Anne saw Theo twice more before the bombshell dropped. Once was on a sunny Saturday afternoon, when the weather seemed to permeate the castle and they spent two hours chatting more than playing music. Anne had expressed a lack of understanding when Theo used a Quidditch-related expression, so he took it upon himself to explain the game better, sketching diagrams in the air with his wand. He'd been nearly unbearably high-and-mighty through a lot of it - believing Muggle-borns couldn't understand the game - but he had tried.
"It’s really quite simple, there’s only four positions -"
"And three balls? I have a hard enough time with rugby, and that only uses one!"
"Yes, well, Muggle sports. They’re probably not that difficult."
"So if I asked you the difference between a blindside and an openside flanker and who gets to the breakdown fastest, that’s simple, right?"
"That’s even in English?"
"Believe me, Theo, we invented the sport here."
"Muggles may have. We invented Quidditch, and you don’t seem to be getting that."
By the end of it she was nearly as confused as she'd been in the first place - though she had understood more than he'd given her credit for - and giggling at his bemused expression as to why she wasn't more enthusiastic about the game. He'd called her "little Hufflepuff" and thrown his hands in the air in exasperation, muttering about why he shouldn't have bothered; it had only made her laugh harder. Being a quite reserved person, Theo hadn't, but he had been grinning in a way Anne felt she was unlikely to see very often. He had stopped to complain about her shortening of his name, but had been unable to put a finger on why it disturbed him. She'd said that if he was going to call her little Hufflepuff, Theo was quite okay. He had let it go at that point. In truth, she wasn't entirely sure why she had started calling him that, other than Theodore being far too long for everyday use, and "Nott" sounding a bit…odd, to her ears, even after four years of boarding school.
They had both known the talk was an attempt to not think about last Saturday's meeting, and the laughter had been a cover for unspoken thoughts. Theo was desperately trying not to think, Anne decided, to immerse himself in music and conversation and avoid – as far as he could – the topics of last week’s discussion. Death Eaters and prejudice and Muggle-borns. She didn’t quite know why it disturbed him so much. Of course, she was Muggle-born, but he seemed to be managing to forget that at times. Slytherin prejudice wasn't enough to cover his evasions. Why was the topic so touchy?
The second time she'd seen him had been on the grounds that Sunday, on a cold evening when she'd been hurrying back from a walk her friends had suggested to clear the air. What it really meant was that her dormmates - Ellie, Sarah, Mai, and Gabby - were gossiping over Sarah's break-up with her boyfriend, and wanted to do it where they were sure the ex-boyfriend (who Anne thought was actually quite okay) couldn't hear them. Let alone the other Hufflepuff boys of their year. They barely noticed Anne falling behind. She had felt a sudden annoyance at their gossip – it wasn’t that interesting, after all – and decided to strike off on her own. It had paid off, though, when she'd run into Theo, crossing the grounds on his way to nowhere.
"Where are you going?" she'd asked quietly. Can't see anyone else around, so he shouldn't mind…
"Nowhere." He shrugged moodily. "Just for a walk. You with those chattering magpies?"
Anne's lips twitched at the description. "In a sense. You look tired."
Theo snorted. "I am. I've been thinking too much."
"Or trying not to think?"
"Don't. Not now. I just don't want to have to…yes, think, dammit. So please, try and contain yourself, little Hufflepuff."
Anne fell into step with him. It was chilly, but the skies were clear; everyone else was indoors…like we would be if we were smart. She pulled a hand out of her cloak to rewrap her striped scarf more firmly.
"Well, you are a Hufflepuff, aren't you? Loyal and patient and hard-working. It shouldn't be hard." His tone was sardonic.
"What's wrong?" Trying to help Theodore Nott. The cold must be getting to my brain.
He stopped suddenly, and looked down at her. "Why would I tell you?"
