The Sugar Quill
Author: Elsha (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Inevitability  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.

"Where are we going again

A/N: I know, I know; HBP came out, and I dropped off the radar. This was due in part to some struggles with writing, in part to real life, and in part to a slow drift away from the HP fandom. That drift decided to reverse itself with frightening speed, and though I don’t have any really long stories planned, I have plenty of one-shots set in the Distractions universe in the offing.

Nothing is going to be revised to fit HBP canon, except as far as details about the magical world and its workings go; I’ve just written too much to do that. If you can accept this slightly different take on the world of HP, then there’s more to come. I expect the books to end up in a fairly similar place by the end of the series, at least in terms of how events would affect Theo and Anne, at any rate.

 

Inevitability

"Where are we going again?" Anne said, clutching her cloak more tightly. Theo had a very different idea than her of what reasonable temperature was, and right at this moment, with his flatmates out, it meant that the room felt like the depths of Antarctica.

"Wait and see," Theo told her, sounding mysterious. "Have you got the co-ordinates?"

In answer, Anne Apparated away to the location he'd given her. Trust Theo to talk her into giving up her weekend to "a really boring chore, but I need some help with it". Trust his Slytherin side to then not tell her what exactly it was. Trust -

The thought was wiped away by her arrival into damp mist. She couldn't see anything past a few feet; gravel crunched under her shoes, but all else was swirling shades of grey. Anne turned slowly around, wondering if she'd come to the right place. There seemed to be a large building to the right, or, at least, something loomed up out of the fog -

There was a sharp crack as Theo appeared beside her. He frowned into the mist.

"Autumn fogs. I'd forgotten we get those."

"The question, Theo, is where you get these autumn fogs," Anne reminded him.

"Home," he replied, so softly she barely heard him. He was staring up at the building - house, it must be - with an expression of wonder. "I didn't think I'd be back."

"Your house?" Anne asked.

Theo nodded, looking around. "On good days you can see out over the moors, but not today."

"Let me guess," Anne said as a few things clicked into place, "would the boring part of this be housework of any sort?"

"Not precisely," Theo said, "the house-elf's probably not let it fall into total rack and ruin, but I need to...look around."

"Why now?" But Anne could guess.

Theo drew a deep breath. "I'm coming back here. With Ernie moving out and Justin on the point of it, I'd have to look for new flatmates and I...I have to, sometime."

"Why?"

He gave her the "just because" look. "Because it's the Nott house, and I'm a Nott. That's how it works."

"Right." Anne realised what her real function here was - moral support. "I wouldn't think you'd want to bring me along."

"Don't worry, there aren't any traps. I think." Only the faintest twitch of his lips gave him away.

"It wasn't that I was worried about," Anne told him. A door was barely visible through the swirling mists, dark wood that looked as old as anything in Hogwarts. The walls to either side were square-cut stone. Time was mixed with the mortar, etched into the doorhandle. Anne had never seen a house this old. "I don't want to be somewhere that I...this is your place."

Theo shook his head, pulling a key from his cloak; it was iron, and as ancient in appearance as the door. "It's my house. I say you're welcome here." He pushed the door open; it swung with nerve-wracking silence. "Ladies first."

Anne gave in and stepped through. She could feel the ghosts of Theo's family gathering around her. What's this Mudblood doing in our house?, she could hear them saying. Not all of them were the ghosts of the dead, either. At this moment Eric Nott, locked for three years in Azkaban, was as palpable a presence as if he stood here.

"Brr, it feels like a freezer in here," she said aloud, rubbing her arms. "Worse than your flat." The hallway was high-ceilinged, lit only by a glass panel in the door at the far end., and uneven stairs rose up in front of her to both the right and left, apparently going in different directions. Doors stood to either side of her.

"I'll tell you, you appreciate it when it's hot out," Theo said, shutting the door behind him. It clanged unpleasantly. A compensatory arm was slipped around Anne's shoulders. "It always stays cool in here."

"I can imagine," said Anne, raising her wand. "Lumos." Dust lay only lightly on the floor, and the maroon of the stair treads was still visible. Those old stone walls reminded her painfully of Hogwarts. "Well, where to?"

Theo hesitated. "I...let's see. Where do you want to start?"

"It's your house," she reminded him. "Lead on, Macduff."

"All right, then. The kitchen."

