Chapter 29 : Times Like This
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‘You’d think I’m crazy.’ Tanith took a swig from the bottle of cider and let her feet dangle over the pier. ‘Out here like this. At night. In the cold. And the wet. It’s totally raining. But I guess we need to talk.’
Unsurprisingly the river Thames didn’t answer.
‘Okay. You’re going to be like that. That’s fine. I guess you’re allowed. I guess I’ll carry the conversation.
‘So I got the guy who got you. Got him good. Punched the living shit out of him. My hand swelled up something chronic the next day, Toby had such a fit and I ended up at Saint Mungo’s. But my hand wasn’t broken. You want pain? That’s pain.
‘And he’s going to go to prison, he’s going to have a closed trial, he’s not going to get to spout the delicate information he’s learnt or try to bring down the system or anything like that. Which is good.’
Another swig of cider.
‘I mean, I don’t care if he wants to talk shit about me. He can do that. I deserve it. It’s been everyone else who’s been so keen to keep what I did hidden; I won’t stop them, but I won’t make anyone compromise themselves for me. But for you...
‘Well, you didn’t do anything. And that’s sort of the problem.’ Tanith fiddled with the label on the bottle. ‘That’s why you died. I mean, no, Tom Everard killed you because Tom Everard apparently lost the plot, apparently couldn’t see more than the issues right in front of him and so decided to make himself judge, jury, and executioner because he figured our judges and juries were just being shit. But it’s why he picked you. Because you didn’t do anything.
‘I guess I knew. Somewhere. That you weren’t really fighting the good fight, that you were just keeping your head down and trying to minimise the damage. But there comes a point where keeping your head down is letting the other side win. And I know you had family, and I had all these contacts and these opportunities, but you never went to me asking to help. Even if you knew - you had to know, I got locked up for it, you had to at least suspect and you never, ever asked...
‘...and I never ever offered.’ Tanith chugged several more greedy mouthfuls of issue-dismissing cider. ‘Shit, Jake. I didn’t offer because how the hell do you offer to make a man risk his life, risk his family’s life? It’s got to be a choice. So how the hell do I respect your right to choose, and yet not respect you for not making the choice I approve of?
‘I don’t, that’s stupid. And I would never think you deserved punishment for it, you were a good man, you made the world a better place, you would have continued to make the world a better place if it had been you and me against it all.’ A pained smile tugged at her lips.
‘I guess... I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you let down The Cause, or what the fuck ever... I don’t care. I might not approve of it, I might have thought better of you, I might have wanted better of you... but you still stuck by me through thick and thin that year. You were my partner. My friend. My sanity, sometimes. And if that’s not a good enough deed to clear you of wrongdoing in the eyes of Tom Everard, then fuck that psycho anyway. And fuck the world if they don’t agree.’
She lifted the nearly empty bottle aloft in a toast. ‘So, there it is. I forgive you, Jake. And... I miss you. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for you. I’m always going to miss you.’
The last of the bottle was poured into the Thames, as if Jacob Van Roden, his mortal remains scattered weeks ago into its gloomy waters, could share the toast.
And then Tanith promptly burst into tears.
She let herself, this time. Let herself hunch over on the edge of this pier a stone’s throw from the Canary Wharf office, and let her grief at the loss of her partner wash over her. She’d been here before - with him, with others. Buried too many, said goodbye to too many.
And then she’d carried on.
The tears helped. And when they dried up she stayed there, perched at the pier, alone with only the ghosts for company.
It was fine. They were old friends by now.
She cracked open another bottle. And when, maybe half an hour later, she heard footsteps echoing down the pier towards her, for once she found herself not jumping, not expecting it to be a sudden threat.
It wasn’t the war any more.
‘Thought I’d find you here.’
Tanith snorted and reached for another bottle of cider. She cracked it open and put it on the pier next to her. ‘No, you didn’t.’
‘Of course I did. Eventually.’ Katie sat down and picked up the bottle. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I checked a whole lot of other places first. Your desk. The morgue. Filing. The Ministry. Your flat. That pub -’
‘You checked the pub?’
