The Sugar Quill
Author: Elsha (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Distinctions  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Distinctions

A/N: Sorry this has taken so long; between fencing nationals, mock exams, and the Weeks of Doom, it’s been a while. Another one-shot, Disadvantages, will be posted (hopefully) soon.

Distinctions

It had started with a letter. It had been a few minutes before the curfew, on the last day before the April holidays, and Theo had been carefully constructing a letter to his aunt. It was for his father, of course, but she was certain to read it before passing it on, and it could not be addressed to his father. His uncle and aunt had emphasised that necessity strongly before he had left for his sixth year at Hogwarts. It made him wonder, uneasily, how safe other letters he had written had been. But that was a nebulous fear, and easily banished.

The Slytherin common room was nearly deserted, save for some of the seventh-years frantically finishing homework in the corner. The dying firelight was just bright enough for Theo to write, if he sat at the table closest to the fire. All his letters home had to be constructed these days, he reflected as he searched for the correct words. Built up sentence by sentence to give the exact impression he wanted his father to receive. Theo was good at giving impressions. He’d never had to do it with words before.

Dipping his moulting quill in the ink – I really must get another one – he wrote. It’s disgusting the way the teachers are guarding all the Mudbloods – they dote on most of them. Everyone knows Hermione Granger will be Head Girl next year, unless something happens first- she's their pet. Even Snape can't find too much wrong with her. Draco managed to push a Mudblood into the swamp a few weeks ago, but unfortunately she was rescued. He doesn’t know the meaning of subtlety. There are far easier ways to get at them.

He paused again, examining what he had just written. Gripe about the Muggle-born students: check. Amusing anecdote about tragedy befalling one of them: check. Denigration of Malfoy while giving the impression his efforts to make their lives a misery were working: check. He scanned the rest of the letter. All that was really left was to tell his father about the latest Quidditch match. The fact that Potter had broken his own record for the shortest time to catch a Snitch wouldn’t go down well, but it did allow him a snide comment that this was the only thing that would have prevented the Gryffindors from being beaten. It wasn’t true. But it was what he would be expected to say, in true House partisanship, and he needed to meet every expectation. (Besides, his dislike of Malfoy didn't mean he enjoyed losing to Gryffindor every year. It was just that Theo would be damned before he followed Malfoy's example in any way he didn't have to.)

Theo signed his name in a quick scrawl. He checked his watch. Too late to go and send it tonight; he’d never make it back from the Owlery in time. There had been a DA meeting until nine o’clock. Potter had been pushing them, tonight, and Theo was tired. Gathering his things, he rose to go to bed. As he walked towards his dormitory, he wondered idly what his father’s reaction - or his uncle and aunt's - would be to a truthful account of the last couple of weeks.

Potter has been working us really hard at the DA meetings, and I have to work hard to avoid being caught going to them. Didn't I mention I'm training to fight Death Eaters? I'm still not really sure why, but I couldn't see anything else to do and you won't let me be neutral, will you? I didn't think so. But things are looking up, on the whole. I can talk to Anne about anything on my mind. She's my girlfriend, by the way. Yes, she's Muggle-born. Her little sister is pesky, but she seems to have calmed down lately. Even though you could cut the atmosphere round here with a knife. It's the war. I wish it wasn't happening. I wish you weren't so…I wish.

He reviewed the idea as he mumbled good night to his dormmates and climbed into bed. It would be interesting to see their reactions…interesting, yes, but quickly followed by events he didn't want to contemplate.

It's so unfair, he thought as he settled into sleep. If only she wasn't…Dad would like Anne. I know he would. If she wasn't Muggle-born. And I'd like to meet the rest of her family, her little sister that she keeps talking about, and her brother. But I'll never do that, will I? How can I?

Next year, whispered a voice. When you've left your family behind…you can be friends with whoever you choose, then. No more hiding. No more pretending. One more year, and you're free.

But I love Dad, I don't want to leave him, I won't! Theo argued furiously. He's all my family, Aunt Karena and Uncle Paul and my cousins don't count, well, they do, I suppose, some, but it's always been me and Dad! I can't leave him by himself!

Can't you? Do you need him? All lying means is holding on to the lie for another day, another week, another month. Let it go. Let them go. Children leave their parents; your time would come anyway. You'll be seventeen in September. An adult. You don't need them anymore.

Theo pulled the blankets round above his ears, but the seductive whisper wouldn't quit.

Don't forget your dreams for people you'd leave in the end. They aren't your future. Anne, the DA, that's the future. Reach for it.

It was a very long night.

