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Shade to Shade by Slide
Chapter 14 : The End of the Beginning
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 3

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Chapter 13: The End of the Beginning


“You really don’t need to wait with me, Cal,” Tobias said as he sat at a table in The Three Broomsticks, clutching white-knuckled at a mug of butterbeer with one hand, the fingers of the other drumming frantically along the edge of the table. “I know you wanted to get to Zonko’s before we leave.”


“Huh? Zonko’s?” In reality, it didn’t look as if Cal was entirely listening, or even really being the best company in the world from where he sat across from Tobias. His eyes kept flickering towards the door with a sort of eager, yet uncertain anticipation, and every gaggle of Hogwarts students who entered he seemed to evaluate for a split second hopefully, and then sag with some disappointment. “No, no, can’t be arsed with Zonko’s, mate. There’s only so many Gobstones sets one can buy over the years before you remember you’re not twelve any more.”


“Instead of just having the mental age of twelve,” Tobias muttered, not without warmth as he took a large gulp from his drink.


Cal finally glanced back at him, seemingly settling down a little, though his gaze kept flickering over Tobias’ shoulder. “True enough. I’ve moved on to bigger and better things, though. Like collecting Chocolate Frog cards and Quidditch memorabilia. More mature ideas.” He smirked, and Tobias was infinitely glad to see in the smile the same Cal he’d known for years, the moping and sullen creature of the first few weeks of school seeming to have just been an aberration.


“Where’s Gabe?” he asked at last, glancing about the pub and forcing himself to cease his nervous drumming.


A shrug from Cal. “I dunno. Around. Not here.”


Tobias raised his eyebrows. “‘Not here’. Really. Bloody master of detection, you are.”


“Oh, I know. Sherlock Holmes, eat your heart out.” Cal shrugged again, toothy grin broadening. “I assume he reached the same conclusion as me about this little date of yours with Tanith…”


“It’s not a date. It’s a… a drink,” Tobias butted in curtly.


“Yeah, whatever. But the same conclusion that it’s all going to end with an explosion of approximately the same heat and ferocity as the burning, blazing inferno of the sun,” Cal continued uncaringly. “And Gabe, being a much more sensible fellow than myself, has decided to deal with it by going to ground in that little nuclear bunker of Gabe-ness that he has in the hope of surviving it all.”


“So why are you here?” Tobias asked, one eyebrow raised and looking dubious.


“Damage control. And, uh… I like this place,” Cal said, gaze flickering over Tobias’ shoulder again as a gaggle of Hufflepuffs walked in and promptly lost his interest. “Besides, you need moral support for this… drink…”


“Why do you say it like it’s iniquitous? It’s not like I’m about to do any propositioning or something,” Tobias said with exasperation, colour rising slightly to his cheeks, recognisably through embarrassment more than irritation.


Cal snorted. “It’s not like you can claim that there isn’t something a little bit dodgy about the two of you hanging around together – patently together, as this is going to be a private party I’m leaving once she arrives. I’m just saying. It means something. And if it didn’t, you wouldn’t be expecting me to leave.”


“I just need… to have a conversation with her. Somewhere neutral. Safe. It’s worked before,” Tobias pointed out, though his precedent was a good four years old.


“Yeah? Any good conversation topics in this little chat?” Cal asked a spot just over Tobias’ shoulder.


“As a matter of fact I need her full and frank opinion on certain… delicate issues…”


“Because delicacy, as we all know, is Tanith Cole’s forte…”


“…and I also need to do a little bit of grovelling, which is usually helped by bribery. Hence the butterbeer.” Tobias sighed, scrubbing his face with his hands. “It’s just been a weird week. With stuff with her, and then stuff with Annie…”


“Annie?” Cal’s eyes snapped back to meet Tobias’. “You talked to Mac?”


“Um. Yes. She talked to me. About… stuff. And it’s all really very confusing, and so I’d like to know where I stand before I make a decision or do something stupid,” Tobias replied with that same slightly terse air of embarrassment.


“Like last time you and Tanith had a date,” Cal mused out loud.


Tobias’ expression darkened significantly. “Don’t bring that up, Cal. Not now. I will hit you.”


“With your puny, puny fists,” the much burlier Quidditch player rejoined with another toothy grin.


“Or, you know, my wand. Look, it’s pretty obvious you don’t necessarily want to be here…” Tobias glanced over his shoulder again as Cal’s gaze was once again distracted. “Just who are you looking for? You’ve been staring at the door like a dog waiting for its master for the last twenty minutes.” He paused, then looked at its watch. “Thirty. It’s now ten past one. She’s late. Great.” A deep, irritated sigh.


