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Falls the Shadow by Slide
Chapter 42 : The Sky's the Limit
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 2


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Chapter 42: The Sky's the Limit

'Oh, hey, you're up. Welcome to hell.'

Tanith blinked as she sat up slowly. Her back hurt, and not just from the multiple Stun spells she'd been hit with when she'd failed to get away from the MLE agents who'd come after her. It was a dull ache that had sunk into bones and muscles, and as she shifted her weight and took in her surroundings, she realised why.

However long she'd been here, she was lying on a pitifully thin sleeping mat, in a dank, dark, cramped chamber, gloomy stone walls all around. With her body on such harsh stone with so little protection, it was no wonder she ached.

She looked around, noted the heavy metal bars of the door, and looked over at the other figure sat in the middle of the tiny cell with her.

Despite herself, she grinned. 'Azkaban, huh. Nice of them to make us cell-mates.'

Nat Lockett gave a smile which was also a little too chirpy for their circumstances - but Tanith knew she, herself, was just glad to not be in this miserable place alone. She couldn't begin to imagine what Nat had been through in the nine months she'd been locked up. 'We sort of got slung in together.'

'Together?' Tanith rubbed her back, shifting to rest against the cell wall. 'What happened?'

'They picked up Cal. Caught him on one of his jobs for this underground. Or so they told me; first I heard of it was when they dragged me out of this cell and into Thanatos Brynmor's office. I was a bit surprised, really. I'd have thought they'd try to use me as a bargaining chip against Cal sooner.'

Tanith frowned, with concern and sympathy. 'Bargaining chip?'

'Yeah...' Nat clicked her tongue. 'I hate to break it to to you, but... well, feel your hair.'

'My hair?' She lifted a hand, felt hair that was already going quite unpleasant from time and confinement, and felt an uneven chop along the tips. 'Oh, Merlin.'

'I know, right? Not only have you been locked in Azkaban and there's a doppelganger of your running around, Polyjuiced up, but you've now got a silly hairdo.'

There was something so helpless about the situation that frustration and fear knotted up in Tanith's gut, only to begin to dissipate, and she threw her friend a look. 'You're doing rather well for yourself, locked up in here for nine months.'

Nat sighed, and despite her words Tanith could see her sunken cheeks and eyes, the gauntness of her face. 'Cal cooperated, and they let me have a hot meal, a shower, and some fresh air as a reward - right before they slung me back in here. I guess it does more good than I'd figured. You sort of... learn how to wait. I'm just glad for some company; I've cycled cell-mates like nobody's business.'

Tanith scrubbed her face with her hands, and stared at the opposite wall. 'What... did they want Cal to do?' she asked, though she already had a sinking feeling.

'They said Tobias is somewhere abroad, and they want him.' Nat sounded a bit bewildered as to why Tobias Grey was so important to Lord Voldemort's Ministry of Magic. 'They want him to come here. So Cal said the best person to convince him to do that was... you.' She sighed.

Her expression scrunched up. 'Who's impersonating me?'

'Ariane Drake.'

Tanith's head snapped around. 'Ariane? Tobias won't believe-'

'Cal helped them.' Nat sounded rather matter-of-fact about the whole thing. 'He briefed her on some of the finer details which you'd surely know about. And besides, we're talking about someone who was your housemate for seven years. You kind of get to know someone in that time.'

'Cal - no way did Cal help them,' blurted Tanith, and despite the fact that last time she'd spoken to Cal she'd all but accused him of being a traitor, she meant it. Because there were mistakes she knew he could make, knew he was capable of, but consciously selling out a friend was not one of them.

'They were going to kill me,' said Nat. 'And I assure you, they meant it.'

Tanith hesitated. '...all right. Maybe there is one way. And if she failed...'

'Then they'd have killed me. He really, really didn't have a choice.'

She looked at Nat, saw only grim acceptance in her eyes, and dropped her gaze. 'Do you know how they found me?'

