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Chapter 13 : Two-Way Street
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It had been a week since Valerie Phelps had been murdered. And the investigation team was only making marginal headway.
They had claimed themselves a tidy corner of the Auror Office's rooms down in Canary Wharf. As the second-highest profile team in the department, after Proudfoot's relentless pursuit of Garrett Avery and the Remnant, they were entitled to the prestige and they needed the room. Around the walls had been strung up the details and pictures of the three significant incidents surrounding their murders: The break-in and murder of Valerie Phelps, the break-in and murder of Bartholomew Mulready, and the attack on Bernard Lackardy and murder of Jacob Van Roden.
All similarities had been strung together, and it was becoming easy enough to identify an modus operandi of their killer. So they had to look at the way the buildings had been broken into, the way they had fought, the way they had got away. And, especially in the case of Valerie Phelps, how her home address, not a matter of public record, had been found if they were to work under the theory that their killer did not know these people personally.
The unpleasant suspicion had arisen that they were dealing with someone who at least had connections straight into the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Although there was no specific lead there or any route to pursue, it was enough to leave the three trainees on edge.
It left the training officer on edge, too. It just didn't rank top on her things to worry about.
She was stood now in the shed at the bottom of Valerie Phelps' garden, ostensibly setting up some runes in an effort to further pin down an errant apparition trace. Normally incredibly hard to pick up, they'd had a spot of luck in that Katie, adept at seeking these traces out since being in the Lions, had noted it in the early investigation. Since then they'd been able to magically sustain it while getting the resources together to try to properly isolate and pursue it.
It would have been easier if they'd got in an analytical team from the MLE, but they were leery about getting in outside help. On a good day, Tanith had the unpleasant suspicion they might have been looking for a disgruntled Auror or Enforcer, past or present, who was taking the law into their own hands, and didn't want to tip anyone off.
Today she couldn't have cared less.
It hadn't struck her until she was in the shed, when she'd set out the four runes to arrange this corner of the Isolation Ritual, and when she'd pulled out her watch to make sure she invoked them at the same time as the other three. She'd done so without incident.
Then she'd spotted the date on her watch and it had been like a blow to the gut.
One year. One year since she'd walked into the Ministry with a recently-broken hand to see her father dragged across the hall in chains. One year since she'd stood before the bundle that was the murdered Altair Ritter. One year since she had walked out with his body, alone, and found a patch of land on her parents' estate to bury him.
She'd done it herself, with a shovel, despite the aching of her body at the effort and after her incarceration. Her mentor had always taught her to never do anything with magic which you could do with your own two hands - that to become overly reliant upon the power made one take it for granted, and made one weak when it was gone. She hadn't always agreed with him, had pointed out the value of simply saving time through magic, but she had understood his point.
And the last thing she would have done was dig his grave with magic. He had been a man who had defeated magic, even the most powerful of dark magics, with his wits again and again. He deserved to be buried with the same hard work and grit that he had lived by.
She hadn't been able to order a headstone 'til the summer, when she and her father had together set it into the grave and stood there, the only two people in all the world who had truly known who Altair Ritter was, what he was capable of - perhaps the only two people in all the world who had cared.
He'd deserved better. But he'd got death.
And the anniversary had snuck up on her wholly unexpected.
It was partly because she was tired. Partly because she was reeling from the loss of Jacob, and partly because of her frustration at not being closer to finding his killer. But also just for simple, raw grief, she needed to take a few moments on her own in the shed, and reflect, and get her feelings back under control.
That was becoming harder, these days. She'd stopped shutting down and it was becoming harder to do so on a whim. Something allegedly emotionally healthy for her was proving to be a serious pain in the arse.
She picked up the gardening equipment she'd kicked over, pulled her coat - his coat, Altair's coat - tighter around her shoulders, and stepped out under the gloomy grey skies of a British November.
'All right, Chief?'
That was Katie, stood in the middle of the back yard, wearing an expression of apprehension that just wound Tanith up. Over by the fence was Harry and Ron. They'd probably all heard her knocking things over.
At least she hadn't cried.
'Let's get on with it,' she said, nodding stiffly. 'This is meant to be your bag, Bell.'
