The fireplace crackles to life in the middle of the night, doesn't stop until Zacharias mumbles, groans a little and rolls out of bed. He rubs the sleep from his eyes and hazards a glance at the clock-- 6am, Merlin's fucking tits, who's calling this early?-- before he pulls on a pair of trousers.
"Coming, coming," he all but growls. The crackling continues from the living room.
"Smith? Smith, where the hell are you?"
Of course. Zacharias winces. He doesn't know why John is calling, but he suspects whatever it is must be urgent. Why he'd deign to talk to Zacharias, however--
He picks up his pace for the last few steps, sitting in front of the fireplace where John Quenneville's face is framed in coal and dying flames, forgetting the fact that he's only partially dressed, clearly bedraggled and still sleepy, with red lines marked across his bare chest from the sheets.
John only looks amused. "Good morning to you, too."
"It's bloody dawn, John, what do you expect?" he protests, even though John himself looks respectable-- hair combed back, robes starched to stiffness, sharp as always. He's likely already gone through his first cigar of the day too. The Caerphilly Courier is run like a machine thanks to him, and today, Zacharias suspects, is his turn to be one of its well-oiled cogs.
"Alanna's water broke."
"She's not due for another--"
"--month, yes, we're well aware." John takes a second to pinch the bridge of his nose with his fingers. "We're nowhere close to hiring any temporary replacements. The last couple of applicants have been-- how do I put this delicately? Utter shite."
Zacharias tries not to beam, he really does. He fights to keep the corners of his lips from curling upward but fails horribly. "You want me to send her a card?" he says, attempting nonchalance.
"Oh shut it, you know what I'm calling you for. You said you wanted to write? Catapults play at home tonight; you can pick the press pass up at my desk--"
"John, you won't regret this--"
"Fuck this up and you're writing Aunt Myrna's for a year, you hear me?"
Zacharias shudders. "No pressure, then. Got it."
John looks like he's trying not to roll his eyes. He purses his lips, takes a drag of his cigar (ah, so he's already on his second, then) and gives Zacharias a once-over. "Good luck, kid. And get some food, I shouldn't be able to see your ribs."
He is gone before Zacharias has a chance to respond.
The rest of the morning goes by in a blur for him, almost. Edith from the bakery down the road raises an eyebrow as soon as she sees him, and when he drops a few extra knuts in her tip jar she's unable to stop herself from asking which lucky bird he managed to snag the other night. Zacharias just laughs-- which worries her, he thinks, since he rarely does so-- and tells her it wasn't any bird.
"Oh, lucky bloke, then?" is her quick response. She's smirking, but she looks curious.
"You'll see tomorrow," is all Zacharias is willing to say. "Have a good day, Edith!"
"Whatever you're on, make sure you don't overdo it!" she hollers back at him.
The Courier staff, headquartered in a small one-story building half a mile from the center of the city proper, are just as worse. Somehow word got around quick, but John's personal assistant wasn't called Chatty Cathy without reason. Malcolm from Ministry Affairs came round from his cubicle to slap Zacharias' shoulder heartily, spending the next half hour giving Zacharias all kinds of unsolicited advice.
"Remember, the game goes fast, you gotta keep your eyes on the quaffle at all times," he says like Zacharias hasn't been watching Quidditch his entire life. "I'd invest in a Dictaquill if I were you."
Every reporter worth a damn already had one, and even though Zacharias technically isn't one yet, he's shadowed correspondents often enough to know that. "Thanks, Mal," he says instead-- even his condescension isn't enough to take him down from his happy mood. "Think I got it though."
"Yeah? Remember you're not supposed to cheer, either," Malcolm says, insisting on lingering by Zacharias' desk still. "Gotta be impartial, and all."
"Oh trust me, no cheering's going to happen. Always been an Arrows supporter myself," he says with a shrug, and at Malcolm's surprised gasp, he raises an eyebrow. "Grew up thirty miles from Appleby. Don't go accusing me of bandwagoning now."
"Fair enough, fair enough," Malcolm says. He chews on the end of his sugar quill for a bit, eyeing Zacharias as though waiting for him to ask for more advice.
Zacharias clears his throat. "Well, thanks again for the time, but I still have my regular job to do," he says, helpfully pointing at the articles that have piled up on his desk. It'll be a lot of tedious work for the next few hours, he knows, but fact-checking doesn't happen on its own, not even when he's got a game to go to that afternoon.
"Right, right. Well, have fun then, kid," Malcolm says, finally taking the hint and meandering away.
He casts a Disillusionment Charm around his desk-- best way to tell everybody else he's actually working, thank you very much-- and starts going through the first article. The game will have to wait, even though he can't.
Zacharias has been to many Quidditch games in his lifetime. He's played in a few, even had the sorry misfortune of commentating on some, but there's still something exhilarating and entirely exciting about coming into the stadium and flashing the magical blue-and-red badge that identifies him as a representative of the local paper, entering the stadium through a different set of doors, climbing up the steps to the box among the stands reserved for reporters like him.
Quidditch correspondents like him.
He can't help grinning again. Rationally he understands this is a temporary situation-- Alanna Jahns is the best correspondent in town, and she's only gone a few months before she'll be ready to return to work (and knowing Alanna, she's likely to want to return tomorrow anyway, as soon as her baby's born) and in a small town like Caerphilly, there's really only room for one correspondent.
He knows that, but all the same, he knows this is his chance to prove he can do it too, that he can write, that he can do the job well; enough, perhaps, that either John can give him an open position in a different section of the paper or he can use his experience to apply for a different city. He doesn't care if he has to go to a shitty town (there's really not a lot that's shittier than the armpit of Wales that Caerphilly is); he's going to take what he can get.
He makes his way to the first row of seats, finds the one labeled "Z. Smith - Caerphilly Courier", and sits down to get settled. There aren't many other reserved seats-- there's one for The Daily Prophet, another for The Welsh Post, and a fourth for the visiting team's correspondent, The Montrose News. In all the excitement of the news Zacharias nearly forgot to look up who they're playing against, and now that he knows (it's only the defending league champions, no big deal) he suspects it's not going to be an easy game for the Catapults.
A team employee, dressed in Catapult colors, comes by to place the team guides on every correspondent's seat.
"You're early," he says, and Zacharias is nearly blinded by the bright green of his robes reflecting the sunlight into his eyes. Honest to god, worst colors in the league, but what can you do? When the team was first founded they thought it'd be fantastic distraction for opponents if the stadium were filled with reflective fans, but it also damaged their own Seeker's ability to spot the snitch among the pitch. The Catapults have since carried a tradition of building a really strong offensive team to compensate, as well as having some of the longest games in history.
"Just wanted to get my notes together," he mumbles, giving the man a quick nod.
"Food's up in the third row, second row's reserved for team officials," the man tells him before heading back down.
"Cheers," he says, not looking up from the lineup. He hasn't followed the Magpies all that well recently (shite, he should've been) and their star Chaser's missing from the roster. He remembers something vaguely about an injury, but he doesn't know the specifics, so he jots himself a reminder to look that up later before he starts writing the first draft of his story.
He's leafing through the rest of the guide when he hears voices, a couple of heavy steps, and when he looks up the rest of the correspondents are finding their places by him.
"You're new," the wizard he recognizes as Eric Kuc from The Daily Prophet says. He's a round man with a heavy chin, rosy red cheeks, and a shiny bald head. His voice is robust and his words are clear even as they puff around a thick cigar.
Zacharias pushes himself to his feet, fumbles with his Dictaquill before he shoves it between his parchment rolls and sticks a hand out to shake Kuc's. "Smith. Zacharias Smith. Pleased to meet you, sir."
"What happened to Alanna?" Kuc asks.
"Water broke," Zacharias says, and the man behind Kuc-- Darvill, he thinks his name is, from The Welsh Post-- whistles.
"About bloody time, tell her we said hi, yeah?" Darvill says, extending his hand out to Zacharias as well. "Good to meet you, Smith. First game?"
He finds himself nodding.
"Should be a good one."
"Oh I don't doubt it. The Catapults are going to get a thrashing," a third voice speaks up. Zacharias tries to subtly crane his neck around Kuc (Merlin he's truly round, isn't he?) and a witch, dressed smartly in slim grey robes with a dash of bright red lipstick, smiles at him.
"Lydia Boyd, Montrose News," she says.