Nat looked a bit bewildered, and shrugged. 'Ariane was talking with her father for a bit. She said you'd be with someone called David. He seemed to know what this meant?'

David. I gave her just a name, and she ran right to her father. And then, they found him. Did they only look for him last night? Did they have me watched and were just waiting for the opportunity?

Ariane. Did you betray me? Did you have just as little choice as Cal? Do you even know how to go against your own father?

Do you know how to pretend to be me? Has eight years of holding you at arms' length given you enough insight? Tanith drew her legs up, tucking her knees under her chin. '...it's impossible that Tobias won't know she's not me.'

Nat grimaced. 'Then I guess we're both dead.'

Better that way, thought Tanith, then realised she couldn't reasonably expect Nat to be satisfied to sacrifice herself as well. 'They're going to kill him if he comes here, aren't they.'

Nat didn't answer, because it wasn't really a question, and the two of them sank into the silence which Tanith recognise from her last visit to Azkaban. Even with a cell-mate, the prisoners didn't talk. Not just because they would run out of conversation topics soon enough, but with the presence of the Dementors hanging over them it became fruitless at best - or hurtful at worst. Conversations would become ineffective at raising spirits, or would turn to arguments and rows, every dark thought rising to the surface to reign supreme.

And right then she had hundreds of dark thoughts, all of them fighting for dominance. Ariane impersonating her, a thought which made her feel sick to her stomach by itself. David's Obliviation, leaving him now unable to even recognise her. Cal, caught up in the middle, a tool to be used even by his own father.

And Tobias. Tobias, doomed to be tricked into walking into a trap, or doomed to condemn her, Nat, and maybe even Cal to death.

While you sit here and fester because you were too weak to get away, too weak to beat even Mulready and Lackardy, because you got soft and forgot to check your back, because you assumed you were safe at David's - David, who you whored yourself out to and forgot about Tobias when it became convenient and left him to get obliviated, damaged, hurt, like everyone around you, like Altair and Dad while you dodge the bullet every time and pretend to be a victim...

These thoughts lulled, for lack of a better word, her into her eventual semi-consciousness. It wasn't sleep, exactly, nor was it restful, but she wasn't awake, hanging, trapped in her own dark thoughts.

She had no idea how long it lasted, how long she and Nat sat there, semi-conscious, in the dark of Azkaban, but it was only when those dark thoughts began to fade that Tanith started to drift out of it, drift back to reality.

When she opened her eyes, Nat, too, was glancing around. 'Can you feel that?'

Tanith stretched out her legs. 'I feel... lighter. Is this normal?'

Nat shook her head, frowning. 'No. No, I've never felt this in here. I only felt like this when...' She looked over, startled. 'When I was being taken out. Tanith, I think the Dementors are leaving. At least some of them.'

'What the hell...' Tanith got to her feet and walked over to the barred door, moving to an angle where she could see as much of the corridor as possible - though all this did was give her a good view of darkened, gloomy walls and other cell doors. 'What's going on?'

Nat stood also, rubbing her forehead. 'No idea. This has never happened before. They don't have many people guarding this place; clearly nobody likes it, it's a punishment in itself to be a warden of Azkaban. The Dementors do most of the guarding.'

'So if they're not here...' Even though she'd only been here a short time - though in the dark and despair that time could have been hours or days, and that wasn't counting how long she'd been unconscious - Tanith was astonished at how much easier to think it was becoming without the oppressive sense of the Dementors' presence hanging over her.

She hurried to Nat's side, peering at her hair. 'They let you freshen up...'

Nat looked dubious. 'Yeah...'

'Great,' said Tanith, and spotted what she was looking for. Ignoring her friend's yelp, she reached for her head and pulled out the two hairpins, giving a grim smile of satisfaction. 'Just great.'

If anything, Nat looked even more dubious. 'What? You think you're going to pick the lock in Azkaban?'

