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Beyond This Place by Slide
Chapter 12 : French Gnomes Are Worse
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 1

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‘If you just relax, Mister Grey,’ said the Healer, hands firmly around Tobias’ knee, ‘and let me know what you feel.’

‘If it’s pain,’ said Tobias, gripping the Saint Mungo’s bed he was perched on, ‘do you want a descriptor, or will “ow” suffice?’

‘Some indication of degree will be useful, but I’m not here to make you uncomfortable,’ she said. ‘We just don’t have very good records of the nature and extent of this damage, and how it’s been healed, and how it’s progressed. It’s important for us to get a full idea of which muscles are affected, how badly, and how that’s developed over the past months.’

‘Don’t you have the paperwork from my Healers back in Greece?’ said Tobias gingerly.

‘You stopped seeing them after two months,’ she reminded him, a little tersely. ‘Once you were consistently mobile with a walking aid you cancelled further appointments. Your appointments here with us have been sketchy at best and only when you have been in specific pain.’

‘It’s a hospital,’ said Tobias. ‘It’s for emergencies.’

‘It’s for people who need help,’ said the Healer, her hands a little cold on Tobias’ bare thigh as she felt the red, livid scar, and the muscles around it.

‘I don’t -’ But he winced as she placed pressure on a certain point, and took a sharp, hissing gasp. ‘Yes, it will hurt if you poke it!’

The Healer looked up, only nominally apologetic. ‘I’m four inches away from the scar and applying gentle pressure. This would suggest that there’s damage still further along the muscle. You cannot determine the care that you need, Mister Grey, off sight and feel alone.’

‘They’ve been doing me good so far.’

She stood abruptly and went over to her desk, where she picked up his file. ‘You made this appointment because you wanted to be prescribed some proper long-term care for your leg. I am happy to help you with that, but you need to help yourself.’

‘Of course I want to help myself,’ said Tobias unhappily. ‘I’m here.’

‘After how long?’ The Healer’s voice was gentle in her challenge. ‘It’s no sign of weakness to get our help. I can try to determine a long-term course of care. It will take regular appointments, regular physical therapy, a regular prescription of potions which are both for your pain and to help the recovery of your muscles. It will take time. It will take hard work. Some of it may leave you temporarily incapacitated as we try different methods and different techniques, but we shall find the best course.’

‘And where will I be at the end of it?’ Tobias said, unable to keep the sneer from his voice. ‘Skipping and running? Of course I won’t, it’s a Dark Magic injury, it doesn’t just go away. There is no magical cure for this.’

‘But it is the difference,’ said said tersely, ‘between needing that cane everywhere you go, or being able to move around under your own steam some of the time.’

Some of the time,’ he repeated scathingly. ‘Not in public. In public I’ll still be the man with the cane -’

‘Or, if you’re very lucky, the man with the obvious limp, yes,’ she said coolly. ‘But it’s the difference between leaving that by your front door every time you come home, or needing it by your bed so you can so much as get up in the morning without help.’ Slowly her gaze softened, though Tobias was relieved to see no trace of pity in there. ‘It might not make a difference in how people see you in public, but it should make a difference in how much pain you’re in while you’re being watched.’

She began scribbling something down on a pad. ‘You came here, after six months, for a reason, Mister Grey. You say you’re worse than you were before your fight in Manchester; you know full well that there is a world of nuance within “still injured”. Is that why you came here? To get better after the attack?’

Tobias sighed, staring down at the scar. He tried, most of the time, to not look at it, but here under the slightly too-bright light of the hospital room it seemed even more vivid, red and ugly and puckered up. He was coming up on a year since he’d sustained the injury, and he still wasn’t used to it.

To not being whole.

‘It finally started to get the better of me,’ he admitted grudgingly. ‘I’ve always been able to work around it. Power through. Not let it slow me down in my work. And that’s not changed. It just finally meant I let someone down.’

