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Oblivion by Slide
Chapter 32 : On the Dusty Ways
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 3


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On the Dusty Ways


‘Thanks.’ Albus looked at the cup, then across the table at Selena, who seemed intent on drowning her tea in sugar. ‘What do you want?’

She wrinkled her nose. ‘I ask you to a perfectly nice teashop and I’m buying and you -’

‘And you never do this.’ He lifted his hands. ‘I’m grateful. I’m just suspicious.’

‘Well, yes, I want to talk. It’s like you work for the Auror Office or something. You know…’ Selena snapped the sugar-tongs. ‘I need a pair of these at home. They’re great. Snip snip.’

‘Selena -’

‘Snip.’

‘Selena!’

‘Fine!’ She put the tongs down. ‘We could have had some nice tea and cake, but you decided to ignore the pleasantries. So we’ll skip to business and that means we skip cake.’

Albus’ expression fell. ‘This place does amazing lemon cakes -’

‘No. No lemon cakes.’ She stirred her tea. Britain was recovering from its shock over the Hogsmeade attack. The village itself was still being rebuilt only slowly, as the surviving townsfolk licked their wounds before rallying, but less and less were witches and wizards across the country assuming they would be murdered by the Council of Thorns if they strayed outdoors. Thornweavers struck distant lands like Greece and distant cities like Durban; Thornweavers didn’t strike quiet teashops off Diagon Alley, and so they sat in an establishment enjoying modest custom and offering good tea.

‘Anyway,’ Selena continued, ‘I asked you here so one or both of us can storm off if we need to. And we might need to, because I don’t really want to be here, and I suspect, once I start, you won’t much want to be here either.’

‘This is very encouraging,’ Albus lied.

‘It’s about Eva. Saida. Eva Saida.’ Again Selena’s nose wrinkled, no doubt sharing his consternation on the simple topic of familiarity when it came to Eva.

His gut folded up, like an envelope containing all his guilt as it tried to slink away and instead just burnt. ‘What about her?’

‘You’ve done something to upset her. By which I mean you’ve rattled and disturbed an already seriously disturbed mind, and I wouldn’t care…’ She sighed. ‘I would pretend I’m here out of morbid curiosity. But the truth is that I owe her a little bit, and I don’t like owing someone like Eva Saida, so the least I can do is figure out if I can help. And on a kinder note, I imagine you’re not exactly alright if things have gone awry in a situation which couldn’t be more wry if it were, well, me, and I actually care about your wellbeing -’

He wasn’t used to being interrogated by Selena; the two of them had done a fine job of staying out of one another’s business over the years, mostly by having very little in common. But he knew by observation that she didn’t ramble like this when on the war-path, so he blurted, ‘I kissed her.’

Selena’s eyes narrowed. ‘That doesn’t sound like a disaster unless you’re really bad at it.’

‘I’m not - that isn’t the point.’ He stared at his tea. ‘I then called her Lisa.’

Ah.’

He cringed. ‘I also didn’t just kiss her, I was - it was after I’d heard about Scorpius, and I…’ The desire to explain himself, even if justification or absolution weren’t possible, rose. But words crumbled away from the concepts, leaving him doing nothing more than gesticulating incoherently. ‘I wanted to - she was there and -’

The narrowing of Selena’s eyes was now a knife’s edge. ‘And?’

‘And I threw myself at her.’ Despite its accuracy, it felt like an inadequate summary. ‘And she threw herself back, but I suppose I didn’t want Eva, I wanted Lisa, but Lisa didn’t ever exist, not really…’

She watched him for further long, thudding heartbeats, until she let out a slow breath. ‘That answers one thing.’

‘It does? What?’

‘You definitely don’t get any cake.’

‘Selena -’

Al, you’re a really big guy, do you know that?’

He rocked back on his chair. ‘I didn’t force -’ She’d kissed him back. She really had, with a passion Lisa had never held, a reckless abandon and need he hadn’t known he’d wanted until he’d tasted it. But in the seconds before, he hadn’t cared if she needed him. All he’d cared about was the pain he wanted to use her to smother. ‘When she told me to stop, I stopped.’

