Chapter 22 : Dangled Over a Tank of Sharks
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The shield spell was strong enough to just absorb the Stun, and Katie gave a triumphant smirk. ‘You were saying, Chief?’
Tanith paused, assessing her trainee, and the distance between them in Canary Wharf’s training room. She narrowed her eyes, and lifted her wand. ‘The Boom-Doh customers,’ she said, working on speaking and casting at the same time. It was a useful enough skill to practice. ‘You three managed to narrow down the list to something like twenty names.’
‘In so far as we can narrow it down,’ said Katie, backpedalling as she deflected spell after spell being thrown at her. ‘But we went for who - c’mon, Chief, you can hit harder than that - didn’t obviously exclude themselves, like with an alibi.’
Tanith gritted her teeth, and for a long few seconds focused on casting lighter, probing attacks to keep Katie diverted while gathering the energy and concentration for something that might punch through her focused defences. ‘I went through the delivery addresses on the twenty,’ she said.
There was a pause in the discussion for more spell-work; although they were working purely on Katie’s defensive spells, by moving around in the space they had, she forced Tanith to adapt her awareness and concentration.
‘And?’ Katie eventually prompted.
‘And one of the addresses isn’t a house,’ Tanith said at last. ‘It’s a - STUPEFY!’
The fat, heavy spell came after an array of lighter, flickering attacks which had been dispersed with ease, but this last one forced a yelp from Katie’s lips as she leapt back. Her wand whipped up in response, but instead of dissipating the energy, this Stun was strong enough and the shield spell came up at enough of an angle to deflect it. It rocketed away, knocked upwards, and took out one of the light fixtures high above, out of the way of any usual errant spells.
The two witches stopped, looking up, and Tanith quirked an eyebrow. ‘Huh.’
‘Whoops,’ said Katie. ‘That one came a bit fast and strong. Couldn’t really dissipate it.’
Tanith was looking between Katie and the fixture with a thoughtful expression. ‘Yeah. Didn’t think it’d shoot off like that.’
‘Depends on the strength and the shape and speed of the Shield. Like a ball, but usually a spell’s going to dissipate on impact.’
‘Well, that was a whopper.’ Katie brushed back some hair. ‘I barely got the Shield off in time, it was at a bit of an angle, so...’ She shrugged. ‘Anyway. Address. Places. You were saying?’
‘Yeah.’ Tanith tore her gaze away from the burnt patch of wall above them. ‘It’s a Muggle Post Box.’
Katie frowned. ‘A post box?’
‘It’s in a post office. Muggles hire little boxes to have their post taken so they can pick it up, instead of having it sent to their homes?’ Tanith wasn’t sure if she should be proud to have figured this much out or if she was just stating the blatantly obvious.
‘Oh, a PO Box,’ said Katie. ‘Huh. Weird. But if we have who it belongs to...’
‘Someone called Stacey Whitman. Who does not exist in any wizarding registry I’ve been able to find. And this was a mail-order to Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, so George Weasley doesn’t have a clue what they so much as look like.’
‘Could be perfectly innocent,’ said Katie. ‘I bet some Muggle-borns like using the Muggle world for stuff, and maybe it’s safest to have magical things delivered to a Muggle PO Box. Just as well George is smart enough to use couriers who know how to be discreet instead of an owl flying into a bloody post office.’
‘It could be innocent,’ Tanith agreed, ‘but since when was anything actually innocent?’
‘Since we kept on hitting dead ends?’ Katie winced.
‘Fine.’ Tanith holstered her wand and waved a hand, gesturing for Katie to follow as she headed for the door. ‘Let’s go check this PO Box thing out.’
‘Shall I get the boys?’
Tanith smirked. ‘They were so keen to be thorough with Riley, they can continue to be thorough in checking out the rest of the twenty names. Grab your coat, and we’ll go. Don’t tell them unless we find something.’
‘Ooh. Secret investigating. Like investigating, but way cooler...’
Cal consulted the bit of paper in his hand to confirm he was at the right place, then with a sigh shoved it in his pocket and glared at the building in front of him. Of course it was the right place. He’d never been here before, but it had to be - he’d fussed for hours and hours over making sure he came to the right place.
Now he just wanted it to not be so he could leave.
The Portkey to Paris had not been easily found at short notice. He’d had to throw around a lot of money and, most demeaning of all, ask Miles Bletchley for a favour. That had hurt him in his soul, but then he remembered that his smug arse had been dumped by Ariane Drake, one of the least discerning women in the world, and all had been right.