'Actually, my bag was covering our traces,' said Katie, moving roughly to the centre of where they'd placed their runes, the location they guessed someone had come apparating from. 'But you do need to know the principles of how they find you if you're supposed to avoid them.'
'You were never caught, even when we chased you up and down the country. There's no way some office-bound technical specialist in the MLE can have you beaten on that.'
Katie looked a combination of surprised and suspicious at the genuine compliment and encouragement from her Training Officer, before she nodded, closing her eyes and lifting her wand, and she began to mumble under her breath.
Tanith crossed over to where Harry and Ron stood, hands shoved in her pockets, and leant against the fence. Harry nodded at Katie. 'What does this usually get us?'
'Hard to say,' said Tanith. 'But it'll draw the impression of the magical trace into the stones. The readings will be a little different due to their location, so by comparing and contrasting we should be able to get a decent read on the details of any apparition. So long as it left a trace.'
'So you mean,' said Ron slowly, irritably, 'we don't get answers from this, we get something else to analyse?'
She gave a humourless smile. 'Welcome to the leg-work bit of being an Auror, Weasley.'
He muttered something unkind, but her attention was drawn by the crunching of footsteps, and she looked up to see two of the Enforcers who'd been securing the scene letting themselves through into the back gate. They looked harried, and rather furtive.
Beckoning them over and gesturing towards Katie, so they'd keep it down and not distract her if at all possible, she looked them up and down. 'What's going on?'
The two exchanged unhappy glances. 'Press,' said one. 'Whole bloody swarm of them round the front. We've had a hell of a time getting them to go.'
'I think it's time we threw out a sacrificial lamb,' agreed the other.
Tanith sighed, but lifted a hand as Harry straightened. 'Hell no, Potter. There's no need to throw fuel onto the fire. They'll be crazy about this case even without you; I don't want to encourage them.'
'They were asking bits and pieces about the case,' one of the Enforcers agreed. 'But they were pretty keen to know if you were going to talk to them.'
She raised an eyebrow. 'Me?'
'You're the Senior IO.' They shrugged. 'We didn't want to tell them nothing.'
'Well, no. Don't.' She sighed. 'All right. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. It's not like I can get anything useful done while Bell works.' She turned to Harry and Ron. 'You two stay here, help Bell if she needs anything, and for God's sake, don't poke your heads out. It'll just excite them.'
Harry made a face. 'Are you sure you don't want back up in case they get nasty?'
'I can face the mean old reporters, Potter.'
'I think he was more worried about their well-being than yours,' said Ron cautiously.
'I've learnt my lesson. They can't pull the same trick on me twice.'
She followed the Enforcers around the side of the cosy little detached house. Valerie Phelps had lived in comfort funded by the suffering of those who stood against the Thicknesse Administration; even though Tanith was no stranger to opulence, Phelps' lifestyle made her sick when she thought of its price.
It did, however, mean that access to the front yard was blocked by a handsome white-stone wall and iron fence painted black. A couple of Enforcers could stand in the gateway and not let anyone get past, and they were doing so now to keep back a huge swell of press.
Something had probably leaked, somewhere down the line. It was the nature of the game, and it filled Tanith with passing irritation rather than fury. They didn't yet know anything delicate enough to be disruptive in the hands of the public, even if they were trying to keep their cards close to their chest. But whatever it was had been like specks of blood in a shark tank.
The two Enforcers gave her the sort of encouraging glances that made it clear they were just happy she was going into the fire and not them, and with a groan Tanith stepped forwards.
'Auror Cole! Auror Cole!' But it wasn't just her name being shouted, but a whole slew of questions being hurled in her face, and even though some of them quietened down as she raised her hands, plenty didn't.
'If you want me to actually answer your questions, then pipe down!'
They only did a little, but then questions were being thrown at her, and she handled them as best she could. Yes, they were treating it as likely that these cases were linked. No, she couldn't discuss any leads or suspect list. Yes, they had options they were pursuing. No, it wasn't difficult working alongside Harry Potter, and he was as useful as any qualified Auror trainee would be expected to be. Then -
'Can you confirm that Tobias Grey has agreed to join a Harrigan administration if Minister Shacklebolt loses the election?'