Selena looked as unconvinced by that as he expected. ‘There’s this cute thing where guys, sometimes in very carefully observed subtext, sometimes outright, seek a “yes,” or even an invitation instead of settling for the absence of a “no”.’

‘The moment she pushed me away, I was gone, and I did not press the matter -’

‘Good, and maybe you did read it right, maybe she was totally fine right until you screwed it up.’ Selena held up her hands. ‘But you’re a big, strong guy who doesn’t know how intimidating he can be. You’re also a charismatic guy, and one she has pinned her entire bloody sense of identity and morality on. So do you think it’s responsible for you to say, “jump,” if all she’s going to ask is, “how high?” You don’t think you have a responsibility -’

‘I didn’t ask for this responsibility!’ he barked, hands slamming onto the table.

It wasn’t the glances from other tables that made him freeze. A raised voice at a teashop might draw attention, but a little embarrassment wasn’t enough to make him want to curl up into a ball. What stopped him in his tracks, what took his frustration and angry sense of helplessness and made him choke on them was that Selena jumped.

He dragged his hands back across the table and stared at them. Large hands, muscular hands, physical gifts he’d taken for granted as much as his magical aptitude, because when he lived in a world which wanted to kill him, he wasn’t about to question his prowess. It could keep him alive and, more importantly, keep the people around him alive.

Except for when he’d hurt people.

And except for when he’d done nothing.

‘I’m sorry,’ he mumbled, even though Selena was already recovering, even if he could see she’d only been startled, not truly frightened. ‘I’m - I’m sorry. You’re right, I don’t think, and I wasn’t thinking then, and I didn’t want to hurt her.’

The fear of himself pounding through his gut softened when she reached for his hand, and his shoulders sank. ‘I don’t think you’re solely responsible, Al. This thing between you two is beyond messed up. And most of this you didn’t bring on yourself. But you need to remember the effect you have on people.’

‘I didn’t ask for that,’ he muttered, then remembered he was talking to the woman whose first love had been murdered by the Council of Thorns. ‘Putting other people first was all very well and good once upon a time,’ he tried instead, ‘but when you’ve been hurt, really hurt, you know - you know better than most - that you have to lick your own wounds.’

‘For a time,’ Selena agreed, ‘but you can lick your wounds your whole life if you let yourself. Eventually you have to decide if you’re going to be conquered by that pain, or if you’re going to conquer it. Rose was conquered by it, for a time, but now she’s going absolutely mental and I think she might burn down heaven itself if it gets in her way.’

Albus made a face. ‘Why does everything keep coming back to Scorpius?’

‘Because you let it,’ she said bluntly. ‘Because you pretend you made yourself around him. And I get that. For a very long time I thought that Methuselah made me not be a stupid, immature, self-absorbed brat. And then I realised that he saw the better parts of me deep down, and not only did he bring them out, he made me want to bring them out. Scorpius didn’t make you that great big fluffy hero. Lisa Delacroix didn’t, and Eva Saida certainly didn’t.’

‘Fluffy hero.’

She shrugged and drew her hand back. ‘If you want to be. Or you can be something else. That’s kind of the point, Al. It’s your choice. Not Eva’s, not Scorpius’, and certainly not your grief’s.’

Albus drew up his gaze and regarded her, the one of their group he knew he had always at least subconsciously underestimated, pitied rather than respected, and found he had something new to be guilty about. But this was, at least, guilt with a glimmer of hope on the far side. It was a new sensation. ‘You make it sound so easy.’

‘No, I make it sound simple. Because it is that simple,’ sighed Selena Rourke. ‘But simple things can still be hard.’

* *


‘…so that was when I realised I had no idea where I was, except for “down a dark alleyway in Cairo on my own,”’ Matt said as they walked the long, night-clad street, winding between the bursts of light from lamps and the windows of houses. ‘And sure, I had my wand and a magic sword but I also had half the expedition’s requisition funds on me…’

‘Oh my God.’ Selena tried to not laugh, pressing a hand to her cheek. ‘You got mugged?’