‘You like that place.’
‘I don’t go there anymore,’ said Tanith, gulping on her cider. ‘I’ve heard all the music before.’
‘Yeah, well. The Old Man wants to see you. Eventually, I mean. He’s clearly not in a rush.’
‘And yet you searched for me for, what, an hour?’
‘I’m your trainee. It’s what I do. Need to make sure you’re all hale and hearty, right, Chief?’ Katie nudged her with an elbow. ‘Oh, right, I forgot. Sarge. Congratulations.’
Tanith gave a lopsided smile, feeling the weight of the new pewter badge in her pocket. ‘Thanks. You know, I couldn’t have done it without you.’
‘Without me to shoot at, you mean?’
‘I really thought, for a second, that you were going to kill me,’ Katie mused. ‘Like, before I realised that you’d grabbed the Shield Cloak when you tackled me, I actually thought you were going to kill me.’
‘I wouldn’t have killed you,’ said Tanith, and took another drink. ‘Maybe maimed.’
‘Real reassuring, Sarge.’
Anyway.’ Tanith set her bottle down. ‘You’re not my trainee any more.’
‘Technically I’m not anyone’s trainee any more.’
‘You’re not going with Harry and Ron to Proudfoot’s team when you’re done with the next course with Dawlish?’
‘I’m not sure it’s my kind of thing.’ Katie kicked her heels against the pier. ‘It’s very... all-go, macho, big-team, hunt-the-bad-guys kind of stuff. It’ll suit Ron and Harry, I think, being part of a team when they’re used to being on the top of one, but I don’t need to learn that. I was looking at the analysis teams.’
Tanith made a face. ‘Analysis? You really want to be stuck behind a desk all day?’
‘I don’t know.’
She picked up the bottle again, once more fiddling with the label. ‘You’re a good field officer, Bell. It’d be a waste for you to go into one of the analysis teams. Besides, that’s not why you joined the Aurors, is it?’ Katie didn’t answer at once, and Tanith took a swig of cider. ‘You could... you know.’
‘Psychic powers not working today, Sarge.’
‘I mean.’ The label really was sticky. ‘I’m going to be taking it easy for the next while. Simple cases. Maybe helping down with training. Definitely until the new year - Merlin, that’s only a month away.’ Tanith cleared her throat. ‘My point is. Being. Such as...’
‘Sarge, you really suck at asking a girl out, you know?’
Tanith smirked, rubbing the back of her neck. ‘I think you and I make a good team. I think you’re a good officer. I think you need experience and confidence, but I think that you back me up in ways I need backing up. And...’ Her voice trailed off, clumsy as ever in making an open statement like this.
‘If it helps,’ Katie said gently, ‘imagine me naked.’
Tanith sputtered. ‘If it helps?’
‘You know. Makes this less tense.’
‘That would not make it less tense.’
‘It already has. See?’
Tanith lifted her hands. ‘You know what? Forget it. Fuck off, Bell. I don’t want you as my partner anyway.’ But the corners of her lips twitched.
‘S’fine, I didn’t want to be. You tried to maim me.’ Katie took a swig of cider, also smirking. ‘Lazy, easy month, huh?’
‘Get some pavement-pounding done. Some good, old-fashioned policing. Our own cases instead of having to march to the beat of Proudfoot’s drum. The man’s an uptight control freak and jackass anyway.’
‘Whereas you are the soul of calm relaxation.’
Tanith swatted her on the arm. ‘I’m trying to be nice here, Bell. You and me. Here on out. Kicking ass and taking names. What do you say?’
‘Well, if it’s good ass...’ Katie relaxed a little. ‘We did do a pretty good job on the case, didn’t we?’
‘If it hadn’t been for our work, we’d have never found Toby in time,’ said Tanith, the ice that had settled in her belly when she’d started to be afraid for him never, ever quite melted. But that was okay. It had been there for years. A constant companion, reminding her of what she had to lose.
So she had to value it all the more.