*

Posting the letter wasn't the trouble, either. Nor was receiving the reply. In truth, Theo's thoughts over that week had been taken up with the whispers that had plagued him that night. It seemed crazy, he thought. Here he was, sitting in the Great Hall next to Blaise Zabini and Pansy Parkinson, on a boringly ordinary Saturday morning. His owl, Bronwyn, hooted softly at him. He untied his aunt's latest letter from the owl’s leg and stroked her glossy brown feathers before sending her off to the Owlery. Theo was quite fond of Bronwyn; she didn't offer opinions, didn't comment, and didn't have an agenda.

Unlike everyone else I know. Apart from Anne. But then Anne isn't the sort of person -

Theo hauled his wayward thoughts furiously back on track. Letter. He was going to read his aunt's letter, and there would be absolutely nothing about Anne. He'd thought that progressing beyond blushes and awkward silences might settle the matter in his mind, but no. Apparently kissing someone meant you thought about them even more. It was at times like this Theo really wished at least one of his dormmates was not a) signed up to the Death Eater Youth Club, b) weird, or c) stupid. Or d) all of the above. He was quite curious as to whether this happened to other people. But try as he might, he couldn't think of the right way to frame the question to Anne.

Anyway, she's far too sensible to think about me very much. If I can't even keep my mind on eating breakfast -

"Nott, why are you staring at that letter like it's going to bite you?" Parkinson said. She probably thought she was being witty, if the way she and Malfoy sniggered was any indication.

"You never know," Theo parried lightly. Pushing his porridge dish to one side, he opened the letter and rested it on the table to read. Malfoy would get a kick out of trying to read it, assuming he was too stupid to realise anyone else could see it, and there would be nothing of importance.

The real secrets are all in my head. Where they will stay.

There wasn't anything very exciting in the letter; just the usual advice, and inquiries, and "news from the front," as Anne had half-jokingly labelled it. That was what tugged at the back of his mind. His aunt never put anything outright about his father's activities, but there were…hints. Clues. Like today.

Don't worry too much about the Granger girl, or any of the Mudbloods; there will always be people like them, while the Muggle-lovers are in charge. In any case, she will not be so unconcerned in the next few days. Dumbledore cannot guard all of Britain.

"You should be careful with that, Nott, someone might see it," Blaise Zabini cautioned from his right.

"And what are you doing, Zabini, reading my letter?" Theo said contemptuously. "Relax, for Merlin's sake. It's not like Dumbledore's peering over my shoulder."

"This isn't a game, Theodore, we can't afford to think that!" Zabini replied sharply.

"You think I don't know that?" Theo replied. He caught Zabini's eye, and after a moment the other boy dropped his own.

"Just checking," he muttered.

Theo returned to his letter. Power had been asserted appropriately, and his place maintained. But something was still niggling. Something to do with the letter, and hints, and choices.

Allowing himself to think about Anne banished all that quite effectively.

Distractions still…I'm hopeless.

*

In fact, it was Anne's words that gave him the missing piece he needed to fit the puzzle together. Not that he'd even realised it was there until she spoke; then it dropped into place. When he looked back on that moment, it was an ending. He'd spent years pretending, months procrastinating, and suddenly all the agonised choices scoped into one.

"You've got a while yet," she'd said as she assembled her flute. Theo had been paying less attention to the words and more to her. The flute was flashing silver as she pieced it in deft movements. Theo wondered how many times she'd done that, and if she noticed the way she twisted her wrist to give the flute a brief, experimental shake once she was done. He'd never seen her tighten it after doing that, but she always did. Just to make sure.

"Do I?" Theo had replied, mind still adrift.

"Well, yes." Anne shrugged. "You're not seventeen until September, and even then you don't finish school 'till the July after that."

"That's only fifteen months," Theo had pointed out dryly. "Not long."

Anne frowned. "Maybe it isn't." Then she gave him a look Theo knew well - the wry half-smile that said "but what can we do about it?"

"Still, it isn't like the DA is asking you to be a spy, or something," she laughed. "I can just see that…the name's Nott. Theodore Nott." Her voice and face made it clear she was imitating something, but Theo couldn't for the life of him tell what.

"I'm sorry?" he said reflexively.

"I - long story, never mind," Anne had told him, biting back a grin, but the last piece was dropping into place.

They aren't asking me to be a spy…too honourable the lot of them, well, Granger or Smith wouldn't balk at it, but they'd never ask me to -
… she will not be so unconcerned in the next few days. Dumbledore cannot guard all of Britain…
…she wouldn't ask me, but should I tell her?

"Theo? What on earth's the matter?"

