Chapter Eighteen: A Better Story

A beat-up brown sedan pulled up next to the glass phonebooth, and Fiona practically leapt at the door. She found herself unable to manage even the simple mechanism with her numb fingers, however, and would have screamed in frustration had her chattering teeth not prevented her.

The man inside reached over and opened the door for her, and Fiona crawled inside, holding the still-unmoving Sprocket close to her chest.

"Jesus, Fiona," Travis said, stifling a yawn. "You look like Hell. What happened?"

"One m-m-m-minute," Fiona said, closing the door behind her and turning the car's heater to max. She tried breathing on her hands to warm them up, but couldn't tell if it was working.

"That hasn't worked since the mid-eighties," Travis said, passing her a brown paper bag and a thermos.

"W-what's this?" Fiona shivered.

"Coffee and a donut," Travis said. He reached over and unscrewed the thermos's lid for her.

"M-m-marry me," Fiona said, attacking the coffee in a way not unlike a grayscale Dracula might go after some screaming maiden's neck. She was starting to regain feeling in her extremities, and almost wished she wasn't. Her bare feet, especially, were so cold they hurt.

Travis simply chuckled. "So what's going on?" he asked. "And where are we going?"

"Ringwraiths jumped me in my sleep," she said between sips. "Barely got away. Not Batman fans. Begged 20p from a homeless woman to use the payphone. Aware of irony."

"It's finally happening, isn't it?" Travis said. "They're coming after us."

Fiona nodded. "They made me in London this afternoon," she said. Glancing at the car's clock, she corrected herself. "Yesterday afternoon." She buckled on her seatbelt. "Swing by my place," she said. "I think they'll have cleared out."

"Why's that?" Travis asked.

"One of them had the police file on the London incident," Fiona said. "I wasn't the only one who was there that night. I think they're going after the others. We need to make some calls."

They sat in silence as Travis drove. Fiona absently stroked Sprocket's fur, and glanced at the rear-view mirrors every few moments. She wasn't sure what she expected to see—as far as she knew, wizards and witches didn't drive—but it made her feel better. Marginally.

Sprocket flicked her ears on her own accord, which was encouraging.

It was while Fiona was looking for pursuers that she noticed something odd. "Hey, Travis—"

"I think anyone on the run from supernatural forces with me is allowed to call me Evan," Travis said.

Fiona rolled her eyes. "It's not my fault you have two first names," she said. They were partners for three months before she learned Travis wasn't his first name. It's how she thought of him, and it was far too late to change it. "Seriously, though. Doesn't something strike you as odd about the tops of those buildings?" She pointed at the row of closed, single-storey shops they drove past, silhouetted by a vaguely sooty orange glow.

Travis frowned, looking past Fiona out the side window. "Dunno," he said. "Same as ever."

"Yeah, but…" Fiona frowned. "We can see them. We shouldn't be able to; it's past midnight. It's almost as if…" She glanced out the other window; the rooftops were invisible in the darkness. There was only one thing that Fiona could think of that would backlight the skyline like that at this time of night.

As they approached her flat, her worst suspicions were realized.

The fire department was already on-site, of course—Fiona had pulled the alarm the better part of an hour ago, after all—but they should have left after they realized it was a false alarm.

Of course, at the time Fiona had triggered the alarm, there hadn't actually been a fire.

The street was cordoned off a safe distance in every direction as the firemen and women desperately tried to put out the inferno. Flames poured out of every window of what was once Fiona's apartment building, apparently unhindered by the efforts of the emergency services.

The buildings on either side of hers, which were built right up against it, were, in defiance of all logic, completely untouched. It may have been Fiona's imagination, but she thought she saw the occasional green or purple spark among the fires.

Bloody wizards.

"Fiona, I…" Travis said hesitantly. "I'm so sorry."

She'd lived in that flat since she'd first come to Staines as a probationary constable almost five years ago. It was cramped, the rent was exorbitant, and the plumbing was unreliable, but it had been the first place that was really hers.

And now it was gone.

Fiona took a deep breath and tried to still her emotions. She could yell and scream and cry about this later, but for now, she needed to focus.

"Get us away from here," she said. "We'll go to your place and call Hannigan; tell him to warn the others. Neither of you were in the actual raid, so I don't think they'll be coming after you. At least not at first."

"Well, that's bloody reassuring," Travis muttered, putting his car into reverse.