They took the left-hand door. Anne blinked; the change could not be more startling. The kitchen was a long room, most of the middle taken up by a great wooden table, scarred and battered, that could not possibly have been moved through the door. A huge fireplace covered a great portion of one wall; the other was half-taken up with windows. Anne could see, in her mind, firelight dancing on the hearth, and a meal laid at the other end of the massive table. It looked like a home.

Beside her, Theo sighed. "I used to spend hours in here," he said wistfully. "I'd play under the table. I burnt myself in the fire enough times, too."

Anne ran a finger along the table-top. "Everything's so old."

Theo chuckled. "This house has been in the family for centuries. It might not be half as grand as some, but we've still resorted to some pretty nefarious things to keep it in the family, too - I know! You have to come and meet Althea."

"Who?" Anne said blankly.

"You'll see." Grabbing her by the hand, Theo pulled her out of the kitchen and back through the hall to one of the rooms on the opposite side.

This appeared to be a formal dining room, the polished table a far cry from its battered mate in the kitchen. A few muttered words from Theo brought the gas lamps on the wall to light (although Anne knew they couldn't be gas). Presiding over the table were several portraits. Most were empty, their inhabitants elsewhere. Only one was occupied, at the foot of the table. A slender woman swathed in deep crimson robes sat in a throne-like chair that Anne could see sitting at the table. She was dozing, her head resting on the back of the chair. She looked to be in her forties or fifties - although with wizards, that probably meant much older - dark hair streaked with grey and dressed in curls.

Theo coughed. "Althea."

The portrait awoke at once, head snapping up. "Oh!" She squinted. "Theodore, isn't it? You haven't been here for a while. Neglecting the house of your ancestors, eh? After all the effort I put into keeping it! And who's this?"

"Never by choice." Theo smiled. "This is Anne. Anne Fairleigh"

The portrait raised an eyebrow; Anne saw an echo of Theo. "A wife? Good. We grow too few. Fairleigh, Fairleigh. I don't know the name."

"Not my wife, just...well. We're not married," Theo corrected uneasily, glancing at Anne.

"You wouldn't know my name, I'm Muggle-born," Anne said clearly, wishing to get the worst over with.

The portrait simply tilted her head to one side. "Have times so changed that a Nott can think to wed a Muggle-born?"

"They are being changed," Theo said grimly. "You did a lot of changing yourself, Althea."

"I protected our family," the portrait snapped back. "And you will do the same! Are doing it, if I can guess correctly. Young Eric thought he was protecting the family with that Death Eater business, but I haven't seen him for years, so I suppose he's come to no good end. At least he had the sense to leave a son. You'd best show her the rest of the house if you want to persuade her into living here."

"Your advice is always welcome," Theo told her with exaggerated civility. "Come on, Anne."

He grinned as soon as they were out of the room. "A bit of a shock, Althea Nott is. Most portraits don't have that much personality, but she lived in this house all her life and it sort of stuck."

"What did she do? She doesn't seem like your average pure-blood."

"Well, now there's a story. This is the living room, by the way." Theo opened the other right-hand door. "In Althea's time, we'd been running to daughters for quite a few years. She was the youngest of seven, and there were no more Nott men after her father - not for want of trying. So one morning Althea Nott walked out of the house without saying a word to anyone."

"She came back?" Anne asked, moving into the living room. Another room that echoed with life.

"She came back," Theo said in theatrical tones, "eighteen months later, eight months pregnant, and without a word about where she'd been."

"I see." Anne ran her hand along the top of the piano; Theo's piano. "Wasn't that a problem?"

Theo shrugged. "Yes, but giving birth to a healthy son took care of it, for the most part. The family was willing to ignore the scandal to keep the name owning the house. Althea reigned as family matriarch here until not so long before my father was born. The names are her fault - her son was the first Eric. His son was Karl, and his son was another Eric - my father. That's why I'm the only Nott of my generation. We never managed many children again. I don't know why."

"What about her son's father?"

Theo shook his head. "Nobody knows -and the portrait isn't telling. Family legend has it she went off to the Continent where no one knew her, and the baby was named after its father. Personally I don't think she'd be that stupid. Word gets around."

"But they wouldn't know if the father wasn't a wizard..."

Theo raised his eyebrows. "Now I haven't heard that suggestion before. I'm sure Althea knew her duty better than that."

Anne scowled at him, and he held up his hands defensively. "Present company most definitely excluded. I was talking about her perceived duty."

Anne snorted. "Theo, the way you're heading, no Nott will ever have to worry about blood purity again because there won't be a point, and you criticise her?"