‘I don’t mean to be so cold, Mister Grey,’ she said, her voice softening. ‘It is a deeply unpleasant injury, and I understand it’s difficult when so many such wounds could normally be cured within hours, days, weeks. Barring tremendous breakthroughs in our understanding of injuries caused by Dark Magic - and we do research all the time, with especially more done since the war - you will almost certainly never again recover full strength and mobility in your left leg.

‘But it doesn’t have to slow you down in anything but running a marathon. And I can help with that. All I ask is that you be honest about whether you want me to help, and honest about whether you’ll take my help, because anything else is wasting my time and yours.’

Tobias’ shoulders slumped, and when he spoke his voice came out very small. ‘I do want your help,’ he said quietly. ‘And I’ll take it. I knew I wasn’t going to be running marathons ever. I guess I just hoped it was possible I wouldn’t need this.’ He tapped the cane.

‘It is possible,’ the Healer said, scribbling something else down on the pad. ‘These wounds are unpredictable; it’s part of why we struggle so much to fix them. But I would not consider it likely. You have to aim for achievable, manageable goals, in the long-term and short-term. Start with, over the next couple of months, getting to the point where you can move around your home, your office, without it, and without putting yourself in more pain to do so.’

The thought did brighten him, a little, and he wore a wan smile when the Healer pulled the top sheet off her pad. ‘In the meantime, here’s a prescription for some potions. They will knock you out, so I suggest you take them last thing before bed. You almost certainly won’t wake up for six hours after that, and I’d like you to get a full eight. But they should help the muscles peripheral to the main injury heal up; the indirect Dark Magic damage is something we can combat.’

‘Eight hours’ sleep.’ Tobias blinked at the sheet as she passed it to him. ‘That’s optimistic.’

‘You can get eight hours’ sleep,’ she said mildly, ‘or you can continue to be in pain. I’d want you to take it every night. I’ll put you in for an appointment in two weeks’ time and we can see what progress the potions, and time, have made.’

He sighed, reaching to the side of the bed to pick up his trousers. ‘Thank you,’ he said a little grudgingly. Even the routine of dressing himself had its little quirks and intricacies, the little ways he had to balance himself, the way he couldn’t put his weight on his bad leg, and he thought he felt her eyes boring into him as he got properly dressed again.

‘For what it’s worth,’ she said as he was putting his shoes back on, ‘I used to read your paper.’

Tobias glanced up, raising an eyebrow. He didn’t get that very often any more. Most people had said and done their praise, and were just looking to bellyache at him about the Minister. ‘Oh? I hope it was helpful.’

It was a stock response, but he’d run out of sincerity since people usually said it while looking at him pityingly - or while trying to not stare at his leg.

‘It was.’ She smiled, her first genuine smile, and again he was reassured by the absence of pity. He supposed a Healer saw enough injuries that they managed to see the people behind them with ease. ‘I was here, just helping who I could, but... it was good to know there were other people out there helping. Fighting.’

‘Then I’m glad I could help,’ said Tobias, pulling on his coat. ‘That was the idea. But that was a while ago now.’ He tried for a more genuine smile. ‘I now have to try to help in a completely different way.’

‘Your man’s got my vote,’ she said with a chuckle, and he left the hospital room feeling a little bit less sorry for himself than he had when he’d come in.

He’d expected it to be a pain to get an appointment at Saint Mungo’s. But the moment he’d mentioned it to the Minister, Shacklebolt had got straight on the Floo himself, ignoring his weak protests. He’d got him an appointment and given him the time off for it, sooner than he could have likely got of his own accord, and when he’d tried to object, pride wounded, Shacklebolt had just said it was in the best interests of the Office for him to be healthy, so he shouldn’t consider it nepotism so much as a campaign investment.

Even if he knew Shacklebolt’s concern was personal, it had been hard to argue with that. And, of all the people in his life who showed concern about his personal welfare, Kingsley Shacklebolt was the one person he couldn’t tell to go take a long walk off a short pier.

Tobias tried to ignore the throng of people in Saint Mungo’s as he pushed his way down the corridor. At least the new hospital had been taking a lot of the pressure off; it was a sad state of affairs that Saint Mungo’s had been sufficient for wizarding society for some two hundred years as the sole magical healing institution in Britain, but no more.