“Well, she said she had something to do. You know Tanith. Ever mysterious,” Cal pointed out, still not looking at him.


“It would be nice, though, if she actually cared enough about this meeting to show on time.” Tobias scrubbed his face with his hands. “I know she’s pissed at me. And I’d be fine if she’d said ‘Screw you, Grey, I won’t be caught dead being seen in public with you’, and then hexed me into the ground. For a given value of ‘fine’, I confess. But saying she’ll show and then…”


“She may have good reason,” his friend said tentatively.


“If so, she could at least send me a message or something. She didn’t even say what this other thing she had to do was.” Tobias wrung his hands together, beginning to frown. “You know, I put up with an awful lot of her crap over the years. We all do, but me especially. We screw up, and it’s the end of the world, but she does something bad to us? ‘Oh, that’s just Tanith’. I’m getting sick…”


“Toby? Toby!” Cal clicked his fingers in Tobias’ face. “She’ll show. Stop spazzing.”


“I am not ‘spazzing’, I’m pointing out the sheer hypocrisy she indulges in,” Tobias muttered, his voice venomous through tension and nerves more than any true anger, but virulent nevertheless. “She just better show up soon, is all, or it’ll be her turn to start grovelling for once.”


“I would bet all the galleons in my pocket – which is actually more than one today, good going me – that she will be here, ohh, within the next twenty minutes. So you can calm down, drink your butterbeer, and…” Cal’s voice suddenly trailed off as his gaze snapped back to the pub door.


Tobias paused for a second, squinting as he waited for a conclusion. “And… go mad?” He finally turned around to spot the gaggle of Ravenclaws in their year that had just stepped in. “What are you staring at?”


“Jesus, Toby, don’t turn around!” Cal hissed frantically, going from gawking to lurking within a second as he attempted to be nonchalant in watching the small group. “Have a slightly discreet bone in your body!”


“We’re being discreet now?” Tobias blinked with confusion. “What? It’s just Sharpe and some others. Are we hiding from Ravenclaws these days?”


“She’s going up to the bar,” Cal muttered, not paying any attention to Tobias by now. “Time to get her a drink?”


“Oh, it’s a girl!” Realisation washed over Tobias’ face, which within seconds was followed by a broad, toothy grin as the further consequences of this fact sank in. “This should be fun. I’ve never had the chance to see the torment from this perspective. So come on, which is it?” He craned his neck to look over at the bar.


“Shut up,” Cal murmured wittily.


“It’s not Chang, is it? Because I don’t think you’re enough of a big damn hero for her to be attracted to you,” Tobias said, scratching his chin thoughtfully. “So if that’s not the case, and assuming it’s not Craig Sharpe you’re making googly eyes at, this leads me to conclude that the options are Jameson… or what’s her face.”


“Nathalie,” Cal muttered automatically, then paused, slapping his forehead and cursing as he realised what he’d done and Tobias gave a short, victorious bark of laughter.


“And Lockett is the winner, ladies and gentlemen!” he crowed, just about managing to keep his voice low enough for it to not carry across towards the Ravenclaws. “I figured as much, Jameson’s too dry for your tastes, Lockett’s a bit… fruitier?”


“Stop making girls sound like wine, Toby, it makes you sound really quite fruity yourself,” Cal growled. “And… fine. Yes. Nat Lockett. We got talking after a Quidditch practice when she got smacked in the face with a Bludger.”


“Romantic,” Tobias observed dryly. “Did you hit it?”


“What? No! I just walked her up to the Hospital Wing. She still has my hankie.” Cal’s expression turned briefly distant, and perhaps… longing?


“Also romantic,” was the mused reply. “So? Why aren’t you going over there and asking for it back? Assuming you weren’t doing something sordid with that handkerchief.”


“I can’t just…”


“Why not?” Tobias asked honestly, leaning towards his friend even as he cut off his protests. “Go up there. Say you know she’s still got your handkerchief, and you’d like to buy it back from her with a drink.”


Cal paused, narrowing his eyes at Tobias with deep suspicion. “Who are you, and what the hell have you done with Toby? Because that didn’t sound like a half-bad suggestion.”


“What can I say? I got snarked at by Dumbledore and I’m a new man. Carpe Diem, my friend. Go on.” Tobias rolled his eyes as he got a slightly hesitant look in exchange. “Either you’re being chicken or you don’t want to leave me on my own. So suck it up, and I’ll be fine. Really.”