"It wasn't a criticism." Theo's lips quirked. "But I must suggest that to Celia if I ever see her again and watch the show."

"Well, it seems there's more than one skeleton in your closet."

"We've all got them. We just don't like to admit it."

Anne looked around the room. It didn't seem that different to a Muggle living room; a little older, maybe. The true difference was in the photographs that hung on the walls. Above the piano was a wedding photo, Anne assumed of Theo's parents; a full-length shot of a short-haired woman working at a desk hung above one of the couches, and above the other the same woman and a hawk-nosed man sat in this same living room, holding a toddler between them.

Theo reached out to touch the frame of the wedding photo, an unreadable expression on his face. His parents waved back at him, smiling.

"I don't remember these from when I was small," he said as if to himself. "Dad hung them up when I was five. Six, maybe. He said - he said he didn't want me to forget my mother."

"Do you remember her?"

"No." He shook his head. "Not enough. I was too young." His lips thinned. "Maybe it's time to take them down."

"No!" Anne grabbed his arm. "Don't do that."

"Why?" he snapped, shaking her off. "Why the hell not?"

"So you don't forget!" she threw back at him.

There was silence, for a space.

"How can you stand it?" he asked, looking out the window.

"Because I've never seen them before. But only for that." Anne moved to stand beside him. "I'd run from this house, otherwise."

"You can't do that." Theo pulled her against him. "I'd have to, as well, see, and I can't."

Anne turned her face into his shoulder. "Too many memories."

"You've never been here before."

"Not mine; theirs. This house was built to keep out people like me."

"Not any more." Theo paused. "You know he killed your neighbours' children?"

Anne stiffened, biting her lip. "I supposed. I never knew. How did you..."

"The battle." Theo leant his chin on her forehead. "I asked him. I had to."

"All right, then."

"You still want me to leave them up?"

Anne nodded into his shoulder. "Even more so. This was...this was your father's place."

"There'll be enough reminders of that. The question is, Anne," he grasped her gently by the shoulders, turning her to face him, "the question is, could you live here with them on the wall?"

"That's not the question," Anne corrected. "The question is, can you?"

Theo stared down at her, shaking his head. "I don't know."

"You want to." Anne reached up to push his hair back off his forehead.

"Yes," he agreed. "I've been away from home too long."

"Isn't that your answer?"

"I suppose it is." He bent his head for a brief kiss, which turned into a slightly longer one. "I suppose it is."

"Anyway," Anne said as they left the living room, "you're making an awful lot of assumptions here, you know."

"What are those? This way, I haven't been up to this wing for ages." He led her up the right-hand stairs."

"This wing? Good grief. You're assuming that I'm going to come and live here."

"Well, aren't you? One day. You know." There was only one flight, which led into a hall lined with doors. The dust made Anne cough. Theo's assumptions had always been too much for her to fight.

"Just what does "one day" mean?"

Theo pushed open the first door. "Nothing much to see here; we never used these bedrooms. It means when you're ready to."

"When are you planning on moving in here? It's got a Floo connection, hasn't it?"

"Dad worked in London, same as you and I - same as I do now, anyway. He was never overseas. Of course it does." The bedrooms were nothing special, apart from the pictures. Wizarding pictures still fascinated Anne, even after all these years. The rooms did not seem to have been occupied very recently. "End of the month, if I can sort everything out."

"Good; Ellie's been making noises about moving her boyfriend in. If I go, she can swap with Mai for the room we share. I think nine years is long enough to share living space with the same people. You're far more interesting."

Theo halted in the middle of the corridor, giving her a very stern look. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"

Anne felt herself beginning to lose confidence, and spoke quickly. "That depends what you think I'm saying."

"Well..." Theo leant against a doorframe. "It is a very big house. Could get lonely." He was doing a good job of keeping a straight face. Anne tried to look innocent.

"Exactly. Unless you have concerns about my honour, of course."

Theo looked thoughtful. Anne grinned. "I thought not."

"Or..."

"Or what?"

Theo opened his mouth, then shut it. "Er. This is the bathroom, by the way. We'll have to go downstairs to get up to the other half of this storey, there isn't a connecting door. I used to walk along the ledge outside but I don't think you'll want to do that."

"Or what?" Anne persisted, wrinkling her nose at the gloomy bathroom. Only gloomy from disuse, she was sure.

"Well..."

"Well, what?"

"It's a very strange way to build a house, I know," Theo said blithely, "but it's because when they put the second storey on the idea was to have one part of the family in each half. Or children and adults, possibly. They used to have several generations in the house all at once. When there were more of us."

