Chapter One

Katie Bell was drunk.

Well, she realised as her legs suddenly gave way beneath her and she only just managed to stay upright by grabbing hold of a nearby lamppost, "drunk" was a bit of an understatement. "Pissed out of her brains" was probably closer to the truth. Her mind was so foggy with alcohol that she could barely see straight, let alone walk in a straight line, and it was a wonder that she hadn't fallen face-first into the pavement already, because she was certainly heading that way.

And yet she was glad because then she didn't have to think about her. That, at least, made things better, even if the relief Katie felt was only temporary. She knew, as soon as she was sober, that she would swim into her mind again, but at least she had the comfort of knowing she would have a few hours of blissful oblivion before the truth stabbed her in the heart once more.

It was getting dark already, but it was impossible to tell what time it was. She didn't know exactly what time of year it was, either, only that judging by the bitterly cold wind whipping her cheeks and the snow dampening her hair and thin cloak, it was probably around Christmas. Not that Hogsmeade looked particularly festive. Even more shops were boarded up than she could remember, and The Three Broomsticks had been much quieter than usual. There were people there, yes, but there was no drunken laughter, no clever banter between whoever was brave enough to flirt with Madam Rosmerta, no warmth.

The air had been so cold, so tense in The Three Broomsticks that Katie had left soon after she felt she was being watched by several hooded people who had been sitting in the corner of the bar. Somehow, even though she was very, very drunk, the tiny, sober part of her mind had sensed that there was something wrong.

So she had gone. The streets were quiet, just as quiet as the pub: a few people going about their business, but no one speaking to each other, and she wondered once again what on earth she was even doing there. She hadn't been to Hogsmeade in a long time, not after she had been cursed the year before. Certainly, she didn't know where she was going now, only that she would have to keep walking, at least until she was sure she wasn't being followed and, preferably, had reached another pub so she could get another drink. Checking behind her to see if anyone was following, she continued unsteadily up the path, lightly dusted with snow, and to her relief, she finally caught sight of a square of bright yellow light, gleaming in the darkness a few metres ahead.

It was busier in the Hog's Head than Oliver expected it to be. He wasn't exactly happy about it, not when some of the patrons didn't even bother to pay for their drinks and every single person looked like they were hiding something. Oliver was darkly suspicious of practically everyone, especially given the rumours he was hearing about the Snatchers and the number of people continuously disappearing. But, as his employer told him, customers were customers. And even in a war, you need money, Aberforth Dumbledore had added.

It wasn't the best pay in the world, but it was all Oliver could manage after leaving Puddlemere. He refused to accept money from his mother, who was struggling enough as it was on her own, and he had been estranged from his uncles and aunts for years anyway, so he needed this job, dodgy punters be damned.

Even so, despite the fact that he was usually prepared for the unpredictable, the last person he expected to walk through the door was Katie Bell.

He was in the middle of polishing a glass when she stumbled in, and he was so taken by surprise that he almost dropped it. After placing it carefully on the counter, he took a deep breath, and he couldn't help but watch her from a distance as she took a seat at the end of the bar, resting her elbows on the surface and burying her face into her hands.

She was no longer the vibrant, colourful Katie that Oliver remembered from his school days; there was something inexplicably blurred about her features. Still, he would have recognised those eyes anywhere. Her cheeks were pink, not from the cold, Oliver suspected, but from drink. Judging from by the way she had bumped into several people before managing to reach the bar, she certainly was far from sober.

At that moment, he was jolted out of his reverie by a man waving his hand in front of Oliver's face. "Oi, can I get some service 'ere?"

"Yes, sir, sorry. What can I get you?" Oliver asked automatically.

"One large Firewhisky. Make it quick."

Once he had poured the drink and accepted the money, Oliver looked around. The pub had quieted a little, so, tentatively, he made his way towards Katie. He was surprised that she hadn't noticed him yet. But maybe she had, only she didn't want to say anything. Or, perhaps, she was too drunk to care either way.

"Katie?" he said when he was close enough to catch her attention.

She immediately sat up. "Oliver?"

"Yeah," he said, feeling stupid and insignificant for a moment.

"What are... what are you doing here?"

Sense kicking in, he grabbed a glass and filled it with water from the sink underneath the bar. "I could ask you the same question. Drink up."

But she just started laughing a horrible, humourless laugh that made his toes curl. "Please. I'm drunk." She stabbed his chest with her finger to punctuate her speech. "And I fully intend on getting drunker, so don't you fucking dare give me fucking water."

He leaned forward, trying to remain calm even though his heart had dropped to his stomach. Aware of the eyes on them both, he said as quietly as possible, "You should be more careful."

"Psh!" she said loudly, and he groaned inwardly; several more people turned to stare. "You don't need to... to give me a lecture, Ollie. I'm a big girl. Don't be so fucking pato — pat — patro — patronisey."

"It isn't safe to be wandering around on your own," he hissed back, trying his utmost to keep his voice down.

