Zacharias had always liked running. He’d been taller than was strictly necessary since the age of ten, and his legs were each about as useful as a float in an art gallery, and roughly the same shape. There wasn’t much to do with awkward teenage legs except run. Over the years, he had accustomed himself to running from the intercity bus stop to Glasgow Central station to make his train to London, and running from one end of King’s Cross to the other to make the Hogwarts Express, and running from the Hogwarts Express to avoid having to enter into a conversation with Ernie Macmillan.
Running from what would probably be the most talked-about Wizarding event of his generation was not much different, he reasoned.
There was a part of him that briefly considered staying and fighting. A very small part. But he was no idiot, and he had a reasonable degree of self-knowledge, enough to know that he wasn’t exactly the world’s greatest duellist, and wouldn’t stand a chance against hordes of furious Death Eaters. Most other seventh years in the Great Hall seemed to consider the impending battle to be a matter of death or glory, but there was a third option: life. Zacharias Smith very much intended to live—and so he ran.
Perhaps he may have knocked over a couple of smaller people on the way—this could not be helped; his line of sight rendered so many smaller people practically insignificant. There was a passage through the Room of Requirement to the Hog’s Head, and Zacharias was one of the first through. As he walked, he took a moment to regret not saying goodbye to all of his hopeless Hufflepuff housemates, whom he doubted would make it through the night alive. And if they did—well, he would apologise for not saying goodbye to them when the battle was over.
The battle would be over, he knew that for certain, but he wasn’t going to place his bets on which side would win.
The Hog’s Head was a stuffy little place with all the atmospheric charm of a damp pair of socks, but Zacharias had always been fond of it. The first time he’d been there was for the meeting that led to the establishment of Dumbledore’s Army.
Of course, the DA itself had been a joke, an excuse for Harry Potter’s friends to line up and stroke his ego, and in hindsight, it would probably have been better if he’d curbed his curiosity and not joined it. Almost all of the other members hated him unconditionally, which was fun for a while, and he and Anthony had even made a game of it—Zacharias would be as contrary as possible, whereas Anthony would act borderline sycophantic, and they would see who the other members found more annoying—but naturally no-one found Anthony’s vaguely sarcastic flattery to be anything other than delightful kindness, whereas Zacharias’ scepticism very quickly became the bane of several people’s lives. It stopped being amusing when he realised that while Anthony had been acting, Zacharias had just been himself, and people couldn’t stand that.
That first meeting at the Hog’s Head, though, that had been alright, back when it was still easy to laugh off the threats of violence that his comments seemed to inspire, and being in the pub on the eve of battle came with a strange sense of nostalgia.
And that old man was still behind the bar. He looked grumpier than usual, which was no surprise, given that the pub was in the process of being crowded with screaming children, fighting each other for the few available chairs. It was going to be a long night.
“Have you got any firewhisky?” he asked the bartender, pulling a stool out from a small Slytherin’s grasp and sitting down at the bar.
“Not for minors,” the man replied gruffly.
“I’m eighteen,” Zacharias said, insulted that he might be mistaken for less. Sure, he’d only turned eighteen a few weeks ago, but he was the tallest seventh year and had in fact previously spent quite a while drinking legally in Wizarding pubs. He’d been to plenty of Muggle pubs, and even at the age of fifteen he’d just been given drinks, no questions asked. That may have been due to the unscrupulous nature of the publicans in question, but he’d heard that the Hog’s Head’s proprietor was a convicted felon, and so should reasonably not have any qualms in serving alcohol to under-age wizards.
“Not for students,” he said, scowling. “If I’m going to have the whole bloody school under my roof, I want them all sober.”
Zacharias glared at him. One shot of firewhisky would not get him drunk. “I can hold my drink,” he said, turning his chin up.
“I can tell from your accent,” the bartender said, rolling his eyes. “Now piss off and find someone else to bother.”
