Chapter 34 : The More Things Change
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'Two. You dragged me down here for two.' Tanith raised an indolent eyebrow across the processing desk at the scruffily-dressed wizard sat opposite her.
Scabior gave a toothy grin that made her want to hit him with a Scourgify. 'Two's pretty good pickings these days, love. It's not like there are many left out there.'
'I would have thought that the ones who'd lasted this long would have evolved to be able to outwit you.' Tanith waved a hand at the two Enforcers by the door. 'Bring them in.'
The Muggle-borns were shivering when they were dragged in, heads stooped. One's nose was broken, the other limped. Both had swelling and bruising around the face, and one's arm was wrapped around his chest as if to put pressure on painful injuries.
'Had wands on 'em and everything,' said Scabior, reaching into his ridiculous coat to pull them both out.
Tanith's eyes narrowed as she noted the injuries, and she got to her feet. 'Did you witness them casting any magic?'
'Well... no.' Scabior shifted his weight. 'They were in a Muggle shopping centre, you see...'
'We've left the wizarding world,' one exclaimed, lifting his head.
'Oi! Shut it!'
Tanith rounded on Scabior as he stood, and ignored the difference in height as best she could. 'You don't give the orders in my processing office. Not if you want to see a lick of the bounty.'
'If I want...?' Scabior's expression darkened. 'Don't you try to threaten me, sweetheart. I've been doing this a while. I know my rights here. I brought in a couple of Mudbloods. I get paid for a couple of Mudbloods. End of, thank you, good night, an' I'll be on my merry.'
'You'll be "on your merry" when I'm satisfied, and you'll only get paid when I'm satisfied.' Her voice was low, flat. 'Or have you forgotten you're not top dog any more since that sterling recommendation of your conduct at Malfoy Manor?'
His lip curled. 'I brought in Potter. It's not my fault that they were too stupid -'
'Excuse me.' She gave a smile which wouldn't melt butter. 'Were you just about to describe Ms Lestrange and the Malfoy family as "stupid", Scabior?'
Not that I care what you think. I'd pick "evil" over "stupid", myself. But anything to wipe that smug snake's smile off your lips.
She remembered Scabior from school, just about. She'd only been in her second year when he'd left, but he'd been in Slytherin House, a tall, gangly youth with a predisposition towards petty vindictiveness the like of which she'd sneered at back then.
Of course, she'd sneered because she liked her petty vindictiveness with more style, but even in her history she was less proud of, he had been exactly the sort of scum she thought made good people look bad.
Now he was exactly the sort of scum she thought made bad people look pathetic.
Scabior straightened, brow furrowing. 'No. I weren't going to say nothing.'
'That's what I thought.' Tanith turned back to the two Muggle-born men. 'If you two have left the wizarding world,' she said levelly, 'then why did you have your wands?'
The one with a broken nose glanced at the other, who rolled his eyes. '...In case something happened, believe it or not. Like us being attacked in the car park by this sodding lunatic.'
'That is unfortunate,' she was forced to agree. 'If you didn't have the wands on you, I'd have had to let you go, according to the definition of magical theft. But I must ask - if you have been so well-behaved, staying out of way of the wizarding world and going on your Muggle way, how did Mister Scabior find you?'
They shrugged. 'I don't know. I really don't.'
'Here, is all this necessary? Last few times I've just been able to bring them in and get paid,' Scabior complained.
'Then this is just your unlucky day that you met a stickler for the rules.' She turned to him. 'How did you get a lead on them?'
He grinned toothily. 'Got a list, don't we. Addresses of every Mudblood what ever attended Hogwarts.'
Her gut twisted unpleasantly. 'And you have been trawling the houses of these Muggles in search of Muggle-borns who have not even been casting magic? Who have accepted they have no place in our world and have left it well alone?'
Scabior frowned. 'Here - they're still Mudbloods, they're still -'
'I don't have time for this.' Tanith threw her hands in the air and crossed behind the desk. 'Their wands will remain confiscated.' She nodded to the two Enforcers who'd dragged the prisoners in. 'They can be escorted off the premises and then let go.'
'What?' Scabior exploded.
