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Oblivion by Slide
Chapter 9 : In Nightblack Arms
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 12

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In Nightblack Arms

‘Dad can get us a portkey to Denmark, if it is in Denmark,’ said Matt, bent over the map laid out on the table in their safehouse. ‘But from there we’re on our own.’

‘We can call reinforcements, surely.’ Rose furrowed her brow. ‘We have a lead -’

‘We’ve got nothing,’ said Albus. ‘We think the Naglfar is in Denmark. Even if Baz’s people can get us a more definite location, that’s nothing conclusive. There must be dozens of reports of Thornweaver activity worldwide over the last two days. The IMC can’t chase them all.’

‘Your father had a team to us in Ager Sanguinis within twenty minutes.’ Rose looked at Matt. ‘You’ve got a whole operation which acts independently of the IMC.’

‘An operation which is, right now, as thinly-spread as the IMC. Your fathers are running around North Carolina because the Americans need their help. De Sablé’s up to his eyeballs trying to find out what the hell the Council got their hands on to create Lethe. We’re not a large group, and most people are helping him.’

‘We can put the call out,’ said Al, ‘but who’re we going to bring? People who haven’t waved their wand in earnest in years? People whose only experience of a fight is a classroom? And even if we get a definite lead, you heard them. The IMC might not even want the Naglfar hit.’

Rose frowned at him. ‘You’re saying we shouldn’t tell anyone we’re doing this, because they might stop us?’

‘I’m sure Lillian Rourke wouldn’t. But Lillian Rourke is subject to her advisers, an international team of experts, whose operations might be disrupted by hitting the Naglfar before they’re ready. I don’t care, but I think it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.’

Matt nodded, jaw setting. ‘It’s just us,’ he said. ‘Like always.’

She looked between them, trying to not glower. Of course this is the topic where you decide to team up. The part which requires us to be macho loners lunging into an abyss. ‘It’s never just been three of us. And unlike you two, I haven’t been running around looking for trouble these past two years -’

‘You did fine against Castagnary and his goons. Don’t pretend you’ve not kept up your skills. We’re not little kids any more. We’ve probably got more experience than most professionals.’

‘Maybe we do.’ Rose looked between them. ‘But I don’t want to get killed; I want to rescue Selena -’

Matt scowled. ‘We want that too -’

‘Not as much as either of you wants to prove something!’

Her voice echoed in the small room, with its bare walls which made her anger reverberate around them, and it was enough to make both Matt and Albus straighten. But before either could summon a response, there was a knock on the door, and Matt turned. ‘That’ll be Baz with a location. Hopefully.’

But he opened the door with his wand in hand, and it came snapping up when he saw Eva Saida stood there.

She lifted her hands, one of which held a manilla folder. ‘I come in peace. With information.’

Matt grimaced. ‘Did Baz have to send you? I’d rather not break up another fight.’

Albus didn’t move from the table, broad shoulders still squared. ‘I’ll behave if she does,’ he rumbled.

Saida stepped inside as Matt let her, and moved to the opposite side of the table to Albus, next to Rose. ‘I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is that I was wrong about Denmark; the Naglfar left Copenhagen almost twenty-four hours ago.’

‘Tell me the good news is a lead,’ said Matt.

She nodded. ‘Rotterdam. I had to check discrepancies in their berth logging system and reports from Muggle dock-workers with minor confusion and inconsistencies which match the effects of the charms the Naglfar uses to disguise itself. All very discreet, if you don’t know what to look for.’

‘Does the IMC know what to look for?’ asked Albus, gaze tight.

‘You were just suggesting we rush off without telling the IMC,’ Rose pointed out. ‘Let’s do what we have to and worry about the wider world later.’

‘Agreed,’ said Matt. ‘If they’re in Rotterdam, we can get transport there easy. We locate the specific berth, check the place out; repeat what we did with the Rabbit’s Foot if we have to, snatch a guard and Rose interrogates them. From there, we cook up a strike plan -’

‘There might not be any guards disembarking,’ Albus said. ‘Rose’s Legilimency is rusty, and it took us a week to form the Rabbit’s Foot plan, with recon. If the Naglfar left Copenhagen for Rotterdam, it might stay on the move.’

