Christmas Theo could remember wasn't so much a memory of Christmas as a memory
of being warm. It came back sometimes in winter, when the Slytherin dorms under
the lake got chilly at night. It didn't make much sense, dreaming of warmth when
he was freezing. Maybe it was his mind remembering, not the physical sensation,
but the feeling of looking for something that wasn't there. In real life, it
was usually his extra blanket. In the dream, it was something else.
In the dream, he
was back in the rambling ex-farmhouse with pretensions to manorhood that he'd
lived in until his father had managed to land himself in Azkaban. It was the
night before Christmas, and he was sitting in the kitchen with his father,
because the kitchen had the largest fireplace and was much cosier for two
people than the elegant living room that housed the Christmas tree. Without
company, Eric Nott preferred the kitchen. He would have died rather than admit
His father was
sitting on a chair, thumbing through a book. Theo was sprawled on the old rug
by the fire, tracing the patterns with his fingers. It had been wearing
through; when Theo returned to the house twenty
years later, he couldn't find it. Sometime over the proceeding years, it must
have been thrown out. He had felt an obscure sense of disappointment. The rug
was so clear in his mind, every line and faded stitch. It didn't make sense
that it could just have ceased to be where he remembered it.
In the dream, Theo
levered himself up off the rug, stumbling on the edge. He had been very young.
His father, absorbed in the book, had not noticed his careful edging towards
the kitchen door. As long as the movement was away from dangerous things like fireplaces, Theo had found, he could go
just about any direction.
He trotted off
towards the living room, where the presents were piled under the tree. But
despite the glinting decorations and tempting pile, something was wrong.
Something was missing, and he didn't know what.
It wasn't behind the couches. It wasn't under the piano. When he scattered the
presents in a sudden fit of temper, it wasn't among them either.
Maybe it was
upstairs. Lots of things were upstairs. The bedrooms, and the attic. But he
thought whatever it was wasn't in the bedrooms, because he saw those every day,
and the missing thing was hidden very well. So well he didn't know what it was,
and that was really hidden. Theo left the living room to make the long trek up
the stairs, tripping and sliding, bumping his knees in a way that made him want
to stop and wail. He didn't, though. If he found the missing thing, it would
make his knee better. Because that was one of the things it did. He knew that.
The attic door was
thick and solid, and the handle was much too high for him too reach.
Fortunately for a toddler, though, the hinges were well-oiled, and it wasn't
quite shut. It swung silently open when he pushed it.
The attic itself
was cold, and dark, away from the light and warmth and his father. It was full
of shadowed objects behind which things might be
hiding. Even the red and yellow coloured light through the stained-glass window
at the peak of the house was cold, lit by the moon. And the missing thing
wasn't there. It wasn't anywhere.
In the dream, he
did sit down there in the middle of the dusty attic and begin to sob. And
eventually his father came rushing up the stairs to hold him and scold him and
tell him it was going to be all right, and it was Christmas tomorrow, with
presents, and good food, and his cousins coming over, and to be happy, because
it was Christmas. And that he missed her too.
Every time he woke
up from the dream, Theo thought for a second that it was Christmas morning. And
every time he woke, he remembered what he was looking for. It was his mother.
Christmas Theo ever spent was when he was sixteen. His father had been carted
off to Azkaban. He was staying with his Amberley cousins, whom he cordially
disliked at the best of times, and his uncle and aunt whom he quite liked on
occasion. The fact that they were Death Eaters and probably planning mass
murder over the holiday period put a damper on that. So did the fact that the
only person he really wanted to see for Christmas was Anne, who was in Essex
with her extended family. Whom she loved and
liked being around and didn't have to avoid or prevaricate or straight-out lie
to because she was sort of maybe on the opposite side in a war.
remembered that they were Muggles, all except for Terry, and he was pretty sure
the rules for Muggle-borns telling relatives didn't extend to everyone you were
related to by any tenuous link of blood, which was pretty much how she'd
described the size of the gathering. So she would be prevaricating. And leaving
out important bits of her school life. And sometimes, straight-out lying to
He resolved to ask
her how many of them knew about magic in his next letter.
When he woke up on
Christmas morning, he felt a rush of excitement. It was Christmas, and he and
Dad were going to get up and exchange gifts and the house-elf would make cocoa,
and then in the afternoon the cousins would come over for Christmas dinner and
there'd be good food and the grown-ups would get a bit tipsy and Theo would
tolerate his cousins, because it was Christmas, and -
-his father was in
Azkaban jail, unable to send or receive gifts, and he was living with his
cousins whom he'd grown quickly tired of in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
And the presents at the end of his bed hadn't been chosen by his father at all.
