The Sugar Quill
Author: Elsha (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Disavowals  Chapter: Fortissimo (22)
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Chapter Twenty-Two - Fortissimo

A/N: And so we come to the point of it all. I’d like to extend an extra-special thanks to my beta Zsenya, since she sent me this on what must have been either the day before or the day of her birthday. She ROX, but of course you Quillers knew that already.

Chapter Twenty-Two - Fortissimo

The corridors of Hogwarts had never seemed so endless to Anne. Nor so full of people. Padma's muttered comment had been correct; they were still on the fourth floor. Every time they tried to get lower, something - or someone - blocked their way. But, even as minutes stretched into eternity, there came a time when Anne and the other members of the DA with her had made it past several classrooms without encountering a Death Eater. Then to the next set of stairs. Then to the third floor. Then they began to meet other students, Aurors, even a couple of teachers, and realised that the battle, without ever quite seeming real, was over.

It wasn't until they met Sergeant Tonks on the stairs to the second floor (who very nearly took Ernie Macmillan's head off) that they found out why the Death Eaters were falling back.

"Be a bit more careful, you lot, the last thing we need is students lost to friendly fire," Tonks scolded them. “Is it all clear behind you?"

"We've done our best," Ernie told her, the pomposity nearly gone from his voice. "Professor Vector told us that everything from here up was safe, as far as she knew. We've only seen other students for a while."

"Not many Death Eaters made it up anywhere near the towers. You must be the lot that've been picking off those that did; all the common rooms are safe." Tonks didn't relax; her eyes flicked around the corridor. "You do know that you were all supposed to stay in there?"

"They might have reached the Gryffindor and Ravenclaw common rooms if we'd done that," Padma snapped, folding her arms. "What was the point of training all this time just to hide?"

"I didn't say you should have, I was wondering if you knew you were supposed to," Tonks rejoined calmly. "They didn't reach them, after all, and you're probably right, without students fighting...it doesn't matter. It's all over bar the shouting by now."

"We've got them on the run?" Justin said hopefully.

Tonks smiled grimly. "Not many of them wanted to hang around and find out what happened after You Know Who was killed."

Her words got silence for a second, before all five of them started to speak at once.

"I say, is that poss-"

"You're not serious!"

"How did Harry do it?"

"I don't see how he could -"

"Oh, thank God." Anne felt a rush of pure relief. Without the Dark Lord, the driving force behind the Death Eaters was gone.

And wouldn't they have said that of us without Dumbledore?

Except we had Harry Potter in his place. Dumbledore's Army. Hah. It was Harry Potter's army all along, and we knew it.

Tonks held up a hand. "I don't know any details. But I do know that we're supposed to get anyone injured to the Great Hall; they're setting up in there. How are all of you?"

Anne rubbed her left shoulder. It was throbbing after she'd been thrown back into that stone wall, and would probably be a mass of bruises by now. The pike cut on her arm stung, the robe around it crusted with blood. Her knees and palms were grazed from landing on the stone floor. Her flayed thigh was beginning to bleed again. She felt like she'd been put through a wringer. The others were in no better condition; Terry Boot, in particular, was held upright by sheer force of will. Then there were Lavender and Parvati, left in that classroom. Lavender possibly dead by now.

But Anne had to go and fetch her sister.

"Never mind," Tonks said after they all exchanged glances, no one willing to be the first to admit weakness, "you're all going. That's an order. I'll come with you."

"Sergeant," Padma interrupted, "there's a student in one of the fifth floor classrooms, my sister's with her, she's - someone has to go and get her."

"I have to go and fetch my sister," Anne said hesitantly, "I left her in the Library, and I don't know...I have to make sure she's all right."

Tonks sighed. "Okay; two of you go on with – Anne, wasn’t it? - and the other two come and show me where your friend is. Then straight down to the Hall; it should be safe enough by now."

Justin and Padma elected to come with Anne to the library, two floors up. Padma seemed unwilling, suddenly, to confront what might have happened to Lavender.

