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Oblivion by Slide
Chapter 41 : Touching Other Worlds
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 4

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Touching Other Worlds

‘The Portkey back to England’s due tomorrow morning,’ said Hermione, ducking through the white canvas flap and into the bunkroom. ‘The IMC’s now offering refuge to some of the survivors, so they’ll be coming through with you, too. Where’s Scorpius?’

Rose had to work to tear her gaze away from the flickering fire in the centre of the tent. Her mother had brought a flash of Helluby’s chill with her, even if the magical tent did a fine job of chasing back the arctic frost. ‘He went for a walk. He’s got some thinking to do.’

‘I can imagine.’ Hermione’s lips thinned. ‘I’m sorry you didn’t find an answer.’

‘We didn’t expect one. We just… we hoped.’ Rose rested her chin in her hands, eyes returning to the fire. ‘Or I hoped. And when it turned out we might be chasing the Styx, I thought…’

Her mother crossed the secluded bunkroom to sit next to her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. ‘I don’t know what comes next, but is it really over?’

‘You mean you want to give me support or encouragement but not false hope. But I don’t know. I really don’t.’ With a shuddering breath that took with it most of the iron-tight, determined strength of the past few days, Rose slumped against her mother, eyes closing. ‘I know what I need, but I don’t know how to make it happen in any way anyone could possibly live with.’

Hermione’s hold tightened. ‘You’re right. We do need to be able to live with our actions. And our circumstances. Maybe you’ve been desperate, Rose, but I’ve seen you more alive these past weeks than you’ve been in years.’

‘I don’t know what I’ll do if I lose him. I don’t want to go back to how I was before, but that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? And after everything…’ Her eyes opened. ‘Have you sent people to Ultima Thule?’

‘We will, once we’re done with Helluby. But if it’s as much of a collapse as you suggested, that could take months of excavation. Maybe even years if it’s entangled with magical defences. The passages under Alexandria are still being unravelled.’

‘Yeah.’ Rose sighed. ‘I guess that means Castagnary and the others really are dead.’

‘Rose -’

‘I had to stop them from getting the Styx. And we had to escape them, or we were going to be dead. We couldn’t fight them head-to-head, not in a narrow space like that when outnumbered, and so I knew I’d be lucky if I could get one blast off. I knew it would kill them. I knew it would probably collapse the tunnel. I didn’t know what else to do.’

Her mother kissed the top of her head. ‘I don’t know what else you could have done, either.’

‘But does that make it right? Not seeing another way except killing? Maybe I should have waited for a better chance, to do something else - I mean - you got through a war without killing people…’

‘But not without Imperiusing them, or hurting them, or ruining the odd life along the way,’ Hermione said quietly. ‘And sometimes, it was just luck that meant we didn’t get anyone killed. I was never in a situation like yours. I never had to make that kind of a choice. But I had to make similar ones.’ There was a pause, Rose not knowing what to say and sensing there was more coming from the tension in her mother’s shoulders. ‘There was one point where your father, Harry and I had a pair of Death Eaters Stunned and at our mercy. Your father said we could kill them - he didn’t want to, but they had tried to kill us, and who knew who they’d go on to kill? But Harry pointed out Voldemort would know they’d found us; far, far better to send them back with altered memories. It was compassionate, but it was also efficient.’

‘You had a choice,’ said Rose.

‘We did. But one of those Death Eaters was Antonin Dolohov. Eight months later, he killed Remus, Teddy’s father, in the Battle of Hogwarts.’ She could feel her mother’s flinch. ‘It’s not like we could have known. It’s not like we could execute him for something that hadn’t happened yet. But Dolohov had killed a lot of people. Clearly would go on to hurt people. And while it was logical to alter his memories, was it really more moral to let him go, knowing what he’d probably do? We hold killing as some absolute evil that should be avoided no matter the circumstances. But I think the world can be a bit more complicated than that.’