So he’d been able, within a couple of hours, to get to the magical district of France and now stood before a café and hotel he’d last heard was the best place to try called Les Deux Mages. Tobias had laughed when he’d heard the name and said something about someone called Sartres and a Muggle café, but Cal hadn’t really been listening.
He didn’t care much for the cultural implications of this place.
It was a busy, pleasant establishment, with an atmosphere he’d have appreciated if he was there to drink instead of there for rather less palatable business. The staff took mercy on his slow, clunky efforts to communicate, and since he knew at least what room he was looking for in the hotel, directed him up without too many questions.
It wasn’t as if he wouldn’t get his face hexed off if he wasn’t supposed to be here.
Which meant Cal wasn’t at all sure if he wasn’t going to get his face hexed off.
He found the right room and took a moment to look himself up and down. He’d dressed casually, lightly - he didn’t want to look too formal. But he didn’t want to look dismissively casual, or look like a mess, or even look too good - that was a definite faux pas. It wasn’t like he was just stopping by as if this was the most normal thing in the world; this was definitely not the most normal thing in the world, and -
He rapped on the door.
There was a long pause and Cal sincerely considered bolting as every good reason to not be here ran through his head, first and foremost being that he didn’t want to be here.
And yet, he was here entirely of his own volition.
Then the door opened and there before him, dressed for a casual evening herself, pixie-like hair as wild as ever and these days a bright green, stood the rather astonished shape of Nathalie Lockett.
She gaped. ‘Cal.’
He winced. ‘Hi. Glad I caught you here. This was where the Centre said you could be found until the Conference was over...?’
Nat frowned. ‘They shouldn’t have given that away...’
‘The receptionist recognised me and I bribed her with an autograph.’ Another wince. ‘Sorry. Can I come in?’
She stepped back and waved him into the hotel room, still clearly a little dumbstruck, and he self-consciously shoved his hands in his pockets as he slunk in.
‘Nice place.’ Cal nodded at the rather chic - it seemed the best word to use when in Paris - decor, that particular mixture of old fashioned and modern which France seemed better than London at pulling off with charm even in the wizarding world.
‘The company pays for it,’ said Nat awkwardly, and when she closed the door behind them Cal couldn’t help but be keenly aware that they were alone in a small room where the bed was the most predominant piece of furniture. ‘How’ve you been?’
‘Good. Yep.’ To make himself less awkward he took one of the two chairs around a tiny, pointless table. ‘Matches have gone well. We’re third in the league right now, but the Falcons and Tornadoes have a couple of tough matches coming up, while we’re going to pick up easy points from the Cannons. So I reckon in the next three games we’ll be second, if not first.’
She smiled, and he could see the sincerity there, see that - as ever - it pleased her to hear he was doing well, and that the sport they both loved was doing well for him. ‘That’s great.’
Cal tried to not wring his hands together as she sat down opposite him. ‘And... you?’
‘You know how it is. Travel. I’ll be in Morocco next week talking to their alchemists. I’ve found the north African theories on potions really cool; if I can convince the company to let me start work on incorporating those and their ingredients to make some variations on our catalogue...’ Nat’s voice trailed off as she remembered he didn’t find her job quite as fascinating as she did - or as she found his.
‘That’s cool, that’s really cool,’ he said as sincerely as he could. ‘I guess that’s going to keep you pretty busy.’
‘It should. And it’s to Casablanca, which is just an awesome place from what the others in the office were saying, I’m really looking forward to it...’ Again she stopped, and squirmed a little in her chair. ‘It’s good to see you.’
Cal gave an apprehensive smile. ‘And you.’
‘So I hope you don’t think I’m being a bitch if I ask what the hell you’re doing here?’
‘I...’ Cal hesitated. Tell me what to do. ‘I need your advice.’
She looked dubious. ‘My advice?’
‘Yeah.’ He scratched the back of his neck. ‘It’s... about Thanatos. I went to see him, just to... I don’t know. I hadn’t seen him since Victory Day. But...’
His voice trailed off, faltered - then he looked up to meet her green-eyed gaze, calm and reassuring and unjudging in a way he couldn’t imagine anyone else looked at him when he talked about Thanatos Brynmor.
