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Jacob stands by the window and considers his life.

He’s thirty-one this year. He has a sweetheart who’s the kindest and loveliest ray of sunshine he’s ever known. He has a best friend who shares the secrets of magic and magical creatures with him. He has another friend who might be uptight, but who already acts like he’s her brother-in-law. He’s got another friend who’s a literal force of nature and will fall asleep curled up like a cat next to Jacob when they’re sitting by the fire. And he’s got a friend with power that could level a city who still somehow thinks that Jacob hung the moon. Life couldn’t possibly be better than it is right now.

Except that he’s a fugitive from the law, living on borrowed time, under house arrest in China.

That’s a damper on things.

“Things ain’t too bad right now,” Queenie says, wrapping her arms around him from behind. She rests her chin on his shoulder. “We’re all in one piece.”

“I think that’s kind of a minimum, kitten,” Jacob says. They don’t do pet names in public, but in private it’s a different story.

“Three weeks ago it was just fine to be in one piece,” Queenie points out.

Well, that’s because three weeks ago they were on a boat sailing across the Pacific while MACUSA and Grindelwald watched them go from the shore. It was damn near a miracle that Credence and Graves had survived the mess—hell, it was a miracle that any of them survived, with Tina almost getting killed and Newt breaking half the bones in his body and Queenie dueling Grindelwald. Three weeks ago, one piece had been a real uncertain thing.

Queenie plants a kiss on Jacob’s cheek. “It ain’t uncertain now,” she says. It might be, but he refrains from saying that aloud. There’s nothing they can really do about it, anyway.

Out the window, Jacob can see the courtyard at the center of the house. The residence is tiny, just big enough for the six of them, and under permanent armed guard. Graves and Tina have been clear that they’re under constant surveillance, though almost no one else is ever within the walls. It’s a Chinese house: four small buildings in the cardinal directions around a courtyard, all walled in. It’s pretty comfortable. When they’re really hurting for space and people are getting twitchy around each other, they can always go in the suitcase. Things are pretty Spartan, but no one is complaining.

At the moment, Newt is in the courtyard writing observations on some local variant of Pixies that live in the small garden while Credence practices magic. Even from here, Jacob recognizes the wand he’s using as Graves’. At some point, Tina wants to get Credence his own wand, but until they’re allowed to leave the house that’s not going to happen.

“I think he’d be happy either way,” Queenie says.

“I’m pretty sure that as long as he’s got Graves wrapped around his little finger he’ll be happier than any of us,” Jacob says dryly. Speak of the devil: Graves comes out of the house, sees Credence, and breaks into a smile. Jacob can’t quite hear what they’re saying, but he doesn’t need to. The way Credence turns toward Graves, the way they stand too close just having a casual conversation, the way Graves’ hand lingers on Credence’s shoulder—they might be talking about magic, but it looks like they’re falling in love all over again. How much more ridiculous can they get?

“You know you sound the same way that they do, when you’re thinking about me,” Queenie says.

Jacob turns away from the window to look at her. He’s still about bowled over by how gorgeous she is. Her hair’s gotten much longer and she keeps it pinned up in company, but right now it’s just in loose waves over her shoulders. She’s in stocking feet, which makes her just a touch shorter than he is, and she’s so close he can see all the details of her gorgeous eyes, the long lashes that don’t really need mascara to stand out, the smile lines she tries to hide with powder and paint. “Got a good reason for that,” he says with a smile.

Queenie turns a little pink. “You’re flattering me.”

“It’s not flattery if it’s true,” Jacob says. How he got so lucky he doesn’t know. Ain’t a person in the world who could even pretend to be with a woman like her.

“Jacob…”

“You’re kind,” Jacob says, out loud, because Queenie could read it in his head but he knows damn well that most nice things people think about her never make it out of their mouths. She’s told him before. “And you’re thoughtful. And you’re smart. I could go all day, kitten, but you’ve got to know I think the world of you.”

Queenie’s eyes are glittery with tears. She cries too easy, especially surrounded by all of the melancholy people she’s friends with, but these aren’t sad tears. “Thank you, sweetheart,” she says, and kisses him. He wishes he could know, really know, what she’s thinking—but then again, he knows she lets him in to her head more than anyone else. That, she didn’t have to tell him.

***

They all gather in the main house that evening. Graves has convinced Jacob, now that he’s finished The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, to embark on a reading of The Age of Innocence. It may forever be a mystery, how Graves ended up enjoying romance novels; but then again, it might just be in his character. Due to the unbelievable lack of activity lately, they started two days ago and have already made it to chapter nine.