The route Anne took to the library, back on the fourth floor, was only periodically marred by burn marks on the walls, or blood. Rounding a corner to discover the body of one of Terry's classmates, who must have been trying to get back to the Gryffindor common room, was the worst point. Anne couldn't remember his name. It seemed unfair; here he was, twelve years old and lying dead in the hallway of his school, not a mark on him, and Anne couldn't even remember his name. Padma flinched and hurried them on. Anne didn't want to linger; it brought back her fears for Terry too easily.

The library was so untouched that Anne stopped in confusion when she went in. Surely this couldn't be part of the same castle that had just had a battle waged through its corridors. She had to look around at Justin behind her to reassure herself that she wasn't dreaming.

"Well, I can’t see anyone in here,” Justin said. “Are you sure -”

"I left Terry - my sister Terry, that is - in here," Anne explained, striding towards the Restricted Section. The brisk motion let her know that her leg was worse than she'd thought; it hurt every time she moved. But there was no time for that. "I thought if she stayed in the Restricted Section and was very quiet, it was safer than sending her back to her common room through the battle."

Padma Patil scoffed. "Like the Death Eaters will still be scared to go in there because they went to Hogwarts?"

"I would be," Justin said pointedly. He looked around quickly as Anne unhooked the rope the barred entry to the Restricted Section. "You're sure Madam Pince isn't anywhere around here?"

"Relax, she'll be down in the Great Hall," Padma reassured him. "Don't worry - she lets me come in here anyway, you'll be fine if I'm with you."

"Ravenclaws," Justin muttered, but it was good natured. "Trust you to get on the librarian's good side."

"Terry?" Anne called, making her way to the spot she'd left her sister. Not that she trusted Terry to stay in the same place, but hopefully she'd be somewhere around there. "Terry, it's Anne, you can come out now, the battle's over."

Silence.

"Terry?" Anne raised her voice, darting through the shelves. No sign of her sister was to be seen...

...dead or alive. No -

"Terry!"

"I can't see any sign of anyone," Justin said, coming up behind her. "Padma?"

"No." The Ravenclaw girl shook her head.

"Oh, no!" Anne clenched a fist. If she stayed very still for a minute and tried to calm down, things would look better. They had to. There hadn't been a fight - there wasn't a body -

"We'll go and get people looking, okay? I need to find Parvati," Padma said in reasonable tones. "You have a look around here. I'm sure...she can't have..." Her voice trailed off.

Anne shook her head, opening her eyes. "No, if you don't mind, I - I'll come with you. It's not safe by myself."

"No," Justin agreed. "Come on then. Be a shame to fight a battle and die because Madam Pince caught us in the Restricted Section."

Anne's laughter was nervous, but it was the only way to let off tension. It was that, or weep.

Terry, where the hell are you?

*

Outside the castle, Theo was right in the middle of a battle he'd promised himself he'd never fight. At this very moment, he wasn't. He'd been knocked down, and was lying on the ground, unmoving. It was an excellent tactic. With all the people rushing past, one more slumped body was just so much scenery. He watched the world through slitted eyelids for a few more seconds, trying to work out when to move, when he noticed Susan Bones only a couple of metres away being disarmed by a Death Eater who was about to trip over Theo if he went any further backwards.

It was only a quick stretch to pull the Death Eater's feet out from under him, and since his cover was now broken, the work of a second to summon the man's wand - and Susan's - and toss Susan's back to its owner.

She caught it deftly, blinking.

"Thanks!"

That was all they had time for before her eyes widened and Theo was hitting the ground again, a spell whose nature he didn't care to speculate on breezing over his head. This time he came up throwing a hex he'd seen his father use once. It was quasi-legal, if that, but nobody could fight well with their windpipe blocked.

The Death Eater collapsed to his knees, clawing uselessly at his throat, so Theo disarmed him and lifted the spell. He didn't stay in one spot long enough to check if the man was unconscious or...there was enough to worry about without wondering if he'd killed someone. Odd. He was fighting this war because he hadn't wanted to kill anyone. That would be…ironic.