"Because I am a loyal and patient Hufflepuff. I have absolutely no reason to repeat anything you say, and no-one to repeat it to. I'm the observer, not a gossiper like the others."
"Yes. Except I won't, because it concerns you too closely. I've been wondering, and thinking, and now I- I don't want to think about it any more. To worry. You're too many worries, you know that? Because knowing you means I have to decide whether my family is right. I see you; but I know they'd see…"
"A Muggle-born." Even if they'd use worse words than that. "I couldn't care less about what your family thinks. It isn't likely they'll ever be aware I exist, you know? Who'd tell them? Why would they care?"
"While you're entirely right about most of that," admitted Theo with unexpected candour,"I care what they'd think, 'cause it isn't about you in particular, it's about the fact they would, and why they would, and why I don't, and how it was so much easier when I did agree with them blindly, and-" he stopped midflow, smiling wryly. "You make me talk far too much, you know that? Stop listening so attentively, or something."
"Could be difficult, I've never been a talking person. I spend my life listening."
"Do you have to listen to me?"
"You could try shutting up."
"Oy! I'm offended, Fairleigh."
Anne laughed. "Too bad, Nott. You're an evil Slytherin, remember? You can stand being offended, I reckon."
She was surprised - or maybe she shouldn't have been - how quickly his face closed over.
"Evil Slytherins shouldn't be talking to innocent Hufflepuffs, then. Someone might see us, and I don't need that, now of all times."
He whipped around and headed back for the castle. Anne watched him go without a word, black regulation cloak held close behind him, tall enough to be visible for a long way. She stood there, frowning, then shrugged and headed for the lake path. There was enough time to go around once before dinner, and she'd been looking for solitude. Theo was not the most restful of company at times, especially when his own private demons were nipping at his heels.
Most times, lately.
The bomb dropped as Anne was eating breakfast the next morning. First, there was a commotion over at the Gryffindor table, where one person seemed to be getting an extraordinary amount of mail. Given that Anne had an excellent view of the table, and the person in question appeared to be Harry Potter, this was not precisely an unusual event. What was unusual was Ellie's squeal as she ripped open her copy of the Quibbler, a nonsensical and outlandish magazine Anne had been forced to peruse from time to time. (It had made her reflect that wizards did appear to be just as gullible as Muggles, if on slightly more grounds for the weird and wonderful being out there.) Well, Ellie's squeal was not unusual per se, but the cause was.
"Oh my God! Guys! Look at this! Harry Potter's done an interview with the Quibbler! About You-Know-Who!"
This was enough to make Anne look up from her porridge. While she knew Harry Potter had been claiming You-Know-Who was back, she wasn't entirely sure…well, she thought it might be true, but she didn't know enough to judge. She did know enough to suspect it was the truth - Cedric Diggory was dead, and one thing was for sure, Potter hadn't killed him. Umbridge's decrees seemed to confirm it - she wouldn't go to the trouble of banning an utter fabrication, not her. But this looked like it might give some answers. She leaned over Ellie's shoulder.
"Look, he's answered everything…" Sarah was wide-eyed. All around the Great Hall, voices were echoing words close to hers.
"Oooh, guys, he's said who the Death Eaters were that night…no surprises here…" Mai's dad worked for the Ministry, so she should know. "Lucius Malfoy, Crabbe, Goyle, Avery, Mulciber, Flint…hey, Macnair, hadn't heard that rumour before…Nott -"
"Nott?!" Anne couldn’t stop herself.
The other girls turned to look at her.
"Yeah, his son's in Slytherin…works for the Ministry…hey, didn't I see you talking to him yesterday? Near the lake?" Gabby perked up. "Friend of yours, is he?"
Anne scowled at the memory of Theo's attitude, and had enough sense to carry that on. "Or not." She winced. "Oops." The girls giggled. "No, he was just bored and trying to entertain himself by calling me names. The usual stuff, he left pretty quickly when I ignored him. Not surprising, really, if his father works for You-Know-Who."