‘I guess not. He’d have disappeared,’ said Katie. ‘He had all these resources we didn’t even know about. I didn’t imagine he’d have these things. The contacts down in MLE. Stacey Whitman - I mean, just by using a Muggle identity he managed to avoid so many of our efforts to trace him. If it hadn’t been for Tobias stumbling across him, if it hadn’t been for Ron and Harry finding out who Stacey Whitman was, we’d have never known it was him.’
‘I think we might have, eventually. Only so many people had been in Lackardy’s cell to drop that rune. And there was still the memory charm on Jen. But no, knowing Stacey Whitman was his mother was a smoking gun. Harry said we were lucky on that one, that he didn’t make a fake identity and just used someone whose documentation he had easy access to. I suppose he didn’t expect us to trace it.’
Katie grimaced. ‘I guess we did follow the Stacey Whitman trail. But so much of it was luck - bad luck, for him. Toby seeing those papers. Jen coming to see him just as he was going to find you. And even then, he covered his tracks, messed with her memories, messed with his neighbour’s memories. He was always pretty good at memory charms.’
‘He knew how to use them properly - use them so subtly we didn’t even look for them,’ Tanith sighed. ‘Jen’s only failed because of the proof in front of her. If she hadn’t been there that night -’ She stopped, and quirked an eyebrow at Katie. ‘How the hell did Everard know where to find me?’
‘Oh.’ Katie made a face. ‘That one might have been my bad. I mentioned over coffee with him and Jen where you took us that night you broke up with Tobias. I guess he reached the exact same conclusion that the guys and I did.’
‘I suppose if it hadn’t been there and then, it’d have been someplace else. But don’t hold it too hard against yourself, Bell. So much of coppering is luck. I bet Dawlish didn’t give you that little revelation in training.’
‘No, he told us all about the virtues of hard work. And I suppose those did pay off. Like I said, we’ve got a paper trail with the Stacey Whitman identity, we’ve got him using it to purchase goods used in his attacks, we’ve got that office being used for people to deliver all those confidential MLE files to.’
Tanith made a face. ‘That bit does bother me. That he managed to get the information on so many targets and potential targets, that he had accomplices.’
‘Tom’s a... was... Christ, I don’t know what word to use. He’s likable. He makes contacts easily. And he worked in the Prosecution Office. I bet most of them thought they were doing a good guy a favour. I mean, passing a member of the Prosecution Office information about people who got let off in the June Inquiries? I bet people thought he was putting together a case or something. I bet they thought it was about justice.’
‘We’ll still have to find them. They shouldn’t be passing that information to anyone.’
‘Not everyone has faith in the system, Sarge.’
‘No,’ Tanith sighed. ‘And I suppose that’s the point, isn’t it? Everard had no faith in the system. So he took matters into his own hands. And in doing so, managed to point out why we have a bloody system, why these decisions can’t be taken by one man - one man with all of his bias, one man who sometimes gets it wrong.’ She glanced over at Katie. ‘Are you all right?’
Katie forced a shrug. ‘I didn’t think it would be him,’ she said quietly. ‘I did wonder, a bit, briefly. When some of the techniques were things we used in the Lions - I mean, I figured they were just sensible techniques, we didn’t do anything unique. I wondered if it was one of us. And I thought it was possible that maybe Richard or Percival could be that angry, though the idea of Percival being a serial killer is actually hilariously implausible. But it never crossed my mind it would be Tom.’
‘No,’ Tanith breathed. ‘But I suppose there isn’t a type.’
‘I knew he changed. A lot. When Nick and Cormac died. He liked to pretend he didn’t worship them when he was a kid, but he really did. He trotted after them like they were golden boys, and they had little to nothing to do with him. He was just the pudgy loser who stood in their shadow. And then he grew up, and he discovered he had things in common with other people, and then he was prefect and Head Boy - eventually, third choice, not a ringing endorsement. But it definitely came back in the war.
‘They were so... righteous. Jen held us steady, in ways we never realised until they were gone, and we did calm down, gain focus, get better without them. But they inspired us, they were like blinding lights.’ Katie’s voice had gone quiet, wistful. ‘That’s why so many people followed them that day, Gullsmere. Tom did. We believed they could get through anything. Even one of Doyle’s visions.