'That's exactly what I think,' said Tanith, turning to the cell door and hunkering down in front of it, fiddling with the hair pins. 'Azkaban's security has always been heavily reliant upon the Dementors to keep the inmates in a heightened state of apathy. Soon enough anyone incarcerated here loses the simple willpower to try to concoct an escape plan. That's why there were so many prison breaks the year after they left.'

'All right...'

'Not to mention the fact,' Tanith continued, not looking up from her work, 'that wizards are notoriously over-reliant upon magical defences. I bet this cell door is warded beyond belief against all sorts of magical efforts to force the lock, break through the bars, the hinges, or even around the door-frame itself. And that's just the issue... of getting out of this cell...'

Nat crossed her arms as clicking and clunking noises came from Tanith's work. 'Do you even know how to pick a lock?'

'I do, actually,' came the calm reply. 'My tutor taught me. About a year ago.' After I couldn't pick the lock to his stupid chest of tricks when I needed to save Tobias and Annie... 'Never actually came in use before... now...'

Then, against even a smidgen of her own belief, the lock to the cell clicked and the door swung open languidly, noisily, groaning in the gloom. Tanith got to her feet and turned to Nat, grinning with ridiculous smugness. 'See?'

Nat blinked. 'So we're really getting out of here.'

'I don't know about you, but I don't intend to sit by while Ariane Drake is out seducing Tobias back to Britain,' said Tanith, stepping out into the corridor and heading down it towards the stairway.

'That the word "seduced" slipped into that sentence highlights so many bloody issues here.' Neither of them looked at the other cell doors as they walked. 'What about the others?'

'My plan is to get a key,' said Tanith. 'With a key, we can bust as many people as possible out while the Dementors are gone.'

'Where do we get a key? And the Dementors aren't all gone, I can feel them... unless this place has had so many of them in it that they leave some lingering signature. What do we do if we run into a Dementor? We don't have wands.'

'Punch them.'

'Punch them? You're going to punch a Dementor.'

'No, I'm going to run the hell away,' said Tanith bluntly. 'But this is the best chance we've got, while we're still thinking clearly, while Azkaban is under-defended. Besides - we've been locked up, without trial, without any indication that we'll ever see the light of day again. What's the worst that could happen.'

'We could die.'

Again, I can live with that. Well, not live with it...

There were footsteps coming from above them on the circular stone staircase as they got to the end of the corridor, and Tanith reached out to shove Nat against the wall, she herself flattening it against it. Dementors don't make a sound when they move. That wasn't so comforting; even if she could deal with a person, the idea of being snuck up on by a Dementor was less than pleasing.

'What do -'

Tanith pushed Nat harder against the wall as she went to whisper, raising a finger to her lips. She looked at the other woman, trying to communicate as much confidence and reassurance as possible with only her eyes, before her attention went back to the stairway.

She'd never actually attacked an armed wizard with her bare hands before, despite all of Altair's training. It had never happened for real.

No time like the present.

She had no idea if the wizard descending the steps was alerted to something being wrong or not, but she didn't stop to let herself microanalyse every little detail, from how quickly he was walking to whether she could hear him breathing or not, and then she could hear he was close enough to the door that there wasn't time to do anything but act anyway -

Tanith shot out into the stairway. With only a split-second to think, to assess the situation, she noted a burly man depressingly twice her size, who probably had no idea how to use it. It was the same warden she'd met when she'd come to visit her father. He had his hand on his wand, in its sheath at his hip, but he hadn't drawn it, and seemed surprised more than cautious.

Get him off balance.

She braced her shoulder against the inner pillar of the stairway and kicked. He was higher than her on the steps, but her booted foot met his ankle and she was greeted with a satisfying crack of bone and a gurgle of pain. But even as he slumped his hand grabbed his wand.

Remove his wand.

She stepped in, closer, and put her shoulder to his chest as she snatched at the wrist of his wand-hand. With his leg failing him it was no difficulty to make his balance entirely reliant upon her - and then, no difficulty to smash his hand against the wall.

He yelped, but didn't let go.

Again.

The next crunch of his hand against the wall knocked the wand flying.