"Hmm - oh. Nothing. Just thinking, that's all."

*

The thought had lodged in his brain, and it wouldn't leave. For a year, now, he'd decided his father was wrong. He'd made friends with Anne and joined the DA but - he'd been able to justify it because he hadn't really done anything. Even in the unlikely and terrifying circumstance that his father did find out…no matter what the Dark Lord and the Death Eaters, no, the other Death Eaters would think, he could explain to his father. He could, he knew it. He would explain when the time came that he had to. This wasn't - had not been a war for him, but a war of word and heart and mind. Thoughts. His thoughts were traitorous and treasonable to his family's beliefs, but he hadn't actually done anything. In his darkest nightmares, he could cling to that thought.

And now? Now the choice was very, very clear. Hermione Granger's family was going to be attacked. He couldn't see any other way to interpret his aunt's comment, any other, more innocent way to read it. He could tell Granger, and through her forewarn his father's enemies. Because his aunt would probably be there, if she knew of it, and possibly his father as well.

Or he could hold his silence. It was just a hint, an interpretation, an idea. It wasn't straightforward. It wasn't as if his aunt had written "We are going to kill Hermione Granger's parents at eight o'clock on Monday night, please don't tell anyone." He could carry on like he always did. And maybe, one morning not so far from now, there would be a gap at the Gryffindor table, and another white-faced, red-eyed student would return to whispers and pitying silence. The lines on Harry Potter's face would deepen a little more. Ron Weasley would walk the corridors with a grim downturn to his mouth. Two more innocent people would be buried, somewhere in the British Isles, for having, sixteen years ago, had a child just a little different from other children. That child would sit down in Theo's Ancient Runes class with her back straight and her head high, because Hermione Granger didn't falter, no matter what, no matter the glances and whispers and smirks.

And Theo would know. That was the price of both his choices; knowledge. He would know that he was responsible for whatever happened, because he had spoken, or because he had kept silent. He would know that he had betrayed his family, maybe betrayed his father to harm. The Aurors didn't kill if they could help it, but this was war. Or he would know that a drop had been added to the ocean of grief and pain and blood this war was causing, and he could have prevented it.

It was very late. Theo had stayed up in the common room long after most of the Slytherins had gone to bed, in his favourite chair, the one facing just a little away from the others, towards the fire. He stared at the glowing embers, turning the puzzle over and over in his mind. It was really very simple. Which side was he on? Did he think that two Muggles' right to live was more important than his father's safety? What did he believe?

I've pretended for so long now. I know I think Muggle-borns shouldn't be killed. I know I think the Death Eaters are wrong. I know that Anne's family are Muggles, and people. So do I know that I should tell Hermione Granger? Can I go that far?

He really had no idea what a Death Eater attack was like. He'd heard about the aftermath, of course. He could guess. But his mind insisted on spinning fantasies. In his head, he saw a woman and a man sitting in their living room drinking tea, like he'd seen his uncle and aunt doing this summer. Hermione Granger's parents.

Then masked figures burst in, and it his errant mind played out blood, screams, arrogant laughter. That indefinable moment when you looked at someone and they changed from person to body, like his cousin had on a windy autumn day so long ago. And the Death Eater standing over the pair had his father's eyes.

They can't defend themselves. They're Muggles. They have no magic, no protection, nowhere to go. My father…this is my father's choice. He knows the risks and the danger and he can take care of himself. He is not defenceless.

God help me, but between those who can't defend themselves and those who can…I know who I have to choose. A year ago, I would have pretended I'd never got the letter. A year ago…but I'd know, even then, I'd still have known. I will not have anyone's blood on my hands, even at this remove. I said I wouldn't be a Death Eater because I will not kill; well, I won't aid and abet in killings, either. I can't. I can't.

I've missed my mother for fifteen years. I've wished she was there. I hated the summer because my parents were gone, both of them, even though I knew Dad was alive. I can't wish that on someone else. I can't.

Theo wondered where he could even find Hermione Granger. Where would she be, tomorrow morning? Where were most people on a Sunday? Could he go through with this?

The answer was obvious, even if he barely knew the Gryffindor girl. He found her in the library.

*

Theo looked around furtively, trying to appear calm. The library was almost empty on a Sunday morning; and no one could see him or Granger tucked away in this corner. It was safe. It had to be.

"Granger," he said quietly. His heart was pounding in his ears. This couldn't be happening.

"What?" The bushy-haired girl's head snapped up irritably. "I'm working!"

Theo could see irritation fade on her face, to be replaced by surprise. He'd never talked to her outside of a few cursory words in class. Why would he now?

