Remus had thought that nothing could be much better than Christmas at Hogwarts, which was (quite literally) magical. Christmas at the Potter’s, however, was an entirely different experience that seemed only to get better.
First there was tobogganing down the snowy slopes in the back garden – though at over five hundred acres, no one could really call it a garden. Peter, who lived further down in the main village, came out to join them as soon as he heard they had arrived, and they had an extremely noisy and violent afternoon careering down the hillsides and playing complex wargames with snowball ammunition. Mr Potter even joined in; sprightly for his age and with the considerable advantage of being able to use magic.
Mrs Potter called them all in for lunch and made them all change out of their freezing wet clothes. They sat by the fireplace, warm and dry eating hot toasted teacakes smeared with rich yellow butter. In the afternoon they wanted to go out again, but Mr Potter had gone to lie down and Mrs Potter didn’t want them to go out so close to nightfall. Instead they helped her decorate an enormous Christmas cake with white royal icing and tiny magical figurines, then to wrap presents for the neighbours and their house elves,
“We never got anything for the house elf,” Sirius said matter-of-factly, his fingers hopelessly bound up in some spell-o-tape, “Mind you, Kreacher’s a moody git; I doubt he wants anything.”
“They’ll take gifts as long as it’s something edible, I find,” Mrs Potter replied, smiling, “No clothes, of course, that only upsets them.”
“Tell mum what your lot does to house elves, Sirius,” James grinned, binding his friend’s hands up even more. Sirius laughed, lightly,
“Mounts their heads.” He said, “Once they’re dead. At least, I think we wait until they’re dead… Kreacher’s the only house elf I remember.”
“Goodness,” said Mrs Potter, “I had rather thought that tradition had died out.”
“Not with the Blacks,” Sirius sighed. Remus could tell that he was thinking about the betrothal again.
“You’re making a lovely job of that, Remus,” Mrs Potter observed, glancing over at the book he was wrapping for Mrs Pettigrew. “Unlike some naughty boys I could mention…” she turned a stern gaze upon her son and his best friend, now attempting to tape their hands to the table top.
Remus smiled at her, politely, feeling the fresh cut on his face pull at his skin. He still hadn’t really said anything to either of James’s parents yet. He’d always been told to be seen and not heard around older people – and he had never been to a friend’s house before. Sirius, by contrast, was completely at ease, Remus had never seen him happier. He doted on Mrs Potter as if she was his own mother – if he’d liked his own mother, of course.
Remus yawned, more widely than he meant to, trying to hide behind his hands, ducking his head embarrassed. He had only slept a few hours that morning following the moon, and an afternoon of snowball manoeuvres had left him exhausted.
“You’d better go up to bed, dear,” Mrs Potter said, ignoring the fact that it was only three o’clock in the afternoon. Remus wondered if James had told his parents about him – they must know, McGonagall might not have let him come otherwise.
“Oh, you’re all right, aren’t you, Lupin?” Sirius cajoled, “Peter’s coming back in a bit, we can go out again.”
Remus blinked at him, then looked at James for help.
“Leave him alone, Sirius,” Mrs Potter chided, “The poor boy’s dead on his feet. Come on, dear, off you go.”
Gratefully, Remus got up from the kitchen table and made his way up to bed. As he changed into his night things, he couldn’t help but steal another glance at himself in the mirror, now that he was properly alone. Perhaps it was having been out in the cold, but the scar looked worse than it had that morning, the contrast harsher with his pale skin. Would his face always surprise him, now? Would be always catch a glimpse of himself in some mirror or shining surface and jump? Would other people be afraid of him?
There was a soft tap at the door, just as Remus was about to put on the ointment Madam Pomfrey had given him. It was Sirius, Remus caught his scent before he even knocked.
“Alright?” The dark haired boy crept inside, speaking quietly. He held a pewter goblet in his hand. "James's mum sent you this. It’s a healing draught, I think.”
“Oh, thanks.” Remus nodded tiredly. Sirius set it down on the bedside table.
“Fine. Just tired, mate.”
“Were we too… y’know, rough or something?”
“No!” Remus said, very firmly, probably sounding angrier than he meant to. “It’s nothing to do with you two, it’s just the fact that I was up all night howling at the bloody moon and trying to rip my own face off. I’m tired.”
Remus had to sit down, the effort of the outburst made him dizzy.
“Sorry.” Sirius said, even more quietly. It was the second time he’d apologised that day, and Remus hated the sound of it. “I’ll leave you.” He closed the door.
Remus couldn’t bring himself to start worrying about hurting Sirius’s feelings. He smeared on some of the ointment, then sniffed the goblet Mrs Potter had sent. He recognised it as something he’d had before at Hogwarts, which would trigger instant sleep. Getting into bed, he drained it quickly, and closed his eyes.