He's still bigger than you. You're up close enough that he can use his size.

Pain.

She jabbed her fingers over her shoulder and winced at the impact she expected.

The scream of the warden's pain as she jabbed him in the eyes was probably enough to be heard all over Azkaban, and she let him go. Wrist, ankle, and face mangled, the warden collapsed onto his back on the stairs and stayed down, screaming and whimpering, and Tanith looked up to see an ashen-faced Nat in the door to the stairway. She was holding the man's wand.

'Remind me to never challenge you to a wrestling match.' Nat looked down at the wand, then twirled it in her hand and extended it to her. 'You're the Auror. And I haven't touched one of these in nine months.'

Tanith gave a flicker of a smile as she fought to get her breath back, nodding a little quickly. 'Let's get out of here. And see if we can get our boys out of trouble.'


----------------


Thunder rolled. The wind howled, the rain came down hard and fierce, and Tobias would have been worried he might be blown into the sea if his gaze, and all of his focus, hadn't been fixed on the huge shape of Azkaban prison looming up before him.

The small contingent of volunteers from London huddled around with him. They had gathered dozens upon dozens of people there by now; members of the Ministry in general and the Department of Magical Law Enforcement in particular who had been left behind from the Dark Lord's summons to Hogwarts, and were realising that Something Had Happened. The fall of Canary Wharf was giving them a rallying point to gather around, and, at first in trickles, but then in droves, people had stepped forward.

Enough was enough. They would not be ruled any more. And even if what was happening at Hogwarts didn't change anything, they would still leave tonight with a decisive blow struck against Voldemort's Ministry.

Azkaban had been a natural choice for where to go next. It was filled with the Ministry's worst enemies, almost all of them wrongly locked up, almost all of them victims of the worst kind of injustices. There had been plenty of volunteers, including Cal and Gabriel, but also Jacob Van Roden and Jen Riley, to go and stage a prison invasion.

But Tobias would have gone on his own if necessary.

I'm going to find her. I will not be stopped.

Behind him he could hear the others shouting to one another, Jen's voice rising above the rest as she explained that, even with the Dementors gone, summoned by Voldemort, the defences remained inconsiderable. The walls were metres thick, the front doors solid as anything. It was not the most fearsome prison in Europe for nothing.

He could hear, distantly, Jen issuing orders. Getting brave volunteers on broomstick to fly up to see if they could find an easier access point, getting some of the curse-breaker specialists from the MLE to see if they could crack their way through the magical defences.

'I know it'll be hard.' Jen was shouting to be heard. 'It took a lightning strike to let Lestrange and the others break out in '96. But we'll find a way.'

I don't care. Tobias' gaze fixed on Azkaban. I will not be stopped. I'm coming in.

I'm going to find her.

Thunder rolled again, and he looked up to the sky. But the flashes of lightning were a distance away - close, but they weren't going to be lucky and have it strike twice in the same location. A few hundred metres was as useless as a few hundred miles.

Or we make our own luck.

He walked away from the group abruptly, ignoring whatever Jen was saying by then, ignoring Cal's shouts of confusion for him to come back, or at least explain where he was going. It wasn't easy progress, leaning on his staff with his aching leg, making his way across slippery rocks on this island which was nothing but a jut of rock sticking out of the ocean. Clambering to higher ground was long, and arduous, and by the end of it he probably wasn't more than a dozen metres above the ocean for all his efforts. His leg throbbed with pain.

I don't care. I'm going to find her. I will not be stopped.

He'd only heard about this being done before. Not even in textbooks; in records that were almost more mythic than factual, in history books so dry they liked to skip over the details. But he'd been curious, and he'd read about it, and though nobody had bothered to do that much research in the first place, the theory had seemed sound.

Just the practice itself, mind-numbingly difficult.

I'm going. To find her.

'Tobias! What're you doing; you'll get blown into the damn ocean!'

The wind and the rain howling around him almost drowned out Cal's shout, and they might as well have for the amount of heed he paid it.

