Chapter 1

"Professor Lupin?"

The knock on the door turned into a face, as a bushy-haired sixteen-year-old girl peered into the study.

"Oh, hello, Hermione," Lupin answered. "Come in, come in." He glanced up and gestured over to an empty armchair across from his own, where he had been engrossed in a Muggle biography of a nineteenth-century English playwright. A pair of black-framed reading glasses sat uncomfortably on his nose, and his hair was slightly tousled from absently tugging at locks of it as he read. It was a subconscious habit he had.

Hermione entered cautiously, a worn book under her arm, and took a seat. "Professor, I - "

"Hermione!" Lupin cut her off with a chuckle. "How many times have I told you, please, call me Remus." He removed his glasses and smiled kindly at her. "I haven't been your professor – or anyone's, mind – for some years now. And you're sixteen now, aren't you?"

She nodded, her breath catching. What did that have to do with anything?

"Then you're more than old enough to call your elders by their first names. We elders like to instill a bit of fear and respect in the younger set by making them use stuffy titles, but I'm sure that's unnecessary for you." He leaned back in the cosy armchair and crossed his legs, still smiling at her and appraising her with a keen amusement in his eyes.

Oh, Hermione thought with vague disappointment. Was that all he meant. She glanced at the book he'd been reading and briefly tried to place the playwright's name. He'd been imprisoned for some sort of scandal, she recalled, but she couldn't remember what it had been about. Some sort of indecent act, maybe? She wrinkled her nose and wondered for a moment what interest Lupin could possibly have in such a biography, but as she eyed her former professor across the room, nearly all conscious thought failed her.

Hermione tried not to stare, but found she simply couldn't help it. As it was the weekend, and he was alone in Grimmauld Place, Lupin was not wearing the usual Wizard robes. He looked as though he had quite settled in to an afternoon of quiet reading, an escape from the blustery snow outside. His faded jeans had a frayed hem and patchy seams, and his threadbare jumper – the deep grey wool unravelling at places near the cuffs – had definitely seen better days.

Yet Hermione couldn't help but let her eyes drift to the teasing glimpse of his chest that the shallow V-neck offered… to his throat, with its lingering stubble trailing down from his jaw; his neck and shoulders, so firm and utterly lickable; and that tantalising whisper of soft hair, honey-coloured with the occasional grey, peeking at her from under the jumper.

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes momentarily, steadying herself.

"Hermione?" Lupin leaned forward. "Are you all right? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable." His eyes softened as he regarded her with concern. "If you'd really rather keep calling me 'Professor,' I suppose you can, I just - "

"Oh no." Hermione suddenly found her voice again. "I'm fine, just, er- a lot on my mind. Remus." She smiled shyly at him.

He sat back again. "All right, then! Now, what brings you by – a book, I daresay?" He gestured towards the tome in her hand.

"Yes, I just wanted to return this one, and to thank you for lending it to me of course - "

Lupin waved his hand. "Not at all, Hermione. You've seen the library in this place – I'd be doing a disservice to scholarship if I didn't allow interested parties access to it."

"Yes, it really is wonderful," agreed Hermione, a dreamy look spreading over her face at the memory of the wide variety of books she had borrowed from the Black family collection over the past few months. Some of them had been what might be called Dark books, or banned studies of the Dark Arts and histories of Dark magic, but Lupin had never restricted her access to them. It seemed to her that he was the only person she knew who understood books the way she did – who found them just as fascinating and alluring, and who considered the thought of banning any of them, of placing restrictions on knowledge, utterly ridiculous.

"I wondered if I might take a few more, for the holidays?" she continued, biting her bottom lip timidly. She didn't expect him to refuse, of course, but somehow asking always made her slightly nervous – for a brief second, there was the possibility that this time he would refuse, that this time he would send her away, that this time he would tell her that he didn't want her coming around anymore.

She gulped at the thought. She didn't know what she would do if that happened. She cherished her weekend visits to the Grimmauld Place library more than she could possibly say… her weekend visits to him… to Remus… She took a deep breath and turned her head away, feigning great interest in a nearby lampshade.

"Of course, Hermione," Lupin was saying, "but it is the holidays, remember." He smiled teasingly at her. "You know that I understand the bookworm impulse just as much as anyone, but you have to give yourself some time off occasionally, as well. You work very hard during the school term; it doesn't hurt to take a break from books over Christmas, you know."

Hermione's heart collapsed to the floor. He was sending her away! Cheeks flushed, she rose quickly from her chair and placed the borrowed book on the table between them. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I won't bother you anymore." She rushed towards the door.

"Hermione!" Lupin called, chuckling. "Get back here – what on earth are you on about? I didn't say you weren't allowed to take a book, as many as you like, in fact. I was just suggesting a holiday break. There should be a fair bit going on around here this week, after all. Albus usually organises some sort of 'entertainment' for the holiday season, as you know, and since we have so many people coming and going from this house all the time these days, anyone staying here should be quite busy enough."

She stopped with her hand on the door. Was he asking her…?

"Yes, in case Harry hasn't already done it, I'm inviting you to spend Christmas here with us. Harry and Ron will be here, and probably Ginny. Most of the rest of the Order has some other matters to attend to, but Professor Snape will likely be by for a few days as well. Not exactly your usual happy family scenario, I'm sure, but you're welcome to join us – if your parents don't mind, of course. I'd be happy to speak to them, if they needed proof you'd be in good hands." He let that comment sit for a moment, then laughed at himself. "Or, perhaps Albus could speak to them; I might not make the best impression."

She raised her eyebrows in concern. "What do you mean? They wouldn't have to know about…"

Lupin raised his own eyebrows in response. "Hermione. It's not the werewolf issue I was talking about. Now think this one through: perhaps your parents wouldn't be thrilled to have a somewhat grizzled, definitely unmarried, thirty-something man show up on their doorstep, claiming to be some vague former 'professor' of yours, and asking them to let you stay at his house for Christmas?"

She forced a laugh despite the blush rising on her cheeks. "Oh, well. They wouldn't… um… that is, they wouldn't think anything of it." Unless, she thought, an attack of butterflies convulsing in her stomach, there was something of it… to think?

She quickly clamped down on that thought. No no no. He was not flirting with her. He was not interested in her. He was twice her age. He was… Her eyes roved over his collarbone again. He was impossibly delicious and neither her parents nor a pack of wild reindeer was going to keep her away from this house over the holidays.

"Well," Lupin was saying, "at any rate, we'd love to have you here, if you want to come. I could set up a cot for you in the library." His mouth twisted into a wry smile as he settled back into his chair.

Hermione lifted her chin. "Thank you, Professor," she teased. "That would be lovely. You can leave my meals outside the library door – I'll retrieve them between chapters."

He chuckled and turned back to his own book. "Then it's a plan. You can talk to Harry and Ron about arrivals, but I think they were planning to come sometime in the next few days."

"OK," she agreed. "I'll just wait and pick a new book then." She flashed a wide smile at him, then turned and left the room, her face flushed with all the excitement of a sixteen-year-old girl's first crush.

"This one's nice."

"Blue makes my hips look fat."

"Hips only look the way one wishes for them to look. It's a scientific fact."

"Oh, is that so."

"Yes. My father says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which means that if you want to be beheld with narrow hips, Ginny, you will be."

"Um, I don't think that's exactly what it means…"

"Well, anyway. I think the blue looks brilliant on you. I'm sure Harry won't be able to take his eyes off you."

Ginny smiled to herself as she twirled in front of the mirror, the shimmering ocean blue of the robes illuminating her long auburn hair. Maybe Luna was right – maybe this really was the best color for her.

They had been shopping for Ginny's Christmas robes all afternoon, Mrs. Weasley having only grudgingly allowed the two girls to travel alone to Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions – after placing a discreet firecall of warning to the proprietor herself. See that they leave with something suitable for Christmas Day, would you, dear? This is Ginny's Christmas present – I can't have her coming back with a gold-lamé mini-robe or some such horror.

Madam Malkin had assured Mrs. Weasley that Ginny and Luna would be in good hands, but in fact the alert had been unnecessary – Ginny seemed determined to find herself a new set of classic dress robes… hoping to impress a certain older boy with her beauty and maturity, by the sounds of the two girls' conversation.

"I don't know, Luna," Ginny replied, her eyes still glued to her reflection in the full-length mirror at the back of the shop.

"Your hips, your business," said Luna sadly, eyeing the outfit with appreciation.

"Not the robes!" Ginny turned to face her friend. "I mean, I don't know about Harry… Do you really think he fancies me?"

"No," she sighed. "He fancies Hermione. I told you that ages ago."

Ginny frowned. "Then why did you just say he would like these robes!" she cried in exasperation.

Luna shrugged, and Ginny noticed that her face had assumed that dream-like blankness that it did whenever she was tired of discussing something. She reached out to finger the fine amber silk of a nearby garment. "Because that's what you wanted me to say."

Ginny stared at her.

"It doesn't matter to you if you like the robes, or if I like the robes, or if your mother likes the robes," Luna continued in a pleasant but matter-of-fact voice. "It only matters to you if Harry likes them, or if Harry thinks your hips are fat." She shook her head ruefully. "It's so sad."

"Oh, as if you've never dressed to impress a boy!" retorted Ginny hotly, choosing to ignore the nagging voice in the back of her head that reminded her that she was talking to a girl who had a habit of wearing butterbeer cork necklaces.

Luna shrugged again, watching Ginny's rising anger with a look of detached interest on her face. "I haven't," she said.

"Oh, please!" Ginny tried again. "What about my brother? You were practically tripping over yourself trying to get his attention last year!"

Luna smiled, sliding into a chair beside the mirror, that faraway look on her face again. "Yes," she sighed. "I rather like Ronald. He makes me laugh." She paused and looked pointedly at Ginny. "But I would never change the way I am or what colour robes I like just to please him."

"Neither would I," Ginny insisted.

"Yes, you would – for Harry you would," said Luna simply. "You just did. I know you like the blue. It looks beautiful on you." She paused to let her eyes fall over Ginny's form in front of her. "It doesn't matter what Harry thinks, or any boy for that matter. Boys are too concerned with themselves, anyway." She gave a light laugh and reached absently for the silk robe beside her again. "It's not like they ever change themselves for us," she pointed out bemusedly. "They really don't do anything for us at all, do they? Yet we fall all over ourselves trying to impress them."

Ginny snorted, turning back to the mirror. "How positively feminist of you," she said with a grin.

But Luna ignored the sarcasm and nodded in agreement. "Yes, I suppose so," she replied, her wide eyes on Ginny. "You know, one day you'll find out there's a fascinating world out there that has nothing to do with boys and their penises."

She caught her friend's eye and they exchanged a long, expectant look. But after a moment, Ginny broke off their gaze and began to laugh. "I can't believe you just said the word penis in the middle of Madam Malkin's," she said, giggling.

Luna smiled. "It's just a word," she pointed out. "My father says that - "

"No, no, no!" Ginny was laughing outright now. "I cannot listen to what your father has to say about penises! That's disgusting!" Her eyes darted across the shop to Madam Malkin, who thankfully was busy with another customer and didn't appear to be listening to the girls' conversation. "And anyway," Ginny continued, a smile still dancing at her lips. "You're starting to sound like Malfoy, always talking about your father."

Luna looked unimpressed. "Hardly," she replied blandly. "I don't think Mr. Malfoy has ever said the word penis in his life."

Ginny was off in gales of laughter at that, finally earning them a glare of consternation from the robe mistress. That girl was truly one of a kind, Ginny thought fondly as she wiped her eyes, noting that Luna was gazing at her with her usual dreamy smile on her face. She said the most outrageous things, but seemed completely oblivious to just how outrageous they actually were. Ginny loved that about her.

"Look," she said after composing herself, Luna having watched her laughter with mild interest. "What are you and your dad doing for Christmas? Ron and I are going to - " She was suddenly unsure of what to call the Order's secret headquarters - "um, Harry's godfather's old place. Professor Lupin lives there now, you remember him?"

"Oh yes," replied Luna, her face brightening. "Very nice man. You should get along famously with him, Ginny – he's another one who spends too much time worrying about what people think of him."

Ginny rolled her eyes. "Anyway," she continued, "Harry and Hermione will be there, and mum's letting Ron and me go for a few days – it'll be fun! You should come. I'll ask Professor Lupin, but I'm sure he wouldn't mind."

"Sure," Luna replied, standing and straightening her own worn navy blue robes. "My dad will probably be at work – they publish a special Christmas Day edition of The Quibbler, you know – many strange things are sighted over the holidays - "

Yeah, when people get too far into the egg nog, Ginny thought and stifled a grin.

" - but I'd be happy to come."

Ginny smiled and clapped her hands together. "Good! Now, let's get out of here and grab a sundae at Florean's before we head back."

"You're going with the blue ones, then?" Luna asked, pulling her long blonde hair over one shoulder and starting to braid it.

"I am," announced Ginny, taking one more twirl in front of the mirror. "Because I like them," she insisted playfully. "Not because you like them or my mother will like them or a stupid boy might like them!" She giggled as she headed back into the changing room.

Outside the door, unbeknownst to Ginny, Luna Lovegood smiled to herself and began making mental preparations for what looked to be a very promising Christmas indeed.

"So, how did it go?" Harry looked up from the small bag he was packing to take to Grimmauld Place the next day as Ron entered the dormitory and flopped himself down on his bed. Seamus, Dean, and Neville had already gone home for the holidays, so he and Ron had had the place to themselves for the past few days.

Ron rolled over onto his back and flung a hand over his forehead. "Do you remember in our fourth year, when I went insane and asked Fleur to the Yule Ball?"

"Uh, yeah…" Harry answered uncertainly.

"This was worse."

"Ugh. Sorry, mate. But… are you sure that's possible?"

Ron lifted his hand long enough to shoot Harry a deadly glare, then resumed his pose.

"All right, all right. What did she say?"

"She's a lunatic, Harry! Lunatic Loony Lovegood," Ron moaned. "She was all into me last year, right? Everyone said so. And she's not bad, you know, kind of cute and all, so I didn't think it would be a problem."

"I know, I know, it was a sure thing! We had a great plan," Harry enthused. "So what went wrong?"

"I swear, getting that girl to answer a straight question is like… like getting Snape to dress up as Santa Claus."

Harry snorted, then paled. "Agh – you don't think Dumbledore has anything like that up his sleeve this year, do you?"

"Gods, no. Can you see it? Snape wouldn't spare a thought for AK-ing the most powerful wizard in the world, if that happened." Ron shook his head. "No, I mean, I asked her plain and simple. I said, 'Luna, I know you like me, so why don't we go out sometime? Maybe next Hogsmeade weekend?' "

Harry nodded. "That sounds pretty straightforward."

"Right! It was in the hole!"

"But…?"

"But… she says, 'My father told me the other day that the Horny-Breasted Snorkfuckle can see out the back of its head. We're going to France to observe them for a week after New Year's.' "

"The- the Horny what?" Harry sputtered, doubling over in laughter.

"Yeah, don't ask. She's totally - " Ron pointed his index finger at his head and made a spiralling motion, clicking his tongue on the roof of his mouth. "Cuckoo."

"So she didn't even answer your question?" exclaimed Harry, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes.

"Well, she sort of did, but she still wouldn't be serious. After that fabulous segueway, she says, 'And anyway, Ronald, last year was ages ago. I'm not interested in you anymore – I'd much rather date your sister.' "

"Oh, ouch! She should have just said you have as good a chance with her as you do with a Veela mascot."

"Exactly." Ron shook his head sadly. "Talk about making it loud and clear to a bloke that you're not interested. And even worse – Ginny says she invited Luna to come to Grimmauld Place with us for Christmas! Her dad's got to work or something, so she's got nothing better to do." He stared at his bedspread despondently. "Honestly. Whatever happened to Weasley family solidarity, mate?"

Right on cue, Ginny poked her head around the door. "Come on, guys, you've got to see the Great Hall! Professor McGonagall let us help decorate this year – it's brilliant! I really hope Professor Lupin hasn't done all the decorating yet, it's so fun – I want to do some more when we get there, and - "

"Ginny!" Ron cried. "We're trying to have a private conversation here!"

She put her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes. "Whatever," she drawled sarcastically. "Then come down when you're done with your man talk." She disappeared again, giggling.

Harry gave a resigned shrug and hopped off his bed. "Come on, get packed. Then we can go downstairs and see what sort of festive cheer those girls have conjured up."

"Festive cheer," muttered Ron darkly. "Sounds like a bad cocktail. And I don't want to see any of those stupid girls, anyway! You just want to go talk to Hermione."

Harry blushed. "No, I don't! I talk to her all the time."

"Yeah, right. Not the way you'd like to. Why don't you just tell her, Harry? She's going to figure it out soon enough anyway, what with you turning into a Horny-Breasted Snorkfuckle every time you see her lately."

The two boys gaped at each other for a second, then both burst into laughter. They rolled around on their beds clutching their sides and howling with mirth until their faces hurt.

"OK," Ron began between residual giggles. "No more talk of Hermione or Luna, yeah?" He dabbed at his eyes. "It's Christmas! We don't need girls, anyway."

"Right." Harry nodded with determination. "Come on, let's go see these decorations."

"There's something I want to talk to you about. Why don't we have tea, say, at three p.m.?" No, gods, that's awful.

