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Chapter 28 : The Only Sign in the World
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‘I think we can make it to the party still, if we -’
‘I really, really don’t care about the party right now.’ Jen closed the door behind them as she and Gabriel slunk into the flat, and sagged against it. ‘I think I’d rather just sleep.’
Gabriel stopped, then moved to her side and reaching to help her out of his coat. ‘Are you feeling okay? If your head hurts we can get you to Saint Mungo’s -’
‘The medic took a look at me, and I’m fine; anyway, it’s not my head hurting, it’s my... everything.’ She grabbed his forearm as he went to turn away, keeping him close. ‘And right now I’m worrying more about you.’
Gabriel blinked. ‘Me? You’re the one who got locked up unfairly -’
‘And you’re the one who got me out.’ She stepped in closer. ‘And I’m sure it wasn’t easy.’
He heard the question in her voice and hesitated, keeping a distance even if he desperately wanted to pull her to him. ‘I went to see Daedalus Cole,’ he said.
He felt her touch at his arm tighten, saw her eyes widen. ‘You didn’t...’
‘And he had the answer,’ said Gabriel with a defiant tilt to his jaw. ‘The picture, the evidence.’
‘And he just gave you that for free?’
For a second he wondered how she knew to ask that question, because she’d never met Daedalus Cole, had never had a chance to get a read on the man or his motivations or his methods. Then he realised that his own defensiveness had given him away, and at last he pulled back, went over to slump on the couch with a defeated air.
‘Not exactly.’ He scrubbed his face with his hands and didn’t look up, not wanting to see the anger he knew he’d find in her eyes. ‘He did say that he’s not there just as a... tool, something to be used and then discarded and then picked up again.’
He heard her snort. ‘Of course, we couldn’t expect him to do it because it’s the right thing to do,’ Jen said, but there was a cautious edge to her voice.
‘But he was right,’ Gabriel sighed. ‘About how he does need to operate the way that he does. Because the system had failed you, failed me, failed to capture Tom Everard...’
‘Except that the Aurors were on the case anyway. They had a lead anyway. It wasn’t over...’ But then she stopped herself, and he still didn’t look up. ‘What did he ask for?’
‘He asked that I reconsider our deal. That I use this situation to look at why he does what he does, why he’s really necessary, and to try to understand why his work needs to continue.’
‘That’s ridiculous. As if you couldn’t change your mind afterwards anyway, as if it was some commitment, and what would he do if you changed your mind? Go after you? Truly he’s a bastion of righteousness if he’d go after you for that.’
Gabriel squared his shoulders. ‘I’m not changing my mind,’ he said, and finally looked up.
But instead of anger in her eyes, he found only a lack of surprise. She crossed the living room to perch on the armrest of the couch, inches still stretching between them. ‘It doesn’t bother you? That he had the chance to just cut through a fair and legal investigation like that -’
‘No, because it ended well, it ended properly, and it helped take down Tom Everard before he killed Tobias. Or more people,’ said Gabriel. ‘I have no regrets about how it stopped him and how it saved you.’
‘And today it was right, yes,’ Jen conceded. ‘But that’s one man who’s demonstrated himself as having all sorts of influence, the capacity to make all sorts of choices, with zero accountability.’
‘And he’ll continue to do that with or without me,’ said Gabriel. ‘So it’s less about trusting him, and more about trusting me.’
She tensed. ‘I don’t mean that. You know I trust you. It’s just an awful lot of power and influence for one man to hold, any one man. Even all the secrets and lies aside, it’s a difficult road to walk.’
‘I think I’ll be okay,’ said Gabriel, and looked up at her. ‘Because it won’t be power and influence held just by one man, unaccountable to anyone. Because that one man is me, and not only am I accountable to you, but you are the reason my moral compass points north in the first place.’
‘That would be both sweet and very disturbing if it were true,’ she said, ‘but fortunately I have a bit more faith in your sense of right and wrong than you do. I do trust you.’ Jen hesitated, looking down at her hands. ‘I suppose I need to just earn your trust in response.’
His gut twisted, first from surprise, then from gloomy realisation. ‘I don’t...’