Good. Let me be blown away if I can't do this. Let this be the price of failure.

His expression set.

I will not be stopped.

Tobias glanced back only briefly at the others, more to judge his situation than in any doubts of what he was doing, and could see Cal scrambling up the rocks towards him, even the perfectly physically able man struggling. For a moment, Tobias wondered how he'd been able to achieve it at all, though he'd probably picked an easier route -

Then the sky, hundreds of metres away across the ocean, lit up with a flash of lightning, and in that split second he acted. It was not his staff he used - cumbersome, and heavy, and needed right then to keep him upright. Instead he reached into his coat and whipped out his wand, jerking it up at the lightning, and even as he concentrated, even as he focused all of his will and determination and refusal to fail upon it, for a heartbreaking moment he thought it was just going to dissipate.

But it didn't. For what felt like long moments but couldn't have been more than the blink of an eye, the lightning hung at the belly of the cloud it had burst from, jittering and jerking, and he could almost feel it dancing up his wand, which vibrated and shook in his hand at the sheer energy he'd reached out and seized.

He'd caught lightning. And that was just the easy part.

Tobias gritted his teeth. 'I will not be stopped.' He tugged his wand back, and the lightning jerked in the air for a second, trying to pull away, dissipate, obey the laws of nature he was flagrantly flying in the face of. Despite the chilling cold of the North Sea, he could feel sweat pouring down his face at the effort, feel his injured leg shaking under him and threatening to give way, feel his heart pounding in his chest and his breathing coming raggedly as he focused every iota of will, of rage, of desperation into his concentration.

He'd been called the best wizard of his year. And yet, so far, he had let all of this alleged power, all of this alleged talent, mean absolutely nothing. For months he had stood on the sidelines and done nothing, just coldly, calmly reported on the events. On death, on suffering. And they'd named him a hero for it. Named him a hero for simply not dying. And the first time he'd had the opportunity to do something, to act, he'd walked right into a trap like a blundering idiot. Anything since then had just been coming back from his mistakes.

Except for this. Finally he could bring all of his force to bear, all of his knowledge and will and alleged power, and do something. And it wasn't about justice, it wasn't about dealing a blow to the Ministry, it wasn't about freeing the wrongly imprisoned.

It was about Tanith.

'I. Will. Not. Be. Stopped!' With a gasp he yanked his wand not back, but across, and finally the long seconds of fighting for control ended. The lightning followed the arc of his wand, shooting across the skies and flew as he'd bidden, as he'd commanded.

Thudding right into the stone walls of Azkaban prison.

The sound of the lightning and the impact and the shattering stone was deafening, but then Tobias' bad leg gave way under him. He slipped on the wet rock and landed on his back hard enough to knock the breath out of him. His vision spun in front of his eyes from just the effort of what he'd done, and with the rain dashing down upon him he couldn't tell if he was just imagining that his nose was beginning to bleed or if it was actually happening. He could, distantly, hear the sounds of panic turning to celebration from the rescue contingent, but for long seconds Tobias just let himself lie on the rock and stare at the stormy skies.

Then Cal was by his side, helping him up even as he stared at Azakaban, and he gave a bark of a laugh of sheer glee. 'Holy shit! Did you see that? You just blew a damn hole out of the front wall of Azkaban fucking prison with a bloody lightning bolt!'

'Yeah.' It wasn't false modesty that had Tobias replying so simply, but instead he was fighting to get his thoughts in order and find remotely more complicated words. He let Cal help him to his feet - or, rather, almost drag him up - and briefly hoped he wouldn't drop his staff before he realised his hand probably wasn't going to loosen its iron grip even when he wanted it to. 'Can we get in?'

Cal laughed again, and despite the fact that his friend was worn, and tired, and gaunt of cheek, and soaked through in a miserable lightning storm in a miserable corner of Britain, Tobias didn't think he'd ever seen him look happier. 'You blew a hole more than big enough! What do they put in the food in Russia and Greece?'