Matt grimaced. ‘What’re you suggesting; we jump to Rotterdam and hop on board, wands blazing?’

‘No, I’m pointing out that you’re leaping to conclusions.’

‘I am trying,’ snapped Matt, ‘to find Selena. You, on the other hand, are being an obstacle at every turn.’

Rose lifted her hands, chest thudding. ‘If you two are going to keep at each other’s throats, then I’m out. I want to save Selena, but if we’re fighting amongst ourselves like this, we don’t stand a chance against a Council command centre.’

Albus’ expression set. ‘We cannot be naive about this. We must prepare for every eventuality, and be ready to deal with the Council’s best people.’

‘And you think the three of you can take them on?’

All eyes snapped around to glare daggers at Eva Saida, who remained impassive. She shrugged. ‘I mean you no offence. I’m aware of your competence. But you’ve never made a strike against a Council stronghold before.’

‘And you have?’ Matt arched an eyebrow.

‘Yes,’ she said simply. ‘And I spent a long time with the Council, with their people. I know how they work. I know the wards and defences that they use.’

‘Then tell us,’ said Rose.

She shook her head. ‘It’s more complicated than that. You know magical defences are. They could use a dozen different configurations; I couldn’t tell you what they’re doing until it was in front of me.’

Matt’s jaw dropped. ‘Are you asking to come with us?’

‘Absolutely not!’ Albus slammed his palms on the table. ‘I’ll tolerate your presence and your help if it’s going through Baz, because people I trust have trusted Baz. But to have you at our backs? No way. No bloody way.’

‘Do you want Selena back?’ Saida challenged, and Rose noted how she still couldn’t look Albus in the eye. ‘Because you can’t do this, just the three of you.’

‘I accept that likelihood,’ said Rose, and her stomach began to clench into an old, familiar knot. ‘But you betrayed us to the Council. I don’t care that you got cold feet and then let us go; you betrayed us in Venice, and that got Scorpius killed.’

The look Saida threw Albus for a heartbeat was oddly accusing, then she turned to Rose. ‘I didn’t betray you in Venice.’

‘So you say,’ Albus growled.

‘It’s the truth!’ She gritted her teeth. ‘I got into the job to spy on you, yes, and report back on what happened in your search for the Chalice. But I was given that job by Prometheus Thane; Raskoph was responsible for the strike on Kythos. I realised then that if I gave reports to the Council, there was a good chance that Raskoph would kill me to wipe out the lot of you. The last time I had contact with Thane was after Tomar, and that was telling him I was going off the grid until I had the Chalice itself.’

‘So you stayed quiet until Venice.’ Rose folded her arms across her chest.

‘Think about everything that happened. I killed Elijah Downing, yes. And that was partly because, if we caught him, you’d have used Legilimency on him and I’d have been outed. But you know what Downing wanted? He wanted to kill you on Brillig and take your research and continue the hunt himself. It was a good argument. An argument someone loyal to the Council’s cause couldn’t object to. So I had no choice.’

Rose grimaced, but before she could find a retort, Saida had continued. ‘Then there was Cat Island. I risked my life to buy you time to get the Chalice. I didn’t have to do that.’ Her voice was low but firm; impassioned without fire, a cold sort of determination. ‘I intended to leave in Venice,’ she continued, and didn’t look at Albus at all now. ‘You had the Chalice. You’d be home soon. I was going to slip away in the night and be long gone before either you or the Council realised I was missing. I literally ran into Thane and his men when I was on my way out.’

‘And ran back to his skirts,’ said Albus.

Now she did throw him a defiant look. ‘I lied to save my neck. If I hadn’t done that, you would all probably be dead. There was nothing in the world, not one thing, compelling me to betray Prometheus Thane and Raskoph in Ager Sanguinis and help you break out. Why would I do that, if I’d given you to them with a bow on top?’

Rose fell silent. The words struck true, but they were thudding against a conviction which had sat in her bones for two years. She hadn’t hated Eva Saida, because hate was for those capable of feeling, and certainly the blame for Scorpius’ death had fallen more heavily on Joachim Raskoph and Prometheus Thane. But Saida’s betrayal had been a truth for all this time, and when it came to the details surrounding Ager Sanguinis, Rose’s usual logical thought was not as fluid.