A shadow fell in the doorway to the stairs leading back into the belly of Canary Wharf. Tall and imposing, it was impossible to not recognise the burly form of Thanatos Brynmor. But although he'd clearly heard it all, although his eyes were locked on hers, he clasped his hands behind his back and said nothing.
Tanith drew a shaky breath and focused her gaze on Scabior. 'Or perhaps you can explain to Headmaster Snape exactly from where you received this confidential information about former Hogwarts students?'
That did stop Scavior, but only briefly, and he flapped his hands indignantly. 'What - I don't - who cares? They're only Mudbloods!'
'I care,' Tanith growled. 'Now you can get out of here, or I can arrest you for theft of confidential information.'
And Brynmor stood there, and watched, and said nothing.
It probably wouldn't stick, and they all knew it. But it would bring down the ire of anyone who cared about Scabior having got his hands on sensitive information, and that was more trouble than she suspected was worth to him, considering how perilously close to the wind he had been sailing after rumours of the Malfoy Manor disaster. For that, too, she gambled he wouldn't question her release of the two Muggle-borns. The law was on her side, but neither the letter nor the spirit of the law had been the highest authority in magical justice in Britain for a long time.
But he didn't argue it. And the two Muggle-borns were let go, and she prayed that they'd been telling the truth in how they'd been doing nothing more with their time than trying to go back to their old lives, and hanging on to their wands as mementos and as precautions. It made sense, after all. Not everyone was going to love the wizarding world enough to suffer and die to stay in it.
Only when Scabior had left did Brynmor approach. 'You handled that one... interestingly, Cole,' was all he said by surly greeting.
Does he eavesdrop on everything I do these days?
She grimaced. 'The law's on my side, sir.'
He cocked his head. 'Is it?'
'If they're not casting magic, then they've not stolen magic from wizards, and then they're not thieves. Anyone can carry around a wand. Besides - isn't it good that they're getting the message and leaving us for their own world?' She forced herself to sound like she believed the idiocy. 'They return to their Muggle lives and they don't cause problems for us. It allows us to stop chasing every idiot Muggle and means we can focus on the real threats. We have better things to do with Ministry personnel and resources.'
Brynmor gave a dark smile she thought by now indicated approval. 'We do have better things to do with our time, yes. I don't know if Scabior does.'
'If Scabior is allowed to keep on roaming the streets hunting down every Muggle-born thief, do you really think he's going to keep on doing it discreetly if he's walking into non-magical society? He doesn't know what "discreet" even bloody means,' she scoffed. 'You let him continue running his band of Snatchers, and he's going to need a whole team of Obliviators following him around to undo his damage. Obliviators who also have better things to do.'
'You're saying that the bubble's burst on the Mudblood bounties for the Snatchers.' He folded his arms across his chest.
'Numbers are way down. I'll be sending a missive to Hogwarts to see if Headmaster Snape wishes to look into any possible stolen documents, but if Scabior's stooping to such levels, it sounds like he knows the game's up. The age of random thugs roaming the countryside chasing petty criminals has come and it's gone, sir. We're entering a new era of peace.'
Brynmor never looked convinced when she acted like she agreed with the Ministry propaganda, but he seemed to approve of her making the effort nevertheless. His lips gave a twitch of a smile. 'And in this new era there's no place for Scabior?'
'I personally think we'd have to be looking at the end of the world before there'd be a place for Scabior. And even then I'd only say that so the grimy little bastard can die with me.' Tanith suppressed a shudder.
Brynmor gave a dark scoff of a laugh. Perhaps that was why he had tolerated her all this time, she wondered. Perhaps she amused him. 'I'll pass your thoughts on to Mister Yaxley,' he said, shaking his head. 'We'll go over the numbers. If the Snatchers are just going to cause more incidents needing covering up than they are going to bring in criminals, you might be right about it being time to lift the bounty.'
That was one thing she respected about Brynmor. Thuggish and brutal and petty though he could be, he did actually seem to care about the smooth running of the MLE, and the smooth running of the government. It made him an unusual exception amongst the Death Eaters who had found gainful employment in the modern world of 'Thicknesse's' Ministry. So many of them were still inclined towards violence for whatever purpose suited their fancy.