"Nott? What is it?"

Theo stared at her for a long moment, gathering himself. She wasn't an especially pretty girl, Hermione Granger, but she was…intense. Vibrant. He imagined those brown eyes dulled by grief.

"Well?" she said, looking apprehensive.

"They're going to attack your parents." Theo had thought it would be easier, once the words were out. It wasn't.

Granger opened her mouth as if to frame a denial, then paused. “I – when?”

He had to force the words out. "Soon. In…in the next few days. I think."

Forgive me, Dad, but you can defend yourself. They…they can't. They can't. God help me.

Her face paled visibly. "How do you -"

"I - my aunt said that -" Theo clenched his fist, trying to steady himself. "I said something about you being the teachers' pet in a letter home, okay? And my aunt said that you would have other things to worry about in the next few days. She could mean an attack on the school, but I don't think - no, don't get up!" Granger had begun to rise from her chair, evidently set on running to the Headmaster's office and alerting as many people as she could.

"I have to go and -"

"No." Theo moved over, so she had no room to push her chair back. "If someone sees me talking to you, and you go running off to the Headmaster…where am I when word gets out?" The strain of speaking in low tones was getting to him, but he persevered. "Do you have any idea what they would do to a - to me, Granger?"

She lowered herself down again, face tight with anger.

"Yes." Her lips were pinched. "I know what they did to Harry, and Harry is just an enemy to them. Not a traitor."

Traitor. The word slid icily down Theo's spine. He shook his head instinctively. "I'm not a-"

"Oh, and aren't you? To them?" Granger tilted her head, gazing up at him. "Helping save Muggles. A blood traitor, for sure." Her tone was ironic, not accusatory, but…

"I-" Theo croaked. "I-" He couldn't bring his jumbled thoughts together. All he could hear was a relentless echo of traitor, traitor, traitor.

"What would you have me do?" he whispered. To Granger, or himself, he wasn't sure.

"Right now, you'd better go," Granger responded, ruthlessly practical. "Go and search the shelves for a while; give me a chance to get out. And - thank you." She bit her lip, looking suddenly young and vulnerable. "You are sure?"

"I'm sure." Theo lifted his shoulders in the stiffest and most reluctant of casual shrugs. "Your parents…I don't want their blood on my hands, that's all."

"Most people wouldn't blame you."

Theo smiled. He knew it wasn't a pleasant expression. "I don't care what other people think. I'd blame me." Before Granger could reply, he turned and walked away. He didn't want to continue this conversation.

What have I done?

*

The summons to Snape's office came at the most inopportune time possible. Theo was just heading off to the DA meeting on Tuesday night when his Head of House caught him leaving the common room. Snape materialised out of the dark corridor much like the Bloody Baron was wont to do.

"Ah, Nott, I want a word with you. Come with me." Theo threw a regretful look down the corridor leading to the stairs, but followed Snape. No Slytherin disobeyed the Potions Master.

Snape's office looked much the same as it always did; dark, foreboding, and decorated with jars whose contents Theo declined to speculate upon. Snape took a seat at his desk, but Theo remained standing.

"Sit down, Nott, I don't have all day!" Snape snapped. He dark eyes glowered.

Theo sat. In his head he heard the relentless drumbeat that had haunted him since Sunday morning.

Traitor, traitor, traitor.

"What do you think you're doing, Nott?" Snape began with no preamble whatsoever.

Theo thought fast. Snape knew nothing, and even if he did, the best course was to deny everything.

"Uh - sir? I don't understand."

"We do not have time for games," his Head of House said cuttingly. "I refer to your participation in Potter's little…study group." The last two words were filled with sarcasm. "And your conversation with Hermione Granger in the library on Sunday."

The blood drained from Theo's face. Help.

"Someone heard us?" His voice came out in a dry whisper.

Snape sighed. "Spare me the melodramatics, Nott; nobody heard you. Miss Granger saw fit to inform Professor Dumbledore of your warning, and your attendance at Potter's meetings, although," he frowned, "it took great persuasion before she was willing to reveal the source of her information. She seemed to consider it a betrayal of confidentiality."

"Betrayal." The word tasted bitter on Theo's tongue. He stared sightlessly at Snape's meticulously clear desk. "She hasn't betrayed anything."

"I take it you are regretting your confidence?" Theo looked up. Maybe he was imagining it, but something in Snape's voice seemed…softer.

"No." He squared his shoulders, and thought incongruously of Anne smiling at him. "Granger's parents are Muggles. They can't defend themselves. My father can." He swallowed, but this was getting easier every time he had to say it. "In this situation, call it a character flaw, but I would prefer to be on the side of the people who can't defend themselves."

