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Chapter 14 : Like a Dying Flobberworm
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'...so Jack here has the bright idea of putting Camouflage Spells on the lot of us, so if any Muggles do look up they don't see the entire first team of Puddlemere United charging through the skies of Liverpool.'
Jack Urquhart had his head in his hands, milking the attention for all it was worth, chuckling with mock-despair as Cal stood at the bar. His hands were raised, his voice was raised, and assembled Quidditch players and their gathered hangers-on alike had their eyes locked on him.
'Funny thing: Camouflage Spells work against everyone, not just the Muggles, so we all set off to catch this damn rogue Snitch, and it turns out, we can't see each other. Bash, whack, Jack goes into Oliver, Oliver goes into Saul, Saul almost comes off his broom and I have to rescue him so then we don't even have a Seeker with us while we're chasing this damn Snitch...!'
The bar erupted into laughter, and Cal let the story peter out there, because that was about the point it ended. That was about the point they'd got their act together, got organised, and found the errant Snitch, and it made a better story to just leave the assembled with the image of the Quidditch players fumbling about in Liverpudlian skies blindly.
'Why do you always manage to tell this one like it's my fault?' Jack objected.
'It was!' Cal laughed, reaching across to the bar to pick up his next pint. It wasn't bad, this Nothing in Moderation joint that Tanith had mentioned (at least, he'd thought that was what she was saying, she'd been pretty drunk when she'd come back from drinks with Ariane and Melanie and had mostly been cursing them). There were worse places for he and his teammates to go drinking.
So then it was only fair if Jack told the various women - and men, his co-Beater Samantha was quite capable of reeling in a crowd of adoring young men, but Cal was less interested in keeping their attention - a story of a time he'd messed up.
But stories of rampaging Bludgers and broken noses, although the bread and butter of all Beater cock-up tales, turned his thoughts a hundred miles and two years away. The time he'd hovered above the Hogwarts Quidditch pitch and seen a stupid Ravenclaw let a Bludger loose into the face of Nathalie Lockett...
He gulped his drink and turned his smile on the girl next to him. She'd given his name, but there were three blondes and one was called Chelsea and one was called Tracy and one was called Kayleigh and he didn't have a prayer of remembering which was which. There should have been rules against girls with similar names and the same hair colour from hanging out together.
'In my defence,' he said cheerfully, 'broken noses are really easy to heal -'
Fate clearly hated him, because then he saw over Tracy's (or Chelsea's, or Kayleigh's) shoulder the door to the bar open, and in walk someone whose nose he'd broken which had never healed properly.
Oh, and Tobias looked like he was about to vomit, too, that didn't help.
Cal straightened with a frown and immediately started for the door, Chelsea (or Tracy, or Kayleigh) forgotten. A quick hand on Jack's shoulder assured his teammate he'd be back in a minute, but Tobias was already headed in his direction, and the two met in the middle of the packed tables.
Tobias was limping badly, and there was no colour in his face. He swayed on his feet, and for a moment Cal thought he was already drunk. He reached out a hand to steady him. 'Mate, what's -'
'Didn't mean to interrupt,' slurred Tobias, and Cal concluded he was sober, just completely out of it. 'Just remembered you'd said you'd be coming down here tonight, and...'
Cal grabbed him by the arm and steered him promptly to the nearest empty table, almost carrying his weak side. When he sat him down he made sure he was actually upright, genuinely afraid he might slump over. 'What's happened?'
'Tanith,' said Tobias, and Cal's heart sank as he took in the glassy look in his best friend's eyes, the emptiness of his voice. 'It's over.'
'What did you -'
'Yes, it's always my fault, isn't it?' The bitterness was sudden, though Cal reasoned he shouldn't be surprised. 'My fault for daring to have a job, my fault for daring to take it seriously, and she's beyond reproach for taking a job with equally long hours and the risk of death. That, I should just be taking in stride, but -'
'What. Happened?' Cal kept his voice gentle, but firm.