"Aren't you supposed to be impartial?" he asks, and only when everybody else bursts out laughing that he cringes at his question.
"Only in print," she tells him, giving him a wink before she takes the seat beside him.
"Match doesn't start for another fifteen minutes; I'm going to get myself some grub," Darvill announces to the group. "Boyd, you want any?"
"No thanks," she says, gaze intent on her parchment and the opening paragraph that she was already starting to write.
"I'd avoid the potatoes if I were you," Kuc says, voice low as he leans toward Zacharias. "Gave me heartburn last time."
"You sure that was the potatoes?" Darvill asks, laughing as he signals them all to follow him up the stands.
Zacharias doesn't want to eat-- he's too nervous about following the game as it is, and what if he spills his food on his parchment and his writing becomes stained and unreadable?-- but he tails them both and politely grabs a few things to eat. Might as well get to know them some, he reasons.
The game itself is as brutal as all games between a top-ranked team and a bottom-feeder can be expected to be. Even though the Catapults pride themselves with a decent offensive lineup, and the Magpies' star player is out (six weeks for a broken wrist, Boyd tells him), the Magpies take on a nearly insurmountable lead early in the game, scoring almost a goal a minute in the first half hour.
Zacharias watches the action intently for the first five minutes before he notices his colleagues all whispering furiously to their Dictaquills, and he realizes he's far, far behind the writing he ought to have been doing. He pulls out a clean roll of parchment in time and begins to dictate the action as he sees it and even though he stumbles at some points, finds himself flustered at others, he starts to ease into the process over the course of the game.
Both teams begin to visibly tire at the two-hour mark. Quidditch is funny that way. In researching articles for the Courier, Zacharias has come across some rules in comparable Muggle sports and found that for the more physically taxing games, Muggles often decided to switch players out, a principle the Quidditch community at large would likely riot over should the League ever attempt to introduce it.
He watches the rest of his colleagues once the three-hour mark comes around. As a spectator he knows this is when he begins to get restless-- there aren't as many goals and it just seems less and less likely that the snitch will ever be spotted-- and often, it's when he makes more and more trips to the concession stands. He's had a few cups of coffee but what he often finds himself craving at this point is liquor, which unfortunately is not something esteemed members of the press are supposed to have during any match.
But the rest of them don't seem fazed at all.
Kuc clearly has his ears perked for any sign of action from the field, but he's already mumbling to himself and using a plain old quill to write his story. Boyd is looking through her notes and underlining pieces here and there, on a spare sheet drawing up an outline for use. He's too far away to see what Darvill is doing but no doubt it's similar to what the other two are.
In comparison, Zacharias' notes are a right mess. The Dictaquill he's bought scratched all his words out in nearly illegible handwriting, and he's not entirely sure where to begin framing his story. How is one supposed to decide the angle when the game hasn't ended yet? Granted, the Magpies are clearly winning by a handy margin, but should the Catapults mount a comeback wouldn't the tone of the piece shift?
"Piece of advice, Smith," Boyd murmurs beside him. He jerks up, catches her smirk. He doesn't realize he's been staring.
"Just write. I've had to redo a story countless times, but it's better than having nothing to turn in at the end of the night."
"Right, right. Cheers." He takes a deep breath, picking up the Dictaquill, and starts.
The game eventually ends early the next day (around 2 am, he thinks, or was it closer to 3?), but his work is not done. As soon as the Catapults Seeker catches the snitch, a small mercy that earns him half-hearted cheering from those left in the stands, the correspondents roll up their parchment and put their things away. Zacharias fumbles through his items, stuffing them into the messenger bag he brought with him, and follows them down the stands.
"Here," Darvill says once he catches up, slipping him a small vial of potion. "Pepper-up, just to wake you up a bit. We all have some handy." He flashes Zacharias a grin. "Nearly there, rookie."
"Wish I wasn't," he mumbles grouchily, but thanks Darvill anyway.
Boyd waves at them as they reach the entrance to the team locker rooms, going the other direction to the visitors'. Easier job for her, Zacharias thinks; the team's bound to be high on victory. Kuc follows her down the hall, which doesn't surprise Zacharias-- the national paper usually goes with the winners.
It's just him and Darvill, then, and thankfully (surprisingly), the locker room isn't as glum as the fans had been. The team captain and Beater, Nikolai Kulemin, is ready for them both at his stall, giving them a nod as they approach.
Darvill breaks the silence first, ready with his questions, the tip of his quill poised on his parchment. Zacharias dutifully jots down Kulemin's responses about where the team went wrong tonight, how they let the sudden lead dishearten them, the downward spiral that led to the multiple fouls they earned later on.
"What can you say about Grimm's performance as your Seeker tonight?" someone asks, and it takes Zacharias a second before he realizes the question is coming from him.
"He was great. He always is. He pulled through for us tonight," Kulemin says before cracking a wry smile. "To be honest with you I'm just glad he finally ended the pain."
Darvill chuckles at that and Zacharias knows that's going to end up in the story tomorrow. They have a few more questions for him before they let Kulemin go to the showers, and then Zacharias follows Darvill to the press room where the coaches are taking the podium to give their statements.
There is nothing said there that hasn't been said before. He's read enough articles to know the players and coaches rarely speak off-script. It's the same old tripe, but he writes them down anyway, trying to identify where he can put the quotes within his story.
At quarter past three both coaches excuse themselves and Darvill turns to him. "Nice meeting you, rookie. See you next match?"
"Merlin help us," he says, and they both laugh, tired. He walks to the nearest Apparition point, only momentarily questioning the wisdom of Apparating anywhere in his state before deciding he doesn't quite give a fuck if he splinches himself (so long as it isn't his writing hand) and heads back home.
Though the bed is tempting he goes straight to his desk, opens up his notes, and writes everything again, editing himself as he goes along. By 4am his draft is ready, and he rolls it up and ties it to Hermes' leg. His owl hoots (Zacharias wonders if he imagined the glare he was given) and flies away. Finally, Zacharias gets ready for bed, remembering to set his clock to wake him up by 7 am. He doubts John will look too kindly on him if he shows up late for work, no matter how little sleep he had. Alanna never did.
But when his head hits the pillow, he's got a smile on his face anyway.
Whatever he wrote that first game, John seems to find acceptable, so he takes him on for the foreseeable future.
"Until Alanna returns," he says, and Zacharias nods. It's only fair, he knows Alanna has earned her position with her decade of experience, and he's just where she started from all those years ago.
The next game he covers is kinder to them all.
It's a match against the Kestrels (their correspondent is not nearly as friendly as Boyd, and Darvill makes a face behind his back, making Zacharias snort gracelessly into his drink) and while the Catapults still lose, at least it ends early. Zacharias finds himself quicker with the words, more used to catching up with the flow of the game, mastering the writing so his Dictaquill is actually more legible this time.
He has better questions prepared for the team, even though he stumbles on a few of them still, and one question about roster decisions earns him a deathly look from the Catapults coach. Darvill elbows him in the ribs after. "He doesn't like being questioned about the roster," he whispers.
"So? Don't we still want to know the rationale behind it?"
Darvill only shrugs. "He doesn't like it," is all he says.
He gets home at a respectable hour this time, owls the article by midnight, and the next day at work he looks less like death.
"Nearly good to go except for a couple of odd sentences," John tells him. "You gotta work on taking out the irrelevant information, kid."
"I will," he promises.
By the third game-- a slow one against the Bats, who are as stingy with their defense as the Catapults can be when they have Granada Keeping, which they do this time-- Darvill points out what to look for around the stadium.
"WAGs," he says, nodding in the general direction of the box with what is unmistakably the players' wives and girlfriends.
"You don't say," Zacharias mutters dryly. There are a couple of children running around-- the Catapults are an older team compared to the rest of the league-- and a few witches around his age who seem more keen on talking to each other than watching the game. He wonders if it's because the game is just that boring (who is he kidding? He's eyeing the WAGs instead of watching the game himself, yes it is that boring) when he catches the gaze of one of the witches.
Caught, he nods at her, giving her a little wave. She says nothing, staring at him straight on, and he's about to cock his head at her when his parchment bursts into a little ball of flames.
He yelps, douses it quickly with water, panics when he realizes that's all he's written about the day's game. Kuc looks at him with sympathy, offers him some of his notes to help, but Darvill is trying hard to contain himself, his shoulders all but shaking.