‘I didn’t, but only because I got so lost that I got a bit of a lead on the guys following me, and they hadn’t got a very good look at my face.’ His lips twisted. ‘So I conjured up some fabric to make a makeshift headscarf, ducked down another alleyway, and all I could do as they came past was pretend to be a very confused and very drunk French tourist.’

French?’

‘I could babble at them in French; I really don’t know enough Arabic to fake it. I thought I could try German, but French is more common in the Middle East -’

‘And they bought it?’

Matt shrugged, grinning sheepishly. ‘They did. I looked like someone completely different, so they carried on by.’

‘What happened then?’

‘What do you think? I got someplace high so I could figure where I was, apparated back to the hotel, and I sure as hell didn’t tell Rose how much trouble I’d got into!’ They both burst out laughing, eased along by a night of good food and good wine and good company. ‘She still doesn’t know that one, so be careful before you drop me in it.’

Selena felt the twist in her gut. ‘I won’t volunteer it. We’re still trying out this new honesty thing.’

Matt sobered. ‘How’s that going?’

‘Actually really well.’ She offered him a reassuring smile. ‘She’s fine with all of this, Matt. With us. I know you weren’t sure about how to tell her, but she and I - we’ve kind of lied about this for a while. Even by omission. It didn’t feel right any more.’

‘Hey, I never wanted to get in the way of you two. I’m just glad you’re both okay.’

But they were at her house now, at the steps to the front door, and they both stopped. She watched him shove his good hand in his pocket, the prosthetic hanging by his side; watched as his shoulders hunched up and his gaze took on a guarded, apprehensive glint which was so mundane and yet still set her heart to skipping for its normalcy.

‘Well, this is me,’ she said uselessly, like he hadn’t spent nights in her guest room already.

‘Yeah,’ said Matt, and bobbed his head.

‘I don’t - did you want to come in?’ Selena jerked a thumb over her shoulder. ‘Coffee, or a drink, or…’ The or trailed off, a lingering implication of a hundred unspoken suggestions and possibilities, and though they were the masters of the unspoken, she felt heat rise to her cheeks. Even if she didn’t know what she was suggesting.

It was only little comforting to see his awkward shuffling. ‘No, no, thanks, but I should - I’m up early and giving a report to Ms Granger…’

‘Oh, of course.’ She tried to not take it as a sting. ‘Yeah, there’s that, of course.’

‘It won’t - I want to be sharp for it,’ Matt blurted. ‘So I’ll, er, I’ll be off?’

Why is this so hard? Selena tried to not bite her lip as she stood at the bottom of her steps, looked up at him, and said, ‘Yeah. Good night.’ And waited.

It was so long since she’d been here; a normal date, with the normal apprehensions about a normal relationship. Worse, the last time she’d been anxious about new boundaries with a guy, it had been Methuselah. So when Matt hesitated, that last surge of guilt had her step forward, bring a hand to his cheek, and lean up for the goodnight kiss.

He melted, at least, at the touch; leaned in and for a moment it was an end to the evening she’d hazily envisioned, a gentle, lingering kiss which left her eager enough for more that she stepped in, snaked her arms across his shoulders, tried to drink up the moment even if it wouldn’t last.

For a heartbeat, his good hand came to her waist - and it was like that stung him. He didn’t break the kiss so much as end it with unexpected speed, and stepped away, expression still that awkward uncertainty. ‘Good night,’ Matt blurted, but before she could respond he’d reached for his wand and with a crack, was gone.

Leaving her clutching at thin air.

‘Piss.’ She thought, for a moment, of going inside and going to bed and pretending this hadn’t happened. But that brought with it a flash of loneliness that clawed at her guts. She was supposed to be doing this differently. Then she considered going inside and talking to Miranda, but their rejuvenating friendship only went so far. She could talk about old wounds with her old friends, because she understood them inside and out and could ease Miranda back into understanding her. New, unknown vistas of uncertainty and fluid emotions would only encourage Miranda to treat her like she was made of delicate glass.