"I'm still curious about your other option," Anne persisted. Theo was moving quickly down the stairs, and she had to skip steps to keep up.

"The thing is," Theo said, now jogging up the other stairs, "you, um, don't actually have to, er, impugn your honour by coming and living here."

"Am I un-invited, then?"

"No! No. What I mean to say is - that is -" They had arrived on a landing much like the other, except the stairs continued up into darkness. Theo led her off onto the first floor. "There is, an, ah, honourable way of doing things. You know. As Althea - anyway. This is my old room."

He stopped so suddenly Anne almost crashed into him. She peered around him as he opened the door.

It was a very Theo-ish room. Anne could see that immediately. Sheets of music lay scattered on the desk; a small broom lodged in the rafters; a faded Quidditch poster was tacked to the door of the wardrobe. The set of bookshelves was filled to bursting not only with books, but a jar full of Knuts, shells, quills, and other random items. One shoe poked out of the partly-open wardrobe. A stuffed bear lay forlornly on the bed, arms sticking out at all angles.

"I'd forgotten," breathed Theo. "I wondered where that quill got to."

It was a room frozen in time. It had been the summer when Theo had left it for his fifth year at Hogwarts, Anne's fourth; it was closing in to the winter now, six years later. Theo had been a boy, an arrogant pure-blood to his toes. A different man stood here now. Anne wondered if he knew it.

She was certain he did when the last thing he'd said finally hit all the correct spots in her brain and was translated.

"Honourable way?" she demanded suspiciously.

"That's what I said."

Anne's eyebrows shot up. "Theo, are you trying to propose to me?"

He coughed, examining the floorboards. "No, I'm not trying."

That was easy enough to read. "Oh." The doorframe suddenly came in very handy. "I see."

"Yes. Well."

It was Anne's turn to look away. "You could have warned me."

"Can I make that a warning and try again?" Theo said quietly.

Part of Anne wanted to wave that away and go straight to the pertinent part of the whole thing. The other part reminded her that this was the only proposal she was likely to get, if things went as hoped, and was therefore to be done correctly.

"You can," she said, blushing.

"Right." Looking back had been a mistake. She couldn't drag her eyes away from Theo, standing in the centre of the room, tall and somehow shrunken at the same time by the presence of his childhood. Latching on to his eyes, dark and pleading, was an even bigger mistake.

"I - that is - Anne -" he drew a deep breath. "Will you marry me?"

Time seemed to freeze as Anne took a breath. She'd paused too long, and Theo spoke again quickly. "I - not just because of - well - you know what I mean. Because...everything, really."

"Well, yes." She shrugged helplessly. "I do."

Theo, despite himself, quirked a smile. "Was that yes, you know what I mean or yes, you'll marry me?"

Anne did not consider herself a romantic, but a small part of her had never imagined that the day she was asked for her hand in marriage it would be by her first and only boyfriend, standing in his old bedroom, in a house formerly owned by a Death Eater, with no candles whatsoever. Then she spotted one on the desk. So that was all right. Even if it wasn't lit.

"Yes," she said, not flickering an eyelash.

Theo folded his arms. "Yes, what?"

"I'm sorry, you only get an eternal declaration of love if I get one from you first."

"Oh, you mean yes."

"No," Anne had to say, just for the look of sheer panic on his face, then, laughing, "Yes, Theo, of course. Could I not?"

"Oh. Okay then." He was capable of an amazingly silly grin, was Theo. When circumstances warranted. "Good."

Anne waited.

"I think you're supposed to kiss me now," she prompted.

He responded enthusiastically, to the point of swinging her around once before he let go. Anne clung to his arms for balance, laughing.

"This is one of your better ideas, I think."

"I always have good ideas," Theo replied typically, still grinning. "But I'd call it my best one yet."

"You're sure of that? Standing in this house?" Anne asked, suddenly sobering.

"Yes." Theo caught her gaze. "Yes. Now, and forever. There's nothing I'm more sure about."

"Oh. Okay." Anne felt her breath catch. Surely she didn't deserve to have someone look at her like that, and say those things. Even Theo.

"So," Theo said after a few moments of delirious silence, "shall we keep going? There's still the attic."

Anne shook her head solemnly and said, "You're lucky I put up with you, you know that? There is absolutely no romance in you whatsoever."

"That's fine," Theo said as they left his old room. "You don't want romance. You just want me."