Rose stayed silent in the wake of this revelation, mind fizzing over Teddy, over the tales she’d heard of the Battle and his parents. ‘Castagnary didn’t want to do what he was doing,’ she said at last. ‘He signed up for the Council, yes, but I remember him in Egypt. He was nasty, but he had no interest in getting us killed. Maybe in letting us stumble into dangerous circumstances, but he wasn’t the kind of man to set Lethe off. I think he hated taking us prisoner back there. He knew it would mean our deaths, and he wasn’t going to save us, stop his superiors…’

‘Most of our enemies aren’t terrible people. They’re weak people or helpless people or slightly nasty people led by terrible people. They don’t have the will or the wits or the means to stand up to them.’

‘Castagnary pointed something out about what Thane and Scorpius did,’ said Rose, throat tight. ‘He pointed out the Council had a lot of leaders a year ago. Krauser, Voigt, Horn. Thane’s campaign to cripple the Council took out a lot of those figures, but he failed to kill Raskoph. So with the others gone, Raskoph took charge, and Raskoph was the one who pushed to be more extreme. To be less political, less manipulative, and to just kill people. They didn’t hurt the Council. They sharpened it.’

Hermione gave a long, pained groan. ‘Thane and Scorpius helped save Selena. So I have no idea why they’d do that if they were secretly propping Raskoph up. But I’ll send word to Niemandhorn, have them question Thane about this.’ Then she sighed again, but it was a different, more aggrieved noise. ‘If Lillian Rourke lets them.’

Rose sat up. ‘Lets them?’

‘Oh, she won’t stop them. But she has control over more or less everything now.’ Hermione’s expression pinched. ‘Evidence came to her of corruption around Minister Halvard’s office. She arrested most of his staff, he’s resigned, and she’s acting Minister. As well as Chairman of the IMC.’

‘But that’s… I don’t know how to feel about that.’

‘It’s a lot of power in one person’s hands.’

‘Sharing power only seems to make us open to exploitation by the Council.’ Rose paused. ‘There’s more. Castagnary said he was there when Scorpius was brought back. I think he found the Veil in Tibet. But he said Scorpius’ mother was there.’

Hermione murmured something Rose was sure was a curse that would get her told off. ‘She’s on her way back from South Africa right now. The trouble’s being resolved there…’

Rose sat up. ‘Albus is okay?’

‘He’s fine. Despite scaring us almost as much as you two did. He’s in the relief station in Nairobi and he’s perfectly alright. Saida too.’ Hermione made a small noise of exasperation. ‘They’re better than fine, in fact. Positively heroic.’

* *

Drifting in and out of consciousness while surrounded by babbling languages she only mostly understood was like being dunked in water over and over. One moment she surfaced, vision clear and bright, comprehending everything around her; the next all was dark, sounds nothing but rushing air. But every time she broke the surface, she hurt a little less.

It was impossible to say how long she’d been there, tossed in a storm of confusion, injury, and - as became increasingly apparent - a cocktail of healing spells and potions. But bright sunlight broke from above and onto her cot by the time Eva Saida crawled back into coherent thought.

She was just one of many in what looked like an old Muggle hangar, the sun blazing through the skylights in the metal roof that curved over them like a broad, protective embrace. Looking from right to left showed row upon row of hard cots, each of them occupied by a witch or wizard in varying degrees of medical distress. There wasn’t much variety in the nature of their wounds. Slashes and bites from an Inferius’ claws or teeth were distinctive.

But they lived and breathed and so were likely not in serious risk for some hours yet, based on the temperament of the Healers rushing to and fro. They were the ones speaking in the babble of languages, in varying states of fatigue and scruff, and a glance at the banners hanging on the walls eased one of the last twists in Eva’s gut. International Magical Convocation. Whatever this place might be, it was not a Council holding.

She sat up and looked down at herself. Her clothes were still the practical travel garb from the original trip to Johannesburg, though reaching for her lower back revealed the slash in the shirt and bare skin that was warm to the touch. It did not, at least, hurt.

‘Oh, hey, you’re up - should you be up?’

Eva tried to not spin too fast at the voice, and then tried to not beam like an idiot at the sight of a bedraggled Albus Potter approaching the cot, holding a steaming polystyrene cup. She settled for a thin, pleased smile instead. ‘I’m alright. How long was I out?’