With a sigh, Zacharias turned around on the stool and looked out into the increasing crowd. If only it were that easy. None of the people he usually bothered—the ones usually assumed to be his “friends”—were in the Hog’s Head. They were all fighting, of course. Even Terry and Hannah, who could hardly hold their wands the right way up in a duel. Fighting.
Zacharias got the impression that by the morning, he would have very few people left to bother.
“Smith. I heard the old man refusing you firewhisky. Tough luck.”
He turned his head slightly to face Tracey Davis, one of the three people he considered as friends, given that they seemed not to be bothered by his presence at all.
“Davis,” he replied by way of greeting.
“We’ve got a corner table,” she said. “One of the few advantages of being friends with Millicent is that she’s tall and pushy. Helps with the firsties.”
“I’d rather not join you,” Zacharaias said. “Not with the promise of Millicent’s delightful company.”
“We also have firewhisky,” Tracey added. “One of the few advantages of being friends with Daphne Greengrass.”
“Alright, you’ve got my vote,” he said, following Tracey as she pushed her way through a pack of sobbing children. The three Slytherin girls had a table in the dingiest possible corner of the pub, and they were clustered around a stack of shot glasses and a small glass bottle of the most expensive-looking firewhisky Zacharias had ever seen. As well as that, Millicent had her fingers clasped around a slender bottle of elderflower wine.
“Parkinson not with you?” he asked, sitting down.
“Of course not,” Daphne said, flicking a bit of cobweb off her sleeve. “She’s off in some bathroom or other, probably, crying over Draco dearest.”
“That girl needs to get a hobby,” Millicent grunted.
“Anyway, what are you doing here?” Daphne asked him. “Shouldn’t you be off fighting with your little self-righteous gang?”
“Don’t lump me in with that lot,” Zacharias said, helping himself to a shot glass and some firewhisky.
“You are part of that lot, though, aren’t you?” Tracey said. “Potter’s little illegal gang.”
“We all do stupid things when we’re young,” he said pointedly, swishing his shot glass from side to side. He hoped that Tracey would remember that time she got it off with a Durmstrang boy after the Yule Ball, only to have him dump her a week later and leave her in tears for months. But then again, she might have pushed the thought so far back in her mind that she wouldn’t realise what he was referring to as his specific example of a stupid thing.
She took a sip of her firewhisky. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Hah,” Daphne said, “don’t you remember Yordan?”
“Changing the subject,” Tracey said quickly. “When are we going to get out of here? I’m sick of all this bloody noise already.”
“Better be soon,” Millicent said. “I don’t want to be around when Potter dies. It’s going to get noisy.” The other two nodded.
“You lot are leaving?” Zacharias asked.
Daphne laughed. “Oh, Zacharias. Do you really expect us to stick around? If the Dark Lord wins, Potter dies and everyone is in hysterics, as Milly mentioned. If the Dark Lord loses, we’re going to be singled out, given that we’re all friends with Death Eaters. Either way, we lose.”
“We’re legging it to Paris,” Tracey explained. “A few hours on a train and a couple of weeks on the continent while everything boils over. There’s no point in sticking around.”
“So—you’re Apparating?” Zacharias asked. He’d never learnt to Apparate. He’d been too young for the lessons in his sixth year, and the lessons were cancelled in his seventh.
“I’d take you side-along,” Daphne said, “but I don’t want to touch you.”
“And I don’t want you in Paris,” Millicent added.
“Trust me,” Zacharias said, “the feeling is mutual.”
Tracey nudged him. “Plus, he’s gotta stick around to see if Anthony makes it through the night.”
She shrugged. “I’m just saying, someone has to look out for him, since he spends most of his time fussing over other people.”
Zacharias sighed. Anthony did worry too much about everything, with the notable exception of his own sanity, but Zacharias wasn’t too keen on always being painted as some sort of emotional babysitter. To be fair, it was mostly Tracey who engaged in this heinous character assassination, but that didn’t make it any better.
