For Hope (quantumesque), who quite probably doesn't like Dominique/Lorcan but who I hope will like this nonetheless.

letters from nowhere

(...only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.

-—e. e. cummings

You were four the first time she left, and seven, ten, thirteen, sixteen, nineteen thereafter. You loved her anyway. You loved her from the moment you laid eyes on her and you suspect you might love her until the world ends. She had hair the colour of the rust on the bottom of boats and eyes like the seaglass her daughter brought from the beach. Eyes the colour of nebulae and the water around the wrecks of boats with the sunlight on it. Eyes that dared you, caught you, killed you.

You love her though she leaves you. Is that a tragedy? To love someone though they leave you. You suspect it could well be. People leave you often, though. If you could not love the people who left you you'd have almost nobody left to love at all. And what is it like, a world without anybody to love? Dark, you suppose. Dark and dank and pointless.

If you could chase her you would. Follow her wherever she goes. When she drags her daughter with her and disappears nowhere—she cannot go anywhere because you are sure you would find her. But you cannot, not ever, and so she must vanish. She goes to heaven to smoke with the angels, perhaps, or to Neverland to seduce Captain Hook. She's always had a weakness for the bad boys. Bad boys and cigarettes and coffee. You like the third but not the first and second and maybe that's why she leaves you.

"Don't be sad, Lorcan," she'd whispered to you the first night you slept together in a hotel in central London, rustling the words against your eardrum like paper, "Don't be sad."

You didn't have the heart to tell her that you are always sad, because you are always being left. Your parents, your brother, her—people leave you and you are sad because it is a sad thing, to be left.

But you said nothing, because that is how you two worked. She was always the one who did the talking. You were the quiet one, the watchful one—you suppose that's your mark, your defining characteristic. You linger in places longer than anybody else, you find the details when those around you can see only the bigger picture. You see the brush strokes in Monet when your companions see only flowers and water. It exhausts you, sometimes, to notice it all. But you cannot seem to stop.

It's like with her. From the beginning, you noticed her and you noticed all her details and her nuances at once, before, forever. You noticed the shape of the hollow behind her ear, the way her eyes sung at the top of their lungs when she held her daughter, the long white length of her fingers and the nervous way she tapped them against her opposite wrist when she was discomfited.

You knew her from her distal phalanx to the soft copper shimmer at the root of her hair. You knew her inside out, back to front, like her bones were a map and her arteries the pathways winding across it. You read her history in her gaze and in the soft quiet way she folded in on herself at the end of a long day. You decoded her emotions in how her knuckles rose sharp and white under the skin of her hands when she fisted her fingers into her skirt, in the way she sat sometimes at the piano in the hall for hours without playing a single note at all, though when she played you could have sworn all the gods in history were clustering around to listen.

It is because you know her so intimately that you let her leave you. Because you can map the course her blood runs that you welcome her back with open arms. That you love her, desperately and passionately and helplessly, forever, no matter what she does, no matter how long she leaves you for.

You are twenty eight and four months ago she left you for the ninth time. You open your door to find her standing there in the pouring rain, hair sodden and clinging to her skin, her hand tight around her daughter's.

"Lorcan," she says. "Can we come in?"

Of course she can. Of course you let her. You always do. You gather little Bel into your arms and sweep her off for a hot bath, making her giggle by drawing faces on the mirror in the steam, washing her hair as gently and carefully as if she was your own daughter. When she is clean, she stands up in the bath, skin red and shining from the heat, and closes her skinny arms around your neck to draw you close.

"I love you," she tells you, bathwater soaking into the shoulders of your shirt, "Better than Mummy."

You sigh and enclose her in your arms in return, engulfing all four years and three foot nothing of her in damp linen and strong sinews.

"Love you too, Cornflake," you tell her, and as her face burrows into the hollow between your neck and your shoulder you hear a soft sigh in the doorway and feet crashing down the stairs before you can turn your head. By the time you make the front door, Dominique is gone. Vanished, as usual. Except this time, this time… you turn, slowly, like you'll break something going any faster. This time there is a child standing wrapped in a towel, dripping onto your doormat. A child with wet tangled rust curls and a stranger's eyes.

"You and me, Lorcan," she says, and she sounds so old that it's like your heart is going to break, "You and me. Nicely." And then she turns and goes back inside, towel dragging along the ground behind her, and it hits you so hard that you cannot breathe—she knew that she would be left. She has lived all four years of her life with her mother and she has learnt one solid truth: if you love Dominique, you will be left eventually.

But she has learnt one more thing, one more thing you have never learnt. She has learnt that being left is not always worthy of despair. She has learnt that once you have been left, you do not have to spend all your time thereafter waiting to be returned to. You can move on.

