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Chapter 9 : There'll Be Another Time
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Sweeney fell like a sack of potatoes when the red sparks of the Stun hit him in the chest and almost landed on top of Tobias. This wasn't as unfortunate as it could have been; although the Auror bodyguard was a big, burly man, it did mean his body shielded them against the spray of falling masonry as another curse struck the wall above them.
Tobias wriggled away from Sweeney and put his back to the bench the four of them had been taking cover behind. He looked over at Rackham. 'This Displacement Aura can't be that big,' he told the Auror. 'They couldn't get one up bigger than the square.'
'I hate to remind you,' Rackham snapped, 'but we're still in the square, and we're cut off.'
The square had turned to chaos. Although the initial explosion had probably been targeting Shacklebolt, Avery's Remnant had not been so foolish as to count on a few heavy curses doing the job. Their numbers had been hidden, out of sight or in and amongst the crowd, and within seconds the air had turned from jubilant anticipation to fear and terror.
And all the exits had closed around them. Even if they hadn't been blocked off, the Death Eaters had people high up, throwing spells down from hiding places at anyone trying to make a break for it through the alleyways.
'We need a distraction,' Tobias said.
'The Minister's the target. I don't know how you were planning on luring them away from him!'
Tobias risked a glance over the bench. From his assessment, as the fighting raged between the Remnant and the MLE officers and any other willing members of the public across the square, the Remnant hadn't picked out that this hidey-hole was where Rackham and Sweeney had pushed the Minister to the ground. But that wouldn't last.
'We don't,' he said at last. 'Minister - swap coats with Sweeney. Ennervate.' He flicked his wand at the weakly-stirring Auror, who blinked and straightened, cautious to stay in cover - but he'd heard everything, and nodded.
Shacklebolt had been peering from behind the stone bench, hurling curses with an accuracy which made everyone remember the man had been an Auror himself once upon a time. But at this, he looked back, ducking behind cover again. 'What? I can't allow -'
'Us to risk ourselves for you, Minister? Don't be ridiculous. That's our job.'
'Actually, Tobias, your job is to handle my press releases, not risk your life.'
'Then give me a bonus when this is all over.' Tobias looked at Sweeney, who had pulled his coat off as Rackham was practically wrestling Shacklebolt out of his. 'Sweeney and I will make a break for it, while you two put out a lot of firepower like you're trying to cover our escape. That'll make them probably avoid you two. So when they come for us instead, you can make a break for it.'
Shacklebolt scowled. 'And what if you two just manage to blast your way out of there?'
'I doubt Avery's that dumb,' said Tobias. 'But if he is, then Sweeney's got a nice new coat.'
'You're my staff, Toby, not one of my bodyguards. I can't ask you to -'
'You're not asking me to, Minister. I'm doing it,' said Tobias firmly. 'Besides. If you run for it, you have to leave me behind anyway. I'd just slow you down.' He patted his bad leg. 'On the plus side, my limp makes me distinctive in a fight, so hopefully they'll assume I'm near you and look out for it.'
'That just makes you a target-'
'The kid's right,' Sweeney said. 'Sir, we need to get going. You've got it covered, Rackham?' The two Aurors shook hands with the sort of casual cheer which got a lot of people through life-or-death situations. 'Then you'd best get ready to throw out a lot of firepower, sir, since - like it or not - we're going.'
'Keep your head down,' Tobias told Sweeney. 'We don't want them getting a good look a you.'
'Don't forget I'm the Auror here, kid,' Sweeney said, a little tartly - and indeed, he took one glance around the bench and, assessing the fighting beyond with a speed Tobias couldn't have possibly achieved, determined it was time to go.
So the next thing Tobias knew he was being dragged to his feet and out into the open, as Sweeney, Rackham, and Shacklebolt let loose with a flurry of curses and hexes at the Remnant who'd swooped down on the square.
Sweeney had his head down, one arm covering most of his face, and Tobias limped as desperately as he could after him, trying to focus on protection charms. He doubted he could make a run for it and fight, and each step sent pain screaming up his leg, his cane abandoned somewhere in the debris.
