‘Thank you all for coming.’ The deep, melodious voice of Judge Roux boomed around the conference chamber. Down the end of his table, slipped between two bureaucrats, Eva tried to look inconspicuous, nothing more than part of the furniture.
‘Next month will be the official founding of the Global Wizarding Alliance’s Security Council,’ Roux pressed on. ‘This will be a committee with the legal power to manage and investigate criminal elements which cross borders and jurisdictions. Some of you here will sit this council, which is why you’ve been invited: to be fully briefed on an international crime syndicate.
‘The Red Manticores are an organisation that’s sprung up in the last five years, but mostly risen to prominence over the last twelve months. We believe they’ve exploited some of the power vacuum in petty crime and minor wands-for-hire left in the wake of the Council of Thorns, and the lack of organised, cooperative, international response from the law enforcement community with the dissolution of the IMC. Their interests specifically are in the acquisition, smuggling, and sale of relics of magical power and magical historical interest; again, spiked by the destruction of the Council of Thorns and their own interest in acquiring such artifacts.’
Eva didn’t recognise many of the people in the big, round chamber. She knew the South African teams; Roux’s office and the couple of South African Enforcers who had worked the more legitimate ends of these investigations. The rest were either bureaucrats destined for the GWA or law enforcers who’d been hunting the Red Manticores’ operations in other corners of the globe. She could tell which group was which, though, because the law enforcers looked bored and the bureaucrats pushed their heads together to mutter at Roux’s words.
‘No reports have indicated the Manticores are gathering relics for any purpose but financial gain. While some of the objects they have acquired do indeed possess magical power, the vast majority are of interest to scholars and collectors and researchers. Tablets of Delphi, secret scrolls of the Vedas, Merovingian tapestries. Our concern is not about some wider plan, but the risk they present to the wider community. Thefts have resulted in serious injury and loss of life, as have smuggling operations. When confronted with opposition, by civilians or law enforcement, the Manticores have proven themselves prepared to use force, including lethal force.’
Roux shuffled through some more papers. ‘Finally, I’ve referred to the Manticores as a whole. In truth, we suspect the actual Red Manticores themselves to number around a dozen witches and wizards, seasoned in working together. They often hire local gangs and local muscle for their thefts and smuggling. The core of the Manticores themselves stay on the move and often don’t show their faces directly. This makes it all the more imperative the GWA Security Council is fully informed on this; taking down the Manticores is absolutely going to take the use of local law enforcers with local knowledge.’
A middle-aged wizard from the Brazilian contingent with sleepy eyes leaned forward. By his attire and manner, Eva assumed him one of the GWA’s future bureaucrats. ‘Judge Roux, do we have the identity of any of these Red Manticores, then? I’ve got in front of me piles of reports of local thefts involving local gangs and, yes, references to them passing stolen goods on to a higher, central group. But very little on the witches and wizards of the Red Manticores themselves.’
Roux grimaced apologetically. ‘I should have made it clear, Mister Navarro; I’m chairing this meeting because my department happens to be playing hosts. This is the first time law enforcement groups from across the world have seriously sat down together to discuss this; our hands have been tied by the legislation passed by many world governments protecting their own sovereignty in the wake of the dissolution of the IMC. My people conducting investigations in South Africa have only had run-ins with a local crime organisation who’ve been stealing and smuggling goods out of the country on behalf of the Red Manticores.’
The grizzled witch from America, who’d arrived late and not seemed to care, stood at that. ‘Then I guess it’s time we started putting cards on the table, those of us who’ve ID’d Red Manticores, huh?’
Roux, always so poised and polite and collected and hating it when anyone was anything but that, looked at the witch with barely a flutter of the eyelashes in complaint. ‘By all means, Secretary Dawson.’
‘South Africa might have only had local gangs to deal with. MACUSA has had local gangs and the Red Manticores themselves, or some of them.’ Dawson flipped a file open and waved her wand at the contents. Instantly an image sprung up above her head, a magic projection of the pictures before her for the whole room to see.
And Eva’s heart lodged itself square in her throat.