"Arrogant," Anne scolded, flushing. "But, unfortunately, true."

"Oh, I know. After all. You did just agree to marry me."

"Then don't give me reason to reconsider it."

"You won't."

"Are you really, really sure of that?"

"Yes."

"I am so tempted to -"

"Throw the rest of our lives away in a fit of pique?"

"Make you grovel."

"I beg your pardon most humbly, and promise not to take you for granted ever again."

"You're a terrible liar."

"So, are you still going to marry me?"

'...We'll see."

***

The attic was up another narrow flight of stairs, in the very top of the house. It was slightly stuffy even on this chilly autumn day; Anne imagined it would be stifling in winter. The single wooden door, newer looking than others in the house, swung gently open when Theo pushed it.

"The door looks new," Anne commented as she stepped through.

"It got replaced about, oh, ten years ago; the old one was filled through with borer."

"In a wizarding house?"

"Kneazles get fleas as easily as cats," Theo pointed out dryly, "and our woodwork is worm-eaten with time as much as Muggles' is. We're just around long enough to notice it."

He halted only a step or two in, but that had become a familiar pattern in this house, and Anne was quick enough not to bang into him.

"Memories?"

"That letter, the one my mother sent me." His hand lay on a chest just inside of the door. "She mentioned some of her things were up in the attic. I never came to look."

"How could you?" Anne said reasonably. "That harp?"

"Mmm."

Theo knelt to open the chest; it was filled with old papers and books. Anne reached out, hesitantly, to touch the covered harp. When Theo made no comment, she pulled the cover off, just as carefully.

Twenty years of storage in an attic should have stretched and broken the strings; any normal instrument would be long out of tune. But this had been a witch's harp, Anne knew, and when she plucked a C the note was as clear as it must have been when the harp was stored in the attic. Theo jumped, looking up.

"I haven't heard that since..."

"I'm sorry." Anne stilled the string with a finger.

His expression softened. "No; it's all right. I barely remember...it's still in tune? It must have been charmed. I bet the piano downstairs is horrible, it was already getting out the last time I was here."

"Can you tune it?" Anne asked, sliding the cover back on to the harp. Some things should be left for a while.

Theo grinned, hands buried in mounds of paper. "Well...I can try. That's the fun part. If I can't, I'll see about getting someone to tune it. Do you think I could borrow Nicola? Someone with perfect pitch would be handy,"

Anne raised an eyebrow. "If you really want a twelve year old screaming around the place...she'd love to visit a proper wizarding home, I assure you. Terry will be worse. Anything interesting in there?"

He shook his head. "Notes, books...if they're still using the same textbooks in twenty years' time, and I don't doubt some of the teachers will be, I suppose they could be useful to - well, if we ever - hmm."

"I'm sure that...they...could use them. Or at least find them interesting as examples of what school was like in their grandparents' day. Hypothetically speaking."

"Hypothetically," Theo agreed, shifting papers aside. "Hold on a second." He pushed aside a copy of Advanced Transfiguration. "Hah. Letters."

There were dozens, neatly rolled up and stored in the bottom of the trunk. Theo gestured at the floor. "Want to help me look at them?"

Anne lowered herself carefully, trying not to disturb the dust. It wasn't very successful. She was going to be grey from top to toe when they left the attic. "Okay."

The first one she unrolled, not without some qualms, was formed in the shaky handwriting of a child; it was from a nine-year-old Monique to her older sister. The second was Adrienne Jugson's Hogwarts letter. Anne was amused to see that only the name of the Deputy Headmistress had changed. Looking up, she saw Theo hastily lay one aside, looking startled.

"Something wrong?"

Amend "startled" to "mildly embarrassed."

"Would you like to read your parents', ah, correspondence?"

Anne grinned. "No. And I definitely don't want to read your parents'!"

"Maybe we can look at these letters, um, later." Theo frowned at them. "When I can figure out which ones are written to whom."

A thought struck Anne, and she frowned. "I'm trying to remember where I put all your letters..."

"Somewhere safe, I hope!"

"Somewhere locked. Oh, that's right. They're tucked up in my document file. Being important, and all."

"The early ones were innocent enough. Although mine are somewhere secure, I must admit."

"Innocent?" Anne pushed her hair back, and realised too late she'd streaked it with dust. "Not at the time. Just imagine what would have happened if..."

"Well, it happened anyway, didn't it?" Theo's lips tightened. "Just...at a time of my choosing."