“‘They'll go at once?’ he enquired, pointing to the roses. The florist assured him that they would,” Jacob finished. “And that’s Chapter Nine and I’m done for tonight.”

“You do sound a bit raspy,” Newt says, and with a flick of his wand and a murmured “Aguamenti” fills a glass with water and hands it over.

Jacob drains the glass in one long draft. “Thanks,” he says, wiping his mouth. “Damn, Graves, you could pick a shorter book.”

“Or I could pick a good one,” Graves says, from his chair in the corner. Pickett is climbing his waistcoat buttons, up and down; Graves is a little preoccupied with the Bowtruckle, but has time to send a smile Jacob’s way.

“The two aren’t mutually exclusive,” Tina points out from her spot on the sofa. Credence has his head in her lap and is stretched out full-length with his long legs draping over the arm of the sofa.

Queenie, curled up between her sister and the arm of the couch, sighs. “I think it’s a lovely story so far.”

“He’s going to end up having an affair with Ellen. Archer’s an idiot when he’s in love,” Credence says.

“I don’t think you have room to talk,” Tina says, looking down at him.

Credence rolls his eyes. He looks very young right now, and Jacob can’t help thinking of him as a ‘kid’. “Well, at least my idiocy doesn’t involve trying to break an engagement with a society girl.”

Newt, in the corner with Dougal beside him and an Occamy chick draped around his neck, shrugs one shoulder. “I didn’t exactly break an engagement, but Leta Lestrange was a society girl,” he says. “And that went quite well.”

“Well, you’re an idiot too,” Credence says affectionately.

Tina smacks him gently on top of the head. “Be nice!”

“I am nice!”

Queenie laughs. “No, you’re not.”

“Anyway, I’m not changing my opinion on Archer.”

“None of us have room to criticize,” Graves says wryly.

Really, it’s true. Queenie took up with Jacob illegally and they both could have been killed. Tina and Newt got together even though they both ended up on the run from the law. And Graves and Credence—there hasn’t been such a disaster since Romeo and Juliet. So they all shut up, because what can they say?

Come to think about it, Jacob’s still not sure exactly where his opinion stands with Credence and Graves. He’s happy for them and he’s sure it’s what they both want, but it’s…odd. He’d never thought about men who fell in with other men much, back before everything, except as possibly the punchlines of jokes. Graves couldn’t be a joke if he tried. He’s one of the best men Jacob’s ever met. And once he’d discovered that magic was real, Jacob had sort of given up on keeping any of his old opinions around at all. So that isn’t a trouble.

What is a trouble, even if he hadn’t said much about it when things had been a concern before they left the States, is the question of age. Graves is in fine shape, and he doesn’t look particularly old, but his hair is steel-gray and he’s almost forty-two. And Credence might be an old-soul twenty-four with experiences that make Jacob shiver, but a lot of the time Credence acts like a teenager, and he’s inexperienced in a hell of a lot of things. When they’re together, their sheer happiness makes Jacob smile, but there’s no escaping the fact that Graves could easily be Credence’s father.

Queenie shoots Jacob an irritable look and he realizes she heard everything he was thinking. He rolls his eyes—they’re real worries, and no one else seems to be worrying about them. Someone’s got to.

There’s a loud knocking at the door and everyone jumps. Graves’ wand is in his hand and Newt looks wary. Not for the first time, Jacob wishes that he had a gun. It might help with the paranoia. But then again, the wizards are just as twitchy with wands. Maybe it’s better that one person in this house doesn’t have a loaded weapon at all times.

“I’ll get it,” Tina says, pushing Credence’s head off her lap and getting up. Her shoes echo across the bare wood floor. The door scrapes, there’s a moment of murmured conversation, and then the door closes. A long pause ensues. Jacob listens tensely for the sound of returning footsteps. And then Tina rushes back into the room, waving a piece of paper in the air ecstatically. “The Chairwoman finally agreed to hear our case in person!”

Credence whoops with delight, clapping his hands over his mouth in sudden embarrassment. On the other hand, Newt and Queenie are unrestrained in their happiness, Queenie leaping up to hug Tina and Newt talking a mile a minute about how wonderful it is. Graves smiles, but he looks tense. Jacob watches them all thoughtfully. Honestly, he trusts that Graves more than any of them has an idea of the real importance—and risk—of meeting Chairwoman Ya Zhou in person. Maybe this isn’t a joyous occasion, after all.

***

“If we’re meeting her in person, that means MACUSA is putting serious pressure on China to hand us over,” Graves says.

Tina sighs, massaging her temples. “For Bridget Bishop’s sake. Is anything ever going to be easy?”

“No,” Graves says.

“So what do we do?” Jacob asks.