‘Leofric Tackleton, Gisila Faust, and Niko Argyris have been identified and confirmed by my people as ringleaders amongst the Red Manticores. Argyris in particular surfaced only a matter of days ago, attacking a village with hired muscle in New Mexico and making off with local relics. These three are professional criminals with a shared history; they’ve run together for a long time in a gang we thought dissolved at the end of the Thorn War. Other members of this gang have gone unaccounted for, and might well be Red Manticores; unfortunately, they might also be dead. But it’s quite a start.’ Dawson waved a hand at the door. ‘One of the reasons I was late was we were waiting on the Auror with the most experience of this gang, who happened to be on the ground in New Mexico. She’s headed over directly from that investigation and has only just arrived; can I interrupt the proceedings by bringing her in?’
Roux waved a hand in assent, and as Eva watched his face she saw he didn’t recognise the three names, didn’t know what hell was about to fall down on his head. But she couldn’t worry about that; her eyes snapped to the door, not knowing what hell was about to fall down on her head.
Then the doors swung open and a witch not much older than Eva, still in dusty dragonskin trousers and heavy, non-uniform boots and a beat up leather jacket stomped into the conference room, and the last shred of hope that had sparked in Eva’s stomach fizzled out. You.
Auror Castillo had to have seen her. Had to have recognised her. But she walked up to the MACUSA desk without reacting, gaze fixed all the more on the images of Tackleton, Faust, and Argyris.
‘I’d apologise for being tardy, but this was a goddamn pertinent delay,’ said Castillo, and jabbed a finger at Argyris. ‘These three are definite ringleaders. They’ve been part of the same crime syndicate for fifteen years. It was involved in the overthrow of the Peruvian government, the dissident uprisings in Saudi Arabia, the kidnapping of Enriqua Deliz. Later, this was the exact team who conducted what we now believe to be the test run of the Stygian plagues at Hogwarts School in Britain, and who served directly under Joachim Raskoph, in the hunt for the Chalice of Emrys, and onward in the Thorn Wars. They reputedly went rogue from the Council of Thorns in the final year of the conflict, killing and sabotaging their former allies. We believe now this was because their leader had all along been an ally of Lillian Rourke.’
Eva dragged her gaze from Castillo to watch Roux. To watch his brow knot, his throat tighten; to watch him fight against an instinct of looking at her, because anyone who knew who she was had to know how truly terrible this was going to get.
‘Their leader, of course, was Prometheus Thane, arrested in the final months of the war and killed in his attempted escape at the Battle of Niemandhorn,’ Castillo said. Then, with the matter-of-fact aplomb Eva had learnt to expect, she walked around the desk, perched on the edge of it, and looked straight at Eva. ‘So I’m wondering why the fuck we have Prometheus Thane’s pet sat right in this room like she’s one of us.’
Of course Castillo had set it up like this. Of course Castillo had clocked her the moment she walked in, and of course she hadn’t exploded on sight. She’d built this up, stacked the deck, built her case, and brought it crashing down only once she was ready. It was the kind of vicious thoroughness that Eva had learnt to respect, fear, and loathe when Castillo had hunted her almost eight years ago.
Thankfully, there was enough confusion that the hubbub was bewildered and shocked, not yet outraged, which meant Roux had the chance to get to his feet and raise his hands. ‘Eva Saida has been working for this office to fight the operations of the Red Manticores for the last eighteen months –‘
‘Eva Saida,’ said Castillo coolly, ‘is wanted on four counts of murder by MACUSA. One of these charges includes the murder of a law enforcement officer. And I couldn’t off the top of my head tell you how many criminal charges other countries could level at her.’
Roux could, Eva thought glumly, and fought to keep her expression flat. The judge was glaring by now, which she didn’t like much at all. Roux almost always kept his cool, and Eva wasn’t sure what would happen if he was provoked. ‘Miss Saida,’ he continued in a rumbling voice, ‘was also offered a pardon after saving the lives of thirty-two officials of SADOM in the Thorn War, successfully evacuating them from this building –’
‘A pardon offered by the disgraced IMC, a pardon which was never finalised before the Battle of Niemandhorn,’ Castillo countered with a dismissive shrug. ‘She then went on the run before Niemandhorn was secured again. And I know what you’ll say next, Judge: that she worked for Balthazar Vadimas for two years before that, fighting against the Council, that she worked for the British MOM –‘
The Brazilian bureaucrat who’d spoken earlier, Navarro, stood. ‘This is clearly a deep issue; can we have Saida taken into custody so we can get back to the issue of the Red Manticores?’