"But…" Ellie was scanning the article. "Guys…I think this is on the level." She sounded scared.
"He's really back?" Mai asked sharply.
"I reckon so."
"That's…damn." Sarah shook her head.
Anne sat quietly; she was the only Muggle-born, the only one who didn't quite understand. But the fear, the tension in their voices…she remembered what she'd been told about the escaped prisoners, and if their leader was back… if others were Death Eaters, if there were more than the few who'd escaped, oh, and Sirius Black as well - this wasn't good, this confirmation, it meant that something was coming. Wars…how bad had it been, last time? How bad could it get? Her mind flashed back to her conversation with Theo.
And this is all so silly, we're fifteen, and we're worrying about things that will probably never come-even if Harry Potter's telling the truth…what can happen ?
Yes. Worrying about nothing, aren't we?
He knew. His father was a Death Eater, or so it was claimed, it made sense, and if You-Know-Who was returning, then there would be something to worry about. She was what they wanted to get rid of. She was the enemy, to them, only enemy implied equality and that was what they didn't see in her or any Muggle-born. Would Theo have to choose to join him? No, that was melodramatic, yet - what else would he need to be distracted from so badly? This thought of a choice in the future?
I swear, I don't - I wouldn't - Death Eaters murder and torture and I couldn't do that to anyone, not even - not you, I promise, do you believe I'd do that?
No. Not to me, I hope, I don't know, I don't know you quite well enough, but I think not. But you might one day, if you keep believing that. Maybe.
Gabby tugged on Anne's arm. "C'mon, look at this, you have to read it, he talks about what happened to Cedric and everything!"
Anne obediently looked. She would need to know, when she faced Theo. They had some talking to do. On instinct, her eyes flicked up, to the Slytherin table on the other side of the Great Hall. She could see Theo in the distance, dark head bent in conference with Malfoy. Another Death Eater's son. She was going to have to talk to him about this, and sooner than Saturday. Waiting was not really an option.
Do you believe I'd do that?
I don't know.
Theo was walking briskly down the corridor, just behind Malfoy, on their way to Charms. Malfoy was going on about Potter and how he dared to do something like this, he had no right, and he was going to be in so much trouble with Professor Umbridge. Theo agreed in the same sort of terms. Any lack of proper indignation on his part would be noticed. In truth, he was angry, because it meant that everyone would look at him and see…because his father would be angry, and he might receive some of the backlash. But a large part of what he felt was resignation. It was, after all, the truth. It had to come out at some point. It might foil the Dark Lord's plans somewhat; but Theo didn't care for them, except in how they might affect him. And what others saw of him. Malfoy and that lot would be more insufferable; the other Slytherins would be more wary; the teachers would ignore it; no-one else mattered. Except-
Anne. Oh, no.
He had absolutely no idea what her reaction would be. Any of the possibilities that seemed likely - fear, anger, calm dismissal - were equally unnerving. He had to talk to her about it, before she got ideas…
This is crazy. I'm scared that a Muggle-born might not want to speak to me again because my father is a Death Eater. I don't care what she thinks, I just go because I like playing music and it's nice to play together. The company is irrelevant.
As they rounded a corner, he saw a group of giggling fourth-years coming the other way; Anne's little group. She was there, talking to an Asian girl with glasses. She made no sign she noticed him, and he looked away from her before anyone could notice. As they passed each other, he saw her stumble and trip. She bumped into him quite heavily, managing to knock him into the wall, grabbing his bag for a second in an attempt to right herself, before falling onto her hands and knees.
"Oh, Anne, are you all right?" asked the Asian girl, wide eyed.
"Watch where you're going, Mudblood!" snarled Theo, picking himself up. Anne went bright red.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to, are you okay?"
"Idiot clumsy Hufflepuffs, never pay attention to anything!" The words were spilling out automatically, and he didn't know how to stop them.