‘Piss,’ said Selena again, because there was only one person who could help her with this, and the idea was so bad that for a moment repression seemed like a good idea.

You’re trying to do this one right. Give it a chance. Lips thinned, she grabbed her wand and Disapparated.

The knock on the Old Rectory door was answered by, of all people, Hermione Granger. By now, Selena had almost forgotten this was where Rose’s parents lived, not just Rose herself, so busy was the entire family with business of the wider world. ‘Oh, uh. Sorry for stopping by so late. Is Rose here?’

Hermione looked only a little disgruntled as she let her in. Rose was in the living room, surrounded by papers of her mad obsessions, a defiant look in her eye Selena suspected wasn’t for her.

Brilliant. She’d interrupted an argument.

‘Selena, hi - we can talk about this later, Mum.’

Hermione tossed her hands in the air. ‘Can we, now?’

Selena cringed towards the door. ‘I really don’t have anything urgent -’

‘It’s only Baffin Island, Mum. Either something’s there, in which case we have to look into it, or nothing is there and so we’re perfectly safe.’

‘I don’t like you going that far away on your own,’ said Hermione, and Selena stared at the ceiling as the argument apparently did not stop for her.

‘I won’t be on my own,’ said Rose hotly. ‘I’ll be with Scorpius.’

‘Scorpius Malfoy, a boy whose recent history is adorned with gaps and mysteries and things I know you’re not telling me -’

‘You didn’t mind me going to Niemandhorn with him!’

‘You were on the most secure transport route to the most secure castle in the world with him. This is going out to the middle of nowhere!’

Rose stomped up to her mother. ‘If this leads to the origins of the Stygian Plagues, if we find where Raskoph discovered them, then this could save everyone. Forget the Chalice, this could produce an entirely different cure and remove the Council’s greatest weapon!’

Hermione met her daughter’s gaze. ‘And save him.’

Yes.’ Rose tightened her jaw. ‘I can care about both things, you know.’

Selena slunk back towards the door. ‘I’ll come back later -’

Hermione sighed, and pinched the bridge of her nose. ‘No, I’m sorry, Selena. You two talk. Because at this rate, I don’t think there’ll be a later.’

Selena’s nose wrinkled. ‘Ominous.’

‘I mean because she’ll be in Canada. But this conversation isn’t over.’ Hermione managed a smile for their visitor. ‘Lovely to see you, as always, Selena,’ she said, and then left for the stairs.

Rose let out a slow breath. ‘Sorry about that. She’s - she worries.’

‘I can’t imagine why,’ Selena drawled. ‘You’re leaving?’

‘Scorpius has found us a lead. There’s a magical settlement on Baffin Island called Helluby, right at the north, and he thinks that Cassian Malfoy went missing looking for Ultima Thule near there.’ Rose winced. ‘If by “near” you accept “about a hundred miles further north across icy wasteland”.’

‘Oh,’ said Selena. ‘Somewhere easy.’

‘Yeah. I don’t know what - are you okay?’ Rose flapped her towards a sofa, expression creasing with concern now she’d caught up on this arrival out of the blue at ten at night.

Anxiety about Matt seemed both childish and inappropriate right now. ‘Of course. Matt mentioned you two were getting a Portkey. I wanted to be nosy.’

It was a shoddy lie, and she saw it bounce. ‘We were going through my mother for the Portkey. The result was that argument. What’s wrong?’

Selena cringed. ‘First things first: If you don’t want to talk about this, tell me to bugger off.’

‘Oh, it’s about Matt.’ To Selena’s astonishment, Rose beamed. ‘Do you want wine?’

‘I - um - yes?’ Selena watched with bewilderment as her best friend flew around the kitchen and emerged with a bottle and two glasses. ‘Why are you so happy about this?’