Fear of capture, incarceration, punishment were not new to Eva. What was new was the level of bubbling panic that rose in her throat, how much she had to fight the instinct to push out of her chair and fight her way to the door. No, not now. No, no, I’m so close, so close –
‘We cannot,’ boomed Judge Roux. ‘Miss Saida is under contractual agreement with SADOM and I will not have her arrested; nor will I have South Africa’s sovereignty infringed on by any visitors trying to take matters into their own –‘
‘Then for heaven’s sake, Roux, get her out of this meeting,’ said Navarro, instantly bored. ‘You and MACUSA and anyone else can do twenty goddamn rounds over extradition later.’
‘I believe Miss Saida could be of great use if we’re fighting an organisation headed by her former teammates –‘
To Eva’s relief, something sparked in Navarro’s eyes. ‘Probably. But that’s an operational detail we’ll hammer out later. Get her out of here before MACUSA busts a gut.’
Finally Eva saw a flash of anything but chilly control from Castillo. ‘Respectfully,’ the American Auror growled, ‘I’m busting a gut over a murderer and kidnapper –‘
‘This isn’t the place to get sanctimonious; Saida’s a minor operator and we make deals with her ilk all the time.’
Navarro’s dismissive tone gave Eva little comfort as, at Roux’s gesture, a SADOM Enforcer escorted her to the door. He was right; her deal with Roux and SADOM was the sort law enforcement agencies made all the time, enlisting minor threats to bring down bigger ones. But the extent of shelter she’d received from SADOM, her freedom of operation, were both unorthodox.
And if the likes of Navarro didn’t care enough to condemn her, they wouldn’t care enough to risk pissing off MACUSA by fighting for her.
She felt no relief at the sight of Al, waiting outside for her in the lobby. Only guilt as the door slammed shut behind her, a guilt to choke her in waves of bitter bile. I should have refused Scorpius. I should have waited.
But he was looking at her, brow furrowed with that expectant concern she knew so well. Something’s wrong; just tell me what it is, I can help –
You can’t –
She was running through the conversation before it even happened, and that was enough to set her head spinning so badly she almost turned and fled down the corridors. But that was childish madness. Instead, she crossed the lobby to him, expression set, and said in a flat voice, ‘You should leave.’
‘You saw that witch who just walked in, the late arrival trying way too hard to be intimidating in a lot of leather?’ Somehow it was easier to mock Castillo; it made her seem like a poser instead of a dangerously talented Auror with a well-earned grudge.
‘Yes, but what’s –‘
‘About eighteen months before I met you, Thane had us running magical drugs out Peru and into the US to fund the dissident movement we were backing. One run went bad, and the Aurors got involved. I killed one of them, which was the fourth murder I’d committed on American soil. That Auror’s partner was set on the case to bring down Thane’s team, and fixated especially on me and my past crimes. That Auror’s partner is the witch who just walked in that door.’
Al’s jaw tightened. ‘I’m not leaving just because you have enemies.’
‘She’s about to be very important,’ Eva said, like he’d not even spoken, the light-headedness dizzying by now. ‘Because she’s one of the closest things to an expert on Thane’s old team still around, and probably the foremost who didn’t get hung up on Thane himself. And that smuggling ring I told you about? Is led by the dregs of Thane’s old team.’ Because of course they didn’t find some old hole to die in, of course Argyris is leading operations himself, of course Faust is still making her deals, of course Tackleton’s coming up with a big picture and fancying himself Prometheus’ heir…
That did make Al falter – but then he rallied, straightening with a deep breath. ‘So this mission’s not over. Because you’re a foremost expert on them, aren’t you, so Judge Roux is going to need you –‘
‘Judge Roux is fighting a battle to not get me locked up. Castillo is going to gun for me, and I don’t know what clout she has in her office. I don’t know if she can make MACUSA demand my extradition, and I don’t know if Roux has the clout to stop SADOM from giving me over just to make the Americans shut up.’