A new chill found him as he recalled whispered conversations. Snape was supposed to be a Death Eater. If he told…if this was it…

His tongue appeared to be taking on a life of its own. Theo certainly never would have spoken his next words otherwise.

"And you can tell the Dark Lord, if you see him," he added softly, meeting Snape's gaze, "that I stand by that, and Potter, for I will not follow him."

"I do not know what gives you the impression the Dark Lord listens to me, Nott, but -" Snape began witheringly.

"I'm not stupid." Theo's tone was scornful. "I have ears, Professor, and I have eyes, and I have a very good idea what you are. I know you report to the Dark Lord. Whether you work for him, well, that's another matter."

The silence drew out, and Theo's eyes began to hurt, but he didn't drop his teacher's gaze. He had to know.

"Fortunately for you, Nott," Snape finally said, "I have enough consideration for your welfare that I will not be repeating your words to the Dark Lord. Everything that we say in this room, stays in this room, is that clear?"

"Crystal," Theo shot back.

"Good," Snape replied. "Nott….how long can you keep this up?"

Traitor, traitor, went the beat.

"As long as I have to, sir," Theo said steadily. "I want my family for…for as long as I can have them. And that means pretending, until the end of next year, anyway. After that all bets are off."

"They are indeed." Snape eyed him appraisingly. "Why Potter?"

"He was the only person I could approach that I could trust not to talk…and to let me be on his side."

"His side?"

"It is his side." Theo shrugged. Snape was smart enough not to let prejudice blind him. "It'll be him and the Dark Lord, one day. Everybody knows that."

"Do they." Snape sneered, and Theo felt the flicker of contempt. Maybe not so smart.

Can't he let it go? He acts like Potter's his worst enemy, and all Potter ever did from day one was exist! Well, and mouth off, but lesser men than him would crack if Snape was after him like that. Even Granger has, and she never loses it.

"Yes, Professor," he replied tonelessly. That was safe.

"You may go, Nott," Snape said with a final twist of his lips. Theo rose, eager to escape, but Snape stopped him at the door with a word.

"And Nott?"

"Sir?"

Snape regarded him with those fathomless dark eyes. Theo would have given a lot to know what was lurking in the depths. "I have lost enough of this House to the Dark Lord and his warring, one way or another. I would prefer it if you endeavoured to survive this, do you understand me?"

"I think I'd prefer it too, sir," Theo replied straight-face before he escaped. Using Snape's own weapons against him was chancy at best, and he was late for the meeting.

*

It wasn't much in the paper on Thursday morning. Attacks on Muggle-born families were two a penny these days, even if the Muggle-born in question was one of Potter's best friends. Theo borrowed Blaise Zabini's copy of the Prophet to see it touted as a victory for the Ministry. No deaths on the Auror side…but no Death Eater casualties or captives, either.

Theo let out a steady sigh of relief. His father was safe. That had been the thought haunting his sleep - his father injured, or captured, or worse, because he had chosen to have an attack of conscience. He realised Malfoy was looking at him, and summoned up a scowl.

"Granger's parents escaped. Of all the bloody bad luck."

Malfoy sneered. "They won't for much longer. That little Mudblood bitch puts on too many airs. The Dark Lord knows who she is."

"I'm sure he does," Theo replied dryly. His eyes flicked across to the Gryffindor table, where Granger could be seen next to the landmark of Weasley's red hair. She looked oddly unconcerned. "Not so much of a setback, at that. No one hurt."

"Was your father in on it?" Even Malfoy had enough sense to lower his voice.

"I think so." Theo kept his voice equally low. "I was a bit worried…the security around Potter's friend's parents was always going to be good."

Malfoy shrugged. "That's your problem, Theodore, you worry too much. I know those Aurors aren't all that." His smile was ugly. "Dad was there. I asked him to Crucio them a few times for me. I've taken enough from Granger."

"She's much the same as all the rest of them, as far as I care." Theo turned the page. Malfoy was so…petty. He pretended to be Potter's worst enemy, when Potter barely noticed his existence unless Malfoy put himself in his way. He smirked and sneered and made remarks like he just had when he couldn't even see Thestrals. Did he even know what death meant? It wasn't fun, or exciting, or satisfying. It was the most terrifying thing in Theo's experience. He never, ever wanted to see someone die again. As for causing death…

"Don't you get worked up about anything, Theodore?" Malfoy complained. "You just sit back and let everything happen to you! You never get involved. Fine job you'll do when it's our turn to…contribute." Again the knowing, meaningless smirk. Malfoy knew nothing.