“Buy it back with a drink. That could work. Huh.” Cal was still muttering to himself by the time he drained his butterbeer, stood up, patted Tobias on the back firmly, then squared his shoulders and marched off in the direction of the bar.


Tobias chuckled to himself, feeling a lot of the tension wash away from him as he watched Cal approach Lockett at the bar, successfully hiding any of his aforementioned nervousness, and apparently striking up a conversation. But he didn’t have much chance to observe or reflect on these matters as a shadow fell across the table and a familiar voice spoke.


“Flying solo today?” Annie MacKenzie asked brightly, her own hesitation plain for the world to see as she looked down at Tobias.


He paused, sputtering briefly with the unexpectedness of her arrival, and pasted a smile on his face that came a lot easier than he had expected. “Annie! Hi! Uh… yeah. On my own right now. Cal had an appointment he couldn’t miss.”


“I saw,” Annie said with a slight grin, glancing over at the bar. “Good for him. Mind if I join you, then, in his absence?” She shifted her feet slightly.


Tobias opened his mouth to tell her that it was fine, that he was waiting for Tanith and she’d probably be here soon – but the promise of ‘soon’ caught in his throat, and he glanced down at his watch. One twenty. Really, this was taking the piss. If she couldn’t be bothered to meet up when arranged…


He looked back up at Annie, his smile softening and turning a good deal more genuine. “Not at all. I’d welcome the company,” he said firmly, leaning back and feeling the tension of the last few days begin to wash away as, finally, he began to set down the balls he’d been keeping in the air all week.



* * * * * * * * * * *



An hour and a half earlier, Tanith wandered down the streets of Hogsmeade in unhappy search of the Hog’s Head. Why the meeting had been arranged to be held at that forsaken place, she wasn’t sure, except that it was out of the way and the smell might perhaps fend off any potential onlookers.


Still, if Altair wanted her to be there at twelve, she would be there at twelve.


Ever since the encounter with Thanatos Brynmor in Derbyshire, she had been pestering her tutor for information. About this ‘spy network’ Brynmor had mentioned, about just why she would have been a valuable prisoner, about why the man who had taught her everything Hogwarts hadn’t, from spelling to classic art, was trained in combat. Most every letter she’d received in return had been nothing if not evasive, and as she didn’t quite dare open up this can of worms with her father, she had begun to accept that she would, in fact, be told nothing about her family’s activities.


Until a week earlier, when she had received an owl from Altair telling her to meet him in a room booked at the Hog’s Head at noon on her scheduled trip to Hogsmeade. It was really rather typical that Tobias then attempted to arrange this very strange lunchtime drink for the same time, but he had been fortuitously diverted.


But she couldn’t dwell on that topic right then, especially not as, when turning a corner, she saw the sign of the Hog’s Head swinging in the autumn breeze, and squared her shoulders for whatever unpleasant sight might greet her within.


It was cleaner than she had expected, though it appeared to be abandoned for a few seconds while she took in her surroundings, until motion behind the bar suggested the presence of staff and she noticed a familiar shape in the corner. With the wall to his back and the hood of his robe pulled over his head, Altair Ritter was as unrecognisable as he was furtive.


He did look up as she came in and brought the bar’s population up to about three – or four, if the slight bleating from towards the back was a sign of livestock and if a goat counted – and smoothly padded across the common room towards her.


“You’re here, good. I have a room upstairs, I’d rather not discuss anywhere else.” There was none of his usual warmth – although Ritter was hardly the friendliest of men, he usually at least recognised common courtesies and reserved a certain amount of genuine affection for her. But she didn’t question it, or even manage to get together an answer as he turned on his heel and started for the stairway.


Upstairs it was creakier; the smell of mould was in the air and the atmosphere much thicker. Unlike she’d expected, she wasn’t beginning to suffer the sensation of needing to shower; rather, perhaps, scrape something off herself. It felt more unclean than just sheer dirt.


Ritter remained silent until he reached one of the doors in the corridor, then pulled a key from his robes and slipped it in the lock to permit them access to a surprisingly large room. No bed was in sight, though the dust pattern suggested to Tanith that there had been one in the room until recently. Indeed, the only furniture at all was a small table pushed up against a wall with two stools next to it, and it was towards these that Ritter gestured as he closed and locked the door behind her.


“To begin with,” Ritter said as she sat down and he lowered his hood, “that was incredibly stupid. I could have been anybody; owl mail is not secure enough for you to assume your correspondence is not under surveillance.”