‘Did you really believe it?’ she asked quietly, grey eyes meeting his. ‘That I could betray you like that? That I could ever possibly want any man but you?’
Gabriel swallowed, his throat dry. ‘I didn’t know what to think, what to believe. But I guess, no, I didn’t think that was what had happened. I feared it.’
She nodded, then her hand came up to his cheek and he closed his eyes at the touch, realising just how much he’d missed her even in the short time they’d been kept apart, realising just how tense he’d been and how much the simplest brush of her fingertips could take all the stress away. ‘You don’t ever have to.’
Then she slid down the couch to straddle his lap, hands coming up for her fingers to play with his hair. ‘You chased me, I know. So you were the one who had to put your heart on the line, make all the impassioned speeches, and I was the one who got to feel... pursued. Wanted. Who didn’t have to have doubts about the other. That you could have doubts, even worry... it means I’ve not done enough.’
She leant forwards, and just the brush of her lips, soft against his, was enough to call back every time he’d held her in his arms. But for once that didn’t reassure him; as ever it reminded him how tremendous she was, how she would amaze him time after time, and so tonight it left him wondering how she settled for a closed-off coward like him.
‘You don’t have to think that,’ he mumbled against her lips.
‘Look at me.’ Just inches apart, her eyes were bright and honest in the dim lighting. ‘You have been my companion, my guide, and my friend, before ever you were my lover. And even then you managed to find the parts of me that were... shut off. Alone. Cold. And brought warmth to them.’
His breath caught, and for a moment he wondered if she’d been stealing his thoughts, but she continued before he could stop her. ‘You understand me like nobody has. You got in my head, yes, but you also got under my skin and in my bones, and you’re there, now. You’re not going anywhere.’ Her hold on him tightened, and finally, finally he felt the vestiges of fear begin to dissipate.
‘Because it’s not down to some abstract ideal that I fight for my causes,’ she said. ‘It’s to make the world a better place. For me. For you. For us, together, for our future, for anything we build together, for our family together...’
They both stopped at that, Jen biting her lip as if she realised she’d said more than she should, Gabriel freezing with downright surprise, and he worked his jaw for a few seconds. ‘Family?’
‘I mean. You know. Hypothetically. Eventually. Maybe.’ Jen straightened up, though her efforts at looking haughty rather failed when she was still straddling him. ‘I’m just saying.’
‘You’re saying you work late nights for some imaginary, non-existent future babies,’ said Gabriel, a smirk tugging at his lips. Then he hesitated. ‘Fuck, they are imaginary, non-existent, future -’
‘Yes! Merlin, yes! It was just a...’ Jen gestured wildly. ‘A figure of speech!’
‘No, it wasn’t.’
‘Then a future hypothetical, I mean, yes, I think about these things sometimes. But we’re both young, it’s not like there’s a rush or anything.’
He narrowed his eyes. ‘Tobias and Tanith getting engaged has done things to you, hasn’t it.’
Jen tilted her head, smirking softly. ‘Can’t you just get back to being flattered as I pour my heart out at you?’
‘I don’t know; it’s a lot to take in, I might need to be calmed down and mmf-’
‘What, we’re having lunch and you’re not having any wine?’
Cal gave Tobias a weary smile. ‘I have work this afternoon.’
‘That doesn’t usually stop you. Or me, for that matter,’ Tobias mused, sipping his sparkling water with what looked like relish at the novelty. ‘Though I get less of a choice in the matter.’
‘How is work?’ said Cal, trying to not drum his fingers on their table at the Golden Fork.
‘Calmer,’ said Tobias with a nod. ‘I mean, the worst of the aftermath of the election’s calming down, everyone loves a winner so the press are being all lovey and the polls are being friendly -’
‘Wait, you just won an election and you’re still fussing about polls?’
‘It’s my job to fuss.’ He waved a hand. ‘We still have to monitor the fallout from the Everard case.’
Cal winced. ‘How’re the press taking it?’
‘Pretty well. Since, you know, he was possessing of all sorts of confidential information about people who’ve been through the justice system, cleared and convicted, and so we’ve managed to get a press ban from him having any interviews.’ Tobias made a face. ‘I hate to suppress any kind of information like this, but Tom - Everard - he’d just use it to hurt people.’