"Was...all of that...inevitable even then, do you think?" Anne asked softly. "When I was nattering on about broomsticks and cousins, could we have taken a different road?"

"No. Yes. I -" Theo paused, thinking. "I think...maybe. It seems impossible that it could have been, so early. I'd only known you six months. But that summer led to the DA, and...in some ways I think we were always going to end up here, from the day you told me that you weren't sure if I was capable of being a Death Eater or not. So...not so innocent. Then, at least."

"Here?" Anne gestured around the dusty attic. "You never know. I could have fallen desperately in love with - with Brian Lochore, before we'd ever found our way past talk of music. You could have still been going out with Tracey Davies. I don't know that we were always going to end up here. You, coming back after all these years...yes. That was inevitable. I don't think I was."

"You don't believe in true love?"

"Let's say I find it hard to believe the pair of us were destined to be together, whatever happened. We're too practical for that. Life's too full of chances."

Theo reached out to tuck her hair back again. "Hold on." He ended up unfastening her hairclip and redoing the whole thing.

"But can you imagine us being anywhere but where we are? Truthfully?" His deft fingers clicked then clip back into place, and lingered.

"Truthfully? Not the way things have gone." Anne reached up to take a hand in hers. "And there's no point in what-might-have-beens.

"No. Particularly when the what-ares are so much better." He lifted her hand down, studying it. "I can't believe I went and proposed to you without a ring."

"That would require premeditation."

"There was a certain degree of premeditation, I will admit."

"How much?"

"In a very general way...not in anI'm going to propose tomorrow” way.”

"Never mind. I liked it anyway."

He was still studying her hand. "I thought...there is a family ring. I even have it. Mum left it in her Gringotts vault. But...I don't know. I think that I've broken so many traditions - but if I didn't use it, then...that's like saying you're not a proper part of the family, or I'm not -"

"And I will indeed be a Nott," Anne interjected gravely, causing Theo to groan.

"Yes. But you understand what I'm driving at."

"I do." Anne interlaced her fingers with his. "You'll make the right decision for you. Don't worry about it."

"That's not helpful."

Anne prevaricated. "You know I try not to interfere with family things."

Theo snorted. "Anne...the point of this is that you will be family, and you will have every damn right to interfere. Actually, there's my answer."

Anne kept her face straight, but felt a twinge of pleasure. She couldn't help feeling like an interloper, at times. She wanted to feel accepted, even just by Theo...but by Theo as part and parcel of all his life, not something he had to keep separate from his family. In a way, she wanted Theo to accept - to show - that being with - that marrying her was not a betrayal of his family, or considered as such. For his sake.

The fact that most of his family did consider it so was...beside the point. It was Theo that mattered.

"Can I have my hand back, then?" she said aloud.

"No," Theo said absently, raising it to his lips.

"Dust," Anne warned him before he could shuffle closer to her.

"You're no fun."

"Poor Theo." She let him put his arms around her, anyway, and leant back into him. "I - what's that?"

"What's what?"

"The stained glass window, up there."

"A stained glass window. It's been there since forever. I don't think it's original - wrong for the time - but I've no idea when it went in."

Anne considered it. It was hard to tell what the colours were, with the grey fog-light outside. She rather fancied she saw red, and green, and blue. A patch of summer in this dusty attic. Odd. She'd always thought of Theo's extended family as something to be tolerated, rather than liked - apart from the O'Neills. Yet...she rather thought she could like people who set a glimmer of beauty into a place like this. Just because they could.

A lesson, maybe, not to judge every generation by Eric Nott's sins...why let his shadow extend back when I won't let it go forward?

"I like it," she said softly. Theo smiled.

"I always have, too. I'd love to know who thought of it."

"Yes," Anne agreed absently. She looked down at her sleeve, and winced at the thick layer of grime. "Oh, dear. We'd better get out of here before the dust comes alive and attacks us."

Theo helped her to her feet. "Right, then. Where haven't we been?"

"I wouldn't know, we haven't been there yet..."

After a brief stop to get rid of the dust, they continued. The rest of the tour included the cellar, the broom shed outside in what looked to have once been a stable, and the door of the main bedroom. Theo didn't want to enter, and Anne thoroughly agreed with that. The rest of the house was enough, for now. They gave up on any idea of cleaning that day after discovering the courtyard well was inhabited by a bad-tempered undine.

"It's going to take longer than a weekend, I think," Anne said as they re-entered the hall from the back courtyard.

"Probably. I'd hoped...six years isn't that long, but it's not a short time."