"Who can expect them to? They're only Hufflepuffs, after all. Halfbreeds and Mudbloods," sneered Malfoy. Theo saw the Asian girl's face darken with indignation.
"Come on, Nott, we might be late." Theo followed him obediently, pausing only to sneer at the Hufflepuff girls. In for a penny… Anne was brushing her sleeves off; she just looked away. One of the others, a gangly girl with dark hair, picked up her bag for her.
"Ignore them, Anne, they're just gits."
"Well, look at their fathers," muttered a shorter black girl venomously. Theo ignored them in return. He couldn't care less what they thought. But Anne…
Dammit, why did you have to go and trip then? he thought viciously. I didn't want to call you that!
In Charms, he was getting his wand out of his bag when his fingers brushed a crumpled piece of paper. Idly, he pulled it out and looked at it.
Need to talk to you. Practice room, straight after classes, don't worry if you can't get away, we can talk Saturday.
He crumpled it up again and dropped it back in his bag. Please let no-one looking think it was anything more than rubbish…
"What was that, Nott, a note from your girlfriend?" Malfoy sounded gleefully curious.
"Girlfriend? Not likely." It wasn't. He had technically been going out with Tracey Davis for a short time after last year's Yule Ball - a proper pureblood Slytherin - but that had lapsed, and he wasn't really interested in anyone right now. The Slytherins his age were all taken, or unbearable, and that was pretty much his range of options. Malfoy knew that as well as he.
"Just a note from my dad I'd forgotten was in there. I really need to clean my bag out."
Malfoy looked supremely bored at this, and turned away to say something to Goyle. Theo closed his bag and looked towards the teacher. The best lies are the most plausible. And Anne…didn't know the little Hufflepuff had it in her. An unconscious smile curved his lips. Well done that girl.
As he left his last class of the day - Transfiguration - grumbling over the amount of homework they'd received, Theo stopped dead, frowned, and groaned.
"Oh, damn. Excuse me, I've got to go pick something up, I'll see you at dinner…"
He wasn't getting away that easily.
"What was it, Nott?" inquired Pansy Parkinson, with the air of someone who didn't really care but thought it might be useful to know.
"Just some music, I left it in one of the practice rooms on Saturday."
"Music?" Malfoy raised his eyebrows. "That's where you disappear off to every Saturday, then?"
"My parents prefer that I keep up my practices during the term time. Music is an accomplishment, after all." Nott didn't need to try very hard to match Malfoy's disdain.
Malfoy shrugged. "Run along, then. I have better things to do."
Theo hurried away, thankful for his quick escape. Of course, he'd just cemented Malfoy's view of him as a weak idiot who, while being on the right side, worried about silly things and did what he was told. He couldn't care less any more. Malfoy, after all, was an arrogant git, and he didn't need his favour, just his indifference. Steady on and don't rock any boats; it had worked so far. Then he remembered where he was going, and why, and his smug satisfaction at Malfoy's blindness disintegrated. He was going to have to explain to Anne that yes, his father was a Death Eater who would kill her without thinking twice. She was a Hufflepuff. She'd probably ask him to justify it, or something, as if he was responsible. She'd probably think that he went along with it, which was totally unfair, because of course he didn't want to be a Death Eater, but he was just an evil Slytherin, and that's all she'd see. And he knew he was working himself up to be angry with her to cover the fact that what he was really feeling was shame. Because this was his father, and he was…he worked for the Dark Lord. He'd kill someone like Anne without a second thought, and she knew that, now.
But I'm a Slytherin. And we're not ashamed, ever, because we're Slytherins, and we don't have anything to be ashamed of. Everyone should look up to us. And I don't care about not speaking to a silly Hufflepuff, even if she plays the flute really well, because I'm a Slytherin, and we walk alone. Right?
Oh, God, what if she does never want to speak to me again?