'You were on-shift for the announcement,' he continued, and she looked up at him warily. 'Mister Lestrange - tragic though his death was - has been replaced. Or, at least, someone's in his office and that someone will be acting as my second-in-command.'
Second-in-command. Not co-director. You finally got yourself a toady who'll do what you want, Brynmor? You finally proved yourself to be the top dog you're obsessed with being?
She feigned casual interest, instead of disgusted curiosity. 'Indeed, sir? Who's joining the team?'
'A friend of yours. Done you a favour in the past. But don't expect it to get you anywhere. You know him well.' Brynmor gave a mocking wink, before he turned to go. 'And his daughter.'
Tanith straightened with surprise. 'Bacchus Drake?'
'The one and only,' said Brynmor, and carried on his way down the corridor.
She sighed as he left, running a hand through her hair. Bacchus Drake was petty but he didn't have the stomach for excessive violence. On the one hand, he might be a man to put the brakes on Brynmor, be inclined to look for alternatives to his thuggishness.
On the other, he'd probably be too wet to do anything, and now Brynmor could do whatever he wanted in the DDD with another notable name behind him to blindly back whatever he did.
'The more things change,' Tanith sighed as she headed up the stairs, 'the more they stay the same.'
'I didn't think I'd like seeing here again,' Jen muttered, ducking under a tree branch as they plodded their way through the thick woodland and winding paths of the Forbidden Forest. 'But these days anything familiar's awfully welcome.'
'Is it the forest that's familiar,' Katie wondered aloud, 'or the threat of imminent death?'
'We'll be all right,' said Cal. 'Most of the worst of the Forest has been driven deeper into the woods by the Death Eaters at Hogwarts. It's not a good idea for them to go too near the school.'
'But it is a good idea for us to go near the school?' said Katie. 'And if so, why are the centaurs still out there?'
'We're not that near; we haven't even seen the school.' Jen sounded a little wistful.
'And the centaurs haven't moved,' said Gabriel from the front, glancing up from the scribbled map, 'because it will take more than Death Eaters to move them.'
Katie paused. 'Do I want to know what would?'
Gabriel frowned into the darkness ahead. 'The stars.'
'Are we being metaphorical? Or are we actually talking about falling stars? Because I didn't sign up for that.'
'It's all right, Katie,' said Jen. 'Next time we're dishing out ops, you get to go on the one which is a nice meal out in London.'
Gabriel snorted, and couldn't help but share a fond, conspiratorial smirk with Jen as Katie nodded. 'That's more like it. But why am I here again? Not saying it's not important.'
'Because if things go horribly wrong, you're good at communication and protection spells to keep us safe until we can get out of here, or send word for reinforcements,' Jen reeled off.
'Tom's good at them too.'
'Then next time Tom can come with us and you can have acting command. Or permanent command, if I don't come back.'
'Being here so I dodge that responsibility might sound fantastic,' said Katie, 'but I've got "sidekick" written all over me. If you die, then I've definitely been trampled by a centaur.'
'We won't get trampled by centaurs.' Gabriel tried to make himself sound convincing. For some reason the Lions had assumed he was the going expert on centaurs, and everyone had been so enthused about the idea of doing something productive which didn't include risking life and limb that he hadn't wanted to disillusion them. 'I know what I'm doing.'
Of course, he also knew that it was Katie's wont to make jokes like this to ease the tension, and while she chose to do it with mock-bellyaching that highlighted the very real threats they were surrounded by, Gabriel had to admit he preferred it to the tense silence which had occupied missions under Wilson's leadership.
'Besides,' said Cal, 'centaurs won't trample you. They'll shoot you.'
Helping or hurting, Brynmor?
'Hold up.' Gabriel was saved from cutting this latest conversation off by the sight of a glimmer of moonlight on water ahead, and lifted a hand. 'I think we're at the pool.'
Cautiously the four of them advanced, moving through the gloomy undergrowth to enter the small clearing and approach the edge of the water. The woodlands around remained dark and foreboding, the occasional creaking of trees audible but with no signs of life.