Credence, Newt, and Queenie had all gone their separate ways. Queenie wanted to sleep, Newt’s doing night observations on the pixies, and Credence said something indistinct about doing something on his own. That just leaves Jacob, Tina, and Graves still in the sitting room.

Graves shrugs. “We meet with her. What else can we do?”

“Nothing,” Tina mutters.

“You two will do fine,” Jacob says bracingly. They look tired, both of them, bitten to the quick by too much worry. Someone has to be strong. Might as well be him.

“Only two?” Graves asks, raising his brows. “You do realize you’re coming along?”

Jacob stares at him. “What, me? You’re kidding.”

“He’s not,” Tina says.

“We need you there, Jacob,” Graves says.

Incredulous, Jacob turns to Tina, but she’s nodding. “Graves and I are good, but when they start asking questions they’ll be asking us, not you. Which means you can keep an eye on things better than we ever would.”

“I don’t get it,” Jacob says. He folds his hands, for lack of anything better to do with them. “But I’ll go, even if it’s just to keep you two from getting into trouble.”

“We’ll have to keep Graves on a short leash,” Tina says with a wink.

“I spent how many years keeping you out of trouble?” Graves asks tolerantly. “I remember a lot of idiocy back in ’seventeen.”

Tina tosses her hair. “I was just a Junior Auror then,” she says. “I didn’t know any better.”

“Should I mention February of ’twenty-three?”

No.”

Jacob laughs. “Nothing’s changed, has it?”

Graves is smiling at Tina like she’s the most brilliant person he’s ever seen. “No, it hasn’t.”

It’s funny, because Jacob has noticed that the man literally has a different smile for every single one of them. Of course there’s the one he directs at Credence, completely lovesick. Queenie gets something that walks a fine line between adoration and protectiveness, the kind of thing that if Jacob didn’t know better would make him jealous. The smile reserved for Tina is one you’d give your best and closest friend. Newt’s is a mimic of the one Newt himself gives to his creatures: reserved and affectionate and careful. Jacob’s not sure what to call his, except that it might be admiration, which is ridiculous.

“Anyway, we’ll go tomorrow afternoon,” Tina says. “They’re sending an armed guard…so we’ll know when it’s time.”

“Smart,” Jacob comments.

“I don’t understand the worry. It’s not like we’re sending Credence,” Graves mutters.

“You’re still both really dangerous.”

Tina gives him a sideways look. “Funny. I almost think you’re the one they should worry about.”

***

It’s the middle of the night and for some reason Jacob is awake. Maybe it’s nerves. Yeah—nerves is what this is. He’s going to meet the magical ruler of China tomorrow. That’d get anybody feeling bothered. Jacob is careful not to wake Queenie, who’s stolen all the blankets again, as he gets out of bed. A drink of water might help.

He arrives in the kitchen, which is lit only by a small, magical light in the corner, and has to stop and process what he’s looking at.

Credence is sitting at the table, which is not unusual. The kid has a nocturnal habit worse than Newt’s. What is unusual is the fact that Credence has a straight razor in his hand and is clinically studying his arm, which is bleeding.

“What the fuck,” Jacob says.

At his words Credence looks up. He doesn’t look surprised at all. “Hi,” he says.

“Kid, what are you doing?” Three steps bring Jacob to the table.

“Just go back to bed,” Credence says, looking up at Jacob like the bright red blood dripping down his arm doesn’t matter. He sounds tired.

Jacob looks around, snatches a towel from the bar beside the sink, and starts wrapping up Credence’s arm. “No way in hell.”

Credence lets him work. “Did I wake you?”

What kind of a question— “Credence. What is going on?”

“Nothing you need to worry about,” Credence says.

The cut isn’t particularly deep, and the bleeding is slowed with the towel wrapped tightly around Credence’s arm. Jacob holds it in place, trying to figure out what the hell to say. This isn’t something he knows what to do with. “You cut open your arm.”

“It was an old scar.”

“That doesn’t make it better!”

For the first time there’s a flash of panic in Credence’s eyes. “Please don’t yell,” he says quietly, shoulders slumping. “I don’t…no one was supposed to see this.”

“…what?”

“It’s personal,” Credence says. He glances at the door, visibly nervous.

Jacob’s mind is going a mile a minute. “Okay, so, I don’t tell anyone yet. But you’d better explain what you’re doing.”

Credence looks away. Under Jacob’s hands, holding down the towel, he feels the tension in Credence’s muscles, the odd motion of…something Jacob doesn’t want to think about. “I had…a dream.”

“A dream.”