‘About a day. They put you on some heavy duty potions so you’d sleep the whole thing off and they could worry about, uh, everyone else.’ The cot next to hers was empty, so Al pulled it over and perched on the edge, careful so his weight didn’t catapult it. ‘We’re in Nairobi - or, well, just out of it. Kenya’s opened its doors to South African refugees, so we’re getting everyone who made it out of Durban, out of the other attacks on Cape Town, too. Anyone who fled the country.’

‘The Council’s repeated their tactics in Greece?’ She shook her head as Al offered her the coffee. She didn’t think she could manage a hot drink, and she didn’t trust relief station coffee.

‘More or less. Durban’s got the biggest magical population, so attacking there hurt and scared people and drew attention away from the government infrastructure. And Geiger did capture and kill a whole lot of important people in Cape Town before he was stopped.’ Albus gave a small, smug smile. ‘We got him, though. He’s in holding, with the best Legilimens in the world going over him.’

‘You did well.’

He rubbed the back of his neck. ‘I got myself captured by being soft,’ he said, though didn’t sound at all guilty. ‘Really, you should hear how Pretorius and Judge Roux are talking about what happened. It sounds like you single-handedly cleared the evac route, through Thornweavers and all their Inferi, and then personally marched up to the lobby to save me and capture the ringleader.’

‘That’s… a way of describing it.’ Eva’s expression pinched. It was hard to not be suspicious about such a glowing report. ‘Did Goyle get out of there?’

‘He did. He was in quarantine for a bit, and now he’s in holding, but Pretorius vouched for us. He’s our prisoner. I was just going to go talk to him, in fact.’

Eva pushed herself to her feet and was relieved when her legs cooperated. ‘Then let’s go.’

Al almost spilt coffee over himself by standing too quickly. ‘Are you sure -’

‘If I’ve been out for a day after a scratch like that, I’ll be fine. Goyle was the job. We should finish the job.’ It was easier to think about than the talk of heroics. It was easier to think about than his easy smile, relaxed manner, than thinking about how afraid she’d been for him, how empty she’d been for losing him, how she’d so thoughtlessly kissed him…

They marched down the row of cots and Healers without incident, though here and there someone gave them a respectful nod, or cleared the way. Every time, Eva glanced to Albus, expecting him to be the cause of this deference, and every time she realised that the respect was falling to them both - or just to her.

This could be a problem.

The IMC had claimed some abandoned old Muggle airfield outside of Nairobi, and they emerged from the hangar into blazing sunshine and a field of tarmac, tents, prefab structures, and run-down buildings. However long they’d been here, Albus obviously knew his way around, and led her through the network of hustle and bustle.

‘South Africa is officially Council territory now,’ he said as they walked. ‘They found some mid-level Division head who’s either been coerced or was always a Council flunky, and they’re the new President and publicly declaring allegiance to Raskoph and his new world order. The concern is Botswana and Zimbabwe are going to be next, though the Council is going to have to work hard to keep its defences on multiple fronts.’

‘Unless something’s changed, their hold on Greece hasn’t weakened at all,’ Eva said. ‘And they had no concerns about opening up another front down here. Inferi only inflate their numbers with every massacre.’

‘The IMC’s in a position to do more, though.’ Albus glanced meaningfully over his shoulder before he added, ‘Seeing as Lillian Rourke’s arrested most of Minister Halvard’s staff for corruption or treason and the Minister himself has resigned over the scandal.’

She kept her expression measured. ‘Oh?’

‘Yeah. Someone got me the Daily Prophet down here. Started with the arrest of one Amadeus Candlestone?’

‘I don’t think he was a traitor. I think he was a corrupt idiot who took bribes and didn’t pay too much attention to what was going on.’ Eva sighed. ‘If you’re asking, yes, I sent my findings straight to Niemandhorn before we left.’

‘To Niemandhorn?’

‘Candlestone seemed capable of tugging on the right threads to find the traitors in the Ministry, but someone had to do that tugging. Anyone I know who’s trustworthy in the Auror Office is in Greece. I thought my name might get Lillian Rourke to at least read a message from me, and maybe outside investigation would do the trick.’