So he told her. What Thanatos had said, what Will had said, what Tobias and Gabriel had said. Even what Tanith had said in the brief, limited times they’d spoken on the topic. About his doubts. About his fears. And about how he still couldn’t reconcile the smallest spark of a desire to see his father again with the knowledge and sick feeling in his gut which came from awareness of what a monster the man was.
And she sat and listened, because that was what she was good at. Only when he was done, shoulders hunched in, hands clasped together, head bowed, did she finally speak, her gentle voice like a knife through silence. ‘I do hope Doyle’s not right,’ Nat said calmly. ‘Because if you came here for me to tell you what you want to hear, I can’t do that.’
Cal winced. ‘I want what you think.’
‘And you’ll get that, because - well, because I don’t actually know what you want.’ Nat cocked her head. ‘Why did you come to me?’
‘Because you know me best,’ Cal said honestly. ‘Over the past two years of my life, you know me best. Even with all the time we spent... apart. You are better than anyone I know at cutting through the bullshit I know I can wrap myself in and get to the heart of matters. And you do it without bias, without bringing your own... issues to bear.’
Because Tanith Cole was also pretty good at cutting to the chase, but she brought her own damage with her when she did so.
‘Then if I know you so well, if I don’t know what you want... do you?’
Cal flinched. ‘I don’t,’ he admitted. ‘I think about all that he’s done, and then I think that nobody would judge me for locking him up and throwing away the key. And then I think about him, and wonder if any man deserves to be forgotten...’
Nat clicked her fingers. ‘That’s it.’
She met his gaze levelly. ‘What you just said. What people would judge you for, what he deserves. You’re not thinking about what you want, Cal. You’re thinking about how other people would see you, and you’re thinking about some higher cosmic power judging you on right or wrong, on justice.’
Cal hesitated. ‘I guess so.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’ Nat shook her head. ‘Anyone who matters to you will trust and love you enough to accept your decision either way. And there’s no court of morality to judge your decision in a broader cosmic sense.’
He briefly thought of the hurt look on Will’s face sometimes when he talked about Thanatos, of the sound of Tobias’ voice cracking when he spoke of his father, but was forced to nod. ‘...maybe not.’
‘So you need to cut out all of this bullshit,’ said Nat simply. ‘Of what they want. Of what even he wants. There’s no right decision or wrong decision. Just what’s best for you. To hell with everyone else. Do what you want, not what they want. And remember that whatever people think your reasons might be, they don’t matter as much as the reasons you’re actually acting on.’
‘But I don’t know what I want.’ Even as he said that, it was like something in his heart was bursting out, a dizzying sense of freedom from a cage he’d not even realised he’d been in. He could do what he wanted, and just what he wanted, without worry of the judgement or disapproval of others.
He just needed to figure out what that was.
‘I can’t help you there,’ said Nat, leaning back with a shrug as if she’d fixed this huge problem for him without so much as breaking a sweat. ‘I think he should be dangled over a tank of sharks until the rope breaks, but hey, I’m biased.’
Cal gave her a crooked, reassuring smile. ‘I don’t think Azkaban would let me ask that.’
‘But if you do want my opinion?’ Nat grimaced. ‘I hate the guy. For what he did to me, for what he did to you. I think he’s about as close to evil as you get without becoming Voldemort. But even if Azkaban doesn’t have Dementors any more, even if it’s changing, I can’t think of a hell worse than being in there, alone, forever.’
Cal grimaced. ‘The question is if that’s a fitting punishment.’
‘Nope.’ Nat shook her head. ‘It’s not even a question which should affect your judgement. Do you want to turn your back on him and never see him again? Or do you want to see him again, however often you damn well please, without warning or commitment?’
‘I guess I have a lot more to think about.’ He looked over his shoulder and saw through the window that the sun was growing fat and orange across the Parisian skyline. ‘I hate to drop by, demand your help, and run, but if I don’t get the mass Portkey going in the next half hour I’m going to have to wait until tomorrow or pay through the nose for a personal one...’
She stood, smiling sympathetically. ‘It’s okay. You didn’t interrupt or anything, I just got some reading to do before the conference tomorrow.’
Cal stood, hands back in his pockets, and all of a sudden was aware, far too aware of the distance between them - or lack thereof in this small, cosy room. He gave a lopsided smile. ‘But thanks. Thanks for... untangling this for me. I’ve just been going round and round in circles...’
‘Any time.’ She hesitated. ‘It was good to see you.’