"Should have warned you," he says. "They don't like being stared at."
"No fucking kidding," Zacharias mutters. When he's done cleaning up his mess he looks up, back at the witch who saw him.
She's got a shit-eating smirk on her face, and she gives him a little wave.
He sees her again, after the fifth game. This one ends even earlier than the last four, and in a win too-- by a stroke of luck or skill or something, Grimm closes his fist around the golden snitch half an hour in.
No one notices, not right away; in fact the Chasers continue passing the quaffle for probably a solid minute before the referee finally blows her whistle, killing the play dead, to everyone's confusion. When Grimm raises his hand triumphantly the crowd is quiet for a few seconds, and then there is a burst of cheering that swells up from the bottom of the stands, rising up in unison and cresting into a thundering wave that almost, almost has Zacharias on his feet before he remembers he's there as an unbiased spectator and not a fan of the sport.
He looks around guiltily, catching the smile on Kuc's face as he writes a closing paragraph on the game, and he settles back in his seat a little more reassured that no one saw his near-gaffe.
The press conference that follows is lighter, the locker room filled with more cheerful banter than in the past few games. The common perception is that Quidditch players don't really care as much about the game as they do about getting paid, but Zacharias knows you don't get into the sport without a burning passion for playing. Players are competitive by their very nature; no amount of galleons can change that.
It definitely feels like some dreary cloud has been lifted when he, Darvill, and Kuc walk in. There's some jostling among players, a friendly rib here and there. They don't even have to ask too many questions-- Kulemin talks with much more animation and the rest of the team are only too happy to contribute.
"There's a café close by," Darvill says when they're done. "Want to finish there, then grab a pint after?"
Zacharias has not heard of a better idea. They write quickly, furiously, Kuc chuckling at them like the jovial veteran that he is as he idly dots his i's and crosses his t's-- how does he do that? How does everything he writes come out perfect in one go? One day Zacharias will have to sit him down and ask-- and waits around for them to finish. It's a quick trip to the owlery after that and then a bit of fumbling for the nearest pub.
The team is already there when they arrive, a large group of players and their significant others, toasting random teammates and things (the second Beater, Jonathan Crieff, makes a loving vow to stay true to his bat, to uproarious laughter). Zacharias shakes his head as he follows Kuc and Darvill to a corner booth.
"Oy, oy, oy, do my eyes deceive me?" someone shouts behind them.
"Nay, my good sir, it is our brave correspondents!"
"Celebrating like the lot of us? Thought you weren't supposed to drink!"
"We've clocked out, boys and girls," Kuc says, laughing at them.
There's a flurry of movement, and the team somehow-- perhaps with some spell or other-- makes room for the three of them.
"Come join us," one of them urges. Zacharias shares a look with Kuc and Darvill but they both just shrug and head over once they pick up their drinks from the bar.
"That one's on us!" Kulemin hollers at the barmaid, who gives him a thumbs up.
"Cheers," Zacharias says, taking his seat beside Grimm, who turns around and gives him a queer look.
"Weren't you pregnant last month?"
"That's Alanna Jahns," he says. "She's on maternity."
And then the team is raising a toast for her, because as it turns out they're even fonder of her than they are of winning.
Kulemin scrambles to stand on his seat and shouts "To Alanna!" over the roar of the entire bar (most of whom are Catapults fans as well, and by the way they're celebrating Zacharias wonders if he missed them winning the Quidditch Cup instead of a simple game). He shakes his head, grinning despite his best efforts, and when he looks up there's the witch who burnt his parchment from across the pitch, smirking at him.
"Do I know you?" he asks, because there is something about the jut of her chin and the shape of her eyes that is familiar, more familiar even than the memory of catching her gaze a few games ago. He doesn't realize it until now, when he's sitting right beside her, that her face just-- he's seen her before, he knows it. He just can't place where.
"Don't tell me you've already forgotten your little accident," she says. "But I suppose if I'd shrieked as you did I'd be dying to forget as well."
"I did not shriek."
"To-may-toe, to-mah-toe," she murmurs, taking a sip of her cocktail. There's a deviousness to the way she purses her lips into a smile that makes Zacharias think she's intentionally avoiding his question.
"Olivia, do you want a drink?" Kulemin asks, having settled back down in the seat beside her once his toast was over.
"My martini's nearly done, I think I'll have another," Olivia tells him, and swear to god, her smile changes-- just like that-- from calculating to adoring, gaze warm and fond as she turns on the charm for her boyfriend. Kulemin is oblivious, of course; he just heads back to the bar with a dopey smile on his face.
And then it hits Zacharias. He squints at her, wondering if maybe it's just that he's had more to drink than he needed, but no, he's barely had a sip of his pint, and he's got more tolerance than that, come on. "Pansy Parkinson. It's you, isn't it? Where the hell did Olivia come from?"
She freezes, jaw visibly clenching, and he knows he's got it right. She doesn't even bother trying to cover it up. "It's my middle name," she says coolly. "That's what everybody calls me now."
Zacharias doesn't really know why, doesn't quite understand it. Now that he's placed her face he's trying to figure out how he didn't recognize her sooner-- he took a few classes with her, and yeah, they were never close friends, but that was a few hours a week for seven whole years. Faces tend to stick, and they're only a few years removed from Hogwarts, so why did she look different?
"Hang on," he says when he figures it out. "You glamored your nose, didn't you?"
Kulemin's return is punctuated by the distinctly painful pop of Pansy's closed fist connecting with Zacharias' jaw.
He sees her again at the Puddlemere Stadium-- the Catapults' first away game since he took on the correspondent position.
It's clear from the massive pitch, the fancy new stands, and the gourmet food served in the concessions, just how much less money the Catapults have been making lately. Zacharias isn't all too surprised; Puddlemere's been dominant in the last decade, and any team that Albus Dumbledore favored is going to have a couple of happy bandwagon fans.
Wives and girlfriends don't often follow the teams on the road, especially since they only have reserved boxes in the home stadium. Still, Puddlemere has a pretty vibrant wizarding community that's maybe a few stray apothecaries and joke shops short of being a good substitute for Hogsmeade, and if anyone were to look for a good reason to get out of Caerphilly, going to Puddlemere was it.
She doesn't look at him this time, even though upon further inspection it's not as if she's speaking to any of the other WAGs in the stands with her. It seems like she's intent on looking anywhere but at him, even though hey, he's the one with the sore jaw, no big deal. The players-- most of them used to far worse injuries-- had laughed the incident off, Kulemin only giving him a cursory "Alright, mate?" before giving Pansy a kiss for the night's spot of entertainment.
At least, he thinks to himself as he settles in his seat, she's not going to do anything--
His parchment roll explodes suddenly, blinding him for a moment and making his ears ring. He glances up by instinct and she's crossed her arms and smirks his way. Merlin's bloody balls, how sorry has he got to be to make this stop?
"I'd probably just use a Protego, mate," Darvill tells him. Zacharias sighs and takes him up on that suggestion, even though by this point it's kind of too late.
"He's covering the Wasps and Arrows match today."
Darvill laughs. The other correspondents with them in the press box don't look overly friendly. They're all in smart robes, wearing stiff lips and stern expressions. Darvill hasn't made a move to speak with them and it looks like they aren't planning on it either.
He leans back against his seat, catches her eye again. She's still smirking, so he flips her a finger.
There aren't any more explosions for the next couple of games, but Caerphilly is a small town and he can only go around so much before he runs into her again. It's while he's leaving Edith's bakery that he sees her walking in, and despite his best intentions he decides to follow her in.
She acts like he isn't even there, even though he's practically breathing down her neck.
"Hey," he finally says, and her lips thin.
"What do you want, Smith?" The words that come out of her mouth are razor sharp and icy cold, although for some reason, Zacharias can't help thinking there isn't really much malice underneath it.
"I think we got off on the wrong foot."
"Do you mean because you shoved it right in your mouth?"
"I hear that tends to happen with me."
"Look." He rakes his hand through his hair, shifting his shoulders in a bit of a hapless shrug. "Didn't say there was anything wrong with--"
She turns around suddenly, her nostrils flaring as she hisses. "Don't you dare say it again!"
"Right, okay, Merlin," he says, holding up a free hand. "I just-- it was just an observation, yeah? That's what I do, no offense meant, I wasn't--"
He winces. "Not the word I had in mind, but yeah, I guess you can say that."