"An issue has arisen which I wish to discuss with you." Agh, no, too formal.

"Well, as long as we're naked, I'd like to ask you a question."

Snape stared at his reflection in the mirror for a silent few seconds before burying his face in his hands and shaking his head in sorrow. This would never work, he concluded; he didn't know what the hell he'd been thinking, that he could ever do this. He took a deep breath and smoothed his dark hair out of his face, turning to the mirror once again.

"Remus. You know I'm very fond of you." Oh holy Merlin, that sounded like a break-up line.

"Lupin, it turns out that I don't despise you nearly as much as I once did." No.

"Look, Remus, we've been shagging incessantly for over a year now, and I thought it might be time to make things a bit more… official." Gods, what sort of blood ritual did that imply?

He slunk over to an armchair in the sitting room adjacent to his private chambers in the Hogwarts dungeons, collapsing in resignation, as the air leaked from the cushion in a steady hiss. He had exactly twelve hours before he was expected at Grimmauld Place – having promised Dumbledore he'd help look after the Boy Wonder over the holidays, and having promised Remus he'd spend Christmas with him this year – and here he was, rehearsing lines in front of a mirror like a bloody schoolboy with a crush. This was absolute madness; where on earth had he gotten it in his head that this was a good idea?

But he knew the answer to that question, easily. It was two weeks ago, lying tangled with Remus in the dungeons, the low torchlight illuminating only their shadows against the slippery black sheets, their bodies coursing with blood and sweat and tears and the very definition of ecstasy – something that Snape never would have thought it possible to achieve. Remus gave him release, he'd realised that night – not just physically but emotionally. He'd made the decision right then: he had to have Remus forever.

It wasn't something he would have previously thought he'd been missing, going through the motions of his days: frightening potions students, glowering at colleagues, occasionally venturing out to meet up with… old friends to gather information for the Order. It had been rote, uninteresting, stifling. He took great risks with his life, and that was certain – but even that had long since lost its thrill for him. It was a job, like any other; whether or not he came back after one meeting or another hadn't really concerned him for some time.

Until the night Remus had been sent with him, to help him with a contact that had been… rather less than cooperative – someone Dumbledore had ventured would respond better to Remus's natural amiability than to Snape's direct intimidation. Something had changed between them that night; maybe it was the shared danger of the situation, but some understanding, some healing for all the wrongs of the past, some sort of redemption had instantly been offered.

The plan had almost gone terribly wrong; they had almost not made it out. But they did, and that night changed everything between them – a fire ignited that could not, would never, be extinguished. When they'd stumbled back to the dungeons together at dawn, clawing at each other with all the passion of two damned souls spending their last night on earth before beginning their sentence in purgatory, Snape had thought he would drown in the eddy of sensation and pleasure that Remus evoked.

But what had begun as a torrid affair of secret lust, hidden trusts, stolen passion – a purely physical outpouring of previously repressed sexual desires, in which they barely spoke to each other outside the bedroom – had since evolved into a… Snape nearly choked as he thought it… a relationship. He had realized that the first time Remus had been sent out alone to gather information from his contacts among the unregistered werewolf sects – notoriously dangerous gangs that kill outsiders on sight and ask questions later.

It was only after Remus had returned two days later, having had little luck with his negotiations but otherwise unharmed, that Snape realised he had been sitting in his study with a book unopened on his lap the entire time, staring at the wall and muttering silent prayers to any Muggle or Wizard gods who might choose to hear him.

Remus must have felt it, too, Snape had concluded, because after that they had slipped seamlessly into a relationship of such ease and comfort that it hadn't even felt like a 'relationship' at all – not the way those utter wastes of time and emotion are supposed to feel, as far as Snape was concerned. No, being with Remus had just been like… coming home after a long and taxing journey.

They began to talk, as they lay in a pile of intertwined limbs after devouring each other's bodies. About nothing, anything, everything. War, politics, philosophy, science, likes, dislikes, hobbies, food, childhood, fear. Snape couldn't even remember, anymore, all the things they'd talked about; the topics had simply accumulated, night after night, until now, when he looked at the full picture he had of Remus, it was so rich and colourful and detailed that he could no longer fathom a life that Remus was not in.

Their one major obstacle had been Black, of course. Not that he had ever known about Snape and Remus – gods, no! Things would have ended up much differently – disastrously – for all of them, Snape was certain, had Black ever discovered that his best friend was shagging his worst enemy. But he still caused problems, as only Black could.

Having Remus in his house after all the years away had led Black to believe he could restrict Remus's freedom of movement – who he saw and when, how often, and under what circumstances. Not to mention that by playing the 'I've been in Azkaban for twelve years' pity card every day, he could guilt Remus into spending ridiculous amounts of time with him.

Yes, Snape had been jealous. Yes, there had been fights. Yes, Remus had called him about a million accurate, though still scathing, names for trying to make him choose between his secret lover and his emotionally unbalanced friend. Yes, he had caused Remus a great deal of stress by continually insulting Black and belittling the time the two of them spent together at Grimmauld Place, leafing through old photo albums from their time at Hogwarts, or – Snape imagined – droning on about how much Harry looked uncannily like his prat of a father.

But those fights had dissolved instantly in the acid of the veil.

After that, Snape didn't have the heart to pick fights with Remus. He'd let him mourn the stupid git. He'd backed off and let Remus shut himself up with the bloody hippogriff and the photo albums, and Snape would stand outside the door and listen to the sobbing, but he would never go in, he would never offer comfort.

It was two months later before Snape realized that the cold, dead burn in the pit of his stomach was Remus's absence.

Picking up the pieces had been slow, difficult, and painful. It had been like starting over again, but by this time, they knew each other too well to fall back into their old routines of blind passion. There were feelings now, real feelings. There was hurt, that Snape had left him to mourn alone. There was bitterness, that Remus had mourned at all.

But that gulf between them had closed quickly enough after they had accidentally fallen back into each other's arms one night in late August, alone at Grimmauld Place, lingering together as the rest of the Order left the latest meeting.

"I need you," Remus had whispered to him before crushing his body against Snape's, and Snape could only respond with actions, not words. "I need this," Remus had breathed afterwards, his chest beating hard against Snape's, and Snape could only nod and reach for him again, his throat too tight to speak.

And now, this Christmas, it just seemed like the right time. Call it the festive spirit, but everything he hadn't said for so long, everything he'd been afraid to show – it was all spread out before him in crystal clarity. There were no excuses anymore. Black was gone; he could never get in their way again. There was nobody left to oppose them. They had each other, and as loathe as Snape was to admit it, the thought of ever not having Remus in his life made him physically nauseous.

He rose and headed back to the mirror, his resolve fortified. Now, the only question left to answer was how, exactly, he should do it? There were complications, of course, what with both of them being men – it wasn't the sort of thing for which one could simply go to the Ministry and procure a license. In fact, that wasn't even something to joke about – if Remus agreed to this, they would have to be damned sure the Ministry didn't find out about it. But it was the commitment behind it that Snape sought to capture in going through with this, not any legal act alone (or illegal act, as luck would have it). The Ministry, quite frankly, could go screw themselves.

He faced his reflection and took a deep breath. "Remus," he said solemnly. "Will you marry me?"

Grimmauld Place had never looked nor felt so festive, in all its many years of grudgingly celebrating the holiday season during the Black family's tenure there. Despite its continued service as a top-secret resistance headquarters, its occupants had spared no effort this year in ensuring that – on the inside, at least – it looked every bit the proper yuletide abode. Once the children arrived the next day and helped set up the final decorations in the main parlour, Lupin mused, this old manor would finally shed its former Dark identity.

Even the year before, Lupin recalled wistfully as he reclined with a cup of tea in his favourite armchair in the study, even when Sirius was still alive – running around the place like an overexcited bloody elf – Grimmauld Place had remained under shadow. Arthur in the hospital, Harry having terrifying visions thanks to Voldemort… But this year, this year was truly festive, Lupin concluded.

If he did say so himself, of course. Sirius had been a gracious and selfless host, to be sure, but since taking over ownership of the house, Lupin had spent every second he could spare ensuring that the place felt comfortable and welcoming, not just for the holiday season, but every day – for the Order, for Snape even, but most importantly, for Harry.

Harry.

Lupin's heart tightened briefly as he thought of the boy, having endured so much at such a young age. James and Lily would be so proud of him – of the way he'd held up under all this pressure, for so many years in a row. So would Sirius.

And Lupin… well, yes, naturally, Lupin was proud, too. But his relationship with the boy had changed drastically since Sirius's death – even before that, really. Gone was that ease and familiarity with each other they had developed during Harry's third year at Hogwarts. Gone, too, were any surrogate parenting impulses Lupin might have harboured for the boy that year.

It had just been so hard, so painful – learning the truth about Peter, about Sirius… having the Marauders' Map shoved back in his face like that, to remind him of what things used to be like, of what James used to be like. He had spent the better part of twelve years learning to forget all of that, building a new life for himself, with new memories… only to land back at Hogwarts and have it all punch him in the gut.

Seeing Harry at thirteen – and that Patronus! Lupin stifled a half-sobbing laugh. It had been like James, and Prongs, had been given back to him for one more year. But Harry wasn't James, Lupin quickly learned. He didn't act like James, he didn't even ask about James, didn't seem to know anything at all about James, nor care to know.

No, that wasn't entirely true. But when it came time for him to ask someone, when he finally decided he did, in fact, have questions about his parents, did he go to the childhood friend of his father's who had single-handedly trained him to fight the Dementors, who had poured his heart and soul into helping the boy?

No. He had turned to an ex-convict he barely knew, just because the title godfather carried so much weight.

Lupin rose from his chair and walked slowly over to the window, watching the icicles freeze outside the glass.

That damned kid had entirely cast him aside, Lupin thought with more than a trace of bitterness, though he knew in his heart that it had been mutual. He had stepped back, allowed Sirius to play godfather, even spent hours filling his old friend in on all he'd learned about Harry during that year at Hogwarts – his friends, his favourite Quidditch teams, his most frequent Zonko's purchases.

No, he'd discovered, quite to his own surprise in the past year, that he rather didn't want to play father, or godfather, to the boy. It was too painful. And besides, Harry certainly had enough people looking out for him; he didn't need one more.

He didn't need Lupin at all.

Lupin sighed and raised an index finger to the glass, tracing a wavering line through the condensation gathered there.

All right, maybe it wasn't exactly his choice, whether or not he got to play parent with Harry. It was the kid's choice, and he had made it – loud and clear – in the weeks following Sirius's death. Quit trying to bond with me, Remus, all right? he'd finally hollered one day, after Lupin had asked him over to tea yet again. I don't want to talk about him, and I don't need any pity from you. You're not my father, and you're not my godfather, so just leave me the hell alone!

Lupin winced. The kid had a point, of course – what right did Lupin have to step forward and try to be his best adult friend just because the others were dead? The boy had every right to tell him to go fuck himself, which, though not in so many words, he had.

If only it didn't make Lupin's heart ache so goddamned much to hear it.

He brushed aside a lonely strand of tinsel hanging from the curtains and made his way over to his desk. He searched his pockets for a moment, then eventually produced a tiny key, smiling to himself. The benefit of living among wizards was that it generally didn't occur to them to use Muggle methods for some tasks – even Alohomora wouldn't have opened that drawer, without that tiny key.

He fit it in the lock and pulled the drawer open, then carefully lifted out its contents and placed the thick package on the desk. He slumped back against the bookcase and just stared at it for awhile.

It had been no easy thing to procure, and the expense had been almost more than he could manage, even with Sirius's inheritance. He was still not entirely certain why he'd even bothered. But try as he might to assure himself that he didn't care about the kid, he knew that was a lie. He was more devoted to Harry than he could possibly say – and not only because he felt he owed it to both James and Sirius to look after the boy.

But Harry had made it clear that he didn't want Lupin in his life, and here Lupin was with a bloody Christmas present for the kid that he'd probably throw out the window if he knew who it was from.

No, it didn't matter who it was from. The point was that the kid was going to love it, and that Lupin wanted him to have it. If he had to fudge a few facts in order to get that stubborn boy to accept a gift, well, then, he would do it. He'd just say it was purchased a long time ago, early in the year – that it had been planned for months. Harry would believe it, because Harry would want to believe it.

With resignation, and a pang of sadness, he opened the card he'd bought with the gift and wrote in a carefully practiced script –

Happy Christmas, Harry!

Love,

Sirius

Chapter 2

Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny and Luna arrived by Portkey at number twelve, Grimmauld Place late the next morning. Lupin immediately showed them to the guest wing to make themselves comfortable, assigning them to various spare bedrooms – Harry and Ron halfway down the corridor on the right, Ginny and Luna a bit further on, towards the back staircase, Hermione alone in one of the smaller rooms on the left. He was careful to keep them away from Snape's room – he still felt guilty about insisting that Snape not share the master suite with him while the kids were in the house, so as consolation, the least he could do was ensure the man was as far from Harry and Ron's games of Exploding Snap as possible.

After a light lunch of tea and sandwiches, the group assembled in the front parlour at Lupin's behest.

"Professor Dumbledore has hinted that he'll be stopping by this afternoon to set up some sort of… er- entertainment for us this week," he told them. "Nothing too frightening, I hope," he added, smiling indulgently at the wary teenagers. "Usually it's something quite harmless, like a Secret Santa exchange."

Ron made a face. "A Secret Santa thing?" He scowled at Lupin and slumped back against the sofa. "If I get Snape, I'm going back to the Burrow."

Lupin laughed. "If you get Professor Snape, Ron," he said in an amused but lightly warning tone, "you will conjure a lovely gift for him, just as you would for any of the rest of us."

"That's quite all right, Lupin." A low, smooth voice filled the room suddenly as a new figure appeared at the door. "If Weasley is that keen on leaving us to celebrate Christmas without him, I certainly won't go out of my way to change his mind."

A warm smile spread across Lupin's face before he even turned around. "Severus," he said slowly, drawing the word out in tones that would not necessarily have sounded flirtatious to the kids, but would have conveyed a multitude of promises to the man at the door. "So glad you could join us." He turned then and let his eyes take in the black-robed form in the doorway, his heart suddenly beating faster. Room full of teenage wards or no, that man could inspire the most utterly inappropriate desires in him.

"Wouldn't have missed it for the world," Snape drawled in a bored voice, surveying the group in the parlour. His lip curled into a sneer when his gaze landed on Harry, who, Lupin noted, returned the loathing glare with equal intensity. Finally Snape's eyes came to rest on Lupin, and stayed there much longer than they should have. He pursed his lips in the barest of knowing smiles, then headed for the liquor cabinet.

Damn it, Lupin thought sadly, trying to remind himself why, exactly, he had thought it would be such a good idea for Snape to have a separate bedroom while the kids were in the house. He watched as Snape poured himself a Scotch, and almost laughed out loud at the realization that he too was going to need a great deal of booze over the holidays if he was to forget his blasted vow to keep his hands off Snape.

But his self-pitying musings were interrupted by the arrival of a second new voice, much older and cheerier than the first.

"Oh good, good, splendid – everyone's here, then?" Dumbledore stepped into the room and cast a knowing smile over its occupants.

"I think we've got them all, Albus," Lupin called. "All those who wanted to come, at any rate."

"Well, the rest of the Order certainly wanted to come, Remus, but I'm afraid that there are some other tasks that require their attention." He gave Lupin a significant look, then let his gaze fall on Harry for a brief moment.

Lupin sighed. Yes, he knew that well enough. Dumbledore was becoming increasingly convinced that Hogwarts was not as safe for Harry as it should be – as it used to be. None of them could pinpoint what had happened, but after the events of the year before, when Voldemort had managed to get inside Harry's head and flash him the most horrific images while the boy was at Hogwarts… well, there were a great many questions that still needed answering.

Dumbledore didn't want him staying at the school this Christmas, not while Shacklebolt and the Aurors had such important raids to carry out against some of Harry's worst enemies. They had decided that the best location for him would be Grimmauld Place, with his friends. Molly and Arthur had agreed to send Ron and Ginny to keep him company (and truth be told, Lupin suspected that the two of them were grateful to have some much-needed time alone with Percy, to attempt to reforge that relationship). Hermione had come as well, of course, and Ginny had invited her friend, Luna.

Lupin and Snape, meanwhile, had been charged with the task of keeping Harry and the others safe over the holidays. Severus, as one could imagine, had been decidedly less than thrilled with the arrangement, grumbling for weeks about having much more important things to do, like watch paint dry, for instance. Well, Lupin thought with a smirk, he would simply have to make it worth the man's time. Maybe there would be ways around that separate-bedrooms business, after all.

"That's all right, sir," Hermione piped up from across the room. "The lot of us are happy enough here." Lupin was so wrapped up in his renewed thoughts about the Potions Master that he didn't notice Hermione's eyes settling on him as she spoke.

Dumbledore also pretended not to notice. He clapped his hands together, then patted his robes in search of something. "Well," he began enthusiastically, that knowing twinkle firmly lodged in his eyes, "since you are all away from the usual festivities at Hogwarts this year, I thought I might instigate some entertainment for you here."

Snape snorted and made a face, tossing the amber contents of his glass down his throat and rising from his chair by the fireplace. "In that case," he said icily, "I believe I am needed elsewhere."