'...it is my fault,' said Tobias with the despair and consistency of the truly defeated, and he slumped to bury his face in his hands. For one horrid moment, Cal thought he was going to burst into tears. 'Harrigan offered me a job if he won the election, and I didn't tell Tanith, and now she thinks that I'm hiding important decisions from her, like I don't want to make the choices about our lives together, when all I was doing was trying to avoid one more needless argument...'
'Okay.' Cal let out a deep breath. 'Have you eaten?'
'No - no, Cal, I don't think I could keep anything down, I just feel sick...'
'That's normal. Breakups are amazing for weight-loss, if you're a stupid masochist,' said Cal wryly, glancing around the bar. 'Have you been drinking?'
'Nothing in the flat,' said Tobias despondently. 'I was just staring at the walls until I realised I was going to - I don't know. I don't know what to do, it was just like I was going to burst inside unless I did something, anything, anything but feel this way. I actually considered just getting a Portkey back to Greece and doing - I don't fucking know what...'
'Hiding. That's what you'd have done,' Cal said, in the gentle voice of one who's been there.
'I came to find you instead,' Tobias said in a low voice, staring at the table. 'I didn't want to do something stupid.'
Cal looked sharply at him, but concluded that "something stupid" probably just meant get really drunk and wake up in an alleyway covered in his own vomit, perhaps having been mugged, rather than anything truly dangerous.
It still wasn't a condition he wanted to see his friend in.
'I don't get how she can't see it's a two-way street,' Tobias was mumbling, and it took Cal a moment to figure out what he probably meant.
'She does work long hours,' he agreed cautiously - debating the rights and wrongs was a doomed endeavour, and he knew it. 'She always has, just as much as she did in the war.' Then he remembered what Thanatos had said in his cell, and the unpleasant germ of an idea twisted in his gut. 'Does she talk much about the war?'
Tobias shook his head numbly. 'No. Very little. I guess it was hard working for Brynmor and Robb, but... I don't know. She doesn't talk much about it.' His expression twisted. 'And yet I'm at fault for - no, no, mine was a lie of omission.' He slumped forward on the table, burying his face in his arms. 'I'm a bloody idiot.'
'Yes,' said Cal thoughtfully, 'but I think that's a two-way street, too.' But it wasn't the time for him to mull this over. Now wasn't the time for answers, it was the time to just make it through the night in one piece. 'Come on, mate. Let's get you home.'
'I don't want to -'
'We're both going. And I'm going to stay there. And I'm going to make sure you're okay. But you don't want to do this in public. And you don't want to do this in a bar.' Cal stood, going around to help Tobias to his feet. 'Trust me.'
Tobias let him, feeling like a dead weight. 'I didn't mean to interrupt your night out.'
'There'll be more.' Cal squeezed his shoulder and began to steer him to the door. He was glad he'd only had a couple of pints on a full stomach if he was about to have to try side-along apparition. It wasn't as if Tobias was in any state to do it.
He looked at his friend with concern. 'It's going to be okay.'
'No,' said Tobias quietly. 'It won't.' He took a deep, shaking breath. 'I think I've really fucked it up this time.'
Ron looked around the Muggle pub and then squinted at his beer. 'How did you find this place?'
'My flatmate took me here,' said Tanith, swigging from her bottle. 'Right before the Occupation. The night of, turned out.'
'That sounds like the best way to put up with a violent invasion,' Katie said philosophically. 'Or, at least, better than how I did.'
Tanith glanced at her. 'Where were you?'
'In the office with Jen,' she said with a wince. 'We barricaded the doors and didn't come out. I know, just brimming over with bravery.'
'You would have probably died,' said Harry.
'And nobody can say you two didn't make up for it later.' Tanith nodded at the other two. 'What about you?'
Ron's expression twisted. 'It was my brother's wedding.'
'Oh, I do remember a Weasley wedding taking out half of the staff...'
She was feeling a little better. She'd led her bewildered trainees to the Leaky Cauldron then out into the Muggle world, where they'd all looked around as if they were going to be ambushed at any second. Then her feet had, almost of their own accord, taken her back here.
She hadn't been here in months. Even when she and David had been seeing each other, they'd tended to do so at his flat, or somewhere closer to it, and she'd reached the conclusion that he only came here for the music nights. It wasn't a music night, so she'd be safe, even if he did still attend them.