'Is this the place?' For some reason Jen was whispering.
'I don't know,' Gabriel admitted, forcing himself to speak quietly. 'It looks like it.'
'If this is so sacred,' Katie said, 'are they going to just kill us for being here?'
'No,' he said, and hoped he was right. 'Not so long as you're with me. Let me take a look at the pool. Cal, watch the perimeter.'
He ignored the hushed complaints of Katie as he padded up to where the water lapped gently against the pebbles and rocks. The moonlight streamed down through the clearing in the trees to make the surface look like shimmering silver, and he was cautious to not break the illusion as he knelt down beside it.
He'd read about this. A sacred meeting place of the centaurs, the best place to seek them out while they roamed the woodlands. A place to see the will of the stars reflected and read, the centaurs even more adept than he could probably ever hope to be at reading the future.
Is it the stars that talk to me? Gabriel wondered, leaning across the pool. Or something else?
But when his reflection in the water caught his eye, he had to pause and look properly. Because it didn't look right; it distorted, twirled, and then his awareness of everything around him rushed away. The cool night breeze. The whisperings of the others nearby. The creakings of the trees of the Forbidden Forest.
He knew this sensation - the same overwhelming buffeting sense that had accompanied every one of his visions, before he'd learnt how to ride the wave. And then he wasn't in the clearing in the woods at all - he was at a graveyard in Surrey holding Jen Riley as she sobbed, he was on a broomstick high above the Hogwarts Quidditch pitch, he was in a dark Muggle home being murdered.
He was surrounded by trees and being shouted at by Tobias. He was watching his best friends murder one another.
No - no, that's not what happened, I changed it, I saved Tanith and this didn't happen -
He was watching their mission to intercept the potions shipment from Russia, he was watching Nick Wilson get executed, he was standing in the middle of the Canary Wharf lobby -
Then reality came rushing back to him, and with a gasp Gabriel fell away, collapsing on his back at the water's edge and fighting to get his breath back. But with air came sound, and the sounds of shouting voices, including Cal desperately bellowing protective charms.
How long had he been out? Centaurs had come, four of them pelting out of the undergrowth to surround the other three, and as Gabriel rolled onto his front he saw an arrow sear through the air only to be knocked aside by a particularly adept swish of the wand by Jen.
He fought to a kneeling position, the best he could do, and lifted his hands. 'Stop! Stop!'
They couldn't have seen him before, so suddenly did they come to a halt, and the biggest wheeled around to abruptly give Gabriel a perfect view of the business end of a bow and arrow. 'You have disturbed the -'
Then the centaur stopped, and frowned at the water's edge. 'Who are you?'
'Leave them alone,' Gabriel gasped, getting to his feet. 'They're here with me. And I'm supposed to be here.' He didn't know what the centaurs had expected to happen at the pool, or what was so different now, but he'd got their attention and that was enough.
'The stars brought you here?'
Yeah. What the hell ever. If it'll stop you from pointing arrows at them, the stars brought me here. Gabriel nodded firmly. 'They did. I need to speak with you. Or, at least, your leaders.'
The centaur looked suspicious. 'You are a human.'
'I'm a seer. I know how to read the stars. They give me their will, the motion of the planets. You know I didn't have a choice but to be here.'
He was stepping on dangerous ground, he knew. He'd never agreed with Firenze's attitude to their divination, and the professor was one of the more liberal centaurs. But their territorialism had increased beyond what Gabriel had expected, and he was playing with an empty deck.
He'd need to bluff if they were to make it through this alive.
'You came with others.'
'The Forbidden Forest is not a safe place,' Gabriel pointed out. 'Can you take me to your herd so we can talk properly?'
'I cannot.' The centaur looked at the others, who were backing off from the three humans. None of them lowered their bows or their wands. 'But I can send them a message that you would meet with them.'
'Thank you. That will be more than enough.'
'On the new moon. Return here.'
Gabriel glanced upwards. The moon was big and fat in the sky. About two weeks. He nodded to the centaurs. 'I shall.'
'Bring others if you must. But do not think to trespass before then. And if you attempt anything, attempt to bring harm upon us, then you shall be most sorely punished.'