The question came so completely from nowhere that Tanith just gaped, bewildered that they were even talking to her about Tobias let alone the details of the query. She worked her jaw wordlessly for a moment, then gave a snort. 'You really might want to ask Philon Harrigan or Tobias Grey about that, but I seriously doubt it.'
'They were spotted and overheard talking in Saint Mungo's a few days ago -'
'I know they spoke, but you're reading into it a bit if you think that means -'
'And I spoke to Mister Harrigan this morning and all he would say was that an offer had indeed been made.' The journalist, a young woman from the Daily Prophet with an unpleasantly keen glint in her eye, twirled her quill in her fingers.
'An offer...' Tanith's throat went dry. He didn't. He wouldn't. He'd tell me.
And then a treacherous voice at the back of her head she hadn't heard in six months wormed its way to the surface. Would he? If there's one thing he loves more than you -
'I think you'd - you'd have to...' But her gut was churning, and she found herself stammering over the words, desperate to get them out but not even sure what they'd be. 'You'd have to talk to Mister Grey about matters to do with Mister Grey.'
Because they sure as shit don't have anything to do with me.
'Questions about the case, please,' she said, her head reeling.
If whatever tips they'd had were blood in the water, her state of mind was like throwing a limb to piranhas.
'How can the Prosecution Office be impartial in a trial against the murderer of one of its own -'
'Isn't it hypocritical for an Auror who served in Thanatos Brynmor's brute squad to be criticising the past of Bartholomew Mulready -'
'How can the Ministry condemn this vigilante when he's taken action the MLE has failed -'
'You think this person's a hero?' Finally Tanith thundered in, the swirling of her thoughts overcome by the fire in her belly. 'First, let's call them what they are: murderer. They murdered Valerie Phelps, they murdered Bart Mulready, and if you think they had what was coming to them, then remember it is very likely they murdered Jacob Van Roden -'
'Another Auror who served under Thanatos Brynmor -'
'When a single one of you bloodhounds has made the kind of contribution to society that Jacob Van Roden made in one day in this job, I might bother to listen to your judgemental crap. But as it is, you stand there - the whole wretched lot of you - and you're not here for the truth, you're looking for someone to hang.' She jerked a finger accusingly at them, even if she saw no shame in their eyes, no self-reflection - they just ate up the words.
Doesn't matter what I'm saying, does it? It just matters that I'm losing my temper with them. They might as well have something to write about.
'The Auror Office will do its job. It will find the murderer. And if you don't like how this investigation has been handled, or even if it exists, then you can all go straight to hell, because I don't answer to you. We live in a difficult time, and in difficult times, difficult paths need to be walked, and frankly - unless you've spent a day in this uniform you don't have the right to clean an Auror's boots, let alone stand in judgement of them.'
The uproar exploded, but Tanith just turned on her heel and let the Enforcers - who looked a mixture of respectful and horribly indignant at her words, the latter because they had to deal with the fallout - move in to fill the gap and contain them.
As she walked around the side of the building, once she was out of sight she stopped for a few moments to slow her breathing. To her surprise, she felt her hand - the one that had been broken by Idaeus Robb in interrogation, the bones still tingling sometimes when it was damp - shaking.
When she returned to the back yard, Katie's eyes were still shut, deep in incantation, but Harry and Ron were staring at her. She gave them a sour look. 'What?'
Ron immediately looked away and said, 'Nothing,' but Harry met her gaze levelly.
'We could hear you,' he said.
'Yeah. Well. Fuck the press,' Tanith growled, massaging the back of her hand to stop the flesh from crawling and her fingers from twitching.
'They'll chase you for this,' he said, not unkindly. 'Throughout this case, if you need to talk to them again, they'll bring this up.'
Tanith scowled as she reflected upon this. 'Perhaps I'm not cut out to talk to the press.'
They didn't say much for the next fifteen minutes as Katie concluded her incantations, doing it a second time to make sure there were no mistakes. The Aurors then glumly gathered the rune stones under Tanith's instructions, and apparated back to Canary Wharf. Getting to the bottom of these magical readings was the best lead they had, and there was no point in wasting time on anything else.