The thudding fall
from excitement was worse than normal, worse than the dream. It was Christmas,
and his father wasn't here. For the first time in his life, Theo really felt
like an orphan.
He was lying in
bed enjoying a sleep-in, not sulking, or crying, because he was too old for
those, truly, when he heard a thump. He rolled over. Celia and Lucas had been
making enough noise for the past hour to produce a sound like that. The thump
came again, from the window-pane, and he stumbled out of bed, to open it,
Anne's Gwaihir fluttered in, along with a credible amount of snow, and Theo
closed the window with a bang. On her perch by the dresser, Bronwen opened a
sleepy eye and hooted at Gwaihir.
There was a
excitement. He'd been waiting for something from Anne for Christmas, but since
he'd only got his own gift to her off last night after terrible procrastination
he hadn't been really sure. There were a lot of things about Anne he wasn't
sure of at the moment, partly to do with her being Muggle-born and someone he
was supposed to despise, and partly to do with her being a girl and his friend
and pretty, though he wouldn't tell her that last bit. It was easier to stick
to music. He was sure he liked playing music with her.
Some idle good
notion had also prompted him to send a token gift to Terry - sugar quills -
mostly as a bribe to be less hyperactive. Even if on second thoughts sugar was
not the best gift to a Gryffindor who ran at twenty miles an hour on her slow
days. However, he had not expected in the slightest to see a card addressed to
him in her handwriting fall out of the parcel
along with a neatly-wrapped present from Anne.
Anne's present was
a book on inventions in Western Muggle music - fascinating, but in need of a
hiding place as soon as possible. Knowing that Celia and Lucas would not hold
off from bursting in on him much longer, he shoved it under his pillow. He'd
find a better place later. The cards were innocuous enough - well, Anne's was,
with warm sentiments for a happy Christmas and New Year. Terry's was pretty
much a note of permission to go out with Anne, though why on earth the little
brat thought he needed her permission or wanted it or liked Anne that way was
He didn't need her
Celia's voice from
a distance of approximately three feet startled Theo so much that he slid off the
edge of the bed onto the floor, taking half the quilt with him. Heart pounding,
he tried to look nonchalant.
"Just a late
card from a friend at school. Did you really have to get up at this hour? I got woken by the owl."
"It's nearly eight o'clock. Lucas's been up since five. Mum and Dad say
you have to come on downstairs, we're having Christmas breakfast. Just because
your dad was stupid enough to get caught doesn't mean you can sulk in your room
sulking," Theo gritted out. "And I'll be down in a second. Now out. I
don't recall saying you could come in here."
"It's Christmas. There aren't any rules about privacy on Christmas, you know
She scampered. At
least the dratted girl was still wary of him. The day she lost all fear, his
life was going to be hell.
Now he just had to
get up off the floor and go downstairs to pretend to enjoy a happy family
Christmas. Pretending. He looked at the cards in his hand and wished, with a
queer twinge, that he could see Anne. He wouldn't have to pretend to be happy.
But the Amberleys
were his family, and had taken him in, and no matter what their extracurricular
activities were, they weren't...he owed them gratitude, at the least. It was
their holiday, too.
from the quilt, Theo stood.
The best Christmas
Theo ever had was when he was nineteen. Not necessarily the most successful, or
easiest, but certainly the happiest, if only because of the contrast to those
that had gone before. It was the first Christmas he had a choice about where to
spend it. It was the first Christmas since his father had gone that he felt at
home. The first he woke up and the excitement didn't go away, because even if
the water-stained patch on the ceiling above his bed had grown suspiciously, it
was Christmas. Really Christmas. No pretending,
or looking for missing things, or seeing a Christmas tree and remembering all
the ones he'd decorated with his father. He almost felt like singing carols. Or
not complaining when they were sung by others in an enthusiastic but toneless
wasn't a perfect Christmas. He'd been invited over for dinner by the O'Neills.
It took him a while to accept the invitation; part of him remembered that
awkward Christmas with the Amberleys, feeling out of place, and part of him was
terrified of facing them all at once, because sometimes the sheer normality of
their family life was disturbing. He owled his acceptance on the twenty-third
of December, somehow hoping it would be too late, only to get a reply from
Callum the next day telling him that they'd assumed he was coming anyway. The
sense of relief was startling.
When he got there,
he'd barely sat down before Evan spilt his pumpkin juice all down Theo's robes.
Jan clapped horrified hands to her mouth and apologised profusely.