She rolls her eyes. "No one knew," she sighs. "Had it done before I got here."
"Sorry's not gonna cut it."
"Can you at least stop setting my articles on fire?" He figures if anything, maybe begging would work. "It just really sucks if I have to spend more time redoing everything at the end of the game, you know."
"Boo hoo," she says, unsympathetic, but there's no bite to her tone. "You owe me."
"You can start by buying me my croissant."
Things between them ease somewhat after that, even though really, between the two of them, why is the poorly paid Quidditch correspondent the one springing for coffee and baked goods? He's not entirely sure what Pansy does; she just seems to be seen around town at all hours of the day-- in the mornings most especially when he's getting his breakfast from Edith, but even when he pops out for lunch he can see her sitting at one of the cafés or bistros, and in the evenings he often catches a glimpse of her with Kulemin at one of the restaurants or pubs.
It's nice, though, because he's been living in Caerphilly for nearly a year now and even though he works at a paper, even though he likes his coworkers, he hasn't exactly met a lot of people outside that small circle. He's never been the friendly sort, but somehow he and Pansy have developed an odd sort of friendship.
It's that they know each other from school, he thinks. There's a common thread they share with each other but not the rest of the town-- some of whom went to Hogwarts before or after they did, or didn't even go at all (the Catapults players mostly come from outside the country). The funny thing that neither of them points out, however, is that Hogwarts never actually seems to come up when they talk.
He doesn't really know if it's worth bringing up.
Instead, she wrinkles her nose at his latest article, asking him why he missed a play that should have been included, criticizing him on his word choices and the overly fond way that he writes about Jonathan Crieff. Instead, he gets a little more comfortable, sometimes testing her to see if he can get away with a nose joke or two before she hexes him, whines about how he's never going to pay off the so-called debt he owes her (how does she even know how much more he's got left? How is it fair that he doesn't know?).
It gets comfortable, and it's nice, this having a friend thing.
"I don't understand how you can stand that filth," she says with a disgusted look when he returns to their table with her tea and his coffee.
"Some of us happen to need it to stay awake for our day jobs."
"Tea's got caffeine."
"Weak and shoddy amounts, yes."
"You're just playing at the writer stereotype," she says with a roll of her eyes. She lets her tea steep for a moment, clearing her throat and in a much deeper, more put-on voice that Zacharias supposes is a bastardization of his own mannerisms: "Look at me, I barely sleep and I've got a deadline coming up. My sad, tragic life! My muse has left me and I've a blank page mocking me!"
He laughs. "I'm a correspondent, not a novelist."
She cocks her head to the side. "You aren't?"
"Hm," she muses. Her expression turns curious, then conspiratorial as she leans closer, her lips lifting into a grin. "Nearly all reporters are, I thought. You haven't got a manuscript stashed at the bottom of your dresser somewhere, waiting to see the light of publication?"
"Heaven help me, I am not a stereotype!" he protests with a laugh. He had thought of it, maybe, but in all honesty his passion lay in the sport, and writing about it.
"Tch. Boring." She glances at the clock and excuses herself. "Glamorist appointment, see you around."
He waves her off-- he's got a few minutes before he has to clock in, and the office is literally two storefronts away, so he takes his time finishing his coffee.
Edith comes by just as he's eating the last of his bagel. "Nice girl," she says, and Zacharias quirks an eyebrow at her.
"Oh I know," she says, and something about her tone reminds Zacharias of his aunt Hestia. "We've all seen her around with Nikolai, the sweet young man."
He nods. "Good bloke, from what I know of him."
"Yes he is. Moved here nearly six years ago. The town adores him and the team wants to keep him for life, too. All the girls are in love with him."
"I've heard that, yeah," he says, and he wonders where Edith's getting at.
"She moved here not long before you did, you know." Somehow Edith's now sitting across him, where Pansy was. "Started seeing Nikolai almost immediately after. Haven't seen them apart since."
"I see," he says, and because he really doesn't-- "Is that a problem?"
Edith shrugs. "Just rumors, that's all. No one's entirely convinced she did it all naturally, you know?" She picks up Pansy's empty cup (she left it behind to make sure Zacharias returns it himself-- just another way he's supposed to make things up to her) and studies it carefully. "They're wily ones, I'm sure you know."
"Nikolai's a good man-- richer now, I'm sure, because of Quidditch too-- but your family's a descendant of Helga Hufflepuff, isn't it?"
It isn't a fact that he's ever comfortable broadcasting. "A few branches removed, but--"
"You can earn money, but you can't change bloodlines," is all Edith says. She smiles. "I like you, Zacharias. You're a good lad."
"I just want you to be careful." Then she pats him on the cheek, like his aunt Hestia used to do, and clears his table for him. "Have a good day, alright?"
"Sure." He frowns, shaking his head before he pushes his seat back and stands up. He glances at Edith one more time before he turns away and heads to work.
What the hell was that about?
By the time the holidays roll around it becomes clearer to Zacharias. For all that he's meant to be some kind of eagle-eyed observer of news as a member of the press, he realizes just how oblivious he'd been.
Pansy's never actually in the company of the other WAGs for anything other than the games, and even then, he doesn't notice any of them being particularly friendly with her. When he sees her in town she's either with Kulemin, who showers her with presents, or with him. But besides the two of them it doesn't look like she's got many friends at all.
December is a busy month for him, and winter in Caerphilly is a brutal affair. There's a break in the Quidditch schedule for a few weeks but that doesn't mean his job at the Courier stops too.
Alanna sends over a card with a photo of her and her first son, promising to return in a few more months and giving Zacharias a shout out for a job well done. It has him red to the ears and he ignores the friendly congratulations sent his way, burying himself in more fact-checking work and a couple of fluff Quidditch pieces in lieu of actual news.
There's something of a battle among paper staffers for time off around Christmas, and Zacharias has the happy luck of winning the draw that results when John, exasperated, turns to a more desperate but fair measure.
Zacharias tries hard not to look overly cheerful when he picks up his things at the end of the work day on the 22nd. He catches Malcolm's murderous glare just as he's about to wave them all goodbye and thinks better of it.
The Floo station is packed, as it often is, but he's home before he knows it. His mum sweeps him into a hug, kissing both his cheeks, and his father sticks out a stiff hand for him to shake. Rebecca, thank god, is less awkward, flinging her arms around his neck and babbling his ear off as she gives him a blow-by-blow update on Healing school.
He's barely settled in his room three hours later when an owl comes in.
Heard you were in town. A couple of us are going to be at The Leaky Cauldron tomorrow night at seven. Come join us; it'll be like the good old days! Tell us all about Caerphilly.
He's been out of Hogwarts for nearly three years now, but in all honesty he hasn't kept in touch with his friends all that much. He's only a little worried about coming into The Leaky that evening, but he puts those concerns aside.
"Zacharias! Over here!"
He's not sure where 'here' is; The Leaky is bustling with the pre-holiday crowd, the air thick with jolly cheer and loud chatter, but he wanders around for a bit and eventually he spots them: a small group of Hufflepuffs crowded around a corner booth. Ernie's waving him over and Susan and Justin are moving to make room for him.
"You're the last one in-- think you need to get the next round," Megan tells him. "Rules are rules."
"Hannah's not here," he points out.
"Actually, I am." Zacharias turns around and there's Hannah with a wide grin and a tray of drinks. "This one's on the house, everyone."
"You're working at The Leaky?"
"Managing it," she says. "Have been for nearly a year now-- Zacharias Smith, don't tell me you haven't been keeping up on the Hufflepuff Herald!"
He winces. He's been receiving the owls-- every Hufflepuff is signed up for the alumni newsletter-- but it's gone straight to trash every time. "Sorry?"
She laughs it off, shaking her head. "It's fine; there's a lot of rubbish in there about people I've never even met."
"You can't possibly be working throughout dinner, Hannah," Megan says. "When do you get off?"
"Soon, I promise. I'll be back in a minute; I just need to make sure everyone's got a handle on things and all." She grins at them, setting all their drinks at the table before she hurries back to the bar.
"Hannah Abbott, Leaky Manager," Zacharias says with a whistle. "Looks like it suits her."
