Chapter 32: The Moving Finger Writes
The memorial was a sorry and pathetic affair, because if it was anything too obvious it would have been found and desecrated, or at least used to track them down. They didn’t have a body, or remains, or even any personal effects to use to show their closeness to the deceased. The bodies had been burnt, as had everything with them, in a full and public ghoulish display in the Ministry Hall - after they’d been left for the masses to stare at the corpses for a full day.
The Department of Magical Law Enforcement wasn’t taking any risks after Tobias Grey’s resurrection with the possibility someone would proclaim these two members of the Lions of Britain were just as not-dead as he’d been. The public had been granted every opportunity to examine the bodies - and then every opportunity to watch them be barbarically destroyed.
Even pictures had been impossible to acquire, and so all they had been able to do was to find two decently sized rocks, inexpertly use their magic to carve the names of the fallen into them, and then set them into ground in a small rise in the middle of a patch of woodland only Jennifer Riley knew the location of.
It was less about leaving a place where they could be remembered, and more about permitting the surviving Lions the chance to take a moment to remember their fallen.
Tom Everard had looked like he was going to step up first when they were gathered, but then Jennifer Riley had got to her feet and moved through the small crowd to stand at the front. She looked paler than ever, her long brown hair whipping around her in the breeze, the bags under her eyes dark and heavy, but she stood as straight and tall and defiant as ever.
And she spoke in a loud, clear, crisp voice which didn’t waver once as she talked about them. Talked about them as her friends, talked about the first time they’d met. Talked about their growth from children into young men, proud and strong and capable, brave and prepared to sacrifice all they had for the good of the country, for the battle against evil.
And sacrifice they had. A sacrifice that had to be remembered, and honoured.
Above all, it had to be honoured by the fight continuing. Because the last thing Nick and Cormac would have wanted, she said, was for them to give up. Their cause was not done, and nothing would be a truer disrespect of their friends’ sacrifice than to abandon the cause for which they had died.
There had been a bit more rumbling, a few more people voicing their memories of their friends, the key moments in their lives. Since most of the Lions were Gryffindor classmates there were plenty, and even those who hadn’t been had been close enough to have something to say.
Gabriel and Cal remained judiciously silent. Gabriel couldn’t guess what Cal would have to say for himself - certainly he was being diplomatic by being quiet - but Gabriel knew he himself would have nothing to bring to the ceremony which would go down well.
I remember this one time when the two of them beat me up in the school corridor because they were pissed Grey was going out with MacKenzie.
But if the Lions wanted to remember them as heroes - and perhaps they were, Gabriel didn’t know what the going exchange rate was between ‘acts of petty bullying’ and ‘acts of heroic sacrifice’ - then he wouldn’t stand in their way. It didn’t matter to him.
All that mattered was that they kept going afterwards.
That she kept going.
Most of the Lions left immediately afterwards, Apparating off back to their warehouse base which remained mercifully still secure. Cal left with them, mumbling something about Tom trying to claw his way to the centre-stage, but Gabriel lingered, hanging at the outskirts. He stayed when Diana and Katie spoke with Jen quietly before the memorial stones. He stayed when the two pulled away, side-eyeing him before they left.
And in the gathering dusk he padded across the grass to stand at her side.
‘You can’t give me just a moment?’
Gabriel flinched at her words, voice catching in his throat. ‘I - I’m sorry,’ he stammered. ‘You once intruded to make sure I was all right. I thought... I’m sorry.’
He turned away, went to pull his wand from his pocket, but he hadn’t got more than a few feet before she spoke again, her voice small and wavering and panicked. ‘Please, Doyle - wait. Don’t go. Please.’
When he looked back she’d turned away from the stone, towards him - and all of a sudden threw herself into his arms as she burst into tears. He instinctively wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close, and remembered that she’d done this for him, too.
‘It’ll be all right,’ he murmured, knowing it wouldn’t be, but he remembered that those words had helped him. Or, it hadn’t been the words - it had been her, her closeness, her support. Just having someone there to care.
Her shoulders shook as she sobbed, and for long seconds there was nothing coherent he was going to get out of her in response as he whispered nonsense reassurance into her hair. He held her close, against the grief and the cold, until she had cried herself out.