"Oh my -
Evan! What did you think you were doing? Hold on a minute, Theo, I know just
the charm to get it out - amazing what you learn with children around -"
all right, really," Theo said carefully. The juice was warm and sticky and
thoroughly unpleasant. "It was an accident. Don't scold him too
Evan gave him a
gap-toothed grin. He'd lost a front tooth two days before. "I like you, Theo."
Theo lost the
battle to grin back. "Thanks."
succeeded in getting rid of the pumpkin juice. Theo was subsequently swept up
in a conversation with Monique about how she and his mother had used to
celebrate Christmas - before Monique's elopement, of course - and lost track of
her. Catriona, revelling in being the interesting and beloved aunt, was
entertaining Evan with stories of the Harpies' latest Quidditch match.
can you go and get Jan?" Callum asked him as they were herded into the
dining room. "She's vanished off somewhere."
Theo told him, wandering back into the living room. Jan wasn't there, or any of
the obvious places. Theo found her when he knocked on the door of the bathroom.
"Jan? Are you
came a wobbly voice. "I'll be out in a minute."
"No hurry -
well, yes there is, we're about to start. Are you all right?"
There was silence
for a second, then the door was pulled open to reveal a red-eyed Jan. She
looked thoroughly miserable. "No."
"Is - I - can
I help?" Theo fumbled. "I can - you don't have to come and eat right
away, I suppose -"
Jan shook her
head. "No, I need to - I'm sorry. It was just that spell, I, I -"She
looked to be on the point of bursting into tears again. Theo patted her on the
"I used it - the last time I cast that, Lee had spilt milk all over the
table, and, and Richard's copy of the Prophet,
and they're not here where they should be-"
himself, somehow, with an armful of weeping cousin. He patted her on the back
and made some generic soothing noises. He could only begin to imagine how hard
it must be for Jan to face not only her first Christmas without her husband and
daughter, but - oh, God, he'd forgotten - the anniversary of their deaths in
just under a week's time. He understood, he really did.
The small voice
which whined that Jan was spoiling his first family Christmas for years, he
battened away. It was unfair.
sorry," Jan said again, drawing back. "You haven't had a proper - you
must think I'm awful ruining your Christmas like this. Sorry."
The voice shut up.
Theo shook his head. "No. Not at all. I'm
sorry. That - you know. It's okay. Ready to face everyone?"
swiping at her eyes. "Yeah. I'll be fine. Thank you."
Theo had no idea
what she was thanking him for. He shrugged. "It was nothing."
peacefully enough, and Theo was genuinely sorry to say his goodbyes. He would
have been sorrier if he hadn't been leaving for the Fairleighs'. Anne and Terry
had invited him over for hot chocolate that evening. "We'd ask you over
for dinner," the letter had read, "but my parents are hosting the
Great Family Reunion this year and there are going to be more of our relatives
than we can stand. We figure releasing that many Muggles on you at once is a
recipe for disaster, or at the least some really creative stories about how you
met us. It should be safe by about five. We hope."
into the garden behind the hedge that guarded the house from the road. He'd had
a lot of practice since his birthday last summer in not Apparating where
Muggles could spot him. That was successful; landing with one foot in Mary
Fairleigh's rose bed wasn't, and he resorted to Vanishing the dirt rather than
spending ten minutes trying to scrape it off before he entered the house. The
door was pulled away from his fingers just before he could open it to reveal
Terry, who threw herself at him bodily. Theo staggered backwards, wondering
just how many women were going to assault him today. He hugged her back anyway.
to see you." He hadn't, he realised, since August. It was longer than he'd
thought. The extent of his happiness at seeing her again somewhat appalled him.
It was Terry.
too,"she said, finally releasing him. From within the house came a cry of
"Shut the door, it's freezing!"
tugged Theo inside. "Get ready. I think Anne was kind of optimistic about
when everyone would leave. There's still heaps of people here. Sure you don't
want to run away now? We could always hide you in the attic until they go. But
Mum and Dad will want to see you, and Anne of course, and you should really
meet everyone and-"
Theo found himself embraced by yet another female. Fortunately it was Anne, so
he couldn't complain.
he muttered into her hair, then tugged her chin up for a kiss that made Terry
shriek in outrage. "Ewwwww! You guys!"
Anne was glowing
up at him, hair escaping from its clips to frame her face. She made no sign of
having heard her sister. "I was worried you weren't going to get here. Did
you have a good time at your aunt's?"
Theo told her, trying to shrug off his cloak without removing his arm from
around her waist. It was quite a struggle. "Almost sorry to leave. Almost.
How's your day been?"