"Just think about how messy flats can get if no one cleans them for a few days!"

"I try not to think about it. So...where to?"

"I say," Anne suggested, "we go and sit down somewhere warm."

"My flat?" Theo offered.

"Will anyone have lit the fire?"

He shrugged. "Probably not. I'm not expecting either of them home for a while."

"Then let's go somewhere warm."

"You really do hate the cold, don't you?" Theo said, mouth twitching.

Anne shivered. "Hate? No. Hate isn't strong enough. Try abhor. I want tea. And a fire. And my couch."

"What are you waiting for, then?"

"Nothing." She gathered her cloak around her, and Apparated.

***

The fire was low on the hearth when Anne and Theo Apparated into the flat Anne shared with Ellie and Mai, and the flat was empty.

"That's not safe," Anne muttered, biting her lip. "If the fire burned up -"

"Don't be ridiculous," Theo said, lifting the cloak off her shoulders and tossing it onto the back of the couch with his own. "I'll bet there's fire-retarding spells three ways to Siberia on the carpet there. I bet you cast them."

"No point tempting fate." Anne picked up her cloak and hung it on the stand by the door.

"You don't trust magic, do you?" said Theo curiously. "How strange."

"I do trust it. Just...only when I've seen it."

He shook his head. "You're so...I wouldn't think not to."

"You wouldn't, would you?" Anne sank onto the couch, relieved to sit down after the hours walking the halls of Theo's house. Theo joined her, looping an arm around her shoulders.

"Of course not. Magic works."

"See, you know that. I didn't until I was eleven, and even then...just because it worked once didn't mean it always would."

"It does."

"Yes, but...never mind." Anne frowned up at Theo. "So, are you sure what you're going to do?"

"About what?"

"The house."

"What do you think?"

"That's not an answer, Theo."

"I want to know if what I'm doing is the right answer. Going back."

"And I'm supposed to know that? All right, then. That place is isolated, dusty, old, and haunted."

"It isn't -"

"Not literally." Anne fiddled with her sleeve thoughtfully. "Just..."

"Just on a metaphorical scale?"

"Yes. It's also your home. You want to go back there, Theo. You just want me to justify it."

"And..."

"I already have. Remember?"

"That didn't have anything to do with the house."

"If I recall the conversation correctly, it had a lot to do with the house."

"It shouldn't have had anything to do with the house."

"It had to do with you trying to reconcile two things that are, maybe, irreconcilable."

"They aren't allowed to be!"

"No...they aren't."

"So - is my decision justified?"

"Get back to me in three or four years."

"I'll do that, then."

A comfortable silence fell. Anne let her eyelids drift shut, restricting her world to the soft crackle of the fire and the solid warmth of Theo next to her. Her mind began to consider the actual implications of the almost accidental proposal Theo had made today. On one level, it seemed so reasonable, so...natural - part of her wanted to know why they hadn't thought of this before.

The other part could examine, objectively, how much of an impact marriage was likely to have on their lives. It wasn't a small decision, by any means, no matter how good it was for them on a personal level. Her lips curved in a rueful smile as she envisioned the very first step, which was telling people. It was hard to envision just walking up to her parents and saying...

...but that wasn't her job, now was it?

"Theo?" she said without opening her eyes.

"Mmm?"

"Is it wizarding tradition to ask a girl's father for permission to marry her?"

The silence required her to crack open an eyelid. Theo looked visibly paler, even gilded by the firelight.

"Because it's certainly a Muggle tradition," Anne continued sweetly. "Not so much any more, of course, but..."

"Yes," Theo replied with a sigh. "Yes, it is a wizarding tradition. Actually. If you must know."

"Oh, good," Anne said, closing her eyes again.

"Why?"

"Because then I don't have to approach Dad first."

She could almost hear the sound of Theo's teeth grinding. He had always been unaccountably, unstoppably wary of Jonathan Fairleigh. Anne wasn't sure why. Theo could stand up to Professor Snape; he could set his jaw and defend himself to Professor McGonagall; he could return, calmly, Sarah's cold-eyed scrutiny; he had summoned the strength to confront his own father after running away from home. Put him in the same room as Anne's father and he reverted to stiff uneasiness. It amused Jonathan Fairleigh no end. Anne couldn't fault her father in this, though; Theo just needed to learn that he didn't bite.

"I don't know why you're so worried about it," she added. "Honestly, Mum is much worse than Dad -"

"Your mother is easy to get along with. She's much more direct."