It takes her years to teach you this, but you learn it in the end.

A year passes, and another, and Dominique does not come back. You find yourself unsurprised by it, and that astonishes you contrarily. Bel grows, changes, lives, loves, and you send her to the school at the end of the road. You drop her off every morning and she clings to you like the other little girls cling to their fathers and she races out to greet you at the end of every afternoon and the other parents compliment you on your pretty daughter and you smile and thank them and don't correct them at all. After all, you know Bel now as well as you ever knew Dominique. You know the details of her, the contours of the mountains on her map, and when she falls you kiss the pain out of the wound and put the stars back in her eyes (not a stranger's, not now, just Bel's) and you let her into your bed when she's had a nightmare and she's yours, now. Just yours.

One day she comes home complaining that a boy at school is bothering her and later that night you are amazed by how calmly you wiped the tears off her cheeks, how easily you pressed a kiss to her wrinkled little forehead, how matter-of-factly you took her hand in yours and marched her right around to the boy's parents to ask them to stop their son bothering her. She hid behind you the entire time, peeking out around your legs, red rust curls pressing up against your waist like kisses. And her eyes, her eyes—Bel's eyes, Bel's pretty eyes. Not a strange man's eyes—Bel's eyes. Your girl's eyes.

She grows up, your girl. Even you, her… well, not exactly her father. Even you, her Lorcan, cannot fail to notice that she is growing up. Growing up beautifully. Beautiful. Beautiful a little like her mother—but smaller, daintier, with the tiniest, prettiest hands you've ever seen. Wild, too, though. Something feral in the set of her jaw, in the slant of her eyes, in the furrowing of her brow. Those eyes glare from beneath a tangled fringe, daring the world, challenging the world. She never challenges you, though. Not you. You are not a father to her, not in the normal sense of the word. Not in many senses of the word, if you're honest. She is your obstinate little friend, your prickly young comrade, the only other person in the world who understands what it is to be left so constantly.

(Because her mother returns. Just now and again. She doesn't stay, not ever. She measures Bel against herself and caresses her and says how pretty she's getting and then she leaves and leaves and leaves. And it burns, oh it burns, oh, oh.)

She does give you this stare sometimes, though. People catch sight of it on occasion and stop to smile—it's an odd sight, to be sure. You, towering, blonde, six foot four and broad-shouldered like a rugby player. And her, tiny, barely pushing four foot two, hands on hips and hair falling into her eyes and a furious glower on her little face. And, "Lor-can," she says threateningly, separating your name out like the edges of a wound. "Lor-can." And you cave, always, unfailingly. She never uses the glare on anything unimportant, you've learned, and so you bow to it. It signals that something is important to her. You may not spoil her, but you trust her, and if she gives you the it's-important stare, you believe her.

And life goes on, the way it tends to. Bel hits thirteen, and your father sends you the Muggle money from somewhere abroad to get her to a really good private school. It may have taken him nine years to discover that he has a sort-of-granddaughter, but this is your father and you take what you can get. He might be in Russia, you think, or maybe a rainforest somewhere.

For the first time, the nights when Bel cannot sleep for nerves, the pair of you lie on top of her covers and stare at the stars on her ceiling and you tell her about your family; about your gorgeous dreaming mother and your stern practical father and how they never meant to leave you but there was travelling to be done and a son without magic—well, they couldn't risk you being unable to defend yourself. So they tried leaving you with Mrs Weasley, who was pretty much everyone's grandmother back in those days. But her grandchildren didn't know how to look at you, didn't know what to do with a Squib—what could they talk about, after all? The vast majority of their conversations involved the people they were with at Hogwarts with, the jobs they would get in the magical world, and then in September they left you like everybody else did.

So you went to your mad grandfather, about as good at looking after a teenage boy as a tree, and you realised when you were fifteen that you'd grown up more than anybody else your age had. It was exhausting, to be an adult so young, but you dealt with it. You knuckled down to work and cooked your own meals and barely spoke to your grandfather and you were relieved, in the end. To stop depending on others was a big weight off your shoulders and you found that alone you could breathe a little easier.

Bel interrupts you at this point, and when you flop your head sideways to regard her she is staring upwards with that odd little frown marring her forehead—a frown that looks terrifyingly like yours for a girl who isn't related to you at all.

"I'd be scared," she says quietly, the words dangling in the air above you both, "I'd be so scared, to be alone."

You watch her a little longer and she turns her head, too, to look at you, to give you that frown.

"Silly," you say, scooping an arm under her and pulling her into your side, folding her up and away from the world in your large embrace, "You'll always have me."

"Everybody leaves, though," she reminds you, her voice muffled against your shirt. You sigh into the top of her head and hold her tighter.