* * *
The remaining days before Christmas passed quickly, and Remus was able to experience real family life for the first time. Mr and Mrs Potter had to be the perfect parents – they were kind and sure, always smiling and full of fun. Remus hadn’t known that adults could be that way. He hadn’t known that people could grow up like that. It was clearer than ever why James was the way he was – as brimming with love and blind confidence as Remus was brimming with rage. It was obvious, too, why Sirius was so drawn to the family. He had an unquenchable thirst for love, and the Potters had an endless supply.
The four boys tramped all over the surrounding countryside in the snow, bundled up in their warm Gryffindor scarves, hats and gloves. In the evenings they played card games, helped Mrs Potter prepare dinner and listened to Mr Potter telling ghost stories around the fireplace. They made mince pies and paper chains, they built snow-wizards and igloos, and they slept so soundly in their beds at night that not even a howler could have woken them.
Unfortunately, it was not to last. While the Black's had stopped sending howlers, they had not forgotten their wayward son and tried a new tact on Christmas eve, with devastating consequences for the marauders.
They were drinking warm butterbeer and sitting on the hearth rug. James and Sirius were playing gobstones, very loudly, and Mr Potter was teaching Remus to play chess. The old man had been horrified that Remus didn't know how, and Remus was surprised to find himself actually quite enjoying the game. The whole room felt warm and safe, heavy curtains drawn against the cold and dark, tree lights twinkling softly and the fire popping and crackling beside them. The clock had just struck nine, and Mrs Potter was keen to send them all to bed, when there was a loud *CRACK* just outside the window.
Mr and Mrs Potter shared a quick glance, and Remus's ears pricked like a dog. The smell of spent magic permeated the air, like burnt toast. Something dark and unsavoury. There was a firm, hollow knock at the door.
"Weren't expecting anyone, were we Effie?" Mr Potter frowned slightly at his wife. She shook her heard, and they both listened.
The Potter's house elf, Gully, went scampering towards the front door to answer it. There were stilted voices in the hall, and Gully came hurrying in.
"Oh, Mr Potter, Mr Potter, she's come for young master Black, she's telling me she's his mother! I told them to wait there for you." The elf was wringing his hands anxiously, clearly very confused by this turn of events.
Sirius and James looked at each other. Sirius's face was white – he looked like he might be sick.
"She wouldn't..." He whispered.
Mr Potter was already up and out of the door. There were raised voices in the hallway now – Remus recognised Mrs Black's sharp tone from her horrid letters.
"Sirius," Mrs Potter said, gently, "Did your parents give you permission to visit us, dear?" He looked at the floor. She clucked her tongue. "Oh, sweetheart." She said, sounding very sad.
"Don't make him leave, mum!" James stood up, "He hates them!"
"They're his parents, James."
"Sirius!" Mr Potter called from the hall.
Sirius got up, James did too. Remus didn't want to, he wanted to stay by the fire where they'd all been so happy just moments beforehand. But Mrs Potter had stood up too, and this was one of those times the marauders had to present a united front, no matter how frightening Sirius's mother was.
They all filed out into the hall. Remus had seen Mrs Black once before, the first time he'd boarded the Hogwarts Express. Back then he had simply thought she looked very severe, and that she looked like Sirius. She still looked severe – her hair was slicked back and pulled up in a high bun which coiled like a serpent at the crown of her head, fixed with an emerald pin. Her eyes were dark, not as blue as Sirius's, but she had that Black family bone structure and superior look. She was shorter than Mr Potter, but still managed to gaze at him as though he was filth on her boot. Her look sharpened as she saw James and Remus appear.
"Sirius." She said, coldly, narrowing her eyes at her eldest son. "You will come with me at once. Kreacher!" She snapped her fingers and an old, wizened looking house elf emerged from behind her robes. "Go upstairs and fetch master Black's things." The houise elf bowed deeply, kissing the silver capped toes of Mrs Black's pointed boots, and scurrying upstairs.
"Good evening, Walpurga," Mrs Potter said, pleasantly, as if there was no tension at all, "May I offer you a drink? We were just about to crack out the mince pies, weren't we, boys?"
Mrs Black ignored her, looking straight at Sirius,
"Put on your cloak. We're leaving now."
"But mother, I--"
"Don't you dare speak to me." She hissed, eyes flashing.
Remus wanted to run away; she was worse than Matron one hundred times over. She was worse than Bellatrix and Snape and every nasty person he had ever met. The thought of letting Sirius go with her made his insides twist. Mr and Mrs Potter seemed to be suffering from the same crisis,
"Walpurga, why not let him stay?" Mrs Potter tried, "I know he's been a bit naughty, but there's no harm done. We can have him for lunch and send him back before dinner tomorrow. They've all been having such a nice time together."
Mrs Black let out a short, crackling laugh, as if the her son's enjoyment was the least of her concerns. She eyed James, her gaze raking over his mess of hair, then Remus, staring pointedly at his new scar. Remus looked at his feet, terrified. She'd know. She'd know straight away.