It looked as if news of this impromptu press conference had spread, and Tanith suspected the Daily Prophet reporter had circulated one of those paper memos across the Ministry. It would give the essentials of what had happened but leave out the most tantalising details - all so the people in the most compressed centre of magical individuals in Britain would know to read the evening or next day's edition of the paper.
Although the faces were tense, and there were a couple of disapproving glances, the Department of Magical Law Enforcement seemed rather approving of her having openly and bluntly flipped off the press.
She just hoped Cassius Vaughn had the same idea.
The door to his office was open, she noticed as they walked down the corridor, and voices could be heard from inside, raised and frustrated. One she recognised as Vaughn's. The other -
'...can't have your people speaking like that without consequences!'
'Consequences are a public image issue, boy, and so they're your problem, not mine. So long as my people get the job done -'
'Even if they utterly alienate the public in the process?'
Most eyes in the bullpen were locked on the argument, and with a mixture of apprehension and pure, burning rage, Tanith went to hover in the doorway. Both men inside were stood, but though Vaughn had his build on his side to dominate his lanky opponent, he still had to crane his neck to meet the frustrated gaze of Tobias Grey.
Tobias didn't notice her, but Vaughn did - his gaze flickered only briefly over, his expression not giving much away before his eyes locked on Tobias. 'My people go out there and fight criminals, dark wizards. They sacrifice every hour God sends, they sacrifice their health and in some cases they sacrifice their lives. They do this to keep the public safe. If the public will turn against us because one of us doesn't fucking coddle them, then fuck the public.'
So Vaughn did have the same idea. Or, at least, she didn't underestimate his protective instincts - even if he wanted to string her up by her guts, she knew the Head of the Auror Office would be damned if he'd let some outsider come down and rip her to shreds.
The feeling was, at least, mutual towards this outsider.
'Telling the press that they ought to be cleaning Aurors' boots -'
'Actually, I said they didn't have the right to even do that,' said Tanith, voice dangerously mild, and both men spun to face her. 'Sorry for interrupting, Boss. I hate being misquoted.'
Tobias' eyes flashed, and he waved an irritable hand. 'It doesn't matter what you exactly said. What were you thinking?'
'Many, many things,' she said flatly, glaring at him. 'And right now, I'm wondering what the hell it is to you?'
'I'm the Minister's Communications Director -'
'And you come down here, personally, every single time an MLE Officer makes a PR gaffe?' she scoffed. 'Christ, if I'd known that would get your attention I'd have asked Savage to handle the press briefings and hired us a chef in the office instead of pissing around waiting for you in restaurants!'
Vaughn's eyes flashed as he realised the situation was in serious danger of getting out of control. 'She does have a point, Mister Grey,' he said, voice now low and clearly trying to settle them both down. 'I can't help but feel that you're reacting particularly badly to this because of your personal relationship. You can consider your feelings officially marked, and I will deal with the disciplinary measures against my people. If the Minister has a problem with it, then he and I need to have a serious discussion about the chain of command - I know it doesn't include sending his staffers down here to tell mine off.'
Tobias squared his shoulders, and she could tell that whatever anger had prompted this behaviour was starting to cool, and he was starting to question himself. But that didn't calm her down - she kept her gaze on him, flat and furious.
He cleared his throat weakly. 'Thank you, Mister Vaughn.'
Vaughn looked between them. 'Yeah, I don't want to be in here right now,' he growled, moving around the desk. 'Cole, come find me once you've finished picking him out of your teeth.'
He closed the door behind him firmly, deliberately, and the sound echoed around the tiny office. She hated this room. It made her think of Lestrange and Robb and Drake, and through them, Brynmor. When the door was shut, she felt penned in, threatened. It just made her burning anger worse.
Tobias took off his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose. 'I'm sorry,' he said in that brusque way which meant he knew he was wrong, but he was still too angry to be gracious about it, 'but you can't let them get to -'
He only got halfway through the sentence before she'd reached out to grab a folder on the desk and hurled it at him. It opened mid-flight to scatter trainee records across the office and hit him ineffectively. 'Tobias Grey, you are the biggest coward I have ever had the misfortune to meet!'