‘If you changed your ways,’ Albus said, glaring broadswords at her, ‘then why didn’t you hand yourself over to the IMC?’

‘So they could lock me in prison, throw away the key, and pester me only to loot my brain for intel on the Council?’ Eva Saida raised an eyebrow. ‘I said I didn’t want to be on the side of Raskoph’s lunacy or Thane’s using of me any more. I didn’t say I’d become an idiot overnight.’

‘Facing justice isn’t idiocy.’

‘Whose life would be better by my being punished? Who would be safer, who would be happier? Who would be brought back from the dead?’ She shook her head. ‘Nobody. But Baz doesn’t care about my background. Lots of people are in my position; we worked for the Council of Thorns until we realised quite how insane they are, and now we want out, but we don’t fancy jail-time.’

‘So you can pretend you’re absolving yourself of your sins while conveniently avoiding consequences,’ sneered Albus.

Eva Saida’s expression didn’t change. ‘I said I’m not an idiot. There is no absolution. There’s only the time I have left, and what I do with it.’

‘Poetic, but -’

‘She can help,’ said Matt.

Everyone fell silent, stunned - including Saida. Rose fought to find words before Albus could explode again, throat tight. ‘I’m not sure I can give an opinion on this.’ It wasn’t the most helpful contribution, so she pressed on. ‘I do believe that she didn’t betray us in Venice, though. Which is a problem.’

Albus made a face. ‘That was two years ago -’

‘And if she didn’t betray us, then who did, Al? Who knew where we even were? We went there explicitly to avoid detection.’

‘While I agree that’s important,’ Matt said, lifting his hands, ‘it’s a problem for after we’ve rescued Selena. And this isn’t about her story, this is about her working for Baz for the last two years. Baz isn’t an idiot; he knew this meeting was important, and he wouldn’t have brought her if he couldn’t rely on her. We trusted Baz with our lives before, didn’t we? Scorpius trusted Baz when we couldn’t trust anyone else. I say we trust her, through Baz.’

Rose bit her lip. ‘We are going to need help. Even if that help’s just an extra wand-arm, we can’t call in backup.’

Albus didn’t move, hands still planted on the table. She could see how stiff he was, see the tension in the sinews in his powerful arms. ‘There is no way,’ he said in a low, deliberate voice, ‘that I’m going into a fight with her by my side.’

‘Then I guess we’ll see you back in Britain,’ said Matt bluntly.

Al looked up. ‘You’re -’

‘We need her.’ Matt straightened to his full height, which meant he still had to lift his head to look Albus in the eye. ‘And I dare say we need her more than we need you. I owe you nothing, and getting Selena back is absolutely more important to me than your feelings. Selena’s your friend, you say? You ran out on us. On her, on Rose, on all of us. Now is not the time for you to play the card of being “one of us” so we value your opinion. You’re not one of us, Al. By your own choice.’

Rose knew she’d win no prizes in self-awareness for noticing she’d grown colder over the last two years. But it was only now when she looked at Matt, saw the steel in his grey eyes, saw how tall he stood, that she realised he’d grown, too, and grown harder from experiences she’d never seen, never known, never understood. While she had wilfully ignored all the signs that he was hiding something from her, he’d been becoming a new person, and she had to wonder if she even knew that man.

Albus stared at Matt for a moment, then his gaze went to Saida. Rose would have sworn he flinched before he said, ‘Why do you even want to help us? It looks like you’ve got a good gig here with Baz.’

‘If I told you,’ said Eva Saida coolly, ‘would you believe me?’

Albus grimaced. ‘Probably not.’

‘Then I think I’ve issued enough self-justification for one day. It’s decided?’

Matt looked at Rose, who managed a stiff nod despite herself. ‘It’s decided.’

‘Good.’ Saida reached for the file to rifle through more papers. ‘I know which berth they’re at. I agree with - with Potter, I’m not sure we’ll be able to snatch a member of the crew for Weasley to interrogate. But this is a location which relies heavily on secrecy; too many people and they won’t be able to keep a low profile. I don’t think the Council knows we know about the ship, so a full assault isn’t the worst plan in the world.’