"Oh, I intend to contribute." Theo smiled back at Malfoy, coldly and precisely. "I know exactly how I intend to contribute."

At least, I know what I'm not doing. And why. Where will that smirk be the day I tell you what I think, Draco? Will you even understand why? Why I could choose not to support the Dark Lord? I doubt it.

Traitor, traitor.

*

He decided to tell Anne that Saturday. The drumbeat had been growing in his mind ever since last Sunday, but he hoped telling Anne would exorcise it.

You can't go to Anne for confession, she won't understand, part of him argued bitterly. She's Muggle-born, she won't see that you should have had a problem doing this! It's just the right thing to her; she can never see how hard it is for you!

Yet he'd trusted Anne with so much else, everything else, and he felt the need pressing on him to trust her with this. Secrets, he had realised, were so hard to keep. It seemed academic when you thought about it; only people like Malfoy, he'd always thought, were actually incapable of keeping their mouths shut. It was a matter of self-control. That was all.

As he moved through his classes mechanically that week, even Malfoy was driven to ask if there was something wrong. It surprised Theo when he heard a genuine note of concern in the other boy's voice. He shrugged it off with a wave.

"It's nothing. Just all this homework. I'll sleep in on Sunday and be fine."

Malfoy scowled. "All very well for you, Nott, but some of us have to be up for Quidditch practice. We need to work Crabbe and Goyle more, if they hadn't been so appalling last time I'm sure we would have won by more against Ravenclaw -"

Theo tuned out.

He'd never thought Malfoy would care; maybe he'd misjudged him. But the concern was gone so quickly, absorbed back into the egotism, Theo decided he must have imagined it. A world where there was more to Malfoy than self-absorption was too disturbing to contemplate. He knew people could be complicated. He knew. He'd sat across a table from his father and heard him justify murder and worse with a shrug and a lie. A lie he believed. People could be more than they seemed, yes, he knew that. But Malfoy? He couldn't see that. Anne might think differently, he caught himself thinking, but he brushed that aside.

Which led his thoughts back to telling her. Secrets weren't easy to keep. Especially guilty ones. They pounded at you in your dreams, they whispered while you walked the corridors, they screamed to be told, to seek absolution. Traitor, traitor. Snape knew, of course, and so did Granger. And probably Weasley, and Potter, and Dumbledore, and…so not a secret, but then again, so much of one. Theo tried to tell himself, sleepless on early Thursday morning, that it wasn't as if he didn't keep secrets. If he hadn't had any, he wouldn't be in this position. But his secrets were not confined to him, they were Anne's, and the DA's, now. This was his burden, his decision, and he had to tell her. Anne would listen. Anne was safe.

*

He saw Terry crossing a slush-covered courtyard on Friday afternoon. Nobody else could be seen, so he greeted her - once they were both safely in the shelter of a doorway, out of sight.

"Terry, what brings you this way?"

"Detention," Terry grumped. "Professor Snape put the whole class in detention just because Cait and Jake made a mess! Even the Ravenclaws! It's stupid."

"Snape," replied Theo dryly, "has never been renowned for his even-handedness."

"He's really good at teaching," Terry with a wistful expression, "why does he have to be so…so bloody grumpy?"

"Such language from an innocent child," Theo scolded half-seriously. Terry was so blissfully uninvolved in…things. It was good to see.

"Sorry," Terry glanced up at him guiltily. "You sound more like my sister every day."

"Someone has to keep you in line."

Terry poked out her tongue at him. Theo just smiled. She was young.

"Did you see what happened to Hermione Granger's parents?" she said unexpectedly.

Theo's heart began to pound. If something had happened to them - after he'd betrayed his father to help them and they'd died -

"You mean the Death Eaters tried again?" he said urgently.

"Nah, just how they tried on Tuesday, or whenever. Do you know her or something?"

"Of course not, she's in Gryffindor," Theo replied automatically. "Why?"

"You looked worried."

"Just surprised, that's all." Terry gave him a puzzled look - yes, very young - but she let it pass.

"It was really strange. She came into our common room on Wednesday night looking really pale and then she went over to Ron Weasley and Harry Potter and hugged Ron Weasley for ages. I think she was crying a bit. But I'd be really upset if someone tried to hurt my parents," she added sagely. "She was really lucky they weren't killed. Gary Olsen, in my class, his parents got killed in the Christmas holidays."

Theo felt an odd wave of sadness. This bright child was talking about it like it was normal for people to be orphaned. That was…wrong. He felt the need to talk pressing on him again, the constant whisper. Terry would look puzzled, and tell him it was all right, he'd done the right thing. And she wouldn't understand, but he'd feel better.