Hannah joins them a few minutes later, and from there it's easy to pick up where they left off. Zacharias feels terrible-- he really hasn't kept in touch with any of them. Susan admits she only found out about him being in town when she ran into Rebecca the other day. Megan talks about the travels she's been doing; Justin's the new Muggle Studies professor at Hogwarts; Susan's just started residency at St Mungo's. Ernie's working in his father's firm, and that at least Zacharias knows, because it's an example his father likes using when trying to convince Zacharias to work with him.
Then there are other things. At first he isn't sure if he's just misread it, but he catches it again when Justin excuses himself and Ernie just-- Ernie reaches out as Justin stands up, brushing a finger against Justin's wrist for a moment. Zacharias is a little confused, but he catches Megan's eye and she's wearing a look that says "Finally caught on, have you?"
"Since when did that happen?" he asks, because he's Zacharias and he has no concept of a filter. Susan bites down on her lip and Hannah giggles.
"Excuse me?" Ernie says, the tips of his ears a guilty red.
"You and Justin," Zacharias asks point-blank because, really, since when?
"Nothing's going on!" Ernie denies, and Zacharias wants to push but Megan cuts in.
"They're just friends, Zacharias," she says. "Like we all are."
He narrows his eyes at her, determined to get the full story later, at least, and when Justin returns with another round of drinks everyone's desperate to find a new topic to talk about.
"So is everybody else going to the Ministry gala next month?" Hannah supplies, clearing her throat and smiling.
"What gala?" Zacharias wants to know as everybody else nods and chimes in with confirmations.
"Didn't you get-- oh." Hannah's always had a terrible poker face, and at the guilty look she wears Zacharias knows immediately what the gala is for.
"Right. War heroes, isn't it?" he asks.
"Yeah," Susan says, looking at him like she's very sorry.
Everyone goes silent for a moment, and Zacharias itches to leave. He knows what everyone's thinking now. They can't help it; the gala is held every year to honor every single student who fought for Hogwarts, and of everyone around their table, there's only one Hufflepuff who fled like the coward he was when the fighting was at its thickest.
"Well, this is awkward," he says, always the first to make do without the niceties.
"I didn't mean--"
"Not your fault, Hannah. Really." He shakes his head. "You make the bed you lie in, yeah?"
"It wasn't uncommon for--"
"Susan, can we just."
It's Justin who saves the unfortunate turn the conversation's taken this time. "So," he says, smiling at Hannah, "was that you I saw the other week at Madam Puddifoot's with Professor Longbottom?"
Hannah flushes and Megan squeals, demanding that she talk, her voice probably a lot louder and more enthusiastic than it normally is, and the topic finally, happily changes. Zacharias sits back, quieter than before, and mulls over the rest of his drink.
At the earliest opportunity he can take, he pleads exhaustion and excuses himself for the night.
Christmas Eve is the usual formal affair. The entire Smith household gathers around the table, which is far too large for just the four of them, and feast on a spread that's also far too much for just them.
"Merlin, Mum, did the elves spend all day on this?" Rebecca asks.
"Sorry." She shoots Zacharias a look and he shrugs in her direction. He fills his plate, perhaps overshoots it a bit, and there is a spot of quiet while they eat.
But only for so long.
"How's Caerphilly treating you, son?" his father finally asks.
"Well, thank you."
"Have you moved to a better flat yet?"
"No, too busy with work." He's also not saved enough for a nicer place-- his current apartment is a studio atop a rather foul-smelling apothecary that his parents were not the least bit impressed with-- but a small-town reporter just doesn't get a whole lot of money to spare for some luxuries. He manages fine, thanks very much.
"They've given you the Quidditch beat, at least?"
"Until Alanna Jahns returns."
His father makes a sound at the back of his throat that cannot be mistaken for anything other than disapproval. "Really, son."
"She's earned her tenure. She's much more senior."
"So do you go back to proofreading after?"
"It isn't just proofing, Father, I also--"
"And does your pay rise go away, then? They did give you one, yes?"
"Yes they did, and no it isn't going away." He's not exactly sure about that-- he'll have to ask John, actually. "And I'm getting the experience so when Alanna returns, I can start looking at other opportunities outside Caerphilly."
"When Alanna returns?" His father shakes his head. "You should start now, especially if you know it's coming."
He sighs. "I will, yes."
His mother looks between the two of them. "Have you met any nice girls, at least?"
He shoots Rebecca a look of panic. Is this really happening right now? At dinner? Was this what he had been so eager to lord over everyone back at the office? Rebecca returns the shrug he gave her earlier, staying as quiet as possible, probably to avoid having their parents' scrutiny directed at her. The little brat.
"No, Mum," he says, and it's certainly the wrong thing to say, because she starts talking about the Greengrasses and the nice young ladies that sometimes come over for tea with their mums, and what about his friends from school, Susan and Hannah and Megan and Sally-Anne, perhaps he should be inviting them over while he's in town.
Zacharias swallows a groan. For all that Caerphilly's a veritable shithole, he honestly can't go back there soon enough.
His break lasts only for a few days, for which he is glad, because by afternoon of Christmas Day he's packing his bags up and heading back to the Floo Station. He kisses his mother on the cheek, shakes his father's hand, and gives Rebecca a tight hug before he gets in line for the Floo connection to Caerphilly, glad to have seen his family again but also much more pleased that he's able to get away.
Nothing strengthens family bonds quite like distance.
He doesn't have to get to work until the next day but he does drop by the office to pick up whatever owls and memos have gathered since his absence. It's often a time suck that he tries to avoid so he can actually do work during work hours instead of spending it answering trivial things. The apothecary is especially pungent as well so he opts to wander over to Edith's, finishing up the responses in a corner table with a cup of coffee.
By the time the sun sets he realizes he's forgotten to purchase any food since his return, so it's an easy decision to head over to the nearest pub. Caerphilly isn't a tourist town-- it isn't the sort of place people often move to and leave during the holidays-- but it is still Christmas and around this time people tend to eat in with family and loved ones, so the place is emptier than it normally is.
Almost completely empty, save for a familiar figure sitting by the bar.
"Evening," he says, sliding in the seat beside Pansy.
"Smith." She looks up at him. "Didn't know you were in town."
"Just got back. Couldn't be more pleased to finally leave, and that was only two days."
She laughs. "Tell me about it."
"Did you stay here for--"
"Don't be silly, I had Christmas with the family, obviously," she snaps, a little more defensive than he's used to hearing from her. "But I loathe how the Floos get ridiculously packed with travelers so I opted for an earlier connection."
He nods. It makes sense, really. "Went to take Nikolai to meet the parents, I take it?"
She gives him a baleful look. "Since when have you been interested in my personal life, Smith?"
He takes a sip of his drink. "Just making conversation. Idle chatter, small talk. Don't need to tell me anything if you're feeling defensive."
She looks like she's trying to bite down some kind of protest, but she doesn't say anything, instead just rolling her eyes and ordering a martini. "Put it on his tab, please."
"I don't know how you've managed to calculate the value of a small error in judgment to be worth my soul," he says.
"And here I thought you weren't playing at the tragic writer."
"I have my moments."
"Nikolai's with his family in Russia."
"Oh. Of course."
Her drink arrives and she picks out the olives that come with it, spearing them idly with the toothpick and swirling them around in her drink before she takes a bite out of one of them. He wrinkles his nose and once she catches the look on his face, she arches an eyebrow.
"Got a problem with olives?"
"You've no taste."
"I'm not the one putting that in my mouth."
She smirks. "Not the first time I've heard that before," she murmurs, and when he almost chokes on his drink, she bursts out laughing. "Merlin, you badgers are so easy to rile up."
That doesn't even get a response. She just finishes the rest of her drink and orders another one, and in the way they tend to do, they spend the next few hours talking without actually bringing anything of importance up. She doesn't tell him exactly why she isn't spending the holidays with a man she's been seeing for nearly a year; he doesn't tell her why he's opted to go back so soon after the holidays.
"I should head back home," she sighs after her fifth (sixth?) drink. "Thanks for the drinks, Smith. Cheers."
He catches her by the elbow before she tumbles out of her seat. "Easy there," he says. "I can walk you home."
She snorts. "That ought to be fun. It'll be like the blind leading the blind--"
"I've only had two, and excuse you, I've more practice holding my liquor in." And then, just because he still needs to pay her back for the last insult: "Lightweight."
She makes a sound of distress and protest, and he's reminded of a fish flopping out of water. He chortles, leaving the payment on the table for the barkeep and guiding her out before she realizes what he's doing.