Rose took a deep breath, and felt warmth cram in with it as her mind started to rattle along, cogs whirring which had been still for years. She had looked at intellectual challenges, magical and research-based, and done fine. But this was people, problems, life and death, and old instincts were rearing their heads. ‘Then we want to find a way to cut off their communications and ideally their portkeys. Stop them from calling in reinforcements, and stop anyone from dropping in.’

‘Swiftness will be key,’ said Saida. ‘They’ve got to be able to raise the alarm, and if we sneak on board we can get the drop on them.’

‘And if they have security charms,’ said Rose, ‘we can turn their spells to our advantage.’

Saida grinned, a flash of satisfaction like a knife cutting through her mask - then smothered it almost as quickly. It was, Rose acknowledged with a grimace, no different than the surprised, pleased smirks Lisa Delacroix had given them.

‘Rotterdam it is,’ said Matt. ‘I’ll get on the Floo to Dad, see what he can do for us.’ He looked at Saida. ‘Pack your gear; we’ll be gone in two hours.’

‘I’d expect three, under the current circumstances of international travel,’ she said, ‘but very well.’

They both left, Saida without a look behind her, Matt to the closed room for Floo communication and transit, leaving an array of maps and scribbles on the table, and a motionless Albus.

Rose took a slow breath. ‘You’ve seen her since Ager Sanguinis.’ It wasn’t a question.

He planted his hands on the table, shoulders squaring. ‘Berlin. A couple weeks after I left Britain. She sought me out.’

‘And you didn’t think that’d be important?’

His expression twisted. ‘Why would it -’

‘We spent two years thinking she was the traitor!’ The words bubbled up from her throat, catapulting Rose around the table to grab Albus by the arm. She had to stop herself from trying to shake him; not that she’d have the strength. ‘I thought she’d sold us out and then got cold feet!’

‘How can you believe her -’

‘She freed us, and then left the Council! There’s no loyalty to them! No manipulation of us! Why would she lie?’

‘Because that’s what she does!’ He turned to her with a snarl, lip curling. ‘She lies, she tricks, that’s who she is. I can’t believe you and Matt are okay with her being here!’

‘This isn’t about that! She didn’t explain anything in Ager Sanguinis, but she came to you after, professed innocence. I’m not saying all is forgiven, but at the very, very least, you owed everyone back home a warning that someone else sold us out to the Council! Or of the possibility!’

‘There was no possibility,’ he rumbled, ‘because she’s a liar. They were empty words.’

‘I don’t think they were. Which means somebody else who knew we were in Venice told the Council. Doesn’t that scare you?’

‘Does it matter?’

Nobody knew! Except - oh, shit.’

He frowned as she put a hand to her forehead. ‘Except what?’

The hand slammed on the table. ‘Scorpius wrote to his father before we left Andros Island. He wanted to talk to him after what happened with his mother - but had to write some things down first. I think that letter might have mentioned Venice. I’m not sure; I didn’t see it, I don’t remember what he said.’

Albus hesitated. ‘You think Draco Malfoy sold out his own son? They used him for Lethe!’

‘How is that harder to believe than that Eva Saida risked her own neck over and over for us, sold us out, then decided to help us escape?’ She watched him flinch again, watched his jaw tighten. ‘I cannot believe you’ve sat on this for two years, letting Malfoy, or whoever betrayed us, get away with this. They are as complicit in Scorpius’ death as Thane, as Raskoph, and they have walked away from this!’

‘All I did was refuse to pass on her lies. You’re making a huge mistake in trusting her.’

She folded her arms across her chest. ‘Or is it too hard for you to consider she might sometimes tell the truth?’

‘I don’t -’

‘Because then you might have to accept the possibility she really did love you?’

Then he was right in front of her, looming and red-faced. ‘You have no clue - no right -’

‘I have every right.’ He was huge, using his bulk to intimidate like he never used to, ruthless in using every weapon at his disposal. Rose’s voice came out like granite nevertheless. ‘Because I was the one who stayed. You’ve been a coward for two years, Albus. Matt’s right; you don’t get to lecture us.’

Matt’s right?’ A mocking tone crept in. ‘Maybe, but have you noticed how he’s just about ready to set the world on fire to get Selena back?’