"Not us," you promise, "Not us, Bel. We get left, we don't do the leaving. So we won't leave each other. Deal?"

She forces her head backwards so you loosen your grip, and she presses her chin against your chest and gazes up at you, looking younger than she has done in a while. Then she wiggles a hand up from where you have it pinned against her side and she crooks her pinky finger at you, raising one eyebrow with that maddeningly straight face she can always conjure no matter what she's up to.

You grin and hook your pinky finger into hers, and then she frees her other arm to wrap both tightly around your neck and she falls asleep like that, face pressed against your neck, breath against your throat, hair tickling your nose. You sigh and shut your eyes too, and that night you dream your life in replay—getting your GCSEs, getting your A Levels, your place at university, your few friends. Dominique, Dominique, Dominique. Your one lifelong friend, your one love, the one person who loved you from the day you met at three onwards. You think she might even love you the way you want her to. Properly, heart-thumpingly, despairingly. But this is Dominique, and she could never stand to be tied to anybody, not in any way. So she left, and she keeps leaving, and she'll leave your whole life.

You move to a house nearer the school Bel will be attending so that she can come home on weekends, and you do your writing from there. The house is so alarmingly empty without her chatter and her mayhem that you almost cannot bear it. So you fill it with characters and ideas and storylines and on Fridays you drive over in the posh car the proceeds from your last script bought you and all the friends she's made coo over it and ask to come for Sunday lunch some time just so they can go in it and Bel smiles that little Bel smile that tells nobody anything and climbs in next to you without a word.

You envy her. Yes, she has not inherited her mother's magic, but her father was probably a Muggle and admittedly she's the ninety-nine-to-one chance but she has everything else going for her, who needs magic? She hasn't grown up surrounded by it, after all, so she doesn't miss it the way you do.

(On your kinder nights, you think that maybe that's why Dominique left her with you. So she could learn to live happily without magic—not burn and smoulder and resent all her relatives with their wands and owls and glorious, mysterious school. But that's too far-thinking for Dominique, you realise. Too selfless.)

The pair of you settle into life like this so easily it almost hurts. You become aware that Bel is awfully popular at school, and you are incredibly proud. You faded into the background your whole life, determined to just get your head down and get good grades for university. But Bel is so bright she doesn't even have to try in class, and she's witty and sharp and independent and beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Her mother's Veela genes shine through in the shimmer in her hair and the luminescence of her pale skin and the grace with which she walks and the whole unearthly aura of her. You do not worry about boys because what boy is there that could touch a creature like Bel? You almost do not know her, some weekends. She feels distant and otherworldly and you know her better than anybody else but you still feel like there's some secret dark part of her that she's hidden away from even you all this time.

You go to her first parents' evening and the teachers tell you that she talks too much but that she's a daughter to be proud of. She's sparky and fiery and bold and brave and she could do with getting her homework in on time but they have confidence that she will go on to do marvellous things.

For her fourteenth birthday, you let her have a big birthday party at home. Some friends you've made in the film business over the years come during the week to help you set up, and two stay to help you with the cooking.

With just the cake left, there is also only one friend—a tall blonde woman called Eliza with quick clever hands and a mouth that curls at the corners when you say something funny. She covers you in flour and squeals when you smear chocolate onto her face and that night over a glass of wine she says, "You need a nice girl, Lorcan. You've only got Bel, and she's not even that nice."

"She's perfect," you protest, but half-heartedly—because of course Bel's not nice. She's grown up knowing that she was abandoned by her mother and you can expect a lot of a girl like that but not to love a world who's thrown that at her. (And that's what else her teachers said to you: she can be cruel, rude, uppity. Some of the other children don't like her, they think she thinks she's above them. And you had wanted to say, of course she's above them. Look at her. She's Bel. But you hadn't, because that's not what they had wanted to hear. You had said, I'll talk to her, and then you'd gone home and not.)

"She's lovely to you," Eliza agrees, winding one of the curls over your ear around her left forefinger, "Always. You've got something special with that child. But, Lorcan," she says, and you never find out what she intended to say because you kiss her at that point.

The next morning she finds her clothes, helps you bake the cake, and then leaves with a gentle kiss to your cheek. She gives you this look when she does, half-pity and half-despair. You don't think about why.

Before too long at all Bel's friends are swarming the place, kindly driven down in a bus from the school by the drama teacher whom Bel has made particular friends with. You invite the man to stay and get a decent meal, because he looks like he could do with it. As fifty-odd fourteen year olds run shrieking around the house and garden the pair of you sit on the back patio and watch and laugh and you think maybe you might have a new friend. That's a nice thought. Of course, you knew you'd like him, because Bel has excellent taste in people, but it's been some time since you've felt such a connection with anybody.

