Chapter 35 : The Pressure of Adversity
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'If I'd known that it wasn't going to be something new, I wouldn't have bothered.'
Tanith looked over at David as she hung up her coat, looking briefly guilty at his crestfallen expression. 'I'm sorry,' she said, and meant it. 'But you didn't tell me where we were going! How could I warn you?'
'It was supposed to be a surprise! Telling you would sort of negate the point.'
But he wasn't really upset, just playing at it, and Tanith smiled indulgently. It was pleasant, she thought, to get the fun and tension of a bicker without there being a legitimate, unpleasant twist in her gut of fear and worry. 'I know,' she conceded. 'And I appreciated it. It was thoughtful. And I enjoyed it!'
David gave a lopsided, bashful smile as he sank down onto the sofa. 'How'd you get to know so much about art anyway?'
She fought to hide the flash of pain which still accompanied any thought of Altair Ritter. 'My father hired a tutor for me and my sister when we were young, and for the holidays,' she said casually, wandering over to join him. 'He taught us lots of things, including some Muggle art and literature.'
'Magic and culture, huh. You really are a renaissance woman.'
'Not really.' Tanith shrugged. 'Art was the only one which stuck. I rebelled pretty damn hard against learning the rest; I don't really remember any of it.'
He reached out to casually wrap an arm around her as she sat down, and for a moment the two just lounged there, enjoying the rest after a day of trooping around an art gallery. There were worse ways, she thought, to spend a day off.
'How come art stuck, then?' he asked, after a deep, relaxed sigh.
'Because it's patently different to magical art in a way literature isn't. All of magical art is enchanted. It moves, it comes to life. A lot of it is about making a very precise depiction of whatever it's trying to represent. Rather than about art for its own sake, for trying to use the art to express something other than simply trying to get a picture down on canvas.'
'So what you're saying,' David mused slowly, 'is that I should have taken you to the Tate Modern? Lots of atypical expression there.'
She made a face. 'I wasn't quite so enamoured with Muggle art as to like modern art. But it's like the things we saw today - I mean, Whistlejacket could never have been painted by a wizard artist. The blank background. The capturing of a horse in motion at the perfect moment. It's not about having a picture of a horse, it's about communicating that exact feeling. The power, the presence.'
'Whereas a wizard would have just painted a horse, in a stable, rearing over and over?'
'It would have been like a photograph.'
'Um.' David looked down at her. 'You remember our photographs don't move, right?'
Tanith wrinkled her nose. 'Now that I don't approve of.'
'So sorry to disappoint, your highness.'
She looked up with a glare, only to see him grinning infuriatingly. 'I am not that difficult to please!' she said - or, rather, she said about half of it before he kissed her.
The sudden jerk, from bickering frustration to an abrupt keen awareness of their closeness, of his heat, of the feel of him under his clothes and the sensation of his lips on hers, was not unpleasant. It fired everything up, the heat of aggravation changing to an altogether different and more welcome heat. The next thing she knew he had her pressed down on the sofa, pinning her down with his weight, the sudden embrace a heavy entanglement of limbs and feelings.
She made a small noise of protest when he did break the kiss, but he didn't pull back, the grin back on his face with an altogether different sort of glint. 'How about...' He leant down to kiss the corner of her jaw, and she shivered. '...I don't take your word for it, and find out for myself?'
Impatient, she reached for him this time, and the outside world rushed away at the embrace, narrowing to just her, and him, and the feel of his hands on her, running down her body, reaching down for the hem of her t-shirt -
Then there was the sense of warm hands on bare flesh, and the shiver this brought was not so welcome, not so pleased. Her body clenched up without meaning to, and, with enough speed to give her whiplash, the feeling that ran through her wasn't anticipation and desire, it was tense apprehension, twisting and writhing away inside enough to make her feel nauseous.
He felt it, he had to, but just as he was pulling away in confusion, she was pushing him back, her head turning to one side. 'No - no, I can't, I -'
'Okay! Okay...' Clearly surprised and shaken, David still pulled away, getting to his feet, hands raised deferentially. 'I'm sorry, I didn't mean to...'
'I have to go.' Her head was a whirl of emotions and memories, none of them pleasant and all of them combining for an obnoxious cocktail in her stomach as she stood up. 'I don't, I - I'll be in touch, um, okay?'
She didn't even wait for his answer as she fled for the door.
'This place is great,' gushed Katie as she led Jen around the Lions' latest "secret lair". 'We can put the tents up in here, it'll be sheltered from the wind, rain, and it'll be nice and warm! Really, we should have put the tents up in the warehouse...'