Tobias decided that saying "guilt" would have sounded too self-pitying, and so decided it was wiser to not answer as Cal helped him on the climb back down towards where the others were gathered, and the blown-open front gates of Azkaban waited.

'That,' said Jen as the two of them limped back over, 'was the craziest thing I've ever seen.' She was grinning broadly enough to split her face in two.

'Good, 'cos I feel terrible,' said Tobias, though he did manage to stand on his own two feet as he shrugged off Cal's help and leant on his staff. Okay. Maybe stand on my own threefeet. 'But there's no time to lose. We don't know how long we've got.'

Cal kept stride with him as the two of them headed for the huge gash in the front walls, and after a couple of moments Jen had gathered her wits, summoned back those looking for an alternate way in, and she and the rest of the rescue volunteers were hurrying in their wake.

Making it up the steps was difficult, but he didn't let himself falter. Getting in was only the beginning; he could feel the ache in his muscles deepen, and knew that this wasn't just fatigue.

'Be ready,' he said, his voice picked up by the howling wind to carry across them all as he and Cal crossed the threshold into Azkaban. 'Not all of the Dementors are gone.'

And you're going first. The cripple leading the way; why, so he can need to be rescued by his friends with two good feet? Or are his delusions of grandeur making him forget his limits, again, and again he rushes off into a danger he can't comprehend to save a girl he can't save...

The entrance hall was dark, even with the huge hole in the wall letting in the occasional flashes of lightning, which cast jagged shadows across uneven rock and showed nothing more than tall doors, winding staircases, and dark corners.

Unnaturally dark corners.

...as if this makes up for leaving her to rot, before, when it was inconvenient; and now it's not inconvenient he charges in, the magnificent hero, as if such a show will heal his crippled heart that matches his crippled leg and let him pretend he doesn't cast away the ones who love him whenever it suits him...

Then the shadows burst outwards, and the dark rushed in at them.

'Aw, crap.'

That was Cal, stumbling back as half a dozen Dementors came swishing down from the corners of the entrance hall of Azkaban at the gathered would-be rescuers. Half a dozen, a tiny fraction of the guards who had once been here, but even half a dozen Dementors in their own domain against a small group of wizards tired and oppressed by their environment could be dangerous.

Cal's wand came up, and Tobias brandished his staff, before he abruptly remembered that he'd never actually cast the Patronus charm in earnest before.

That realisation proved costly.

The pompous coward, acting like he leads the way, lights the way, but cowers when it matters. Cowers halfway across the world, cowers from those he professes to love, cowers from the tough choices and the necessary sacrifices and every risk to his safe little life...

'Expecto -' But the flash of silver which flickered out the tip of his wand at the oncoming Dementor sputtered and died, and next to him Cal wasn't having much better luck. Cal, who hadn't even successfully cast a Patronus charm in his Defence classes.

You arrogant idiot. As if schoolyard talent matters in the real world. As if your luck against Robb, against Brynmor wasn't random or born of the sacrifices of others. You better hope the others, the ones with real experience, fare better than you ridiculous two, because otherwise you're both going to fail them... fail her...

His leg shook, and Tobias fell to one knee, fighting for coherent thought, fighting for some strong, positive memory - but thoughts of Annie turned to death, thoughts of Tanith turned to fear, thoughts of his mother turned to guilt, thoughts of his friends turned to worry and doubt...

'Gabe!'

Weakly he looked in the direction of Jen Riley's shout. She was some metres back, though he and Cal weren't the only of the rescue party to buckle under the Dementors' presence; even hardened MLE agents were scattering or breaking as they burst down at them. But Jen was still standing, and for a fleeting moment Tobias wondered why she'd shouted for Gabriel, who was stood right next to her, until he realised it wasn't fear that tinged her voice, but determination.

Then she reached out to take the hand he extended, and turned her wand upon the Dementors. A huge, silver lioness sprung out of the tip of her wand with an audible roar, and rushed out at the bulk of them, beginning to drive them back, push them into the shadows they'd been creeping in.