"You can't say Dad's un-direct, or anything. You're the Slytherin."

Theo shifted uncomfortable. "No...it's just that I always have this lurking worry that he knows what I'm thinking."

"In general, or specifically."

"...specifically, I suppose."

"But what on earth could you be thinking that you're so worried about my father knowing?"

Theo muttered something that Anne didn't quite catch.

"I'd really like to know."

Anne felt Theo lean closer. She opened her eyes as he tipped her chin up with a finger.

"Would you?" he murmured, calling her bluff. Anne managed to hold his gaze for a full thirty seconds before blushing. And grinning.

"Oh, yes."

"Maybe I'll tell you sometime, then," Theo said in normal tones, sitting up.

Anne raised her hand, but Theo caught her by the wrist before she could inflict any damage.

"Now there, violence never gets you anywhere," he admonished severely.

Anne snaked a hand around his neck. "How about bribery?"

Theo nodded thoughtfully. "That could work."

"Oh, good."

***

 

Anne was often exasperated, amused, or just confused by her flatmates' adherence to the customs of the wizarding world. The one about not having the couch in direct view of the fireplace, however, was merely sensible. It meant that when Ellie emerged from the fireplace, brushing soot off her cloak, she merely startled Anne and Theo into falling off the couch, instead of catching them on it.

"I don't want to know," Ellie said as soon as she spotted them, covering her eyes and heading straight for the kitchen end of the room. "I just don't."

Anne grinned as she got to her feet, offering Theo a hand up. "I'm sure you don't."

Hmm. I'm not feeling half as embarrassed as normal.

"No," Ellie replied from the other end of the room. "What I don't know, I can't mention to your mum."

"That's not a threat anymore," Anne told Ellie airily, just as she worked out what had her walking on air.

I suppose you don't get engaged every day.

Ellie peered into the cupboards. "Why not?"

"We're engaged," Anne said, unable to contain it any longer. She glanced up at Theo, but he just shrugged and put an arm around her.

There was a loud crash as Ellie dropped a mug, spinning around. "You what?"

"You heard," Theo said.

"When?"

"Er...an hour ago? Two?"

Ellie gaped. Anne beamed at her.

Ellie blinked, recovering. "Well, I suppose it's not that unexpected. Oh, drat. Reparo." The shattered mug reassembled itself. "Tea, either of you?"

"I...I should probably be going," Theo said slowly, picking up his cloak from the back of the couch. He never did like hanging around when Ellie or Mai was there. Anne suppressed a pang of disappointment. They'd had a wonderful afternoon -

"You've just got engaged and now you're just going to go home?" Ellie said. "That's ridiculous. You're not allowed to treat my friend like that." She snatched Anne's handbag and cloak from where they were hanging, marched over, and piled them into Anne's arms. "There. Go on, the pair of you, and have dinner or something. Anne, you're not allowed back in here before ten." She paused. "What are you waiting for?"

"Nothing," Theo replied firmly after a pause. He grabbed Anne by an elbow and steering her out the door. "I promise I'll have her back by midnight."

"It's Sunday tomorrow, you can keep her as long as you want," Ellie called blithely after them.

"What's got into you, listening to Ellie?" Anne asked in amusement, quite content to let Theo organise things.

"It's a very good idea, for one thing," Theo said, settling her cloak around her shoulders. "And I'm feeling...happy."

“Oh?” Anne arched an eyebrow. "Really."

"Very, very happy." Theo used the arm still around her shoulders to turn her to face him. "Aren't you?"

Too much to say," Anne admitted, leaning into his chest. It was silly, really. Nothing had changed, nothing except an idea and the vocalisation of an unspoken but shared knowledge of the future. But it mattered. Irrationally, it mattered. To Theo as well, it seemed.

"Good."

"I just hope everyone doesn't go around dropping things," Anne said after a moment.

"That could be amusing."

"You find far too many things amusing."

"What can I say? It makes life interesting."

"So where shall we go?" Anne asked as they started down the steps. It was a breezy but warm evening; she hardly needed her cloak.

"I don't know. It's not like we do this very often."

"True." There was so much to be said for quiet nights in when one of their flats was otherwise empty that actually going out did not enter into their lives much. "I suppose it doesn't matter. Let's just go, and work out where when we get there."

"Sounds like most of our lives so far."

"It's worked, hasn't it?"

"It has," Theo said, wrapping his arm around her waist. Anne felt the glow of utter contentment. "That it has."

 

//
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