‘And you.’ He stepped in, at last, for a friendly hug - because they had been amicable once all of the hurt and pain that came with any separation had faded, and even though they were awkward, it didn’t mean that after being so, so close they couldn’t go back to being friends.
And then he was standing there with his arms wrapped around her and remembered they hadn’t really been friends. And it hadn’t been out of any desire to not be with her that the relationship had broken down.
She seemed to realise it too, and pulled back a few inches - which just proved dangerous as he looked down to meet her gaze, both of them frozen close, too close together, like deers in the headlights.
Cal drew a deep, shaky breath. ‘I should go.’ He didn’t move.
Nat swallowed, and nodded. ‘Yeah.’
Then, instead of letting go, she kissed him.
It was like they’d never been apart, like no time had passed, as if the way they fit together had been perfect all along and why, just why had he tried to change that? Why had they both let everything slip through their fingers?
But reality came rushing in soon, far too soon, and although he didn’t let her go he had to break the kiss and they stood for long seconds, breathing laboured, foreheads resting together and still just as entangled with one another as they’d ever been.
Nat bit her lower lip. ‘Oops.’
He chuckled, a low, wry sound in the back of his throat. ‘Oops? Did you trip and fall?’
‘What can I say? You’re distracting.’ Nat closed her eyes. ‘Sorry. That was a bad idea.’
‘Felt pretty good.’ Cal straightened, grinding his teeth together, and though he didn’t let her go completely he did pull back. ‘But. Nothing’s changed.’
Nat made a face. ‘Nope.’
‘You’re still going to Morocco in a week.’
‘And you’re not quitting Puddlemere to be dragged across the world by me.’
He felt that surge of inexplicable guilt which always toyed at him whenever he decided that no, he wasn’t going to sacrifice his dreams for her and vice versa. ‘Afraid not.’
She gave her own wry chuckle, pressing the base of her palm against her temple. ‘How’d we end up here, Cal? I went to prison for you. You endangered Tobias’ life to save mine. All this... big, messy stuff, and how’d we end up like those other people?’
‘I guess those other people had their own epic upsets, too, which weren’t good enough once life got in the way,’ Cal said, suddenly maudlin. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know how it happened. But it did.’
Nat let out a deep breath. ‘I love my job. My life.’
‘So do I.’
‘I love them both. And even if I love -’
Cal winced. ‘Don’t say it.’ It would be harder, he knew, if he heard her say the words - because however this went, it was going to end with him walking out that door and then not seeing her again until God-knew when.
‘Sorry.’ Nat tensed. ‘You were right. You should get going.’
He sighed, letting her go, and rolled his shoulders. ‘Thanks for... for listening. I guess I’ll see you around.’
‘Yeah.’ She could only look at the table they’d been sat at. ‘You take care, Cal.’
He let himself out, closing the door behind him with careful deliberation and, shoulders slumped, hands shoved in his pockets, he slouched down the corridor like a teenager whose pocket money had just been rightfully cut off.
With a discontented mutter he stopped at the top of the stairs and checked his watch. Fifteen minutes. He was going to have to hurry if he’d make it to the Portkey in time, as he certainly had no desire to wait for another or pay the extortionate prices for one to get him back home before nightfall.
Even if home wasn’t seeming at all appealing right then. Tanith would be working late, which meant he’d be on his own as even if she did get out of the office she’d probably go to Tobias’. And even if she didn’t, he’d come to theirs and while Cal didn’t normally begrudge them their time together this was hardly the evening he’d want to spend as a third wheel.
The night loomed before him, either lonely or awkward and embittering. Even the idea of going out, finding Jack and Saul and dragging them for drinks seemed meaningless, empty. Like a gloomy fog stretching before him, and the only spot of light was behind him. Back in that hotel room.
He turned around.
Her gaze was apprehensive as she opened the door again, and all the more so when she realised it was him. Nat hesitated, then drew a sharp breath. ‘Did you forget -’
He barely remembered to shut the door as he pushed in, pulled her to him, and kissed her. For long seconds she was weak, powerless in his arms through utter bewilderment - then her mouth was opening under his, she was clutching at him like he was floating debris in a storm, and all sense and reason faded to irrelevance for those long, intoxicating moments.
When he finally pulled back, he refused to let her go again. ‘So I’m going to miss the Portkey,’ he said. It was a statement rather than an objection.
