The death of summer was heralded with a shower of gold. The leaves on the trees that tastefully lined the street had turned from green to brown, and begun to tumble to carpet the pavement where they would be buffeted by uncaring feet or the breeze. That wind was cold, now, no longer the gentle caress to soothe the sun's rays, but biting, piercing. The days bore a chill; the nights were not wandered happily.
Which was why Tanith Cole was sat in a Muggle car trying to figure out how to make the heating come on.
'I'm pressing the button,' she said. 'It's not doing anything.'
Jacob Van Roden, sat in the driver's seat, made a face. 'Don't ask me. Enforcers sorted this out for us. Kennedy's a Muggle-born; he put the car in place. All he did was tell me where it was and give me the keys.'
She looked at her partner. 'Do you need to turn it on? The whole car, I mean?'
'There must be a button for that.'
The two fully-qualified Aurors patted the dashboard of the car down in search for some means of bringing the mechanical monstrosity they sat in to life, to absolutely no avail. Only after a minute's search did Jacob glance over. 'Won't it make a noise, anyway? Cars are noisy things.'
'Me too,' he grumbled, but tugged up the collar of his coat. 'Why couldn't we have got one of these rooms to watch in?' He gestured at the building next to them, at the windows several storeys up which overlooked the street.
'Research said they were all full. We couldn't justify Obliviator action just for the sake of a stake-out.' Tanith nodded across the road, at the door they had been watching like hawks for the past hour. 'He'll be out soon enough.'
'It's two in the morning. He's asleep. He's not going anywhere until morning.'
'Then I guess we're here until morning, either when he moves or the day shift comes out to babysit.' She made a face. 'Who said the life of an Auror was glamorous?'
'The recruitment posters lied,' muttered Jacob. 'I still think we should be going in there and busting him.'
'A man as paranoid as Bernard Lackardy isn't going to be sitting pretty in his house without protection. We stick with the brief. Watch the front, and if he leaves intercept him, or, if there's too high a chance of Muggle exposure, follow him.'
'I don't like the idea of following him, either. Who knows where he's going.'
'I agree. But if he's in there 'til morning there's no way we can jump him in a busy street. Even this time of night would be stretching it.'
Jacob scowled at the window which led to the room they believed belonged to Bernard Lackardy, former member of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. They'd worked with him, once. But that had been during the Thicknesse regime, during Voldemort's occupation of magical Britain. The MLE had been transformed from protectors of the peace to a goon squad, there to enforce order and stamp out dissident behaviour. Resisting or leaving had not been easy options. So the remaining choice had been to keep your head down, or to embrace it.
Tanith and Jacob had kept their heads down, doing what they could to help the resistance groups when it was safe enough, and otherwise steering clear when possible of the worst of the MLE's misdeeds. Lackardy, on the other hand, had thrown himself wholeheartedly into the new methods of the new regime, to the extent where some had assumed he'd been a Death Eater all along.
He hadn't. He'd just been an unpleasant man with a fondness for control and power, and come the end of the war had been quietly shunted out of the ranks of the MLE. At the time there had been bigger fish to fry, like the confirmed Death Eaters needing trials or hunting.
But there were those out there who'd not got the picture that the war was over, and evidence had brought the gaze of the MLE back to Bernard Lackardy. Just as a suspect, this time, instead of as one of their own. They doubted he had gone quietly into the night, and if he was working with one of the Death Eater Remnant, he needed stopping and thoroughly interrogating.
'How was last night?' said Jacob, after a gloomy silence.
Tanith grunted. 'I don't want to talk about it.'
He looked surprised, but didn't push it. 'At least the election's coming up soon. And then things might quieten down.'
'Might,' she echoed. 'Shacklebolt's hardly out for the count. He might be struggling in the polls, but apparently that could just be people lashing out rather than being indicative of how they'll actually vote. Harrigan's still pretty closely associated with the old administration.'
'It might not be that bad...' But Jacob was clutching at straws, and he knew it. He drummed his fingers on the car door. 'You hear the trainees are about to be moved out of the play pen and into the big kids' pool?'
'I know; Vaughn's been threatening to move me into training.'
'To you too, huh? I thought that was just because he didn't like me.'
'He doesn't like anyone.'
'He likes you. He's liked you since before you were an Auror. He's liked you since the car-throwing thing.'