For some reason, the fighting was dying down. Everyone - Death Eaters, students, and Aurors alike - was looking towards a spot not so far in front of the massive front doors of Hogwarts. Theo glanced over his shoulder; there was no one behind him, except Professor Flitwick, who was hardly a danger. He had to move quietly forward to see what could stop a battle.

Not much to look at, really. Just two figures facing each other at a distance of two metres. Maybe three. One scrawny and dark-haired, with the uncertain sun, low over the Forbidden Forest, glinting off his glasses. The other tall and sinuous, not quite human.

Theo couldn't hear what they were saying, but a cold shiver ran down his spine. He’d never seen the Dark Lord, never wanted to. Now, the idea of getting close enough to that…that thing to speak to it, let alone swear allegiance, had him wanting to run the other way.

But Harry Potter didn’t waver. Potter and the Dark Lord. How many times had they faced off, over the years? Five? Six? How many times had Harry Potter escaped by the skin of his teeth?

How many times, come to that, had the Dark Lord escaped by the skin of his teeth?

But someone was not going to escape, today.

The Dark Lord raised his wand, and green light flooded towards Potter. But the idiot Gryffindor didn't even move; he simply raised his own wand, and his spell met the Dark Lord's half-way.

But instead of spinning away, like ordinary spells, the light twisted into a golden line that connected both wands. Theo stared. Potter was standing rigidly, as if holding that line was an effort of will in itself. Then he raised his free hand to his head, as if in pain.

The Dark Lord was laughing.

Theo gripped his wand, knuckles white. It had never seemed possible that Potter could lose. He was Harry Potter. Surviving was what he did. He'd taught all of them to survive.

He couldn't die now.

But no one was listening to Theo's wishes; Potter fell to his knees. Still holding that golden light that flowed between his wand and the Dark Lord's.

Theo's eyes flicked towards movement. Someone - a small group of someones - had burst from the doors of Hogwarts and were running towards Potter and the Dark Lord at top speed. Dark-robed figures moved to halt them, but all of the group save one turned to fight. Theo saw one fall to the ground - was it Luna Lovegood? - but the Death Eaters didn't stop the one person who Theo suddenly realised must really matter. At this distance, it was hard to tell, but Theo rather thought it was Neville Longbottom.

Longbottom halted as if reaching an invisible line a couple of metres from Potter, and threw his burden. A sword, glinting in the morning light, stuck upright in the ground in front of Potter.

In one swift movement, Potter threw his wand straight at the Dark Lord. The Dark Lord jerked back in a human reaction Theo never would have expected. The second was enough for Potter to rise to his feet, grabbing the sword from the ground. Theo's view of what happened next was blocked by the Dark Lord's body. Then Potter stumbled back a few paces, sword in hand, and the Dark Lord just - collapsed. Like any other wizard, on this bloodied field. At the end, found by the death he'd sold his soul into darkness to avoid - just like anyone else.

Potter was left standing over him, holding what could only be the bloodied sword of Gryffindor he'd killed that basilisk with, long ago. For a second, there was silence. Then it was broken by a despairing scream from one of the Death Eaters. She threw herself at Potter, who was now wandless. His friends moved to block her, and as if it had been a signal, other Death Eaters began to fight. Theo was lucky. The closest Death Eater had been directly in front of him, looking in the same direction as Theo. She didn't even see Susan Bones before the Hufflepuff Stunned her.

"Miss Bones, students are supposed to be in their common rooms!" squeaked Flitwick, but neither Theo or Susan paid him any attention. Then all was chaos once more.

It was a different sort of chaos to before, though; now the Death Eaters were desperate. Their master had been killed by a seventeen-year-old boy before their very eyes. Conversely, Hogwarts' defenders, Theo included, could take heart; the invincible Dark Lord had proven as mortal as anyone else.

That didn't mean the battle was over. Theo got a deep gash on his cheek, a burnt shoulder, and narrowly dodged a Bone-Breaking curse that would have snapped his neck. There was worse, too. Hannah Abbott died fighting. That was the best you could say about it. There weren't really that many dead, but to Theo's eyes, corpses seemed to be everywhere. The Death Eaters were as bad as the students; he knew both groups. Tripping over the headless body of Blaise Zabini - someone he'd shared a dorm with for seven years, even vainly hoped for as an ally - was probably the low point of his life to date. He threw up in reflexive nausea.