There were shouts as they darted and limped for the alleyway, and then more curses, and Tobias risked a glance around them to confirm that they had, in fact, been noticed - that shadowy figures were falling back from Rackham and Shacklebolt's point, and attention was definitely drawing to them.
'They're falling for it!' Tobias hissed as Sweeney let loose a flurry of curses.
'Great!' the Auror snapped. 'Run!'
Then the paving stones underfoot exploded as some canny Death Eater threw a curse not at Tobias' well-practiced Shield charms - but at the world around them. Sweeney had been at ground zero of the explosion and went flying - and Tobias, unsteady on his feet, suddenly had the world whirled around him, and he hit the ground hard.
His ears rang from the sound, his vision span, and smoke burned away in his lungs. Tobias rolled on his back, fighting for coherent thought, and was dimly aware of the burly shape of Sweeney next to him, his wand already in hand, already getting back up -
And again being struck by a Stun, and again falling to the ground, still.
Shadows fell over them, tall and indistinct figures swarming the pair, though Tobias was too dazed to make out faces or recognise voices. 'Hold it right - damn.'
'It's not him.'
A wand was pointed in Tobias' face. 'The Minister. Where is he?'
Tobias blinked muggily. His wand was too many inches away from his hand, lying on the stones - with his leg, he'd never lunge for it quickly enough, and even if he did, what would he do? Try to Disapparate, take the risk of ending up anywhere and being splinched? It did beat dying.
I'm getting really sick of facing the business end of a wand.
But he smiled anyway. 'Oh, you can go right to hell if you think I'm telling you.'
One of the Remnant standing over him scowled. 'We don't have time for -'
Then the one who'd been waving a wand in his face stamped on his bad leg, and Tobias almost blacked out as he screamed. Not even when he wrenched it, not even when he over-exerted himself, did his leg hurt this much, like every inch of dark magic that had sunk into flesh and bone was flaring up.
'Tell us, or die! Did he get away? Did he -'
There was the sound of Stuns flying through the air, and the Death Eater standing over him gave a gurgle and collapsed to the ground - and through the slowly fading pain Tobias could hear the shouts around him change. Less panic, less pain, more the barking of orders and the voices of authority sweeping over, and then he could hear the cracks in the air of apparitions.
Sweeney's face appeared over him. 'Grey? Grey! You okay? It's all right, the MLE's got here, the Old Man's brought in the cavalry...'
Tobias blinked back pain, the ache making his breathing come raggedly. 'I'm okay, I'm okay. Go find the Minister, make sure he's all right...'
Their gambit had worked, he would learn. The Remnant had made a bee-line for him and Sweeney, and stayed away from what they'd judged to just be two dangerous Aurors who weren't a priority target. Once the bulk of the attackers had broken off, Rackham had all but dragged Shacklebolt away, down one of the roads out of the square - and right into Cassius Vaughn and his team of Aurors, Enforcers, and Hit Wizards.
Avery's Remnant had relied upon surprise and chaos, rather than numbers. Once the MLE had arrived they'd dropped their haphazardly-raised Displacement Aura and fled as quickly as possible, though not before losing perhaps half a dozen of their numbers to the MLE.
Then it was all over - except for the securing of the new prisoners, the securing of the Minister and important officials, and the beginning of repairs and medical attention. Fortunately, the hospital was ready in everything but the official ceremony, which was promptly waived to get people the care they needed.
Minister Shacklebolt found Tobias maybe an hour later sat on the steps up to the front doors. He was holding his cane, which he set down next to the younger man. 'I found something of yours.' He perched beside him. At the bottom of the steps, Tobias saw half a dozen Aurors and Enforcers carefully spreading out to stop anyone from getting past them, especially the press, and up to the Minister.
'Thank you,' said Tobias, and looked at his cane. He hated that thing. 'Are you all right, sir?'
Shacklebolt snorted. 'Am I all right? I got away fine. Even if Vaughn hadn't arrived then, Rackham and I were clear. You were the one who painted a bull's eye on yourself and went running through fire.'
'Limping,' Tobias corrected absent-mindedly.
'From where I stood, you were running. Sweeney and Rackham have been regaling the MLE with the story. Quick thinking; I sometimes forget you were an Enforcer.' Shacklebolt nodded down. 'How's your leg?'