‘I’m not happy there’s trouble!’ Rose poured them both glasses in a peremptory manner. ‘I’m happy you can come to me with this.’

That’s not the most fucked up thing I’ve heard, Selena conceded, and drank wine. ‘We had a date tonight.’

‘I’m assuming you didn’t come to gush at me about how well it went.’

‘It did go well. We went out for dinner. We talked. About anything other than the world ending. It was nice, we’ve not really caught up on all the silly little stuff. But then we were back at mine, and he…’ Talking to Rose about her very-recent-ex and how she was trying to seduce him needed a little more wine to press on with. The idea had sounded more palatable in theory than in practice, even if Rose seemed happy with it. ‘He choked up on the goodnight kiss.’

Rose took a slow, deliberate drink of wine, and Selena suspected she was being lived through vicariously. ‘What sort of choked up?’

‘I don’t - would you stop being so happy about this conversation, it’s weirding me out!’

‘I’m not happy there’s a problem!’

‘You’re just happy I’m coming to you with it!’

‘I am! I’m sorry!’ Rose put down her wine glass. ‘No, wait, I’m not sorry! I’m happy for you and I’m happy things are normal and I just want to help! I don’t care if it’s weird! Everything’s weird!’

‘Truer words have never been spoken. Everything is weird,’ Selena muttered, and drank wine. ‘I had to kiss him. And he seemed keen, at first, but then he got spooked really quickly and ran off.’

‘Hm.’ Rose drank her wine. ‘I guess it’s maybe a little weird for him?’

‘Perhaps. It’s one thing to say, “let’s be together,” or even, “let’s go for dinner.” Different entirely to then do it. Maybe he’s panicking. Maybe it’s that he’s now actually here, in this relationship, and he doesn’t want to -’

Or it’s just a little awkward and he needs some time to process the reality. That doesn’t mean he’s going to run a mile.’

‘Maybe, but what do I do?’

Rose looked far too smug when she said, ‘Talk to him.’

Selena sighed. ‘Oh. That.’

‘Sorry. You know it’s the solution. A frank and honest and healthy conversation.’

Yeah.’ Knowing she was right, Selena gave Rose a nasty look. ‘How does that work out with you and Scorpius?’

She was rewarded with a flinch from Rose and a flash of burning guilt in her gut. ‘We don’t try it. It’s… more than a little bizarre. We don’t really pretend we don’t have feelings for each other, but we don’t talk about it or act on it. And he’s said some things…’

‘Things?’

Rose sighed. ‘I know what he’s thinking. He’s not going to want to go near a relationship because he’s convinced he’s going to die. And he’s not going to want to hurt me by me… losing him again, but he also doesn’t want to make it harder - harder for him to die.’ She stared at the wall for a moment before slugging back her wine. ‘But he’s still said things. About not wanting to go, clutching to the woman he loves, wishing he had more time.’

Selena reached for the wine bottle to top both glasses up. ‘So he’s not just shielding you by keeping his distance. He’s shielding himself. Does he not think you can save him?’

‘He doesn’t dare hope.’

This went well, Selena thought, watching Rose bow her head. Good evasion of your own petty issues, reminding her she may lose him all over again. ‘And he thinks nothing of the fact that you’d rather make the most of the time you’ve got left, whatever happens?’

‘I didn’t say -’

‘You didn’t have to; it’s what I’d want.’ Selena squeezed her arm. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have dredged this up.’

‘That would suggest I’ve buried it. Like hell have I buried it.’ Rose sipped wine. ‘I’m going to save him.’

‘I know.’

‘And then I’m going to snog his stupid face off.’

‘I know that, too.’

‘That’ll be my reward for breaking the laws of reality.’

They clinked glasses. ‘Good reward,’ said Selena. ‘Break the rules. Save the world. Get the boy.’

* *


‘I’ve been dodging summer for the last year.’ Albus shrugged out of his jacket as they emerged from the alleyway into the beaming bright sunshine of Johannesburg. ‘I’m going to melt.’