‘Tom Everard.’ Cal gave a low whistle. ‘It’s a hell of a thing.’
‘I guess war changes people.’
‘I guess some people didn’t notice the war’s over. But you’re right. Screw your pissy little ideals, Toby, the man would want to use his infamy to try to cause harm. To the government, to people who’ve been cleared of wrongdoing, to ongoing investigations. To Tanith.’
Tobias blinked. ‘What do you know -’
‘Thanatos told me,’ said Cal and immediately regretted bringing up his father. ‘But you’re coping with the aftermath of the election, and Everard?’
‘It’s actually a really good time for us,’ said Tobias, easily distracted. ‘Everyone likes a winner. We don’t get our every move nit-picked - we can start to move on legislation, we can properly govern, you know?’
‘No,’ said Cal with a grin. ‘But you seem really happy about it, so that’s cool. And all’s okay with you and Tanith?’
Tobias gave such a dopey smile Cal had to resist the urge to mock him. ‘It is. It really is. We’re finishing work at sensible times - seven o’ clock, Cal, you know what seven o’ clock looks like?’
‘You know, some people think nine to five is perfectly fine if you’re not crazy.’
‘...and it’s just great,’ continued Tobias, ignoring him. ‘It’s been too long since we just... spent time together. Years, literally years. But no. I can have a long day at work and odds are good that I can come back to the flat to find her waiting with a bottle of wine...’
‘Or, like last week, find me waiting with a dry martini.’ Cal fiddled with his sleeve. ‘You know, if it’s a problem, me being there...’
‘It’s not a problem. It means there’s a dry martini when there’s no girlfriend.’
‘Good.’ Again Cal shifted his weight. ‘Because I was thinking. I know you only moved in to our place because it was convenient, and because you two wouldn’t fit in your old place... but you know Tanith and I only moved there because it was cheap. Back when she was on a trainee’s salary and I was some desk-monkey at the DMT. Now we’re all earning more, especially me, and I was wondering... I mean, if you guys moved house, would you just want to get somewhere the two of you or...?’
‘Cal.’ Tobias leant forward, gaze firm. ‘If you’re asking if you can find a better place for the three of us to live, then you don’t have to worry about being elbowed out. It’s not just because we’re too lazy to find somewhere without you, or too polite to kick you out. Funnily enough, we lived with you for seven years, and we kind of liked it. Besides.’ He stretched. ‘We’ve got all the time in the world to fuss over living in just our own space in our own home. In the meantime I like having a friend around.’
‘Oh.’ Cal smiled awkwardly. ‘Good.’
‘That’s not what’s really bothering you,’ said Tobias, eyes narrowing.
‘Nat. You said you saw her.’
Cal was surprised to find himself relieved at the accusation. It was unfortunate, but he didn’t want to talk to Tobias about what was really on his mind. ‘Yeah. We sort of ran into each other,’ he lied. ‘And... it was about as awkward as it was going to be.’
‘Did you talk?’
Images rose, unbidden, to Cal’s mind, and he smirked. ‘Yeah.’
Tobias sighed. ‘You can’t do that, Cal,’ he said, just as stuffy as Cal expected him to be. ‘You can’t break up and then fall into bed together every time you come within a ten-yard radius -’
‘Obviously, we can.’
‘I mean, it’s not sensible.’
‘Why not?’ Cal shrugged. ‘You might have strange, uptight opinions about sex, but I, on the other hand -’
‘Are screwing your ex-girlfriend whenever you see her even though she’s now off to Morocco for, what is it, two months? While you have a pretty full schedule with Puddlemere and you’ve both demonstrated you’re not going to sacrifice your careers for one another? Because the kind of lifestyles you two have pursued, it’s not a case of compromise, it’s full-on give up.’
‘You’re awfully chirpy today.’
‘I am.’ Tobias sagged. ‘I’m sorry, mate. But I don’t want to see you sliding back down to how things were when you first broke up. You were miserable.’
‘You’re just saying that because there was the time I came home drunk and interrupted dinner between you and Tanith.’
‘You make yourself sound awfully pitiful. As I recall, you came home drunk with two women.’