Then again, techniques for healing had developed to become more sophisticated, so a trained Healer had more to offer than the average wizard who’d learnt some recovery spells. That placed a higher demand on such trained individuals. And after two major wars in twenty-five years, he was not the only person with long-term injuries which needed attention. Before he’d been born, such ailments were freakish, unfortunate occurrences, not afflictions which affected a notable percentage of the population.

At least he was not alone in being pathetic.

He only got occasional glances. Someone had to be pretty keyed in to politics to know who he was, or a former reader of the Midnight Press who had bothered to remember his face. Such individuals were few and far between, and that suited him in general and certainly in particular right now.

So he was rather surprised when a voice he recognised hummed through the corridor. ‘Mister Grey?’

Tobias blinked as he turned to see the willowy shape of Philon Harrigan, Kingsley Shacklebolt’s nearest and only real rival in the Ministerial Elections. He forced a polite smile and straightened up. ‘Mister Harrigan - I wouldn’t have expected to see you here.’

Philon Harrigan was a handsome older man, well-presented in old-fashioned robes Tobias knew he wouldn’t have worn two years ago. Two years ago he’d have been wearing something modern, but he was also a clever politician who knew full well that modernity was an angle which his nearest rival had covered. It suited his poll numbers to spout the same politics he ever had, just to look a little bit less like he was against the old, established orders. Tobias couldn’t begrudge him this; that was the nature of the business they were in.

‘My mother’s in hospital,’ he said, though he looked unconcerned. ‘She fell foul of a garden gnome. So she gets to be in here while I have to round up my son this afternoon so he and I can wrangle the little blighter out of her back yard.’

Despite himself, Tobias smiled. He had never had a personal objection to his rival, and had indeed found him perfectly pleasant to talk to when outside of professional circumstances. ‘You should call the Prophet. Make it a press event.’

‘Myself and Leon being outwitted by a gnome for four hours? I imagine Kingsley would love that,’ he chuckled. ‘No, I leave the displays of virile youth to him. I’ll just try to get through the issue with my personal pride intact, let alone my public image.’

‘I don’t envy you. Fortunately, any garden my mother keeps is in Paris.’

‘Fortunately? I imagine French gnomes are worse.’ Harrigan smirked, though the smile sobered a little. ‘I also imagine a man like you doesn’t need to read the news to hear what’s been coming out of the Auror Office.’

‘I have some pretty direct lines,’ Tobias agreed with a sigh. ‘You mean this Death Eater murderer going around?’

‘At least the press haven’t found some cutesy nickname, but a few more days on the front page and I bet that’ll change.’ Harrigan made a face. ‘I don’t envy you for being in government and dealing with that one. Condemning murder and vigilante action while not being able to paint the victims as... victims?’

‘Oh, but if we let the sins of the victims reach public awareness that much then we get all these lovely questions about how the MLE didn’t bring the victims to proper justice themselves, sooner,’ Tobias growled. ‘It’s a great balancing act.’

‘It is, and I’m afraid I’m not going to make life easier for you with it,’ said Harrigan, sounding halfway apologetic. ‘But it’s the nature of the game.’

‘You know it’s the nature of the game why these people didn’t get brought to justice sooner. You know life’s more complicated than that.’

‘I do,’ agreed Harrigan, ‘and yet, when you’re making these kinds of compromises and these kinds of choices, they need to be scrutinised and questioned. Each and every one. Even if they’re right, they still need to be examined.’

‘If you were here to keep us honest, Mister Harrigan,’ said Tobias as he lifted a finger, ‘you should go into the media, not into politics.’

‘Right now I can do both,’ said Harrigan. ‘But I didn’t bring it up to score points against you. It’s hard to hear a name associated with this case which isn’t Harry Potter - good bit of cover-up there, the press like to get distracted with that he’s doing something rather than pay attention to what he’s doing. But the senior Investigating Officer’s your partner, am I right?’