He lifted his hands. 'I understand. We'll leave, right away.'
'You had best,' said the centaur, and waved a hand at his comrades, who all began to back off. 'We shall be watching.'
Then they left in a thunder of hooves, turning tail to disappear into the gloom of the nearby woodlands, and within a matter of heartbeats all was exactly as it had been when they had first arrived - dark, still, and quiet, though Gabriel couldn't help but glance into the undergrowth to see if he could catch a glimpse of their reception committee.
Then again, if they're trying to hide, I probably couldn't ever dream of spotting them.
Katie was the first one to speak as the foursome looked about, struck dumb by the encounter and cautious of their environment. 'Next time,' she said, 'you can ask Tom to come along.'
'Next time it might be best if I come alone,' said Gabriel grimly, going to join them.
'We can discuss that,' said Jen, lifting her wand, 'when we're back. Which I suggest we do right now. I don't want to give them any reason to drive us off, or any reason for them to have an even less warm welcome when we come back.'
He noted the 'we' but didn't argue with it, simply lifted his wand and put his hand on Jen's forearm so she could control the mass joint apparition back to the warehouse. Within a blink of an eye they were in the quiet alleyway outside, and they made their way gingerly back in.
It was late, after midnight, and most of the Lions had gone to bed. This wasn't the first time someone had gone on a mission at inhospitable hours, and sleeping through concern over fellows was a lesson one picked up quickly when a good night's sleep could make the difference between life and death in a fight.
Katie slumped off to find her sleeping bag almost immediately, an Cal didn't linger long, but even without consciously thinking about it, Gabriel and Jen crossed the warehouse for the office, which had become both Jen's command centre and her bedroom. It wasn't that the leader of the Lions had been granted any perks consciously, but after enough long hours pulled, it had just proven easier for her to put her bed roll and sleeping bag in the corner.
'There's no way in hell you're going back on your own,' Jen said the moment she'd closed the door behind them.
'I'm a seer. You're not. They probably won't hurt me. They certainly will have less compunctions about hurting you,' said Gabriel, watching her as she crossed the room to her desk and began rearranging papers.
'I'm the leader of the Lions. I represent the underground movement against the Ministry. Surely it makes sense for me to be there to argue our corner?'
'It makes more sense,' he said firmly, 'for you to be here. Safe. This isn't worth you risking your life over, not when there are alternatives.'
'Oh, but it is worth you risking your life over?' She folded her arms across her chest, watching him challengingly.
He gave a humourless smile. 'I don't have alternatives. I'm a seer. They'll listen to me. They might not agree, but they'll listen to me. If we're going to do this, if we're going to try to enlist them into the cause, then we don't have a choice but for me to go.'
Jen drew a deep breath. 'I made myself a promise,' she said carefully, 'when we started this up. That there was nothing I would ask anyone to do that I wouldn't do myself. That there was no mission deemed so risky that I couldn't possibly undertake it - but I could send others in my place. I've stayed behind so I could coordinate operations, I've stayed behind so I could rest up after other missions, I've stayed behind so I could conduct planning or simply just because it wasn't my turn. I have never not gone on a mission because I was too important for it.' She straightened, and slowly walked over to him. 'And not only am I not going to start now, but I am certainly not breaking this promise with you, of all people.'
He'd been prepared to fight, gearing up to argue, but her "of all people" took him by surprise enough that his voice caught. Instead he could only give a one-shouldered shrug and a lopsided, arrogant smile. 'I'll be fine.'
She rolled her eyes, swatting him on the arm. 'That's not how it works-'
Their limbs entangled, lips locked together as if all the world's fury couldn't tear them apart, in such a state that they couldn't tell where one began and the other ended, heart singing with need and hunger and want -
He was leaning heavily against the desk when reality came sinking back in through the now-familiar haze of a vision. His head was spinning but she was by his side, face close to his, expression screwed up with concern.
'Are you all right?' She knew what this was, she'd seen it a dozen times before, and all he could do for a moment was nod mutely, his eyes roving wildly over every inch of her face. 'What did you see?' Jen continued, voice gentle, and she lifted a hand soothingly to his forehead.