He stepped back, astonished, leaning on his cane. 'What are you -'
'Philon Harrigan! A jobwith Harrigan if he wins this election, a job he offered you days ago, and do you talk about it with me? No, I have to hear about it from the Daily sodding Prophet!' She stalked up to him, jerking a finger in his chest.
The colour sank from his face. 'How did they -'
'They overheard you and confirmed it with Harrigan, who presumably talked about it because it presumably wasn't a secret. I mean, it's not a betrayal of Shacklebolt if you don't work for him if he loses, so it's not like there's anyone else who you might want to hide this from!' Her lip curled.
Tobias worked his mouth ineffectively. 'I wasn't hiding it from you,' he flapped. 'I was going to -'
'When? When it happened? I'm not a sodding idiot, Toby, I knew you wanted to stay on working for Shacklebolt, but I didn't know that you still being in the Ministry in a month's time was a certainty!'
'It's not a certainty!' He tried to straighten. 'I didn't give an answer, I didn't decide anything yet!'
'And you didn't think that this was a decision we might make together? You know, considering it would affect meas much as you? Considering that you told me for months that you'd leave government after the election and our relationship has basically been on ice until then, you didn't think that I might want to know this?'
'I'm not the only reason this relationship has been on ice!' Tobias snapped. 'What about you? Vaughn would have given you any job you wanted after what happened to Jacob. You could have taken Dawlish's post, worked a nice nine-to-five. You didn't even want to be a field training officer, you didn't even want to investigate the Mulready case, but you did it anyway. This is a two-way street!'
She faltered, words and ideas catching in her throat, and she swallowed them down. But her anger wasn't gone. 'We're not talking about me. We're talking about you, and you hiding things.'
He put his glasses on falteringly. 'This is why I didn't tell you,' he said weakly. 'I knew you'd react badly.'
'No shit I'm reacting badly. You know what might have made me react better? Hearing it from you!'
'Why, so you could just complain about how I get to have a career which is demanding on my time, while you swan off and do the exact same thing and that's supposed to be beyond reproach?'
There it was. That lingering resentment she'd known he had towards her job but had never voiced. And while Tanith couldn't deny that she did think it was more important to give time to the Auror Office than the Minister's Office, that wasn't where it began and end.
'The difference,' she growled, 'is that I have never pretended to you that this job is anything other than what I want to be doing for the foreseeable future. You have made out like your circumstances are temporary, and that has impacted on our relationship, and that means that if that's liable to change, I have a right to know!' She threw her hands in the air. 'This is supposed to be a relationship! We're supposed to share our lives, we're supposed to face decisions together, we're supposed to talk about things!'
He'd fallen silent, hanging his head, but though she knew he was beaten, defeated, she couldn't summon sympathy for him. Her fire was fading, burning out, and in its place was a lump of cold fear in her gut.
She'd shouted at him a hundred times. This time, the hundred and first time, she just felt tired.
'But clearly, we don't,' Tanith said, frowning at his boots. 'Clearly, we don't discuss our lives, or where they're going to go, with one another. Clearly, we don't plan our lives as if they're actually going to interlink.'
'You know I want to -'
'I think that you want two conflicting things,' she said coolly, raising her gaze to meet his. 'Because I don't think that you can have the kind of career that you want to have if we're going to have the kind of relationship that I want to have. I love you, Tobias. I waited for you through grief, and I waited for you through war, but I won't wait around for you to want to be with me. Because if I do, there won't be anything of me left by the time you get around to it.' She drew a pained, shaking breath. 'I've known this for months, but I hung on for two reasons. The first was that I thought maybe, just maybe, the election would change everything. And the second was that I convinced myself that just one more moment, one more second in your company, even if it was doomed, even if it was fleeting, was better than no more moments at all. But those moments are going to kill me if I keep chasing them.'
If there had been any colour in Tobias' face, it was certainly gone now. 'Tanith, you don't mean - come on, we can work on this, we can figure out a compromise, we can figure out how to have our lives and our careers and each other - after all we've been through -'
'Maybe we could figure it out,' Tanith agreed coldly. 'But the heart of the matter is that you didn't try to figure it out with me. You just hid it. So I don't see how we have a chance of confronting these matters and winning, because the only way we'll win is if we face them together. You made your choice. You want to face these things on your own.'