He had mastered, Rose thought, Scorpius’ art of hurting everyone else when hurt. ‘I’ve noticed,’ she said in a low, flat voice, ‘and that’s none of your business.’

‘And Eva Saida and I,’ said Albus, ‘are none of yours.’ With that, he turned on his heel to stalk into the bunkroom.

Rose let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding, loosened the grip on her wand she hadn’t realised she’d taken. She was almost certain that Albus wouldn’t hurt her, but ‘almost’ wasn’t good enough when she saw how much he’d changed in two years, and when all of her survival instincts were fired up.

So she almost blew Matt’s head off by reflex when he stepped out of the Floo chamber, his expression so wooden she knew he’d heard the key points of the argument. ‘Dad can get us to Rotterdam in a few hours,’ he said, voice bland. ‘I didn’t tell him why. What he doesn’t know, he can’t be implicated in. But he did have some news.’

She raised an eyebrow and accepted they were all going to pretend nothing had just happened. ‘News?’

‘Selena was looking into a magical corporations who were suspected of smuggling unknown goods into and across Europe; this was her latest story for the Clarion. Turns out that these corporations have all been bought out by the same coalition. And, based on the locations of the warehouses… Dad reckons that he knows what they were smuggling in: Lethe.’

That wasn’t what she’d expected. ‘You’re saying Selena was chasing a lead on how the Council got the virus into countries in the first place?’

‘Makes me wonder if she was grabbed for reasons other than being Lillian Rourke’s daughter. Maybe she knew something she hadn’t passed up the chain.’

Rose’s brow furrowed. ‘If so… I don’t know, it would have to be something she didn’t know was important. Selena’s got a great poker face, but we were having drinks together, nothing about a huge secret at work - I don’t know. Who’s behind this coalition?’

‘We don’t know, yet,’ Matt admitted. ‘But Dad’s on the case. Lot of Ministerial records on corporate buy-outs - they get legal oversight on this - which he’s going to have to get his hands on, and the Ministry isn’t exactly being forthcoming right now on handing out information.’

‘But this could be about Lethe.’

‘Could be. It’s just a theory. And this is the Ministry; are you surprised? Halvard wouldn’t dare sneeze if it might make him look weak. And I bet from now he’ll have to ask Lillian Rourke for a tissue.’ He scratched his ear. ‘I also told him to keep an eye on Draco Malfoy.’

She nodded, and didn’t let her expression change. ‘Good. It’s just a theory.’

‘It makes sense.’ He shoved his hands in his pockets, then glanced to the bunkroom. ‘And - I’m going to do some training while we wait. Unless you wanted the room.’

That she was not invited to join him couldn’t have been clearer. Rose shook her head. ‘No. I’ll read a little out here. I may need to brush up on my Legilimency techniques.’

‘Not volunteering for playing guinea pig.’ His smile, while trying very hard, didn’t reach his eyes, and he turned, awkward, to leave for the bunkroom.

She didn’t stop him. Selena’s abduction was bringing them together, dragging Albus to them and forcing secrets past Matt’s walls. But with every step, Rose could see more and more how that closeness was in sore danger of ripping them apart with its honest truths.

* *

Rotterdam gleamed against the darkness, a reflection of the stars above amplified a thousand times and speckled with gold. The daily business of the harbour had quietened down, the only activity from ships which had no choice but to come in at a later hour, and there were none of those at the derelict section of the docks Eva Saida had led them to.

Apparition and charms got them past the security measures without trouble, and they’d had the good fortune to find an abandoned guard post overlooking their target. It hid them from sight as effectively as it sheltered them from the cold, and it made an excellent staging post when they had only a few hours of prep-time.

‘Those anti-incursion charms are going to be a problem,’ Saida was saying to Matt and Rose, the three of them around the table on which sat their diagrams of the area and the Naglfar. ‘They’re going to need to be down before we’re within twenty metres of the ship, or everyone on board is going to know about us.’

‘Those have to be detecting magical signatures,’ said Rose. ‘Or they’d go off every time a seagull came close. They have other ways of keeping Muggles back; this has to be for security against wizards.’

‘I agree, but transfiguring ourselves into seagulls isn’t going to be enough.’

Matt leaned over the diagrams. ‘How far down do the detection wards go?’