“Bad,” Credence says. He bites at the inside of his cheek for a moment. Jacob waits. Credence can keep a secret better than any of them, but once he starts there’s no stopping him. “I wasn’t me. I was just…I looked down and I was dripping magic out of my hands and I looked in the mirror and it wasn’t me, it was the Obscurus, except it was…”

He lapses into silence. Jacob supplies what comes next: “So you were checking.”

Credence’s mouth twists in a parody of a smile. “Got it in one.”

There’s dead silence for a second. What can Jacob say to that? What the hell is he supposed to say? This is Graves’ job, not his.

“Kid—” Jacob starts at last, but Credence cuts him off.

“This isn’t the first time,” he says. “It’s not like Percival ever notices. I heal it up and I’ve got enough scars that it doesn’t matter if it’s not good healing, anyway.”

“What about Queenie?”

“I’ve gotten better at Occlumency,” Credence says. “And she has trouble hearing past the Obscurus. She called it static once. ‘Please don’t take it wrong but it’s like a bad radio, honey.’”

Jacob can’t help smiling. “Yeah, sounds like her.”

Credence smiles, too, but it fades fast. “You’re going to tell them, aren’t you.”

“I don’t know,” Jacob says honestly. He really should, but then again…Tina would yell, Queenie would cry, and Newt would be helpful with patching up the physical while not really sure how to handle the rest of it. And then… “You really don’t want him to know, do you?”

They both know which ‘him’ is being referred to. “He thinks I’m all right,” Credence says to the table. Jacob hasn’t seen him like this in a while, refusing eye contact, looking like he’s waiting to be struck.

“You know he’d want to know,” Jacob says. He can’t resist pointing out what he’d thought earlier. “And he’d do a damn sight better helping than I would.”

“I don’t want help,” Credence bites out.

“What do you want?”

With his free hand, Credence pushes his hair out of his face. “I want this thing out of me,” he says quietly. “I want it gone and I can’t get rid of it. Newt’s talked about ‘extracting’ it and I think that might kill me. I don’t want to die.”

Jacob snorts. “But you don’t think anything of carving yourself up like some kind of butcher?”

“It’s a fine distinction,” Credence says, rolling his eyes with a casual exasperation that seems totally out of place right now. “Anyway, they call it a parasite, but…it protects me, you know? It’s part of me. It is me. But I don’t like it, because if it’s me…”

He stops. Jacob tenses as the shadows shift a little. “What then?” Jacob asks.

“Then what the hell am I?” Credence asks.

Goddammit.

Jacob is not qualified.

“Pretty sure you’re you,” Jacob says with a shrug. “Which might be a monster who could level New York, and might be a kid who’s just normal as it comes. Maybe both.”

“Thanks,” Credence says, sardonic. There’s no anger in his voice, though. “I should clean this up.”

“Yeah, and get back to bed before your boyfriend notices you’re gone,” Jacob says.

Credence makes a face. “Don’t call him that when he can hear you.”

“It’s what he is,” Jacob points out, tentatively unwrapping the towel from around Credence’s arm.

“He says it makes him sound like a teener.”

The cut isn’t bleeding anymore, though Jacob doesn’t want to touch it. “He acts like one around you,” Jacob says. “You wanna Episkey that?”

Easily, Credence draws his finger over the cut, leaving only a scar in its wake. “It’s nice that you know the names of spells,” he says. “You really do deserve to be a wizard.”

“Don’t think I can change what I am,” Jacob says with a shrug. He’s come to terms with that, really; it’s a privilege just to observe this world, anyway. And there’s a certain magic in just being around these things, having magical beasts that like him, even if it makes Graves and Newt twitchy as all hell when the Nundu falls asleep next to the oven while Jacob’s baking. “I don’t think either of us can.”

“Tergeo,” Credence murmurs, brushing his hand over the towel. The bloodstains disappear instantly. Credence doesn’t look at Jacob as he flicks his fingers and sends the towel winging to hang where it came from. “Thank you.”

Jacob squeezes Credence’s shoulder. “Any time, kid.”

***

It’s an early and tense start the next morning. Everyone is justifiably clingy: Queenie nervously fixes Graves’ tie half a hundred times, Credence hovers around Tina asking over and over if they’ll be all right, and Newt point-blank asks Jacob if he wants to bring along the Swooping Evil “just in case”. At last, Graves puts an end to it:

“We can’t delay any longer,” he says. “The Chairwoman won’t like to be kept waiting.”

There’s minimal fanfare around their departure. A team of stern, solemn Chinese Aurors close ranks around Graves, Tina, and Jacob. The three Americans are dressed in No-Maj clothes and they are really out of place surrounded by the Aurors in traditional dress. People stare when they pass. It’s uncomfortable, but Jacob takes it in stride. They’re foreigners, out of place here in the heart of the magical district of Canton. They don’t belong here. Jacob’s gotten pretty used to feeling all kinds of out of place, so it’s not like this is new.