Then she looked away. 'It's over. And I have work to do.'
She couldn't look at him as he slumped to the door, couldn't look at him as he left, limping as if his leg was in the most acute agony, and could only be fleetingly, weakly grateful that he closed the door behind him.
The moment it was shut she felt not just her hand shake, but her knees, and she sank onto Vaughn's chair. For once the tears came easily, hot and frustrated, and for once she let herself cry, burying her face in her hands and letting the sick feeling of grief and shame swarm over her.
Grief for what had been lost. Shame because she'd let it get that far - and because she'd just thrown out something countless hours, tears, and drops of blood had sunk into. They had fought for this, their chance together, for years, through torment and death, and it had ended in an angry argument in a tiny office.
Right or wrong, it was hard to not feel like more than just her heart had walked out that door.
She didn't leave even when she was done, just slumped in the chair and stared at her hands until the door swung open and she jerked a back to life. But it was only Vaughn, who closed the door behind him and looked with supreme disapproval at the scattered file on the floor.
Then he bent to pick it up, before he perched on the desk and reached into his robe to pass her a handkerchief.
'Seems like the world's been enjoying taking chunks out of you this month, Cole.'
She sniffed, and wiped her nose and eyes as best she could. 'Sorry for using your office, Boss.'
He just shrugged. 'You're not allowed to talk to the press any more. I know your options are limited with the trainees to hand, but for Merlin's sake, next time send out Bell.'
'I would have done. But she was the only one of us doing proper work at the time, Boss.'
Vaughn sighed. 'You better take the day off, Cole. I'm having your runes from Phelps' place run down to the analysis team, and that's not up for debate. They'll get you answers quicker than you four would, and you four have other work to do.'
Tanith wrinkled her nose. 'So why're you sending me home?'
'Because you getting your head screwed on straight is other work,' Vaughn said gruffly. 'Not to mention you four would be working on these runes for days anyway. Take the day off, come back tomorrow to chase your other leads, by the time you've done that the analysis team will have your answers. Get back on the horse. Find the son of a bitch.' He hesitated. 'That is, I'm assuming you want to stay on this -'
'Boss, I just dumped my boyfriend, and the reasons are complicated and mostly his fault, but of the percentage that's my fault, it's down to me spending too much time with work. I don't want to end the relationship and only then stop doing the thing I was doing wrong. That's just fucking perverse.' Tanith stood, her knees now a little more reliable, and she passed the handkerchief back to Vaughn. 'I'll... blow today off and be back. Back to work.'
The prospect was long and ominous, like a wasteland she'd have to walk through, a wasteland whose paleness was creeping in already to the now. Just the briefest consideration of the days ahead made her gut twist unpleasantly - a mere hour beforehand she'd thought of her schedule and it had been a case of getting satisfying work done and fitting in the gleaming spots of happiness with Tobias where she could.
She'd planned on cooking him dinner at her flat at the weekend. She'd planned on -
'I need a drink.'
'And I need my office back,' said Vaughn, his sympathy clearly dried up by now. 'There's nothing to drink in here,' he added thoughtfully.
She left, feeling her legs moving only sluggishly as she bade them, and almost stumbled as she returned to the bullpen. Most of the Aurors had, by then, managed to find something to do - or at least pretend to do - and so she was grateful there were few eyes on her as she plodded over to the desks pushed together where her trainees sat.
Jacob's desk, of course, remained untouched and empty.
Tanith looked at them levelly, knew from the expressions on their faces that they'd figured out a good chunk of what was going on, and reasoned that at least this meant she didn't have to pretend everything was absolutely fine. She opened her mouth to tell them she was going home.
'Let's go to the pub,' she said instead.
They blinked, and unsurprisingly it was Harry who reacted first, Harry who gave a firm nod. 'That sounds like a good idea.'
'Hate to put a dampener on things,' said Katie cautiously, 'but where can we go where we can dodge the press? As that might be kind of a notion right now unless we want the evening to end in a celebratory blood-bath. And if that happened, I'd have to change.'
They all frowned, and Tanith gave a small, humourless smile. 'I know a place.'