Albus fell into step with her, honest brow creased. ‘Did you, with one letter, bring down the Ministry of Magic?’

‘It seems Lillian Rourke brought down the Ministry. Which sounds like a good thing to me, as it was corrupt or inept or treasonous. I don’t care if she’s taken over Britain; she clearly runs the world already. Or, the bits the Council doesn’t run.’ Eva paused. ‘You disapprove?’

‘Not at all. I’m impressed.’ But then they’d reached a tent flanked by a pair of wizards wearing the IMC crest. The guards recognised Albus, and let them through after a brief exchange. The large tent was broken into compartments by sheets of canvas, though Eva could feel the magic crackling off the simple cloth, and Albus carried on down a long aisle.

‘Makeshift cells,’ he explained. ‘Only for low security prisoners. Anyone dangerous or important, like Geiger, was shipped out ASAP.’

He stopped at only the fourth compartment down, and pushed the flap open to let her step inside. Gregory Goyle was sat on a cot which looked a lot like the one she’d recuperated on, and his sloped, craggy features split into relief at the sight of her. He stood quickly. ‘Oh, good. You’re here, now we can get this over and done with.’

Eva looked at Albus as he joined her. ‘You waited for me?’

You found him. And freed him. And I wasn’t leaving Kenya without you.’ Albus shrugged. ‘But he’s our prisoner now, to do with as we wish.’

‘You should have got him back to Britain,’ Eva sighed.

‘That wouldn’t do you any good,’ Goyle said in a rush. ‘Not if you want to find Draco Malfoy.’

‘I don’t think he’s in Britain,’ said Eva. ‘I think you can tell us where he is.’

Goyle winced. ‘I can’t.’

She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. ‘After the week I’ve had, I have no qualms about finding the best Legilimens in the place -’

‘Actually,’ said Albus, ‘our contract gives us the right to do that ourselves.’

‘I can’t tell you,’ Goyle blurted, ‘because I don’t know.’

‘He funds you,’ said Eva, exasperated.

‘He does.’ Goyle lifted his hands. ‘Let me explain. I owe you that, I do. I’m no bloody friend to the Council. If you hadn’t bust us all out of Cape Town, I was in for a bad day. Seeing as the Council, they’re furious at Draco, and yes, I’ve been helping him, but I think they’d ask me questions a lot less nice than you do!’

‘I don’t know.’ She narrowed her eyes. ‘I may have used up my niceness.’

‘He sends me money. Because I pick up odds and ends for him and make sure his little business interests tick over while he’s in hiding. But he’s not dumb enough to send me as his agent in the world and tell me where he is.’

‘If you’re telling me all of this was a waste of time -’

‘I can find out where he is. We have drop-offs, I can ask to set up a meeting, I can - I can get you to him.’

Albus stepped up. ‘You two were friends since childhood. Why’re you selling him out?’

‘I’m…’ Goyle licked his lips. ‘I don’t want to get picked up by the Council. They’ll torture me and then they’ll kill me; I’m done with politics and wars. One war was enough! But if I help you out, if I cooperate with the IMC, the Ministry, that helps me, right? You’ll put in a good word for me?’

Albus made a low noise of frustration. ‘We’ll do what we can for you. But I can’t just let you go.’

Eva looked at him. ‘Do you want me to check if he’s lying?’ He gave a pained nod, and she gestured for Goyle to sit down. ‘Clear your mind. Relax. And if I even suspect you’re using Occlumency, I will not be gentle.’ It was mostly a lie. Her Legilimens was not sophisticated enough to crack decent defences, but her Occlumency was good enough to recognise it when it was being used. She gambled that Gregory Goyle, businessman of no good reputation, had not the mental discipline to stand up to her, and certainly to not do so discreetly.

But Goyle cooperated, and then her wand was sweeping across his brow -

The flashes were short, sharp, simple. The fear that ran through everything was bitter enough to taste, and familiar enough to churn her stomach. This man was a survivor, but one who ran instead of fighting back, and all he was doing now was trying to run again. But…

‘He’s not lying,’ she said. ‘He doesn’t know where Malfoy is. He thinks he can find him.’