The drive to Travis's home was uneventful. Fiona attempted to bite her nails, but was greeted with little success; at some point in the last few days, she'd chewed them to the quick without realizing.

She felt like her mind was running in circles. What was she going to do? She'd lost her home and, likely, her job. Not to mention her ID, birth certificate, passport, credit cards. She shuddered at the nightmare she would have to go through to get those back… you needed a birth certificate to get a passport, and you needed ID to get a replacement birth certificate… ugh. And, knowing the wizarding world was out there, she doubted she'd be able to hold down another one. How were you supposed to work a nine-to-five knowing what she did?

Also—and this was quite a big 'also'—they were trying to kill her. What could she possibly do to prevent that from happening? She wanted to live, dammit. She couldn't arrest them; they'd just magic their way out. She couldn't offer them anything they couldn't just use magic to get for themselves. She couldn't even go full vigilante and kill them—even if she had it in her, which she didn't—because she wasn't even sure who 'they' were, save that there were a heck of a lot of them. A fight was out of the question. In London last year, they'd managed to fight the wizards and witches to a draw, at best, and it had been at a terrible cost. Almost everyone who was 'in the know' had either sought an early retirement, like Hannigan, or moved on with their life, like Travis. Or died fighting, like Buckley, McTavish, Gibson, and Rose.

To Fiona's surprise, Travis pulled up in front of a cute little two-storey house in Little Whinging.

"Try to keep quiet," Travis said, opening the door and climbing out.

Quiet? Why would… oh. Fiona couldn't help it; the corners of her mouth quirked up involuntarily. "You live with your parents?" She blinked. "No wonder you always tried to get out of doing the night shift!" she laughed as she closed the door behind her. "You're on a curfew."

Travis pulled himself up to his full height, and declared in his most dignified voice, "For your information, it was lifted when I made sergeant."

"Well," Fiona said with a perfectly straight face, following him to the door. "As the man said: 'With great power, comes great responsibility.' But I'm sure you're up to it."

Travis rolled his eyes and unlocked the door. Standing just on the other side of the door, with her hand held out as if she was just about to turn the knob, was a middle-aged woman wearing a baby blue dressing gown. Travis's mother, presumably. She peered at the two of them through what were, quite possibly, the thickest glasses Fiona had ever seen.

"Evan?" she asked. "What…"

Travis coughed. "This is Fiona, Mum," he said. "Police Sergeant Fiona Smythe, that is. Fiona, this is my mum."

Travis's mother gasped. "This is Fiona?" she asked. She gave Travis a conspiratorial look. "That Fiona?"

Travis's cheeks coloured slightly, and Fiona found herself what, exactly was entailed in being 'that Fiona.' "I have to make a phone call, Mum," Travis said. "It's urgent."

"Oh, of course, don't mind me," Travis's mother said. "Just try to keep your voice down—your father is still in bed. I'll just have a chat with Fiona here while you do." A look of horror dawned on Travis's face at this prospect, but he evidently chose flight over fight, and, in the blink of an eye, he'd vanished.

"Would you like a cup of tea, dear?" Travis's mother asked, leading her to the kitchen. "Or, ah, something stronger?"

"Tea would be fantastic…" Fiona found herself in the impossible situation familiar to all early twenty-somethings, and the odd late teen: what on God's green Earth do you call your friends' parents? As a child, of course, the answer was obvious: Mr. and Mrs. Last Name, respectively. But now, as an adult, you were to call a fellow adult by their first name in familiar situations. Did this count as a familiar situation? Moreover, what was her first name? But it felt wrong claiming to be on equal terms both with a friend and their parents. And could she really call Travis's mother by her first name while she habitually called Travis himself by his last? Fiona took a stab at it, hoping she'd made the right call. "…Mrs. Travis."

"Oh, call me Olive," she replied, fishing out a pair of orange pekoe tea bags from a cupboard. Damn, Fiona thought. Swing and a miss. "So," Olive said with exaggerated casualness, "what brings you to our house? I hope I wasn't, ah, interrupting anything."

Fiona felt her cheeks heat up. "No, no!" she protested. "Nothing like that!"

"Right, sorry, 'course," she said. "It's just that Evan talks about you all the time, and he's never brought home a lady before, so, I sort of figured…"

"Oh, god…" Fiona ran her fingers through her hair. "Probably nothing good."