Anne was perched on the table when Theo stalked in. He looked like he was in a bit of a temper; at least, he was glowering. He slammed the door behind him, whipped out his wand, and cast a locking spell and a silence spell on it in quick succession. Then he turned to face her, still glaring.
"Er…" Anne struggled for something to say. "I read that article."
"And?" asked Theo, looking impatient.
"You know, you didn't have to come if you didn't want to" said Anne, stung by his temper. She hadn't done anything, and she certainly wasn't responsible for Harry Potter's actions, even if she applauded them. Illegal or not, the interview now rested among her Defence notes, charmed to look like an essay on non-retaliatory tactics. The girls had entrusted it to her, saying she was the best at Charms. She had felt the disguise more than appropriate. Umbridge had searched her bag, earlier that day, but passed over the incriminating document without a word. She had raised her eyebrows at the music, however.
Theo opened his mouth to say something scornful and arrogant - and closed it again.
"No, I didn't, did I?" he said at length. He pulled his book bag off his shoulder and let it slide to the floor, before leaning back against the door and folding his arms. "Do you have a copy?"
"You mean you haven't read it?" asked Anne, puzzled. If it was her family, she'd certainly want to know what was being said.
He rolled his eyes. "I'm a Slytherin. We've all got orders from home to stay in good with Umbridge, and that means none of us managed to get a copy before it was banned. One’ll turn up in the common room before too long, though."
Anne opened her bag and pulled out her Defence folder. "Umm…here we go. This is just the interview, it's from my friend's magazine, but she asked me to look after it."
"So she wouldn't take the flak if it was found? And you took it?" Theo sounded extremely scornful of her supposed naïveté. Anne's mouth twitched.
"No, because I'm the best at Charms in our class, so I could hide it the best. Ellie wouldn't do that to me. We're nice loyal Hufflepuffs, after all." She handed him the interview.
He took it, but raised his eyebrows when he began to read. "Non-retaliatory tactics?"
"Oops." Anne reddened slightly, sliding off the table and moving towards him to take it back.
"Forgot to take the charm off." She returned to pull her wand out of her schoolbag and tapped the paper. "Finite incantem."
The three or four sheets shifted to become pages torn from a magazine. Theo crossed the room to peer over her shoulder. While the writing was in Rita Skeeter's lurid style, the facts were still there. Anne shifted slightly; Theo was standing close enough to make her remember she was in a locked room with a Slytherin. A Slytherin boy. Of course, it was Theo, but even so, it was…uncomfortable. She turned around and held it out.
"Here, I've already read it once."
He had moved back when she'd turned, but not very much. Just enough to move over slightly and lounge against the table next to her, scanning the pages with a frown. Anne pushed herself back up to sit on it again. He was fast; the whole thing didn't take more than two or three minutes. Anne watched him as he read. His dark hair was a bit long; it kept flopping over into his eyes, and he kept pushing it out. He needed a haircut, she mused. And he bit his nails. Anne could commiserate over that, having only managed to cure herself of the habit shortly before arriving at Hogwarts. Abruptly he looked up at her. She jumped, and nearly slipped off the table.
"You were staring," he said brusquely.
"Uh…I was?" she said guiltily. He was right, damn him.
He looked back down at the interview, and sighed. "Well, Potter had guts to tell all this, but then, he is Gryffindor. From what I know…not that Dad ever says all that much, not to me anyway, but the details match enough. He's telling the truth about everything, in case you were wondering."
His dark eyes were rueful when he looked back at her. "I knew about most of this, but I couldn't precisely say it. The Dark Lord doesn't want everyone to know he's back, not until he's ready for them to know. And I'd be in more trouble than…well, I'd be in over my head, if I'd let something slip."