‘Let me go, give me a couple of weeks, and I’ll send you word,’ Goyle said eagerly. ‘It’ll be best for him, too, he’s upset too many of the Council. They will kill him, and he’s stubborn, he hides, but he’s going to have to face the music sometime.’

‘How do we know we can trust you?’ said Albus. ‘You might mean it now, but if we let you go, there’s nothing to stop you from running, or even warning him…’

Goyle looked around frantically - then lifted his hand. ‘I’ll promise it,’ he blurted. ‘An Unbreakable, I’ll promise it. Let me go, and I’ll give you Draco Malfoy.’

* *

‘Here we go.’ Matt grinned as he finished the last of the ritual markings. ‘Let’s hope we don’t blow a hole in Swindon.’

‘Is that really a problem?’ said Nejem.

Lowsley stepped towards the cellar door. ‘Is that really a risk?’

‘The boss is being melodramatic. Calm down.’ Nejem glanced to Matt. ‘You are being melodramatic, yes?’

‘I genuinely don’t want to blow a hole in Swindon. Even if it is Swindon.’ Matt dusted his hands off. ‘But we’re experimenting with an ancient artifact and seeing what manipulates its magic output. Who knows what could happen?’

‘You sound,’ said Nejem, ‘altogether far too happy about this. Should we really be doing this in the middle of a city?’

‘This is the best place.’ Shadows shifted as de Sablé peeled himself off the wall and padded towards the ritual circle. ‘The Chalice has been here for weeks. It is enough to begin to warp the world around itself. It will be more susceptible to shifts in the environment here.’

‘Or we could go to its resting place in the Catacombs of Paris, but I’m not going to France to experiment.’ Matt wagged his wand at de Sablé in agreement. ‘And don’t worry about it. Getting any kind of result is going to be lucky enough. Let alone a disastrous one.’

Lowsley sighed, and flipped open his notebook. ‘So, beginning tests. What’s the plan, Boss?’

Matt looked at the containment circle he’d drawn in the cellar under his warehouse and placed the Chalice of Emrys in the middle of. It was a dingy and cold room, and not where he’d envisioned making breakthroughs that could change the face of magic across the world. But it was what he had. ‘Inscriptions in the Temple of Arawn in Cantref Gwaelod relayed the history and creation of the Chalice,’ he began, and paused only to confirm Lowsley’s quill was recording his words automatically. ‘Veils were viewed by the worshippers of Arawn as bridges between our world and the Otherworld, and so as places where they could congregate and better hear the word of their god. But these were static and, as best we can tell, could not be built at-will by wizards.’

He looked at de Sablé, who nodded. ‘When we created the Veil at Ager Sanguinis, we were using forms of ancient magic to contain a breach between worlds that had already been caused. The huge magical death toll in battle caused the rift; all we sought was to contain the hole. Build a gateway. Building a Veil from scratch - I don’t know how that would be done.’

‘The inscriptions in the Temple,’ Matt continued, beginning to pace around the circle, ‘imply that the Chalice was made as a form of worship by the followers of Arawn. Its intent, I believe, was that it be a breach between realms in itself, so those who carried it could commune with their god.’

‘Then why,’ said Nejem, ‘is it an item of healing?’

‘It’s like a Veil in that it’s a breach; that’s why it starts to warp the world around it if it’s in one place for too long. But it’s a bridge; it’s made up of powerful death magic, yes, but also powerful life magic. Think of it as having a foot in both worlds. The records in Cantref Gwaelod imply its construction was the result of centuries of work, of all of the worshippers of Arawn’s knowledge of Veils and the Otherworld, but also all of their connection to the old druids and their knowledge of life, healing, fertility. They weren’t madmen worshipping death; death is a cycle.’ Matt wagged a finger in the air. ‘Interestingly, I think the connection to the Otherworld also made the Chalice more powerful at healing. Life magic can mend the body; death magic could stop the soul from passing over, contain it in the body long enough for the healing magic to do its work. No other object of healing in the world can do that. The inscriptions in the Temple implied this was a form of judgement for those on the verge of death; that their god would save those he wished to, and claim those he wished to.’