"Okay, maybe," she concedes, unsteady beside him. "I'll give you that."
"Where do you live?"
"Turn left at that corner."
"No, I mean, give me an address and I'll figure it out." He doesn't actually trust her judgment or sense of direction.
"I know where I live," she says with a scowl, but she gives him the full address regardless. True enough, it's right at the corner, not left. Zacharias decides not to point this out tonight. Sometime in the future though, maybe.
It's been a while since he's last had to guide a pissed friend home, but they manage just fine, eased no doubt by the lack of bustle in the streets. They pass by a few flats with flickering lights, peeking through open windows where the smell of Christmas dinner wafts through the sills. The fish and chips he had at the pub were okay, but Zacharias finds himself craving roast turkey and some good old pie.
"We're here," Pansy announces quite happily, stopping in front of a fairly impressive row house just off the main street. "Now where did--"
"What are you doing?" he asks, because she's suddenly on all fours, digging around the front steps.
"Chucked the key in here somewhere," she explains, her voice a lot more chipper, a little slurred. "Usually when I go out to get smashed I leave it behind so I don't lose it but now I have." There's a giggle, some mumbling, an "oh, bugger", and Zacharias shakes his head before dropping down beside her to help her look.
"Why can't you just go with wards?"
"This one's special," she explains. "The key is warded, so if people want to break in and try to work just the wards, they don't know about this one and it's safer."
He isn't sure he follows her explanation all that well, but he gets the gist of it. "Is it this?" he asks, holding up a silver key that's tucked underneath a small piece of rock.
"Yes!" she cheers, pulling him up to his feet suddenly. She stumbles, as does he, but the door carries their weight. She snickers; he can smell the vodka on her breath, finds himself staring at her lip-glossed mouth before he catches her gaze. She smiles, cheeks a little flushed, as she tries to steady herself on her feet. Her fingers curl a little against his shirt, her tongue darting out to wet her lips--
"Let me get the door," he says, breath catching in his throat and hand automatically going to her elbow to hold her up because he can feel her about to tip sideways. There's a flash of something in her eyes but before he can figure out what it is, it's gone again.
"Mmkay," she says just as the lock clicks open.
"You'll be alright by yourself here?"
She waves him off. "I'll be fine," she says, lowering herself to the floor and curling up there.
"Oh for the love of--" He follows her inside, picking her up and looking around the flat before deciding the couch seems comfortable enough. He deposits her there, grabbing the blanket that's been laid on it and placing it over her.
She's snoring by the time he leaves and he thinks, well, that's another one he's going to hold onto for future use.
"What?" he asks Edith the next morning, on his usual breakfast run before heading into work.
"Have a good night, Zacharias?"
He frowns. "Sorry?"
"It's a small town; people talk."
"At the speed of light, it looks like." He scowls. "Nothing happened, but thanks for the concern."
"Just looking out for my boys, you know that."
"I do, Edith. Really, I--" he shakes his head. "It isn't like that."
She frowns at him. "Then why does it sound like you're disappointed about it?"
It's the first time he actually glares at her. "Am not," he all but huffs, paying for his coffee and croissant before he stomps off out of annoyance. Why can't people just leave things alone, honestly. This town.
"Bright little ray of sunshine today, Smith," Cathy says. "Have a good night?"
He doesn't see Pansy for the next few days. He wonders if maybe she's gone back home until New Year's-- after all, Nikolai isn't returning until the schedule picks back up on the fourth. He's content to stick with that story until he finally makes the trip to the greengrocer's that he's been putting off since returning and nearly runs into her.
Nearly, in this case, because as soon as she sees him she immediately turns around in the other direction and walks-- almost runs-- away.
"Hello to you too," he says when he catches up, closing his hand around her wrist to keep her from Apparating because some problems he's willing to avoid and ignore, but it's a different story when he's not exactly sure there's even a problem. "What's up with you? I know the other night was--"
"Don't you know what's for your own good, Smith?" she snaps, annoyed, and he blinks in confusion.
"How does that--"
She yanks her hand away, crosses her arms against her chest. "Your friend spoke with me the other day."
"At the bakery."
"Said she was looking out for you," she grouses, and though her tone is petulant, there's a hint of something underneath her words that tells him it's more than just a minor annoyance.
"She means well, but she's too nosy for her own good," he tells her. "Merlin, are you telling me you've been avoiding me because a little old lady asked you to?"
She doesn't look like she's got an answer to that, and the thing is, in the short amount of time he's known her, she's never been the kind of witch to let people tell her what to do. He's relieved when she visibly relaxes and lets him walk her back to her flat.
"About the other night--" she starts to say, words more a mumble than anything else.
"Thanks for making sure I got home," she says, reluctant.
He cracks a smirk. "Anytime."
"Want to come over for tea?" she asks. "If you can stomach it, I mean."
"I don't nearly hate it as much as you despise coffee."
She quips something back about the naturally offensive taste of ground up and bitter beans as he follows her into her flat, setting his groceries in a small pile by the door first.
"In case you were wondering," she says once they're both settled at the kitchen table, hands wrapped around warm mugs of tea, "I haven't got any designs on your family name."
"Didn't think you did," he says. "But glad to hear it all the same."
"I'd rather be destitute and dishonorable than birth potential Hufflepuffs," she sniffs.
"Bunch of duffers."
"Like the house of Salazar is any better," he says with a roll of his eyes.
"No, of course not," she says, and her voice gets tight, defensive. He hadn't meant it maliciously, of course, but then again, that put him in a pretty rare group of people.
"Sorry, I didn't mean--"
"The girls found out who I was last month, did you know that?"
"Oh." He doesn't realize she's been hiding who she was, knows only that the town knew which house she belonged to. Then again, she did prefer to go by her middle name around here.
"One of the new ones-- Crieff's? She was in Ravenclaw a year below us." She nurses her mug, eyes trained on the tea it contains. "She was there in the Great Hall the night Harry Potter returned."
There are many things he doesn't like remembering, and for a myriad of reasons, his last year at Hogwarts is definitely one of them. To be honest he only has vague memories of the events of the entire night, though what's clearest is always the terror he felt when he realized battle was imminent, that they were going to die, that the Death Eaters were coming. His classmates, braver than he was, fueled and made bolder by the DA propaganda he never quite bought into, stayed behind while he scurried away, tail between his legs.
He hadn't been the only one to run, hadn't been the only one scared shitless, but among a group of heroes his cowardice just became all that much more pronounced. Pansy, though--
He remembers now how the sleazy-smooth voice of the darkest wizard of all time filled the Hall with the soothing promise of peace if they only did one thing. It had been a fair bargain if you assumed death was certain otherwise, and he had. How could he not? They were children up against an army of Death Eaters. Pansy must have thought the same thing, because she'd spoken up and voiced her desire to surrender.
"Oh," he says, because he realizes he hasn't spoken in a while. He steals a glance at her. She doesn't look up from her mug, shaking her head with a rueful smirk that turns nasty, angry.
"They don't let you forget, you know," she says. "They didn't let me forget."
"I know," he says, because he does. "What were we supposed to think?"
Her grip tightens on her mug. "We were children."
"I was terrified."
"I didn't want to die."
"I know." He wants to extend his hand, give her a reassuring squeeze or something, but somehow with the two of them, the gesture seems forced. "It's bullshit," he says instead.
At that, she cracks a smile. "Abso-fucking-lutely."
Susan sends him an owl the next morning, and he has half a mind to chuck it in the bin. Instead he calls Pansy over the Floo.
"Get this," he says, not even waiting for a hello, "Susan wants me to go to the Ministry gala."
He shouldn't find her derisive snort as amusing as he does.
"Wouldn't that be a fantastic time."
"She means well, but Merlin, what's a nice way to decline the invitation?"
"Say 'piss off'?"
"You must have missed it when I said nice."
"I thought you'd misspoken and meant effective."
"Stomach flu's always a good excuse."
"I can't predict when I get the flu."
She looks at him like he's sprouted tentacles. "Are you an idiot? Tell her on the day of, obviously."
"I'm not going to pretend I'm going and leave her in the lurch last-minute!"
She makes a sound of annoyance. "Details."
He rolls his eyes but drops the topic otherwise. "So Edith and I have had a falling out."
"She tried to slip some kind of potion in my drink."