Eva kept her long-sleeved jacket on because she had a sword-hilt to hide. ‘This isn’t much warmer than Algiers this time of year. And it’s technically winter there.’

‘Was that a brag?’ He sounded amused as he followed her down the pavement, into the bustling hum of a foreign city with its foreign voices and different sounds, sights, smells. She ignored them. She had a map, they had a destination, and they had a job to do. She’d not been to Johannesburg before, but she knew South Africa, had worked in Cape Town, the centre of magical government which they had Portkeyed into and out of in their trip. This was no tourism venture.

‘A statement of fact. Why did you dodge summer?’

‘Not intentionally.’ Albus shrugged and fell into step beside her, and she tried to not watch how his shoulders moved under the t-shirt. ‘But I spent autumn in eastern Europe and summer in Indonesia, which wasn’t cold but it was wet. And I suppose it wasn’t summer there.’ His brow furrowed. ‘Travelling a lot gets confusing.’

He’d been talking more than usual through the whole journey, which had only been three hours of customs and processing since they’d arrived at the Ministry in London, waiting to cross the whole world. She suspected it was nerves, but she wasn’t about to set him at ease. At least if he was on-edge, they were more likely to spot trouble.

‘Only if you care about tourism. We’re not here to enjoy the sun. Or to see the sights. We find Gregory Goyle and we drag him by the throat back to England.’

‘Or follow where he leads, if he knows where Draco Malfoy is.’

‘Well, yes.’ Eva scowled, and Albus fell quiet.

Their Portkey from Cape Town had taken them to the heart of Johannesburg, a city whose magical communities were scattered into small housing estates and discreet businesses, and so to get the magical hotel where Gregory Goyle was apparently staying took a short walk. She could see Albus’ gaze drifting upward, soaking up the tall towers of the business district, a mesh of older Art Nouveau architecture and modern concrete monstrosities. He was enjoying the new experience, and that just irritated her more. The loud voice in her head called it unprofessional; they were in a potentially hostile environment and all the cities in the world were the same. She saw little of Johannesburg she hadn’t seen elsewhere: people, the rich and the poor, the magical and the not, all scrabbling against one another to eke out an existence that wasn’t totally miserable, and she cared not one jot for any of them.

The quieter voice in her head pointed out that she was sulking. It was a childish word to apply to the sense of betrayal, but time, guilt about Candlestone, and Scorpius’ words reminded her that Albus was no Prometheus Thane. If she was going to nurse her hurt and her suspicion, then the smart thing to do was to run, to stop working with him, to shield herself like she’d protected herself her whole life. But she wasn’t running, and so she had to accept that, despite it all, she didn’t want to. Which meant her pain wasn’t insurmountable, which meant Scorpius was right, and which meant that the sensible thing to do was to give Albus a chance.

Despite this, she wasn’t done being hurt, which was why she called it a sulk. That, and she didn’t know what a ‘chance’ meant or could lead to, which was a much bigger problem and so it was easier to dismiss all of this as childish petulance.

‘Hey.’ His hand came to her arm, and of course she didn’t want to shy away, of course there was a surge in her gut at the physical contact. ‘22 Diagonal Street is that way.’ That was their destination, the magical skyscraper hidden from Muggle view, and Goyle’s hotel was an entire floor of it. She’d been so caught up in being irritated by her own feelings that she’d missed a turning.

Eva glared at his hand until he removed it with a look of genuine hurt and guilt. ‘Then let’s go that way,’ she said, as if she hadn’t missed the turn, as if he’d pointed out the obvious.

Intellectually, she had to appreciate the hard work that had gone into hiding 22 Diagonal Street, the magical counterpart of the tall, reflective Muggle building 11 Diagonal Street. A wizard looked at the magical skyscraper and saw a huge, shimmering building full of wizarding business and housing. A Muggle looked and saw a long, bustling road full of people and cars which they just happened to never need to go down or pay attention to.