‘So we go to our contacts,’ Al snapped. ‘Rose is a senior member of an international security firm, Scorpius has friends all over from the charity –‘
‘No,’ said Eva, and somehow she must have found enough strength to make that one word stop him short. ‘No, I’m not doing this again. I’m sorry, Al. I was wrong. I was wrong to come back to you, I was wrong to ask you to come with me, I was wrong to think it was over. It’s not over, and I am not – I am not – dragging you into this darkness in my life again. Because I’m not sure if I can win this, and I’m not doing this just out of kindness to you. But if I’m going to be sent down, I can’t do that with you –‘ Her words were starting to tumble over one another, so she clenched her fists by her side, drove her fingernails into her palms for the fresh sting to return control. ‘I can’t have my life end with you, with everything I could have had with you, close enough to touch. That will kill me, Al.’
At last he had no answer, staring at her with a mixture of crestfallen loss, shock, and such dawning horror that she couldn’t bring herself to watch come to fruition. But it meant he didn’t stop her as she pulled past him, headed for the depths of the corridors of the SADOM office, not even knowing where she was going yet but away, away, away.
Even though everything behind her would follow soon enough.
St. Mungo’s bureaucracy hadn’t improved over the years, so Rose was late to her meeting. White Wands International enjoyed spacious premises in a tall office building in Canary Wharf, guarded by all manner of expensive enchantments to stand like a sentinel amongst the Muggle towers and yet be obscured from all their vision. It meant Rose was treated to a fine view from the windows of the boardroom when she hurried in: the Thames stretched out lazily in late spring sun, the financial heart of Muggle London glittering like its value was still counted in gold, her boss glaring at her from the head of the table.
Rose was not accustomed to being on the back foot in this job, and still she mumbled her apologies and slid into her seat like she was back at Hogwarts and late for Transfiguration lessons. It took her some time before she could bring herself to bury the file from St. Mungo’s underneath her work documentation, and even longer before she could focus on the meeting.
It went by in one blurry hour, all the details of the GWA’s new headquarters in New York and the security wards White Wands were designing – that she was designing – memorised by her weeks ago. Even when she had to speak she could rattle it off without really thinking, though her eyes were dull and tone distracted.
But she got everything right, so when the meeting was over and everyone else had hurried back to their desks, her boss closed the door and turned to her. ‘Everything alright?’
‘Yes, sorry.’ She blinked back distraction. ‘Didn’t I tell you I had an appointment at the hospital?’
Marius Smedley’s gaze went from tense to concerned. ‘You didn’t. Is everything alright?’
Rose stood, stacking her files. ‘I’m just hoping we’ve not wasted a year’s work with this project.’
Smedley frowned. He didn’t much look like a former Enforcer, or especially a Chief Executive; he looked more like he’d wandered out of a back alley behind a pub cracking skulls, with a sloping forehead and craggy, weathered features and an accent straight from south London. ‘Wasted? This project’s going to be up to spec come the Secretary-General’s assessment next week.’
‘I know we’ll deliver good enough work. Excellent work. I just wonder how long anyone will need it.’
‘Still doubting the GWA’s going to last?’
She shrugged. ‘It started out about trade, renegotiating old agreements from before the Thorn Wars. But already they’re slapping together a Security Council, already they’re talking about multilateral law enforcement operations.’
Smedley tried a light, joking smile that didn’t fit his face at all. ‘What, worried if they do too well they’ll put us out of a job?’
‘No, if they do well we’ll be fat off government contracts for ten, twenty years. I’m worried the GWA’s going too fast.’ She held her files to herself like a shield. ‘I’m worried someone will balk, think it’s too much oversight, too much infringement on national sovereignty, too much like Rourke again, and then it’ll all fall apart.’
