The Sugar Quill
Author: Elsha (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Going Home  Chapter: Default
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Light

Going Home

The first 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 it.

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.

***

The loneliest 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.

Then Theo 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 them.

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 parcel.

Theo stifled 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 beyond -

He didn't need her permission, anyway.

"Who's that from?"

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."

Celia sniffed. "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 all morning."

"I wasn't 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 tha-"

"Out!"

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.

Untwisting himself 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 fashion, anyway.

It certainly 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 -"

"It's quite all right, really," Theo said carefully. The juice was warm and sticky and thoroughly unpleasant. "It was an accident. Don't scold him too much."

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."

Jan's charm 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.

"Hey, Theo, can you go and get Jan?" Callum asked him as they were herded into the dining room. "She's vanished off somewhere."

"Sure," 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 there?"

"Yes," 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 shoulder gingerly.

"It's okay?"

She sniffled. "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-"

Theo found 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.

"I'm 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?"

She nodded, 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."

***

Dinner passed 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."

Theo Apparated 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.

"Terry. Good 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.

"You too,"she said, finally releasing him. From within the house came a cry of "Shut the door, it's freezing!"

Grinning, Terry 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!" Theo found himself embraced by yet another female. Fortunately it was Anne, so he couldn't complain.

"Anne," 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?"

"I did," 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?"

Anne sighed. "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."

"I'll just tell everyone you're here," Terry announced. "Don't be too long." She gave them a narrow-eyed look.

"Oh, hello, Theo," Mary Fairleigh said, coming out of the kitchen. "I'm making tea for everyone. Would you like a cup?"

"Please." 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.

"Hello, Theo. 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?"

Eddie shrugged. "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."

Eddie grinned. "Ah, you weren't so bad. And we fixed the broken window before Mum and Dad found out, so it didn't matter."

"The broken 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 lie.

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.

"I'm sorry 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.

"Because I 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."

"That's...accurate, 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 -"

"That what?"

"Wouldn't you 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."

"Really?" 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."

"Really," Theo repeated, and squeezed her hand. From across the room came the thud of the piano lid slamming down, and Nicola's outraged shriek.

"You wanted 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."

"That makes...very little sense, actually." Anne's expression was one of affectionate bemusement.

"No," Theo said, "it makes perfect sense."

//
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