Tanith snorted. 'I'm never going to live that down. You throw one car at one Death Eater...' She shook her head. 'We won't be moved to training, c'mon, Jake. The Aurors are in such a sorry state right now that you and me actually pass for veterans.'
'So, under the old rules I would still be in training too. Not on the beat. But since the old-timers are all too messed up, promoted, or dead to be doing the job, it falls to people like you and me. And so there's no way the old man's going to pull us off the streets.'
'Not even when this class includes the Boy Who Lived?'
'Not even.' She smirked at him. 'We do the job, Jake. We don't babysit.'
'Actually, right now, you could argue that we're babysitting Lackardy.'
'You always have to be the smart -'
They both fell silent when the front door to the block of flats they'd been staring at slammed open. This time of night there'd been so little movement that the slightest sign of life had been jumped on with enthusiasm and hope, which had led to a lot of disappointment as drunken students stumbled back home and cats bowed to tradition and ran around in the shadows knocking over dustbins like it was going out of fashion.
But this time their attentiveness paid off, and Tanith gave a grim smile in the darkness as the figure of Lackardy burst out into the gloomy street. He was staggering, like he'd been running full tilt, and had no compunctions about holding his wand out in public.
'Damn it, he's seen us from his window,' muttered Jacob as Lackardy stumbled into the street.
'No way.' Tanith was already drawing her wand. 'If he did, he wouldn't come out in this state, and look, he's not even looking at us.'
'Well, something's got him -'
The car shook as Lackardy tripped straight into it, and there was a moment where all three of them froze, the two Aurors having expected him to go right past them. Instead his face was pressed against the window, eyes wild and panicked, and locked onto them with recognition.
Then he stood straight and drew his wand.
'So much for discretion,' muttered Tanith - and kicked the car door open. It smacked into Lackardy, sending him stumbling back, but as she got out to deliver a follow-up he raised his wand.
She'd not expected him to be ready for a counter-attack, and his Stun slammed straight into her gut. It was a quick, fleeting spell, but it was enough to have her crash into the car and collapse painfully by its wheels, her limbs locked in place and refusing to move even as she could see and hear everything.
Jacob had got out of the car, but was wise enough to keep his head down. As Lackardy regained his composure he was throwing out a truly tremendous array of firepower to try to keep the Auror pinned down, but still he had to leap back, to the left, to the right, as Jacob let off counter-attacks with a low frequency but with frightening accuracy with the amount of fire he was under.
Then Lackardy glanced down at her, then at the car, and gave a slow smile.
Oh, don't. Take your inspiration from somewhere else, you slippery-
But though the snap-shot of a Stun was beginning to wear off, though she could feel her limbs sluggishly beginning to move as she mentally screamed at them, she still couldn't react quickly enough as Lackardy lifted his wand and aimed it, this time not at the difficult-to-hit shape of Jacob - but, rather, the car he was behind.
Fortunately, she wasn't the only person to anticipate this move. Jacob came skidding over the bonnet of the car seconds before it was magically hurled into the two metre gap between it and the wall, crashing with a ferocious sound and likely to have been lethal had he not moved.
Definitely so much for discretion. But her limbs were reacting, moving, and though she dared not open fire on Lackardy while she could barely defend herself, Tanith managed to find purchase with her knees and elbows and began crawling sluggishly along the road, under the nearest car.
Now she could only hear the scrap as the fight hit the open street, but she could see light reflecting off the road as Muggles opened windows and stuck their heads out to see what was going on - and then ducked away again.
At least the MLE was keeping an eye on police calls and dispatches to this area in case something went wrong. So long as the Muggles didn't come out into the crossfire, this could so far be easily covered as a car accident. The Obliviators could fix it all.
Provided they were alive to call it in.
She had crawled under the car to the pavement by the time her limbs were feeling like they'd follow her instructions properly, just in time to hear a pained grunt from Jacob. She risked a glance through the car window into the street to see him reeling from a blast to the elbow. He was limping to the other side of the road, behind the cars parked in front of the building Lackardy had come out of, getting into cover.
At least there was no way Lackardy was going to be able to pull the same stunt twice. And so long as she could shake off this Stun enough to fight properly, he was going to be surrounded, out in the open.
Lackardy was beginning an onslaught of magical attacks at where Jacob was ducked down as she rose, resting her elbow shakily on the car bonnet, and to her endless frustration she shot too soon. Her hand shook, her curse went wild to blow up a chunk of tarmac, and Lackardy wheeled around to blast in her direction, forcing her back under cover.