Agonising. 'The same as ever,' said Tobias automatically. 'And I meant what I said, Minister. I just did my job. I'm no stranger to how doing the right thing means fighting sometimes. It's how this happened.' He nodded down at his thigh.
'I know. I suppose I've been surrounded by bureaucrats far too much. But I wanted to impress upon you how much I appreciate -' Shacklebolt stopped, and wrinkled his nose. 'Listen to me. Six months, and that's coming out like a politician. What I mean, Tobias, is - thank you.'
Tobias nodded awkwardly. 'You're welcome, Minister. When I say I believe in you, and I want to work to see you properly elected - I don't just mean at a desk. I mean in whatever way I can help.'
'Did you let the Healers have a look at you?'
He shifted his leg gingerly. The small movement still screamed with a familiar pain. 'There's not much they can do,' he said. 'Except for brew me up some potions to dull the pain.'
'I don't like them,' said Tobias, a bit stiffly. 'I mean - sorry, sir. They wipe me out, I can't concentrate, I can't do anything. They're only any use if the pain's stopping me from sleeping. It'll get better over the next few days on its own.'
'I didn't realise it was that bad.'
'It's a Dark Magic wound, Minister. These injuries do nothing by halves.' Tobias gave a grimace of a smile. 'I'm used to it, really.'
Shacklebolt quirked an eyebrow. 'That's not especially reassuring. But you should grab some potions, go home. Get some rest.'
Tobias swept a hand across the square. 'And who's going to deal with all of this? We'll need to make announcements to the press, about the attack, about the MLE's next step, and we still have everything that was on the agenda anyway we don't want to let fall by the wayside. If we do nothing, Harrigan's going to jump on this and make it seem like we're not in control.'
Shacklebolt sighed, letting his gaze sweep across the throng of activity before them. 'This job never lets you sleep, does it?'
'We're still in working hours, Minister.' Tobias gave a lopsided smile. 'We should just be grateful the Remnant were so considerate in scheduling their attacks.'
The Minister nodded, getting to his feet and extending a hand to help Tobias up. Out of respect for Shacklebolt, Tobias didn't refuse it like he normally would, but grabbed his cane and let himself be helped to his feet. 'In that case,' said Shacklebolt, 'go talk to Vaughn and get his status. I'll get the staff and we'll drag the press together for a proper announcement.'
Not Vaughn. But Tobias just nodded. 'Of course, sir.'
The Head of the Auror Office was in the middle of a throng of his men, not to mention Enforcers and Hit Wizards. He had clearly assumed seniority amongst the different divisions of the MLE, which was not so unusual since he'd headed up the Department for over a month before demanding the Minister let him go back to the Aurors.
Tobias let his gaze sweep over the gathered officers. He'd seen no sign of Tanith, but then, there were other MLE officers he couldn't spot, and he had to reason that Vaughn wouldn't have brought everyone with him. In some ways, it was easier - for the most part he just wanted to crack on with work, get this situation controlled, but a part of him, the part of him in not-insignificant pain, wanted to rest, and sought her out.
Vaughn was giving out brusque orders, MLE officers entering and leaving the throng of activity, but he stopped when he saw Tobias, turning to him and giving a dry, lopsided smile. 'Grey. Good to see you.'
'Is it?' Tobias said mildly, remembering their last meeting.
Vaughn snorted and clapped him on the shoulder, and he tried to not wince as it shifted his weight. 'Rackham and Sweeney told me a pretty story. About how your plans for this ceremony got bust open, how it looks like the Remnant learnt and planned an ambush, and how you managed to screw it up by taking a different route.'
'That was just to dodge the press,' said Tobias, who hadn't even thought about that. 'If I'd known I was dodging a Remnant ambush, I would have at least brought my staff.'
Vaughn guffawed. 'Still messed up their plans. Then you make yourself a target to get the Minister out? That tickles me.' It was as if he'd never even called Tobias a "fucking idiot" a fortnight ago. 'What can I do for you?'
'The Minister needs to make an announcement to the press; they'll no doubt ask what the MLE are doing,' said Tobias, and thereby committed himself to the next few hours of the Ministry trying to wrestle back control of the situation.