"Nonsense, Severus," said Dumbledore warmly. "I think even you might enjoy this."

Lupin stifled a chuckle as he heard Ron on the sofa whisper to Harry in a sudden panic, "Please don't make him be Santa Claus, please don't make him be Santa Claus, please don't - "

Harry elbowed him in the ribs, and Ron yelped and fell silent.

"What is it, sir?" Ginny rested her hand on her chin eagerly, eyeing the Headmaster.

Dumbledore continued to search his robes, finally reaching into a hidden side pocket and locating his target. He produced a long, cylindrical object about the size of his forearm, wrapped in red crepe paper, the ends tied off with golden ribbons.

Luna eyed it suspiciously. "Oh," she said, slight disappointment colouring her tone. "A Gryffindor sort of 'entertainment'?"

Snape looked over at her in some surprise, then smirked.

"No, my dear, not quite." Dumbledore chuckled. "Gryffindors shouldn't have any advantage here, despite the coincidental colours. The Christmas Cracker is quite impartial when it comes to the school Houses."

Lupin and Snape's brows furrowed simultaneously in sudden recognition of the object before them, while Luna's eyes narrowed in uncertain contemplation. The others looked utterly confused.

"Oh, Albus," Lupin began, "do we have to? That thing is a bit - " He fell silent and grimaced as Dumbledore shot him a look. But his protest had only ignited the curiosity of the teenagers.

"What is it?" Ron asked eagerly. "What's a Christmas Cracker?"

The cylinder sprang to life at the question, leaping out of Dumbledore's hand and onto the coffee table in the centre of the room. "I'm a Christmas Cracker!" it hollered, hopping up and down on one of its ends, a small tear appearing in the ribbon at the top end to mimic a mouth.

Lupin put a hand over his face in horror and winced, silently cursing Dumbledore. Oh yes, he'd seen this bloody thing before, and it was one time too many – as far as meddling anthropomorphic objects at Hogwarts were concerned, this thing made that wretched Sorting Hat look as benign as a loaf of bread. He chanced a peek through his fingers to find Ron poking at the Cracker with his wand.

"Trying to get fresh, are we!" the Cracker shouted in outrage, jumping out of Ron's reach. "Well, I never!"

"Do you sing?" Harry asked, sitting forward on the sofa.

The Cracker whirled around to face him, and Lupin felt quite certain that if it had possessed hands, they would be placed firmly on its hips. "Sing?" it cried. "No, I don't sing." The mouth turned to Dumbledore. "Honestly, Albus, do I have to put up with such questions?"

Dumbledore chuckled and plucked the Cracker up from the table, clutching it firmly in his palm to keep it quiet. "Quite the little sprite, isn't it?" He glanced at Harry and winked.

Luna suddenly let out a very bored-sounding, dramatic sigh and fell back against her chair. "I suppose that thing is going to tell us who we most want to give a gift to this year, and what the gift should be, right?" Her wide blue eyes looked intensely at Dumbledore as the other six heads in the room swivelled towards her in surprise.

Dumbledore smiled at her indulgently. "Ah, Ms. Lovegood, as usual, you do your House proud. You are correct – that is indeed the purpose of the Christmas Cracker."

"Who we most want to…?" Hermione repeated, frowning. "But that's very subjective, isn't it, sir? What if the same person ends up with six gifts, and everyone else nothing? Wouldn't it be more logical to set up a proper exchange, so that each person is assigned another person to whom - "

"My dear." Dumbledore held up his hand. "Christmas is never logical."

She clamped her mouth shut and looked at him in disbelief.

"I think you will all agree," he continued pleasantly, "that this holiday should not only be about gifts of the material kind. Neither I nor the Cracker expects you to go out and actually purchase anything. For some of you, this will already have happened – in which case the Cracker will likely simply discuss your gift with you. If you have not yet purchased any, keep in mind that not all gifts are material goods, and the Cracker will remind you of that as well. There are many types of gifts that one can present to a loved one at Christmas, remember." He paused and cast a knowing glance around the room.

Lupin followed his eyes. Harry and Ron were looking rather dumbstruck on the sofa; Hermione remained perturbed that her much more rational idea had been disregarded; Ginny seemed quite intrigued, and Luna just looked bored. Snape, as could be expected, was looking as though he wished very much that he could pinpoint the exact moment in his life when the road had forked and he had chosen the path that had led him here – and go back to take the other.

"Because of the rather untraditional nature of this gift exchange," Dumbledore continued as Lupin returned his gaze to the old wizard, "I would discourage you from appointing any particular moment for gift-giving. In many cases, the gifts one presents to another are very private affairs. Thus, I will decree only that all gifts be presented, in whatever form they take, by midnight on Christmas Day."

"Unhand me, you devil!" The Cracker had evidently become tired of biding its time in Dumbledore's hand, and began to wriggle in exasperation. "On with it! I haven't all day here, you know. It's a very busy time of year for us Crackers…"

Chuckling again, Dumbledore took the Cracker and left the room for a moment.

When he returned, he smiled brightly at the group. "Very good! The Cracker has been set up at the kitchen table. All you need to do is pull the ends of it, the way you would with a regular cracker, and your private consultation shall begin. Leave it where it is when you are done; it will prepare itself for the next person. Any questions?"

Just one, thought Lupin miserably. How the hell do we get you to stop being such a well-meaning, but nonetheless outrageously interfering old sod?

One at a time, they each ventured uncertainly into the kitchen for their private chat with the Cracker. The others, in the main sitting room, would hear a loud crack and sometimes a shriek, if the noise caught the person unawares, then there would be silence. Upon returning to the others with soot-covered hands and a rather dazed look on his or her face, the person would then usher in the next poor soul to repeat the routine.

When Lupin emerged, Snape gave him a questioning look from the far end of the sitting room, where he stood against a bookshelf, arms folded across his chest.

"In you go, Luna," Lupin called with a smile, nodding towards the kitchen, then he shook his head and sidled up to Snape, assuming the same stance as the other man as he assessed the quiet conversations among the others in the room. "Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot or not," he whispered, "that old man's a bloody menace, with these infernal games of his."

Snape gave a silent snort. "And he knows entirely more than he should about… things," he agreed.

Lupin glanced over at him. "Like what?" he asked, his voice tinged with alarm.

But Snape just shook his head and continued staring down the teenagers on the other side of the room. "Nothing you need to concern yourself with, Lupin," he answered casually, pausing in his survey of the parlour to cast a smouldering glance at his lover.

Lupin met his eyes and held the other man's passionate gaze, a smile touching his lips. "Everything about you concerns me," he purred in Snape's ear, suddenly wanting more than anything to dart his tongue out and run it up Snape's throat in a long, leisurely lick. He bit his lip.

"You think so?" continued Snape, dropping his voice to match Lupin's.

"Mm-hmm." Lupin nodded, watching as Luna emerged from the kitchen and was immediately surrounded by Ginny and Hermione, asking her what the Cracker had told her. A wicked idea suddenly occurred to him, and he inclined his head slightly towards Snape, his eyes focused straight ahead, at the others in the room. "I want to taste you," he said softly. "Everywhere. Right now."

Snape's breath quickened, his chest rising and falling rapidly as he too stared straight ahead, his face like granite, but his eyes fogged with lust.

"Dad told me not to trust anything that can think for itself if you can't see where it keeps its brain," Ginny muttered to Luna, after sharing what appeared to be her own less-than-satisfying conversation with the Cracker. The kids laughed and gathered around her, consoling her with their own tales.

Snape took advantage of their distraction to lean imperceptibly closer to Lupin. "Then do it," he challenged.

"Patience, Severus," Lupin whispered. "You wouldn't want it to be over too quickly, would you?" His fingers clutched at the elbows of his folded arms as they stood together, to all the world like colleagues barely on speaking terms with each other, making forced small talk in the middle of a children's Christmas party.

But Snape met him head-on. "It wouldn't be," he assured him. "I'd let you draw it out, nice and slow, until you thought you could break me with one more lick. But I'd surprise you, Lupin. I can last a very, very long time when engaged in such enjoyable activities." He leaned in closer, his voice like liquid silk. "Very, very long…" he purred.

Lupin had to physically bring a hand up to his mouth and bite on a knuckle to keep from moaning. "Long," he repeated, almost whimpering now. "And hard?"

"So hard," confirmed Snape, still outwardly stone-faced and unaffected by their game, though Lupin was quickly becoming a puddle of quivering drool against the bookshelf.

"Well, that looks to be everyone!" The sound of Dumbledore's voice and his hands clapping together in finality broke the trance, and Lupin sprang away from Snape, darting a meaningful glance at him over his shoulder. "Now," Dumbledore continued, his twinkling blue eyes surveying the room from behind his half-moon spectacles, "it would of course be best if you all refrained from revealing to one another the nature of your conversation with the Cracker."

"I've got a conversation with a cracker I can tell you about right now," Lupin heard Ron whisper to Harry, and he almost snorted as Ron rolled his eyes and flicked his head imperceptibly towards Dumbledore.

Harry guffawed, quickly covering his mouth with his hand as Snape shot him a deadly look from across the room.

"All will be revealed in time, I'm quite sure. Now, I'll leave you to get to work on your gifts, shall I?" Dumbledore smiled indulgently at Snape and Lupin in turn, then nodded to the kids. "Happy Christmas to all, then." He headed towards the front door but betrayed no signs of actually using it, as the only sound the parlour occupants heard of his departure was a soft pop.

"Ah, boys, there you are." Lupin turned and smiled at Harry and Ron as they entered the kitchen later that afternoon. "Fresh batch of Festive Cheer, just about ready. Grab a couple of glasses, why don't you?"

Ron raised his eyebrows. "Festive Cheer?" He peered over Lupin's shoulder at the contents of the blender, then turned and whispered to Harry, "Who knew? It is a bad cocktail."

"Not to worry, Ron, I can't have Dumbledore stopping by and finding the lot of you passed out drunk – the minors in this house are getting the virgin variety."

"Thanks for rubbing it in," Ron muttered to Harry, who covered his mouth to stifle a laugh.

Lupin ignored that, taking the glasses Ron had handed him and beginning to fill them with pink frothy liquid.

"Uh, Remus," Ron asked tentatively, "what's in that stuff? Er- the virgin variety, that is?"

Lupin shot him a look, then kept pouring. "Pineapple juice, orange juice, cranberry juice, ginger ale, and just a hint of maraschino cherry nectar."

Harry made a face. "Sounds like it's for two-year-olds."

"Oh no, Harry, definitely not. Sirius invented it when we were back at school – er, I mean, when we were well over eighteen - " he smiled slightly to himself - "and the secret ingredient is a shot of firewhiskey."

Ron suddenly looked much more interested. "Really?"

"Yep. You can barely taste it with all that sweet stuff, but believe me, it is powerful. Oh, the Christmas parties your grandparents used to throw, Harry, when Sirius lived with them. He and James would whip up a batch of Festive Cheer and watch the elderly relations get drunk off their rockers, thinking they were just tossing back juice." He paused to laugh out loud, staring wistfully across the room at nothing in particular. "I joined in a few of them, when my parents would let me. Those were some of my happiest Christmases, you know."

He trained his gaze back on the boys, reaching out to hand them each a drink, but Harry's arms remained firmly at his sides.

"No thanks, Remus," he said in a quiet but unmistakably bitter voice. "I'm not really thirsty."

Lupin's face fell. "Oh," he said, feigning nonchalance. "Sure, Harry, no problem. I'll just leave it here, in case you want some later, hmm?" He forced a smile and placed the glass on the counter.

Ron quickly grabbed his tumbler out of Lupin's other hand and took a deep gulp. "Oh yeah, it's good, Remus," he enthused, his eyes darting between Lupin and Harry. "Good old Festive Cheer." He drained the glass and let out a satisfied sigh.

Lupin gave him a half-smile and clapped him on the shoulder. "Come on, boys, why don't we go see what sort of damage the girls have done with the decorating?" He followed them out of the kitchen, pausing briefly at the door to glance back at the lonely drink sitting on the counter, and a streak of blinding grief shot through him. A second later, it was gone.

The damage the girls had managed to do with the decorating, it turned out, was considerable.

"Oh, Professor Lupin, I'm sorry!" Ginny moaned as Lupin, Harry, and Ron entered the parlour, their eyes wide as they took in the scene.

"Ginny!" Lupin sputtered, his mouth agape. "What happened!" The parlour was in complete turmoil – chairs overturned, tables broken, bookshelves upended and their contents strewn all over the floor.

"Careful, she's coming back this way!" screeched Hermione, racing in from the corridor and attempting to slam the door closed behind her. Luna and Ginny ran over to help her.

"Hermione! What's going on- who's out there?" Lupin was rapidly regretting having ever agreed to play parent to five teenagers, even if only for a few days. Barely one day in, he had apparently already completely lost control of the situation.

But Hermione wasn't quick enough – though even if she had been, the great towering figure that burst through the doorway likely could have knocked the door over with one push of a finger.

"Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!" The girls and Ron started screaming in terror, while Harry and Lupin quickly reached for their wands.

"Stupefy!" they yelled in unison, and the mammoth form stopped in its tracks before it could tear the door off its hinges. It fell to the floor with a great thud, the group in the parlour scrambling out of the way.

"You let a troll in, Ginny?" Ron hollered. "What the hell were you thinking!"

Ginny was cowering under an overturned table, shaking with fear. "It's not- not- "

"It's not a troll, Ron," Lupin finished, stepping forward carefully to examine the creature.

"We tried to Stun it, Professor, but we must not have been strong enough," Hermione explained, biting at her fingernails and peering apprehensively at Lupin.

"That's all right, Hermione – a beast this size would certainly take more force than the three of you could conjure, and that's no slight against your skills." He crouched down and took a good look at the unconscious being on his sitting room floor.

It was female, certainly, and a beautiful female at that. Long blonde ringlets framed a cherubic face with rosy cheeks and dark lashes. She wore a brilliant white satin gown that covered her from neck to ankle, and on her back, now slightly crumpled after her fall, were a pair of exquisitely embroidered wings. She looked oddly familiar.

Lupin rose and scanned the room again. "Ginny," he asked slowly. "Where's the Christmas tree?"

She crawled forward and plucked a small object from where it had rolled under a sofa cushion, then handed it to Lupin. It was the tree, shrunk to the size of his palm. He glanced back and forth between the Stunned creature on his floor and the miniature tree in his hand, adding up all the possibilities, then broke into a grin.

"OK," he said to the girls, a curious gleam in his eyes. "You'd better tell me what happened."

Nobody spoke for a moment, Ginny still apparently in shock, and Luna too entranced by the figure on the floor. Finally, Hermione piped up. "We- we were just trying to put the angel on top of the tree, Professor," she began timidly, glancing at Ginny. "And we just thought we'd try to levitate her up there, you know, and - "

"No," Ginny cut in wearily, rising from the floor at last. "There was no 'we', Professor, it was my fault. And I know how to levitate things!" She shot a glare at Hermione, who just shrugged meekly. "I saw Professor McGonagall do this thing in the Great Hall when we were decorating there the other day – she made the angel sort of come alive and float up to the top of the tree, made it dance around up there, and it was really neat…"

Lupin glanced back at the troll-sized angel on his floor and chuckled. "Aaaand, so you thought you would try that here?"

Ginny nodded, her eyes on the floor. "I'm sorry, Professor! I thought I heard what charm Professor McGonagall used, but I guess I got it wrong…"

"I'll say," Ron cried. "That thing could have eaten us for dinner!"

She ignored this, though her face flushed. "Somehow it reversed them, so that the tree was on top of the angel instead of the other way around," she continued, feeling more confident now that the rampaging angel had been Stunned. "And then she just sort of… came alive."

"Do you think she's hurt?" Luna said suddenly, gazing at the angel.

Lupin smiled gently at her. "Um, no, I think she'll be OK. She's not really alive, anyway – just a Charmed object." He straightened and looked at them all expectantly. "Well, class," he joked, "why don't we practice our cleaning and repair spells for awhile, hmm?" He waved his wand and in a flash of light, the angel reappeared on the floor at its original ornament size. "You should be able to handle the rest, I take it?"

The kids glanced around the room with a collective sigh, then reluctantly starting pulling out their wands.

Leaving the group to clean up the parlour, Lupin retreated to his bedroom for a much-needed reprieve. His face broke into an amused expression as he realised the room was already occupied, and he quickly closed the door behind him, muttering a strong locking spell.

Snape was lying flat on his back on the bed, still as a corpse, his hands folded neatly across his chest.

"You know, for someone who denies those vampire rumours so vehemently, you certainly do nothing to help your case," Lupin pointed out, leaning against the door and watching the man on the bed.

Snape neither opened his eyes nor moved a muscle. "And for someone who claims to be a professional teacher," he muttered, "you certainly allow an appalling quantity of loud, childish games among the students visiting your house. An Exploding Snap tournament you've no doubt organised?" He opened his eyes at last.

"Ah yes, you and your infernal headaches," Lupin drawled, sauntering over to the bed. "Didn't you ever play Exploding Snap as a kid, Severus? It's really not a bad game. See, you have to - " His enthusiastic explanation died on his lips as Snape opened his eyes again and shot him a murderous glare.