To say that he had “history” with Anthony and Tracey was an understatement. The three of them had caught the Hogwarts Express together, before they had any preconceptions of house prejudices, and even of what Hogwarts would be like. None of them had siblings to tell them what to expect, and they had found each other by complete chance. They had been sorted into different houses, and Anthony and Tracey had both fit in. Anthony had easily become friendly with Terry and Michael, and Tracey had slotted right into the pureblood girl gang, despite being half-blood and raised as a Muggle. Zacharias was never close to anyone in Hufflepuff except Megan, but she had other friends besides him, and for all it was worth she’d been missing in action for the past year.
Zacharias spent a lot of time thinking that he would have done much better if he’d been sorted into Ravenclaw or Slytherin, but he didn’t have the same eagerness to learn and study as Anthony did, or Tracey’s shameless ambition—he really was one of “the rest”.
“I’ll look after him,” Zacharias said begrudgingly. “If he survives.”
“He will,” Tracey said.
She seemed so sure, and if anything that just made Zacharias more uncertain.
“Sorry to interrupt this little outpouring of emotion,” Daphne said, “but we should head off. Zacharias—keep the firewhisky. We can buy better in Paris.” She stood up, and Millicent followed suit, taking with her the elderflower wine and the remaining shot glasses.
“Take care of yourself, Zach,” Tracey muttered, pushing her chair away from the table.
The pub seemed much noisier without the three Slytherins for company. Zacharias had never much cared for Tracey’s friends, but they were better than nothing. He pocketed the firewhisky and shot glass in his robe and got to his feet, scanning the room for a familiar face. Maybe Parkinson would have worked her way out of the bathroom by now. She was a last resort, but he could hold conversation with her if he had to.
He made his way to the bar, where he was accosted by a tall redhead who he recognised as one of the Weasley brothers, the one who had been Head Boy at some stage. “Am I too late?” he asked.
“Too late for what?” Zacharias said, raising an eyebrow.
“The battle!” he said hysterically. “That is to say—Aberforth informed me that they were going to make a fight of it. Is that—?”
“Yeah, there’s a fight,” Zacharias said, cutting him off. “Bit hard to tell if it’s started from down here.”
Weasley paused. “No need to take that tone of voice with me, young man. Are you a Prefect?”
Zacharias shrugged. “Doesn’t matter, does it?”
“I want to speak to a Prefect,” Weasley replied, while Zacharias searched for the man’s name at the back of his mind. “I need to speak to someone who has authority. Where is Aberforth?”
“You mean the bartender?” Zacharias glanced over his shoulder, only to see the bar deserted. “It’s fine, you can speak to me. I’m a Prefect.” The lie came easily, and Weasley took it as fact, with a cursory nod.
“Well then,” he said, “if you could show me to the passage to Hogwarts…”
“Of course,” Zacharias said. He shoved a weeping boy aside and led the Weasley brother up the stairs to the portrait hole.
“Shouldn’t you be taking care of the younger students?” he asked. “Making sure they’re feeling well? That boy there looked very sad; when you go back down, make sure you cheer him up. When I was Head Boy—”
“Well, here’s the passageway,” Zacharias interrupted. “Happy travels.”
Weasley gave him a stern look. “Look after them,” he said. “It is a Prefect’s duty.” He climbed into the portrait hole and began the walk to Hogwarts. When he was out of earshot, Zacharias laughed.
“Prefect’s duty,” he muttered. “Good thing I’m not a—”
“There he is! That’s the one who said he was a Prefect!”
Zacharias’ eyes widened. It was the boy who had been crying when he’d walked past with Weasley, and not only had he followed Zacharias up the stairs, he had also brought his friends. His eyes were dry, but one of the girls with him looked close to tears.
“My name’s Wallace,” he said, puffing out his chest. “Can you help my friend Erin? Her big brother is in the battle, and she’s scared.”
“I’m not really—”
“Please!” the boy said. “We’re all really scared.”
“Okay,” Zacharias said, sighing, “why don’t we go downstairs and I’ll get you some butterbeer.”
Aberforth was still nowhere to be seen, so it was easy enough for Zacharias to climb onto the bar and swing his legs over, and he poured Erin and her friends, who all wore the Gryffindor colours, each a mug of butterbeer.