‘Sort of like Diagon Alley for Johannesburg,’ said Albus as they waked into the lobby, looking upwards at the bright spire of metal pillars, walkways winding up, lifts shooting back and forth like the life-blood of the building. ‘I wonder if the naming’s intentional.’

‘This may shock you,’ said Eva wryly, ‘but not everything has to do with Europeans.’

He blinked. ‘I didn’t say that -’

‘Johannesburg might be the biggest city in South Africa, but Cape Town is the magical capital because it’s the oldest. It was the centre of magic in the region even before European explorers got here.’

Albus lifted his hands. ‘Comment withdrawn.’

Keeping him on the back foot, eager to avoid offence and quick to issue apology, gave her some illusion of control, though she knew it wouldn’t last. She also knew she could push it too far, so she stayed silent as they took the lift upward, and prayed that Gregory Goyle’s account history wasn’t a false lead.

But Albus wasn’t silent, clearing his throat after six floors. ‘The soonest we can get a Portkey back to England is tomorrow, if we’re lucky,’ he said. ‘I thought we could maybe look round Cape Town tonight.’

Her throat tightened. ‘I’ve been to Cape Town before.’

‘Then you can show me Cape Town. So dinner’s on me.’

Eva chanced him a look, and her gut twisted when she found his eyes locked on her, cool, calm, collected. Somehow he’d banished his nerves, which she suspected had taken the journey so far to achieve, but that didn’t make his measured demeanour any less disconcerting. ‘We might have Goyle with us in shackles.’

‘We might not.’

She wasn’t sure which was more scary - that he was as bad a person as she feared, and he was inviting her to be used and discarded, or that he was as good a person as she feared, and he was inviting her to dip her toe into a pool of happiness that she’d never see again once the war was over. But as she met his gaze, Eva remembered she had a really hard time refusing Al Potter anything. She swallowed, mouth dry all of a sudden. ‘We’ll see.’

A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, one of those tiny, pleased expressions which seemed all the more genuine on his honest face for his subtlety, but then the lift dinged and they were at their floor.

The Rissik Hotel occupied a whole floor of 22 Diamond Street, the most upmarket wizarding accommodation in the whole city. It was punctuated by a hotel bar that spilt out onto a broad, sunlit balcony of fine dining and good drinks. It was there they headed, ignoring the glances of staff, ignoring the fact that comfortable clothes for travel that wouldn’t see them stand out in Muggle society were at odds with the crowds of the well-dressed and the occasional robe-wearing. When Albus diverted for a table near the edge, old habits made Eva move to meld with the crowd, detach from him with a clear line of sight so she could be the unexpected reinforcements, shadowing and protecting. So she went to the railing a few feet away as he helped himself to a chair opposite a rotund, middle-aged wizard, sunning himself with a cold drink.

‘Mister Goyle?’

Gregory Goyle looked up - then his moustache bristled so wildly at the sight of Albus that Eva wondered if it would break off his face entirely. Of course he recognises Albus. ‘I, uh, what do you want?’

Eva leaned against the railing and kept her hand on her wand. Albus’ expression didn’t change from a polite, friendly expression. ‘Just to talk, Mister Goyle. I see you recognise me.’

‘You’re the Potter boy.’ Goyle’s broad face furrowed. ‘He’s not here, is he?’

‘My father has a great deal of interest in the affairs of the Council and those affiliated with it,’ was all Albus said. ‘I hear you might be able to help me with that.’

Eva tried to not wince. Crude. Too much, too soon.

‘The Council?’ Goyle sputtered. ‘I have nothing to do with the Council.’

‘And yet you’re here, in South Africa, when magical communities in Durban have been repeatedly attacked by the Council’s Inferi.’

‘We’re not in Durban.’

‘We’re not in a city where your company has any interests, either.’ Albus lifted a hand. ‘But if you say you’ve got nothing to do with Lethe-related activities, I believe you.’

Goyle’s meaty hands were clutching the edge of the table. ‘What do you want, Potter?’

‘I think you know why I’m here. I’m looking for Draco Malfoy.’

‘I’m not him.’