Tobias nodded, a little apprehensive. He didn’t think Harrigan would play dirty but this was a new tack. ‘Tanith Cole. That’s correct.’

‘Relax, Mister Grey.’ Harrigan smiled his politician’s smile - the one aimed to make people relax, and the one which worked. ‘I just wanted to ask you to give her my best wishes. Sincerely. I can hardly wish the Auror Office luck on such a case as this without it seeming like a political move, but I do sincerely wish the team on this the best. I fear they’ll need it, since public opinion runs the risk of being their enemy just as much as a serial killer.’

‘Thank you,’ said Tobias, gently bewildered as they stopped by the lift doors, and they opened to show nobody inside. ‘I’ll be sure to let her know; I think it helps for her to be reminded not everyone’s waiting for the MLE to trip up so they can pounce on it.’

‘It does often feel this way, doesn’t it?’ said Harrigan as they walked into the lift, but Tobias felt his posture change as the doors slid shut, and wasn’t especially surprised when the other man turned pointedly to him.

‘I’m glad I’ve caught you here,’ he continued, almost without missing a beat, but that they were now able to speak in complete privacy was not lost on Tobias. ‘There was something I wanted to talk to you about.’

‘Anything you have to say to the Minister, Mister Harrigan, I fear you can say to him directly.’

‘It’s nothing for Kingsley,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘It’s not even anything about the campaign. It’s about you.’ Tobias looked at him quizzically, and Harrigan gave a cheerful smile. ‘I want to offer you a job.’

Tobias frowned. ‘I have a job. And that is about the campaign.’

‘I mean, when it’s over. If I win.’ Harrigan shrugged. ‘If I win it won’t be because of any mistake on your part. You’re excellent, truly excellent. Kingsley’s lucky to have you, and if he’s smart, he’ll keep you.’

‘You have a Communications Director; I can’t imagine Trannick will be best pleased to -’

‘If Trannick is replaced it’ll be because he’s moved on to something better; it’s too early to make decisions but he’d make a fine Head of Sports and Games. And even if he doesn’t move on from my office I’m going to need someone in the DIMC.’

Tobias blinked. ‘Mister Harrigan, I’m flattered, but -’

‘You don’t need to make a decision. There is no decision to make - whoever wins, wins. But it’d be a crime for you to leave government, and I had assumed you’d be staying on for Kingsley if he wins.’ Harrigan turned to face him straight on, extending a hand. ‘Perhaps not my office. Perhaps not the DIMC. But if I win this election and you want a job - I want to give you a job. I would be a better Minister if I had you on my team.’ He grinned more lopsidedly. ‘I’d be a better candidate if I had you on my team, but I know that ship’s sailed.’

Tobias looked a little stupidly at Harrigan’s hand, then reached out to shake it as the doors to the lift slid open. ‘That has. There’s no way you could lure me away from the Minister,’ he said bluntly, though Harrigan looked unaffected by the honesty. ‘But I thank you for your offer, Mister Harrigan... and I’ll bear it in mind for the future.’

They got off the lift into the crowded lobby and went their separate ways. Tobias tried to ignore the looks he had got then - if he wasn’t recognisable, Harrigan was, and to those who recognised them both that must have looked quite peculiar. He wasn’t too worried about press fallout; Philon Harrigan had been downright courteous so far, and the election fight hadn’t been dirty.

In truth, the two candidates were too similar for it to get dirty. The difference was all in the window dressing as Shacklebolt tried to honestly embrace the progressive movement, unapologetic and unflinching, and Harrigan took a more coaxing approach. Where Shacklebolt fired up progressives and scared off the older establishment, Harrigan had more success presenting himself as a moderate, which reassured some and frustrated others.

While Tobias could appreciate that Harrigan’s approach got people on board, he feared the man compromised his progressive attitudes too much for the sake of popularity. And so long as Kingsley Shacklebolt could succeed while wearing his progressive heart on his sleeve, he saw no reason to compromise.

But if the electorate embraced a man who made change seem so moderate? Where would he stand then?