He couldn't answer for a few moments, breathing ragged, thoughts tumbling and whirling, and all he could do was stare at her. A wry smile tugged at the corner of her lips. 'Don't tell me it was something horrid...'
Finally Gabriel found his voice, and his hand came up quickly to grab hers at the wrist. 'I hope not,' he said hoarsely.
Then he kissed her.
He thought she started, for half a heart-beat, as he tugged her to him - then all of a sudden she was kissing him back, melting into his embrace, letting him wrap his arms around her in defiance of anything that might break this. He turned to pin her against the desk, felt the flood of warmth run through him at her closeness, to having her in his arms after all this time, and when she broke the kiss only to give a ragged gasp he didn't think anything was going to stop him.
Then a word finally made it past her lips, strangled and strained but sincere. 'Stop.'
He did, though it was a fight to keep his spinning head in check, a fight to get his hands off her, and even putting on all the brakes he only managed to make it half a step back, her still maddeningly within reach. Her hair was dishevelled from the embrace, her cheeks flushed, lips parted, breathing heavy, and though their eyes met for a few seconds she abruptly, guiltily dropped her gaze to the floor.
'I'm... sorry,' she murmured.
'I'm not,' he said firmly, but still he took another step back, running a hand through his hair.
'I should - I'm going to take a walk,' Jen said, and turned to head for the door.
For a moment he almost let her as she crossed the room, then he turned abruptly. 'No, wait. Please,' he called out, and she did, hovering with her hand on the door handle, frozen. 'That wasn't... I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable. But I'm not sorry I did that. It wasn't just a... momentary indulgence.'
She cringed, head dropping again. 'My life is... really a bit too complicated right now for...'
'For what? For happiness? You shouldn't feel guilty because...'
'Because Nick's not even been dead a month.' Jen turned, but though her words were accusing it was more like a weight was pressing down upon her than that she was lashing out at him. 'And already I'm... and we're... and you're talking about happiness...'
'Maybe I shouldn't,' he admitted, advancing on her. 'Maybe it's stupid, and it's wrong, and if it hurts you, then I'm sorry. But I stayed quiet before because of him - because of him and you, because I thought you were happy.' He waved a hand at her. 'He's gone. And you're not happy. And maybe it's not appropriate, but I have seen what happens when people sit on their feelings because they think it's "not appropriate", or because they're scared.'
She froze, bewildered, and in that moment he reached out to grab her hand before she could escape. 'And nothing scares me half as much as the idea of not telling you, of not being with you. I love you. I think a part of me has loved you since that first vision, when I saw your grief and I didn't even know you properly but I wanted to ease it. I have loved you all the time I have been here, I have loved you with every piece of advice I gave you, and I have loved you through all of your joy and your pain.
'And I am sorry if you can't give me an answer I'd like, or any answer at all right now, but I will not keep quiet because I think it might be the right thing for me to do for you. You are smart, and you are strong, and that is so much part of why I love you that it would be disrespectful of my own feelings to think that you couldn't stand to hear the truth.'
He gave a small, sad, lopsided smile. 'I've known Tobias Grey and Tanith Cole for eight years. I know bullshit, angsty, romantic incompetence screwed up by your own self-pity and self-imposed restrictions and fear. I don't want that. So you can tell me "yes", you can tell me "no", you can tell me you can't say either or anything right now, and that's fine, because I reckon so long as I've put my cards honestly on the table, I stand a fighting chance.'
Jen's eyes roved over his face as he spoke, drinking in every word, as if she was searching for some sign of insincerity or some imperfection - but she seemed to find none, because her gaze only wavered and she drew a deep breath. 'I'm going to tell you,' she said, voice unsteady, 'that I'm going for a walk. And I think you should go to bed.'
He let go of her hand as she tugged, and then she left, leaving him alone in the tiny office with his head whirling just at the memory of his lips on hers, and the tingling that was almost like burning where his hands had been upon her.
Gabriel made a small noise of amusement and self-satisfaction, running a hand through his hair. 'Well,' he murmured to himself, 'that went about as well as it was going to.'
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