‘We’ve come a long way in five years,’ said Smedley. ‘Sure. Governments are still paranoid of each other, not working together so easy, not handing over an inch of their own power or letting anyone else stomp around in their jurisdiction. Extraditions are at an all-time low, and all any two-bit crook needs to do is jump a border and ain’t nobody can come look for him. But it’s getting better. It’s healing. It’s caution now, not blind panic that any cooperation will mean another Rourke Conspiracy.’
‘I know,’ sighed Rose. ‘And I like that it’s changing, don’t get me wrong. I like that it’s getting better, because this paranoia was stupid.’
‘Stupid.’ He snorted. ‘Woman takes down Lillian Rourke herself and she says fear of it happening again’s stupid.’
Rose didn’t bother pointing out that she hadn’t been the one to take down Lillian Rourke. ‘Maybe I shouldn’t complain. White Wands wouldn’t be where it is if they’d just held hands and got on with it.’
Smedley had started the company right out of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, two years before the Thorn Wars. He’d made a fortune, and his company’s name, by White Wands never being suspected of infiltration by the Council of Thorns or the Rourke Conspiracy. And in the aftermath, when countries hadn’t dared turn to one another, into the void between borders had stepped companies like his, moving between nations and jurisdictions wherever they were paid. A wizarding nation wouldn’t want to ask another government for their specialist help with a problem. They would pay foreign wizards who used to work for those governments.
‘We wouldn’t,’ he said. ‘But don’t worry. The GWA will get it together. And I bet they’ll find those bastards who roughed up your husband, alright? So stop sticking the weight of the world on your shoulders like that’s the real problem.’
It was, perhaps, easier to worry about politics on the other side of the world than concerns closer to home. ‘I still say this every week.’
‘I know; for someone who blew the Conspiracy open, you sometimes sound like you wish it had succeeded.’
Smedley knew her history and was bad enough with words that she stopped herself from reading any implications into his comment. ‘You’re right. I do wish it had succeeded – but not at that cost, and not headed by Lillian.’
‘Just make sure you don’t say that to anyone in the GWA, alright?’ He stabbed a finger at the door. ‘The meeting’s over, your plans are good to be sent to New York, and you’ve been out of the office too much the last few days to jump into any of the final projects last second. You’ve had a hell of a week, Rose. Go home.’
She didn’t know how to argue with Smedley when he sounded decisive like that, though she’d hoped to avoid this fate. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to go home; Scorpius had been released yesterday and immediately caught a company Portkey to London. She had just been planning on delaying this a little.
So she wasted as much time as she could, tidying her desk, putting files away securely, checking in with the rest of the office. But they were all up to their eyeballs in work and she could see Smedley giving her pointed looks, and within ten minutes she was in the Apparition lounge and leaving.
She and Scorpius had lived in the flat he’d bought at the end of the Thorn Wars for four and a half years now, the large, sprawling top-floor apartment in the converted warehouse just around the corner from Diagon Alley. With summer clawing its way into England, the wide windows streamed light and warmth onto wooden floorboards underfoot and solid metal beams overhead, and Gwydion lay sprawled on a sofa cushion in the sunshine. There was no sign of her husband.
A clatter from the kitchen betrayed his location, and he came stumbling out, wild-haired, still in pyjamas, clutching a cup of tea. ‘You’re back early.’
‘You’re supposed to be resting.’
‘I needed tea.’ He pointed at the sofa. ‘And Gwydion stole my resting spot. Bloody cat.’
Rose sighed and stalked across to the sofa, scooping the grey-and-black tabby out from soothing slumber and into her arms. He made a noise of sleepy protest and wriggled, but she didn’t let him go. ‘Sit.’
‘I was going to, I just wanted a cuppa…’
‘If you move around too much, the internal lacerations might reopen and then you’ll be bleeding on the inside and we won’t know –‘
‘Rose! I made a cup of tea, I didn’t run a marathon.’ Still, he flopped onto the sofa, ganglier in his injury. ‘How was the office?’
She waved an indifferent hand and Gwydion rubbed his face under her chin, purring. He was always object at first to being picked up, but once in her arms would settle and demand more fuss. ‘The project will be finished on schedule, so the GWA can move in long enough to implode.’
Scorpius frowned. ‘Since when were you so fatalistic about the GWA?’