And yet her heart still leapt into her throat every time the door swung open with a combination of hope and apprehension.
You are just made of self-destructive bitch, Cole, you know that?
'It's a nice place, anyway,' said Harry, in the tone of voice which made it clear he was just trying to keep conversation going.
'And it's quiet,' Ron said.
Tanith clunked her bottle down. 'And I need another drink.'
Katie put a hand on her shoulder. 'Oh, no you don't, Chief,' she said, and rose to her feet before Tanith could look at her indignantly. 'I've got this round.'
With a start, she realised she'd not yet gone drinking with her trainees. It was the kind of thing a training officer was supposed to do - see their protégés socially, build up a rapport, a bond. Jacob had done it for her, had made sure that she knew she could rely on him as a friend as well as a colleague.
Yet more ways in which she had been remiss in her responsibilities.
She turned to Harry and Ron. 'You never told me how awful Dawlish was in training.'
They looked a bit surprised, as if they'd been expecting her to just be a wreck and not trying to make small-talk. That was fine; Tanith was pretty confident she'd get around to being a wreck. Right now she was just numb and reeling and wanted to make the most of that to pretend like she was an actually functioning human being.
Instead of a walking corpse whose heart and guts had been ripped out.
'A tit,' said Ron bluntly.
'Oh, he was all right about teaching us procedure,' Harry said graciously, 'which is all we really needed. Since most of the trainees this time around were war veterans. But I don't know how he'll handle it once he starts dealing with Hogwarts graduates.'
'Fortunately, there are a lot of vets to get through.' Katie had judiciously bought another round for everyone. Seeing the way the evening was destined to go, Harry and Ron polished their bottles off quickly and reached for more. 'But it's pretty crazy, you get people who've done all sorts of things.'
'Are you the only member of the Lions who signed up for Auror training?'
'Yep.' Katie kicked back, clutching not a beer but some bright pink cocktail. 'Funnily enough, a lot of them got real sick of war. Tom followed Jen into the Prosecution Office, but Diana's back on her Healer training course and Richard - well, he had a hell of a time convincing Gringotts that going to fight a war was a justifiable reason to drop out of Curse-Breaker training. If he hadn't been a Muggle-born, and so forced out in the first place, I don't think the goblins would have let him in!'
Tanith frowned. She didn't care that much about these people, but Katie did, and that was important.
Is it your own stupidity that has you acting like a more feeling human being after you ditch the love of your life, or is this just you trying to not feel a damn thing by focusing on everyone else?
Got to be the second. The first might be halfway healthy, and we can't have that.
'How come Everard went into Prosecution with Riley? I thought he'd been going into construction...'
Katie rolled her shoulder. 'War fucks people up. Tom's not the same, he's not been the same since Gullsmere,' she said, and Tanith managed to not flinch at the unexpected reference to Nick Wilson's death. 'He's a whole lot angrier than he used to be. He started fighting, and once he started, I don't think he can find it in him to stop.'
'Sounds ominous,' said Ron. 'I remember he was always a pretty mellow kind of guy.'
'He was,' Katie agreed, 'and he still is, if he's let himself had a full night's sleep, which is kind of rare according to Jen. But I can't judge. I wasn't going to be an Auror before the war. Now...' She made a face. 'I'm good at it.'
There was a moment where all four of them, some more veteran than others, stared at their drinks and reflected on how even in peace time, even after all they'd done and suffered, they were still volunteering to throw themselves in the line of fire.
Then Katie gave a sunny grin. 'At least, I think so; don't know if the Chief would agree I'm any good.'
'Tolerable,' said Tanith, but her lips twitched and the moment broke for them all to give a companionable chuckle. It was an illusion of peace, an illusion of good times, but she could cling to it for a little while longer.
Socially adept Katie, who had to know that they were stood at the top of a delicate house of cards, immediately took advantage of the revelry to fix her gaze on Ron. 'So how's Hermione?'
Tanith knew the trick. If they kept on talking, if they kept their minds occupied, there wouldn't be a chance for the elephant in the corner, the demon in her head, to come to the forefront. And, on some level, she appreciated it.