"My, my, Edith May," Pansy whistles. "Didn't take her for the sort to go after nubile young men--"
"You said." She smirks. "So what was she trying to dose you with?"
She was trying to determine that he hadn't been given love potion, but Zacharias suddenly remembers why that's not something he's supposed to share with Pansy.
"I don't even know," he lies. "But I'm in the market for a new breakfast spot."
"Good luck with the search," she tells him. "Caerphilly of course being the renowned mecca of gourmet dining."
He makes a face. "I heard about this place off High Street and O'Neill Road," he said.
"Outskirts of town, brilliant."
"Would serve you well. At least if Edith adds something to my drink, it wouldn't be poison."
"Low blow, Smith."
"Just being honest. So what do you think? Wanna check it out?"
She sighs. "If you must."
"See you in ten."
The new place (Overflow, it's called) is semi-worth it, but they both decide that a subpar breakfast and a longer trek every morning is preferable to hostile service.
"Won't be around tomorrow," he tells Pansy the Friday before New Year's.
"I won't even notice."
"Hah. You will when you realize you'll have to pay for your meal."
"Where are you headed?"
"New Year's Ball," he says. "Mum's hosting this year."
"If you aren't doing anything the next few days, you should come with me."
She looks at him, her expression blank, and Zacharias doesn't know why he asked.
"As friends," he adds.
"Of course as friends," she replies, too quickly in return. "No thanks."
"I may be craving human interaction but I'm not desperate enough to be gawked at, thank you," she says, and Zacharias knows that's the truth. He hadn't thought of it that way.
"True," he says, looking sheepish. Truth be told, it's part of the reason he's reluctant to return as well. "Well. I'll see you in the new year, then?"
"Have a fabulous time, Smith."
He doesn't have a fabulous time, though not for the reasons he'd been dreading. Under the sparkle of a lavishly decorated ballroom and the sound of a quartet playing waltzes and ballads and the chatter of witches and wizards as they mingled with each other, there's not much room for reminiscing about war. It's happier, more uplifting in general, and not once does anyone mention the Ministry gala, not even Susan, whose invitation Zacharias politely declined.
But really, though, how many times does he have to return home to remember that his parents have agendas, and that they are persistent and wily when they want to be?
The ball has barely started before his father is introducing him to his colleagues, broom manufacturer executives and Quality Quidditch buyers. He's barely had a chance to breathe before his mother pulls him aside to introduce him to the Greengrass sisters, and the Patil twins, and, Merlin, is his mother expecting him to find a wife or a threesome?
"Parvati, darling, you must show my son how to dance," she insists, all but shoving Zacharias into one of the Patils. "He has a terrible sense of rhythm but I think all it needs is a little guidance."
"Sorry," he mutters under his breath but Parvati is a giggly sort of witch who flutters her eyelashes at him in response and dances with even less rhythm than him. He twirls her around, letting her go and breathing a sigh of relief when she lands in some strapping wizard's arms-- McLaggen? he guesses-- before slipping out of the dance floor.
"There you are!" someone says behind him, and he nearly groans but when he turns to look he finds it's only Susan.
"Hey," he says, flashing her a weary smile. "Was that Ernie and Justin I just saw snogging near the--"
"Yep. You missed a bit after you left The Leaky." She looks at him. "Something wrong?"
"Just escaped my mum," he says. "And Parvati Patil."
Susan laughs. "Glad to hear that, I guess?"
He shakes his head. "She'd have me speaking my vows at the end of the night if she had her way."
"A little extreme, no?"
"You don't know her."
"I'll take your word for it," she says. "So how've you been?"
"Since... less than a week ago?"
She laughs, her cheeks pinking a little. "You kind of ran out before we could properly catch up, you know."
"Sorry, I was just--"
"I've been good," he says. "Caerphilly's not as bad as it sounds."
"So you're enjoying it there?"
He nods, and she graces him with a smile.
"That's the most important part, I think. Don't need to worry about anything else."
"Yeah," he says. "Yeah, I don't."
"Listen, Zacharias--" she starts to say, and he tries to listen but his gaze is caught by a flash of something familiar.
"Excuse me," he tells her. "I'm sorry, I'll catch up with you later, yeah?" And then he's weaving his way through the ballroom. The magical clock hanging from the middle of the ceiling starts counting down to the New Year and the crowd chants along with it. He pushes past a few couples, mutters apologies, and finally he sees him: Nikolai Kulemin, counting down with the rest of the ball, his arms around a blonde witch who looks nothing like Pansy.
"... two... one!" everyone cheers at once, and the clock explodes in a display of magical fireworks. Zacharias watches, the only one in the room who isn't cheering, as Kulemin dips the witch in his arms and kisses her.
"Alright," Pansy says with a huff. "You're telling me what's going on right now!"
He jerks up. "What?"
"You've been skittish since you returned. Normally I wouldn't care, but at this point--" she sighs. "Honestly, trolls are more pleasant company."
"Sorry." He shakes his head, forcing a tired smile. "Just exhausted."
"You're a terrible liar, Smith," she says.
"I really am-- tired, I mean, not a liar."
"Save it." She waves the bill over and drops a couple sickles on the table. "Talk to me when you're ready to tell me the truth."
He doesn't talk to her for a week.
He likes to tell himself it's because work's picked up again-- the team's back in town, there are more games on the docket that keeps him busy-- but in reality, he doesn't know exactly how to tell her. Obviously she deserves to know, but he's rarely been the bearer of bad news and something about the fact that he doesn't even know how she'll react is suspect. They're friends, aren't they? They've talked a lot in the past couple of months. Yet in a matter this obvious, he doesn't-- he has no idea what she'd do. There's what Edith told him about the rumored love potion, there's what he's seen the few times he's seen her with Kulemin, and yet--
He doesn't really know what she feels about Kulemin. Not once has he come up in conversation unless it's to refer to his schedule, and if he has any games coming up next. There was that time at the pub, yes, but she'd been quick to change the subject.
It's a personality defect they share, he supposes, the inability to talk about the big things, preferring to brush them aside for the minutiae of the day-to-day, but all the same-- he should know. What kind of friend does that make him otherwise?
When he runs into her on his day off she glares at him enough that he snaps.
"Alright," he tells her. "Fine."
She doesn't speak, only folds her arms across her chest and waits for him to talk.
"I'll show you, alright?"
If she's surprised that he leads her to his flat she doesn't say anything. If she has any derisive commentary about the rundown building, the stinky apothecary, the state of his studio, she keeps it to herself. Either she's being polite or, as Zacharias is inclined to believe, she's taking this silent treatment a little too seriously.
He waves her over to the table with a gruff "take a seat" and returns not long after with a stone basin.
"A little out of place," she finally says.
"It was a present from my father after I left Hogwarts." He taps his temple with the tip of his wand, closes his eyes as he draws out the memory and places it in the Pensieve. From where they're both sitting they can see the bright lights of the New Year's Ball, can even hear the faint tinkling of music. Pansy looks up at him and he gives her a nod. "Go ahead."
She shrugs, but eventually she leans forward, lets herself get pulled into his memory of the night. He's tempted to follow her but he doesn't know if he should, doesn't know if she'd want him to.
It's a longer wait than he anticipated.
He sits back, glancing alternately at the clock and then the basin, until finally she is pulled back out.
He doesn't know what he was expecting, but it isn't this. She lifts her chin up, mouth a flat line and eyes completely blank. When she speaks her voice is even, emotionless.
"Was that it?" she asks, sounding almost bored.
He stares at her. "That's all you've got to say?"
Her lip curls up, and she's giving him a nasty sneer. "I'm not an idiot, Smith. I knew."
"And you aren't--"
"He wanted the purity of my bloodline; I needed his money. I knew."
"That witch, though--"
"Guess he's found someone with a-- shall we say-- less tarnished reputation?"
"That's all it was?"
"That's all it was," she insists, and Zacharias doesn't know why, but--
"Bullshit." She isn't the only one who can smell lies. "You suspected, but you didn't know."
"Everyone knew," she counters. "Are you honestly this naive?"
"And you're just going to let it happen?" he asks, floored. "This isn't--"
"It's none of your business, Smith, and it'd do you well to stay out of it." She shoves her way out of his flat, and this time, he doesn't try to run after her.
The first time he reads the news, he worries. He tries to talk to Gretchen, who writes the gossip, in the hopes of subtly fishing for information, but she only looks at him like she's sorry and, in a tone that's too self-satisfied and smug for his liking, tells him what she knows.