Tobias had never assumed Kingsley Shacklebolt would win the election. He wasn’t quite so foolish as to count his chickens before they had hatched. But he had done an excellent job of not looking beyond the day as it loomed ever closer.

Still, Cal’s reassurances that not only would he do well to stay on in the Ministry, but that it was his right to want to do well and stay on in the Ministry had not fallen on deaf ears. He liked his work. He was satisfied with his work. He wanted to continue it, and the only reason he’d not brought the subject up with Tanith was because it sounded like an awful lot of heartache and upset when there was every chance Shacklebolt would lose and it would come to nothing.

That excuse was in danger of wearing thin now.

It still occupied his thoughts all the way back to the office, and he was so distracted that he almost missed his secretary warning him that there was someone waiting for him inside. Fortunately, as he stumbled in to find someone sat there before him, it turned out to only be Cal.

But he looked pale and worn and was brandishing two sandwiches.

‘I thought you might want some lunch,’ his friend said, getting to his feet as Tobias pushed the door shut behind him.

‘You never bring me lunch,’ said Tobias suspiciously, limping around to take the sandwich and going to his desk. ‘You always say we should go out somewhere.’

‘Yeah.’ Cal frowned, and sat back down abruptly. With his hands free he began to wring them together. ‘Well, I didn’t fancy being in public.’

Tobias pushed a space clear on his desk and quirked an eyebrow. ‘Are you okay? What’s going on?’

‘I...’ He ran a hand across his bristly hair. ‘I owe you a conversation.’

Tobias blinked. ‘Go on.’

‘About my father.’

Suddenly the sandwich didn’t look so appetising. Tobias set his down next to Cal’s. ‘I know you went to Azkaban to see him the other day,’ he said slowly. ‘With Tanith.’

‘Yeah.’ Cal’s shoulders hunched up. ‘And I can’t tell if I’m being a bloody idiot and there aren’t many people who’ll tell me if I am.’

‘You should try Tanith,’ said Tobias, colder than he’d meant to be. ‘She’s pretty good at telling people they’re bloody idiots.’

‘I already know what she thinks about me and my father. And, yes. It comes under the category of “bloody idiot”.’ He looked up, gaze pained, and though ice had settled in Tobias’ gut, as it always did when the subject of Thanatos Brynmor came up, hard and cold enough that he found it hard to feel anything else, there was still the faint twist of sympathy for his friend.

‘She told me that, once,’ said Cal, and though he looked tense and pained the words sounded like they’d been bottled up somewhere for too long and were now tumbling out with the pressure of having been kept in. ‘That the subject of Thanatos makes me a bloody idiot. That I have a tendency to run to him, and that makes me a weak and stupid coward...’

Tobias frowned. ‘When the hell was this?’

‘In her defence, we thought you were dead.’ Cal scrubbed his face with his hands. ‘Neither one of us was in a good way. And she was right, and it’s why I left for the Lions, and I never looked back, but... now he’s here, again. In Azkaban.’

‘Cal...’ Tobias opened his hands, really not sure what Cal wanted, and even less sure what he could give him. ‘What’s going on?’

‘He wants me to... I don’t know. Not forget he exists and let him rot in Azkaban forever. At least acknowledge he’s my father. I guess visit him once in a blue moon.’ Cal didn’t look up. ‘I think that’s it. He wants me to not just scrub him from my life, even if he’s only a fleeting presence.’

Tobias opened and closed his mouth, the ice turning to anger and then back again, and a mocking laugh ran in the back of his mind. ‘I am not sure I am the person to tell you what’s to be done about Thanatos Brynmor.’

Cal finally lifted his head. ‘Why not?’

‘Because...’ Tobias worked his jaw. ‘I can hardly be impartial.’

Cal drew a deep breath. ‘What if I asked you to not be impartial? What if I asked for what you honestly thought?’