"I'd better go," he said instead. "Take care of yourself, Gryffindor."

"You too," Terry laughed, and then she was bounding off. Theo entered the building, wondering why he stopped to speak to her. She was pesky and loud…and lively and young and innocent. If Anne could put up with her, after all, so could he.

We pretend to live up to their beliefs and then we end up living them.

Besides, someone needed to watch out for her.

And the drumbeat grew fainter for a little while.

*

It had returned by the next day. It hung over him at breakfast, when he glimpsed Anne eating with her friends, when he walked past Ron Weasley in the corridor and the red-headed boy gave him the smallest of nods; when he sat in his common room by the crackling fire, when he tried to wrap his mind around his Charms homework and found only a blank. When he heard some of the seventh-years whispering about the Death Eaters' latest move, it was there.

Traitor, traitor.

Worse still was the other voice.

Don't be silly, you're no traitor to what you don't believe in. Stop troubling your conscience. You don't need them anymore; you're not one of them. All children leave home. You don't need to worry about them.

It would be so easy to give in to that one. So insidious. He would not turn his father into the enemy. Whatever happened, whatever was going on, his father was…everything. Family. For all his life that he could remember, it had been the two of them in their house on the lonely Yorkshire moors. He couldn't have imagined it being any other way, before last summer, and his father's imprisonment, and the beginning of change. Now…he knew that he could never get his life before last June back. But he didn't want to give up his father. He didn't want to explain, but…Eric Nott's choices were his to make, and so were Theo's. He knew his father wouldn't understand.

But he could pretend, hope until the fact, that he would.

He must have looked particularly haggard, because Anne took one look at him when he walked in and pointed at a chair.

"Sit down, Theo, you look like something the cat dragged in."

"You're exaggerating ridiculously," he snapped. If they had an argument, he wouldn't have to tell her. But the drumbeat was there, and he knew there was no choice.

"Please don't, Theo, I've argued enough for one day," Anne said. She rubbed her forehead, and Theo saw the circles under her eyes. He came over to stand next to her.

"Bad day?" he asked, pushing stray hair back behind her ears.

"Nothing out of the ordinary," she sighed. "Just Mai and Gabby snapping at each other, and Ellie's still so upset about her aunt, and Sarah gets all bossy trying to sort it out, and - it's just all this work, and this damned war." She moved hesitantly to lean against Theo. They were both still working out the rules for this.

"I'm tired, that's all. You?"

"A bit more than that." He put an arm around her shoulders to guide her to the piano stool. "I need…can I tell you about something? Hear me out?"

"You can tell me anything," Anne said firmly. "Go on."

"You heard what happened to Hermione Granger's parents. Or rather, what didn't happen."

"I did." He glanced down at Anne; she had closed her eyes and appeared to be dozing blissfully on his shoulder. One eye cracked open.

"I'm listening, this is just so comfortable."

Theo quite agreed. Her head made a wonderful rest for his.

"The Death Eaters failed because they were betrayed," he said quietly. Funny; it was so easy to say this to Anne. She listened better than most people talked. "I told Granger there was an attack planned."

"I see." Anne's voice was…sad? "Your father?"

"I made some comment about Granger in a letter to my aunt, and she said…she intimated there'd be an attack. I couldn't…I had to tell her. Dad was…Dad was in on it, I think, but he …he didn't get hurt."

"That's why you were so distracted last Saturday. And Tuesday."

"Yes."

There was silence for a few seconds before Anne spoke.

"Theo, you didn't betray them."

It was what he had wanted to hear, but…was it?

"You can't say that. I was expected to keep the information to myself, and I passed it on to my dad's enemies. What do you call that?" Did he sound that desperate?

"Theo…" It was sadness in Anne's voice. Not pity, he would have run from pity. Just the pain of someone who sees a friend in distress and can't help. "It isn't that simple, I think. There are…distinctions."

Traitor, traitor, the drumbeat still whispered, and he had to make it stop.

He didn't know how.

*

Anne felt Theo stiffen.

"Distinctions," he spat bitterly. "Distinctions like that are just excuses."

"Distinctions are important," Anne argued. "Or are you going to call yourself dishonourable, Theo, because you of all people are not! You saved two lives!"

"Yes, but-" he stood up with a jerk, refusing to face her. "Every day," and Anne strained to hear him, "every day I have to get up and pretend to be what I'm not, and it's all to hold off the day when it's impossible to pretend any longer. I'm going to lose them. I'm going to lose my family and they don't even know it. It's like," he sounded close nearly to tears, "like they're going to die but I can't tell them because it would kill them! I want-" He turned, then, and Anne could see unshed tears glistening defiantly. That did shake her, because Theo didn't cry. Boys didn't cry.