"He kicked her out, of course; Clara McLaggen wouldn't have stood for that. She's moving in at the end of the month, my sources tell me. You know what I hear, there's a third party about to be included in the picture, which is why they're moving so fast." She mimes a bulge on her belly before pretending to zip her lips. "But you didn't hear it from me."
"Parkinson?" She shrugs. "No one knows, to be honest. Did you know the family's impoverished now? They've got that big house in Cornwall but they're buried in debt. It's all smoke and mirrors with Francis and Sylvia P. They've been desperately trying to sell off all their girls for a vault full of galleons, you know. It's a sorry situation all around," she says with a shake of her head that leads Zacharias to believe she isn't sorry at all.
"Right, thanks," he mutters, but none of it is helpful at all.
In the end, he takes another weekend off-- the Catapults are on a bit of a break at the moment-- to travel to Cornwall. It's the best shot he's got, he thinks, and what do you know, he does find her there.
"You've a guest, dear," Sylvia Parkinson says, eyeing Zacharias curiously, almost hopefully, and Zacharias remembers what Edith said. He remembers what Gretchen said as well-- the interior of the manor is well-kept, but if you knew where to look, it isn't difficult to spot the places where large, expensive furniture and art used to be before they were sold off for galleons. The rooms were expansive from what he could see, but the manor was just so bare.
Pansy shuts the door with a ward once her mother leaves. "Better put Silencing Charms on it too; she's going to want to listen." At the look he gives her, she says, "You'd do the same if you knew her like I do."
"What do you want?" she asks once the spells are cast.
"Just checking in."
"Cornwall's a long way from Caerphilly," she says. "You shouldn't have come."
"I was worried."
She snorts. "I'm perfectly fine, Smith," she says with a wave of her hand. "Couldn't be happier here. Cornwall is a massive improvement over anything in Wales."
"I can't say I disagree."
"If you're quite ready to leave, then."
She looks up at him. It's the first time he's called her by her first name, at least since he announced to the world that she had her nose glamored.
He shakes his head. "It isn't much, but it's worse without company," he says with a sigh. "You should come visit sometime, that's all."
She snorts. "As if. Good luck in that hell-hole, Smith."
He doesn't see her back in Caerphilly at all, and to be honest, he doesn't blame her. There's not exactly a lot to return to, is there?
"Hear Alanna is coming back soon," Darvill says.
"Yeah, next week."
"She's alright, obviously, but I'm gonna miss you, kid."
He laughs. "Thanks, gonna miss you too, but don't tell Kuc I said that."
"Sorry, mate. He told me I was his favorite," Kuc says, taking the seat between them.
"Drat, knew it! Dagger to the heart, Smith."
Kuc laughs at that before turning to Zacharias. "Bet you're gonna miss covering the matches."
"Only if they end within two hours," he tells them both.
"Going back to fact-checking then?"
"If nothing else pans out, I guess."
Kuc grins. "Something will, kid."
"I hope so."
The thing is, Zacharias has been looking. Just because he and his father don't often see eye to eye doesn't mean all his father's advice is terrible. There aren't very many openings for correspondents in the cities, and it doesn't help that there are only thirteen Quidditch teams to begin with. He hopes the bigger cities might have room for more than one reporter, or maybe that the smaller ones might be able to afford expanding into creating a position.
It isn't as easy as it sounds, and Zacharias nearly gives up, except that he knows his father will use the opportunity to railroad him into following his wishes.
"You're over-thinking things," Rebecca tells him when she Floo calls. "Get out there for a bit, never know what stroke of inspiration you might have if you're in a different environment."
It's sound advice, and the dullness of Caerphilly (which may or may not in part be due to the absence of a certain witch with a twisted sense of humor and an indomitable sense of pride, damn her) is beginning to drive Zacharias up the wall. So one day he takes the Floo to Diagon Alley, walks past The Leaky (even gives Hannah a small wave, promising to stop by later for a pint), and steps into Muggle London.
It's a longer trip from there because Muggle transport systems are harder to navigate, but soon enough he's in an arena that's at once familiar and foreign to him.
He walks over to the ticket booths, pushing past throngs of people in red Arsenal kits. He pays the equivalent of an arm and a leg in Muggle currency for a seat, then attempts to head back to the arena entrances.
"Programs, get your programs!" A man in a neon yellow jacket is saying, hawking a stack of newsletters. Zacharias makes the mistake of catching his eye. "Oy, mate, help a bloke out and get today's program, yeah?"
Zacharias hands him the money and takes a copy. "Cheers."
There's still a few minutes before the match is set to begin. Zacharias doesn't follow the Muggle sport in the slightest so he looks at his new purchase instead. It reminds him a little of the guides the teams gave the press, but he turns a page and there's an editorial of sorts, with an image of the bloke he bought the program from. He's flipping both his fingers in the image.
Zacharias nearly chokes on his drink, because what the hell?
But he reads on, and the bloke is sharp. He's cutting, shameless, and even better, he's legitimately well-spoken. Even with Zacharias' limited knowledge-- especially with his limited knowledge, even-- he finds himself able to follow the arguments, the criticisms made against Arsenal's management.
In the next page there's a rundown of the visiting team, including what to expect from their players and how they've done in their last few games. In the page after that, some kind of crude graph with images of some of the opponent's players followed by what seems to be a rating system indicated by up to five images of a flopping fish. Then another biting piece, this time in the form of a comic.
Finally, at the last page, there is a short blurb about the publication and a running tally of win-loss-draw records when random incidents happen (the referee calls a foul that everybody agrees with: 0-0-0; the sun sets and no one is smashed: 0-0-0).
By the time the match ends in a draw, Zacharias has a plan.
He continues sending his CV to cities with Quidditch teams, but this time he applies for more general positions. He gets more interviews this way, and he starts to feel a little more optimistic.
The Chudley Bulletin gives him a call to see if he's interested in splitting the local council beat; The Tutshill Times offers him the same position he holds in Caerphilly but with a slight pay rise. In the end, though, he chooses to accept The Falmouther's offer to take on the MLE beat. It's the best position he gets (though not by much) and the city, he thinks, is a decent size.
"Good luck, kid," John tells him, his smile more fatherly than Zacharias' own father's would have ever been.
"I'll owl you next time the team plays the Falcons," Alanna says, hugging him hard.
"Don't miss me too much now," Zacharias mumbles, and there's only a little bit of water in his eyes that he brushes away as discreetly as he can.
"Make sure you get yourself a better flat, eh?" Malcolm reminds him.
"It's not that much better paying," Zacharias says with a snort.
"City's not too bad, I suppose," Gretchen murmurs. "Short Floo to Cornwall, though, I think. Much nicer views there, don't you think?"
Zacharias chooses not to dignify her with a response.
The first edition of The Foulmouther is-- well, if he were to be honest, it could be better. But it's a novelty piece and he hawks it for four sickles a copy, thanking the gods that he remembers how to cast an Undetectable Extension Charm for the amount of sickles he collects.
It's quite a haul, more than he thought he'd do for the first game. He stays up all night tweaking the next edition, and sells more of that too. It's not enough to quit his work at the paper, not yet, but there's something completely satisfying with writing what he really thinks, anyway. He ends up sleeping even less than he already does, but the season ticket holders begin to recognize him, as do a few other fans, and it's just...
He is consumed by the work, and perhaps some part of him had wanted to be distracted by it. Sometime close to the end of the season, though, with spring well on its way and the playoffs looming, someone taps him on the shoulder while he's hawking the program.
Her expression is, as it always is when she wants it to be, unreadable. He likes to think he spots a trace of amusement regardless.
"Are you following me, Smith?"
"Not exactly in Cornwall, are we? I should ask you that same question."
"I'm here for Quigley," she says, and he wishes he could deny it but his heart sinks at the words.
"My sister's fiancé," she clarifies. And then, a smirk: "Weren't jealous, were you?"
"Fat chance." He grins, though, and before he could add anything else she pipes up again with a question.
"This is what you've been reduced to now?"
"It's an experiment. Did you want a copy? Only four sickles."
She takes the proffered program. "You still owe me, you know."
"I was afraid of that."
"No," she says, tucking the program under her arm. In the next moment she's pressing her lips-- just a flutter, a brush, a promise-- against his cheek. "You're not."