Cal scratched his chin. ‘I’m okay with sliding back to that kind of behaviour...’ But he lifted his hands, knowing he couldn’t fob Tobias off for too long. ‘Okay. Okay. I know it’s... not ideal. I do. But like you said, I’m not going to see her for months now, and even then only if I go and try to see her...’
‘I don’t want to see you hurt. I know she meant a lot to you.’
‘She does,’ Cal sighed. ‘Which is why it’s hell to see her and not do something about it... but then, it’s hell to not see her if I can...’
Tobias nodded, and Cal managed to tune him out from the rest of the conversation because, really, there was nothing he could say that he hadn’t said before, that Cal hadn’t thought of before, and he had to reach the exact same conclusion he’d reached all those months ago. Tension had turned to upset had turned to rows, angry and bitter rows because they’d both realised the truth - that either their relationship or their ambitions were doomed - and instead of confronting it, they’d lashed out.
That had just made sacrificing the relationship all the easier. And Cal knew, sort of, that it was the right thing to do, because how could he follow her across the world, or how could she stay at home while he played his Quidditch matches? So all he could do was suffer it. Square his shoulders. And move on.
And hope, somewhere in his heart, that as the years rolled by they’d have the chance to find one another again.
But it was fine for Tobias to talk about it, to give his well-meaning advice, even if Cal wasn’t listening. Because that wasn’t even what was particularly preoccupying him, it wasn’t why he wasn’t drinking, and his best friend was one of the last men on Earth Cal wanted to discuss that particular topic with.
They ended lunch at a civilised time, instead of making it a liquid meal that dragged across the afternoon, like Cal had managed to make him do three days before when he’d lured Shacklebolt down. That had been successful enough that Cal was of the opinion that all future policy meetings should be conducted when down at least the one bottle of Rioja.
But Cal knew how to play Tobias well enough to make him hurry back to the office when it was time to go, and he set off on his way. He’d wanted his attention diverted for as long as possible, and that had happened.
Before too long he was down at Canary Wharf, but this time it wasn’t Tanith he went with, just some faceless Enforcer who’d drawn the short straw on the unpleasant duty of escorting him to Azkaban. This time he didn’t want the proximity of a friend. This was a decision he had to make alone, and so he wanted to face it alone.
Beyond the eyes of anyone who could judge him. And whilst Tanith was a good friend and ally, ‘judging’ was also one of her fortes.
So it made for a silent journey, waiting on the windy shores, taking the broomsticks across the ocean, winding their way through the seemingly endless corridors of Azkaban. The refurbishment of the institution continued, the efforts to bring it in line with international law and basic expectations of human decency, but there was nothing about this place that Cal would ever describe as anything but soulless.
Is that a good thing?
And then there was his father. Thanatos Brynmor, again sat at a table in the meeting room, again shackled, again looking as if, for all the world, he was there for a spot of afternoon tea.
But the smile that crossed his face was nothing if not hopeful. ‘You came back.’
Cal sat down awkwardly. ‘I did.’
Thanatos hesitated. ‘I thought last time might have been for good.’
‘You upset me,’ Cal said, his honesty surprising even himself. ‘That didn’t change facts. You’ve done more than upset me in the past and I still came here in the first place.’
The two men sat staring at each other for long moments, matching dark eyes, matching strong brows and foreheads, at one so similar and yet so very different. Eventually, Cal took a deep, uncertain breath.
‘I got some good advice,’ he said. ‘It was really good, in fact. About how I shouldn’t be making whatever decision I make for anyone but me. Not for you. Not for how people might perceive me. But for what I want.’
Thanatos gave a crooked smile, and Cal’s heart twisted at how disarming he found it, as he recognised it as the same lopsided, reassuring grin he gave his friends when they were thinking through something difficult. ‘Except that you don’t know what you want.’
Cal swallowed. ‘Except that.’
‘Then... may I be frank?’ Thanatos opened his hands.
‘You’ve not been shy before.’
‘True enough.’ He leant forward, and sighed. ‘I’m an old man, Caldwyn. Or, at least, I feel it, and I might as well be, because I don’t think I’m ever getting out of here. If the Dementors still ran Azkaban, I reckon I’d have been given the Kiss for all I’ve done. In other countries they would be executing me. My life is, effectively, over.’