‘Honestly?’ The ice chipped. ‘Honestly I think he’s the most brutal, savage son of a bitch I ever met. Honestly, the man murdered my father in cold blood, not because my father opposed him, but because my father tried to save lives he wanted gone. You know how that happened, that night?’ Tobias had stood without realising. ‘They left a trap. They attacked houses and they waited for the Para-Healers to come and then they murdered them too. This wasn’t war, this was wanton murder.’

He turned on his heel and limped to his window. Anger had always been the best cure for his injury. ‘If you need me to begin lecturing you on what he did to you, then I don’t think I can help you, Cal. But I can remind you that when you reached out to him once before, when you tried to get him involved in your life in the most simple and harmless way possible, by writing to him and not telling him about the war, just telling him about your life, he found a way to twist that to pursue his own sick and violent agenda.’ Tobias’ shoulders hunched. ‘And Annie paid the price that time. He didn’t even know her, or me. All he knew was that Hogwarts’ seventh-years had been preoccupied by the drama of a romance between a boy of a good, old family - half-blood or otherwise - and a Muggleborn, and that this wouldn’t do. That they had to see that this kind of mingling had to be punished.’

His hand had clenched into a fist without him realising, and at the last four words he brought it pounding down on his windowsill - then stopped as he felt a big, warm hand on his shoulder. He started at Cal’s proximity, still tense, still angry, but Cal didn’t back down, wrapping the arm around his shoulder.

‘Christ, mate,’ Cal murmured, voice gentle, reassuring. ‘How long have you been holding that in?’

Tobias was surprised to find his vision suddenly blurred, and he blinked fiercely. ‘Neither one of us had our father around growing up. But you know what the difference is? Your father made the choices which led to him being stuck in Azkaban, and he deserved the consequences of his actions. The only choices my father made were to save lives, and he didn’t deserve to die for that.’

‘No.’ Cal squeezed his shoulder, also glaring moodily out at the magically projected view from the window. ‘No, he didn’t.’

‘I forgive you for what happened to Annie. You know that? That wasn’t your fault. That was Thanatos’. And I understand how it happened, I understand how you wanted to know him, no matter what.’ Tobias’ voice shook more than he’d have liked, and he took a deep, shaking breath. ‘I never knew my father; all I have are his diaries, and the books he liked, and precious little else because most of his old friends are dead and I can see how much it hurts Mum to even talk about him - she gave up everything to be with him, and then she lost him, and...’

Then he pulled his glasses off to push the back of his hand against his eyes, not embarrassed to be crying in front of Cal but not wanting to submit to the wave of grief - not just over his family, but the thoughts of his father brought back the memories of Annie, of Aurora Marlowe, dying to save him. If he let it rush over him he didn’t know if he’d be able to swim against the tide or if he’d just drown.

‘Mate, I’m -’

‘What I meant was, I understand,’ said Tobias, voice hoarse as he interrupted Cal, desperate to finish. ‘I understand why you wanted to know him. Because even if I hadn’t thought my father was a good man, I would have still wanted to know anything and everything I could about him. Even the bad parts. So I almost can’t advise you to stay away from him, because he’s still alive and you still have the chance to know him, to understand him. Even if that’s understanding evil. Because I understand that burning need to know your father.’

He turned, gathering composure, gathering strength, and he grabbed Cal’s wrist as he blurrily met his friend’s gaze. ‘The thing is? You don’t need to go to Azkaban to know your father. You have a father, and his name isn’t Thanatos Brynmor, his name’s Will Rayner, and he is one of the most honest and decent men I have ever met. And he steered you right, he brought you up well, and there is no reason, no reason for you to need Thanatos.’

Cal took a deep breath. ‘I know,’ he said quietly, his own voice rumbling with a dangerously emotional edge. ‘And I would never look to Thanatos for anything resembling emotional guidance. That’s not what this is about.’