For a second she didn’t say anything, too dumbstruck to find words, but then a wry, sage look crossed her face and she nodded. ‘And those personal ones are extortionately priced if you don’t pre-book,’ Nat agreed - and kissed him again, pinning him back against the door, hands snaking around his chest.
By the time they broke the embrace for anything other than desperate gasps, they’d managed to stagger their way across the cramped hotel room to fall in a tumble on the bed, and Cal drew back with a remorseful glint in his eye as he held in his arms the only person who’d never judged him for his many, many mistakes. ‘You know... this doesn’t change anything.’
Nat looked up at him, meeting his gaze with calm, accepting understanding - and then a lopsided grin tugged at her lips. ‘I don’t know,’ she said wryly. ‘It changes what I’m doing tonight.’
Cal had been right. However this went, it was going to end with him walking out the door and then not seeing her again until God-knew when.
But it was going to be a good while before he did walk out that door.
Tanith tapped her fingers on her belt buckle. ‘It’s a Muggle PO Box.’
‘Now I’ve seen one.’
‘I feel enriched.’
Katie grimaced. ‘What were you expecting to see here, Chief? We’re in a post office in Enfield.’
‘Which is also a first for me.’ Tanith glanced around the old building and then back at the row of small lockboxes not big enough to take more than a small package. ‘I don’t know what I’d hoped for. A clue.’
‘Well, we’ve got the number.’ Katie looked down at the bit of parchment she’d been told to take care of, because Tanith didn’t like having to remember to cart paperwork around. ‘2359. It’s right there.’
‘Yeah. And... it’s just a box.’
‘I say again, what did you expect?’
‘I don’t know,’ Tanith repeated. ‘We could ask the staff here, but there are thousands of these bloody things. The odds of any of them remembering who came in here for one box is... practically impossible.’
‘Plus, we can’t actually tell them we’re law enforcement. So they’ll just think we’re weirdos, and we can’t really justify some Muggle police identity falsification at this point in a case,’ agreed Katie.
‘We might have to. We could see what details they’ve got on file for the box holder. And hope it’s more than just a name.’
Katie rubbed the back of her head. ‘We could,’ she said slowly, levelly, ‘expand our search to Muggle databases. Stacey Whitman has to exist in the Muggle world; we should be able to find out who she is, even if it’s a fake identity? It’s better than nothing.’
‘Yeah,’ Tanith sighed, and frowned at PO Box 2359. ‘This was a bit of a waste of time.’
‘You never know until you see it, Chief,’ said Katie. ‘Besides, now you know what a PO Box looks like.’
Tanith was going to say something sharp, but stopped herself as a man walked in, wearing a uniform she couldn’t recognise but at least knew it wasn’t the same as that of the Post Office staff who worked in the main building. She didn’t want to make snide comments about Katie’s prowess as an Auror in front of a Muggle.
She was going to turn away and follow her trainee out, but for some reason spared the Muggle a glance, for some reason bothered to pay attention to which box he was going up to, a jangling key in his hand.
And stopped when he went right up to PO Box 2359, opened it up, and pulled out a few envelopes before putting them in a bag.
Tanith grabbed Katie by the elbow and stopped her, dragging her out of the way of the Muggle as he headed back out the door. ‘Bell. Bell. He just did a pickup.’
‘Yeah, he’s got some courier company logo on him, I guess he picks stuff up from the PO Boxes when the owners don’t want to go themselves -’
‘From our box.’
Katie blinked and watched the man’s disappearing form through the windows of the door. ‘Oh. Shit.’
‘We should follow him -’
‘He’ll have a van -’
‘Then stick a tracer charm on him; do I have to think of everything?’
Katie drew her wand out and grabbed the door. ‘Fine. Distraction time, Chief, I need a clear shot at -’
Tanith was out the door and back into the main floor of the Post Office before Katie had finished. Fortunately it was quiet this time of day, and there was nobody and nothing in between her trainee and their Muggle courier target. But someone still might hear or see something of the spell casting if she didn’t divert -
In the end, Auror Tanith Cole, survivor and escapee of Azkaban prison, who had stood up to prolonged interrogation under torture and Legilimency, Training Officer to The Boy Who Lived and his right hand man, knocked over a stand of postcards and earned many a tut from many a middle-aged Post Office employee for being a silly, clumsy young woman as Katie cast the tracer charm on an unsuspecting Muggle courier.
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