"She's not my daughter, you know," you tell him towards the end of the afternoon once you've exhausted the topic of cricket, "Her mother's an old friend of mine. She—she couldn't look after her so she left her with me."

"Christ," Hector replies with a genuine note of surprise, "I had no idea. You're so alike."

You finds yourself equally astonished. "What, me and Bel?"

"Yeah," the other man insists, gazing at you intently, brow furrowed, "I mean, not looks-wise, obviously. But there's just something about you. Like this, this… this vulnerability. I don't even know. You seem sort of removed from the rest of us, but, yeah, vulnerable. You make people want to protect you, look after you. Both of you. I guess you don't really notice it in Bel because you'd feel protective anyway. But you should see her at school. She walks in a room and it's like the collective heartbeat stops for a moment and then starts again, but a little off-kilter, you know? She makes everything different just by being there. And you find yourself… I don't know. Wondering about the look in her eyes and the way she moves and wanting to just shelter her away from anything the world might throw at her. She just seems frail—although I know she's not because I've seen her playing hockey, and fuck me—but yeah. Just fragile."

He breaks off then, looking a little uncomfortable, but you are so lost in this unexpected revelation that you are not paying attention to him anymore. Is that how people see you? Vulnerable? In need of protection? And Bel, Bel, your glorious Bel. At least you suppose you don't have to worry about her at school as much any longer, if people are so determined to look after her.

"Look," Hector is saying when you start paying attention again, "Look, Lorcan, I'd like to talk to you about something. I think Bel—I think she's really talented. She brought the whole year nine drama class to tears a couple of days ago doing Lear. Like, eighteen fourteen-year-old kids, and she made even the boys cry. So, look, I want to talk to you about getting her involved in a local youth theatre group or something. To maximise her potential. I think she could be brilliant," he adds fervently, and you look at him in astonishment as you realise that, amazingly, this really does matter to him. Bel matters to him. So you think about it for a few moments, and then you nod.

"Okay," you reply, "Okay—is she really that good? But," you hasten to add before he can interrupt, "I'd like to talk about it to her first. Check it's what she wants. Okay?"

Hector is beaming so widely you fear he'll split his face in two, and he seizes your hand and shakes it madly, just saying, "Yes, thank you, thank you," over and over.

When her friends have returned to school that night, you go into Bel's bedroom and sit on her bed next to her and tell her what her drama teacher says. She's surprised by the revelation that she might actually be good at it, and after a brief period of silent thought, she says, "Yeah. Yeah okay. I want to try it."

You then proceed to tell her what else Mr Clarence said about her, and she laughs outright. She laughs so hard that you find yourself snorting with laughter too, and before long the pair of you are gasping and breathless on her sheets.

"Jesus," she heaves out, fighting to regain her breath, "Jesus Christ."

A short while later, you are both quiet again, talking idly about the summer holidays, when Bel pipes up, "I see it, though. In you, I mean. What Mr Clarence was talking about. All the mums at school say it too. That they feel like they want to look after you. That you're kind of… removed. I don't see it, personally," she continues airily, waving a hand pompously to make you laugh, "but they're always on about it. All my friends fancy you too," she adds, and this time it's her turn to laugh, "Idiots."

"Hey," you say, offended, and make a lunge to grab her and tickle her so she squirms and shrieks and struggles.

True to his word, Hector gets Bel a place at a prestigious local theatre group. Bel tackles the new challenge as breezily as she tackles anything else, and after only a couple of months you find an invitation to their production of Henry IV part I winging your way. You are frankly astonished to see that Bel has been given the large part of Henry Percy, or Harry Hotspur, but more overcome with emotion that her name is listed in the programme as, "Henry Percy, played by Bel Scamander". You may even cry a little, but you'd never admit to that.

When the big night finally rolls around, a couple of weeks into the summer holidays, you sit in the dark of the theatre surrounded by rustling programmes and sweet bags and find your knuckles white around the arms of your chair as you wait for her to come on stage. And when she does, you are not the only person in the audience to sigh with rapture. Because she is everything that Hector promised, and more. With her long hair tucked under a cap, a moustache drawn on in eyeliner, gesticulating and browbeating up there with the best of them, she's easily the most talented child on the stage. She owns it. She has dispensed with her own character entirely—there is no quiet wit up there now, no invisible two fingers up at the rest of the world. There is just Henry Percy and his bravery and doom and she is more masculine than either of the two boys playing Henry IV or the Prince of Wales, despite being about half their breadth.

The whole audience sheds a tear at her death scene, and at the end of the play you lead the theatre in thunderous applause.