Nice going. If you'd waited five seconds, you could have had your wits about you enough to hit him.
Jacob had taken advantage of her attack to shoot back, though, and his spells were only just stopped by Lackardy's Shield Charm. Again there came another sweeping array of curses from the former Enforcer, but though Tanith thought she saw them swish harmlessly over Jacob's head to thud into the wall behind him, this time he didn't rise after he ducked into cover.
He must be pretty worn. Tag, Cole. You're it.
She crawled sideways, her body listening more as she moved and keeping as low as possible to stay out of sight. The magical blasting from the road had stopped, though she could hear Lackardy's footsteps on the tarmac.
She drew a deep breath, which sounded astonishingly loud in the darkness, but she had to pray Lackardy's ears weren't that good. Then, legs screaming in protest at having been Stunned and then expecting to let her crouch, poised for action, she rose.
She was in a different spot to where she'd fired from before, and that gave her the split-second she needed to bewilder her enemy. For once, she didn't bother with a silent cast as she grabbed her wand in both hands and barked 'Stupefy!'
It was unsubtle. Lackardy's wand came whipping up frantically as he saw and heard her, his Protegocharm in place by the time the Stun crashed into it -
And then wavering, as the strongest Stun she could throw smashed into his hasty protection and then went through it, cracking the former Enforcer in the face. It was only enough to stagger him, but that was enough for her to finish him off, and he collapsed in the middle of the road.
Breathing hard, Tanith came into the road, wand still trained on her fallen target. A flick of the wrist had bindings shooting up to secure him, and she crossed the distance to kick his wand away. His eyes were wide, shocked, but she knew he could see and hear her, even if his expression could then register nothing more than surprise.
'Nice try,' she said, still catching her breath. 'Didn't think you had it in you.' Then she looked up to the car Jacob had been taking cover behind. 'Jake? He's down. You can stop hiding now from the nasty brute.'
There was no answer, and she glanced down at Lackardy, cocking an eyebrow. 'You hit him? You sly bugger, I didn't see it.' She shook her head and padded over to the car, raising her voice a little. 'You let him hit you, Jake? You are getting old. Old, and slow -'
But when she turned the corner of the car and saw him, her voice caught.
Jacob's eyes were wide and glassy as he stared up at the sky, lying in a pool of his own blood that streamed from the vicious, broad gash across his throat.
Lackardy hadn't missed, and he hadn't just been throwing Stuns.
'Jake?' Her voice was small, knowing words were pointless even as she called out. '...Jacob?'
Then something snapped in her and she burst forwards, skidding to her knees in the pool of blood, wand coming to his throat, free hand going into her pocket. 'No, Jacob - Jacob, look at me, listen to me, you're... you're...'
But still she did the only thing she could do, as she fought against the burning in her eyes - try to remember her first aid charms enough to seal up the gash in his throat, and grab the rune in her pocket to make the one call back to the Canary Wharf office all members of the MLE detested making above any other.
The morgue in Canary Wharf was a dark and miserable place even when it wasn't six thirty in the morning. The sun was weakly trying to make itself known through the gaps in the buildings outside, but that made no difference this far down.
The night hadn't stopped. Competent as the Aurors on the scene had been, there hadn't been a one who had more experience than her. They'd processed Lackardy, got him thrown in one of the Wharf's cells - and kept him far, far away from the partner of the man he'd just killed. That, she'd let them get on with.
And she hadn't got in the way of the Healers, either - at least, not once they'd broken through her haze of horror to pull her off the body so they could begin their utterly futile work. It hadn't taken more than twenty seconds before they'd finished running through what charms they had in their arsenal and confirmed that Jacob Van Roden was, in fact, dead.
But that hadn't been the end of it. Couldn't have been; there was still too much to be done. And so she'd made sure the body had come back here, made sure that everything was logged and recorded properly, and then she'd gone through the records to pull the address of Jacob's parents.
It was only because one of the night shift workers had pointed out she should probably scrub up that she hadn't shown up on their doorstep covered in their son's blood.
There was never a good way of breaking the news. There were just less bad ways, and Tanith didn't want them to hear it from some desk-jockey who didn't even know the man whose family they were supposed to be reassuring.