Kreacher came scuttling back down the stairs, followed by a very affronted looking Gully. Sirius's trunk hovered behind them both, apparently packed and ready to go. Walpurga turned,
"Come along, Sirius."
"No." He said, quietly, but very firmly. Remus wanted to tell him to shut up, couldn't he see how much trouble he was in?! But Sirius was clenching his fists, looking at his mother, "I want to stay here, with the Potters. You can't make me--"
"SILENCIO!" Walpurga spun around, jabbing her wand at Sirius. He stopped speaking at once – though not voluntarily. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, and nothing came out. She had stolen his voice.
"Walpurga, really!" Mr Potter gasped, as Mrs Potter let out a small shriek and knelt beside Sirius, wrapping her arms around him protectively. "He's just a boy!"
"He is my son." Walpurga purred, looking daggers at Mrs Potter, "And he is heir to the finest house in Britain. He will learn his place. Come, Sirius."
Sirius looked completely defeated, his mouth a straight line of resignation. He hugged Mrs Potter back, then stepped away from her. He gave James and Remus a small wave, before following his mother out of the door.
The four of them stood in silence after the front door slammed. Remus wondered if James felt as ashamed as he did – ought they to have stood up for their friend in some way? What would happen to him now? Mr Potter looked furious.
"Using a silencing charm on her own son! On an underage wizard! It's morally reprehensible!"
"She does worse than that." James said, quietly. Remus nodded, in agreement, feeling as though someone had taken his own power of speech.
"We'll have to make the house unplottable, Fleamont," Mrs Potter said, suddenly, "Make it so we can't be found – you said you were considering it, after the last election. I don't want that dreadful woman in my house ever again."
Mr Potter nodded, darkly.
"I'll look into it in the new year. Alastor Moody owes me a favour."
"Bedtime, boys." Mrs Potter said, her voice trembling. "Try not to worry too much." She hugged James fiercely, kissing him on each cheek. Remus tried to dodge her, but she grabbed him too, pulling him into a tight embrace. She smelled like orange and clove.
* * *
Remus had just finished brushing his teeth and was making his way down the hall to his room, when James poked his head out and ushered him into his own bedroom. They knelt on the bed together. James withdrew a note from his pyjama pocket, "Regulus sent this,"
"What does it say?" Remus asked quickly, before James could give it to him to read.
"Oh, um, it says 'Sirius is home, do not try to contact him.'"
"That's all." James nodded, grimly.
"Nice of Regulus," Remus remarked, looking down at the note which was obviously very hastily scribbled down. "Thought they hated each other."
"Yeah, well they're still brothers, aren't they?" James replied, shrugging, "Family ties and all that."
"Do you think he'll be ok?"
"I don't know." James chewed his lip. "I never got to give him his present. He said he never gets anything christmassy from his lot, just family heirlooms and stuff."
"I had a go at him the other day." Remus sighed, dolefully, "About... y'know, my furry little problem."
"Don't worry about it. You two are always having a go at each other about something. Just your personalities."
"Oh. D'you think?" Remus was a bit miffed by that observation – Sirius snapped at Peter far more often, surely. James grinned,
"I told you, don't worry about it. Black loves an argument."
Christmas morning was a subdued affair, though the Potters were keen to make it cheerful, if only for Remus. He was embarrassed to find a bulging stocking at the foot of his bed when he woke up, and resolved to correct this next year somehow.
There were the customary socks and underpants from Matron, plus a tin of shortbread. Some chocolate frogs from Peter and a big book of advanced charms from Sirius. James had bought him a book too – Conjurers Cartography: A guide to magical mapmaking. Mr and Mrs Potter, however, had gone above and beyond. Under the tree he found more sweets, practical jokes, a beautiful set of quills – which he tried to give back ("we got the same for James and Sirius, dear, don't be silly,"), and a brand new pair of pyjamas.
The Potters' extended family began arriving for Christmas Lunch at about midday, as well as the Pettigrews, who brought with them Peter's elder sister, Philomena, and her muggle boyfriend she'd brought back from University. Remus was introduced to everyone as a friend of James', and generally ignored, except for by one tiny and ancient wizard who was already red nosed and merry from all of the drinks Gully was passing around,
"Lupin, you say? Not Lyall Lupin's boy?"
Remus gaped, unable to answer. He'd only heard his father's name spoken once or twice.
"Um... yes." He said, finally, blushing hard.
"Is he here?!" The wizard grinned, looking around, "Excellent fellow, haven't seen him in years."
"Er... he's dead." Remus replied, with an apologetic shrug.
"Damn shame!" The wizard cried, spilling some of his drink, "Fine dueller; taught me everything I know about boggarts. Temper did tend to get him into trouble though – I told him not to mess about with that Greyback chap – bloody werewolves, ought to exterminate the lot of them!"
Remus blinked. James looked at him, curiously. Fortunately, Mr Potter intervened,
"Darius? Have another drink, old man, leave the young people to their games, eh?"
Remus swallowed hard and returned to the gobstones tournament as if nothing had happened.