Jen frowned. 'I don't know why I didn't think of that,' she admitted. 'I guess I thought putting tents up inside was so weird it didn't occur to me. But you think you can get the place all charmed up and secure?'
Katie's gaze swept over the wide cave that had been found that morning on a routine scouting operation, courtesy of the spelunking hobbyist amongst them, Muggle-born Richard Keating. She grinned. 'It'll be easy. We only have to charm the entrances.'
'That does mean we have to find them all.' Jen picked up a rock by her foot, and tossed it into one of the tiny, arm-sized holes in the cave wall. It rattled around, clearly no more than a few feet deep.
'Richard's going to love that assignment. It shouldn't surprise us, really, should it. He's a man - men like to go sulk in their caves.' Katie chuckled, then snuck her friend a quick sideways glance. 'Though speaking of sulking...'
'I'm not sulking.'
'You're not smiling, you're not talking, you've been locking yourself up in that awful bloody office and you're getting obsessed with work. Not that I mind a change of scenery, but we have no reason to leave the warehouse and yet here you are, ordering us to scout for a new hidey-hole.' Katie shrugged. 'What gives?'
'Aren't I allowed to be in a bit of a stinker of a mood, considering...' Jen let her voice trail off pointedly, but she thought it more judicious to wander about the floor of the cave, not looking at her friend.
'Sure. I encourage it; it makes you feel better. It's just...' Katie cocked her head. 'You've also been avoiding Doyle. Like, whiplash-inducing change, there.'
'I've been busy.'
'You usually were busy with him. You'd usually be coordinating efforts with him. Instead, you send him and Cal off to the grimmest search sector we've got.'
Jen wrinkled her nose. 'I sent them to Swindon.'
'What's your point?'
Katie lifted her hands. 'Just saying. I'm your friend. You can talk to me. It doesn't make the sky fall in. I don't see a moment of emotion from you and then run around the base screeching "We're doomed! The hive mother has failed us!"'
'You have got weirder this past year, you know that?'
'Hey, I live in a cave now. What's your excuse?'
'Um, that I also live in a cave?'
Katie scowled. 'I got cursed this one time by an evil necklace.'
'Clearly this evil necklace made you crazy.' Jen rubbed her temples. 'I don't... want this getting around. Not just that I'm upset, I know... people would try to help, but I really don't want the others fussing. Especially not Tom, or Richard.'
'Because then they'd try to be manly and reassuring.' Katie nodded sagely. 'And that would just be embarrassing.'
'Quite.' She shoved her hands in her pockets. 'So, um. Doyle.'
'I'm familiar with his work. C'mon, it can't be that bad.'
'He said he loved me.' The words felt strange to utter, like they didn't fit right in her mouth. She didn't look up.
'What?' Katie did sound taken aback at this. 'Are you sure?'
'He said it, like, six times, I'm pretty damn sure,' snapped Jen.
'Okay, okay. Huh. Did not see that coming.'
'Really? Because I thought you were going to put up a banner or something for us two,' she said bitterly.
'Hey, there's a world of difference between "crazy about you" and "loves you". Or "in love". Did he say "in love"?'
'I don't - does it matter?'
'I didn't stop to negotiate the finer points of detail.'
Katie cocked her head. 'Then what did you do?'
Jen sighed, shoulders slumping as she turned back to her friend. '...ran. Pretty much.'
'That wasn't polite.'
'Polite? I panicked! He just... blurted it out!'
'What, just like that?'
'Well, not quite.' Jen's ears suddenly felt rather hot. 'He did kiss me first.'
'Ooh. Was it any good?'
'There wasn't time to rate him.' Jen scowled. 'Look, forget it -'
'I sure as hell will not!' said Katie indignantly. 'So he kissed you! So he loves you! What's the problem? I thought you liked him?'
'I do,' said Jen awkwardly. 'But... you know... Nick...'
Katie sighed, and her expression grew more serious. 'You're hurting. Of course you're hurting. And you're allowed to hurt. But you know what?' She padded over to her friend. 'You're also allowed to not be so badly chewed up you can't possibly let anyone be close. You're allowed to not be so hurt you have to be a nun for the rest of your life. That's okay, too.'
'I don't... know what I feel,' Jen admitted. 'I don't know if this is real. I don't know if I'm just still reeling so badly from losing Nick that I'm clinging desperately onto the nearest thing to give me support, and it's him. I don't want to get hurt, but I really don't want to be so messed up I jerk him around.'