‘You wanted my honest opinion?’ said Tobias, voice a little watery as he considered how he had hardly been evasive thus far. ‘I think that if he had to spend the rest of his existence staring at the walls of Azkaban, with his life’s work and principles in dust and ruins, without a single person breathing the free air ever giving him so much as a second’s thought - let alone giving him their time and attention and company - it would still be a greater kindness than he gave each and every one of his victims.’ He wiped his eyes and put his glasses back on a little sloppily. ‘I know I’m supposed to be the one of us who talks about forgiveness and lofty ideals and I’d love to, Cal. I’d really love to. But not for him. And if that makes me a hypocrite -’

‘No,’ said Cal quietly. ‘It makes you the man I wanted to talk to. It makes you the perspective I badly needed.’

Tobias sighed, and felt the tension and sick feeling in his gut fade a little. ‘Please don’t make any decisions about your life and your family based on just me and my grief.’

‘Not just,’ said Cal. ‘But he killed two hugely important people in your life. I can’t forget that, I shouldn’t forget that - I haven’t. But I...’ He winced. ‘I’m going to sound like some sort of callous son of a bitch if I say that I needed to hear that after you just bust your guts up all over me, aren’t I.’

‘No, I - I understand.’ Tobias’ next breath was a lot less shaky. ‘I don’t really talk about it much.’

‘No kidding.’ Cal squeezed his shoulder one last time before pulling back. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to land this on you. I just - it seemed kind of evasive to think this through when you and I haven’t talked about this ever. Not properly.’

‘Hey, at least no bones were broken this time,’ said Tobias with an effort at a lopsided smile, and he gingerly touched his nose. It would, he knew, forever be crooked. He preferred it that way, even if he could have probably had that fixed by magic.

It made a strong reminder of a time he’d failed to have faith in his friends when he should have done. And there were worse things to be reminded of, every day when he woke and looked at himself in the mirror, than that he should have such a faith.

‘We could fix that,’ said Cal, returning the smile. ‘Then we’d know this is a proper manly conversation between men.’

Tobias laughed, and it felt like the sun coming up after a night of dark thoughts when Cal laughed with him. The sick feeling of grief and tension in his gut was fading, though he still felt tired, as if the effort of feeling twenty years of pain was an exhausting process.

Cal lingered in the office for the rest of his lunch, and they ate sandwiches and talked mostly about the Quidditch, which Tobias pretended to care about, and Cal pretended like he believed he cared, and overall it felt more like old times in the common room fussing over absolutely nothing.

Missing hours of the morning had not done Tobias’ day much good as he embarked on the afternoon of work, but his thoughts nevertheless wandered and swirled after Cal’s visit. On an impulse he filched some memo paper charmed to take a message between offices, and after looking at his stack of files decided to abuse his power and scribbled a quick note to dispatch.

He received no reply, as he’d expected, and as he’d predicted it was eight o’ clock before he could reasonably get out of the office. But he left when he had the chance, and gathered up the paperwork he wasn’t done with, and apparated back to his flat to find it as dark and empty and unwelcoming as he always did.

At least in the office there was usually light and warmth, if not company.

His flat had none of these. So he got the fire stoked, and made himself a quick meal, and settled down on the sofa with the files and some reading and thought two out of three wasn’t so bad.

It sufficed until about half past ten, when the fire flared green and he put down his files with a hopeful smile to see the tired shape of Tanith stumbling into the flat, and then he was three for three.

Tobias got to his feet, leaning on the cane to do so. ‘Hey - I didn’t know if you’d get the memo...’

‘It was after eight before we made it back to the Wharf.’ She looked weary, but pleased to see him, shrugging off her coat. ‘Canvassing areas while dodging the press is a pain in the arse.’

‘You’re okay, though? No bad news?’ He hobbled over to her to slip his free arm around her waist, his fatigue suddenly all the more welcome when she was with him.

‘No, no.’ She rested her head on his shoulder for a moment, eyes closing. ‘I think we picked up an apparition trail away from Phelps’ house. We still need to properly isolate it before we can analyse it, and I don’t want to use too many specialist teams in the MLE, I worry there’s a leak... we have leads.’

‘Good.’ Tobias kissed the top of her head. ‘I have faith in you. I’ll know you’ll find the one responsible.’