Not that they'd been surprised. No family of an Auror expected good news when someone in uniform knocked on their door in the middle of the night. She'd broken the news, given them what honesty she could about the circumstances and about how sincerely sorry she was, and then let them know what would happen next.
Then she'd left them to their grief and had come back to Canary Wharf. To her own grief. The thought of going home held no reassurance.
I thought the end of the war meant I wasn't going to ever feel like this again.
It wasn't just the pain of loss that she remembered, that drove her into the darkness, into the room where his body lay behind a solid, stone vault door that would keep him safe until it was time for the funeral arrangements. But it was that same feeling of helplessness... and that same feeling of loneliness.
The loneliness didn't fade in the slightest when the door to the morgue swung open and she heard a familiar pattern of footsteps - with a tap in between. She didn't turn away from the vault.
'...I'm so sorry.'
Tanith closed her eyes at the familiar voice, and willed her own to not shake as she took a deep breath. 'Where were you last night?' Or the night before. It's morning now. Whatever.
A pause. That hadn't been the expected response. 'I was... I had work. I sent a message; didn't you get it?'
'I did.' She turned, eyes accusing. 'After I spent an hour sat on my own in that restaurant waiting for you.'
Tobias Grey was so surprised he took a step back, a step which forced him to lean heavily on the cane that never left his side. 'I'm sorry,' he said again, albeit in an entirely different way. 'I thought I was going to get out in time. Then I thought I'd be late. Then the next thing I knew, I was an hour late, and I wasn't going to get out, so... I sent the message...'
They stared at each other, accusations and defences ringing in the darkness and the stone, before Tanith drew a sharp breath. 'How'd you get here so soon?'
'I've got my seven AM with Vaughn,' he said. 'Weekly briefing from the Auror Office. Someone told me when I was on my way in. Though I don't know... what happened...'
'Just another lackey of the old administration who happened, today, to be faster than him. Than both of us.' She looked away bitterly. 'Should you be down here? You'll be late for your meeting.'
'That's not fair,' he said, and limped over to her. 'I was working the other night, and it was... it was dinner. This is... this is important.'
I'm not important unless someone's died? The thought was treacherous, but it stuck, and she stepped back. 'No - I've got no reason to be down here, I should get home, and get some rest, and I'll be fine -'
But he reached out, quicker than she'd expected, and she realised she'd seen him so irregularly that she'd lost track of how much better his bad leg was getting. He caught her at the elbow, pulling her back. 'But until then you're not fine, Tanith. You don't have to lock this away, this isn't the old days, showing weakness isn't going to get you killed...'
It wasn't that I thought being weak would get me killed. It was that I thought being weak would keep me weak. That I wouldn't ever get out of that hole.
And that's not changed.
But his closeness helped, like it always did, even - especially - when she didn't want it to, and her shoulders sagged as he stepped in, voice dropping. '...and this is me. You know you don't ever have to worry about being weak with me.'
She summoned a response which would have been entirely devastating and highlighted just how little he'd been there for her in the past six months - then when she opened her mouth nothing came out but a desperate, choking sob.
She crumpled, and he pulled her to him for her to bury her face in his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her, murmuring soothing nonsense into her hair, and for those long moments as she let him hold her while she sobbed, the feel of him, the smell of him, the sound of him were all enough to make her believe everything would be okay.
Not just without Jacob, but with them, and with the whole world.
'I am sorry about the other night,' he murmured as she quietened. 'I'll make up for it, not because of... of Jacob, but because it's not fair, you're right. And anyway, it'll all be over in a month...'
Again, when it got like this, when she was so close to him and relaxing in his arms - the only place she could relax like this - she believed him. Even if she'd believed him the dozen times he'd said this already.
'It just... it makes you think,' she said, pulling back only enough to rub her eyes. 'I had coffee with him this evening, he was talking about the holidays... he had all these plans. His whole future. It makes you think about... making the most of the time you've got. Not putting things off.'
She met his gaze, that blue-eyed gaze that could be so cold and distant but, when locked on her, made her feel like the only thing in the world - or, and more importantly, the only thing in the world that mattered to him...
Even if I'm not...
Then the door to the morgue slammed open and she jumped back as if she'd been doing something wrong. Part of it was instinct and surprise, but the other part was guilt - not for daring to steal a moment with him in her grief, but guilt that she was falling for all the same promises, spoken and unspoken, all over again...
'Don't mind me,' came the gruff tones from the doorway of Cassius Vaughn, the Head of the Auror Office. 'Scuttlebutt said you were down here.'