“You’re in Hufflepuff, aren’t you?” Erin asked, wiping her eyes.
Zacharias looked down at his tie. “I suppose I am.”
“Do you know my brother Wayne?”
“Wayne Hopkins? I’ve only had to share a room with him for the last seven bloody years.”
Erin laughed. “Yeah, he’s really annoying. But I’m still worried that—” She broke down crying again, and another girl patted her on the back.
“Wayne’s shite at duelling,” he said. “He’ll probably break his arm five minutes into the battle and spend the rest of the night cowering behind a tapestry.”
“That’s not the sort of thing you should be saying!” Wallace said, looking scandalised.
Erin stopped sobbing. “It’s fine,” she said. “Prefects ought to be honest. When I’m a Prefect next year, I’ll be the most honest Prefect possible.”
“If you’re a Prefect next year,” the girl with her hand on Erin’s back said. “Let’s face it, I’m the one out of us who’s most likely to make it.”
Erin turned to Zacharias and shook her head. “Between you and me, Xenia’s all talk.”
“I am not!” Xenia said, pulling her hand back and crossing her arms.
“Well, there’s no use fighting over it,” Zacharias said, “since in the end it’ll be your Head of House who chooses.”
“I’m McGonagall’s favourite,” Xenia said, “since I’m top of Transfiguration.”
“This is a boring subject,” Wallace declared. “You—Prefect; what’s your name?”
“Zacharias,” he said, not making the effort to lie about his name as well as his Prefect status.
“Ah,” Erin said, smiling as though she’d just worked out a particularly tricky Arithmancy problem, “I thought it was Ernie.”
“Well, you should tell us a story, Zacharias,” Wallace said, ignoring Erin. “To pass the time.”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Why don’t you find someone else to pester?”
“Oh, tell us about the Yule Ball!” Xenia said. “We were all in first year then, so we couldn’t go. But Erin told us about her brother going, and we were all so jealous.”
“I didn’t go,” Zacharias lied, avoiding the topic.
In fact, despite planning not to, he had very much gone to the Yule Ball. Although Anthony refused to take a date, since he had no need for “petty teenage romance”, he still wanted someone to keep him company while Michael ditched Mandy to flirt with other people’s dates and Terry gazed longingly into Lisa Turpin’s eyes, despite her telling him numerous times that even though they were on a date she was never actually going to go out with him. They’d started off talking to Tracey and her Durmstrang date Yordan, but those two had gone off to do the inevitable, and so they eventually found themselves in the company of Susan, Megan and Su.
Susan had gone with Justin and Megan with Wayne, but the boys had been called away to provide moral support to Ernie, who had been left close to tears by Hannah, who had allegedly told him that she wouldn’t kiss him because she was waiting until marriage. And Su had been valiantly dateless, because everyone knew about her crush on Susan (except Susan), and even though Kevin Entwhistle had asked her at least ten times, she had resisted, and he’d ended up with a third year. The three girls had stationed themselves on the side of the room and were making fun of the many poor fashion choices present that evening, and they were only too happy to have Zacharias and Anthony join them, on the condition that they were as rude as possible about Ron Weasley’s dress robes. This was not hard.
But Zacharias wasn’t going to tell these fourth year kids any of that. “I’m not much of a dancer,” he added for good measure.
“Well, that was a boring story,” Erin said, glaring at Xenia. “Oh, I’ve got one, though—why don’t you tell us about the weirdest injury you’ve ever had?”
“I tend to stay out of trouble,” Zacharias said, fully preparing to tell another boring story, when he remembered that these kids were Gryffindors. “But there was one—a Quidditch injury, in fact.”
“That’s exciting,” Erin said. “Was it a bludger?”
“No,” he said, frowning, “it was Ginny Weasley. I was commentating on a match and she disagreed with some of my comments about her sainted Quidditch team, so when the match ended she flew into the commentator’s tower and knocked the rickety old thing to a pile of rubble on the ground, with me in the middle of it all. I broke my leg and got one hell of a concussion, and I spent the next few days delirious in the Hospital Wing.”