‘I don’t care so much about someone wanting to take out Mulready and Phelps. They were evil bastards who were just slippery enough to wriggle through the cracks in an overworked justice system. But Jacob...’ Her eyes screwed shut more tightly, and he tightened his grip. ‘I was such a bitch to him.’

‘What?’ Tobias pulled back enough to look down at her; it wasn’t as if he was astonished at the revelation Tanith might not have been sweetness and light to someone, but he’d always thought she and Jacob had been close.

‘During the war.’ She looked up at him, eyes shining. ‘I didn’t let him help, I pushed him away, I took him for granted and treated him like he’d always be here and now he’s gone...’ Tanith drew a sharp breath. ‘I don’t know if bringing down a world of pain on the person who killed him can make up for it. But I will be damned if I do not oversee justice against this person myself, with my own wand. Or my bare hands if needs be.’

‘I cannot think of anyone I would less want hunting me across Britain - across the world - than you.’ He kissed her on the forehead gently, and felt her relax slightly in his embrace.

‘Yeah,’ she murmured a little thickly. ‘I’m good on the vengeance after they’re dead. Less good on being there for them when they’re alive.’ Her hands slid up his arms, across his shoulders, for her fingers to find the tense muscles at the back of his neck.

‘Mm, don’t, you’re the one who’s... been hunting... Christ, my brain’s turning off,’ he slurred, not reacting as she guided him back to the sofa, and he sat down heavily. She perched on the armrest, still lightly rubbing his aching shoulders.

‘And something’s up,’ Tanith prompted. ‘I might not be able to make up for everything with Jacob, but you’re right here, right now, right in front of me, and you’ve never before sent me a memo on Ministry official paperwork to get me to “just pop round”. Something’s the matter.’

‘It’s been a long day,’ he mumbled, feeling her pushing away more than just the past twenty-four hours with her gentle massage. ‘I went to Saint Mungo’s - they prescribed me some potions I need to take before bed, I’ll go see them again in a fortnight, they think they can... help. Make it better.’

He tried to not sound bitter, and it was made easier by her planting a kiss on the back of his neck. ‘Thank you,’ Tanith murmured. ‘I’d only worry if I thought there was something they could do to help, but you just weren’t going.’

‘I wouldn’t want to worry you,’ Tobias said sincerely. ‘So I’ll keep it up. And I even ran into Philon Harrigan there, just a chance encounter in the corridor. He asked me to give you his best, as the senior officer on the Mulready-Phelps case. I’d take it as sincere, he seemed keen to not make it a public or political gesture.’

‘That’s...’ Tanith sounded rather nonplussed. ‘Thanks, I guess. I’ve never met the man.’

‘Then Cal was waiting for me in my office,’ said Tobias, but where he had previously found tension and pain when thinking about the topics they had discussed, right now he felt a quiet ache, like a muscle after a satisfying workout. ‘We talked about... about Thanatos. But it’s okay,’ he assured her quickly, glancing up. ‘I’m okay. I just didn’t fancy being alone tonight after that.’

‘I worry I’m not up to much but some sleep,’ she said, her hands working down his back. ‘It’s been a long day, and they’re going to keep on being long.’

‘Just having you here helps,’ said Tobias sincerely, then all of a sudden he realised he had completely failed to mention the real conversation he’d had with Harrigan. But that would lead to upset, and stress, and woe, and he didn’t know if it would ever come about, and he hadn’t even mentioned to her how he was thinking about staying in government if Shacklebolt won, let alone staying in government no matter what.

And her hands at his shoulders were soft, working away at the knots of worry and discontent that had been settled in there for years, and right then there was nothing that could have possessed him to want to break the spell of this moment.

He made a small noise of contentment as she found a particular point of tension at his back. ‘You’ve got to tell me where you learnt to do that,’ he mumbled, so relaxed he was almost incoherent.

And he was so relaxed he didn’t properly hear her answer. He thought it might have been, ‘No, I don’t,’ thought he might have heard a note of wistfulness in her voice - but thought that, right then, he wanted to do nothing more than rest.

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