"Why?" she demanded. "Not like I'm a Muggleborn or anything—"

"It doesn't matter," he told her, still in hushed tones. "No one's safe right now. Not unless you have the fucking Dark Mark on your arm. And even then — look, where do you live? Do you have anyone who can pick you up?"

"Do I have anyone?" she repeated, laughing, but again, there was nothing humorous about her situation. Even her inebriated smile looked painted on. It certainly didn't meet her eyes. "I've never had—"

"Wait ten minutes and I'll Apparate you home, then," he whispered urgently. "Look, Katie, you can't be alone."

"Aren't you even going to give me a drink?"

"I've given you one," he said shortly, pointing at the water. "You need to sober up. Please. Curfew is in—" he checked his watch "—fifteen minutes. If you're not out by then, you're stuck here for the night, unless you want to set off the Caterwauling Charm, and fuck knows what will happen then."

"There's always the Knight Bus," she pointed out.

He shook his head. "Not a fucking chance. Don't be stupid, Katie. The Snatchers will mug you — or worse. You must know that."

She pouted, looking for a moment like she wanted to argue with him, but to his surprise, she finally nodded in acquiescence. "Fine."

Letting out a deep breath of relief, he moved to the next customer, and then the next, and then the next, before going upstairs to let Aberforth know he was leaving. Then, after grabbing his cloak, he went back to where Katie was sitting, downing a Gillywater.

"Hey, give me that!" he said angrily, snatching the bottle from her.

"Tastes like shit anyway," Katie slurred. "Should've got a Firewhisky instead."

"I thought I told you to sober up."

"Yeah, because you really can tell me what to do," Katie retorted. "Who the fuck are you, anyway, ordering me around — I haven't seen you in years, damn it, and I—" She broke off, trying to get to her feet, but it was proving impossible, because when she stood up, she wobbled so badly that she had to grab her stool to stop herself from falling. He rushed over to her, placing his arm around her shoulders and holding her upright. Thankfully, everyone was leaving now, and he hoped they could leave the pub unnoticed.

His tone softened somewhat as he said, "We'll go through the back door, yeah?" She nodded, her eyes closed, and she wound her arm tightly around his waist for support. "That's it... come on..."

Slowly, they made their way outside. Snow was falling in earnest now, and he shivered, even with his cloak on.

"Where do you live?" he asked.

She told him an address. He had never been to that part of London before, but he hoped he would be able to get them there safely nonetheless. Taking her arm, he screwed his eyes shut and turned on the spot.

They landed with a thump, and before Oliver could so much as take in his surroundings, Katie pushed him away, bent over and threw up on the pavement. He recoiled a little, but then he stepped forward and held her hair back, though it was useless, really, because he could already see the vomit in her thick black tangle.

"It's okay," he said, speaking up a little to make himself heard above the howling wind. He rubbed her back in what he hoped was a calming motion, not stopping until she finally stood up, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

"Fucking hell," she muttered. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."

"Let's get you home," he repeated.

"I can make my own way," Katie started, but he shook his head firmly.

"There is no way I'm letting you go anywhere in this state. Where's your key?"

She impatiently brushed away the tears on her cheeks, rummaging in her pocket, and it was only then that he properly looked around. They were standing in front of what he assumed was a council estate, and he winced, because it was far from pleasant. It looked like the kind of flat where people would piss in the lifts and spray graffiti on people's doors.

"Found it," she said finally. He nodded encouragingly, and she stepped forward, pressing the key against the reader.

The door opened, and Oliver murmured, "After you."

Once she was inside, he discreetly pointed his wand at the puddle of sick on the pavement and thought "Evanesco" before following her. She was already waiting in the lift, and when Oliver entered, she moved as far from him as possible, ensuring her back was to him. Ignoring this but slightly exasperated nevertheless, he asked, "Which floor?"


The journey upwards seemed to go on forever, and when they finally got out, Katie led the way, opening her door and immediately kicking a pizza box out of the threshold before she could get in.

"Sorry about the mess," she mumbled as he entered the living room and took a seat on the sofa.

He shook his head. "Have you eaten anything? Can I make something for you, maybe?"

For the first time, as she collapsed on the armrest, something close to a real smile flickered on her lips. "You can cook? When did that miracle happen and how come I wasn't invited?"

"Not particularly well," he admitted. "Toast and pot noodle and stuff."

"That doesn't count," she told him, still with that indulgent smile on her face, but it dissipated ever so slightly as she muttered, "I'm sorry."

"For what?" he asked, struggling to keep his voice level as she reached out and touched his cheek. He tried, ever so gently, to remove her hand, but he was finding it difficult to think as it was. "Don't worry. You'll be fine. I'll..." He hesitated before continuing, "I'll take care of you."

"Will you?" The uncertainty in her eyes was unbearable to see, and he stopped trying to prise her off for a moment, wanting, more than anything, for her to understand that he was there for her and that everything would be all right.