"I don't want to have to make those distinctions, between traitor and spy and saviour, because if I do they sound like excuses, and if I don't…how do I live with that? And then there's the voice that keeps telling me it doesn't really matter, people leave their families behind when they grow up, and I'll be an adult in September. It'd be so easy to give in to that, but I can't, because it does matter. That's the trouble with us Slytherins, you know." He gave a crooked smile. "Ambition's our strength and our fatal flaw. But you probably know that."

"Yes." Anne took a hesitant step towards him. "I can't tell you what the right thing is, Theo, because I'm too biased." Another. "But I know that whatever you decide the right thing is, you'll do it." One more. "I know you."

Something in Theo's eyes froze her before she took that final step. A wave of sadness.

"I told Dad that, at New Year's," he mumbled. "I sat there reading the paper about all those innocent people dead and I told him I knew he'd do the right thing."

For the first time in her acquaintance with Theo, Anne had no idea what to say or do. How could she make that better, as much as she wanted to? How could she even comment? The worst argument she'd had with her parents was over the colour of her bedroom walls. The pain in Theo's eyes was as foreign to her as magic had once been.

Steeling herself for rejection, she laid a cautious hand on his arm.

"I have no idea what to say," she told Theo. She laughed shakily. "I can't put myself in your place, because I wouldn't know where to begin. But if I could make it right again…"

"I know you would," Theo said, and in a swift step he was holding her again. Anne leant her head on his shoulder, closing her eyes. This was quite possibly the best thing about being…official. Theo holding her like this, and the feeling of security.

"I'm mostly angry at them, at the moment," Theo said into her hair. "It's so easy to say that it's all their fault, and if they weren't so blind…but then if they knew they'd say it was my fault. For not agreeing. If it's anyone's, I think, it's the Dark Lord. If he hadn't come along…"

"Theo, in all honesty, would your family like Muggle-borns even without the Dark Lord?"

"Well…"Theo said reluctantly, "No. But then I could just have raging arguments with them about it, you know? And tell them they were idiots, and they could upbraid me for disgracing the family, and it'd all be so much cleaner."

"I think I know what your problem is," Anne announced.

"What?"

"You're thinking too much like a Gryffindor."

"WHAT?" Anne felt Theo pull away from their nice comfortable embrace to hold her by the upper arms and gape. "Gryffindor? What are you talking about?"

"Cleaner, you said." Anne couldn't help the trace of amusement on her face. Theo was so predictable, sometimes. "You're so Gryffindor sometimes, Theo. Honourable and chivalrous and…those are good things," she added desperately, "but you're always having a go at Terry for them. Didn't you tell her a couple of weeks ago that honour is nice but you can always apologise as long as you're alive to do it?"
The play of emotions on his face was interesting. Complete disbelief had been swallowed by outrage and was now segueing into chagrin.

"Maybe - but aren't Hufflepuffs supposed to support that sort of thing?"

"Not particularly," Anne explained. "We do decent. That's a bit different. Far less crusading. Theo - you can torture yourself about this forever, or you let it go. Could you have not warned Hermione Granger?"

"No, but I…I should…" Theo sighed. "I hate lying. I hate fulfilling every last stupid hypocritical mistaken prejudice about Slytherins because I can't do anything else."

"But you've chosen," Anne reminded him quietly. "You keep telling me that you couldn't choose otherwise - so learn to live with it, and everything it means. Because to be honest, I know this is really hard for you, but -"

"-there's only so much relentless self-pity you can take from me?" Well, he was recovering his sense of humour.

"Something like that."

"Fine, I promise. No more brooding." Theo lifted a hand to sweep hair back from her face, and his fingers lingered against her cheek. "But when I can tell my dad the truth…I want that to be over, but I don't want to hate him. That would be betrayal."

Anne caught the hand in hers. "Theo, I've heard you talk about your dad. You love him too much to hate him. Even with this war in the way."

"Love and hate are two sides of the same coin, didn't someone say?" Theo curled his fingers around hers.

"There are other sayings, too."

"Like?"

Anne stared up at him soberly. "The ones we hurt most are the ones we love."

"Not if I can help it." Theo pulled her closer, and Anne was content to let the unspoken words hang between them. Besides, Theo was clearly getting distracted by proximity, and she was quite happy to join him in distraction.

I'd never hurt you.

I know.

//
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