‘Don’t, Scorp, honestly, I got this from Smedley.’ She sighed, and began to pace. ‘We don’t need security issues like international smugglers right now, the Security Council is going to be brand new without complicated issues of hunting people who move and operate across jurisdictions –‘
He was watching her with that level gaze, eyes greyer than blue whenever he was quiet and thoughtful instead of bright and loud. ‘That’s not what’s bothering you,’ he interrupted, and her breath caught in her throat, but then he continued. ‘I don’t think Niko Argyris was coming for me, Rose. I don’t think this is some old vengeance thing, I don’t think Thane’s old mob care. If this ring’s been around for months and this is the first I’ve heard of them, then I think I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. After all, if I hadn’t given time off to Al, he would have been there and nobody would be any the wiser.’ She let out a small sigh of relief, then tensed as he frowned. ‘Al. Shit. We should get word to him.’
‘Because Niko might not care about me,’ said Scorpius, sitting up, and in everything fizzing through her mind right then she almost didn’t notice him referring to the man who’d sliced him up with dark magic by his first name, ‘but you know who they’ll care about? The traitor Eva Saida, the person who killed Thane. You know, the one Al’s with right now.’
‘And where are they?’
He hesitated. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Scorp, it’s just been a few days,’ said Rose. ‘Argyris and these smugglers have been around a little while. Al and Eva can stay out of trouble for that long.’
‘You’re right,’ said Scorpius, and with a groan he leant back on the sofa and closed his eyes. Then, long moments later, he opened them again, looked right at her, and said, ‘So what is wrong?’
‘You’re still pacing,’ he pointed out.
‘It’s just – I’m worried about Al,’ Rose lied.
‘You just told me he’s probably alright.’ Carefully he sat up, gaze softening. ‘I’m alright, I promise. The Healers said I’d be fine if I take it easy, Lily’s offered to pop round tomorrow to check up on me herself – I think she’s chasing a raise and maybe some advice on her little crush – and if there is any indication that Argyris is interested in me, you know law enforcement will offer protection because that might mean he’ll come out of the woodwork –‘
He spoke on, but she didn’t hear him. Turned her face away to fuss over Gwydion, to let Scorpius’ words be washed away by the cat’s insistent purrs, by the echoes racing in her mind and the panic that had settled in her gut since her St. Mungo’s appointment.
She truly, sincerely considered lying. The lie would be easy; they hadn’t faced true danger, life-or-death danger, since the Thorn Wars, since Niemandhorn, and her fear when she’d heard of the attack had strained something very old and very tired inside her. She could claim to still be fraught, claim that she’d thought they’d never go back to those ways, those dark times, and all of this would be true.
But it was not the truth.
We said we were past keeping secrets from each other.
So she turned to him, let Gwydion drop to the ground, and cut him off with the simple words of, ‘I’m pregnant.’
They had been married for a year. Together for five years, known each other for thirteen, and Rose didn’t think she’d ever seen Scorpius Malfoy so truly speechless. But now he stared, jaw literally dropped, and she held her breath without realising it, unable to even predict his reaction.
She should have guessed the first part, though, where he eventually worked his jaw, tried to speak, sputtered and finally managed, ‘What – you’re sure?’
‘Suspected for about a week now,’ Rose told a spot inches above his head. ‘I booked a St. Mungo’s appointment. Which was this morning. I didn’t want to say anything until I was sure, not with the charity ball, and then New Mexico happened and it really didn’t seem to be the time. But I’ve seen a Healer. We’re sure.’
‘Since – but – how –‘
‘Potions aren’t perfect, Scorpius,’ she sighed. This part wasn’t hard, this was where he babbled the same questions she had this morning and she recited the same answers she’d been given. ‘And I don’t think I messed up the routine taking them but I have been busy, and so have you, and – and I guess we’re just unlucky.’
Unlucky. The word hung in the air between them, the first opinion to make it to the table after all the facts, and while Rose hadn’t meant for it to slip out like that, she couldn’t bring herself to scrabble to bring it back. She swallowed hard. ‘I know we haven’t really talked about a family – I mean, we’ve just always been saying “not yet”…’
Scorpius had hunched over, hands clasped before him, staring at the floor. Gwydion wound himself between his legs, oblivious to the tension, and mewled. ‘I didn’t know if you wanted children.’