When she spoke again, her voice was raw. ‘The man you grieved for came back.’
‘He’s not going to.’
‘I know. I’m sorry.’
It seemed so meaningless and yet so necessary - but, inexplicably, her shoulders began to shake again. ‘You tried to stop him,’ she gasped. ‘And he wouldn’t listen, because I’d been so stupid, so proud, too afraid to tell the others just how right you’ve been, to tell the others how much I’ve come to... to... rely on you...’
Aghast, he pulled back, hands coming up to cup her face. Her tears ran over his fingers, and in that moment he’d have given anything to have pulled them away from her forever. ‘This is not your fault,’ he said, voice coarse in its earnestness. ‘They did this, not you. They killed them both, and you know it. And if anyone is at fault for Cormac and Nick not listening to me, it is Cormac and Nick.’
Criticising them for their own death seemed churlish, but he would be damned if he was going to let her blame herself.
Jen sniffed. ‘What happened?’ she asked in a quiet voice. ‘At the end?’
‘Oh, no. I’m not going to tell you so you can torture yourself...’
‘Were they brave? Were they afraid?’
He asked his killer to tell you he was sorry. But I’ll be damned if I’m doing that to you or Tanith. ‘They knew the risk - the likelihood - of their deaths when they left for the mission,’ Gabriel said instead, his gaze seeking hers ardently. ‘They knew that they would have to buy retribution against Rodolphus Lestrange with their lives, and they accepted that price.’
She looked away, down at Nick Wilson’s memorial stone. ‘I asked him to stay, and he wouldn’t,’ she whispered. ‘I asked him to. I didn’t ask anything of him before that - nothing that I didn’t ask of the others.’ She turned from his grasp, though he kept his hand at her back, and she didn’t shrug it off. ‘How am I supposed to continue to lead them when they know the most important order I ever gave was ignored?’
‘They’ll follow you. Because they believe in you. They’ve been hurt, and they’ve been scared, but you’ve led us all so far, and you have yet to take us down the wrong path. These people have faith in you, Jen.’
It was the first time he’d called her by her first name, and she did start a little, watching him out of the corner of her eye. ‘How can they have faith in me, or in my orders,’ she asked in a shaking voice, ‘when Nick didn’t have enough faith in me to stay when I asked?’
‘Because they’re not all Nick.’ Gabriel turned to face her, fervour growing. ‘And they’re not me, either, so I can’t speak for them. But I can speak for myself. And I would follow you to the ends of the Earth if you ordered me to - and if you asked me to stay, for anything, for the cause or just for you, then Fiendfyre couldn’t drive me away.’
She was watching him now, eyes a little wide, and he gave a self-conscious cough to clear his throat, pulling his arm away to rub the back of his neck. ‘I mean... that’s just me. I’m still pretty sure the others will follow you.’
There was a long pause before Jen drew a deep, calming breath. ‘I’m not sure I can lead them right now.’
‘Nobody expects you to be fine right away. Tom’s looking after them. Cal’s looking after Tom. The first one should make you feel better. The last one makes me feel better.’
She did smile, a little. ‘Tom’s a good guy.’
‘But when Nick decided he didn’t want to be a little kid any more, that war was serious business, suddenly Tom found himself lagging even further behind in the leadership hierarchy than he did before, didn’t he? I know he was always second fiddle to you. I know he was third choice for Head Boy in his year, and when the only person you’re beating is Craig fucking Sharpe, that’s got to be a serious sting. I know Tom’s a good organiser and a good lieutenant but he’s not going to be the leader. And that means you can trust him to hold down the fort while you pick yourself together, and that means I can trust Cal to stop Tom from being a pompous windbag everywhere. I taught Cal how to snark, you see.’
The laugh which escaped her lips was small and sounded guilty, and she looked down a minute before seeking his gaze, eyes shining. ‘When did it stop being “Everard” and “Wilson” - said with a particular sneer, I might add - and become “Tom” and “Nick”?’ She hesitated, whetting her lips nervously. ‘And... “Jen”?’
‘That’s your name, isn’t it?’ He looked stricken, briefly. ‘I’ve not been getting it wrong all this time, have I? Oh, Merlin, you’re Katie, aren’t you?’ This time she laughed properly, and the sound lightened the tension in his gut which had long-predated Nick Wilson’s death. He shrugged. ‘I think it’s time I stopped being the match commentator and actually got on the pitch.’