‘And then they didn’t. And Tom tried to... I know he tried to take their place. And it didn’t work, not just because we all began to realise just how much Jen had been doing all along, and not just because I guess Cal was there to shoulder a lot of the grunt-work, and suddenly Doyle wasn’t the weird outsider any more. But Tom just wasn’t that guy.
‘And he kept trying to be. Kept trying to be them. Fight the good fight. For them.’ Katie sagged at last, and took a swig of cider. ‘I shouldn’t be surprised he didn’t stop fighting. Because that was what it was about. Just us, alone, against the world, against the government, no higher power there to tell us what was right or what was wrong. They used to count their kills, you know?’
Tanith made a face. ‘I didn’t.’
‘They had a little table. Nick topped it, of course, then Cormac, but Tom was third. Real macho thing. I know Jen hated it. But we had to go out there on missions intending to kill people. Snatchers wouldn’t stop just because we Stunned them and let the Muggle-borns go. But if we killed them? One less team. It was a war. We fought. We killed. I know you didn’t quite go through that.’
‘No, for me the trick was trying to not kill the other side.’
‘So I can see how Tom found it easy, now. It’s not murder to him. It’s just what a soldier does in a war. Identifies the enemy, and then goes out and kills them. Even dagger-in-the-dark stuff isn’t going to be an issue - we laid ambushes all the time. What difference is waiting in a spot you know a Portkey’s going to drop a bunch of Snatchers and killing the lot of them, and then breaking into some bad guy’s home to kill them? The end result is the same. There’s no moral high ground, no real moral high ground. You kill the bad guy to stop them from doing more bad. End of.’
‘Except that he wasn’t trying to prevent any more,’ said Tanith. ‘Not entirely. He was also seeking to punish.’
‘Yeah.’ Katie took a swig of cider. ‘He definitely went off the beaten path. And none of us, not us who worked with him for an age, lived with him for an age, saw it coming. I mean, from your end, it’d be like... I don’t know. Not Cal going off the deep end, but I bet you’d be surprised if, say, Larkin went on a killing spree.’
‘Only because I don’t have that much faith in her capacity to get away with it,’ Tanith mused. ‘But I see your point.’ She glanced at her new partner. ‘You know Vaughn’s got him locked down. He’s not going to get to spout all that shit he slung at us.’
‘I know.’ Katie wrinkled her nose. ‘I don’t know how I feel about that.’
‘Me neither,’ Tanith breathed. ‘It’s like... that’s the kind of thing Thicknesse did. Or, to not push to such an extreme, Scrimgeour and Fudge. But at the same time, Everard knows so much. About cases, about convictions, about people who made their deals fair and square and got let off fair and square and he’d just blow it open.’
‘But you didn’t like some of it,’ Katie reminded her. ‘Like Mulready not having been brought in. You thought he deserved what Tom did to him.’
‘I did,’ Tanith said. ‘I do think the MLE dropped the ball on that. Us. Vaughn. Auror Office. Enforcers. Prosecution Office. I think we made mistakes. And so I don’t like the idea that we’re silencing Everard to cover up our fuck ups.’
‘Yeah. That’s what leaves the bad taste in my mouth.’
‘It’s not all that difficult, though,’ said Tanith, and took a gulp of cider. ‘We convict him for killing definitely one good man, and for taking the law into his own hands. He deserves to rot in a cell for killing Jacob anyway.’
‘I guess our high horse is kind of lucky he killed him.’ Katie winced. ‘Sorry. You know what I mean. I mean this would be a lot messier if he hadn’t become quite so reprehensible.’
‘If he wasn’t so crazy as to have killed him, then we probably wouldn’t need to be locking him away without press access and we probably could be using this to catalyse a closer examination at how and why we do what we do. How we make compromises in justice.’ Tanith frowned. ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’
‘It’s Latin. Who watches the watchmen? That’s what this is about. Accountability.’
‘And did he answer that?’
‘Whatever Roman spouted that question?’