'I get that. And that's fair.' Katie nodded. 'So, you figure it out. You do some thinking. You work out what your feelings are, what you want, and then you're honest and up front with him about it. You do what makes you happy.'
'But what if the others -'
'Bugger the others!' Katie threw her hands in the air. 'Maybe you don't want him at all. Maybe you do, but you still need time to grieve. Maybe you don't know, and you need lots of time to figure it out. Or maybe you want to jump his bones and that's okay. It's okay to feel whatever you feel. Just figure it out, and tell him. So many problems of the world would go away if people were just a bit more honest with themselves, and with others.'
Jen looked at her suspiciously. 'How come,' she said slowly, 'you manage to give good advice to other people, but can't follow it yourself at all?'
Katie sniffed mock-haughtily. 'I'll follow it,' she said. 'There's just not been anyone worth following it with yet. Just you wait and see - when I finally hunt down Gwenog Jones' home address I will be the most honest and emotionally accessible obsessed stalker you ever saw.'
Jen couldn't hide her small, grateful smile. 'Thanks, Katie,' she said quietly, genuinely. 'I'll try. Really try.' A sigh escaped her lips before she could stop it. 'I just need to, you know, find the time to figure all this out.'
Katie nodded soberly. 'Rebelling against crackpot evil dictators really messes up your love life. Who knew, right?'
'You know, it's not that bad.'
'What? War? Crazy centaurs? Death Eaters?'
Gabriel nodded at the street they walked down. 'Swindon.'
'Oh, look. Another industrial district. I don't want to stay in another warehouse.' Cal shoved his hands in his pockets as he scowled at their environment, the quieter corner of the part of the city where companies did their business and stored their wares and didn't look too closely at people lurking around. 'I like camping.'
'I like a roof over my head. Sometimes we don't always get what we want.'
Cal gave him a sideways glance, tugging his hoodie a little further over his head. A weak drizzle had started the moment they'd arrived, and while Gabriel was suffering in silence, Cal had muttered and moaned like water might make him melt until Gabriel had pointed out he was wearing something with a hood. Cal had said that hadn't been the point.
He wondered why his friend was so keen on camping, then.
'Speaking of not getting what we want -'
'Does it help?' Gabriel interrupted.
Gabriel looked at him, dark eyes piercing. 'Speaking about it.'
Cal opened and shut his mouth. 'I -'
'Because you've not done a great deal of talking about it.'
He folded his arms across his chest, a little defensive, a little hunching in against the bad weather as they walked under grey skies through grey streets. 'What's there to say, really?'
'I don't know.' Gabriel kicked an empty McDonald's cup. 'Nat's in Azkaban because of your father, specifically to try to control you or punish you or I don't know what. You think there might be some fallout for her because of you being with us?'
Cal flinched, and Gabriel felt abruptly guilty for deflecting the questions back on to him. His motivation had been evasion more than compassion, and more because he wasn't in a talkative mood than anything was wrong, and here Cal was looking like he'd been the McDonald's cup. If the cup had also been a puppy. 'I hope not. I think not. I mean, he'd want me to know, wouldn't he? Otherwise why wield it as a threat?'
'You're right,' said Gabriel, and didn't say what he was thinking. Because your father's a psycho. It seemed a good enough justification for Thanatos Brynmor to do whatever he pleased to Nathalie Lockett.
Saying that probably wouldn't help. 'I'm sorry we can't do anything,' he said instead. 'I mean, it's not like we can raid Azkaban.'
'I know,' Cal sighed. 'And I feel... well, not okay now I'm here, but... it beats her wasting away in there while I was taking my fa- Thanatos' money and...' He waved a hand as if he could throw errant words away. 'I'm doing something. I'm making a difference.'
'You are,' Gabriel said sincerely.
'And I'll see her again. So long as Thanatos thinks he can use her against me, she should be okay, right? So I just don't let it get that far, and hold out until the war ends, and then I'll see her again.' Cal drew a deep breath. 'And I can make up for the things I've done.'
'Some people would think fighting with us, risking your life to bring an end to tyranny, wouldn't make you someone who still needed to even the scales. Some people would say it makes you a hero.'
'I thought we weren't using that word?' Cal gave a crooked smile.
'About me.' Gabriel slapped him on the shoulder. 'You, on the other hand, you big, strapping type with your broad shoulders, chiselled features...'
'Are you sure it's me and Nat you wanted to talk about, or you and me?' Cal laughed, shoving him playfully.