The headquarters of the Party is situated in a hidden palace that used to belong to some emperor. It’s a gorgeous building which takes Jacob’s breath away. The Chinese Aurors, and the many bureaucrats and visitors, all used to the opulence and magic of the building, smile in amusement as he stares.

Unfortunately, there’s no time to really take it all in. They’re hurried into a great conference room, where the Aurors range themselves around the walls, watchful and wary. Jacob is oddly unintimidated: there’s literally nothing scarier than the Obscurus, which sleeps next door to him. Only moments after their arrival, the door opens and, without fanfare, the Chairwoman of the National Magicians’ Party of China enters.

She’s an imposingly tall and beautiful woman. Her scarlet robes, high-collared with gold-embroidered hems, trail behind her as she sweeps into the room. Although she wears an elaborate gold headdress which probably weighs twenty pounds, she carries herself effortlessly.

Around her are other officials, some actually in No-Maj dress, which is interesting to see. But none of them hold a candle to her presence. She’s got the same thing that Graves does, a charisma that makes everyone in the room look right at her before they see anyone else.

“I extend my most sincere welcome to you all,” she says, stopping a few feet in front of them. Her smile is polite and even friendly, but it doesn’t make Jacob one whit less wary.

“We thank you, Madame,” Graves says, bowing. It’s respectful, polite—and a hell of a provocation, considering he’s got his wand in his hand. Looks like a bow he’d give before a duel. Sure, Graves doesn’t need the thing to do a lot of damage, but it’s a pretty pointed statement.

The Chairwoman might as well have never noticed. “Mr. Graves.”

Tina just nods. “Madame Zhou,” she says.

“It is good to see you, Miss Goldstein,” the Chairwoman says, unexpectedly warm. And then she turns to Jacob. He might have been the only one to see it, but there was a flash of calculating curiosity before her expression smoothed into serenity.

Jacob holds out his hand. “A pleasure to meet you, ma’am,” he says.

Next to him, Tina makes a tiny, choked noise of disbelief, but the Chairwoman smiles. She shakes his hand with a firm grip. “You must be the infamous Jacob Kowalski,” she says.

“I am,” Jacob says.

“I find it very interesting that you would bring a Muggle into this meeting,” the Chairwoman says, turning to Tina and Graves. “Do you understand the seriousness of these events?”

Graves isn’t exactly calm, but he’s not radiating imminent violence. “No one understands them better,” he says. “Mr. Kowalski has perhaps more reason than any of us to be here, considering that he is at greatest risk should we be handed to MACUSA.”

The Chairwoman studies the three of them. “You already see the difficulty of my position.”

“We do, Madame,” Tina says. She sounds tense. “But—”

“If you must qualify, then you do not understand.”

“How can we make our case to you?” Graves asks.

The Chairwoman folds her hands in her sleeves. “I will consider your request if you can explain to me why I ought to put my whole country at risk for the sake of six foreigners who have, in the most flagrant of ways, violated the International Statute of Secrecy and put the entire magical community in the worst kind of danger.” Tina starts to speak, but the Chairwoman cuts her off. “Persuade me to let you stay.”

Graves glances at Tina and Jacob. Tina nods minutely, and Jacob just waits. Graves turns to the Chairwoman. “I don’t ask for myself,” he says. “I’d let you hand me back to MACUSA in a second if I were not seeking asylum for innocent people.”

The Chairwoman's smile is amused. “Your Obscurial.”

“Not mine,” Graves says. “Not anyone’s. He’s a free man.”

“A dangerous man,” the Chairwoman says. She raises her eyebrows slightly, just a touch, and even if it should look casually inquiring it feels like being on the receiving end of an interrogation. “Is he not the one who nearly destroyed New York?”

“Credence Barebone is innocent of all charges,” Graves snaps. He takes half a step forward and the room freezes. Several Aurors have their wands out; Jacob is really glad that the Shield Charm Tina charmed into his jacket is still halfway intact. He should really have her fix that if they get out of here.

“I am well aware of his innocence if we speak of intent,” the Chairwoman says, perfectly calm, raising a hand to indicate to her Aurors that everything is all right. They barely relax at all. “But I was there on that night. I saw what he is capable of doing.”

Graves shakes his head. “I have seen for myself that he is fully under control,” he says. “Trust me, Madame—I know him as an intimate friend.” Okay, wizards are given to archaic phrases, but did Graves think that sentence through before it came out of his mouth? Apparently not, because he winces the second he stops speaking.