" 'Exploding Snap'? You are actually allowing those wretched brats to play a game with the word 'exploding' in the title?"

"No, in fact it was Voldemort – he dropped by to kill Harry in a very noisy fashion, you know, as a special Christmas treat to himself. So good of you to come down and help us out when you heard the commotion."

A smile tugged at Snape's lips. "Not at all. I assume the boy has managed to live, yet again?"

"Naturally."

Snape closed his eyes. "Exploding Snap," he repeated. "Ridiculous. Sounded like Weasley had blown up the sitting room."

"Well, actually, that is the more accurate version of events…" Lupin sat down on the edge of the bed and reached a hand out to trace against Snape's thigh. "Poor Severus," he continued, in a softly mocking voice.

Snape turned and glared, his features like ice.

"Are you sure you're not just jealous that they didn't ask you to play?"

Snape snorted. "Oh, honestly, Lupin. I think you should know by now that I don't play games."

"Mmm," Lupin mused, his hand becoming more insistent in its exploration of the other man's leg. "So you say. But I wonder if I couldn't change your mind?" He let his fingers trail lightly to the inseam of Snape's trousers.

Snape quirked an interested eyebrow and shifted discreetly, moving his legs ever so slightly apart. "I don't play games, Lupin," he repeated, but his tone was low and husky.

"I think you'll play this one with me," Lupin insisted softly. "Besides, you've decided to do your napping – quite inappropriately, I might add – on my bed rather than yours. That makes you fair game for me."

"You piqued my interest earlier," Snape murmured, propping himself up on his elbows and gazing down his body at Lupin. "I can't be expected to maintain inhuman levels of resistance to you, can I? Now, what was that about tasting me… everywhere?"

"You didn't seem all that interested at the time," teased Lupin in a low voice, pulling his shirt over his head and climbing onto the bed, casting a predatory gaze at Snape.

"Oh, I was interested," whispered Snape. "I've been interested all fucking afternoon because of you…"

Lupin felt his pulse quicken and his veins thrum as they always did when he was this close to Snape. He'd spent the better part of a year convincing himself that this was a perfectly normal physical reaction to the astonishingly good sex they had on a regular basis… but he knew now that it was more than that, much more. Sex with Snape wasn't just about bodies anymore… sex with Snape was about diving into the very depths of the ocean and coming out of it shattered and gasping for air, but a better man for it – and a man desperate to do it again and again, forever.

He couldn't actually tell Snape that, of course, lest it ruin the precarious balance they'd silently agreed on in their relationship – spectacular sex, sometimes even a few laughs over a decent bottle of Scotch, in exchange for no discussion of emotional attachment. A cheap blow job on the sly, while the kids were busy downstairs… this wasn't what he wanted, this wasn't enough.

But when he raised his eyes to Snape's, he found that familiar flush of arousal on the man's usually pale face, heard that normally steady breathing quicken in anticipation, and he knew that he would never be able to demand more than this from him – just like he'd never be able to walk away from it.

He reached aggressively for Snape's waistband and lowered his head.

After pitching in to help clean up the wreckage wrought by the rampaging angel, Hermione sneaked back up to her room and pulled a very special gift out from under her mattress. Smiling mischievously to herself, she finished her wrapping and quietly tip-toed down to the library while the others resumed decorating the tree in the parlour. She crept over to the grand mahogany desk at the far end of the room and placed her package squarely in the middle of it, moving a couple of quills and inkwells out of the way to make room. Then, she arranged the gilt-edged envelope on top of the package and stood back to admire her work. Her handwriting danced across the front of it, seeming to wink at the recipient and cajole him into opening it, the sweeping black ink forming the letters perfectly -

For my favourite Professor

She giggled to herself as she headed to the door. It was terribly naughty of her, she knew, to have written what she did in that letter and still insist on calling Remus 'Professor,' but it also gave her a little thrill. If all went according to plan, she was going to be a very different girl – no, woman – when she woke up on Christmas morning.

As she joined the others in the parlour, accepting a glass of punch from Ginny, her mind drifted back to the image of Remus reaching for his wand and in one swift, graceful movement, felling that giant angel with the powerful force of his magic. He was such a great wizard, so strong but still so humble… She thought again of that package and the letter she had written him, sitting in the library waiting to be opened, and congratulated herself on her cleverness.

She could hardly wait to see his reaction.

"Mmm, all right, Lupin, you win. You may finally have hit on a game that I will consent to play."

"And, further," Lupin pressed, "that you like to play."

Snape smirked. "Indeed. I can't deny it." He cast a mischievous look at Lupin. "What did you say it was called, again?"

Lupin could barely get the words out, from the grin spreading across his face. "Why, 'Exploding Snape,' naturally."

Snape squeezed his eyes shut and groaned into his pillow. "That's truly awful – you do know that, right?"

Lupin settled in next to Snape's warm body, his palm placed protectively over the other man's still-heaving chest. "My puns are nothing less than clever and inspired," he pronounced solemnly.

"No," Snape shook his head across the pillow sadly. "I'm afraid whoever told you that has been feeding you a pack of lies. Come on, I don't suppose you want us caught up here together."

He started to rise, but Lupin pushed gently down on his chest. "In a minute, hmm?" he whispered. "Just… stay here for another minute."

Snape settled himself back against the pillows and placed his own hand over Lupin's, squeezing gently. As long as you want, love, he said in his head.

As long as you want.

When Snape finally managed to untangle himself from Lupin, he slipped out of the master bedroom and headed back to his own small guest room. But halfway there, he heard the unmistakable sounds of more fucking Exploding Snap coming from another bedroom down the corridor. Suppressing a grin at the memory of Lupin's version of the game, he turned abruptly on his heel and glided down the stairs. He still had to work on his speech, to figure out what the hell he was going to say to Lupin when he gave him that… gift he'd planned. If there was no peace to be found in his own bloody bedroom, he thought wearily, surely those blasted children wouldn't be anywhere near the library during their school holidays.

He found the library pleasantly empty, as expected, and quickly fell into the high-backed chair behind the desk, settling a hand over his face. He let out a sigh as he resumed his contemplation of the madness that had led him to decide that proposing to Remus would be a fabulous Christmas present. He hadn't had this much trepidation about joining the bloody Death Eaters – why on earth was he so nervous about this?

He lifted his hand to run it through his hair, and at that moment noticed, for the first time, a neatly wrapped package on the desk in front of him.

"For my favourite Professor," the card on top of the package read. He frowned. One of these children had left him a sodding gift? Here? Today? It was still two days before Christmas. He recalled what Dumbledore had said – that gifts could be given any time before midnight on the twenty-fifth… but surely none of the students in this house had a burning desire to present any such gift to him.

He glanced at the package again. There was no way he was anyone's favourite professor – if he was, then his carefully orchestrated reign of intimidation and terror in the classroom over the past fifteen years had failed miserably. But there weren't any other "professors" in this house. Lupin certainly didn't count. Oh, sure, those blasted children insisted on calling him "Professor Lupin" at times, but that was only out of habit, or possibly stupidity. He hadn't taught at Hogwarts for nearly three years – and children have notoriously short memories.

No, there was only one person for whom this gift was intended. Sighing dramatically, he reached for the envelope and carefully unsealed it. Might as well get this over with, he thought glumly.

Professor,

I know this gift may be a bit unexpected, and you may think it's more elaborate than you deserve, but before you can say any of those things, I just want you to know how much your kindness has meant to me over the years, especially this past one. I have learned so much from you, from your vast collection of knowledge… I really feel like we know each other, like we understand each other. I've given this a lot of thought, and I'm of legal age now – I'm considered an adult who can make my own decisions… and what I've decided is that – I love you.

There, I've said it. You may think me a foolish girl with a crush, but I assure you that I am much older than my years, and what I feel for you is genuine. We have so much in common! I truly believe that you are the man for me, and I know that you are the only one I want. If you feel the same, come to my room on Christmas Eve. Let me show you how I feel about you; I can be anything you want me to be.

Happy Christmas, love. This book is only a token. Your real present will come tomorrow night, if you want it.

Yours,

Hermione

His jaw agape in absolute horror, Severus Snape stood staring at the letter. Hermione Granger? In love with… him? It was preposterous! He felt his stomach roll over. The idiot girl! Foolish crush, indeed – he'd show her just how foolish she was being. Someone must have put her up to this, he thought angrily. Probably Potter and Weasley, trying to make a fool out of him – or worse, to set him up with the girl in a compromising position and get him fired. He dropped the letter onto the desk and stormed around the library, fuming.

But Granger didn't idly take orders from Potter and Weasley, he reasoned after a moment. No, if anything, she was the one calling the shots in that circle of idiot friends; surely those boys did not dare a trip to the loo without her permission. They would never have conned her into this. What, then, was the explanation?

The bile rose in his throat again as he tried to suppress the only plausible one: she actually meant this. This letter, this gift, this invitation to defile her the following evening – she was serious. He shuddered at the thought and quickly sat down in one of the room's great armchairs before he fell over, cradling his head in his hands. Of all the things he needed this holiday season, he thought bitterly, a chat with a hormonal teenager about how it would never work between them was not at the top of his list.

After allowing himself a moment of self-pity, he glanced back at the package still sitting on the desk and sighed again. Well, he might as well open it and know exactly what he was dealing with here, before confronting the girl. He returned to the desk and picked up the gift – a book, according to her letter. It was wrapped in a smooth, glittering paper of royal blue tones, with no bows, ribbons, or other frivolities. Well, Snape thought, at least the girl had decent taste in wrapping paper.

He tore the paper away and found a gilded, hardcover book in his hands. It really was beautiful – a reissued version of an old classic, it seemed. Snape ran his fingers over the smooth spine in appreciation, then opened to the title page.

Frankenstein

by Mary Shelley

His face could not have contorted itself into a more pained expression of incredulity and distaste had a family of Blast-Ended Skrewts just paraded through the room. Another note fell from the opening pages, and Snape continued to stare, horror-struck.

I know, I know, maybe the whole 'the monster within'

trope is a bit obvious for you, but still, it's one of

my favourite books, so I thought you might like it.

Happy Christmas with love,

H.G.

The monster within! What in the flying hell had happened to that girl's normally dependable, if over-exercised, brain? Clearly, she had never declared a secret burning lust to an off-limits authority figure before, but Snape very much wished she had run this plan by one of her idiot friends before committing to it.

Surely even Lavender Brown would have had the sense to say, "You know, Hermione, perhaps confessing your love to Professor Snape and gifting him with an appallingly self-indulgent novel about the eerily autodidactic spawn of a potions experiment gone wildly awry is not the best way to ensure a comfortable holiday season?"

He shook his head slightly as he felt the onset of a headache unfurling at the base of his skull. What in the bloody hell was he supposed to do about this?

"What have you got there?" a familiar voice floated into his thoughts.

Snape froze. This didn't seem to be the sort of situation one should discuss with one's lover. Oh, well, it's just an outrageously inappropriate gift from an infatuated student who I most certainly have never ogled in any way, not that you'll likely believe me.

"Oh, just another useless gift from a parent of one of my not-entirely-hopeless NEWT students," replied Snape casually, turning to face Lupin and tucking it behind his back.

But the other man had seen that said gift included several hundred pieces of paper with words typed across them, bound at one edge and wrapped in a solid cover – in other words, a book. He was across the room in seconds, pulling it out of Snape's hands.

"Ooh, Frankenstein!" he said excitedly, giving a low whistle as he appraised the polished cover. "Wow, Snape, this is gorgeous. Can I look through it when you're done?" He continued turning the book over in his hands, inspecting every corner of it, then opening it and thumbing through the pages with such reverence and care that one would have thought they were breakable.

Snape watched him for a moment, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips at this display of such child-like wonder. He wished he could just give Lupin the damned thing and be done with it; everyone would be happy. Instead, he reached out and let his hand brush Lupin's as he gently prised the book away. "Sorry, you incurable bibliophile, but I'm not keeping this."

Lupin's eyebrows shot to the ceiling, and Snape almost laughed out loud upon seeing that the poor man must think he meant he was going to throw it in the rubbish bin.

"Why?" exclaimed Lupin. "Give it to me if you don't want it! I love that story."

Snape eyed him with keen amusement as he set the book down on the desk, thankful for an excuse not to have to explain why he wasn't keeping it. "You must be joking," he began, preparing himself for one of his favourite games with this man: the intellectual debate. Well, one of his favourite clothed games, at least. "Frankenstein? Is it the trite, absolutely nonsensical plot you prefer, or the utter disregard for even Muggle principles of science?"

Lupin grinned and cleared his throat, ready to adopt his most professorial tones. This was one of his favourite games, too. "It's neither, Snape. I like it because Shelley beautifully captures the sense of powerlessness we all feel over our internal demons, our inner monsters."

Snape gave himself pause at that, his mind floating back to Hermione's note, but then let it go. "Oh please, Lupin! It is hardly original or terribly intellectually taxing to create as a literary symbol of the 'monster within' a… what is it again? Oh yes, an actual monster." He folded his arms over his chest and eyed his opponent smugly.

But Lupin surprised him by chuckling. "Oh, Snape," he began, in that mocking tone he liked to use when he thought he was about to score a point. "You think it's the monster that represents our internal demons?" He paused to feign more laughter and dab at his eyes. "You see, old chap, this is precisely where scientists run into trouble when they try to analyse literature – you view everything in black and white."

Snape grimaced. Damn. Cornered again. Lupin was the master at giving vague non-answers in these contests of theirs, while revealing just enough tantalising glimpse of fact that Snape was forced by his own curiosity to ask the requisite follow-up question – All right, what does the monster represent, Lupin? Or, conversely – Who represents our internal demons if not the monster?

But he didn't get a chance to ask those questions, nor to compose a brilliantly witty retort on the virtues of science over literature, because at that moment someone knocked on the partly-open door. At least they both had clothes on, he found himself thinking as a head poked in – but upon seeing who it was, he quickly banished all grateful thoughts.

"Professor - " Hermione began, but stopped upon seeing them both there. "Oh, er- I mean, Professors… um…"

"Hermione!" Lupin cut her off with a broad, welcoming grin and waved her forward. "Come in, come in, you may be interested in this discussion Professor Snape and I were just having."

"Lupin, I don't think this is the time - " Snape began, his lips pressed tightly together.

"Nonsense! Hermione enjoys a good debate, don't you?" He turned to the girl and winked.

She shuffled forward nervously, her eyes darting between the two men.

"We were just debating the plot of Frankenstein," Lupin continued, as Snape winced and turned quickly towards the window.

"Oh, really?" Hermione asked cautiously, a slow smile spreading across her face.

"Yes, now, Professor Snape is being a bit bull-headed over here, insisting that the story is – what was that word you used, Severus?" Lupin turned inquiringly to the other man for a moment, then snapped his fingers mockingly. "Oh, that's right – 'trite,' I believe was the word. But I say the tale has indescribable literary merit. What do you think, Ms. Granger?"

"Oh! Um, yes, well, I quite enjoy Shelley's writing," she ventured uncertainly.

"See!" Lupin clapped his hands in triumph. "I knew that Hermione would agree with me. Looks like you're wrong again, Snape." His eyes sparkled mischievously.

Snape turned away from the window to face them again, his nerves on end, wondering why on earth he should give a damn about this wretched girl's feelings. "Well, 'trite' is a strong word, Lupin," he began awkwardly. "I didn't exactly say that. I just meant that it's a challenging book in its own way, but certainly one that I, er- enjoy… on its own merits, that is." He cleared his throat and glanced between the two of them – they both had expressions of utter bewilderment on their faces.

"Yes, well," Hermione said after a few seconds of pained silence. "I just came to tell you… both… that Harry and Ron have made dinner, so if you'd like to join us…" She trailed off and gave them each one last strained glance, then disappeared out the door.

"All right." Lupin turned to Snape in confusion. "What the fuck was that all about? She's a smart girl, Snape; I've had these conversations with her before! You don't need to dumb down your opinions for her…"

Lupin's words died away as Snape dropped ungracefully into the chair in front of the desk and tossed him Hermione's letter.

He picked it up wordlessly and scanned the page. When he raised his eyes again, Snape was unimpressed to see pure mirth mixed with the expected astonishment.

"And the book?"

Snape nodded.

He stared at Snape for a few seconds, then burst out laughing. "Oh, you've got to be fucking kidding me," he managed at last, wiping his eyes.

"Thanks a lot," Snape snorted.

"Oh, now, don't get like that," Lupin cooed teasingly. "It's not that I don't see the appeal, of course - "

Snape shot him a deadly look.

"Well!" protested Lupin. "You sweep in and out of that classroom with your robes all aflare, with that sexy swish of your hips, and – mmm – that voice of yours, even listing potions ingredients, it's downright erotic." He sauntered behind the desk and placed a hand on either arm of the chair, bending over to whisper in Snape's ear. "If I was in your class, I'd dream about fucking you as well."

Snape moaned softly at the hot breath on his neck, gazing down the open collar of Lupin's shirt, momentarily caught up in a sudden urge to take the man brutally and repeatedly, right on this desk, right that second.

"Hey, Professor Lupin? Prof- Professor Snape?" Ron's tentative voice called from down the hall. "Your beans on toast is getting cold!"