Tanith frowned. ‘I don’t know who said it,’ she admitted. ‘But I think the answer is... us. The watchmen. We watch the watchmen. And if we’re going to move forward from this, we have to study ourselves, our comrades, our methods. Our principles.’
‘So.’ Katie kicked her heels against the pier. ‘You’re saying you want us to take that job down in Internal Affairs.’
Tanith blanched. ‘Everyone hates Internal Affairs.’
‘And you’re a big fan of caring what people think.’
‘Point.’ Tanith shook her head, and lifted her cider. ‘No. For the next month, you and me hit the streets. I’ll pull some strings, get you out of Dawlish’s pointless course, and you can do proper work. Get proper experience. Do stuff the like of which we signed up to do. No deranged serial killers. No hunting our friends. Just chasing bad guys.’
‘Because it’s always that easy,’ said Katie, and clinked their bottles together anyway. ‘Sarge, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.’
‘You’re not allowed to stay in late tonight, you hear me?’
Tobias looked up to see Kingsley Shacklebolt stood in the door to his office, arms folded across his broad chest. He gave a sheepish smile. ‘I’ve still got to finalise your comments on the Potions Import Tax for tomorrow -’
‘That’s tomorrow evening. Not even the afternoon. I know you refused to take the day off for this, but you’re going home at a sensible time, and you’re coming in tomorrow at a decidedly later than sensible time.’
‘Since when did you start lecturing me about my hours, Minister?’
‘Since I realised I was making enemies down in the Auror Office, and I like the Auror Office. They’re responsible for my safety. So I’d rather keep them happy.’
Tobias looked down at his desk, at the several quills still at work away on the parchment, at the duplications of the extant comments being made and the blank bits of paper in front of him still awaiting his input. He sighed. ‘Since I’m not going to get this done in less than a couple of hours, I might as well leave it until the afternoon.’ He looked up sharply. ‘But if I have this on your desk at only four o’clock tomorrow, you will memorise -’
‘Memorising my comments, Tobias, is the least challenging part of this job, and my approval ratings suggest I’ve been doing pretty well at the whole thing.’ Shacklebolt gave one of his most charming, disarming smiles, and opened his hands. ‘Head on home. There’s a good fellow.’
‘And you’re going to get out of here at a sensible time?’
‘You know I do. I have a rather fat cat waiting for me at home, and he hates being left waiting for dinner,’ Shacklebolt pointed out.
Tobias looked up at the clock on the wall. Half seven. Not a bad sort of time to end the day, though he had assured Tanith that he would probably be late this evening with the Minister’s address of the Wizengamot the next day. She’d been unexpectedly okay about it.
But still he grinned at the thought of surprising her.
So he left the Ministry with his work undone and yet a spring in his step, and for once thought he’d let himself just take the Floo route directly to the Leaky Cauldron, as a glance out the window suggested it was a rare nice evening. Cold, because November was still dying, but bright and crisp.
At this time of evening the Ministry was quiet - hardly empty, for there were always some staying to burn the midnight oil or just wrapping up projects, or still the poor workers of the DIMC committed to irregular hours courtesy of international time zones. But he relished the chance to wander the stone corridors, make his way to the lift without needing to queue, enjoyed the sound of his footsteps echoing across the lobby of the Ministry as he reached the main floor.
The statues were gone, of course; the macabre vision of Voldemort’s oppression had been torn down in the chaos of the night of the Battle, and Tobias had cheered along with the rest of the crowd as the grotesque had been battered and then brought crashing to the ground. He’d stood there with one arm around Tanith, ostensibly to help keep both of them upright, but in reality just to be close as the freedom fighters had cheered and surged around them, not knowing how the day would end, not knowing if Voldemort would be defeated at Hogwarts, but defying him anyway.
There had been extensive debate over what to replace the statue with. Some had pressed for the old statue to be brought back, and that might have worked if someone hadn’t broken into the Ministry and destroyed it in storage. Tobias had only been relieved by this; he had seen its problematic elements but knew plenty of people had hankered for the old days, liked to pretend everything was as it had been.