‘No.’ Albus leaned forwards. ‘But you’ve been paid by him, and paid a lot.’

‘That’s not a crime.’

‘Withholding information about the location of a wanted fugitive is.’

‘Who says I’m withholding anything?’

‘You’re right.’ Albus opened his hands with a thin smile. ‘You can’t be withholding information if nobody’s asked you for it. But Draco Malfoy is wanted by the IMC as an affiliate of the Council of Thorns. Do you know where he is?’

Once, Eva had thought Albus made people cooperate by being so nice to them that they didn’t dare refuse. Now, he had the same easy manner, the same friendly cheer, but there was a rod of iron running through it, like calm waters threatening a vicious undercurrent. Now, the urge to cooperate would come not through a desire to please this amiable, happy man, but through fear of what lay underneath the smiling face. And even she didn’t know where the masks ended and his true nature began.

Gregory Goyle sat up. ‘I’ve known Draco Malfoy my whole life. And last I checked, you didn’t have formal authority to interrogate me. Even if you did, demands across a café table isn’t a legal bloody investigation. I’ve no reason to tell you anything.’

Al’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. ‘I’m a contractor for the DMLE. I do have the authority to investigate Draco Malfoy’s disappearance.’

Goyle gave a big shrug, robes straining over his hefty shoulders. ‘Doesn’t really matter. Can’t help you, Potter. Sorry.’

Then Eva was stood behind him, a hand at his back, wand-tip resting against his neck. ‘We’re not just going to take your word for it and walk away, Goyle.’ Her voice dropped to a low, sultry tone, because she knew men always found it disconcerting when she threatened them like that. ‘So you can tell us what you know here, and so we have more important things to do than cart your meaty shape all over the world. Or we have no leads, and so the best thing we can do is drag you off for some Legilimency. Who knows what secrets might fall out?’

She felt him tense under her hand, and her gaze flickered to Albus with an instinct that sickened her in the gut. She’d done this a hundred times before, only it was Thane she then looked to for confirmation, for approval. Did I do it right? Did I scare them for you properly? Can you give your brainwashed child of murder a scrap of desperately-craved affection?

But before Albus could meet her gaze, there was the thundering of footsteps from the doorway, a crowd of armed wizards bursting onto the balcony, flashing wands and bellowing orders. It took a heartbeat for Eva to notice the badges on their shoulders, to pay attention to their actual words, which was why she didn’t blast them the moment she saw them.

A dark-skinned woman with a Warrant Officer’s rank stripes, taller than even Eva, took the lead. ‘Nobody move!’ she called in a voice that was as polite as it was firm. ‘Crime Bureau business. Everyone keep your hands where we can see them.’ They started across the balcony directly for Gregory Goyle.

Albus burst to his feet, jaw tight. ‘We’re agents of British Magical Law Enforcement,’ he told the South African Enforcers as they swarmed over Goyle, searching him, disarming him, cuffing him. ‘We need to talk to this man for our own investigations.’

The Warrant Officer looked at Albus, expression flat. ‘And who’re you?’

‘Albus Potter,’ he said, like he for once wanted to use his name to have an impact. ‘And you?’

Eva tried to not sigh as she saw how little the woman cared about the Potter name on the far side of the world. ‘Warrant Officer Pretorius,’ she said. ‘And if you wanted to conduct an investigation on South African soil, you should have talked to us first. This man is under arrest for association with Council Lethe smugglers, so we definitely need to talk to him for our investigations. Back in Cape Town.’

‘He’s a British citizen, we have a right to -’

‘Under IMC law, you have no rights here if he’s suspected of association with the Council,’ Pretorius interrupted. ‘So the second best thing you can do is come to Cape Town and petition my superiors in the Magical Crime Bureau to grant you access.’

Eva moved to Albus’ side; she knew a tone that would brook no opposition when she heard it. ‘What’s the best thing we can do, Warrant?’

Pretorius seemed to approve of the calm, polite tone. ‘Let me arrest this bastard. And stay the hell out of my way.’



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