A low noise of discontent escaped de Sablé’s throat. ‘If only I had destroyed this thing when I had the chance.’

‘We have the chance now,’ said Matt, and gestured at Lowsley to make sure he was paying attention. ‘Because I have a theory. I made requests of the Department of Mysteries for their studies of Veils, and already we’re getting results from the examination of the Cantref Gwaelod Veil which surpasses our previous knowledge. Not to mention all of the latent magical energies in that Temple, weaves of the arcane which are like the Chalice but different - purer, simpler. We have the building blocks of magic that created the Chalice, and we know more about Veils than we ever did before.’

‘Why do we need to know about Veils?’ said Nejem.

‘Because they’re breaches between the worlds,’ said Matt, and turned back to the Chalice of Emrys, the silver cup gleaming in the gloom. His salvation, and the doom of the whole world, not to mention Scorpius Malfoy. ‘Just like the Chalice is. And I think now we know enough about breaches, and - from what we found in Cantref Gwaelod - enough about the Chalice, to close a breach.’ He glanced back at them. ‘The Chalice has a foot in both worlds. Close the breach within it, and you snap the Chalice in half.’

* *

‘I don’t like this,’ said Albus as they left the temporary cell block tent. ‘An Unbreakable Vow -’

‘Is something he signed up for. Would you rather we trusted him?’ Eva paused a few feet out and pressed a hand to her lower back. It didn’t ache as such, but she could feel herself tiring quicker than she expected, worn out by walking not very far. Legilimency wasn’t easy, but it shouldn’t have drained her this much.

At once he was by her side, discontent dissolved for concern. A hand hovered near her back, ready to support but not touching, not yet. ‘Are you okay? Do you need a Healer?’

‘I think,’ said Eva, trying to be firm, ‘I need to sit down. That’s all.’

‘I’ve got a tent. It’s not much, it’s -’

‘If it has a stool it’ll do.’

It was difficult to follow him through the airfield while he was trying to not flap with concern at her side, but the sleeping space for IMC staff was mercifully not far and nobody stopped them. Hustle and bustle in the bright sun of the airfield centred around the hangar, where a clustering crowd suggested a new influx of refugees.

Not my problem. I’ve done my part.

Albus’ tent was more relieving for the shade than her back by the time they ducked in. What had only been about six feet long from the outside was a mighty ten feet squared on the inside, which seemed needlessly cruel an illusion. There was little more than a cot, a footlocker, a table with a water basin, but what more there was included a stool. She tried to not groan as she sat down, knowing he’d fuss.

He fussed anyway, because soon she felt a cup of water pressed into her hand, and looked up to find him perched on the cot, hands in his lap, bright eyes on her. ‘I can bring one of the Healers in here -’

‘If I needed a Healer, we could go to them. They’re dealing with people in critical condition; they don’t need to be dragged from the hangar to help someone who’s a little bit tired.’

‘You were stabbed.’

‘And I’ve been seen to and I’m just worn out. You know healing potions drain energy. I’ll be fine.’ She sipped the water and found it colder and more refreshing than it had a right to be, like chilled water could be in dire need. She hadn’t realised how thirsty she was. ‘How did you get captured, anyway?’ Changing the topic to him felt safer.

She watched as Albus’ expression twisted into unmistakable sheepish guilt. ‘I Stunned a bunch of Thornweavers, and took their rings so they couldn’t control the Inferi. Except when I was leaving, another Inferius patrol showed up, and I had to reveal myself to destroy them, or they’d just eat the Thornweavers. Their handler got me in the back.’

Eva stared at him for a moment, but the only response she could summon then was a small, sympathetic, wry laugh. ‘Of course that’s how it happened. Of course you got captured doing something stupidly noble like saving Thornweavers from their own monsters.’

He cringed, though not without self-awareness. ‘I couldn’t stand there and let them die. Whoever they were. I…’ His gaze dropped. ‘I was that sort of guy before. These past few years. Letting bad things happen because it was easier, even if it was happening to bad people. It’s not that simple, though, is it?’