Anne felt her words freeze in her throat. She'd been ready for denial, or pushing the issue aside, or being told that she didn't understand or need to know, but this simple admittance of the facts…
"Your father, then…"
Theo chuckled cynically. "Oh yes, that's true enough. My beloved father, Death Eater, murderer, torturer, and subverter of Ministry politics for the Dark Lord. Not that his standing will be damaged by this. Fudge is so blind to the truth it's bloody laughable. He practically does what the Dark Lord's followers tell him, and shoves Dumbledore out in the cold."
Anne bit her lip. He seemed so unfazed by this, and yet…
"Don't you mind that everyone knows?" she blurted out. "I mean, people will…they'll hate you for this! There are lots of people…I mean, in my House, Susan Bones, her grandparents were killed by Death Eaters, Cedric Diggory, last year…lots of people have been hurt by them. Sarah Cartwright, you don't know her, she's a friend of mine, her mother's parents were killed by, what's-his-name, Dolohov. The one who escaped from Azkaban. Because her grandfather was a Muggle, because they were in the way. They weren't even a threat, and they died. And you don't care people know your father…"
"That would mean I cared what they thought." Theo shrugged. "The other Slytherins won't, plenty of them are in the same position as me, the other ones don't have the power to speak out. The teachers are all too professional to change their opinion of us, except Snape, and he's biased towards us; Umbridge thinks it's a lot of lies; there's no-one else to care about."
"Well, thanks a lot," Anne said tartly. "You could have mentioned you didn't care what I thought."
He looked surprised, and then said "But…you don't care. I thought. You were just asking why I didn't care more, you weren't…or do you?"
His happy mood - and he had been happy, when he'd stopped being angry, Anne suddenly realised - dropped away. "You do, don't you."
"Don't be ridiculous" she replied in exasperation. "Of course I'm not blaming you for what your father is. You're the one I see every week, not him. I'm just…" she trailed off. "Just surprised you don't seem to care about it more."
Theo smiled slightly, out of nowhere. "That's okay then."
"So you don't care about it."
"I don't think about it." His tone was flat. "I don't think about it, because there is nothing I can do, except not do the same as my parents. I don't think about it because I'm afraid they'll realise I've stopped agreeing entirely with them. I don't think about it because my goal, right now, is for no-one to notice me or make me swear oaths or do anything I don't want to, until I'm of age, and then I will be out of here. As far away from this stupid bloody war as I possibly can be."
"You'd just run?"
He looked at her consideringly. "Wouldn't you?"
"No, I'd have to stay, and, and help, or, or something. Help fight it. Because it is so wrong. Because it's so unfair, to look at anyone and think it's okay to kill them - especially when I'm one of the people that your - that Death Eaters think it's okay to kill. Isn't that - won't you do that?"
He laughed, seeming slightly astonished.
"My own neck comes first. You Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs can fight for what's right. I just want to live where I'm not touched by it all."
Anne narrowed her eyes.
"So if it was me…if I was being tortured, or someone was going to kill me, because I was Muggle-born…you'd just walk away."
Theo paused for a moment, considering his reply. When he did speak, it seemed to Anne as if the answer surprised him as much as her.
"No, of cou- no, I wouldn't. But that's different. I know you. Friends are different from people you don't know."
She turned her head to look straight up at him. Friends. Maybe…maybe. Yes.
"We are friends, then? Even if I'm on the list of evil influences to be exterminated so He Who Must Not Be Named can rise to power?"
"Even if." Theo seemed to have come to a decision of some sort; he offered her a tentative hand. "If you don't mind being friends with a Death Eater's son."
"Well, even evil gets forgiven for being willing to turn up and play the piano every week," Anne said lightly. She took his hand firmly. "And trying to explain Quidditch."
Theo smiled back. "Thanks, little Hufflepuff." He squeezed her hand, just a little too tightly, as if transferring some hidden tension there. So Anne squeezed back even harder, and then they were both letting go and shaking sore hands and laughing, and for just a second everything except the laughter could be forgotten.
Because that's what being friends is. Making the bad things go away for just a second.
It's never going to be more than a second, though.