The Chairwoman laughs, covering her mouth with her hand. “Ah, the old bull nibbling the young spring grass,” she murmurs. If Graves were a different man, he might have blushed. Several of the other officials laugh, Tina cracks a smile, and Jacob can’t suppress a grin. He’s never going to let go of that phrase, ever.

“I don’t think that changes anything, Madame,” Tina says, when the moment of levity passes. “I can vouch for Credence, too. I’ve seen his control and restraint.”

“How long has it been now?” the Chairwoman asks, and it’s clear what she’s referencing.

“San Francisco,” Graves says. “And he was in control.”

The Chairwoman tilts her head, just slightly. “Was he?”

“If he hadn’t been, I wouldn’t be here,” Graves says. Jacob only knows Graves is not quite all there because he’s holding a little too still, like he’s trying to anchor himself in reality. If they were anywhere else, Jacob himself might very well try to do something stupid like hold the man’s hand.

There’s a moment of silence. Finally, Tina says, “Madame Chairwoman, you can trust that we wouldn’t lie to you about this. We wouldn’t put everyone at risk for the sake of one person.”

And that is the single biggest lie that anyone in this room has told, because Jacob knows damn well that all his friends would put the rest of the world at risk for a single person. The six of them would let the world hang as long as the rest were all right. But Jacob keeps his mouth shut about that.

“I trust,” the Chairwoman says, “that wizards of your stature would not lie about such critical matters.” The pointed lack of sarcasm in her voice is punctuation Jacob clearly hears. She knows they’re lying, and is choosing to let it go. What the hell?

“We wouldn’t,” Tina says. Graves, smart man, doesn’t speak, because he’d have to say something about how he actually would set the world on fire for Credence.

“Then let that lie,” the Chairwoman says. She raises her voice, clearly giving a command. “I will accept that Credence Barebone is innocent and worthy of our protection. He has no protection from any other state, and so we will take him on good faith and on the condition that Percival Graves and Tina Goldstein will accept the responsibility for further damage caused should the Obscurial prove dangerous.”

People start taking notes, whispers starting around the edges of the room as people record everything she’s just said. Good. Credence, at least, is safe. But it doesn’t sit right with Jacob. If Credence is as dangerous as she believes—and he is—then she should have put up more of a fuss. It’s not like Graves or Tina seem to have noticed, though, so Jacob keeps his mouth shut. Maybe it’s just paranoia.

“And Chairwoman—my sister?” Tina asks, a worried line between her brows.

Oh. Damn. Good point. “Queenie’s done nothing wrong, ma’am,” Jacob butts in, before Graves can say anything.

“Indeed. She’s done nothing except for instigate a plan to help wanted men flee the country and be demonstrated as a Legilimens powerful enough to give any leader pause,” the Chairwoman says. Right: there’s the sarcasm. It still doesn’t sound like sarcasm, but the expression on her face is pointed enough

“Queenie doesn’t use her Legilimency like that!” Tina says loudly, voice echoing in the wide-open room. Her scowl is enough to make Jacob think she might actually cast a spell.

Graves puts a hand on Tina’s shoulder and gives her a hard look. “The Chairwoman’s concern is warranted,” he says. Oh, that’s real rich, coming from Graves. Jacob can see it on Tina’s face, the fact that she wants to argue with Graves, but at least she’s professional enough to avoid that.

“A danger to the state cannot be countenanced,” the Chairwoman says.

“Yeah, well, I think if you’re gonna give Credence sanctuary then you’d better do the same for Queenie,” Jacob says. He meets the Chairwoman’s eyes squarely. There’s a faint itch in the back of his skull, the same one that he usually gets when he looks Queenie in the eye. She’s reading his mind.

The slight nod she gives him is confirmation. Chairwoman Ya Zhou is a Legilimens. Damn it. She’s heard everything he’s thought since walking into this room. But she’s already turning to Tina and Graves. “I find your sister a greater threat to the security of our state than the Barebone boy,” she says.

“She’s not,” Tina says.

Graves steps in. “Queenie Goldstein has only one black mark on her record, and it’s the decision that brought us here to begin with,” he says. “She’s brave enough that—as I’m sure you know, Madame Chairwoman—she fought Grindelwald herself.”

“It is not her bravery I doubt. It is her loyalty to the wizarding world.” The Chairwoman is very nearly expressionless, but Jacob gets the crawling feeling that they’re closer to real trouble right now than they’ve been since San Francisco.

“Her loyalty is without question.” That’s a downright snarl from Graves. When the man is out of sight, Newt’s compared him to a Wampus cat before, and right now Jacob gets it. Graves looks ready to rip the Chairwoman in half with his bare hands.