“Wow,” Erin said, “that’s pretty bad.”
“To be fair,” Wallace said, “I remember that match, and some of the things you said about our team were not very nice at all.”
Ah, there was the response he was looking for. But it seemed that not everyone agreed with Wallace. When Zacharias looked up he saw that a small crowd had gathered around him and the Gryffindors.
“Whatever he said, no-one deserves a concussion for just being a bit rude,” a boy said to Wallace, and Zacharias was surprised to see a Gryffindor tie around his neck.
“Did your friends at least visit you in the Hospital Wing?” a small, dark-haired Ravenclaw girl asked, looking genuinely worried. “When I fell down the stairs from my dorm to the common room and broke my arm, my friends made me a card and came and sat with me after class. My brother even snuck out to Honeydukes to buy me acid pops.”
“Your brother probably shouldn’t have done that,” Xenia said primly.
“It’s okay,” the girl said, “one of his best friends is a Prefect so he didn’t get caught.”
“Oh,” Zacharias said, remembering something that had happened in sixth year—Anthony had been talking about using his Prefect powers for all the wrong reasons to let Michael sneak out to Hogsmeade and buy something for his injured sister. “You’re Michael Corner’s sister.”
“I am!” she said, narrowing her eyes. “How do you know that?”
“I’m a Prefect,” Zacharias said, “so obviously I’m friends with the Prefect who let him out that afternoon.”
By now, there were even more younger students pressed up around the bar, and Zacharias was quite thankful for that barrier between them. “Tell us another story,” Erin said. “Tell us about your first kiss!”
A few of the girls giggled. “I bet she had to stand on her toes, he’s so tall,” Xenia whispered to Erin.
“Another very boring story,” he said, “since I’ve never kissed anyone.”
He had come very close, with Megan once forcing herself upon him for a hug after they won a Quidditch match, and in the crowd they had been pushed up against each other so that their mouths almost touched. Megan had brushed her teeth afterwards even though Zacharias insisted that he wouldn’t have done anything even if their lips had come into contact, but she wasn’t taking any risks with the possibility of contamination.
“So boring,” Erin said.
“Have you even been on a date?” Michael’s sister asked, and when Zacharias shook his head she hooted with laughter. “Even I’ve been on a date, and I’m fourteen!”
“Given how many dates your brother’s been on, I’m not surprised,” he said. She didn’t seem to take offence, and kept laughing.
The evening wore on well into the morning, and some students slept with their heads on each other’s shoulders, while others were buzzing with energy and were kept awake by anxiety. Zacharias found himself entertaining a constantly-changing crowd with stories, although Erin, Xenia, Wallace, and Michael’s sister Anna stayed with him the whole time. At Anna’s prompting, they pressed him for stories about Dumbledore’s Army, and about Harry Potter, but somehow they weren’t disappointed when he told them that he was never particularly friendly with Harry, and that he still sometimes wore his POTTER STINKS badge on weekends. Erin and Xenia were pushing for romantic stories, so he ended up narrating the saga of Terry and Lisa, and how they had just been getting somewhere when Lisa, a Muggleborn, had gone into hiding. He told them about Su and Justin both fancying Susan, and about Tracey’s Durmstrang dalliance, and any other “petty teenage romances” he could call to mind, which were a great hit with everyone—even Wallace got involved in guessing what had happened next.
It occurred to him that this was what that Weasley brother had meant when he told Zacharias to look after the younger students. He was taking their minds off the battle being fought, and it probably should have made him feel good, to be doing something decent for other people, but instead with every story he grew more and more impatient, willing the fighting to end soon, so he could find out what had happened, who had won, who had died. For Anna and Erin’s sakes, he even hoped he’d walk back into Hogwarts to see Michael and Wayne alive and well, and just as annoying as ever.
So when Aberforth flung open the door to the Hog’s Head and proclaimed that the war was won and Voldemort was dead, Zacharias got to his feet, and he ran.