Others lingered, though they seemed to hesitate, and in that moment, buoyed up by Jen's success, both Cal and Tobias turned to face the one that hovered mere feet away from them.

'Y'know,' said Cal, voice shaking but strong, 'these things are really ugly.'

In unison Cal's wand and Tobias' staff came up, and in unison silver burst forth. It wasn't one strong, overwhelming happy memory that Tobias clung to, but a multitude of simple ones; sitting on the train, stood at King's Cross station for the last time, lounging in the common room, dancing at Hogsmeade fair, cheering on Quidditch, all with them...

And then his hand reached into his pocket and wrapped around the silver pocketwatch that lived there, the scratched and battered one studded with emeralds with the word Remember etched on the inside of the lid...

The silver bear and fox crashed into the Dementor and knocked it spinning up into the darkest recesses of the hall.

It was strange for such a feat, as the Dementors were driven off and disappeared, to end in silence, but end in silence it did, the bulk of the rescuers catching their breath, driving away the dark thoughts that had tormented them, or recovering their energy after casting some of the most challenging magic. Cal reached out to plant a supportive hand on Tobias' arm, and he found himself not resenting the unsolicited aid. Perhaps it was just how tired he was. Perhaps it was the dire circumstances. Perhaps it was just because it was Cal.

'I am quite sure,' said Dimitri, right at the back, the diplomat knowing exactly where his talents lay, 'that this prison is in violation of many international treaties on the appropriate and humane treatment of prisoners.'

'It's okay,' said Tobias, looking back at the big Russian and giving a weary smile. 'I broke it.' He spotted an exhausted Jen have a supportive arm wrapped around her by Gabriel, and he threw a curious look at an unsurprised Cal, who grinned and shrugged.

'Looks like you missed a lot, mate,' was all he said.

'I intend to make up for it.' Tobias said. 'Starting with -'

'You took your bloody time!'

He whirled around as one of the doors deeper into Azkaban swung open and out burst a line of maybe a score of bedraggled, battered, worn individuals, and as his eyes landed on them Tobias thought he would have been able to cast a thousand Patronuses at a thousand Dementors.

Or, rather, as his eyes landed on her. For though there were others, though he could see a bedraggled Nathalie Lockett, even some faces he recognised from the reports he himself had been writing up and sending out, the only one he could honestly say he paid any attention to was Tanith Cole.

Tanith, who was at the head of the mob of them, wand in one hand, heavy key in the other, swaggering into the hall as if staging a prison break out of Azkaban was an everyday occurrence. She was grinning from ear to ear, and the grin only broadened when she looked from him to the huge gash in the stone of the front wall. 'What did you do?'

'You know how I like to make an entrance,' he said, hobbling over, the ache in his leg increased tenfold since he'd got to this island and slowing him down - except, right then, he didn't mind it so much.

'An entrance? You do know you just ruined my opportunity to be the first person this year to stage a mass-breakout from Azkaban.' She stopped a few feet away from him as the rescue party swarmed to the freed prisoners, some of whom looked considerably the worse for wear after their prolonged incarceration, and she lifted the key. 'There are more people, in the other wings. I got out who I could from this section, but the only way to get to them was through the hall, and I didn't fancy taking on the Dementors with just the one wand.'

She had sobered a little as she explained the situation, but his grin didn't falter, was still stupidly broad, and he couldn't help but hobble a few steps closer. 'So I guess you did need me after all.'

Tanith hesitated. The glint in her eyes was enough to make his own smile fade for something altogether more serious, and when she spoke her voice was low, ardent. 'You know I do.'

Then the gap between them was nothing at all as they rushed together, and he even dropped his staff to throw his arms around her. He kissed her, and for the first time it wasn't a kiss filled with pain or fear, but hope and happiness, and even the skies over Azkaban prison itself seemed brighter, for dawn was coming in more ways than one, and this time, for the first time, he wouldn't have to pull away in moments and leave.

For better or worse, whatever came next, they could confront it together.



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