You fight your way down the aisle to greet her once it is all over, skidding to a halt in front of her and then slowing. She yanks her cap off, hair flooding out of its pins and cascading down around her shoulders, chest still heaving with the triumph of it all.

"Was it okay?" she asks you over the tumult all around. You raise an eyebrow and give a nonchalant shrug, acting unbothered. She catches the look in your eye, though, and with a shriek of joy she flings herself off the stage and into your arms, hugging you so tightly around the neck that you can't breathe.

She is quiet the whole drive home, sitting twirling her cap (which you are quite sure she was told to leave behind for tomorrow night, but never mind) in her lap, staring pensively out the window and rubbing absently at her now-smeared moustache. You cannot begin to guess what she is thinking, but this doesn't worry you. Bel has been an enigma her whole life. You know her better than anybody, but sometimes she goes somewhere that even you cannot follow, and you have learnt to wait patiently for her to return. It is not the way you are usually left, after all, and this way is more bearable than most. It's like what her mother does to you, only differently. Dominique removes herself entirely. Bel goes away without ever leaving.

When the car pulls up outside the house that night, Bel hops out of the car and is halfway to the house before she hesitates and looks around.

"Lorcan," she calls, and you slam your car door shut before you move around it and squint at her through the darkness.

"Yeah?" you reply, tucking your hands into your pockets and crunching over the gravel towards her. She angles her face up to you when you are in front of her, the moonlight casting shadows into the hollows beneath her cheekbones.

"I have cousins, don't I," she says, phrasing it not at all like a question, "And second cousins. Lots of them. And you have nephews and nieces."

"Two of each," you agree, giving her that frown as the pair of you stand there and regard each other. "So?"

She takes a while to reply, and when she does her voice is so soft you can barely hear it. "Why haven't I got to meet them?"

You are both quiet for a long time after that. You have an answer, but you're not sure how she's going to feel about it, so you hesitate with it on the tip of your tongue. It takes her prodding, saying your name, to get you to voice it.

"It's just," you explain gently, reaching a hand out to brush a careful finger against her cheek, "I don't know what it'll be like, Bel. I mean, they all have magic, and you… you don't. And it was hard for me, to be like that. It was so hard. And I—I just didn't want you to have to go through that. At least, not until you were sure you wanted to."

There is another long silence, and then Bel's small hand closes around yours against her face and she says, "The thing is, Lorcan… the thing is I want to work out what I am. Where I belong. Because I belong with you but I don't feel like we belong properly to the world. You have your family to anchor you—don't make that face, you do—and I just have you. And you're the greatest, don't get me wrong, I'm so proud to be your sort-of-daughter… but I just… I need to meet them. Just once. Just to… just to see."

Again the silence reigns between you, your hand against her cheek and her fingers around yours. She barely blinks as she gazes up at you, the moon reflected in her eyes.

And then, "Okay," you say. "Okay."

The next morning you write to your estranged twin brother and Victoire Weasley, who you think will be able to do a far better job of spreading the news around than you would, considering her house was always the playpen of the Weasley tribe once her grandmother died and that she has an owl rather than just slow Muggle post like you have to rely on.

Bel tuts over your shoulder as she leans to read what you are writing, munching on a jaffa cake and dropping crumbs all over the paper. You tell her to go away and get ready to go into the theatre, and she just rolls her eyes and shoves the rest of the jaffa cake into her mouth before flouncing off. You finish rather quickly and fold the two letters up quickly into envelopes, scrawling the addresses on them and digging around in a drawer to find stamps to send them with.

"Send them today?" Bel begs as you drop her off outside the theatre, eating an apple now and wearing her Henry Percy cap so that she resembles nothing so much as a Dickens street urchin.

"Behave," you tell her in return, and she gives you that eye roll again, but kisses your cheek anyway before running off to the stage door, already bouncing with excitement.

You stop off at the nearest post box to send the letters. Even once they are out of your hands and irretrievable, you are not sure that this is a good idea.

Three weeks later the responses have come and you and Bel are waiting nervously in the kitchen for the first ring at the doorbell. She will not desist in standing close to you, pressed against your side, dressed in her most fashionable outfit with her Henry Percy cap pulled over her curls, as it has been since Henry IV finished two weeks ago to rapturous reviews. You keep telling her to take it off, that the theatre group have been asking if she's got it because they need it for future productions, but she just gives you that maddening grin and pulls it down over her nose in rebellion.

"Bel," you say for the twelfth time as she stands on your toe yet again, her anxiety showing in the quiet familiar way she taps the fingers of her left hand against the pulse in her right wrist the way her mother always used to.