Lupin rose sadly and exchanged a pained look with his lover. "Don't even think about locking that door," he warned. "We're going out there and eating whatever vile concoction they put in front of us, all right?"

Snape grimaced, mentally noting that he would persuade Lupin to make it up to him later. "Fine," he conceded sulkily. "And Ms. Granger?"

"Just act normal," Lupin sighed, running a weary hand over his face. "We can deal with that later. But might I recommend not going to her room tomorrow night?"

"Hilarious," Snape drawled. "You are a true comedian."

Lupin smiled. "We'll talk to her tomorrow," he said. "I'll come with you, if you want."

"I can handle it," Snape sighed, then his lip curled. "I'll make sure she never again thinks that I could be any sort of warm and cuddly boyfriend for her."

Lupin looked at him with some alarm. "Wait – what are you going to say? Don't you dare embarrass that girl, Severus." He shot the other man a warning glare.

"Oh, please, Lupin. You're the one who's always going on about how mature she is. Surely she can handle a frank conversation about why that letter was the single most absurd thing she's ever written in her life."

"No, Snape, don't you fucking dare." Lupin backed away and pointed a long finger at Snape. "Don't you even think of humiliating her! She's sixteen years old, for god's sake – she's full of hormones and uncertain about all the emotions she's having. And if I know her the way I think I do, she probably despises the boys her age. You have obviously captured her imagination, as some vaguely mysterious older man, and she's convinced herself that she's in love with you."

"Yes. A ridiculous notion."

"Ridiculous, yes, but not stupid. Snape, just promise me you won't make her feel stupid. She's at a vulnerable stage."

"Why are you defending her?" Snape snarled suddenly, rising from the chair. "Am I supposed to indulge this letter? Invite her to tea when the new term starts? Let her continue this wretched fantasy of hers?"

"Of course not. But everyone is allowed a lapse in judgement – especially teenagers!" Lupin's eyes darkened as he glared at Snape coldly. "You more than anyone should understand that."

The statement hung in the air like a poisonous fume.

"Yes," Snape finally hissed. "She's right on that path, isn't she? First comes the ill-advised declaration of love for a professor, then her next 'lapse in judgement' will be running off and joining the Death Eaters, hmm? You'll forgive me if I fail to see the connection." His voice was low and quiet, but held a deadly venom.

Lupin raised his chin defiantly. "It could happen, if she's torn to pieces by a man she's come to care about."

"I see." Snape clasped his hands behind his back and gazed at Lupin, calm fury raging behind his eyes. "Then perhaps I shouldn't let her down at all? Perhaps I should go to her tomorrow night, hmm?" He paused and stepped towards Lupin, leaning close to the other man's face, speaking slow and deliberate words. "Perhaps I should do what she's asked, and fuck her?"

Lupin's hands balled into fists at his sides.

"Or, wait…" Snape continued acidly. "Perhaps that's what you want to do? You do seem outrageously fond of the girl, Lupin, inviting her over for book discussions every weekend. Would it be amiss to conclude that you're jealous of her feelings for me?"

Lupin shook his head sadly. "Snape, it's not me who's jealous, and you know it. You have to stop trying to - "

"Remus, what the hell? Do you two want dinner or not?" It was Harry this time, calling down the hallway in an irate voice. "We're not your bloody servants, you know."

Lupin swore under his breath and turned away from Snape. "We can talk about this later," he snapped, striding to the door.

"I can hardly wait," drawled Snape, waiting several seconds before following.

They headed into the kitchen to join the others for dinner.

Chapter 3

CRACK!

Oh. You. Well, you've already gone and ruined my fun, haven't you? Honestly – stealing the 'perfect' gift for one's hopelessly self-involved crush from one's own brothers' fledgling shop! It's heinous, that's what it is. What's that? Didn't steal it! Well, I beg your pardon, little miss smarty-pants, but it certainly didn't look that way to me! Now, since you've already got your gift, what do you expect me to do – tell you he'll like it? Oh, Merlin, I certainly won't do that, oh no, you'll just have to wait and see about that.

But there's someone else who is in much greater need of a gift from you than him, and make no mistake about that. Who? Well, who indeed! My job certainly is not to reveal all secrets to you and make your life easy as pie, is it? No, missy – you still have some work to do, on your own, if you want to find the person most deserving of your gifts. And no, it's not him, not by a long shot. Brush that red hair out of your face and broaden your mind, girl! That's it, there you go. No, broader than that. Broader. Broader…

The occupants of number twelve, Grimmauld Place slept late on the twenty-fourth, breakfasting in small groups that rotated through the kitchen in shifts over the course of the morning, then retreating to various corners of the house to pass the early afternoon playing Wizard's chess, reading, or preparing last-minute gifts.

Lupin awoke to find a note from Snape slipped under his door – Albus had been in touch early that morning, Shacklebolt needed some additional information about a suspected Death Eater in advance of his raid that night, not to hold dinner… and no, he hadn't forgotten, he'd speak to Ms. Granger the following day, and would Lupin mind terribly keeping his own hands off her until then… Lupin crumpled the note up and tossed it in the bin.

Late in the afternoon, they put on their best robes at Lupin's insistence, and gathered in the parlour over several vats of Festive Cheer – the virgin and non-virgin varieties both on hand – before dinner.

Ginny dressed herself carefully in her new robes, the shimmering blue fabric falling off her shoulders in a cascade of colour. She placed a dollop of gloss on her lips and twisted her long hair up in a loose pile on top of her head, fastening it with a silver clip and allowing a few wisps to fall down around her face. After checking all angles in front of the mirror and deciding she looked quite fetching, she headed downstairs with a small box in her pocket.

"Harry?" she said, approaching the object of her affection shyly from across the room.

"What? Oh – hi, Ginny." Harry fumbled with the sleeves of his robes, his eyes darting frantically around the room. They landed on Ron, who looked back, assessed the situation, and gave a helpless shrug – then resumed his attempt to give his gift to a very bored-looking Luna Lovegood.

"I have something for you," Ginny said softly, reaching into her robes for the palm-sized box. "Just something little, you know. Um, Happy Christmas." She blushed and pushed a stray auburn hair out of her face.

"Oh." Harry looked nauseous. "OK, um… thanks, Gin. But you really didn't have to…"

"I know. Just- would you open it?" She smiled up at him.

"Right," Harry managed, looking down at the box and picking the layer of wrapping paper away. He tossed it aside and lifted the lid to see a glittering golden ring lying inside. His stomach dropped to the floor, and he hesitantly raised his gaze to Ginny, forcing a smile. "It's, um- thanks, Ginny. It's nice."

She beamed, then quickly leaned in and placed a kiss on his cheek. She pulled back and blushed furiously. "Happy Christmas, Harry," she repeated.

Bloody hell, Harry thought, taking a deep breath. A flipping ring! What did this mean? Even though he would rather give Snape a personal shampoo than have a chat with Ginny about his utter lack of romantic interest in her, he knew that it had to be done. Now.

"Ginny," he began, his eyes surveying the crowded room. "Um, why don't we go into the kitchen for a minute? I- uh, I want to talk to you."

"Oh! Sure, Harry." Her robes swished around her hips as she followed him out of the room – unaware that Luna's gaze was trained on her back, a frown firmly etched on the other girl's usually placid face.

They reached the kitchen, and Harry shut the door firmly behind them before turning to her solemnly. "Look, Ginny," he began before he could lose his nerve. "I like you, I really do. You're really nice, and, I mean, we've been through a lot together, you know? You- you're really important to me. Like what you said last year that time? You were right: you're the only other person around here who understands what it's like to face Voldemort… and I appreciate that, I really do."

A closed expression fell across Ginny's face.

"But I just…" He sighed and opened the box again, staring helplessly at the shiny golden band. "I can't accept this, OK? A ring is just- it's too much. You're like a sister to me; I can't go out with you. And I definitely can't wear your ring. I- I'm really sorry." He pushed the box back into her hands and chanced a peek at her.

To his surprise, she wasn't crying, and didn't appear overly emotional in any way. Instead, her eyebrows shot up and she assumed a look of pure, bemused incredulity.

Without saying a word, she grabbed the box and pulled the ring out. A soft layer of packaging fell to the floor as the ring was followed by a long white string and an amber-coloured disc. She slipped the band onto the middle finger of her right hand and clutched the disc in her palm. Flashing Harry a loathing smirk, she opened her fingers and let the string unravel, the disc dropping nearly all the way to the floor before yanking itself back up again.

As it rose, a familiar voice sang from the core of it. "Oh my! Hard to get a read on this one… confused, definitely, and wait – is that a hint of embarrassment? Oh yes, there it is, and damned if it's not getting stronger. Pure, unadulterated humiliation, that's what we've got here, Fred."

"Couldn't have said it better myself, George," another voice chimed in. "Would you look at that? I simply didn't think it possible to actually turn the colour of a tomato, but look, he's done it…"

Oh, fuckity fuck, Harry thought in horror. A talking yo-yo?

Ginny deftly caught it again and hid it in her hand to muffle the voices. "It's one of Fred and George's latest inventions," she explained, smirking at him. "Gives you an emotional read on the person you aim it at. Great fun at parties. Reveals all sorts of things that people don't want… revealed." She cocked her head at him, eyes narrowed.

"Ah," said Harry. "Um, I'm sorry, Gin, I thought it was - "

"Yeah," she interrupted. "I know." She rolled the yo-yo up and placed it back in the box, then offered it to him again. "If you think you can accept it, that is," she added frostily.

Harry grimaced. "Yeah. Thanks, Ginny. Uh- do you think we can forget this ever happened?"

Ginny appraised him, arms folded over her chest. "No," she decided. "It needed to be said. Thanks for being honest, Harry." Before he could answer, she turned on her heel and swept out of the kitchen.

He let out a long breath and leaned against the counter, shaking his head miserably. "You're welcome," he muttered to himself, feeling quite like the greatest prat who had ever lived.

He spent several long minutes hiding in the kitchen, feeling sorry for himself and even sorrier for Ginny. Hopefully, he concluded, she would eventually forgive him and they could all move on with their miserable lives. Shaking his head, he gathered his courage and joined the others in the parlour.

He immediately spied Ginny sitting with Luna in a corner, no doubt relaying every detail of what had just happened. Hermione seemed to be consoling Ron on the sofa – and a hasty glance back at Luna confirmed that Ron's gift to her lay half-open on her lap, her attention completely captured now by Ginny and their conversation.

Snape, he noticed with a sigh of relief, was nowhere to be seen. Well, thank Merlin for small miracles.

A hand suddenly landed gently on his shoulder. "Harry?"

He turned to find Lupin watching him uncertainly. "Oh, 'lo, Remus. Happy Christmas," he mumbled. He couldn't exactly pinpoint why Lupin's continued kindness irritated him so much; all he knew was that if the man asked him over to tea one more time -

"I have something for you," said Lupin, bending to retrieve a shoebox-sized package from under the tree.

Oh, great – that Cracker had said that gifts would go to the one person to whom they each most wanted to give them this year… which meant that if Lupin had a gift for him, he must be that person for the man. Bloody hell. Why couldn't he just let it rest, and leave Harry the hell alone?

"It's not- that is… it's not from me," Lupin hurried to explain, as if sensing Harry's thoughts. Harry glanced at him in some surprise, and Lupin scanned the room quickly to make sure the others were occupied in their own conversations before continuing. "It's… from Sirius," he said quietly, dropping his eyes to the package.

Harry's eyebrows shot up. "Sirius? What do you- but, how?"

"He bought it a long time ago, Harry," Lupin explained, shifting his weight slightly. "He saw it back in the spring, and- and he thought you'd like it." He pushed the package into Harry's hands, suddenly looking very awkward without it.

Harry stared at it, his mouth agape. A thought occurred to him, and he raised his eyes to Lupin again, angry this time. "So you've had it all this time, and you didn't give it to me?"

Lupin looked stricken. "I- oh. Well, I knew it was for Christmas, Harry, so… I don't know. You're right. Maybe I shouldn't have waited till now – I'm sorry. Look, why don't you just open it? I think you'll like it."

Harry frowned and said nothing, but started tearing the wrapping paper away despite his reservations. He lifted the lid of the box and vaguely heard Lupin mutter a spell and caught a glimpse of his hand waving.

At once, fourteen tiny figures on broomsticks raced out of the box and positioned themselves just above the coffee table, half of them wearing miniature orange and black robes, the other half grey and white. Another figure followed them a second later, dressed in black and white stripes and clutching a box no bigger than Harry's thumbnail.

"Players, ready?" the tiny referee shouted, as he fumbled to unlock the box. The two teams flew into position and waited anxiously for the signal. "Let's… plaaaaay…. QUIDDITCH!" the referee hollered, drawing out each word dramatically, then tearing the lid off the box and releasing a tiny Quaffle, two Bludgers, and a truly miniscule Golden Snitch.

The parlour occupants had all stopped dead in mid-conversation at the appearance of the players, and now they watched, riveted, as a full Quidditch match unfolded before their very eyes.

"Bloody hell, Remus, it's the Cannons!" Harry's eyes were wide and a grin had broken out of his face. "Ron, look at this!"

"Bloody hell," repeated Ron slowly, eyes glued to the match.

"Each of the real players Charmed their piece individually, so the figures are spelled to play exactly like the originals," Lupin explained. "The opposing team is programmed with a standard spell, but the Cannons are player-specific."

Harry turned to him incredulously. "Really? How did he do that? Sirius never told me he knew Cannons players!"

"Oh, well, he didn't, really… er- just a few, friends of friends from school… it was mostly arranged through the shop – sports stars will do anything for money, you know…" Lupin smiled weakly.

"That must have cost a fortune, then!" Ron exclaimed, tearing his eyes from the match to look at Harry. "It's from Sirius?"

"Yeah!" replied Harry. Having recovered from his initial shock, he was now crouching before the coffee table, eagerly watching the tiny players zip through the air. "Look, Ron, there's Jenkins!"

"Fred and George will never believe this," Ron said, still wide-eyed.

"Nor Charlie," Ginny piped up, joining the boys on the floor in front of the table. "He's the original Quidditch fan. How long will they play for, Remus?" She looked up at him.

"As long as you want them to," he answered, then interrupted them briefly to demonstrate the spells needed to start and stop the match. When he crept out of the parlour a moment later, leaving the group on the floor to watch the spectacle, Harry didn't even notice he had gone.

"I mean, I'm no great chef either, but beans on toast – two nights in a row? Honestly. When the kids said they wanted to cook this week, I didn't think this was the only thing they'd know how to make!" Lupin shook his head sadly as he washed sudsy water over a pot and handed it to Arthur to dry. He paused to reach for his glass of whiskey on the counter and downed a shot before fumbling for another plate.

The other man chuckled. "Sorry I missed it. Molly wouldn't let me come to check on the kids till I'd eaten my share of her steak-and-kidney pie."

"Oh," Lupin moaned, collapsing dramatically against the sink. "Now you're just being cruel. Your wife is easily the best cook in the entire Wizarding World, mate."

"Quit your complaining," Arthur scolded. "Hermione said that if you hadn't been whining so much, she wouldn't have forbidden you from using magic on those dishes."

Lupin grinned despite himself. Hermione seemed an awful lot like Molly at times. After the enforced formality of the afternoon, he'd allowed the kids a casual supper – saving the traditional Christmas feast for the following day.

"And anyway," Arthur pointed out, "you're lucky the kids are here this year, so that Molly has an excuse to cook a goose for you tomorrow."

Lupin's face brightened. "Ah yes! Good man, sending your children to me so that I can lure your wife here to cook my Christmas goose." He furrowed his brow for a moment, then reached for the whiskey bottle. "That didn't sound good," he conceded. "But you know what I mean."

Arthur laughed heartily and took the bottle from Lupin, pouring them both another round. "That's quite all right, old chap. I'd venture a guess that you would much prefer your Potions Master to my wife any day, as far as any cooking of your goose goes?" He appraised Lupin knowingly as he raised the glass to his lips.

Lupin stared at him for a stunned moment, then groaned and threw the dishcloth into the sink with a splash. "How long have you known?" he moaned. "Does everyone know?" He squeezed his eyes shut. "Oh gods, I'll never live this down…"

Arthur chuckled again, settling himself against the counter and sipping his drink. "Now, now, calm down, Remus. I don't think anyone else knows. You two are remarkably discreet."

"Then how…"

"Energy, I guess." Arthur shrugged. "I could just sort of sense it. I've always been quite good at things like that, you know, even back at school." He took another sip and looked thoughtfully at the countertop. "Let's see, there was James and Sirius, you and Snape, Alice and Frank, and even me and Molly – see, I knew she was the one for me, because - "

"Wait - " Lupin choked. "James and Sirius!"

Arthur's mouth clamped shut. "Well, I don't know for sure! I mean, I have no proof, and maybe nothing ever happened, but those two definitely had that energy about them." He smiled and looked at Lupin. "Just like you and Snape have always had. You two weren't together back at school, were you?"

"Gods, no!" cried Lupin. "I hated him back then."

Arthur smiled again. "Oh no, mate, you didn't."

Lupin was silent for a moment, considering this, then he shook his head in disbelief and grabbed the bottle again, raising it straight to his lips. "To your intuition," he toasted Arthur before drinking deeply.