In the end, Shacklebolt had commissioned a tall memorial, an obelisk of white marble which reached up almost to the tall foyer’s ceiling. Upon it was inscribed the name of everyone - witch, wizard, Muggle, or Being - who had died in the Second War, starting with Cedric Diggory and ending with the last person to perish of their wounds at the Battle of Hogwarts. Tobias’ eyes were drawn, as they so often were, to the top third - a space near one of the corners on the north-facing side. He’d seen that particular name be inscribed, had gone down to the workshop when it had been time, and watched as the craftsmen had carefully carved ‘Anne MacKenzie’ into the stone.
So he lingered, like he always did when it was quiet, and let the sound of his footsteps echoing on the stone ring off into the gloom of the foyer as he looked. To Annie’s name, then further down to where he knew Altair Ritter’s name had been inscribed, because Tanith had come down on that particular day. And the others.
Connor O’Neal. Percival McGowan. Aurora Marlowe. Nicholas Wilson. Cormac McLaggen. Heroes and victims. The people who would never have a chance to live in the peace he fought every day to forge that bit brighter.
He owed it to them, he supposed, to keep on fighting. To grant others the futures they had been denied. And, perhaps more importantly, he owed it to those living to keep on fighting.
Tobias’ lips twisted, and he shifted his weight on his bad leg. In so far as you fight any more. But it didn’t hurt as much as it had in months, the meetings with the Healers, the potions that ruled out quite so many sleepless nights, the therapy and the efforts to just put less strain on his wound all doing better.
It was a scar that would never disappear, never fully heal. But it was a part of him now, a part of what made him who he was, and he could still do everything in his power to stop it from dictating the terms under which he lived his life.
Scars didn’t disappear. But they did fade.
It was, as he had suspected, a brisk, cold night once he was out in the beer garden of the Leaky Cauldron. He had a few greetings on the way out, people recognising him from the papers, or from The Midnight Press, still, and at least with the election over it led to words of approval or encouragement instead of the occasional abuse he’d had from supporters of Philon Harrigan.
It was fine. Harrigan now had a comfortable job in the Ministry anyway. That was the way politics worked.
Diagon Alley was busy, the populace having abandoned their work and now keen to enjoy the evening. With Christmas around the corner shops were looking to be open later, pubs and bars looking to bring in patronage, and still the wizarding world was gripped by the fervour which demanded they live life to the fullest in the aftermath of war. But it wasn’t so crowded that he struggled to make his way down the street, and even from way back here he could see where he was going.
Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes remained, as ever, a brightly lit beacon to guide him on his path.
It was taking part in the late night openings, unsurprisingly, and even from several junctions down he could hear the bangs, the hoots, the cacophony of a medley of merriment that usually accompanied a particularly busy night of trade.
Tobias was rather fond of the place, but the idea of moving somewhere that didn’t explode late into the night was still heartening. But the sound would, at least, mask his footsteps - and his thunk of a staff - on the stairs, perhaps allow him to make it to the front door unnoticed, and as he reached the building, the offices on the ground floor dark at this time of evening, he tried to make his gait as light as possible.
It was impossible to tell on any given night if Cal was going to be in, if he was globetrotting with Puddlemere United or if he was out with his teammates or if he was just at home with the wireless and a beer. Normally Tobias welcomed it, liked having his old friend around, but he had to admit that he was hoping for a quiet - though not totally abandoned - flat to greet him.
As he opened the door to let himself in, his hopes could not have been more dashed.
And were promptly replaced with a whole new exuberance as he realised what was before him.
‘Ha! I knew that was you on the road! Happy birthday, mate!’ That was Cal, closing the distance to wrap him in a bear hug, and Tobias staggered at both the impact and his surprise.
As Cal pulled back he fought to gather himself, fought to hide his surprise. The flat hadn’t exactly been decorated - here he suspected the hand of Tanith, who would have put her foot down on anything too tacky - but it had definitely been tidied. The evidence of the festivities was the figures stood waiting for him, all wearing broad smiles, all holding flutes of champagne.
Cal himself, Tanith, Gabriel, Jen, Dimitri, Katie. And just as Cal did pull back the others lifted their glasses, and Dimitri stepped forward to hand him one of his own.