"Look," you announce finally, taking her by the shoulders and holding her out at arm's length to look at properly, "Calm down. They're just people. Give me some Richard II to take your mind off it."

She gives you one reproachful blue-eyed glare, but then pulls herself up onto the counter to recite anyway. This is her next ambition, now she's conquered Henry: wrest the title part in Richard II away from the boy in her theatre group who everyone is sure will be given the role. According to Bel he's a pompous arse, but you rather suspect that she likes him, considering how often she talks about him. You are not happy about this development, since the boy in question is eighteen and rather full of himself—but you have trusted Bel with her own decisions thus far and if she thinks this boy is worth her time, then it is not your duty to intercede.

(And, after all, she is her mother's daughter, so any attempt on your part to dissuade her from anything will only result in her being more keen to do it.)

She has just reached your favourite part of the deposition speech when the doorbell goes, and you both gaze hard at each other for a moment, suddenly frozen. But then you break the ice and move, heading to open the door. Bel hops off the counter and follows you, two small fingers hooked into the belt loop on the back of your jeans, her breath coming thick and fast.

"Bel," you say to her as you reach the door, turning to straighten her stolen cap, "It's okay. Think Henry Percy. Courage and bravery and all that, yeah?"

She looks hard at you, that familiar frown wrinkling her brow, and then she takes a deep breath and straightens out and puffs up her chest and claims, "Oh, Harry, thou hast robbed me of my youth!" and you laugh and turn to open the door.

On the doorstep stands Lysander, your twin brother, tanned and identical and with a slightly nervous hand on the shoulder of his youngest child, a boy of seven.

"Ly," you greet him, swallowing, "Uh—nice to see you. This is… this is Bel."

Bel stands next to you now, almost imperious, and you know it is only you who sees Hotspur in the arrogant lift of her chin and the way she tilts forward slightly on her toes, as though raging to get into battle.

"Nice to meet you," she says, leaning forward to shake your brother's hand, "I should call you Uncle Lysander, right? You're married to my Aunt Molly."

"Um, yes," Lysander replies, giving you an odd glance, like you might have any more idea how to act in this situation than he does, "She's—she's apparating along any minute. She just had to get Jemima into her dress."

Sure enough, he's barely finished speaking when there's a sharp crack, and your sister-in-law appears with two girls in tow. One is the same age as Bel, the other a little younger, and you press your hand lightly against Bel's back as you see her courage wavering.

"It's nice to see you," you call to Molly, voice dropping as she gets closer, "And Jemima and Lis, you look lovely. So big."

They gaze back at you shyly, actively having to resist the urge to hide behind their mother at the unfamiliar sight of you, the uncle they haven't seen since Lis was a tiny baby.

After a brief awkward pause, you remember to invite them in. Lily Potter—or Lupin, now, you suppose you ought to be used to that after twelve years of her being married—arrives with her husband Teddy and her children not long afterwards, and from that point on it is mayhem. More and more relatives pour in, cousins greeting each other with cries of delight, their children running all over the house. You hope Bel is lost somewhere in the midst of them because you are too busy making sure there is enough food and feigning enthusiasm towards people who were never comfortable around you, telling them what you and Bel are up to and fending off questions about Dominique and this odd arrangement.

The only real respite you get from the clamour is when Victoire corners you in the pantry where you have escaped for a breather and to get more sausages. She stands in the doorway, her hands on her hips, looking at you with what you think is confusion. Confusion and fondness and a strange kind of curiosity. You see something of Bel in the way she tilts her head back to regard you better, a lot of Dominique in the way she licks her lips before speaking and leans all her weight onto her left leg now she has been standing for some time.

"It's kind of you," she says after a long and uncomfortable silence has stretched out between you, "To have…taken on Bel, I mean. A lot of guys—a lot of guys would have sent her to me. Or to Louis. But you kept her."

You furrow your brow, and Victoire looks a little startled, and you know what she is thinking—that frown, that frown is the exact one that Bel wears, has probably been wearing for a great deal of this afternoon.

"She's not my daughter," you reply a trifle hastily, just to stop that train of thought from forming in her head, "If that's what you're thinking. That's not why—I mean, it's impossible. I slept with Dominique a couple of times, sure, but not… not at a time which would make it possible for Bel to be mine. I don't even… I don't know who her dad is. But I love her like she's mine," you add, surprising even yourself with your assertiveness there, "And she's better with me. Not having magic when everyone around you does—that's hard. I know," you finish a trifle helplessly, and you do, you know, you know, oh.

Victoire surprises you now. She steps forward briskly, presses a hand to your left cheek and a kiss to your right.

"You're a good man," she tells you, both hands to your face now, her eyes firm and close to yours, "There's nobody better for Bel."