He got the briefing from Vaughn, filtered out the necessary information, and gave it to Shacklebolt, who had harnessed the press and was proving how much he'd learnt of how to speak to them over the past six months. They were reassured that the Ministry had the situation under control, that the MLE had taken people into custody and were pursuing the leads, that Avery would no doubt be hunted. That the hospital would open, and even though they forgot to preempt the leak of the memo that had prompted Tobias' caution in the first place, the Minister swept the faltering question from the Prophet to one side with a calm reassurance that it was nothing more than a memo - that new people would be recruited, on a permanent basis, to guard Azkaban, and that this would be a long-term solution.
Then they were back in the Ministry, going over the events of the day with the staff and how to move on, how to keep in control, how to further their plans; a new poll needed to be put in the field, questions for it needed to be put together, and though it wasn't late by the time Tobias was finally slouching out of the office, it was after eight and dark outside.
His flat wasn't far from the Ministry; he'd liked the idea of being able to walk to work. But now he apparated, his injured leg no better after hours of limping to and fro, standing for most of the time, and though he'd been gritting his teeth and bearing it, the scar was throbbing painfully.
He didn't try to punch through the apparition wards of his flat, didn't feel up to it, and so it was with a groan that he appeared in his corridor, slumping against the wall for a few moments, getting his breath back.
Soon. He could rest, soon. Leaning heavily on his cane, Tobias slouched to his door, found his keys, and let himself in.
It was a small flat. A government salary wasn't all it could be, but he could still enjoy a modest kitchen-and-sitting room, and a separate bedroom. He didn't spend enough time there for it to be more than sparsely decorated, though he'd tried to keep that tasteful rather than spartan. It was nothing outrageous, but it was comfortable, and it was pleasant.
But not empty. The second thing he noticed when coming in were the candles, dozens arrayed on any flat surface that could be found, flickering with a magical, unnaturally golden flame that gave the flat a warm, inviting glow.
The first thing he noticed was Tanith perched on his dining table wearing only a negligée. Or a chemise. He wasn't sure.
The point was, there wasn't much of it.
She saw him and gave a slow, inviting smile he hadn't seen her wear before, encouraging but a little, unusually, shy. 'Hey.'
His jaw dropped and he tried to speak but, almost distressingly, nothing came out.
It would have been distressing if he hadn't been quite so distracted.
'When I got the call about the attack, I wanted to go right there. But Vaughn ordered us to Canary Wharf as possible backup. So we had to wait.' Her smile, if anything, broadened, and lightly Tanith got to her feet. Slowly, details of what was around them began to sink in. The table was laid, though there was no food in sight, just a plastic bag sat on the counter, and he thought he could smell Chinese food.
If he'd been thinking, he'd have wondered how the hell Tanith knew Chinese takeout existed, let alone how she knew to get her hands on it. But thinking was entirely out of the question right then.
'It gave me a bit of time to think. And worry, yes, but... I decided to use that worrying to plan. To think about how much I wanted to see you again, safe and sound. And what I'd do once I did.' She was almost gliding as she closed the space between them, coming to stand before him, reaching out - and then past him, to lightly nudge the door to swing shut.
'Then I heard not only that you were all right, but that you'd managed to make a hero of yourself getting the Minister out of there. Even Vaughn was impressed. So that settled it.' Her fingertips brushed along the buttons of his shirt, toying with the fabric.
A shiver ran through him at the contact, though her touch was enough to spark some function back into his thoughts. He fought to talk, clearing his throat, but his voice still came out hoarse. 'Tanith...'
She lifted a finger to his lips, and he almost melted there. The day was out of his mind, the fear out of his mind, the pain in his leg a thousand miles away. All there was, was her. 'I figured we had best celebrate. After all, you made a hero of yourself out there today.' She leant in, her lips a breath away from his, her hands coming down for her fingertips to brush against his belt buckle. 'And the way I remember it, the hero gets the girl.'
The next thing he knew for sure, they'd crossed the space between the door and the dining table and he was kissing her, their weight slamming against the table to rattle the cutlery. One hand was buried in her hair, the other tight around her; he'd dropped his cane somewhere along the way and he didn't care, couldn't care.