Saida shook her head. ‘It’s a bubble, so far as I can tell. No way of breaking in from above or from under the surface.’

‘That’s going to give us a hell of a time of getting past them without being noticed,’ Matt said.

Rose furrowed her brow. ‘If they detect magical signatures, not physical presences, we might be able to do something to reduce that. Like not having our wands when we cross the threshold.’

‘That would still send up a ping,’ said Saida.

‘It would. But what if we combined it with a false alarm? Use illusions to have something which looks big but turns out to be innocuous approach from one side, and slip in from the other just after. They’ll investigate, see our diversion, and assume that’s what we were, too.’

Saida raised her eyebrows. ‘What kind of false alarm?’

‘Nixe,’ said Matt. ‘Local water spirits. They could detect the magic around the boat, get curious. I bet you don’t get many in the harbour, but they do sometimes wander this close to shore. At worst, if we fake them coming from the opposite side, we can draw the attention of the crew long enough to slip on board and take them out.’

Saida gave a slow nod. ‘It depends on what Potter has to say.’

Albus himself didn’t arrive for another ten minutes. The door burst open with nobody in sight, until it slammed shut and he appeared all of a sudden, yanking off the Invisibility Cloak. He’d stripped down to swim, and was sopping wet and shivering. ‘Charms,’ he gulped, grabbing a towel off Rose gratefully, ‘only do so much in the North Sea in October. It’s fucking freezing in there.’

‘Good,’ said Saida, who hadn’t lifted her head at his arrival. ‘It’ll make the Thornweavers less willing to investigate the waters.’

‘What did you see?’ said Rose.

He dried his hair, then wrapped the towel around himself. Warming charms came from his wand, but they would take a few moments to kick in. ‘Six on the deck. Regular patrol routes.’ He paused in his charming to tap the wand on the diagrams, leaving moving markers. ‘I couldn’t get below deck, no doors out of sight and none of them were open. I think we’re only looking at another six or so below decks. Could be more, probably isn’t less.’

Saida nodded. ‘So, twelve to fifteen or so Thornweavers, possibly more. We absolutely don’t want an open fight. Even four against six on deck could be vicious. We have to take them out before they can report to those below.’

‘There’s more,’ said Albus, his expression taut. ‘I overheard two of the Thornweavers talking. Erik Geiger’s running this operation.’

They all fell silent. Even Rose, who had kept the least up-to-date with the affairs of the Council of Thorns, knew the name. Geiger had been one of Acosta’s right hand men in the administration in Brazil, but was credited with helping Raskoph’s takeover. Theorised to be a descendant of a Thule Society member who’d fled to South America after the war, his was a formidable reputation.

‘I guess that means they’re taking this place seriously,’ said Matt.

‘I would say this guarantees the Naglfar played a key role in the Lethe attacks,’ Saida said. ‘And it guarantees we are going to have to do everything right.’

‘Then it sounds like we have a plan,’ said Rose, and brought Albus up to speed.

* *

The Naglfar was a long, ugly freighter, very old and very battered, and having already snuck on deck, Albus knew that wasn’t an illusion. Magics kept it going, magics kept it reinforced, and magics even kept it from drawing too much attention, though its derelict appearance helped. It was larger a dozen crew needed, though he presumed the enchantments to prepare Portkeys to transit someone across Europe and through all international transportation barriers would be big and probably had a power source. But it was a distance from the harbour, and he could walk across the pier without fear of being spotted. Even if he was, he was just a figure walking on the shore a distance away, no threat to them.

Saida had gone to double-check the wards while they rounded off the plan, and so Albus only had three out of their four wands on him. He could see her sat atop one of the shipping containers abandoned on the dock, overlooking the harbour.

His clamber to join her was not quiet. He was a big guy and the container was metal and she was a professional. The tension in her shoulders as he pulled himself up was visible, and he heard her slow exhale as she lowered her wand. ‘It’s time?’

‘Unless you found something specific.’ His voice came out gruffer than he meant it, habitual by now.

‘No. The wards haven’t changed. They didn’t notice you slip on board.’

‘If they could detect the Invisibility Cloak, we’d have a world of new problems.’

She stood, dusting herself off. ‘No. Just the problem in front of us.’