"Careful there, friend," Arthur warned good-naturedly. "I'd rather not carry you to bed." He winked at his friend, before dropping his voice to a more serious tone. "You do realise that he's mad about you, right?"

Lupin coughed. "Snape?" he sputtered. "We… we have a good time, that's all." His features closed off and he resumed his contemplation of the dishes. He did not need to pour his heart out to Arthur about how much Snape meant to him, and how little he figured he meant to Snape.

"It's none of my business," Arthur conceded, backing away slightly with his hands up in a gesture of surrender. "But what I see isn't just 'a good time,' Remus. There's desire pouring off that man in buckets, certainly, and off you too, by the way. But it's also more than that. Much more."

Lupin stared into his empty glass, afraid of what Arthur would see on his face if he looked up.

"You should get some rest," said Arthur gently, placing a hand on Lupin's shoulder as he leaned in to put his glass in the sink. "Molly'll bring that goose over early afternoon, eh?"

Lupin smiled and clapped his friend on the back. "Thanks, Arthur," he said quietly. "Happy Christmas."

CRACK!

Well, let's see, then… who have we got here? Ah yes, I remember you, my dear, quite well, in fact. Oh indeed, we've met before – you don't remember? No, I suppose you wouldn't… you were younger then, just a child, a sad, heartbroken child. It was terrible of her to do it right before Christmas, really, very inconsiderate of her… what's that? Well, don't be silly, child, of course she meant to do it! She was a great witch indeed – no, she'd never gotten a spell wrong in her life before that one. Just never happy with herself, was she? Your poor father – he could never convince her that he loved her just as she was. She was certain she needed to change her nose, her hair, her clothes, everything. Always trying to reach some imagined ideal, wasn't she?

Well, at any rate, I can see already that you aren't like her, are you, dear? No, your father has done a fine job with you, raising a daughter completely oblivious to the seductive charms of that bandit known as self-doubt. Oh, you know exactly who you are and what you want, don't you? Yes, that's very clear to me. So, what are you waiting for? No, forget Diagon Alley – you don't need to spend money in shops to get the perfect gift. You already know what you want to give her for Christmas this year.

What's that? Well, no, you're right, I'm afraid – she's not ready yet. But she will be, my dear, she will be – and sooner than you think. Oh, yes indeed, much sooner. And when she finally realises it, oh! The mountains themselves may as well just collapse into the sea, for none shall ever reach higher than the two of you will, together…

Luna tiptoed quietly down the stairs, careful not to make a sound and alert Ron to the fact that she hadn't gone to bed early, as she'd told him. He and Harry seemed to be involved in yet another round of Wizard's chess, and in between the noise of their clobbering knights or whatever happens in those infantile boy games, Luna had heard the unmistakable sniffling of a distraught young woman trying to keep her sadness to herself.

She crept around the corner to the main sitting room, where the great tree and other decorations had been set up (after the carnage wrought by Ginny's miscast spell had been cleared away), and found Ginny huddled on the floor in the doorway, her knees pulled up to her chest, her face wet with tears.

Despite Luna's attempt at stealth, Ginny immediately sensed her presence and glanced up. She wiped a hand hastily across her face and forced a laugh. "Gods, I'm pathetic, aren't I?" she muttered.

Luna smiled as she settled herself down on the floor beside her friend. "No," she said softly. "You're anything but that."

"Well, go on, then," Ginny said to her bitterly. "Go on and tell me how stupid I am to let a ridiculous boy ruin my Christmas."

Luna laughed quietly. "Oh no, Ginny," she replied. "I couldn't do that. Boys have been ruining Christmases since the beginning of time. You really shouldn't think that yours is the first."

Ginny shook her head and chuckled. "You're so weird," she said fondly, looking up at Luna.

For her part, the episode with Harry had rattled Ginny more than she'd first thought. She hadn't counted on company tonight, but now that Luna was here, she couldn't imagine anyone she'd rather have console her. That girl had such a knack for understanding everything about Ginny, seemingly without even trying. She looked at Luna carefully now, taking in the long blonde hair hanging freely over her shoulders, the shorter wisps framing her round face and bright blue eyes. The twinkling lights from the Christmas tree across the room gave the girl an ethereal glow, and Ginny found herself cocking her head to the side and just gazing at Luna's smooth golden skin for a moment.

"Thanks," answered Luna with ease, as Ginny's eyes snapped back down to her lap. "But Harry was a very bad choice," she added. "He's really quite self-involved. It's not surprising that he assumed you wanted to marry him."

Ginny let out a chuckle despite herself. "Yeah," she agreed. "You should have seen him. 'Uh, you're like my sister, Ginny,' " She did her best tongue-tied Harry impression. " 'Uh, why don't we go fight Voldemort together instead of dating.' " She began to giggle, and Luna joined her.

"See?" Luna said after a moment, cautiously resting a hand on Ginny's knee. "Boys are utterly ridiculous. No offence, but if your brother tells me one more Quidditch story, I might have to hex him."

Ginny snorted. "Yeah. I'd help you," she agreed, falling silent as her gaze dropped to Luna's hand on her leg. A tingling sensation had begun to radiate through her body, from the epicentre of her friend's light touch. She raised her eyes again to Luna's, neither of them speaking for a long moment. Ginny felt soft fingers begin to move against her knee and she gasped.

"You're not like a sister to me, Ginny," Luna told her calmly, pushing a golden strand of hair behind her ear with her free hand. "And I definitely don't want to fight Voldemort with you. I just want…"

She trailed off and clamped her mouth shut as Ginny swallowed, her eyes suddenly drawn inexplicably to that mouth, to Luna's rosy lips, the bottom one held loosely between her teeth. "Luna…?" she breathed uncertainly, clasping her hand over top of the other girl's before she even knew what she was doing.

Luna moved her free hand to Ginny's cheek, cupping it softly.

"Maybe, um… maybe penises are overrated after all, yeah?" ventured Ginny nervously. Her stomach had suddenly fallen completely out of her body, and she felt compelled to keep talking. If she fell silent, if her mouth stopped forming words, she was certain she knew exactly what would happen – what her mouth would do.

Luna didn't laugh, but simply smiled knowingly and nodded. "I've been trying to tell you that," she pointed out, her voice matter-of-fact, but also tinged with a breathy whisper. She started to lean forward, then paused and glanced upwards – to the leafy garland hanging from the arch above the doorway – and grinned mischievously.

Ginny followed her eyes, and suddenly felt something snap in place inside her chest. She lowered her gaze from the mistletoe and appraised Luna with a new feeling of freedom racing through her veins. This wasn't like it was with Harry, not in the slightest… Harry had never looked at her like this… and she had definitely never looked at Harry this way, wanted Harry this way… why hadn't she realised this before?

When their fingers clasped together and their lips met at last, Ginny felt as though the skies had opened up and allowed a sheaf of sunlight through just for her, for them. She revelled in the warmth and golden luminosity, her other hand buried in Luna's hair, and without pause, without anxiety, without apprehension, she embraced the light and let herself fall… down, down, down, forever – never wanting the exquisite feeling to stop.

It was almost midnight by the time Arthur had left and Lupin had finished cleaning up in the kitchen, and the other occupants of the house seemed to be fast asleep. He headed upstairs on wobbly legs, the booze affecting him more than he would have thought.

"Whoa," he called softly to no one in particular, as he grabbed the banister to steady himself. He paused, Arthur's ridiculous words still swimming in his head. Snape, harbouring more than just desire for him? It had begun as just sex, to be sure. Incredible, bone-shattering, breathtaking sex – but just sex, all the same.

Every so often he thought that things had evolved past that, especially since the summer, since Sirius… Well. He hadn't felt much up to shagging right after that, so he hadn't really been surprised to find that Snape had disappeared from the radar. That abandonment might have hurt more than anything else, actually – not that he ever expected Snape to mourn someone he hated so much, nor to endure the tears of those who did.

But it had still taken a long time to forgive that, and only in the past few months had they really settled into an ease with each other that Lupin hoped was more than just sex, but couldn't be sure.

They had never actually talked about it.

Suddenly, standing in the middle of the staircase, clutching the railing as though it held him upright, Lupin felt an unbearable desire to go to Snape, right that second – to ask him, to kiss him, to touch him… to apologise for their stupid argument earlier. And above all, to look into his eyes once and for all and find out where he stood with the man. He knew Snape was here; he'd heard him come in after dinner and go straight upstairs.

Squeezing his eyes shut for a second in an effort to dilute the alcohol in his brain, he bolted up the stairs and turned towards the guest wing. They had sworn to keep their hands to themselves while the kids were in the house, but fuck it – they'd already broken that rule, and anyway, this was too important. He was suddenly possessed with a mad desire to tell Snape everything – to confess exactly how he felt about him, to admit that the man meant more to Lupin than anyone else ever had, and more than anyone else ever would.

He just wished he could remember which bedroom Snape had taken.

He crept silently down the corridor, counting doors. Yes, Harry and Ron were in that one, he decided, and Ginny and Luna were over there, third from the right. Yes! He found it – second door on the left, that must be Snape's. Yes – he remembered putting him as far from Harry as possible.

Whispering a silent prayer that he was about to find out that Snape felt the same way he did about their relationship, Lupin quietly turned the knob and slipped into the room.

CRACK!

Ah, my dear girl! Come here now, don't be afraid, I certainly don't bite – not unless you want me to, hmm? Ouch! That hurt, you over-permed vixen! What, a poor Christmas Cracker isn't allowed to compliment a beautiful lady these days? What's that? Well, of course it was a compliment! And in my day, sixteen was definitely old enough for a great many activities, if you can read between my subtle lines, now… Ow! Stop hitting me! Very well. But perhaps you wish to explain to me why you should be permitted to shamelessly chase a man twice your age, while I cannot pursue a lovely girl who is only… well, at the very most… er- one six-hundredth my age? Hmm? No, I thought not.

Well, then, let's have a look at you. Mmm… very nice indeed… oh yes… ahem. I was looking at your mind, you know, so stop assuming such lecherous things about me. Honestly. Now, where was I? Oh yes. So, we already know who your intended recipient is… oh. Haha. Hahaha. Hahahahahahahaha! Oh, dear me. Frankenstein? Surely you're joking! 'The monster within', I suppose? Oh, hahaha. No, it's not that he won't like it, it's just- hahaha. No, no, it will be fine, really. I'm sure of it. Haha. Off with you! Honestly. The things children come up with these days…

One thousand six hundred eighty-four. One thousand six hundred eighty-five. One thousand six hundred eighty-six. One thousand six hundred eighty-seven…

Hermione opened her eyes and pounded her fists into the bed. It was no use; even the old Muggle remedy of counting sheep was not going to put her to sleep tonight. It was Christmas Eve, for one thing – and yesterday she had invited Professor Lupin to come by and ravage her that night, for another. It was all she could do to maintain a facade of normalcy in front of the others last night and all day today, after she had discovered him and Professor Snape in the library last night, and learned that Professor Lupin had already opened the gift and was indeed quite favourably disposed towards it.

She giggled softly to herself as she thought of him. No, not Professor Lupin… it was Remus now. He let her call him Remus. She rolled the word around on her tongue, savouring its syllables. It was the most beautiful name she'd ever heard. She practiced whispering it out loud, her heart skipping a beat at the thought that she might soon be whispering it to him, calling for him, as he moved over her body…

She shuddered and pulled the blankets up to her chin, a flash of doubt streaking through her. Was this really what she wanted? Was she ready to have sex? With Remus? She'd done a fair bit of research on the issue, of course, and was quite certain she knew what to do, but what if she wasn't good enough for him? What if she did something wrong, and he concluded that she was just an inexperienced little girl with a crush? What if… her stomach rolled over… what if he already had some gorgeous witch his own age that he was seeing, that she didn't know about? What if he already had someone who knew exactly what he liked, how to please him?

No. She knew him well, she decided, from their time together in the library at Grimmauld Place. He had never mentioned a woman. And the way he looked at her… well, sixteen years old or not, she was certain that they had enough in common that they could make this work. She was very mature for her age, everyone knew that. She was perfectly capable of making her own decisions. He would not laugh at her or dismiss her.

He would come to her tonight. She was positive of it. Hadn't he basically said as much, during that strange, veiled discussion about Frankenstein last night? He had winked at her, told her how much he liked the book… of course he couldn't say more than that, not in front of Professor Snape, but Hermione had sensed exactly what he'd meant.

She sighed and threw back the covers, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. This waiting was torturous. She lit a lamp over her bed and wandered over to the mirror in front of her bureau to check her appearance. It wasn't something she normally concerned herself with too much, but tonight was important. She had to look alluring for him. He had to want her.

She had debated getting herself some slippery piece of lingerie for the occasion, but had concluded that it would seem out of place, that maybe he would have second thoughts if he believed she was falsely trying to act older than she was. Instead, she had opted for a sexy-schoolgirl-pyjamas look that she hoped he would appreciate: snug-fitting crimson shorts that barely covered her, and a tight gold tank top that sat very low on her chest.

She regarded herself in the mirror from every angle, nodding with approval. She smoothed her curly hair out of her face and patted the back of it. It was too late to change anything now, she concluded. It would have to do.

Her heart started beating faster as she slipped back into bed and extinguished the torch. Where was he? she thought with impatience.

As soon as she thought it, she heard the door handle turn slowly, stealthily, and a silhouetted man crept wordlessly into her room.

It was happening, she thought with a thrill. It was him, he was here, it was happening.

He moved silently to the bed, his shadow looming over her with promise. "Shhhh," he whispered to her. "It's just me. I know I shouldn't be here, not with this house so full of potential gossipers, but I couldn't stay away. I had to see you tonight."

She pulled the covers up to her chin and nodded, too breathless to speak even if she'd wanted to.

He sat down on the edge of the bed and ran a hand over his face. "Don't say anything, all right? I just- I have some things that I need to say first."

She shivered at his proximity to her and nodded again. He was so warm, settled in beside her like this, so strong, so perfect…

"I need you to know how I feel about you," he began, his voice low and urgent. "I know you might think this is just about sex, but it's not – for me, it's not."

Hermione's breath caught in her throat.

"I know there's desire between us, we both know that – it's so strong it radiates off of us, apparently." He gave a small half-laugh. "I think everyone can sense it, it's that powerful. It's just… look, we both know that what we have is incredible, unique, unbelievable. But there's more than that – there's…" He took a deep breath. "There's also love."

Hermione gasped.

"Shhh – don't say anything yet. Please, this is hard for me. Let me finish." He sighed wearily and placed a gentle hand on the thick blankets over her stomach. "I love you. You're everything I want in my life, and I know we seem like an unlikely pair, but I don't care if people accept us or not. I'm tired of sneaking around, hiding how I feel. I want you – I want to be with you. And I need to know how you feel about me. We've never talked about this, in all this time, and I think it's something we need to do."

He paused, his hand roaming down to Hermione's thigh now.

"You, um- you can say something now," he whispered uncertainly. "Unless I've just gone and fucked this right up and scared you to death with my ill-advised emotional confessions." He forced a chuckle, but Hermione sensed his nervousness.

She tried to speak but found her throat had completely closed off. When she opened her mouth, all that came out was a low moan.

"I'll take that as a positive sign," Lupin said with relief, rising briefly from the bed. Hermione's heart stopped for about the fifth time that night as she watched him pull his jumper over his head, the midnight glow outside the window revealing an impossibly firm torso and powerful chest – but stopping just short of the bed, which remained in shadows.

He climbed back onto the bed, boldly now, straddling her thighs and trapping her body underneath him. All that separated them was the thick winter blanket. "Enough talk," he breathed, his voice low and trembling with desire. "Let me show you how I feel. I need you. I think I've been waiting for you my whole life."

"Oh, Remus!" Hermione exclaimed at last, finding her voice. She sat up and flung her arms around him, planting a deep, passionate kiss on his lips, her arms tight around his shoulders, her tongue slipping easily into his waiting mouth. She thought she would melt into a puddle of pleasure right there on the bed just from kissing him, from hearing his words, his confession of love for her. It wasn't just about sex! As much as she wanted him, she was also delighted to hear that he had fallen for her, for her personality, not just her body. He didn't want to take advantage of this night to have sex with her; he loved her, he wanted to be with her. It was the best Christmas present she could ever have received.

Until she was suddenly pushed back onto the bed as the man in front of her jumped clear across the room, shrieking with alarm. "Aaaaahh! Hermione!" he cried incredulously. "What the hell are you doing here!"

Her eyes bulged. "I- what? What's wrong?" she stammered.

He fumbled against the wall for a second and Hermione heard him whisper, "Lumos!" The end of his wand ignited, bathing the room in a soft white light, and Hermione saw that his face was contorted into an expression of pure shock.

"Remus?" she asked tentatively. "Are you all right? Come back over here, love."

"Hermione!" he hollered. "What the fuck are you doing in this room!"

"Professor!"

"This is no time for polite language, Hermione," he insisted, his breath coming rapidly. "I thought- I- you were supposed to be- oh, fuck." He leaned back against the wall and banged his head into it. "You- you kissed me!" he said accusingly after a moment's pause. "What the hell are you doing kissing me!"

Hermione sat up in the bed, narrowing her eyes at him. "What the fuck - " she drew the unfamiliar word out pointedly - "are you doing coming into my bedroom at midnight, declaring your love for me, and taking your shirt off if you don't want to be kissed?"