Cal rounded on Tanith, his grin devilish. ‘You told me that bribing Shacklebolt wouldn’t work.’
Tobias blinked. ‘You - wait, you bribed the Minister -’
‘To let you out early. Of course, the moment he realised it was your birthday he was completely on board, but I think he liked those complementary tickets for Saturday’s game anyway. It’s the Falcons, we’ll smash them, you’ll like that.’
‘Your optimism is... notable...’ Tobias turned to the others, working his jaw. ‘I’ll be honest, I completely... I forgot about today...’
‘I know.’ That was Tanith, who took the staff away to lean it on the wall and slid to his side to replace it. ‘And I knew you wouldn’t want too much of a fuss. So I thought I’d get everyone together.’
‘No, you thought you’d fuss over whether or not it was worth it because he’d try to work late because of this Wizengamot bollocks tomorrow and I had the actual idea of going over his head to talk to the boss -’
‘His boss is the Minister, Cal, I couldn’t exactly -’
‘Anyway!’ That was Jen, smirking at the bickering as she cut it off. ‘We thought we’d get together and have a drink to celebrate. Because there’s not been much celebrating lately which hasn’t been tinged with sadness, and we wanted to change that.’
‘There you go, dear,’ said Gabriel, slipping his arm around her waist. ‘Take over and speechify, you’re good at that.’
‘If there is to be speechification tonight,’ said Dimitri, ‘I would much rather we skip it and go straight to drinking the rather good champagne. But, it is traditional under these circumstances that we have a toast. No?’
‘It is,’ said Tobias, and blinked as he realised all eyes had fallen on him. ‘What, you want to celebrate and you expect me to pull something out of the hat?’
‘You always were good at falling in love with the words, Toby,’ said Katie. ‘Now hurry up, the Sarge hasn’t let us have more than sip of the champagne and like Dimitri said, it is pretty good.’
‘You’d just drink it all before he got here otherwise,’ Tanith hissed at her partner, but her hand had slid into Tobias’, their fingers entwined, and she didn’t push the point, instead looking up at her fiancé with an expectant, happy glow.
It was unusual from her. The smiles, the relaxed airs, they seemed unusual from all of them except perhaps Katie and Dimitri, who carried theirs around like shields against all the ills of the outside world. But they suited the whole lot of them, and it occurred to Tobias that this, perhaps, was how they were supposed to look. Not assailed by war or by grief, not struggling against inner demons and outer challenges.
Just men and women, together, happy. With friends and loved ones.
‘Then I had best keep it brief,’ said Tobias Grey, and lifted his champagne flute aloft as he regarded his friends. ‘To times like this. When the night outside is cold but we can all stand here, together. Warm. May there be many more.’
A/C: And that, as they say, is that.
This really is the end. I may find myself tempted to write further short stories, perhaps, snippets of the lives of the gang. But their stories, as a whole, are done and dusted, over with 'Beyond This Place'. The end of not just this tale, but the Anguisverse as a whole, a story spanning almost ten years of the characters lives - and ten years in the writing. On and off, of course.
It's been a hell of a ride. I am immensely grateful to everyone who has read and enjoyed this story, and especially those who have offered a word (or more) in support. I wrote this for myself, for my own entertainment - because if one is desirous of a big audience in fanfic, they don't write OC stories. But if just one other person out there found this story half as fun to read as I found it to write, it was already doubly worth it.
There'll be more from me, no doubt. 'Ignite' and the tales that will spin from that are still to come - and with them there are snippets of Anguisverse canon, for Nat Lockett's story carries across, and her story doesn't exist in a vacuum. There should be 'Easter Eggs' within for fans of both series. I'm still working, as I said at the end of Shade, on a bold surge towards publication. Maybe I'll have news for my friends here some day soon.
But regardless. This saga is over, which is always sad. I have no regrets, merely the satisfaction of a job well done. I love these guys, and I am happy to send them off into the sunset - and I hope you, too, are happy to wave them off into the sunset. Don't you worry. They get their happy endings.
All is well.