Eventually he stumbled back into the Entrance Hall. People were milling everywhere; he peered into the Great Hall. It looked like an infirmary was being set up there. Certainly the Hospital Wing wouldn't hold all these people.

He considered asking a passing Auror if it was over, but he didn't need to. If it wasn't, Dennis Creevey wouldn't be sitting on the stairs, head slumped. Theo swallowed convulsively. He didn't think he'd be able to look at the fourth-year again without seeing the image of Colin Creevey throwing himself in front of his younger brother. Dennis' robes were drenched with blood, but it wasn't his; it was Colin's.

Theo resisted the urge to just curl up on the floor and stare at nothing. There wasn't - maybe there was time, now. Well, there was no point. He needed to - to get his own wounds looked at, although it seemed like a petty worry when Anthony Goldstein had a hand missing. To find Anne. His stomach lurched at the thought of what might have happened to her. To find his cousins, to -

- to try and not think. Because he couldn't face this day, this morning, it couldn't be twelve o'clock yet, until later. The blood and pain was far too close. It took him a few seconds of thought before he could remember to go towards the Hall.

A cry from behind brought him up short.

"Theodore! Theodore Nott! Anne Fairleigh's sister's missing!"

He spun round. "What? Which one?"

Padma Patil nodded, eyes wide. "You know, the Gryffindor. We're looking for her. The common rooms are safe and they've found everyone else, almost, but she sneaked out and then Anne left her in the library and she wasn't there when we went back. I think -"

Theo swore. Not under his breath. Padma’s shocked exclamation went unheeded. "Where aren't you looking?"

"I don't think anyone's looked outside yet, it's still too dangerous - and the Aurors will find her if she's there."

Theo spun on his heel, all pain forgotten, and headed straight back out the main door. If she wasn't supposed to be outside, she would be. Damn Terry, she wasn't that stupid.

Damn Gryffindor courage, anyway.

If anyone's listening, please let me find her.

Alive. I don't think I could handle finding her dead.

Well, at least I know Anne's all right if she had energy to spare worrying about Terry. Except this is Anne; she'd probably worry if she was at death's door -

Shut up and look!

The lawn in front of Hogwarts, viewed from this angle, was a mess of broken bodies and scarred earth, slowly being cleared as people were taken to the Great Hall to be treated - or to the small huddle of prisoners, ringed by Aurors. Theo avoided looking in that direction. He didn't want to see...whatever might be there.

Of the Dark Lord, and Harry Potter, there was no sign. Theo wondered where they had gone. He wondered if Potter was alive. He had to be, after defeating the Dark Lord. Dying at someone else's hands would be...wrong. Stories didn't go like that.

Life wasn't a story. Stories had happy endings.

Terry wasn't among the dead and injured. She wasn't hidden by the piles of earth thrown up by explosive spells. She wasn't anywhere that Theo could see, so he headed right, down past the shattered greenhouses, toward the lakeshore where the willows grew, near the edge of the Forbidden Forest. Where he'd once sat with Anne and spoken of a future he'd never believed would happen. It was the sort of place Terry would probably have gone, the sort of place he himself would run if he was a twelve-year-old caught in the middle of a battle. Away. Terry was more likely to run towards, of course, but even she couldn't be that silly.

She hadn't been, either. Theo felt obscurely cheated when he found her propped up against a rock, throwing pebbles into the lake, with a mildly sulky expression on her face. This could be Terry any day. Surely after...what had happened, she must be a little more affected.

"Your sister," he said very clearly, "will want your head on a platter once she's made sure you're alive. I'm half inclined to give it to her. Do you have any idea how worried we are?

The last came out in a half-shout. Perhaps he wasn't quite as sanguine about Terry as he liked to believe. Perhaps he wasn't as sanguine about anything as he'd like to be.

Terry started when he spoke, dropping the rock she'd been about to throw.