He'd kissed her a hundred times before, but never like this. She'd never felt like this before, hot and pinned against him, the world becoming foggy on where he ended and she began. Then her fingers were fumbling with the buttons on his shirt, and the feeling of her warm hands on bare flesh was enough to make his head spin.
He tore his lips from hers to trail them along her jaw and down, and felt her pulse pounding at her throat. A soft, needy moan escaped her lips, a sound he'd never heard her make before but knew he wanted to make her do again, and his hands slid to her hips, grip firm, to hoist her onto the table and -
- and then pain, blinding pain as taking not just his own weight but hers on his leg finally broke through the haze of desire, and his old injury screamed in protest.
No. No, you persevered through battle, you persevered through bureaucracy, you will not waver now of all -
But the pained gasp escaped his lips anyway, and she was not so lost as to not hear the difference, to not feel him tense, to not feel him sway on his feet, and suddenly her hold on him was concerned, not needy.
Her voice sounded far away, impossibly far away, but he gritted his teeth even as he opened his eyes to find black spots in his vision. 'No, I'm -'
Then the pain and nausea came rushing up at him, and the next thing he knew the world was spinning and stumbling. Her hand was at his back, steering him, and when his leg refused to keep him upright any more and his head couldn't cope with the balance, he was slumping onto the sofa, guided to lie back by Tanith's light touch.
'Just stay there, put your feet up, I'll get you some water, I'll...'
She said more, but it was lost in a haze of fussing and the rushing of air in his ears as the world slowly stopped spinning, and the throbbing in his leg became bearable. It was the first time in months his leg had failed him - the last time had been in front of Azkaban itself, and he'd not blacked out when he'd tried to redirect lightning, so to now of all times...
Tobias fought to sit up, but then Tanith was there, crouched next to the sofa, and gently pushed him down - and he was too weak to fight it. 'Take it easy, take a moment, then have a drink and -'
He tried to speak, but there was bile in his throat and when he did, his voice was irritatingly weak. 'I'm not a child.'
She did falter, he could see, but it didn't stop that worried knot in her brow he recognised, that apprehensive concern, like he was something delicate that should be handled carefully. 'I know, Toby, you just went white as a sheet-'
'I'm fine,' he said gruffly, and this time didn't let her push him back as he sat up groggily. 'It was just - just a moment -'
'You sure as hell didn't look fine.'
He didn't hear the shake in her voice, or at least didn't hear the fear in it, just the fussing worry he hated so much. 'It was a moment of pain, it doesn't make me a child, or an invalid, or someone who can't do something for themselves, someone who can't tell for themselves if they're okay, who needs fussing over and prodding over and pitying, and I don't need to be pitied by you.'
The emphasis on 'you' came out all wrong, like of all people he should be pitying her, when all he meant was that she was the last person he wanted thinking so little of him. And he saw her flinch, saw her shrink away a little, and guilt came writhing up in him to become an obnoxious cocktail with his anger and self-pity.
Then her expression settled into something firmer. One hand took his, her other came to his forehead, and only then did he realise how clammy he was, and how she was the only thing that felt normal. 'Okay,' she said softly.
He blinked. 'Okay?'
'Okay,' she repeated, and went to sit on the sofa next to him, not letting go of his hand. 'And I'm sorry. I'd hate - hate - that you might feel like I think that of you. I don't pity you. I could never pity you, I could never think you weak, I could never think that you're anything but the bravest and strongest man I know. I was surprised, I was worried, I handled it badly, and I'm sorry.'
The fire in him - the anger, and frustration, and thwarted desire were all beginning to fade, and though the pain in his leg remained a dull throb, he suddenly felt more tired than anything else. 'I just meant... I don't want you to look at me like I'm weak... never you...'
She leant in and kissed the corner of his jaw, and he sighed. 'Can you do one thing for me, though?' she whispered. 'Just... lie down?'
He didn't resist this time, and she tugged him down gently to cradle his head in her lap. He let himself be lulled as she brushed hair from his sweaty brow carefully. 'I'm sorry,' he mumbled, weak and still disorientated. 'I've managed to ruin a perfectly good night -'
'You've ruined nothing,' she murmured. 'Christ, Grey, do you know how long it's been since we've just sat and talked of an evening?' There was something pained and wistful in her voice, and he blinked up at her. She sighed. 'I didn't even realise your leg still gave you that much trouble, I didn't even realise how you sometimes have difficulty with it, because we never talked about it - because I never asked.'