"Yeah," he told her. "I will. You'll be fine, Katie," he repeated.

The smile that had warmed up her whole face suddenly disappeared, and up close, he could see her eyes glaze over. "Ollie," she murmured, her other hand on his chest, against his now swiftly beating heart, "when did you become..." She paused; her palm had slid downwards to his belly, leaving a trail of fire in its wake, and he closed his eyes, cursing inwardly. "When did you become... so... hot?"

"Katie—" he began, but an involuntary groan left his lips as she reached up and kissed him, and though he winced a little at the vomit he could taste on her breath, he could not bring himself to stop her from parting his lips with her tongue. It was only when she slid off the armrest and into his lap, however, that he finally pushed her away.

"No, Katie, stop," he told her. "This isn't right. You're drunk—"

"Doesn't matter," Katie mumbled. "Not when... not when you want me."

"I don't," he lied.

"Yes you do," she insisted, her hand moving down, and he almost lost control; her lips were far too close to his for comfort, and after a moment of struggling, he extricated himself, his cheeks reddening, and turned his back on her.

"For fuck's sake!" he hissed. "Katie, please, you need to sleep it off."

"Oh, yeah, send me to bed like I'm a fucking kid—"

"I don't think you're a kid at all," he interrupted firmly. Slowly, he turned around, and he said as gently as he could, "I think — no, I know that you are very drunk, that you're not in the right mind at the moment and that you have a hell of a lot of explaining to do when you're sober. But right now, please, please go to bed."

For a second, Katie felt like arguing with him, but then she remembered the stash of whisky in her bedroom. If she could get up there without him, she would at least be able to drink herself to sleep and hopefully not dream.

Not for the first time, she wished she could afford a Dreamless Sleeping Draught, but even on the black market, it was expensive. At least she could scrounge drinks off people for free — she could with Muggles, anyway. It was a mistake going to Hogsmeade tonight. She should've gone to a Muggle pub instead.

So she nodded wearily, not even bothering to stop Oliver from taking her to her room. After all, he wouldn't go in with her, not after the fucking stunt she had just pulled. Godric, what the hell was she thinking? Or, rather, why wasn't she thinking? He was a friend. A good friend, even though she hadn't seen him in years and had no idea why he was working in The Hog's Head, of all places, when last time she checked, he was with Puddlemere United.

And Oliver wasn't some random Muggle in some trashy Muggle club in the back end of East London with bad music (but cheap drinks). No. He was... well, he was Oliver. And yet, somehow, he had just let her stick her tongue down his throat like that. He didn't deserve that, not in the slightest — but then, he didn't need to take her home, either, and he still did. Surely he wouldn't have done that if he hadn't cared about her?

He probably thought her a lush, a fucking alcy — he didn't care for her. No. If he felt anything for her, it was pity. That was all.

They had reached her room, and the hallway started swimming, so she closed her eyes and tried her utmost to focus on what Oliver was saying.

"'ll be all right?"

"Yeah," she squeaked. "Oliver, you don't have to..."

"I'm not going anywhere."

"You don't have any plans? Even just to go home?"

He laughed quietly. "Please. I live in a bedsit. The toilet is practically my pillow and I sleep with my feet in the fridge."

"I see."

"And my shift won't start until midday tomorrow. I'm fine staying here, keeping an eye on you. If you don't mind."

"I don't mind. Thank you," she added, and she hoped he knew she meant it. But when she took a step forward (she wasn't sure why — to hug him?), she was sure he took a wary step back, and she felt the crushing weight of her own self-pity thud down onto her heart. She didn't say anything, though; instead, she turned away, slipping into her room.

It was a mess as usual, with clothes covering the floor so thoroughly that she could not see a square inch of carpet anywhere, but thankfully, her bed was free from clutter for once. She was momentarily tempted to just fall onto the covers, because it looked so inviting, and she was so tired, but she thought better of it, remembering the cold sweat, the tears, the terror, the last time she had done that.

Reaching down, Katie retrieved a bottle from under her bed. It felt heavy in her hands and she nearly dropped it; her fingers trembled so badly that she had to use her wand to finally open the bottle.

Alcohol was not an addiction for Katie. That was what she told herself, anyway. At any rate, she hated the taste of it, particularly whisky, but it helped her forget. It made her black out and created a welcome black hole in her mind, even if it was only a temporary escape from the ever-present walls of guilt that threatened to crush her at any second.

Grimacing, she took a long glug of it, trying her utmost not to gag as a mixture of vomit and alcohol swirled around in her mouth. But she gagged anyway, and some of the drink dribbled down her chin. Unable to fight back the tears, she gulped it down, taking several long, deep breaths, and then she drank some more, only stopping when she felt blissful dizziness threaten to overcome her. She just managed to place the bottle on the floor before she dropped off to sleep, forgetting about the war, about Oliver and most of all — albeit momentarily — about Leanne.