And there it was. That twinge of sympathy he could never kill. But before Cal could answer, Thanatos continued. ‘And we can debate the philosophy of what I did -’
‘I think once people are tortured and killed it stops being a philosophy.’
Thanatos lifted his hands. ‘Not my intention. I apologise.’ He was being careful, Cal could see - where before he’d tried to wheedle and even antagonise, that was all done. There was no anger, no malice, none of the obvious signs of manipulation which he had grown to recognise over the years. Those had only been available to him when he’d had power, even in the last few meetings here in Azkaban.
But he had to know that to push too hard now was to lose forever, and Cal was left with the uncomfortable sensation that Thanatos Brynmor was being, in fact, completely honest with him.
‘The point is that whatever I believed, I failed. And history will record me, and my cause, as evil and gone, if it even records the cause at all, if it even records me at all. I imagine there are an awful lot of people who would much prefer I’m locked up, the key’s thrown away, and the mere thought of me never crosses anyone’s mind ever again.’ Thanatos shifted uncomfortably in his shackles. ‘I confronted death. I confronted suffering and torment. Those dangers I accepted willingly. Being forgotten? Leaving this world with no mark upon it a single person can point at and say “this place is better for that he was there”? I can’t think of anything more terrifying.
‘Except that there’s you, Caldwyn.’ Thanatos slumped. ‘You might be the only sign in the world that I ever existed. The only way in which I have left the world behind me a better place.’
Cal drew a deep, shaking breath. ‘If I leave here today and never come back, you will be left in these cells to rot, alone, for the rest of your life. Plenty would call that justice.’
‘And I visited worse upon others,’ Thanatos agreed. ‘It’s a meagre price for me to pay.’
He didn’t regret his actions, Cal knew. Will had been right - if Voldemort rose from the dead and broke all of his Death Eaters out of Azkaban, Cal suspected Thanatos Brynmor would be by his side once again like a shot.
Except, now, to look at him, it was only a suspicion. He didn’t know. Now Thanatos sat weary, beaten, even afraid, in a way he never had. This was a spirit which had endured for fifteen years between the wars, and now, finally, was broken.
It’s not your job to change him, mate. It’s not your job to save him.
The voice chastising him was familiar, and Cal’s lips had to twist, because of all the people in the world to talk him down - even only in his head - on a matter of idealised principle, Tobias Grey was the last one who had a leg to stand on.
‘I’m not going to make you a single promise,’ said Cal at last. ‘I’m not going to commit to coming down here regularly, or even often. If I visit you, it’s going to be because I want to, and not because I feel guilty about your justly deserved fate. And if I stay away, it’s going to be because I want to, not because I’m fussing about what anyone might think of me.’
Thanatos Brynmor gave the first broad, honest smile Cal had ever received off him. ‘I’d expect nothing less of you, Caldwyn.’
‘Don’t think this means that I forgive you, or understand you, or anything. But if there’s one thing I have been unable to shake, no matter how much I have tried, I have agonised, I have reasoned...’ Cal scrubbed his face with his hand. ‘It’s that you’re my father. And I don’t even know what that means when you’re a psycho murderer. But it means something.’
Thanatos was staring at the desk between them, staring hard, and Cal didn’t think he could feel more uncomfortable if he tried. He went to speak, made just a weak, croaking noise - then he nodded, firmly, and much to Cal’s relief met his gaze with clear dark eyes.
Cal drew a deep breath. ‘But there is something I want to ask you about.’
Thanatos swallowed. ‘Anything.’
He hesitated. He stared at the walls, stared at his hands, stared at anything but his father as he questioned, not for the first time, if he was crazy and stupid and still being manipulated. If he owed it to the world to walk away from this cell and never look back. If he owed it to himself.
But he couldn’t. And that didn’t mean Will Rayner was, to any lesser degree, the man who had raised him, shaped him, given him his principles, been his dad...
...but it did mean that, at the end of all things, he could not ignore that Thanatos Brynmor was his father.
Cal’s breath caught. ‘Tell me about my mother.’
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