'I'm serious. Well, sort of.' Gabriel returned the lopsided smile. 'You're walking around with the weight of the world on your shoulders, mate. And times are serious, so, I mean - you don't have to make them more serious. You're one of the good guys. Just think of her, just think of seeing her again, and don't think about making it right, think about it being right, and I know you'll get through anything.'
Cal sobered, again looking like a neglected puppy. 'You think so?'
'I know so.' Or, at least, I need you to believe it, which is close enough. 'Come on. There's nothing here. Let's go to the pub and then get back.'
Cal snorted. 'We really shouldn't while we're on an op.' He didn't sound convinced.
'I know, but if Death Eaters have learnt to look for us in the pub...'
'Then we're screwed.' Cal clapped him on the shoulder again, and they turned the next corner, heading for something closer to civilisation where they had seen a road with plenty of swinging, welcoming pub signs. 'We didn't talk about things you're not talking about.'
'Oh, hey, we didn't, did we. Crazy.'
'All right.' Tobias rolled his shoulders. 'Hit me again.'
Will looked at the wooden floorboards of their cottage. 'You know, maybe we should put down some mats or -'
'I'm fine. Do it.'
'You're not, you're going to break something.'
'It's a motivator.' He braced himself as best he could with his left leg twinging. 'Bloody curse me again.'
Will did straighten, wand still in a low guard, but looked unconvinced. 'I'm not sure I -'
'I said -'
This last reticence from the older wizard would prove a trick, however, as mid-reproach Will's wand flicked up. The Stun which leapt from the tip was light, probing, but fast, and Tobias almost didn't react in time.
But one thing that hadn't been dulled by his injury was his reflexes. The staff had been heavy in his hands, so heavy compared to a wand and wielded in an unfamiliar manner, but time and practice was making it more comfortable. It wasn't that it had nothing to do with complex movements, like the wrist-flick of a wand - that was a popular misconception, he'd learnt. It was important to move the staff right, be it slamming it down on the ground or even angling it, swinging it, or pointing it. But it was still less refined, less precise, less about doing it right, and more about thinking it right.
What this different method required, above all, was will. That, at least, was something Tobias Grey had in spades.
The tip of his staff came slamming down on the floorboards as Will's Stun flicked across the distance towards him, and although he'd almost been caught unawares, the wave of the Shield charm that sprung upwards and deflected the curse was strong.
But Will didn't stop there. High, low; deflecting them from different angles, spells of different speeds and strengths, they came thick and fast. Tobias had trained with Enforcers, but the Unspeakable was an altogether different prospect, if only for the sheer array of unusual spells that he knew along with a technique that would make any officer of the MLE satisfied.
At first, Tobias just deflected them all as best he could. Then, as the pattern and concentration set in, he ran through the variations of Shield Spells that he dared - then, finally, began to lash back, because there was no situation where playing solely defensive would be enough. His curses with the staff were sluggish, sloppy, and some missed just as much as they were easily deflected or absorbed by Will.
But that was what practice was for.
Seeing his defence was stronger than his offence, Will took a different tactic with the next spell Tobias threw at him. Instead of simply dispersing it harmlessly, he did a complicated wrist-flick, and the spell bounced off his shield to come ricocheting right back, weaker but quicker than a spell cast of his own accord.
Tobias didn't get his Shield up nearly in time, and the weakened Stun crashed into his chest still with enough force to knock him off his feet. He landed on the floorboards, hard, giving a grunt as the air was knocked out of him and his staff went rolling from his hands.
Will winced and lowered his wand. 'I'm sorry -'
Tobias forced himself, despite the throbbing in his leg, to sit up quickly. 'Why? We're practicing. This is what happens.' He stretched out uncomfortably to get a grip on the staff, resting it on the floor so he could brace his weight on it as he got up.
Will moved quickly to close the gap, extending a hand. 'Let me -'
'I'm fine.' Tobias determinedly hauled himself up of his own accord, ignoring the offered help.
'I'm only...' Will straightened, blinking. 'Just trying to help.'
'You apologise to everyone you knock down in a spar, and try to pick them up? Even on as mild a hit as that?'
'Normally, mild hits like that don't knock people off their feet.'
Anger and frustration stabbed in Tobias' gut, even if he knew Will was right. Once upon a time, a deflected Stun like that would have only staggered him, not all but taken him out of action. But he'd been pushed back onto his bad leg and it hadn't been able to take his weight so suddenly.
That, he could cope with. That, he could work on. Work on his weight distribution, work on the strength of his leg, work on deflecting spells with magic better.
There was nothing he could do about the reactions of other people.