The Chairwoman’s eyes narrow slightly. “Her loyalty to you is without question,” she corrects. “I have doubts, as do many others in the Party, that she is innocent in the schemes of Gellert Grindelwald.”

“What do you mean?” Tina demands.

“Queenie Goldstein worked in MACUSA for five months while Grindelwald occupied the office of the Director of Magical Security and never once suspected a thing,” the Chairwoman says. “The claim that she is the most powerful Legilimens in the world hardly holds up—unless she knew who he was, and had reason to avoid exposing him.”

Jacob can’t stay quiet. “She almost lost to Grindelwald in San Francisco,” he says hotly. “Only heard his thoughts while he was off his guard.”

“It’s true. She would have lost the duel. He’s the most powerful Occlumens in the world,” Graves says. “President Picquery—”

“—is not a true Legilimens,” the Chairwoman says serenely. “She can perform Legilimency with the competence that her office demands, but she cannot look at a man and know his innermost soul, which Miss Goldstein can.”

“Now, hold on a second,” Jacob says, a thought occurring to him. He thinks back to that mind-boggling moment when they’d emerged from the suitcase into MACUSA, when he’d seen the assembled wizards of the ICW for the first time, and remembers where Ya Zhou had been standing. “You were, what, twenty feet from Grindelwald?”

Tina and Graves turn to Jacob in united confusion for a moment. “Jacob?” Graves asks.

“At least when I saw you at the trial,” Jacob says to the Chairwoman, “he was sitting right next to Picquery and you were twenty feet in front of him.”

That’s when Tina’s eyes light up. “And you didn’t hear him, either,” she says with excitement. “I don’t know about your Legilimency, Madame Chairwoman, but not a single wizard in the whole room picked up on anything amiss.”

“He’s a very good actor,” Graves says flatly. “Queenie was as shocked as all the rest of us.”

“Please, let her be,” Tina says after a nasty pause. “She…Madame Chairwoman, Queenie would never do something so horrible. She’s as innocent as Credence.”

Jacob has nothing to add. He suspects that anything he’ll say won’t add much to the discussion.

There’s another long moment as the Chairwoman surveys them. Finally, she graces them with a reserved nod. “Miss Goldstein, if your sister is found to hold state secrets or to have meddled in the affairs of China, then she—and you—will be returned to the custody of MACUSA. My decision on this matter will be immediate and final, should the occasion arise.”

“We agree to your terms, Madame Chairwoman,” Graves says, visibly relieved.

Tina is not relieved. “And Newt?” Tina demands. Her hands are in fists at her sides. Jacob can empathize—he doesn’t like feeling helpless either—but damn, if she keeps this up, they’re gonna get shot.

“Mr. Scamander is not of concern,” the Chairwoman says dismissively, waving a hand.

Graves exchanges a look with Jacob, who shakes his head. This isn’t good. “Why not?” Graves asks warily, looking nearly as aggressive as Tina.

“Mr. Scamander is fully licensed under Chinese law regarding care, keeping, transport, and breeding of magical creatures,” she says. “His habits are well known. There is nothing illegal about his suitcase, and in China he did nothing legally wrong by carrying you out of MACUA’s legal jurisdiction.”

Well, that’s weird. It’s like she’s jumping through hoops to get them all out of trouble. Two seconds ago she was heavily implying that Queenie broke Chinese law just by being in the country, and was a threat for not even breaking MACUSA’s law. Here she is telling them that Newt, who actually did break MACUSA’s law and has violated the Statute of Secrecy more than any of them, isn’t a threat at all. It just doesn’t make sense.

But anyway, Newt’s all right, and that’s what matters. Jacob has a half a second to breathe a sigh of relief before the Chairwoman is turning to him.

“I’ve got nothing to offer, ma’am,” Jacob says, before she can say anything. Tina looks like she might want to throttle him for his rudeness, but hell if he’s going to let her walk all over him.

“Then why shouldn’t I return you to the rightful legal custody of your native state?” Zhou asks, looking down at him.

Jacob studies her. She’s too tranquil, too serene. There’s nothing aggressive about her, even if her Aurors are twitchy as all hell. There’s all that odd behavior that doesn’t quite add up, too. It’s as if… “You already made the decision to protect us, didn’t you?”

Jacob!” Tina says, eyes wide.

“And how did you arrive at that conclusion?” the Chairwoman asks. There’s a smile at the corner of her mouth. He’s right, isn’t he?

“You don’t seem too worried about Credence or me,” Jacob says. “I’d be more worried about us than you are. It’s not like Tina and Graves made a very good argument.” One of the bureaucrats mutters something that’s obviously assent, and Jacob shares a sympathetic look with the man. Clearly, the Chairwoman didn’t tell her people much about what’s going on here, either.