You look at her a little while longer, and she looks back at you, and then she pulls her hands away and mutters, "Yes, the best," under her breath as she turns and leaves the pantry. You wait until her footsteps have receded down the hall and then you lean back against the shelves and breathe and breathe and breathe.

By the time you emerge people are starting to slow down, collapse onto sofas, chat idly rather than at the top of their lungs. You see a large group of children gathered around a black-haired boy who is holding up a picture of a broomstick and banging on about how he's sure to make the Quidditch team that year, unperturbed by his various second cousins who snort or deride him for it. Your heart clenches uncomfortably because you can see another group of children discussing OWL results, another talking about a trip to Diagon Alley, some youngsters gleefully bouncing coloured lights off each other—magic magic magic and not a jot of it in Bel.

You disappear to find her before Lily Lupin drags you into a conversation. The big house is excellent for hiding but where mostly Bel is a mystery she is hopelessly consistent in her hiding places. You find her in the attic, tucked away behind an old painting of a former owner of the house. She has her cap pulled down low to disguise red-rimmed eyes, and you pretend you have not noticed. Instead you sit down next to her, squeezing your tall frame into the gap, and curl an arm around her shoulders and press her into your side.

She takes one long juddering breath against the material of your shirt, and you feel a small sad smile curving against your ribs.

"I've changed my mind," she murmurs, her voice barely distinguishable, "I like belonging to you and not to anybody else. I don't…them downstairs, I don't want them."

You push her cap backwards, her forehead appearing beneath it, and slowly those great blue eyes inch upwards. For a while you sit and stare at each other and then she sighs, just once.

"Were any of them mean?" you ask in the quiet between breaths. She stifles a yawn, shaking her head through it, and then gives you a hapless hopeless shrug.

"They just… they don't feel right. I don't know how to explain it. Like…like I don't think I'd ever belong to them. I just—I just couldn't. It's like, you and me, we're a second out of sync with them. And I mean, like, it's okay. It's actually really okay."

You regard her a little while longer, a tiny worried frown just wrinkling your brows. But then she grins, broadly, and springs upwards, tugging her cap firmly back into place and extending a queenly hand down towards you.

"Let's ditch the party," she says, and you let her pull you to your feet and the pair of you sneak down to the landing and then out of the window at the back and down the wisteria and hare off over the lawn and into the woods before a single person spots you. You spend the rest of the afternoon getting drunk on the summertime and laughing until your sides hurt and as the sun goes down and you wend your lazy way back to the now-empty house, you breathe in the sky and feel like maybe, finally, your life has ended up where it's supposed to.

That's it for family stuff after that, although you write to your brother a little more regularly than before. Bel grows up, underachieving at GCSE but pulling her socks up and getting stellar marks in her A Levels. You sell a few more scripts, toy with offering to send Bel to a good university in America now you can afford it so easily, but it's too late for that. She comes roaring home from school one weekend waving a letter jubilantly and screeching that she's got an offer from Cambridge and once you manage to pry the thing off her you read it four times through and then take her out to the poshest restaurant in reach to celebrate.

At eighteen, she is worryingly like her mother. Having finally gained as much height as Dominique, Bel nevertheless looks like a few strong words could blow her away. She still wears her unruly hair tucked up under that silly urchin cap most days, her long white neck sliding into smooth white shoulders and down into slim white arms. She bites her nails when she's nervous and snaps at people she dislikes—so a lot of people—and on certain days, from the right angle, Lorcan is suddenly sent reeling by the reminder that his darling little girl is a grown-up, now. She's a grown-up with an unconditional university offer and a likely place at RADA on the other end and twelve excellent youth theatre productions under her belt (including a Richard II that garnered the best reviews the company ever had and ended up selling out for an extra week—not even slightly set back when Bel was discovered snogging the pompous boy who'd wanted Richard in his dressing room where he was supposed to be changing out of his Henry Bolingbroke costume). She still makes him come into her room and steady her when she's nervous but other boys take her places in the car now and although you resent them you realise, maddeningly, that this is what should be happening. She should be growing up. She should be moving on. She should be leaving you.

"You do know, don't you," she says one night when you're both lying on your backs on her bed, her nails bitten near to the quick at the prospect of leaving for Cambridge next week, "You do know that I'll never leave you. Not properly."

She rolls over onto her side, giving you your frown back, petulant wrinkles marring the smooth expanse of her forehead, "I mean, I have to go away. But I'll still be here. The way you need me to be, sort of. Like," she adds, a trifle desperately, "I know I'm going away, but I'm not leaving you, Lorcan. We belong to each other. I could never leave you."