'Oh, you know her, work, work, work,' said Ron with a melodramatic, affectionate roll of the eyes. 'She could have waited a year until Hogwarts was rebuilt to go back to school, but did you think that was likely? Nah, she's up to her elbows in rebuilding work and in studying and she's already applying for a Ministry job in the Office of Magical Beings - of all bloody places - once she leaves school.'
'Yeah, that sounds like her,' Katie conceded.
'It's a pain in the arse,' Ron grumbled, still more affectionate than genuinely bothered, 'but I see her on the weekends. And besides, it's worth it. I'm not going to have gone through all this crap with her for years only to screw it up, am I?'
Then he stopped, his words hanging heavily in the air, and Tanith had to reflect that either they'd put two and two together on the hows and whys of her breakup with Tobias, or Katie had helpfully provided them with the footnotes. She suspected a little bit of both.
Ron squirmed in his chair. 'Sorry.'
'I'm not going to implode the moment we talk about relationships, screwing them up or otherwise,' she said mildly, taking a swig. 'It's okay. Everyone's different.'
There was another pause before Harry cleared his throat and pushed them on. 'You know, we'd thought that we might get a break after killing Voldemort,' he said wryly. 'There are times I think I'm working even harder now than I ever was when hunting horcruxes.'
'Yeah, but a whole lot of that was being sat in a field.' Ron's expression twisted as he recovered from his perceived gaffe. 'Now we're still going on wild goose chases where the leads may or may not provide answers; the difference is now I get to sleep in a proper bed and have a proper meal.'
'It's going to be longer hours from here on,' Tanith said on an impulse. 'I'm meant to be training you, not just having you doing Auror work and learning by watching. I know there aren't that many tricks I can teach you which experience won't, but I do think we ought to clock some hours in the workout room.'
Harry frowned. 'To what end?'
'An Auror has to be able to anticipate their partner's actions, even before their partner's decided what they're going to do,' Tanith reeled off. 'They need to be by their side in a fight, knowing what tactics are going to be used, acting without thinking. Not two halves of a team, just pieces of one whole.' She hesitated, her breath catching in her throat. She'd been concentrating so hard on keeping her upset about Tobias at bay that Jacob had snuck up on the other side.
'You three aren't my partner, and aren't going to be,' she added, a little gruffly. 'But we might see action, so we need the practice.'
Another silence - then Katie filled it again, and the rest of the evening descended into pointless babbling and conversation, and the beer kept flowing freely, and her thoughts remained in the here and now, where there was company and things to talk about and most certainly not heartbreak.
And every time the door swung open, she looked at it with her heart in her throat, not knowing if it was filled with hope or dread. Or a lot of both.
Annoyingly, her trainees weren't that hard to get on with when she actually tried. When Katie was making sure the conversation topics remained vibrant, when Harry and Ron had realised their adventures were no longer top secret and could regale them with the silliest or most impressive parts of them, when Tanith herself was relaxed enough to not feel like she had to throw up walls, or put down Katie, or not be allowed to ask the men exactly how they'd broken out of Gringotts riding a dragon.
She'd been locked in Azkaban at the time. But Jacob had told her about it.
It was an illusion of good times. And yet, there would be all the time in the world for the bad, for the grief, for the loneliness. She couldn't feel guilty for putting off feeling it for a few hours longer, to let the alcohol dull the shadows of her thoughts so she could focus on the here and now. The shadows would come.
And so, in some ways, it genuinely was a good time.
They were kicked out after eleven and managed to stagger back to the Leaky Cauldron, where Harry, really quite drunk by then, had decided that it was far too early for them to all go home.
Drinking with Harry Potter in a wizarding pub turned out to be the cheapest experience of her life. They hadn't been sat down for five minutes before someone came up to offer him a drink, but Harry - reasonable, surprisingly humble Harry - slurred something about how they were all Aurors, and so all equally heroes, and something about how he might have fought and killed Voldemort once, but all Aurors fought and killed the Voldemorts in their hearts every day.
The point was, everyone bought them drinks. And the Leaky Cauldron was wholly disinclined to shut at its normal time when The Boy Who Lived had triggered an impromptu party.