"Great. No, truly. It's just, people, you know, everywhere. Most of them haven't gone yet. Come on, we're using my bedroom for
a cloak room; well, it's not mine anymore, Nicola's moved in. Terry and I are
sharing the small one, since we're away at Hogwarts so much of the year."
tell everyone you're here," Terry announced. "Don't be too
long." She gave them a narrow-eyed look.
Theo," Mary Fairleigh said, coming out of the kitchen. "I'm making
tea for everyone. Would you like a cup?"
Theo wondered if every visit to Anne's house would involve an offer of tea.
"Nice to see you again, Mrs Fairleigh."
Anne managed to
spirit him up the stairs to the temporary cloakroom for a proper kiss that
lasted about three seconds before Nicola stuck her head in the door and yelled
"Terry said you guys should hurry up and - ew, gross."
Anne shot him a
resigned grimace, and they were hustled downstairs to be peered at, prodded,
and interrogated by various members of her extended family. Theo was just
grateful he'd remembered to transfigure his robes before showing up at Anne's.
He suspected that arriving in wizarding dress would have not gone well, and
Anne had informed him long before that yes, her parents and siblings were the
only ones who knew about Hogwarts.
The rest of her
family were not too bad. For Muggles. They were loud, which was a surprise when
you looked at Anne. Maybe not so much when you looked at Terry. They were
welcoming, generally, and amiable, and...no. Not so bad after all. Even if
there were a lot of them. To Theo's great surprise, even Anne's brother Eddie
didn't seem displeased to see him.
Anne's been talking about you coming over all day. And Terry and Nicola. Do you
have to bewitch all my sisters?"
"It's just my
innate charm," Theo said, straight-faced, trying to ignore the weirdness
of Eddie making a pun about magic. Across the room, Anne was going crimson at
something one of her female cousins was saying. "Been a while. How's your,
uh, football going?"
"All right. We won our last game before the holidays. It was just after
Terry and Anne got back, they came along, Terry's mad keen on it - you should
have been here earlier, we had a game in the back garden."
Theo glowered at
Terry, who was snickering, presumably at the idea of Theo trying to play
football. "Maybe another day. I'm still regretting being talked into
trying cricket back in the summer."
"Ah, you weren't so bad. And we fixed the broken window before Mum and Dad
found out, so it didn't matter."
what?" Jonathan Fairleigh asked, appearing with impeccable parental
timing. Theo muttered something and slid away to let Eddie take the heat. Anne
looked like she could use some support. He'd forgotten how complicated family
gatherings could be.
"Oi, Theo, no
sneaking off!" Eddie protested, and Theo turned around to own up to his
part in the story with a shamefaced smile. After all, the window had been
fixed. And maybe that was part of being family, too. You couldn't pretend. Or
He liked it.
It was getting on
into the evening by the time the majority of the visiting relatives left and
Theo could curl up with Anne on the couch. The TV, which still secretly
fascinated him, was playing some - what did you call it? - that was it, movie, with the sound muted. Anne rested her head on his shoulder.
about the onslaught," she said. "It was a bit much to meet all those
people at once. And Nic said Dad heard the cricket story, too."
Theo waved a hand.
"It wasn't your fault. And there are worse misdemeanours. It's been a good
Christmas, this year."
"That was an
interesting change of topic," Anne observed, twisting her head to look at
him. "What makes you say that?"
He thought about
it for a second. At the piano, Nicola was defiantly playing Christmas carols
that got a little louder every time Eddie complained. "It's my last chance
before Christmas is over!" she huffed above the music.
didn't mind," Theo said finally. "Because I could come here, and just
sort of - be, you know, there, and not be on my guard. Too much. Even if your
father's sister did ask a lot of questions about what I do and how I met you.
It was safe."
I suppose," Anne said. "Or sort of. The Muggle world isn't all safe.
Just safer in comparison. But I'd have thought you'd rather - that -"
have preferred to spend Christmas with your father? If you could?"
"Yes. And no.
I would have once. But I spent Christmas with my family, the family I wanted to spend it with, and that's...that's enough."
Anne looked up at him anxiously, searching his face for signs of...something.
"It's been odd, this year, with you not at school, and NEWTs and all that.
I missed you. I thought you might...I don't know."
Theo repeated, and squeezed her hand. From across the room came the thud of the
piano lid slamming down, and Nicola's outraged shriek.
to be around my family for Christmas?" Anne
said, lifting her eyebrows.
Theo glanced at
Nicola, who was thwacking Eddie with the book of carol music. Terry was
snickering. "I did. It's warm in here."
makes...very little sense, actually." Anne's expression was one of
Theo said, "it makes perfect sense."