Tanith blinked at him. “I… what?”


“You have already established that you are a desirable target for abduction by Death Eaters, and you just allowed someone who looked like your tutor to escort you into a room with nobody else in earshot. Indeed, I would assume that nobody else even knows where you are.” Ritter folded his arms across his chest, looking down at her. “Up until now, you have been safe within Hogwarts’ walls. This trip has left you open to danger, and you wandered blindly in.”


She straightened up, leaning across the table to peer at him. “So, let me get this straight. You and Dad have been keeping secrets about the family from me, secrets that have the potential to place me in danger. But you haven’t told me about these secrets, and yet you’re still pissed that I’m not taking precautions against a threat I don’t know about!”


“You knew about it. You came face to face with Thanatos Brynmor, and he stated your capture to be a feather in his hat,” Ritter pointed out.


“Thanatos Brynmor, yes, who has a permanent place on the Ministry’s Ten Most Wanted list, whom you tackled in the dark like you knew what you were doing. You, a squib, and him, a bloody Death Eater.” Tanith’s brow furrowed, already sick of having accusations thrown at her when she had been all pent-up and ready to be the one to get righteous, and deciding to get to the topic she wanted to discuss. “You said you’d explain things to me here. Do you want to start explaining them, so I might actually understand why I’m such a prize to Death Eaters? And just… who the hell are you?”


Ritter paused, frowning a little, then gave a small shrug. “Alright. That’s fair.” He stepped over to the table and claimed the other stool, leaning against the wall and stretching his long legs out in front of him. “I did not answer your questions in the post because, as I said, it was not secure. And, at first, because I was not permitted to by your father. It was a matter of much discussion between us.”


He reached inside his robes and pulled out a long wooden pipe and a small pack of tobacco; his hands moved through a routine of their own, needing little attention as they sorted out his smoke and he continued to speak.


“But eventually, he relented and told me to come here to talk to you. He would be here himself, but he has business to attend to, and I am most sincere when I say it is important business. It also has absolutely nothing to do with horse breeding.” Ritter popped the pipe in his mouth, reaching for matches and lighting up.


“So I shall start… from the beginning. The beginning from my perspective, at least. As you know, when I was… removed from Hogwarts for a complete lack of magical ability, I spent most of my time working about the magical world doing mundane jobs, like tending bar. I still have certain advantages over Muggles – I can see Dementors, I can use a broom if I don’t have to do anything too exciting, and anti-Muggle wards don’t work on me. These were very small consolation for a boy stuck inside a world he could never join, you understand, but it still meant I was more than the non-magic folk.


“I’m saying all of this to you,” Ritter explained, the look of bitterness that had crossed his face at mention of his earlier life slowly passing, “so that you understand what a significant and rather bizarre event it was when I was approached by your father when I was about fifteen, and he offered me employment. I, of course, knew your family through my own, though with them wanting nothing to do with me I hadn’t expected such blood-connections to be worth a knut.


“Your father said that he recognised that I had had a hard life, and that this had imbued me with certain qualities that could not be taught. I believe he’d had his eye on me for a while, though why I’m not really sure. And though at first he just offered me menial work in his business, within several months he was asking me to do… odd-jobs for him. Running messages over to this family, or making a delivery to that company. With hindsight, I can see what he was doing, for all of the people he had me innocently spending time with were those who would later show themselves for You-Know-Who, as at this point the war was just beginning to heat up, and sides were just beginning to be picked. And those loyal to You-Know-Who, who had dinner parties and business arrangements with your father, became familiar with me as just a squib who hung around and was… there to be ignored.” Ritter smiled finally, a tight and slightly predatory smile, and his gaze was fixed on a point somewhere outside of the window as he spoke.


“Your father did, however, encourage me to do other things. He recognised that Muggles had got by in certain ways without magic, and asked me to… familiarise myself with them. Learn how to defend myself if I could never use a wand, learn how to drive, make sure I had a Muggle identity with everything perfectly legal and above board. Do you know how rarely Death Eaters and Aurors alike ever check who travelled on a Muggle train even while they’re staring at the Floo Network or watching who apparates where? It’s remarkably easy to drop off the grid.


“And so I did these things. And as the war heated up further, your father asked me to perform more specific tasks. When sending a message to Malfoy Manor about the next breeding season, to find and make copies of his latest owl correspondence. When delivering feed to the Drakes, to be sure to lurk in the vicinity of Bacchus Drake himself and try to overhear what his plans were for the following weekend.”