"Theo! Theo, don't do that, you scared me, I thought you were a Death Eater. Is everyone all right? I didn't mean to scare Anne but I had to leave the library 'cause it was boring and I didn’t know what was happening, and then I ended up coming down the back stairs and there was a Death Eater and I ran the other way, and then I tripped up and my leg hurts and I managed to get over here and take the spells off and...you're looking at me funny."

"It was boring?" Theo said. He was not shouting. That would be inappropriate. "There was a battle and you went out into the middle of it because you were bored? I should kill you and save someone else the trouble!"

"I'm sorry," Terry said in a small voice. It was the first time Theo had ever thought of her as small in any way, apart from physically. "I wanted to help. And then I - I ran away because...because I'm a coward. I'm sorry." A tear trickled down her cheek. "I was scared."

She said the last in tones so low Theo could barely hear her. He didn't know how she managed to trip every single elder brother reflex that he'd never had the chance to acquire because he was an only child, but somehow, Terry Fairleigh did it. He let out a sigh, folding his arms.

"You are not a coward. You are brave to the point of insanity. You're a Gryffindor. Cowardice is the last thing you need to worry about. Prudence is what you're lacking. Come on back to the castle and we'll let everyone know you're not on the casualty list."

"Is it that bad?"

"Yes," Theo told her, because she'd have to hear it sometime. "It is. Not anyone who was in the common rooms, just the people who were up, and Aurors. Serve them right for being early risers. But your family are okay, I assume, and mine, I hope, anyway, and Anne, which you know, or I'd be much more upset. I can't say about your friends, since I don't know them. But come back and we'll see."

Terry nodded, unwrapping her arms from around her knees. "Okay."

She made it to her feet, but the first step she took caused her to wince and stumble.

"Aaah!"

Theo steadied her. "You said you'd tripped...you haven't broken anything, have you?"

Terry sniffled, wiping her face on her sleeve. "No. I'm fine. I can walk."

She made it one more step before falling over. Theo caught her.

"Don't be ridiculous. You'll hurt yourself even more. Come on."

It was relatively easy to swing her up into his arms, though he winced when she grabbed his upper arm in reflex and pulled his burnt shoulder painfully. It would certainly get them back to the castle much faster. "I'll carry you."

Terry, unhelpfully, began to drum on his back with her fists. "No! Let me down, Theo, I can walk! Let me down!"

"Absolutely not. Stop that. We'll take all day if you keep hitting me. Can't you act your age?"

That got a sullen silence and folded arms. Better than violence.

"I am acting my age."

"You could have fooled me," Theo said blandly. "Ow!"

*

Terry was a surprisingly light burden - not that she was very tall, or anything - but Theo had to stop and catch his breath on the crest of the rise looking down over the lake. He was met there by Ernie Macmillan.

"Theodore! You found her. Thank Merlin. She's almost the last one unaccounted for."

"Don't talk over my head," Terry snapped, still put out about being carried.

"I'm sorry, Terry, I didn't mean to insult you," Ernie said in his kind but overbearing manner. "Theodore, are you sure you can manage -"

"No, it's fine," Theo said, adjusting his grip on Terry. His shoulder wasn't really hurting any more than it would if he wasn't carrying her. "And you, Terry?"

"'I'm okay," she whispered, but her face was white. "No, really, I'm fine, Theo, don't look at me like that! Maybe you should try letting me walk 'cause I think I could manage the rest of the way -"

"Bloody Gryffindors," Theo muttered in a tone meant to be heard, and then, raising his voice, "I should think not."

"Theodore!" Ernie called, and Theo looked around. Ernie pointed towards a prone form in Death Eater robes, half-hidden by the long grass where nobody near the castle could see him. Theo didn't know how he'd missed the man on his way to find Terry. "Unconscious, I think. We'd best do something about it."

Theo froze. He would have recognised that man anywhere, anytime. Even masked and hooded.

Not now. I can't -

Aloud, he said, "Ernie...will you take Terry back to the castle, please?"