Tanith rubbed her eyes quickly, though it was more for her own sake than his. She knew Vaughn well enough to have no shame about shedding tears for her dead partner in front of him. 'Yes, sir. I was... thinking.'
'Aye. Thinking.' Vaughn gave Tobias a polite nod, a pointed nod, and with a ducked head and just a fleeting glance in her direction Tobias slunk out the door, closing it behind him. The morgue felt abruptly colder - but, at the same time, more real.
Vaughn sighed, sticking his hands in his pockets as he took a few ambling steps towards the vault where Jacob's body rested. 'Didn't believe it when I heard. Not him. Not Jacob Van Roden, to a rat like Bernard Lackardy.'
'We duck a spell a hundred times...'
'But it only takes the hundred-and-first. I know.' Vaughn scowled. 'How're you holding up?'
Tanith ran a hand through her hair. 'I'm... reeling, sir. I told his family. We'll have to hear back from them on what they want done about the funeral... they might not be so fond of the MLE tradition.'
Vaughn looked disapproving, but she knew he wouldn't push it. 'It'll be a while. We'll need to have the body properly examined, make sure we're dotting the i's and crossing the t's. Since now it's murder we'll be doing Lackardy for.'
'I guess that makes everything a lot easier.'
'Aye.' He watched her out of the corner of her eye. 'Take a week off, Cole.'
'Sir, I'm -'
'You're not fine, and you're not supposed to be fine, and if you are fine then I don't want you to take a week off, I want you to give me your badge and never darken the door of the Auror Office again, because I won't post an unfeeling monster out there to have one of my boys' backs.' They were all, male and female, young and old, Vaughn's boys.
Tanith's shoulders slumped. 'I don't really know what I'd do with the time off, boss.'
He jerked a thumb at the door. 'Ask your young man. You've earnt the time off anyway, you haven't taken a break since the end of the war and God knows when before that. Take a break and go somewhere. Clear your head. And when you come back... I've got a job in mind for you.'
She should have picked up on that, but her head was reeling, partly at the events of the night, at her fatigue, a little at the bewildering prospect before her of some time off. But Vaughn didn't stick around long enough to let her argue - just headed for the door, and within seconds Tobias was limping back in, brow furrowed.
'Everything... okay?' He spoke like he knew "okay" was the wrong word, but they both knew there wasn't a right one.
Tanith sighed, glaring at the walls for a moment as she gathered herself, then she drew a deep breath and looked him in the eye. 'He's making me take some time off.'
Tobias nodded awkwardly. 'That sounds... like a good idea.'
'A week,' she said, and he said nothing. 'He suggested I go somewhere.' There was still no comprehension behind his eyes, only a sympathy she had finally found infuriating. 'He suggested with you.'
Now his eyes widened. 'With me? For a week?' Tobias' breath caught and he lifted a hand. 'I can't. I'm sorry, I wish I could, but we're coming up on the election. I can't just drop everything and go on holiday, the Minister's relying on me...'
'To what?' She frowned. 'Continue reporting how he's going to win the election? To soothe international relations you've basically fixed?'
Tobias scowled, like he always did when she spoke ill of his work. 'We're three points down in the last Prophet poll. Harrigan's been picking up momentum, and next week's the Nott Trial, the press are going to be all over that. I have to stay and control the story.'
'Or what? Or the sky's going to fall in?'
'Or the trial might blow out of proportion, and Minister Shacklebolt takes another hit, and Harrigan furthers his lead, and even aside from the election I have meetings in Berlin about the international contributions to the Orphans' and Widows' Fund!'
'I thought you said anything within five points was so marginal as to not fuss over!'
'I'm not losing sleep over it,' said Tobias, hotly, and she could tell he was lying about that anyway, 'but it's dangerous enough for me to not take time off in the middle of an election.'
'Right. You know what?' She lifted her hands, frustrated and hurt. 'Vaughn's right. I should take some time off. Time away. From everything. From you. Us.'
He blinked as she passed him, heading for the door, and this time he didn't reach out to stop her. 'From us? I...'
'I think it'd be best.' Tanith paused in the doorway, knowing he couldn't catch her up if she stormed off, and for once not guilty about exploiting his injury. She met his gaze coldly. 'And in this time, Tobias, you can try to figure out what's really important to you.'
Then, forcing back tears, she left.