"This isn't supposed to be your bedroom!" he cried, then covered his face with his hands. "Oh gods…"

Oh. Oh no. He meant to say… all those things… to someone else. Someone else in this house. Hermione felt a wave of nausea rise in her stomach. But who? Ginny? Luna? Good grief – Harry? She gulped and pushed that thought way, way down. That was impossible.

"But you came because you got my letter," she whispered, wishing she could disappear right into the bed and never be seen again.

He lifted his hand slightly and peeked out. "Your letter," he repeated slowly, his mind obviously working very hard to place that item in his memory.

"My letter!" she cried angrily. "And the book – Frankenstein? Remember? You told me earlier how much you liked it! I thought that meant you were going to come tonight, like I asked you to in my letter!" She fell back against the sheets, tears stinging her eyes. What had happened? Why didn't he get the letter? And more importantly, who the hell else in this house did he want to confess his love to, if not her?

"Your letter," he repeated, comprehension dawning on him. He walked slowly back over to the bed and sat down, maintaining a careful distance from her. "Hermione," he asked gravely, "to whom did you address that letter?"

She looked up at him. "To you, you raving lunatic!" she sputtered. "Who do you think?"

"No," he said slowly. "What precise name did you put on it?"

Her mind raced. Had she not put his name on the blasted thing? Of course she had. "I- let me think. No, I wrote 'Professor' on it… you know, just because you always tease me about calling you that. I thought it would be funny." Her voice died away as she turned her face into the pillow again.

"Hermione," he began, taking a deep breath. "How many professors currently reside at this house?"

"What?"

"Think that one through. Technically, I should no longer be addressed as 'Professor.' Who, then, might have picked up that package if it was addressed to a 'Professor'?"

Hermione's bright eyes widened and her stomach turned over again. "Oh. Oh gods. Not- not - "

Lupin nodded wearily. "Professor Snape showed me that book just before you came into the library yesterday. That's why we were discussing Frankenstein. I didn't know it was intended for me – I didn't see the letter until after you'd left, and we thought it was meant for him. Hermione, I'm sorry about this, it's all my fault. I didn't mean to yell at you."

The tears spilled down her cheeks before she could stop them. "Then you didn't mean to come here? You didn't want- you don't want to be with me?" she asked in a tiny voice.

"Oh, Hermione," Lupin sighed, moving closer to take her hand gently. "I'm sorry, I truly am. It's all been a great misunderstanding, I'm afraid, but I never intended to hurt your feelings."

She sat up suddenly. "But you didn't tell me why you came in here." Her eyes narrowed. "Who were you looking for?"

He looked away.

"I think I deserve an answer!" she shouted, emboldened by the absurdity of the situation, and the fact that he was still sitting on her bed with his shirt off. "You come in here and say all those incredible things to me, and kiss me, and hold me, and come this close to having sex with me - "

Lupin winced.

" - and then you tell me that you didn't mean any of it, that you meant to say those things, to do those things to somebody else! Somebody else in this house!"

"Hermione, keep your voice down," Lupin urged. "Please."

"Who is it?" she cried. "Who is it! I deserve to know, Remus, who is it!" She started to sob again and before she knew what she was doing, her fists were beating against his chest. "I hate you!" she wailed.

"Shhh, please, Hermione, you're hysterical now, just calm yourself down, all right?" He used his most soothing voice as he grabbed her wrists to prevent her from hammering at him. "It's OK, I'm sorry, everything will be all right. We'll sort this out, OK?"

She let out a hiccoughing sob and lowered her head to his chest. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm sorry…"

He wrapped his arms around her and let her sob, stroking her hair with one hand. "Shhh, there there, you'll be OK."

But the odds of things actually turning out all right at that moment took an unfortunate plunge as a sharp knock came at the door, and a group of alarmed people burst in.

"Hermione! We heard you yelling – are you all right? What's wrong?" Harry stopped dead in his tracks as his eyes took in the scene before him, illuminated by Lupin's wand, which was lying on the bureau, still radiating light.

Ron was right behind him, and let out a well-timed, "What the hell is this!" as he too appraised the scene – Hermione, is a revealing tank top, being cradled in the arms of her shirtless former professor, who was stroking her hair and whispering in her ear.

They jumped apart as the door flung open, but that only seemed to confirm their guilt. At least, that seemed to be the verdict of the third figure who appeared in the doorway after Harry and Ron, clutching a hastily-donned robe to his lanky frame.

Lupin jumped off the bed and glanced quickly at Hermione, himself trying to visualise how the scene must look to the newcomers, before turning desperately to the man at the door.

"Severus," he pleaded, striding across the room. "No, this is not what you think – this isn't anything! We were just talking, I was just - " Why did he have to have his fucking shirt off! He knew his arguments sounded ridiculous. There was no explanation for the situation that Harry, Ron, and Snape were witnessing. None at all.

"Nice work, Remus," Harry spat at him, as Snape continued his unbearable silence. "I don't ask for a whole lot from you, but keeping your hands off my best friend – a sixteen-year-old girl, by the way! – is a bit too much for you, I see. You're disgusting."

"Harry, for god's sake, you don't know what you're talking about!" Lupin cried.

"Hermione, are you OK?" called Ron, hurrying over to her.

"I'm fine!" she said in exasperation, wiping the tears from her face. "Would all of you please get out of my bedroom now? All of you?" She gave Lupin a pointed look.

Ron stopped in front of the bed and bent down, retrieving Lupin's jumper. "Is this yours, Professor?" he hissed, tossing it at Lupin.

The man caught it deftly and stormed to the door. Snape continued to block it for a moment, his ink-stained eyes cutting viciously through Lupin's. Then, without a word, he moved aside to let Lupin through.

Lupin paused to glance between the three of them, shaking his head angrily. "You're all fucking lunatics, you know that?" he spat, before pushing past them and out the door, hurrying down to the master bedroom and slamming the door behind him.

Chapter 4

CRACK!

Oh, Merlin's testicles – what have I done to deserve you? You put that wand away right this second, you gothic nightmare! Oh, I did not sign on for this when I agreed to help old Albus out this Christmas, no sir. There's not a favour in the Wizarding universe one can call in that would make me deal with your black-hearted, greasy-haired, dead-soulled – but, wait. Wait. You're not him – what have you done with him, you rogue impostor? I know that traitorous, nasty bastard with one glance, and you look like him, but… this is ridiculous. Since when did you grow a soul? A heart? Oh, but Albus has some serious explaining to do about you, and that's for certain. What's that? Don't tell Albus what? That you suddenly appear to be human? That you- oh. Oh my. It's not just that, is it? There's a reason for this change in you since we last met. No, don't tell me, I'll figure it out.

I SAID, PUT THAT WAND AWAY!

Honestly, trying to hex a poor Christmas Cracker – it's just sad, that's what it is. Hmm, let me see now… turn around, please. Oh, shove your bloody Occlumency where the sun don't shine, would you? It won't help you here anyway – I'll find what I'm looking for in you. I always do. Oh yes, there it is. Well, would you look at that! A thousand years in this business and still, wonders have not ceased. You, my reigning prince of darkness, are in love. Oh! Ha ha! This really is just too rich! Wait until I tell the other Crackers, they won't believe me till the day I die.

YOU REACH FOR THAT WAND ONE MORE TIME AND I'LL SCREAM TO THAT ENTIRE PARLOUR THAT EVERYONE'S FAVOURITE DOUBLE AGENT HAS A BOYFRIEND!

Ahem. I'm sorry, but you really shouldn't try my patience like that – it's a very stressful time of year for me, you know. All right, now let's see. You need to get him a Christmas present, I suppose? Something that tells him exactly how you feel, without being overly sentimental… oh, dear me. That's what you propose? – pardon the pun, of course. Well. Give me a moment; I certainly wasn't expecting that. You know, you might actually have an idea there. No, I still don't like you, and make no mistake about that, but I can see that you genuinely want this – even more than you're willing to admit to yourself, and certainly more than you'll ever admit to him, the poor sod. I just hope he knows what he's getting into. Oh – ah! Gracious me, he most certainly does, I see.

Well. I suppose I should hope that you're happy together, then. He can obviously do better, of course, but if he insists on you, well, who am I to oppose it? You'll fuck it up, naturally, and sooner than you think – what, Crackers aren't allowed a little sailor tongue in stressful situations? – ahem. Yes, it almost won't happen, you'll have to do some very serious persuading, I see, but after that, well, I cannot predict, of course, but I daresay even you might find happiness for yourself… Yes, fine, you may go now, you rotten creature, so sorry to have bothered you. Honestly.

When Lupin rose the next morning, having finally fallen into a fitful sleep only at dawn, he expected that Snape would long since have fled the house – and him – forever. He was therefore startled to find the man leaning pensively against the counter in the kitchen, sipping a cup of black coffee.

"You're still here," Lupin observed. He was determined to stay calm, to explain what had happened the night before and not to rise to Snape's baiting. The man loved to pick fights, Lupin reminded himself, steeling his frayed nerves for battle.

"Don't worry, I'm leaving," Snape replied coldly. "You weren't supposed to be up this early."

"Not surprisingly, Snape, I couldn't sleep," Lupin shot back.

"But that is surprising," Snape said in a silky drawl. "Didn't Ms. Granger tire you out?" He raised his cup to his lips and eyed Lupin over the rim.

Lupin swore and turned away. "Stop it, Snape," he said after a moment's pause. "This is ridiculous. You can't honestly believe that I did anything with that girl last night."

"Didn't look that way."

"I said, stop it! I haven't touched a girl in twenty years, and you know it – it was a mistake, all right? I thought it was your room, you prat! I was coming to find you." Lupin threw his hands up in exasperation and leaned into the opposing counter.

"After insisting I keep my hands off you while the children were here?" Snape snorted.

"Yes! I- I changed my mind."

"Clearly."

"No!" Lupin banged a hand on the counter. "We already broke that rule anyway, why are you bringing that up – why are you doing this? It's fucking Christmas Day. What's this really about?"

Snape threw his empty cup into the sink with a clatter and advanced on the other man, his eyes glittering. "What is this really about?" he hissed. "This is about your complete and utter disregard for our relationship. This is about your insistence on spending your days, your nights – your life – with everyone but me. This is about how fucking tired I am of playing second fiddle to Black, or Potter Junior, or now Granger – to whomever you've decided needs you more than I do. This isn't about sex, Lupin – while your excuses may be appallingly weak, I fully believe you did not actually shag the girl. But that is not the point, not by a long shot."

He paused briefly to catch his breath. Lupin was watching him with an expression of utter shock on his face, unable to speak.

"This is about me refusing to be your convenient fuck-buddy anymore," he continued quietly. "I will not be relegated to a guest bedroom like some embarrassing elderly relation when your bloody orphans come to stay. I will not sneak you into the dungeons anymore for a quick shag, then allow you to leave right after to come back here and pore over old photo albums with the hippogriff. You are mine, Remus – I want you, only you, all of you."

Lupin could hardly breathe as he watched Snape plunge a hand into his robes and produce a tiny lacquered box. He hesitated a second, then slammed it down on the counter.

"Here, you insufferable git. Happy fucking Christmas." He swept out of the kitchen then, before Lupin could find his voice to stop him. Lupin heard the front door slam and Mrs. Black's portrait start wailing. He closed his eyes in an effort to push down the emotion wrenching through his stomach.

Oh holy Merlin.

He opened them and turned to look at the small box on the counter, reaching for it with shaking hands. He pulled his wand out and tapped it lightly, muttering a spell to unseal the edges. The box lifted out of his palm and rotated in the air a few times before its lid opened and it settled back into his hand.

A sob welled up in his throat before he could stop it, as he stared in disbelief at the two white gold bands lying together against the snowy interior of the box. The head of a serpent and the body of a lion merged seamlessly in an ornate yet stunningly simple design. Oh, Severus, he thought as his chest constricted painfully.

Commitment rings.

CRACK!

Oh good, the Wizarding World's reigning Boy Who Just Keeps Living, hmm? Honestly. Skulking around here as though your life is really so horrible. What's that? Well, it is not, you pouting infant! Look around you – everyone in this house, not to mention several thousand people beyond it, would give their lives for you without asking a single question of it, and here you are, in your usual –

Oh. Well, all right. Perhaps that was insensitive of me. You never asked him to give his life for you, I know. You never asked your parents to do it either, though, did you? So stop dwelling. What's done is done, and it's Christmas, my lad! Now, let me have a look at you. Mm-hmm, very interesting. What? I most certainly am nothing like that plebeian Sorting Hat! Ahem. Now stand still. Yes, very well – so, you know exactly to whom you most want to give a gift this year, hmm? A book? Oh, sweet Merlin. Yes, that will get her attention – I'm sure she's never had anyone give her a book before.

Might I suggest that you simply tell the girl how you bloody feel? Well, why not? Oh, very well. Go off with that mate of yours and pick up some Chocolate Frog cards for your girlfriends – that will certainly impress them. Honestly. Off with you! I have no time for spoiled brats who refuse to listen to my impeccable advice…

Hermione approached the door cautiously and knocked before she could lose her nerve.

"What?" a voice snapped from inside.

"Harry, it's me," she called. "Please, can I come in?"

She heard a snort in the room and took it as an affirmative answer. Pushing the door gently open, she stepped into the room to find Harry and Ron sitting cross-legged on one of the beds, studiously engaged in a game of Wizard's chess.

"Oh, look who it is," Ron called loudly. "The whore of Hogwarts."

"Shut up, Ron," said Harry quietly, looking up at Hermione.

She winced and pressed her lips together, watching them carefully but not daring to speak. What could she say? No one spoke for a long moment.

"Look," Harry began at last, "we're just… surprised, is all. Why didn't you tell us about you and Remus?" he asked her, a pained expression on his face.

"Because there's nothing to tell!" she exclaimed, pulling out a chair from a nearby desk and collapsing into it. "Nothing happened last night, all right? Nothing's ever happened."

Ron eyed her suspiciously. "Not yet, yeah? But he wants to, I bet. What's he been telling you, Hermione? That you need an older man because you're so mature? That you should let him go to bed with you? Aaargh!" He let out an indistinct howl and pounded his fist into the bed. "What a disgusting old prat he is, preying on a teenage girl! Especially when he knows how Harry feels about - "

Harry shot him a look of pure, deathly loathing and Ron's mouth clamped shut. "No, he doesn't know that," he muttered to Ron through gritted teeth. "And neither does she."

Ron's face went pink. "Aw, fuck. Sorry, mate," he whispered.

"How Harry feels about what?" Hermione repeated slowly, her eyes darting between the two boys.

"Um, Ron," said Harry, looking slightly green, "maybe you should go and um, wish Ginny and Luna a Happy Christmas?"

"Right," Ron muttered, scrambling off the bed. "Right - " He bolted for the door. "Uh, Happy Christmas, Hermione," he called over his shoulder.

Harry ran a hand through his tousled hair after Ron had left, exhaling dramatically and chancing a peek at the girl across from him. "Um, so you…" he began, swallowing thickly. "You fancy him, then? Remus, I mean?"

Hermione sighed and looked out the window. "I don't know, Harry," she replied. "I did, you know, until last night… I convinced myself that he let me come over here to borrow books so often because he was interested in me."

"But he's, like, forty years old!" exclaimed Harry with disgust.

She shot him a look. "He's thirty-six," she said, sniffing, "and I don't expect you to understand, but I just, I don't know…" She blushed as she turned back to the window, too embarrassed to meet Harry's eyes.

"OK, Hermione, OK," Harry said softly. "You don't have to explain."

She sighed with relief.

"But can you tell me what happened last night? I just- why did he have his shirt off, if you weren't- if - " He stopped and looked down at his hands.

Hermione took a deep breath and swallowed her pride. She might as well tell him. Besides, she was still nearly paralysed with curiosity about who exactly Lupin had intended to seek out last night, and maybe Harry would have some insight. She turned to face him and relayed the whole sordid tale, or as much of it as she knew – writing the letter and wrapping the book, mistakenly leaving it for Snape instead of Lupin, then thinking it was all about to happen when Lupin showed up in her room, taking his clothes off and declaring his love for her.

Harry sat stock-still through the whole thing, letting the silence linger in the air when she had finished. "You… you were going to… let him do that… with you?" he whispered at last.

She nodded, feeling her cheeks colour again. "Oh, Harry, it was a foolish girl's mistake, I see that now! Please tell me you don't think less of me for this – that you don't think I'm a- a- whore." Her eyes filled with tears.

Harry scrambled off the bed and took her hand in his, leading her back to sit with him. "No, nobody thinks that. Don't listen to Ron, he was just upset – he thought Remus was taking advantage of you."

She sniffled and nodded. "But Harry, that's not even important anymore – what I need to figure out is whose room he thought he was going to!" Her eyes dried instantly as her brain found itself with a mystery to solve. "There's someone in this house that he's been – argh! – having sex with, and he wanted to tell them that it's more than just sex, that he loves them – her, I mean. But who? It can't be Ginny or Luna, can it?" She turned desperate eyes on Harry.

But he surprised her by bursting into laughter. "Hermione," he said sternly, "part of the reason I was so shocked last night was because Sirius had told me that Remus… um… "

"What?" Hermione pressed, her eyes wide.