‘I knew you were apprehensive, so I didn’t…’ Her voice trailed off, and she cursed herself silently for not finding the words.
But he found a thousand in her silence, and suddenly he wasn’t slumped on the sofa but jumping to his feet. ‘You didn’t what? Didn’t even talk about this because you thought you knew what I wanted?’
‘No,’ lied Rose. ‘I thought we had time.’
‘So I might change my mind in a few more years?’ He looked away and gave a short, empty laugh, running a hand through his hair and leaving it more wild than even sleep had. ‘In a few more years I might suddenly not have had an arsehole father and a negligent mother and…’
This, she thought suddenly. This is exactly why we didn’t talk about it. But it was here now, and she crossed the distance to catch his hand, stop his wild gesturing. ‘You aren’t them, Scorpius. You wouldn’t be a parent like them, you’re not like them, we’ve been through this –‘
‘Right. Through this.’ He yanked his hand free. ‘You told me this a hundred times and still I’m silly, overreacting Scorpius –‘
‘That’s not what I said.’ But her words were tired, because she’d played through this turn in the conversation in her head a dozen times that afternoon, and in no scenario had this ended well. ‘I know this is sudden, and I don’t know how I feel about this, and you don’t have to, either, Scorp. We’ve got time…’
Again he ran a hand through his hair, breathing rattling, gaze flickering back and forth as he looked at nothing and she knew he was running through memories, torments. This conversation would, she suspected, have gone a lot better had it not been for Thane’s team rearing their heads from dusty history so recently. ‘Time. Yeah. And you’re –‘ Now his eyes landed on hers, and a hint of blue crept back in. That alone made her gut ease, because she’d never tell him how much he reminded her of his father when his eyes looked so cold. But he was gentler now, cautious. ‘You’re alright? Everything’s alright and healthy and –‘
Now it was his turn to catch her hand, and she felt a shudder in her next breath as the tension in place since that morning wavered at his softness. ‘Everything’s fine and healthy and I have more appointments. There’s not much to know yet, but I’m alright. I promise.’
‘Merlin,’ he breathed, shoulders dropping, but now he moved closer to slip his arms around her. ‘We’ve still got that fantastic sense of timing, don’t we.’
And she could let him hold her, let the tension flow from her body and collapse in his arms, abandon all the rigid plans of what to say and how to say it and how to handle it that had raced through her mind since before she’d had confirmation.
But even now, in her husband’s embrace, with his knee-jerk tension pushed aside for the moment, Rose could still feel that iron-tight control born of apprehension and fear deep inside her refuse to waver, refuse to go away.
And she knew it was the same for him.
The Red Manticores didn’t meet in a cave, or a gloomy abandoned warehouse, or a dingy bar. Leofric Tackleton would never stand for anything so disreputable or, suspected Niko Argyris, so cliché. Argyris couldn’t agree with the expense of renting this penthouse apartment in Venice, rich with the fall of golden sunshine and the smells of the canals and human sweat through the tall windows, but he knew the rest would enjoy the creature comforts too much to argue.
For his part, the luxury chafed like clothing made for another man, and so it was with a brusque gait that he entered the room, sat down in front of Faust and Tackleton, and put the bag on the table. ‘The tablets.’
Faust uncrossed long, elegant legs, and sat up to flip the bag open and peer inside. ‘So they are.’
Tackleton was looking at the dusty bag on the probably-antique coffee table like it offended him, and with a grunt Argyris dragged it to the floor. ‘We hear you had some trouble.’
‘No more than expected. The mercs handled the Aurors. It wasn’t a problem. They didn’t demand more money or the like.’