"I know, Bel," you say, pulling her head down to rest against your chest, your arms folding around her as easily as they did when she was four and spending her first night with you after her mother left, her body stiff and tense with that tragic, brittle kind of bravery. "I know."

She gets a first from Cambridge and you're not even surprised. From there she moves apparently effortlessly into RADA, helped no doubt by a good word from her ex-drama teacher, a Mr Clarence who is now a member of staff there.

Your friends are going places, you realise suddenly one night, and the thought near stops your heart. Your friends are going places and doing great things and you are stuck here with nothing and you are so lonely that it burns.

Bel writes, of course, visits near obsessively, but you cannot let yourself be the thing that ties her down. You encourage her to stay in London, to spend more time with her friends, with her boyfriend—you did not want to approve of him because he is thirty-one to her twenty four, but he is a very successful actor and he looks at her like she puts the stars in the sky each night and that is enough for you.

Time seems to go searingly fast and unbearably slowly all at once. The days drag on but the years fly by (Bel was seven yesterday) and twenty five years ago to the day you discovered that your mother had died and that your—your whatever Dominique was—had a daughter. That seems so close but somehow you are forty-nine and time does not pass fairly.

Forty-nine years and what do you have to show for it? You go mad over it one day. No relationship, no one great work, no children, no pets even, no family. If you just vanished from the world there would not even be a footprint in the grass to show that you had walked it once.

You are about five minutes from losing it completely when Bel walks through the front door to surprise you for the weekend—and that's when you realise it. Bel. Bel, your glorious beauteous Bel, Bel is your footprint in concrete, the thing you've made that matters. Of course, she's not your daughter—only, she is, in every sense but the biological one. You have helped to turn her into the adult that she is today, all of her from her red rust curls and that silly tattered cap down to her expensively-shoed feet. And all of her inside world, too, infinitely more complex and intriguing than anything on the outside.

"You're it," you tell her that night as the pair of you drink wine on the roof, "You're my what matters."

She gives you this tiny sideways smile and takes another sip of her wine, the red bright against her small pale fingers. "You're my what matters too," she replies, and then she puts a hand on your knee and squeezes it tight. You look at her, sitting there in the dark, and it occurs to you that you haven't been in love with her mother for some time, now. It's distressing and relieving at precisely the same time—nothing to pine for, other women to look at, perfect, perfect… but upsetting, too, because if you've spent your life loving somebody there's an awfully big gap to fill when you stop.

"Will you come to my opening night?" Bel asks suddenly, breaking into your frantic thoughts, giving you a jab and a chuckle like she's asked this a couple of times now. "Lorcan? My opening night? Next week. Hamlet. I did tell you."

You are nodding even as she finishes, "Yes, yes, of course. I promised, didn't I? Can't wait, Cornflake."

She gives you that little sideways smile again, and then all of a sudden puts her wine glass down at a precarious angle and throws her arms around your neck, pressing herself close to you, her nose against your cheek.

"Love you forever ," she mutters into your ear. You put your arms around her in return, hold her tight, give thanks that this magical girl is the one person who never left you. The one who ended up mattering the most.

"Love you too, kiddo," you tell her firmly. "Forever."

She disentangles herself after a long time and picks up her wine glass again, cheeks a little flushed but otherwise as cool as ever. Then the pair of you chat idly until the cold drives you inside and that night you lie together on the top of her childhood bed and count the glow-in-the-dark stars on her ceiling and she urges you to get a girlfriend and you tease her about getting married and you fall asleep like that, tangled up together, not a single star uncounted.

The next week, at her opening night, she introduces you to her favourite teacher, a woman called Cate about the same age as you who makes you fumble for words for the first time in an age. After much stuttering you ask her out for coffee the next day, and nearly fall over from relief when she says yes. Bel gives you this infuriating grin over Cate's shoulder the entire time so that you want to shake her, but she was so radiant as Ophelia and the whole evening is falling into place so perfectly that you don't have the heart to do so.

The next day you and Cate go out for coffee and she takes you to her favourite place afterwards, an old piano shop down a little backstreet near Covent Garden, and she sits and plays a piece Dominique played for you once, but you don't think of her at all. All you think of is Cate and the way her dark hair falls into her face as she concentrates, of Bel and Henry Percy and Richard and Ophelia and that long-suffering cap, of life and love and pianos and the soft little sigh Cate gives when she finishes playing.

She stares at the keys for a moment longer, and then she looks up at you a trifle hesitantly. You wait two heartbeats—thu-thump, thu-thump—and then you give her the broadest smile you've ever worn and ask if she wants to have dinner the next night.

When she says yes you kiss her then and there.

a/n: I'm always intensely touched when you decide to favourite, but if you had a moment to leave a review at the same time that would be even more appreciated.