Ritter paused as he saw his pipe had gone dead from more talking than smoking, then sighed and picked up his matches to re-light it. “It took me a few months before I dredged up the courage to ask your father just what was going on, and another few months before he told me. At this point, the country was under siege from You-Know-Who and his followers, though I was already aware that half of the masked individuals who murdered Muggles were sitting around the table at a dinner party on a Saturday night. They were your father’s friends, and his family’s friends, and some had been so for generations.


“He had seen the war coming a long way off, thanks to them. Had heard the discontent brewing amongst the pure-bloods, and heard of the popularity of a powerful, charismatic man named… well, you know, around whom they could focus all of their dissatisfaction. And he knew that he wanted no part of it.


“But he also knew that it would be impossible for him to publicly distance himself from You-Know-Who’s growing movement, as he was but an island in a sea of would-be Death Eaters. They would turn on him instantly – perhaps just destroying him socially, perhaps just destroying him economically, or perhaps just destroying him. He was already married to your mother, already planning a family, and refused to up all that he had just as much as he refused to do as his friends bade.


“I don’t even know who he fed the information to. I know it’s not the Ministry, because he was having me run jobs all last year when the official line was that You-Know-Who’s return was nothing but a myth; even I thought he was just being paranoid until the public confirmation. But he was gathering his information on the Death Eaters on a personal basis, and could do so very effectively from the inside. Who they were, where they would be. Their strengths and weaknesses. Who bragged about which murder. And I know that those on whom we gathered information were usually ultimately arrested, or that they seemed to be foiled on a regular enough basis that the information was going to somebody who could do something with it. I have asked many a time, and he has never told me. I think that, perhaps, might be to everyone’s benefit.”


Ritter puffed on the pipe, then leaned back and, ridiculously casually, blew a smoke ring that made it to the middle of the room before dissipating. “When the war was over, most families were none the wiser. I believe some, like Brynmor, figured it out when they saw the pattern of their own failures, but he was never publicly outed. I think he asked me to stay with the family for his own safety as much as mine, though, because it’s amazing how many times one can win a fight on the sheer basis of being massively underestimated.


“It seems that he has now been blown, at least with the main organisation of Death Eaters, but the war is different this time. The followers of You-Know-Who are less brazen, and the vast majority of them are on the run from the authorities, whereas before their identities were usually secret. They don’t have the influence they once did to cripple your father as he first feared they might, and whoever he’s feeding information to is keeping him safe from physical repercussions.”


Ritter at last finished the pipe, setting it down and turning to face Tanith, who had listened to all of this with nothing more than wide-eyed astonishment. “So, you see… your father wasn’t a coward in the war. He was as brave as a man could be without being stupid.”


Tanith stared at him for several long moments, his words almost having washed over her once the fullest implications of her father’s life and the way she had treated him sank in. “I… am really going to need to apologise…”


“That isn’t what this is about. Not at all.” Ritter shook his head firmly. “He’s not looking for an apology; quite frankly, if even his own daughter thought he had sat on the fence and done nothing and publicly said so, it helped his cover and it helped keep everyone safe. Daedalus counted on you to be… well, you.” He gave a small, thin smile.


“Then… what is this about? Why am I being told now? Aside from the fact that I was beginning to bug you?” She returned the smile very slightly, though hers was tinged with sheepishness.


“Because the cover is no longer necessary… and because your father believes you are in danger. I find information for him in a much more hands-on and less subtle way these days, as people no longer discuss the Dark Lord’s plans at dinner parties, but I do still find things out. The latest rumours suggest that the Death Eaters have an agent within Hogwarts, and though there are any number of horrible things such a person could do, your father is worried that you may be seen as an easy target.”


“Easy?” Tanith snorted. “I can hex anyone into the ground…”


“If you can see them coming. And you have already demonstrated to me that you are not as alert as you could be. Not to mention the fact that a simple Disarming spell leaves you as helpless as a kitten.” Ritter stood up, straightening his shoulders. “This is not the only time we shall be meeting here. Your father did not just send me here to explain the situation to you. He sent me here to train you.”


“Train me?” She frowned. “I don’t… train me for what?”


“Surviving. Though I imagine it’ll come in handy for your Auror application, and will probably put you ahead of the curve on all other candidates.” Ritter folded his arms across his chest. “I’ll be teaching you everything you’ll need that Hogwarts won’t instruct you on. How to survive without your wand – with the usage of other prepared equipment, or with improvised resources, or just with your bare hands. How to see a threat when it’s coming, how to react to said threat and when. So that if any Death Eater comes for you, you’ll be ready, and if they take your wand away from you, you won’t be disarmed – even if, and this is the most useful tactic out there, they think you are.”