‘I think it’s time I properly subbed you in,’ said Jen, remorse clinging to her words. ‘I just wish it hadn’t taken death for either one of us to reach this conclusion.’
‘It’s not death that motivates me,’ said Gabriel. ‘See, the team captain’s this nice girl. Very sensible, very smart. Puts herself down a lot. Doesn’t see how inspiring she is, doesn’t see how much she’s achieved, doesn’t see how integral she is to the entire match. Doesn’t see that the season can’t be won without her. And I figure I can make the game a bit easier for her.’
She nodded, the smile returning, before she cast a wistful glance over her shoulder. ‘I’d like you to, truly,’ Jen agreed. ‘But I think, right now, we need to make it back to the locker room... and start to patch up the team so we can decide our next move.’
‘Hey, you’re okay? You’re a bit late.’ David swung the door open to his flat with an expression of concern, but beckoned her in anyway. The tidy, stylishly decorated - or, at least, what Tanith thought was stylish by Muggle standards, understated and not garish was good enough for her - flat looked like it had been tidied, and a sting of guilt hit her gut as she slumped in.
‘It was a... long day,’ she said, fighting a frown. ‘What’s that smell?’
‘A good one, I hope.’ He waved a hand towards the comfy, overstuffed sofas, where a couple of white plastic bags sat on the coffee table. ‘I thought that tonight I would treat you with a bit of - what do you call us? “Muggle” cuisine.’
‘You cooked?’ More guilt. She couldn’t be less hungry if she tried, but she hung up her coat anyway and followed him to the chairs.
‘Oh, hell no!’ He laughed. ‘You had my cooking, remember?’
‘I thought it tasted... fine,’ she said diplomatically.
‘That’s because it was oven-cooked pizza. The only expertise that takes is not burning it. No, this is something better. Sit down.’
He pressed her gently onto the sofa, and she was so bone weary she didn’t resist, closing her eyes for a moment as the ache in her limbs from the day’s strife and fighting began to fade away. It would come back, she knew, once she was gone and once she was working again, surrounded by Death Eaters, again. But the respite from being here, with David, and the fact that it made her feel like a normal nineteen year-old was why she kept coming back.
He sat next to her and pulled an aluminium container out of the bag. ‘Chinese takeaway. From just round the corner. I bet you never had this before.’
The expression on his face was that of a man so pleased with himself that her guilt finally intensified beyond bearing. She winced. ‘Are you going to hate me if I say that I’m not especially hungry tonight?’
He frowned - though it was the frown of a kicked puppy’s disappointment rather than anger. ‘Did you already eat?’
‘No...’ Tanith sat up, scrubbing her face with her hands. ‘It was just a... a hell of a day.’
Then she felt his hands on her shoulder, and the next thing she knew he’d scooted next to her. ‘You know you can - holy hell, you are tense!’ David exclaimed. ‘It’s like you’re been chiseled from stone today! When was the last time you relaxed?’
Before I killed Nick Wilson. Before his family were tortured and murdered. Before I thought Tobias was dead. Before I feared for my life and the lives of my family. Before the occupation. Before I thought I was trying to save Britain. Before I thought Cal might kill Tobias. Before I worried about NEWTs and thought Tobias would get himself killed as an Enforcer. Before Annie MacKenzie was murdered. Before I was too fucked up and childish to cope with petty jealousy.
A night, a year and a half ago, in Slytherin common room when she’d drifted off to sleep with Transfiguration homework and had woken up to find herself in the dark with her best friend smiling at her like she was something special. That had been the last day she’d managed to go a whole hour without feeling tense and miserable.
‘A long... long time,’ she said instead, albeit in a slightly garbled voice as David went to work at her knotted muscles.
‘What’s happened?’ he murmured, close and warm. ‘You usually come here tired, you don’t usually come here looking like hell. Something’s different.’
And here I thought I was a pretty good liar. ‘There was... I got roped into a mission today. Coming to reinforce one of our teams being attacked by a group of freedom fighters.’