"On the contrary," Olive said. The kettle whistled—it must have already been on before Fiona and Travis had got here. "He says you're the reason he made sergeant."

"Course," Fiona said. "By getting sacked." As good as, anyway. Olive put a cup of tea in front of her, and Fiona took a sip, enjoying the feeling as the warmth from the mug spread through her hands. She was beginning to feel like she might, one day in the future, possibly feel warm again.

"He says you were his inspiration," Olive said. "He says you're the most dedicated person he's ever met."

Fiona choked on her tea. "He said what?"

"Mmm-hmmm," Olive said. "And more, besides. But if you're not, you know, together, then what… well…"

"What am I doing here in the middle of the night in my jammies?" Fiona suggested.

"Well. Yes."

Fiona took another sip of tea. "My flat burned down," she said. "Just me and my cat that got out. Travis—er, Evan—was kind enough to come pick me up."

Olive gasped. "That's terrible! Do you have anywhere to stay? We have an extra bedroom, ever since Julie ran off with that Frenchman."

"I thought Tr—Evan said that his sister lives in Montreal?"

"Aye," Olive said.

"Montreal, where her husband is from."

"Aye."

"Montreal in Quebec."

"Aye."

Fiona dropped the issue. "I'm not staying," she said. She couldn't put this family at risk any longer. She might already have stayed too long. "I have to go to London."

"Well, then, at least let me give you some clothes," Olive said. "We can't have you running around like that. Julie was about your size, anyway."

Despite distantly recalling politely declining Olive's kind offer, Fiona nevertheless found herself, a few minutes later, in a practical, if unfashionable, wool sweater and jeans that were only a little oversized. A moment later, and Sprocket had been fetched from the car, wrapped in warm towels, and put on a sofa next to an open can of tuna and a bowl of water.

"Is she… quite all right?" Olive asked, poking the catatonic (cat-atonic?) cat.

"Just sleeping," Fiona said.

"Of course," Olive said, failing to conceal her skepticism.

Travis returned, having finished his phone call. His face was ashen, and he had a black backpack slung across his shoulder. "Er, Mum, mind if Fiona and I—"

"Say no more, say no more," Olive said, giving Fiona a wink. "I'll just be heading to bed, then. Got an early morning tomorrow."

As Olive left, Travis sat down at the table across from Fiona. His look said everything Fiona needed to know.

"It didn't go well," she said.

Travis shook his head. "I managed to reach Hannigan," he said. "And he said he'd keep trying to call the others. But…"

"No answer from Lyndon, Baldwin, or Cooper?"

By way of answer, Travis only sighed.

"They could just be asleep," Fiona said.

"Yeah," Travis answered. "I called them each about a dozen times, but it's possible."

"Or they could have got away, like me," Fiona said.

"Possible," Travis said.

Fiona sighed. "I suppose we'll read about it in the papers tomorrow if not."

Travis nodded.

Fiona stared into her teacup. Could this have been avoided if she'd asked Travis to start calling the others before coming to pick her up? Or would it already have been too late? She hadn't been thinking clearly. It felt like it had been ages since she had been thinking clearly. If she'd let this whole issue alone, and hadn't ventured into Diagon Alley yesterday—was it yesterday?—would the London police have been safe?

For that matter, if she'd simply ignored her fantastical digital police report so many months ago, or written it off as a prank, how many would still be alive?

Travis reached his hand across the table and placed it on hers.

"Hey," he said. "We don't know what happened. We don't know if they're out for blood, or taking hostages. We don't know if they succeeded. We don't know if they're even going after the other coppers at all."

"But what if they did?" Fiona asked in a small voice. "I could have just left this alone. This is all my—"

"Hey," Travis said, more firmly. "Do I look like a child to you?"

Fiona blinked. "No," she said. "Of course n—"

"What about McTavish?"

"N—"

"Did you cuff Lyndon and drag her in with you?"

"Obviously not."

"Everyone who was there in London that day knew the risks," Travis said. "They knew what they were going up against. They knew that even if it was successful, it could get them sacked. They knew what would happen if they weren't. Hell, the London blokes were Authorized Firearms Officers. They knew from day one that there would be danger."

Fiona swirled her tea around. "Nobody knew, really knew, what was going to happen that night," she said. "Heck, they took our memories. We still don't. So don't tell me they knew the risks."

"We got the kids back," Travis said. "We know that."