‘It can be that simple.’ Eva drained her water and put it down. ‘And I remember you making everything simple, once. It was just a different kind of simple. Where you were decent to everyone.’ Then her gaze, too, dropped. ‘That it almost got you killed doesn’t surprise me.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘I really thought you were gone.’ She had to press her hand against her forehead, as if she could push back that wave of oblivion that had threatened to overwhelm her. ‘And for a moment, once I’d made it to the Portkey, I thought about leaving. Heading for here and then keeping on going, and nobody in the world would know if I was alive or dead and probably wouldn’t care. I could go somewhere else, because what the hell did anyone else in that building even matter…’

It took a moment before Albus answered, voice low and awkward. ‘Why didn’t you?’

Only now did she look up, meet that piercing gaze which could always strip away her masks. ‘The last thing you asked me to do was protect those people. So I did. So I got them out of there. But I didn’t then go after Geiger because I thought you were alive. I told others, I told myself, I wanted to retrieve your body. But that wasn’t it.’ Her chest tightened. ‘I wanted to kill Geiger. And I thought that if I’d done my duty, if I’d got people out, if I’d done the right thing, then I could let myself be selfish. Just one last time. Because I did think it would be one last time.’

‘A suicide run was being selfish?’ He pulled himself off the cot to kneel before her, lifted a hand to hers at her temple. His touch was as gentle as his voice.

It took focus to not pull away. A gentle touch could be scarier than a tight hold, because a sharp grip made her defensive. This coaxed her to be open, softened her to vulnerability, and that was the unknown territory. ‘I didn’t think I had it in me to leave with them for Britain. Take Goyle and get what he knew, find Malfoy, finish the job, and - what, carry on without you and then go to prison?’ Her voice shook, and she almost choked on the threat of rising emotion. ‘I didn’t have it in me. Maybe that makes me weak -’

Nothing you did in there was weak. You saved thirty people, Eva. I’m the one who failed; I tried and I didn’t make it. You’re the one who stepped up and pulled it off. Every single person who got out of that situation owes you their life.’ He tilted her face up to meet his eyes, his expression creased. ‘Perhaps me most of all.’

‘You make it sound,’ she said, tongue tasting of ash, ‘like I had a choice.’

‘You could have run and left them. You could have left with them. You could have given up when they hurt you, you could have killed Geiger.’ His other hand came up, cupping her face. He looked at her like he was holding the world, and for the first time in a long, long time, she felt like there was something in her beyond the void. ‘You didn’t. Whenever you have the power to make a choice, Eva, you do the right thing.’

She didn’t know if he kissed her or if she kissed him, but she fell into his arms anyway. She’d been held up by strings of denial and desperation, held away by glass of guilt and duty; caged in by the things she’d been and the things she’d been told she was. But it all shattered against his lips, broke like it never had before, and a part of her braced for the inevitable.

Except her constraints were gone, the ones she’d made and the ones she’d been given, and yet neither she nor the world fell apart.

And the world was many things - the work waiting for them in Britain, the war waging across the world, even the looming question of her ultimate fate - but a part, a very important part, was his enfolding embrace, the sheer need she could taste in his kiss. A very important part of the world, at least for the moment, was just them, and when she fell into it without strings to hold her up, cages to pen her in, it didn’t shatter as she’d feared, as she’d expected.

It was different to Venice. That had been all softness and vulnerability, an exploration for him and a parting gift from her to them both. That same gentleness dug deeper now, because there was no doubt she was Eva Saida, a killer and a traitor and a saviour, and acceptance was there all the same. But there was the fire from that ill-advised fumble in the safehouse, that shuddering need that had howled in them both, yet now it filled them instead of hollowing them out, because they needed the same thing and still found it in each other all the same.

It was also a considerably smaller bed, but this wasn’t much of a problem during, and they were exhausted enough by the past forty-eight hours to collapse into entangled sleep with little reservation after. And it was, Eva thought, entirely worth it when she woke up some unknown time later, curled up against him under bedsheets that were far too hot in this climate, but finding him looking at her with a ridiculous, sleepy, delighted smile on his face.

‘You’re still here,’ he whispered, like all Christmas mornings had come at once, and did nothing more than kiss her on the forehead and collapse back into pleased, exhausted slumber.

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