His jaw tensed. ‘You’re not in the habit of looking at the big picture, are you?’

Eva Saida lifted her dark-eyed gaze to meet his, calm, emotionless, and he fought to not flinch. ‘The way I hear it, neither are you these days.’

‘You don’t know -’

‘I know you went, and I know you stayed gone.’ She sighed. ‘I don’t expect you to forgive me or trust me. Maybe work with me on this mission, but that’s the choice all of you have to make. So don’t assume I have an ulterior motive when I say this…’

He cut her off. ‘I will always assume you have an ulterior motive.’

‘So I see. But you shouldn’t hide from a truth, just because it makes you regret your past choices, just because it makes it uncomfortable for you to look at yourself. I know.’

His lip curled. ‘I don’t know what -’

‘You left because of me.’ Now she looked away, and her voice had dropped from the cold, professional tones to that softer uncertainty he remembered from the Caribbean, from Venice. ‘Scorpius made you grieve, but I made you run. Because by trusting me you hadn’t just hurt yourself, but got him killed. You weren’t ready to hear me profess my innocence two years ago. But you are now, except that if you believe me, you have to accept that you ran away for the wrong reasons.’

‘That is not the problem,’ Albus said, only half-lying.

‘Not only. But you’re ignoring a possible traitor in your midst because it makes your personal life uncomfortable.’

‘Are you here to help us free Selena, or to play my therapist?’

‘You could all do with it,’ she said. ‘It’s like looking at completely different people. The three of you are held together by piano wire; it’s bound you tight but you’re straining hard, and you’ll get sliced up if you’re not careful.’

‘You didn’t have to come with us.’

She rolled her eyes. ‘And you are all far more interested in being defensive than getting the job done. Except for Matt, who’s got the look of a man who’ll let us all burn if it gets him to her. If you really want to help Selena, you could listen to me and acknowledge that your issues and problems are getting in the way of, yes, I’ll say it, professionalism.’

We’re a renegade group hunting down the Council of Thorns because we don’t trust the proper authorities to get the job done. There is nothing professional about this. But that point, however valid, wouldn’t prove her wrong. It would only add fuel to her argument. ‘Then why aren’t you lecturing the others?’

‘I think they know this already. Telling them won’t change it. You, however, are wound up so tight by your own damage that if you’re not careful, you’re going to explode and kill us all.’

He scoffed. ‘At last, we get to the truth of your concern: risk to you.’

‘If I was worried only about my own neck, I wouldn’t be here, Albus,’ she replied, eyebrow arched.

‘Then why are you here?’

She turned away, back to the Naglfar, and her voice was, while low, firm enough that he knew he was supposed to hear. ‘Because I owe you, all of you, including Selena, my unconditional help. And because I couldn’t live with myself if I let you walk into this alone.’ He faltered, and she looked back at him, gaze unwavering. ‘I was going to do you the courtesy of not repeating things you clearly don’t believe and don’t want to hear. But stop digging for some justification for my actions which fits the image you’ve built up of me. That woman doesn’t exist. Maybe she did, but she died somewhere down the line, on Brillig Island or Cat Island or Ager Sanguinis; I’m not sure, but I know that you killed her.’

Something in his chest broke. ‘I didn’t ask you to be here. But Matt’s calling the shots, and maybe you’ll be useful, so here you are. Don’t think that means I am even beginning to believe you, let alone forgive you. I will be watching. And if you betray us, if you give me the slightest reason to doubt you, I will kill you quicker than you can blink.’

Her lips curled, that confident smile he remembered, the one which reminded him what she was. ‘I didn’t betray you. And I haven’t forgotten you. But I’m not defenceless.’

‘Except that you’re going to give me your wand. Because that’s the plan.’ He stuck his hand out, jaw setting, not ashamed of using their plan to exploit her weakness.

She did flinch at that, and his gut churned like the deepest waters of the harbour. ‘Then I guess we’ll see what kind of man you are.’ She twisted her wand in her grip and extended to him, pointed back towards her.

He all but snatched it off her, and didn’t say another word as he clambered down from the shipping contained before stalking away. They didn’t have much time. They had to get to work.

And he had to get her words out of his head.

My whole life, you have been the only thing that’s real…

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