Fiona continued staring into her rapidly-cooling teacup for several silent minutes.

"So," Travis said, finally. "What do we do now?"

Fiona shrugged. "How should I know?"

"You always know. We've followed your lead, right from the start. I don't intend to stop now."

"Fat lot of good it did us."

"Don't give me that, Fiona. You already have a plan, and you know it."

Travis was right. She wasn't certain when she'd devised it, but she did have a plan—she'd even told Olive the first step in it.

"It's dangerous," Fiona said.

Travis rolled his eyes. "Tell me something new."

"And I'll have to ask you to do something really hard," Fiona said. "You won't like it."

"Anything," Travis said without a moment of hesitation.

Fiona took a deep breath. "You need to sit this one out," she said.

"Absolutely not," Travis said. "We're in this together."

"But we're not," Fiona said. "I went into that tenement, not you. They saw me, not you. They came after me, not you. They know my name, not yours."

Travis recoiled as if she'd slapped him in the face.

"You're out of it for now," Fiona said. "There's no reason not to keep it that way."

"I can make my own choices," Travis said. "I'm not afraid."

"You live with your family, Travis," Fiona said. "You'd be putting them at risk, too. Please. I won't let anyone else die because of me."

Travis stared intently at the surface of the table, visibly wrestling with himself.

"Fine," he said. "I won't get involved. Personally. But I'm still helping. This is non-negotiable."

Fiona blinked.

"Even if it's only manning the phone, or looking after Sprocket, or keeping an ear to the ground. Here," he said, passing her the black backpack. "I kept this packed in case I had to leave in a hurry. It's got a first-aid kit, flashlight, a couple of meal replacement bars apparently made by sadists, and a few other knick-knacks. Some money. Not a lot. Wizard gold, too. I don't know what you're planning, but I doubt you can do it without lunch and gas money."

"Thank you," Fiona said, and she meant it. She blinked again. "Gas money? I don't have a car."

"Keys are in the bag," Travis said. "Bring it back when you're done. Er. And get a good running start before going up a hill. But be gentle with it otherwise, in case you need a lot of car in a hurry. And don't try to turn on the radio unless you have a fire extinguisher on hand."

"Thanks," Fiona said again, slinging the bag over her shoulder. "Best not get pulled over," she flashed a grin. "My license is likely ash on some bloke's roof now." She put down the teacup. "I should go," she said, standing up. "Staying here will only put your family in danger."

Travis nodded, following her to the front door. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but hesitated. "Good hunting," he said eventually.

"Um," Fiona said, standing awkwardly on the porch. "I'm probably going to get sacked," she said.

"Nothing is certain," Travis said.

"No, it's fine. I've earned it. The point is…" She looked away. She was no good at this. Joint locks and truncheons were much more her thing. "The point is, we won't be co-workers. And even if we are, I don't outrank you anymore."

Travis cocked his head sideways, clearly not following where this conversation was going.

"So, um," she said.

Travis blinked. Bloody useless, Fiona thought to herself.

"So, when I get back… do you want to, maybe, I dunno…" Just suck it up and do it already. "Grab a drink sometime?"

"We do that all the time," Travis said. "We did that last Wednesday, actually."

"No, I mean…" Arghhhhh. Fiona ran her fingers through her hair again. She felt like a bloody teenager. "You know. You and me."

"Sure," Travis said. "Only next Wednesday I can't; told Mum I'd look after my nephew."

"Jesus bloody Christ in bloody Heaven," Fiona muttered to herself. She raised her voice. "Look. I'm, damn well asking you out, you great lout."

Travis' eyes bulged practically out of their sockets. "Out? Like, out-out?"

"Yes, bloody out-out. Life's short and I'll probably be killed by Tim the ruddy enchanter before then anyway. So what'll it be?"

"Um. Yes. Absolutely."

"Good," Fiona said. She stood there for a minute, feeling awkward. "I'll, um, be going now."

"Okay," Travis said. He looked like a person whose grip on reality was becoming increasingly shaky. "Um. Bye, then."

"Bye," Fiona said, and double-timed it to the car. In all the chaos, confusion, and fear, one thing was for certain: she was never, ever, ever telling another living soul about how that particular conversation went down. Fortunately, she'd have a long, solitary drive to London to work out a better story, or at least a less embarrassing one, in case any of her mates on the force asked.