'I'm not a bloody child,' he said before he could stop himself, turning to Will a little sharply. 'I'm a grown man, I'm a former Enforcer, I can take a hit and I don't need someone to tend to each scrape I get when I'm trying to get combat ready.'
'Would you have fussed over Dimitri like that if you'd been sparring with him?'
The accusation hung heavy and thick in the air, and suddenly, absurdly, Tobias felt guilty. Not for feeling what he did - not for daring to be frustrated at how helpless he was treated as being since his leg injury. But saying it out loud, seeing the awkward expression Will's face, was almost enough to make him wish he hadn't bothered. That he'd just decided to grin and bear it.
Will drew a deep breath. 'I would have offered to help him up, yes,' he said in a slow, measured voice. 'Because that's a courtesy. But I see your point.'
All of a sudden Tobias was very tired. 'Let's take a break.'
'I don't think you're incapable,' said Will as Tobias headed for the door, and he paused in the entranceway uncertainly. 'I saw you training Aurora and Dimitri to be better. I know you're good. And I know you will get better. At this magic, as well as just your leg getting better. But I don't want you to push yourself so hard that you hurt yourself.'
Tobias grimaced, looking over his shoulder at the older man. 'Don't think I'm throwing this in your face, or anything,' he said, voice gruff, 'but being treated like a child is a really good motivation for me to push myself as hard and fast as I can, just to make you stop looking at me like that.'
Will had the good grace to look abashed. 'I'm sorry,' he said again. 'I'll back off. But don't feel like you can't ask for help if you need it, or just want it. You should know that I have a great deal of respect for you, and this?' He gestured to Tobias' leg. 'It doesn't make me think any less of you.'
There was a moment where the words hung in the space between them, and all of a sudden Tobias wondered if the room had got dustier than he'd realised. He looked down, shuffling his bad foot. 'You know... Cal was pretty lucky to have you.'
He really needed to write to his mother again. They'd exchanged notes and letters, mostly assuring the other that they were fine. She was the only person to be told that he was still alive before the Midnight Press had gone out, but otherwise they hadn't communicated in depth. Tobias had no desire to risk either of them by exposing delicate information which might be intercepted by the British Ministry, and he had even less desire to make her a target. In Paris she was safe, and he had no desire to make her worth the hassle of an international incident.
Will looked rather taken aback by the expression, and he, too, averted his gaze. 'Well, yeah,' he mumbled self-effacingly. 'When your real father's a bigoted arsehole, it's easy to look good in comparison.'
'Ah, good evening!'
Tobias looked, with some relief, out of the door to see Dimitri cresting the hell, crossing the terrace towards the cottage and waving a roll of parchment at them. Glad to escape the awkward emotional admissions, both of them came outside.
'I have good news,' Dimitri continued with a cheerful grin. His hair was plastered down on his head, the hike up the hill hard work at the best of times but getting tougher as they marched onwards to a Mediterranean summer. 'You should sit. I should sit.'
He and Tobias collapsed with some relief onto the chairs, and Will left to get them refreshments. It wasn't until all three were sat with cold drinks in their hands that Dimitri unrolled his paper and leaned forwards. 'You have been invited,' he told Tobias with a smirk, 'to the most auspicious occasion of the meeting of the European Magical Conference on April 30th.'
'Really? With only a few weeks to go I thought it was going to be too late to hear anything from them.' Tobias grinned. 'They've given me a slot?'
'For now you are just on the agenda as a speaker. There is no formal means for them to approve or disapprove of what you have to say, or any proposal for action being tabled which they can vote up or down.'
Tobias frowned. 'That's... in that case, even if it goes well, aren't I going to have to wait for the next Conference before trying to get the committee to take action?'
'Formally, yes,' said Dimitri. 'But there are lots of things that could happen. A country may be inclined, after hearing you, to lend help to Britain of their own accord. If there is enough of a move for it, they may try to hold an emergency conference to properly discuss the issue.'
'This is just the start,' said Will. 'This puts the issue of international action against Britain on the table. We're not aiming for a fait accompli in just a few weeks, we're looking to create the spark that will start action.'
'So what we're saying,' said Tobias, slow and cautious, 'is that the future of international action to remove the Thicknesse administration will kick-start or flounder, based entirely upon my address to the Conference in Rome?'
Dimitri gave a cheerful grin. 'Welcome to politics. It does not matter how right you are, it matters how you sound. Fortunately you, I think, they will want to listen to.'
'And if I fail, the weakening resistance efforts in Britain are left completely without help in a hostile, totalitarian regime.' Tobias smiled wryly. 'No pressure.'
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