Ernie's gaze flickered from Eric Nott to Theo. He wasn't stupid. "Are you sure that's a good idea, Theo?"

"Oh!" Terry gasped. "Is that your...is that your dad?"

Theo ignored her up-turned face, looking straight at Ernie. "What, don't you trust me?"

Ernie said nothing for a long moment. "Be careful, that's all. We don't want to lose you now."

"No one's losing me to him," Theo said, nodding at his father, and the truth of that cut like a knife. "Please. Just make sure Terry gets back there safely."

"I can walk," Terry protested as she was handed over to Ernie, "it doesn't hurt that much - ah!" She gave a short cry of pain as Theo joggled her more than was necessary.

"It doesn't? How nice." Theo nodded to Ernie. "Tell A - I'll be back soon. Tell...just let whoever's in charge know I'm safe."

"Right." Theo waited until the Hufflepuff boy was out of earshot - to his credit, he only looked back once - before raising his wand.

"Accio wand." His father's wand, familiar as his own, flew out of the grass towards him. Theo caught and pocketed it. It wasn't that he didn't trust - well, you could never be sure -

- he's a Death Eater and we just won a battle against him and I can't let him keep his wand. Oh, God. How did we come to this?

There was no one else around, really. They were all drifting back to the castle, or huddled in the small group of prisoners, or...lying unmoving. He and Ernie, searching for Terry, must have been some of the last students remaining outside the castle.

He gave up the struggle to remain standing and sat down beside his father, pushing the grass out of the way. The mask came off with a quick tug, and Theo felt his heart twist. Almost a year, it had been, the longest of his life. But you couldn't go back. He couldn't see this familiar, beloved face without the echo of others behind it; Leonora's big grey eyes, Gabby Hayle sitting next to Anne. The memories of peace had been overlain with others. A sleepless night spent waiting for Anne's assurance she was alive. A letter that had forced him into betrayal. A journey in the dark from safety into danger.

Theo tried to remember the time when his father had been the one person he'd trusted and loved without question; he knew it had been that way, once. It was gone, as easily and quickly as life. No, not easily, and maybe not so quickly, but the memories were dim, and forever tainted.

"I suppose that's what I can't forgive," Theo said aloud, and was unsurprised to see his father's eyes open and round with shock.

"Theodore -" Eric Nott pushed himself up, but only got half-way. "Theodore? What are you doing here?"

"I was looking for my girlfriend's sister. She was lost, after the battle."

His father frowned. "Girlfriend?"

Theo shrugged. Secrecy, too, was as vanished as everything else from that time. "Of course, I never told you."

"Was it that bad?" his father said, half in humour, half in apprehension. He managed to sit up, brushing grass off his shoulders.

"For you, it is. Would have been, if I'd said anything. Unless you've had a change of heart with the Dark Lord's fall."

"Fall?" His father's mouth dropped open. "His fall?"

It would be much easier to not feel anything, right now. Like pity. Or sadness. Or compassion. Or love. But Theo couldn't do that, so he didn't bother trying.

"Harry Potter killed him. Half an hour ago, maybe. It's over, Dad. You..." His throat closed up. You lost everything, but I can't tell you that because it's true.

"No!" his father said, voice rising, "not again, we were going to win this time! Forever!"

"Nothing is forever," Theo said, more harshly than he intended. "Call it a gamble. Everyone in this had a choice. You chose one way, I chose another. Someone was always going to have chosen wrongly. I wish...I wish you hadn't." He hooked his arms around his legs, as if physical protection would help.

Eric Nott looked like a man whose world had collapsed around him. Theo supposed it had.

"The Dark Lord couldn't lose. I wouldn't have followed him if he could lose!"

"Is that what it was all about?" Theo shot back, unwilling to see frailty. He'd clung to the idea that his father thought he was right. If it was only power...some prices you couldn't pay..."Just power? Just...I thought it was to protect the future!"

"Without power, you can't protect the future! You can only watch it go to waste!" his father retorted. "Do you have any idea what you've done, Theodore? What you did to me, this year? Leaving and never a word? Making the Dark Lord order your death? How could you?"