Tanith scrubbed her face with her hands. She had once upon a time – ie, half an hour ago – thought her father to be a quiet, cowardly man who didn’t want to upset anybody. Now she was convinced he was a complete raving psychopath, and the man who had taught her spelling, grammar, and basic mathematics appeared to be some kind of wandless ninja.


Unfortunately, the only actual problem that she could find the words to address was, “When are these super secret teaching sessions going to fit in with my NEWTs?”


“Your father has sent a letter to Professors Snape and Dumbledore saying he wants permission for you to visit Hogsmeade every Sunday. You will come here at midday every week, and we will train, and you… will stay safe.” Ritter reached down under the table and pulled a small chest out, which he lifted onto the table and opened up. “Starting today.”


“What?” That was about as eloquent as Tanith could get right then.


Inside the chest was an array of dusty maps and charts. “We’ll begin with safe routes down from Hogwarts to the Hog’s Head. Then we’ll be moving on to the various routes around the castle – the discreet passages, the more unusual short-cuts and long ways round. Routes that you can use, but also importantly, routes that someone else could use to take you by surprise.”


Her head felt as if it was filled with a dull buzzing, and only every other word uttered by Ritter was making it through to her brain. “Dad’s crazy,” she said at last.


He looked at her, and there was not a shred of the benevolent tutor who had brought her up in his eyes. It was all hard, pitiless darkness, and sheer professionalism that suggested he had no time for such outbursts. “We’re fighting a war, Tanith. He’s just trying to look out for you.”




“The best routes down to Hogsmeade are, of course, from the main gates,” Ritter continued seamlessly, laying a map on the table and straightening it out for them both to see, and despite her misgivings she attentively leaned in.


They continued here for another hour. Going through the routes down to Hogsmeade, including the passageway she had taken the previous New Year to make it to the village fair – routes when one wanted to be swift, routes when one wanted to be discreet, everything under the sun. Then the various passageways around Hogwarts, leaving Tanith feeling as if she had learnt more about the school in that hour than she had in the previous six years.


And it was only when they were looking through maps of Hogsmeade and addressing discreet routes through the street that her eyes fell on the marker for the Three Broomsticks, and her heart leapt into her throat.


“Oh, God. What time is it?” she asked, jumping to her feet.


“One-thirty. We have all afternoon,” Ritter said blankly, looking a bit jolted at the sudden change of pace.


“All afternoon… crap. I have to go.” Tanith yanked up her jacket, trying to pull it on and managing to get the sleeves the wrong way around.


“Go? What? We’re not finished here.” Although the authoritative note was creeping into his voice, he sounded as if he hadn’t expected to need it.


“I know. Look… I’ll be back in an hour. I’m just late for a meeting.” She looked him in the eye as she paused to rearrange her jacket. “I wasn’t expecting super secret training time, Altair, I made plans for what was meant to be a day of fun! I have to meet someone. I’ll be back afterwards… I’m late already, I really need to go.”


Without waiting for a reply, she practically flew out of the room, down the stairs, and through the door to burst into the Hogsmeade streets.


Already the lesson was sinking in, for as she pelted full-speed down the street her mind was running through the quickest route from here to the Three Broomsticks – left at that alleyway, cut through behind Madam Puddifoot’s, hang a right at the post office, and…


Her air was burning in her lungs as she sprinted towards the front door of the Three Broomsticks, and she barely got the door-handle of the entranceway pushed down enough that she didn’t just run flat into the door. Thus she burst into the pub with what would have been some ceremony had it not already been a bright and bustling establishment, and just about managed to not pass out with the blood rushing in her ears as she scanned the bar.


She saw a clock, first, telling her it was twenty-five to two – then Cal at the bar, paused in conversation with a brown-haired girl she only dimly recognised, and presently staring at her in what appeared to be abject horror. This didn’t really sink in as her gaze pivoted around the rest of the bar, then finally reaching a booth by the window where she saw Tobias seated, calmly talking to someone she couldn’t see…


Then the burly wizard in front of her moved out of the way, and she felt her stomach crumple up into approximately the size of a pea then try to claw its way up her throat.


For there, seated opposite Tobias and, now that she could see clearly, reaching across the table and holding his hand, sat one rather happy-looking Annie MacKenzie.

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