With a start, he realised she was right. They'd never talked about the night he'd killed Robb; they'd hardly talked about anything from the war. They'd been so desperately scrambling for any moment together, and had been so desperate to make those moments pleasant, that they'd let huge swathes of each other fly by.
'It's not usually that bad,' he said quietly, and just starting to speak felt like something was bursting in him. 'I never almost passed out before. It's been better the past few months, but then there was the fight today. I'm usually fine, I can usually get around. Limp around. I guess I've not let the Healers do everything they could, but I don't want them... poking, and prodding me, and fussing over me...' Tobias closed his eyes. 'I hate it. I hate the weird looks, the curious looks, the pitying looks; I hate that I stand out the moment I walk into a room. Hobble into a room.'
He looked at her, sought her gaze, even though shame squirmed and wormed away in his gut. 'I hate that it stops me from being the kind of man you want.'
Her hand at his temple tensed. 'You're everything -'
'Then I hate that it stops me from being... the kind of man I want to be for you. I ought to be sweeping you off your feet right about now, not be wiped out on the couch.'
She leant down and silenced him with a kiss. 'You're everything I could want, and everything I could need. As you are. Every inch of you. There'll be another time.'
'Isn't that our motto by now?'
He saw the flash of pain in her eyes. 'You should get some sleep. Let me help you to bed.'
Guilt stopped him from arguing, meant he didn't protest as she tugged him to his feet, made him lean on her as he limped through to the bedroom. 'Bet this isn't how you figured we'd end up here,' he murmured as he slumped onto the bed, finding it more soothing than he'd anticipated and then feeling even more bitter at his body for failing him.
She didn't answer, just helped him get comfortable, then went to pull away and self-consciously tugged at the short hem of her nightwear. 'I should probably -'
Lying down on his back on the bed, although he was still dog-tired, he could think more clearly, see more clearly, and in the gloom Tobias reached out to snatch her wrist. '...stay?' She hesitated, and he could see every inch of self-doubt written on her, could see her shoulders start to hunch in. He tugged gently at her, light enough that she could resist, but she didn't.
As she sank onto the bed beside him, her own movements speaking of a deep weariness, he slid his hand around her waist. 'You look perfect tonight.'
'I look like an idiot.'
'You look perfect,' Tobias repeated, shifting closer, keeping his weight on his good right side. 'You are perfect.' He kissed her bare shoulder, his nose brushing the strap on her chemise. 'Where on Earth did you get this?'
She squirmed, not entirely, he thought, from discomfort, as he felt her relax in his embrace. '...Ariane.'
'That explains a lot.'
'You think I couldn't do this myself?' But the challenge in her voice was toying, and he knew he'd reassured her.
'I think you did. I think you managed to achieve something nobody else ever has.' He grinned in the dark as she looked at him. 'Made me speechless.'
She rolled over to nestle up close against him, and the sickened guilt in his gut loosened a little. 'If tonight's been rearranged to just be a teaser,' she said, voice toying and relaxed, 'then I'm really going to have to up the ante, aren't I.'
'When I gave my spare key to Cal for emergencies, this wasn't really what I had in mind.' But when their eyes met, his gaze sobered slowly. 'I suddenly have a whole new motivation to go to Saint Mungo's and see if there's anything else they can do to help with my leg,' Tobias murmured. 'Because I don't want to give you anything less than my full attention next time around.'
He felt her breath catch in the gloom, and mentally cursed himself and his failing body yet again. But he meant it; he'd do it properly, this time. No more fobbing off the Healers because he didn't like their attention or their fuss, because he could 'get by' without it.
'I love you, Tobias,' she whispered. 'And there's nothing that could make me want you any less.'
Then she kissed him, lightly and lingeringly and, he suspected, trying to not frustrate herself any more than he'd likely managed to do over the evening. But it was enough to reinforce the promise to himself, the commitment this time he was determined to keep.
She was worth more than him just 'getting by'.