‘I don’t mean with the local muscle, or the law enforcement.’ Leofric Tackleton exuded the kind of polished, privileged air of British wizardry that always made Argyris’ knuckles itch. While Faust indolently rifled through the expedition’s findings, making occasional noises of approval, he was still staring through his over-long lashes at Argyris like dirt on his shoe. Nobody could have accused Tackleton of looking the part of international criminal; tall and gangly, brown hair styled for a floppy fringe, favouring expensive robes instead of the practical, Argyris had never thought him more than a useless fop. But it was Tackleton who’d brought him in, Tackleton who’d returned him to the fold. ‘I mean our mutual friend.’
‘He means Malfoy,’ Faust supplied unnecessarily. She was an American, all fast, inner-city flash and quick words, the fixer, the social chameleon. While Argyris liked her more, he knew she made an effort to be liked more, because that made it easier for her to manipulate. Out here she was poised and fashionable, blonde hair tied back in the sun and heat, oversized sunglasses propped on her forehead in a way Argyris found pretentious.
It didn’t matter. He wasn’t there for them.
‘Malfoy’s not a problem,’ said Argyris. ‘I put him in the hospital. Didn’t kill him, or that’d cause a hell of an uproar. But he’ll be out of action.’
Tackleton clicked his tongue. ‘You should have known he’d be there.’
Argyris shrugged. ‘Why? He’s not usually on his expeditions. What’s the problem?’
‘The problem is if encountering you makes him all the more interested in us. Unfinished business and all that.’
‘He’s not seen us in five years. The boy’s shown no interest in coming for us, not even when the war was done. We went one way and he went the other. And so what if he does? He runs a fucking charity. We’re being hunted by the world’s law enforcement. I know which I’m more fucking worried about.’
‘I really don’t think you should take this so lightly, Niko –‘
‘Maybe not.’ Argyris sniffed. ‘But I don’t work for you, Leofric.’ They were not, he thought, on first name terms unless trying to get a rise out of each other.
‘Boys, boys.’ Faust raised a hand. ‘Don’t fight. After all, it’s pay-day.’ She zipped the bag up. ‘And the longer you two sit here and argue, the longer it takes for this little baby to get into the buyer’s hands and the payload to get in ours.’
With a sigh, Tackleton stood. He reminded Argyris of his little brother when he did that, an insolent teenager about to throw a tantrum over the unfairness of the world. ‘Then I suppose that’s my cue to be off, isn’t it.’
Argyris leaned back on his chair and pulled out a cigarette. He didn’t smoke much, but he enjoyed doing it to piss off Tackleton. ‘Where’s the meeting?’
‘DR Congo. And I’m not telling you more than that –‘
‘Afraid I’d sell you out in a flat minute if I got caught?’ Argyris smirked around his cigarette. ‘I hope you’ll let the boss do the talking.’
‘Do try to not fall in the canal while I’m gone, Niko,’ groaned Tackleton, and that was all the farewell they got as he waltzed out the apartment with the duffel bag.
Argyris took his time with the cigarette when he was gone. After all, there was less point to it now, and he looked at Faust. ‘What crawled up his arse and died while I was gone?’
Gisila Faust gave an unconvincing shrug. ‘He’s rattled by the Malfoy news. And he has a point. We don’t want people from the old days sniffing around.’
He shook his head, and stood to wander across the luxury apartment to the view of the Grand Canal stretching back and forth. Somehow, he missed the cramped industrial districts he’d stuck in his trans-Atlantic hop by illegal Portkey. ‘Malfoy’s not a problem. You worry too much, Gisila. We’re going to make a fortune on this job.’ Argyris took a drag of the cigarette, the taste more welcome than the air smelling of foreign indulgence. ‘After all, how couldn’t we? We’re all together again.’
A/N: Sorry it's taken so long for an update! I had a holiday, then my term started up again, and I've been trying to get back on top of Not Fade Away. Regeneration is definitely a secondary project, I'm sorry to say; I'd hope for an update a month, but certainly much sooner than this last update took.
Still, I'm thrilled to see the responses of people happy for the story to continue. I'm hoping to do it justice. With those clamouring for Al and Eva to get back together, I've good news and bad news. The bad news is that they've been apart five years, and there's a lot of baggage; nothing's going to happen immediately. The good news is that I have no intention of their story just being a mirror of Oblivion's, of them working together under awkward sexual tension until something snaps in the third act.
But we shall see!
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