Theo closed his eyes. He'd known this moment would come, somewhere, had hoped for it in a strange way, but everything he'd planned to say had gone. There was only the truth.

"There are some prices you cannot pay. I can't pay. Not and remain myself, which is the point of the exercise, if you will. I had to go, because I couldn't do what you asked of me, and not doing it meant...death, by then. I thought. Was I wrong?"

His father's ashen face was answer enough.

"So...I had to. For...everything. For myself. For...a lot of other people, in a way."

"Your duty was to me. To family!"

The clouds overhead looked like rain. Theo hoped they could hold off until he got inside. The wind was rising, too, as if the battle had brought on a storm.

"You aren't the only person I have a duty to. You haven't been for years." That realisation had come last year, when he'd been given the choice of who to betray. And he'd chosen. "It's - maybe that's a part of growing up. I don't know anymore. I just don't know."

"You're my son. Mine. You can't do this to me!"

"No, I can't. Of course I can't." Theo was too old to cry. So he wouldn't. "But, you know, I did anyway. I'm sorry." The last was a whisper.

His father looked bereft. Theo had thought that he'd made this break a year ago, but of course he hadn't told his father that. Theo had let go; Eric Nott had never been given the chance. That happened today, and here.

"You can't leave me too!"

"I..." Don't leave me alone, his father's eyes begged, and Theo was out of irony, of anger, of the last fading remnants of resentment. Out of everything but the knowledge that his bridges had been burned too long ago to go back, even to dull that bleak pain. No going back. "I - There's one thing I couldn't give you, Dad. I couldn't be a Death Eater. And that's the price you set for not going. It was too high."

"No, I didn't do that, I wouldn't - it wasn't like that -"

"Then listen to this!" Theo jumped to his feet, knowing he was going to walk away in a minute, wishing he didn't have to. His father rose, too, but Theo loomed over his father's stooped shoulders. When had that happened? "Would you have accepted, if I had...if I had stayed, that I do not believe in what you do, I haven't for years, that I would not and could not follow you - would you?"

"Why wouldn't you?" his father blazed. "I didn't raise a coward! I raised you to know what matters! To know the right things to do! To know who to follow! I thought you agreed with me!"

"I do know the right things," Theo said coldly, taking refuge in the anger that stirred within him. "They just aren't your right things. Murdering children. What's the point in that?"

"Mur - I've never murdered a child, how can you say that?"

Theo took a deep breath. Maybe it was true. Maybe. His father been there, but there was no evidence he'd killed - but he'd watched, all the same. He'd accepted.

"Elise Martin. Hector Martin." Theo was half-surprised he remembered the names, and half-knew he could never have forgotten, not Anne's desperate letter. "Do those names mean anything?"

His father's face was blank. Apparently they didn't. Theo relaxed. Sort of. Could his father be capable of killing and not even caring who had died at his hand? "You saw them die, Dad. Two summers ago you went to Essex, in August, and you were there when two children and their parents died for being half-bloods. I don't know about any others, but I know about them. My – my girlfriend lives two doors down from them. They weren't dangerous to anyone. They were...just a couple of kids."

His father frowned. "What? Them? Of course I didn't murder them -"

Theo smiled. It was grim, because who knew what else his father had done, but at least -

"- that's ridiculous, Theodore, killing Mudbloods isn't murder. You know that."

So that was what it felt like when your heart cracked.

"I'm sorry you think that, Dad," Theo said levelly. His voice sounded distant to his own ears. "There's one Mudblood, you see, who I would really have liked you to meet." Stupid day-dream. Why had he bothered? "I think you would have liked her. If you'd known her, and if...never mind. It's not important now. By the way, I got that letter my mother sent."

"Letter?" his father said blankly. "What letter?"

"Seventeen years ago. She sent me a letter. I only got it in October. I suppose she couldn't tell you about it, because of Monique."

"Monique? Poor Adrienne with a blood-traitor for a sister and she made sure you knew about it? She wouldn't do that!"