By the time they left, even in November the sun was struggling to rise, they were all struggling to walk, and somewhere down the line she'd found herself with one arm thrown around Harry's neck trying to remember the words of a song she'd learnt not all that long ago.
In her defence, he'd started it.
'Oh, and while the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown...'
'So that'll be me who's doing the apparition home,' Ron grumbled as they staggered into Diagon Alley, patting down his pockets in a forlorn effort to find his wand. 'You okay, Katie?'
Katie emerged from the gutter, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. 'I'm okay! I'm still here! I'm good to go!'
'The day! The music! Died!'
'You were sounding like a dying flobberworm ten seconds ago!'
'That's what I do. Then I feel fine.' Katie side-eyed the other two. 'Oh, look at the bloody Blues Brothers there. I'll take Jake, you take Elwood?'
'Never mind. Just get Harry home. I know where the Chief lives.'
'I know who the Blues Brothers are!' Tanith declared triumphantly, having quite forgotten the rest of the words. She extracted herself from Harry and let Katie throw her arm around her shoulder.
'Sure you do, Chief.'
Ron had planted both hands on Harry's shoulders and was focusing on keeping him upright, though he himself looked rather the worse for wear. 'Is she okay to be left alone?'
'Good point. I'll take her to my place. Then she'll be Gabe's problem in the morning.'
Katie proved thoughtful enough to apparate them into the parking lot under the building, even if it took her a good three minutes of concentrating in the road before she seemed to determine it was safe to try to make the laws of physics sit down and shut up.
Otherwise the corridor or flat would have had a far messier carpet.
'I could make it home on my own, you know,' Tanith slurred, and indeed she wasn't really walking any less straight than Katie as they stumbled their way to the lift.
'That's the point,' said Katie, only hitting the right floor button on the third jab at the wall. 'Not gonna leave you on your own.'
'Cal might be there.'
'And he might not. Don't fancy taking the risk.'
Tanith braced her hand against the wall of the lift and tried to even out her breathing. 'Why? You don't even like me.'
'I don't dislike you,' said Katie. 'And it's not the point. You wouldn't leave me heartbroken and alone.'
It was almost a question, but even in her inebriated state Tanith could recognise the faith being thrown out there.
'No,' she said at last, quietly. 'And... y'know. Thanks.'
'Typical,' Katie reflected as the lift doors slid open. 'First time I bring a girl back to the flat and it's you.'
'Sorry to disappoint. Sorry your love life sucks as much as mine.'
Katie fumbled with the keys to her flat. 'Nature of the job. Work all day, work all night, don't meet people, don't have a normal life.' She hesitated in front of the door. 'You just work more than most.'
Tanith leant against the wall. 'I don't -'
'You do. More hours. More jobs. More than you have to.'
She closed her eyes. 'I've got to,' she said falteringly. 'After all. I did the job during the war. For the wrong people. It'd be shitty of me to do it less when it's for the right people.'
'You did stuff for the right people.' Katie looked at her, key in hand. 'Sent us info. Got people out. Did what you could.'
'Sometimes.' Tanith glanced over at her, guts churning. 'But I wasn't one of the good guys, Bell. Not like you. I did things, horrid things - people's lives were made worse because of me.' She never would have been saying these things while sober, because she struggled to admit it to herself, let alone Katie bloody Bell. But now she'd started, she couldn't stop. 'So what do I do of an evening now? Keep working to make the world safer? Undo a little bit of damage I did, or 'least, make up for it a bit? Or go home to be happy when it's my fault lots of people aren't happy, my fault some people are -'
Are dead. But she was standing outside of the door to Jennifer Riley's flat, and she wasn't a complete idiot.
Tanith jerked her head at the door. 'Let's get some sleep. I want to make Gabe scream with surprise in the morning.'
A/N: Lyrics sung by a drunk Harry and Tanith in this chapter are lines from 'American Pie' by the great Don McLean, borrowed with humble appreciation. Because even a boy who grew up in a cupboard under the stairs and a witch with only a crash-course in Muggle music would know the words to 'American Pie'. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
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