.'
Her feet moved her out to the front of the line without her bidding them to, working on some survival instinct she had left ignored for too long, and Brynmor gave a small noise of gruff satisfaction as she went to stand in front of Wilson, even as Mulready placed himself before McLaggen.
Nick Wilson's eyes were cold and level, and she could see nothing in them she'd deem as familiar. Even though she'd known him for eight years, known him since he was a little snot of a Gryffindor pre-teen, a bully and a rival to her friends. Gone was that sneering superiority which she'd fancied had always hung about him - but also gone was the mirth and warmth she'd begrudgingly acknowledged he held towards, and around his friends.
Though she would be deceiving herself if she tried to claim the war, and the loss of his family, had already killed him. Being dead inside wasn't the same as being actually dead. She'd been there herself and emerged the other side; death, on the other hand, was irreversible.
'If you ever see Jen,' said Nick, astonishingly amiable, 'and I really hope you don't - no offence, Cole - tell her... I'm sorry.'
She didn't answer, didn't trust her voice, and just lifted her wand to be levelled directly at his face. He gave a lopsided smile that looked a lot more genuine, and glanced sideways at Cormac McLaggen, who met his gaze.
'Once more into the breach, huh, Cormac?' he said cheerfully to his best friend.
'You know me. 'til the end, mate,' was the calm reply.
You have to mean it to cast it. That was what Alastor Moody's impersonator had told her in her fifth year. You can't be empty. You have to be full of passion, emotion, or it'll just be like a tickle. That's why they don't use it all the time - it's not easy.
But right then it had to be easy, or Nick Wilson would die anyway, die by someone else's hands, and she would suffer. Her loved ones would suffer.
Mum. Dad. Evadne. Leah. Little Leah. She's an innocent, and Brynmor will rain down hell on her, her mother, her father, all because of me...
Tanith lifted her wand and thought of her niece as she concentrated, and her lips moved to form the words she'd hoped she would never utter.