‘Good guys?’ He’d kept up with a lot of what she’d told him, even if it had been a garbled explanation where she’d had to go back and elaborate on phrases she’d taken for granted, and where he’d picked up on some complex ideas far quicker than she would have guessed.
Even if he couldn’t possibly understand it, he’d picked up on the notion of the oppression and judgement faced by those with a non-magical heritage fast. She’d supposed that even Muggles had things which they despised and judged other Muggles for. She didn’t know if it was reassuring that all humans were so messed up - that this wasn’t some evil exclusive to wizards - or if that was a depressing universal truth.
She began to explain, recounting the events of the day, and David sat quietly and listened. Even when her voice faltered he just let his hand slide down her arm and clasped her hand, she held his tight, like a life-line, like a source of strength to get through this even though she didn’t especially want to, didn’t want to give the events of the day strength through being put into words.
But it became even harder when she got to the stand-off with McLaggen.
‘...Cormac was panicking, and I could see Lackardy bleeding out on the ground, and I knew Cormac had done that. He knew I’d helped the Lions before, but I was afraid he was going to freak out entirely and hurt Jacob just to make sure he could get away. And then I was reinforced, and Cormac had to have realised he probably wasn’t going to get away, and he started to cast something...’
She squeezed her eyes shut, haunted not by the memory of Stunning Cormac McLaggen so he could be captured, but by the implications of that action. ‘So I incapacitated him. To save Jacob. Even to save, of all people, Lackardy, who almost died, probably would have died if I hadn’t got to him when I did, the Healers said...’
Tanith almost paused to explain what a Healer was, but realised the name itself was self-explanatory, and instead took advantage of the gap to fight to compose herself. ‘I don’t know why I gave a shit about saving Lackardy, the little dirtbag’s done... horrible things...’
‘But you saved your partner,’ said David quietly. ‘If this guy was panicking, and he’d shown he was already prepared to use lethal force, then who knows what he might have done to try to get away.’
‘I wish he’d listened to me. I’d have let him go, all he’d have needed to do was let Jacob go and then do something to knock us flying so we could claim he’d beaten us, we wouldn’t have even fought back... but he didn’t.’ She took a deep breath. ‘And then he and the other guy we took prisoner - Nick Wilson - were executed. I’d known both of them at school, I’d known them since they were kids...’
David’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Executed? Holy hell. So much for due process?’
‘Brynmor said the official story is that they’d been killed in the fight. But it’s not as if anyone would have really complained if he had marched them into the middle of a crowded wizarding street and murdered them there and then. There aren’t many limits on what the law is technically allowed to do, and most of these technical limits get ignored in practice anyway.’
He squeezed her hand. ‘I - I’m sorry...’
‘There’s more.’ She looked up, eyes shining, and wasn’t even sure why she was still talking. She could have left it there - could have let him assume that she was just traumatised by the part she’d played in Cormac McLaggen’s arrest and the deaths of people she’d known for years.
And once, perhaps, she would have. But now the words had started, they wouldn’t stop, and she didn’t want them to - she wanted them out, not bottled up inside, adding to the chest of secrets and pains she’d locked up and bolted shut and wrapped chains around over over, even though it was fit to burst.
‘I killed him. Wilson. Brynmor made me, said it was my right, and made it clear that if I didn’t he’d punish my family. And if I didn’t, someone else would have done it anyway. And he only did it to punish me, to make me suffer for rebelling against him...’
This was the part where she would have normally stopped, normally taken a deep breath and fought to compose herself and carried on.
But then David had wrapped his arm around her shoulder and pulled her to him, and the spell broke. The carefully constructed walls of self-control wavered, and she wasn’t sorry to see them go as a sob came choking past her lips.
She didn’t fight it. She didn’t hold it back until she could go to pieces safely alone, out of sight, where nobody could see her pain. She let herself be held, closely and firmly and warmly, burying her face in David’s shoulder, and let herself cry.
No tricks. No self-control or self-denial. And the world didn’t shatter to a thousand pieces because she let herself be vulnerable, and her strength didn’t fade to make her unable to take up the fight again when she was done, and she wasn’t left hating herself for a display of weakness.
It was not, despite the circumstances, such an unpleasant novelty as all that: to throw her grief and her weakness and her vulnerability into the hands of someone, and for them to hold it gently and soothe the pain.