"I knew already, actually." It was easy to be calm when you'd lost all hope. After all, all Theo had to do now was walk back to the castle, and Anne, and Terry, and his friends and family and future. This was...tying up the loose ends. That was all. The Notts, that proud pure-blood family, died here. Something else began. Theo wasn't sure what it was. "Lucky Adrienne, I think. To have a sister who loved her enough to forgive her marrying a Death Eater. A sister who still spoke to her, and visited her. Nieces and a nephew who loved her even though she hated their father. That's luck. I wish I had it."

"She told me she never spoke to her sister again!"

Theo shrugged. "She lied, then. I've seen photos. I've talked to my cousins. They remember her. They remember me. Love is supposed to be above...ideological disagreement. Funny how it isn't, sometimes."

"Isn't it?" his father said, very quietly.

"Well, it is for me," said Theo slowly, "but I'm putting a price on it too, I suppose. Just...accept my choices. I think that's fair."

"Choosing the winning side? How very appropriate, for a Nott." His father's smile was bitter. "One of us carries the family on. But no. You disavowed the Dark Lord, and you disavowed your family. This was never a war where you could compromise. And I will not."

"It never was," Theo agreed. "Pity. You're right. The name goes on. At the moment, it looks like it won't be as the family you fought for. But we go on, still...I wonder how many times this has happened before?"

"None," his father said in clipped tones. "Because our family has never bred traitors."

Theo had thought that word no longer had the power to hurt. He'd been wrong.

"To what? And to whom? What promises did I ever break, Dad?"

Silence, again. The silences were telling, in their own way.

"Why, Theodore?" Eric Nott sounded old, in a way he never had before. "Why?"

"Because...because a Muggle-born reminded me, one day, that she cared about her family as much as I cared about you. Because the Dark Lord offered nothing I wanted, and everything I didn't. Because...well."

His father just looked back, not understanding. Perhaps there were no words in the world that could make him understand. Theo felt as if he'd come to the end of everything, as the first drops of rain began to fall. The end of a world, looking over a blasted battlefield. He should find Anne, in the warmth and safety of Hogwarts. There was nothing left to say here.

"I missed you, this year ." It was the last thing to say, and the only thing. "I'm sorry."

"Where are you going?" his father shouted after him. "Theodore! Come back here this instant! Where's my wand?"

Theo stopped, and looked over his shoulder. He had seen someone emerge from the castle gates, through the rain. His father's freedom was going to be shortly curtailed, and he couldn't bear to watch that.

"Dad?"

His father stopped short. "What?"

"I -" It shouldn't be this hard to say. It wasn't as if there was anyone there to hear them. "I do love you. That's not what this is about. And it's not that I...that I love you less than anyone else. Just that I can't...I couldn't take your road. I couldn't. I'm sorry." The rain was heavy, now, plastering his hair to his scalp and disguising any other dampness on his face. "Fare well."

It was archaic, it was stupid, it was what he meant, and his father's confusion allowed him to stride back towards the castle through the driving rain, ignoring the fact he was fast getting soaked.

"Theodore!" his father called. "Come back!"

Fare you well, Dad. I'm sorry.

God, I'm sorry.

"Theodore!"

He passed the figure on the way. It turned out to be an Auror, sensibly enclosed in a Shield Charm.

"Who're you?" the Auror said sharply.

"Theodore Nott," Theo told him.

'And who's that yelling after you?"

"That's...that's...I...Eric Nott. You...he..."

The Auror peered at Theo through the rain, recognition lighting his face. "Oh, our Theodore? Cat said you were too bloody tall. Get inside."

Theo blinked. "Liam O'Neill?"

"That's Sergeant O'Neill to you, cousin mine. Go on in, you look like a drowned rat. Mum'll have my hide if I let you catch cold. She's looking for you."

Theo shrugged. Family. "Very well. Nice to meet you. Cousin. I suppose you...."

"Yes, I'd better - yes." Liam looked over Theo's shoulder. "Sorry. Duty, and all that. Just...go on in. It's over."

"I've said my farewells," Theo told him harshly, striding towards the castle, and the future, while the past called through the rain behind him.

"Theodore!"

 

//
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