Graves is glaring, but Jacob ignores him. Everyone else is already okay. They’ll stay in China. So it’s just him in trouble now, if anyone’s in trouble at all.

The Chairwoman shakes her head minutely. “They really didn’t,” she murmurs, giving an oblique look to the two wizards. “And I find myself rather disappointed that two former Directors of Magical Security did not recognize what a No-Maj did.”

“It’s because I’m not a wizard, ma’am,” Jacob says. He’s done a lot of thinking about this. “I ain’t got a wand to cast Specialis Revelio and I ain’t a Legilimens. I can’t just see things, so I’ve got to think. It’s not to say that you wizards don’t think, because a lot of you do, it’s just to say that Graves and Goldstein aren’t looking for what I’m looking for.”

The speech is pretty clumsy, especially by this room’s standards, but the Chairwoman is actually smiling. “I find myself impressed against my will, Mr. Kowalski,” she says.

Jacob nods. “Thank you, ma’am,” he says. “Pretty high compliment from you.”

“Your intelligence does you credit,” she says. “And you are a credit to your country. I am forced again to consider that Rappaport’s Law in America is too rigid in its considerations. We in China do not consider things quite so strictly, and we have reaped many benefits which America lacks.”

“I think you’re right about that,” Jacob says. He pauses, collecting himself, and then takes the plunge. “Which is why you aren’t going to hand us over. This isn’t about us. It’s about you and MACUSA having it out over where No-Majs like me belong, and whose law is right.”

Tina is staring at him like he’s a total stranger. And maybe he is. He doesn’t show off very often like this, not when Tina and Graves are usually in the lead with politics. “Jacob?”

“He’s right,” Graves mutters. He doesn’t say the words ‘I’m an idiot’ but he’s obviously thinking them. And he definitely doesn’t sound happy. “We’re pawns.”

“A crude term,” Zhou says. She’s speaking directly to Jacob now, cutting out Graves and Tina entirely. “You Americans are not our people, but we find ourselves on the same side of a struggle with which the former Directors are both familiar. An ideology which disregards the will of the people is not one which the Party supports, and it is an ideology to which the Western world desperately clings.”

Jacob shrugs. “Makes sense to me, ma’am. I mean, I ain’t one for politics, never have been, but from what I’ve seen there ain’t many people happy with the Statute of Secrecy. And if you can show us being in the right, then you score on MACUSA. Right?”

Zhou’s smiling again. “The will of the Party is that you be granted asylum,” she says, and that’s all the answer Jacob gets. “China will not protect you forever, but for now—in light of MACUSA’s incompetence—we will grant you asylum. Of course, we cannot allow you to stay, because you are all threats to China’s stability. There are avenues open to you, but for now, I formally welcome you as guests of the Party in Canton.”

“Thank you, Madame Chairwoman,” Graves says, and Tina echoes him. They bow, and Jacob shakes the Chairwoman’s hand. The Aurors escort them out of the room as Party officials close around the Chairwoman, clearly concerned and asking questions. Graves shushes conversation, saying only that they’ll talk when they’re behind closed doors. Jacob understands; he’s mildly overwhelmed.

At the exact moment that they come in through the front door and close it behind them, Credence comes hurtling into the room with wide eyes. “What happened!?”

“She’s letting us stay!” Tina says, and lets out a surprised and delighted shriek as Credence nearly tackles her in a hug.

Queenie and Newt come flying around the corner at top speed. Jacob’s distracted for a moment by Newt clapping him on the shoulder and fluttering, a little awkwardly, asking him how it went. When Jacob looks up again, Graves and Queenie are clinging to each other like the world’s falling apart. It’s really sweet, actually. How worried was Graves about all this?

“So—did you actually meet her?” Newt asks Tina, breaking the moment.

Tina lets go of Credence and turns to Newt, looking radiant. “Oh, yeah,” she says. “I always forget the charisma that woman has!”

“She’s pretty good,” Jacob says.

You’re pretty good. I’m so proud,” Queenie says, coming over to him and hugging him tightly.

Jacob hugs her back and wow, now he understands why Graves didn’t want to let go. He hadn’t really been letting himself think about risk, about what was going to happen if they failed, about all the effort that would have been lost. About the people he’d have lost. But now, with Queenie right there, safe with him, and his friends finally all right, Jacob really understands what was at risk.

“I didn’t do much,” Jacob says, squeezing Queenie tight.

She kisses the side of his head, at an awkward angle because neither of them really want to break the hug. “I think you did an awful lot,” she says softly. “You ain’t no wizard, but you’re exactly the man we need most.”