"Well, that he doesn't exactly go for the ladies."

Hermione's face turned angry. "So I'm right! He is a perverted old sod who's probably after poor Ginny – she's the youngest of us, and - "

"Hermione!" Harry was laughing uncontrollably now. " 'Cleverest witch of your age,' yeah? First, he strangely wasn't a 'perverted old sod' when you thought he was after you, and second, what I meant was, he doesn't go for the ladies or the teenage girls."

He watched her with amusement as his words sunk in. It took quite awhile.

"You mean… he's… gay?" Her lip trembled.

Harry wiped his eyes. "Oh, you are truly unbelievable. It really never occurred to you? He's always reading about bloody Oscar Wilde, for one thing, not to mention the fact that he can't take his eyes off Snape whenever he's here. No offence, Hermione, but it's really not all that shocking that he wasn't into you."

Hermione's brain was clearly overtaxed from trying to process all this information. "Gay? Wait – Oscar Wilde! Of course, that was the scandal… and, oh gods – Snape? Is that who…" Her eyes threatened to pop out of her head.

Harry leaned over and pulled her into his arms, still chuckling. "Well, I don't know for sure, but by process of elimination, and considering I really don't think Remus would fancy shagging me or Ron, then yes, my best guess would be that he was aiming for Snape's room last night."

Hermione groaned into Harry's shoulder. "Oh gods, that reminds me – Snape still thinks my letter was for him! Oh… this is a disaster…"

"Not to mention," Harry pointed out, "you probably put a significant dent in their relationship – if, indeed, they have a relationship - " he paused to grimace - "when he saw Remus in bed with you."

She pulled back and looked at him. "Oh no! You're right! What if I- what if I've ruined everything for Remus! Oh Harry, I have to go to Snape, I have to explain - "

"Hermione! Remus will sort it out, I'm sure. Do you really want to have that conversation with Snape?"

She paused for a moment, then started to laugh. "No," she managed between giggles, "I don't." She sighed and looked at him. "Harry?"

"Mmm?"

"Is that why you don't like Remus anymore? Because Sirius told you that?"

Harry looked startled. "No! I mean, I don't think so."

"Then what is it? You two used to be friends, didn't you? Before Sirius came back and everything?"

Harry was silent for a moment. "Yeah. I don't know. I'm just tired of all these guys that knew my dad… all his friends suddenly showing up and trying to… I don't know." He frowned and looked away.

"Be your dad?" Hermione prompted in a soft voice.

He nodded. "And it's not fair, you know, that they all knew him – that Remus knew him, and gets to remember him – hell, he didn't even tell me, all that year at school, that he was best mates with my dad – he knew him, and I didn't… I don't." His voice trailed off. "And anyway, where was he all my life? He waited till I was thirteen to show up, and now I'm supposed to instantly bond with him? I just… it makes me mad, is all."

Hermione nodded as she settled back into Harry's chest and let him wrap his arms around her. They were both silent for awhile.

"This is nice," she ventured at last, her voice barely a whisper. She immediately felt Harry tense up.

"Yeah," he said nervously, "it is."

"Harry?"

"What?"

"Um, what did Ron mean, about Remus knowing how you feel about… well, was it about me?" Her stomach did a little flip as she waited for him to answer.

He took his time, clearly unsure about what to say – or, rather, how much to admit. "Yeah," he said at last. "But he was wrong, I've never told Remus about it," he added.

"But you… you want to be with me?" She raised her head from his shoulder and looked into his eyes.

He bit his bottom lip and nodded. "I mean, I don't know, and I don't want to mess things up for us, but… you know. You're- you just… know me."

She smiled and felt more peaceful than she had for months. He was right – she did know him. And this just felt good. Before she could think about what she was doing, she leaned forward and brushed a kiss across his lips. She pulled back gently and watched his face as the blush rose in his cheeks.

"Hermione," he breathed, pulling her close and burying his face in her curly hair.

She stroked his back and nestled into his neck, enjoying the feel of his breath on her ear. They stayed like that for a moment, just holding each other, Hermione wondering why on earth she had never thought to do this before. She suddenly couldn't imagine not doing this; the entire past twenty-four hours were suddenly a blur.

"I'm not having sex with you right away, you know," she warned, a smile tugging at her lips.

He jerked his head up and looked at her in surprise, then grinned broadly. "Damn," he muttered. "But I thought you were the whore of Hogwarts?"

He laughed as she took a swipe at his arm and he fell back onto the bed, pulling her down with him. "I don't care about that," he whispered a moment later. "Will you just… lie here with me for a bit?"

"That sounds nice," she said, snuggling in beside him. A thought occurred to her and she lifted her head slightly. "Is this your gift to me?" she asked shyly.

He was silent for a moment, then nodded, leaning in to place a light kiss on her forehead. "Yeah. Is that all right?"

"More than all right." She buried her head in the crook of his neck and let him wrap his arms around her. His breathing evened out after a few minutes, and Hermione figured he had fallen asleep. This was nice, she concluded happily, stroking his back. This was definitely something she could get used to.

But first, she thought with a rush of impending doom, she still had unfinished business with her Potions professor.

"Ho Ho Ho! Happy Christmas to all the Hogwarts boys and girls, Ho Ho - "

Santa Claus stepped uncertainly out of the fireplace and glanced around the kitchen. Cool brown eyes finally rested on the room's lone occupant, a despondent-looking man collapsed against the counter near the sink, his eyes glued to the floor.

He yanked his head up in surprise at the sound of the intruder, then his face progressed through a parade of expressions – from surprise, to confusion, to disbelief, to amusement. He finally broke out laughing, taking whatever small object he'd been clutching in his palm and stowing it safely in his pocket.

"Minerva!" Lupin cried, chuckling in astonishment. "What on earth are you wearing?"

Minerva McGonagall frowned as she dusted the ash and Floo powder residue from her bright red, fur-trimmed robes, her matching hat, and her bushy white beard.

Ron walked through the kitchen door at that moment, yawning and scratching his stomach, and glanced casually at McGonagall. "Nice beard, Professor," he said, smirking.

He was followed by Ginny and Luna, who also appraised their Deputy Headmistress with uncertainty.

"You seem to be trying to look like Santa Claus," Luna said to her thoughtfully, taking a seat at the table, "which is quite absurd, since you aren't a man."

McGonagall sighed dramatically and pulled her wand out, waving it in front of her face and muttering a muffled incantation. The beard dissolved instantly, revealing her usual disdainful scowl. "Obviously, the Headmaster is best suited to this task - " she began icily, tearing the hat off her head.

"He does have a better beard than you," agreed Luna, ignoring the murderous look McGonagall threw her.

" - but he's obliged to play that role at Hogwarts," she continued. "We have an unusually large number of first-years staying over Christmas this year, so Albus thought it best to pull the full Santa act for them."

"Ah," Lupin replied, running a hand over his weary face and forcing a smile - "leaving you to play the role for us, hmm? Very sporting of you, Minerva, thank you."

"Yes, well, I was rather expecting a cheerier lot here this morning, I must say! Where are the others? Why is there no tea made? Remus, what are you giving these children to eat?" She glared at him accusingly.

"Oh," Ron said loudly, "he's been busy, Professor." He crossed his arms and cast a scathing look at Lupin.

"The children are eating just fine, Minerva," Lupin muttered, meeting Ron's nasty stare with one of his own. "Molly's sending over a goose later for dinner."

"I see," she murmured, clearly unconvinced.

"Professor," Luna's airy voice interrupted, "why did you conjure a beard in order to play Santa Claus for us?" She gazed evenly at McGonagall, and Lupin looked relieved at this diversion of the conversation away from his lack of culinary expertise.

"Because," McGonagall replied slowly, seemingly unsure whether the question was serious or not, "Santa Claus has a beard."

Luna sighed. "Perhaps if he's a man he does," she pointed out, as Ginny broke into a grin beside her. "But you aren't a man."

"No, Ms. Lovegood. Ten points to Ravenclaw for noticing that despite my advanced Transfiguration skills, I have yet to change myself into a man." She glared at Luna with impatience and started to turn back towards Lupin.

But Luna wasn't finished. "I think that Christmas needs a lead female figure."

Ron rolled his eyes. "That's what Mrs. Claus is for, Luna," he told her, as if this were obvious.

"No," a new voice broke in as Hermione stepped into the kitchen, "she's right, Ron. Mrs. Claus is just Santa's wife – she has no identity of her own."

Luna nodded. "You know, my father told me that in Russia they have some kind of snow maiden instead of Mrs. Claus. And she's not anyone's wife. She can do as she likes."

Ginny piped up then, giggling. "I don't know about that, Luna," she said. "I've read about her, too, and it looks like she might have a really inappropriate relationship with old Santa there. It's kind of gross," she added. "He's old enough to be her grandfather!" She laughed outright for a second before noticing the awkward silence that had settled on the room.

Lupin and Hermione were both gazing studiously at the floor, Ron's eyes darted suspiciously between them, and McGonagall seemed entirely unsure of what to do with any of the lunatics in this group.

"Thank you for the cultural lesson, girls," she began haltingly, as Luna looked up at her and smiled. "In future years I will, er- try to conjure a gender-appropriate costume, hmm? Now - " she trained her eyes on Lupin - "you have everything under control here, Remus?" Her tone of voice made it very clear that she did not believe anything could be further from the truth.

"I do, Minerva," he managed, pushing himself away from the counter with great effort and forcing a smile. "Thank you for checking in. Happy Christmas to you, hmm? And give our regards to Albus."

She nodded. "I shall indeed. Now, er- if you all would excuse me…" Her gaze swept across the room one more time, then she instantly morphed into her feline form and scurried out a nearby window.

"Ronald?" Luna piped up sweetly, "why don't you show Ginny and me that marvellous Quidditch magazine again?" She pushed her chair back and headed for the door, beckoning the two Weasleys to follow her. "I have so many questions about that Golden Snitch."

"Right!" Ginny chimed in, scrambling out of her chair and following, jerking her head towards the door when she caught Ron's eye. "You're such an expert, Ron," she cooed.

"What? You're better at Quidditch than I am, Ginny!"

The two girls glared at him.

"Oh, right." Ron glanced at Hermione for a moment, clearly unwilling to leave her alone with Lupin, but she smiled gently at him.

"It's all right, Ron," she insisted. "I'll be up in a sec, OK? I'd like to see that magazine, too."

Ron let his eyes linger on her a moment longer, then got up and followed Luna and Ginny. "Yeah, all right," he mumbled, then called loudly over his shoulder at Lupin - "Yep, Quidditch is a great game for girls to learn when they're sixteen. Oh yeah, sixteen is too young for girls to do a lot of other things, but they can play Quidditch, that's for sure - "

"Oh, stop it…" Ginny whispered, pushing him ahead of her and out the door.

Lupin let it close all the way before turning to Hermione. He took a deep breath. "Look, Hermione, I really do apologise for last night. I never meant - "

"No, Remus, really." Hermione stopped him. "Don't apologise. I'm the one who owes you an apology, for sticking my nose in your business and asking you all those questions..."

"You had a right to be curious, after what I did," he replied, looking at her sheepishly. "I guess I should be honest with you, since you've been so honest with me."

"No." She shook her head. "You don't have to say a thing. It's your business."

He eyed her warily for a moment, then nodded. "All right, thank you, Hermione. I appreciate that."

Neither of them spoke for several seconds, Lupin staring intently out the kitchen window, Hermione straight at the floor.

"We're doing an outstanding job of avoiding the real issue here," said Lupin at last, crossing his arms over his chest and turning his gaze back to her.

"Yeah," she agreed in a small voice. "Do you mind if we keep it up awhile longer?" Her face coloured.

"Yes," he replied kindly, "I'm afraid I do. Hermione," he began, "you're a wonderful girl, and I'm very fond of you…"

Hermione shook her head sadly. "Please, Remus, don't give me this speech!"

"I have to," he insisted. "Just listen for a moment, all right?"

"No, please," she moaned, covering her face with her hands. "I made a mistake. I- I let a crush get the better of me. It- um, it won't happen again." She chanced a peek at him, and he laughed.

"Hermione, I'm flattered, you know. I really am. Any man would be thrilled to have your affections." He smiled warmly at her. "But I'm quite simply too old for you, even if I wasn't already involved with someone else."

She nodded wearily, and neither of them bothered to point out the other reason he wasn't interested in her.

"Yeah, I understand. Um, can I go now?"

"Of course." He smiled at her sympathetically. This was, without a doubt, one of the more uncomfortable conversations he'd ever had – he winced thinking about that letter, in which she had practically begged him to shag her, and now he was making her stand here while he tried, most ineloquently, to let her down easy. It had to be beyond humiliating for her. "Dinner's at three, OK? You can tell the others."

"All right," she agreed, heading quickly towards the door. "And, um- Happy Christmas."

He stifled a bitter laugh. "Happy Christmas, Hermione," he called behind her, shaking his head and wondering just how immoral it would be to perform a very strong Memory Charm on the lot of them, so that they could all blissfully forget the sorry events of the night before.

CRACK!

A Quidditch magazine and a box of Chocolate Frogs? That's what you've gotten her? I know you're a bit short on cash, laddie, but are you short on imagination, too? Oh. I see that you are. Very well, then – it's probably best that you don't waste your money on her, since she'll never go out with you anyway. Oh, pshaw 'last year'! You're sixteen! A year is a lifetime. It certainly has been for her, you know. Well, anyway, give her your gifts, they're lovely, but for Merlin's sake stop stalking her. And when she reveals there's someone else, I suggest very strongly that you neither laugh, nor cry, nor hurl sharp objects in their direction, hmm? Your girl is out there somewhere, my lad. But it's not her, I'm afraid. It's just not her.

"Professor Lupin?" a timid voice called, as an apprehensive hand knocked on the door of the library.

Lupin sighed as he raised his head from the desk and ran a hand through his hair. Was there not a moment's peace and quiet to be found in this house? He quite had his hands full, what with trying to keep Harry's hatred of him at a tolerable level, Hermione's emotional vulnerability under control, Arthur's words the night before from driving him to the brink of lust-fuelled insanity, and, of course, Snape's gift – a marriage proposal, for fuck's sake – and subsequent refusal to speak to him from making his heart ache so badly he could barely stand it. Was it too much to ask for a few minutes alone in his own bloody library?

"I- I'm sorry to bother you, but, um, do you have a second?"

He frowned. It didn't sound like Hermione, at least – that was a relief. "Of course, come on in," he called wearily. He was surprised to see Ginny Weasley appear at the door, carefully clicking it closed behind her and gazing at him with an unreadable look on her face. Lupin's eyes darted around frantically. Oh, please not another teenage girl looking to seduce me, he thought with alarm. What in flying hell did I do in a past life to deserve a sentence as the older-man crush of choice for the young witches of Hogwarts?

"What's up, Ginny?" he asked pleasantly, leaning back in his chair and quickly checking to make sure his collar was buttoned as far up as it could be. Snape had always told him that his neck and collarbone were the first parts of his body that had led to Snape's undoing – before he'd had the pleasure of being introduced to the other parts, of course. He smiled as he thought of it, and relaxed into the chair. No problem, he thought, coming to an instant decision. If the girl tries to declare her love for me, I'll just tell her about Snape. That should frighten her off for good.

"Well," Ginny began, moving to take a chair beside Lupin. "This is a bit awkward, but I wanted to talk to you about something."

Merlin's fucking Christmas pudding, Lupin thought sadly, his head dropping ungracefully into his hands.

"Er- Professor? Are you OK?"

He didn't figure this was the best time to encourage familiarity with the girl and remind her to call him Remus.

"I- I can come back, I just, I thought you might be able to help me."

"No, Ginny, it's fine." He might as well confront it head-on. "But I should tell you first that as a general rule of thumb in my life, I don't date teenage girls." He chuckled suddenly. "Never have, in fact."

Ginny looked around uncertainly. "Um, I know that. That's, er- why I'm here."

He raised his head.

"I mean, I know you keep your private life to yourself, and I totally respect that, but I just, well, something's happened – um, to me, that is, and I- well, I thought maybe you could give me some advice."

His brow creased. His private life? What the hell could she possibly have to talk to him about that concerned his -

Oh.

He gave her a long look then. She was anxious, that was for certain, and apprehensive about something. But she also had a flush to her cheeks, an excitement to her eyes… He took a deep breath, his sensitive nose working to decipher the scent she carried. Ah, there is was. Love. But not for him.

He leaned back and smiled at her. "Of course, Ginny – or, at least, I can try. I'm sorry, I thought you were here about something else."

She wrinkled her nose as she considered him, thinking back to what he'd just said to her, then she laughed. "Oh, gods no!" She shook her head. "Don't worry, Professor, I'm definitely not trying to date you." Her eyes glittered mischievously, and Lupin felt the colour rise in his face.

"Sorry," he grunted. "Wait, does everyone know about that, then?" He looked up at her sheepishly.

"Er- yes," she admitted. "Ron told us this morning. He said, um- well, that Hermione's frantic, trying to figure out whose room you meant to go to." She laughed outright at that.

Lupin shifted uncomfortably. So much for keeping his blasted private life to himself.

"Like that's hard to figure out!" She gasped and clutched at her sides. "She thinks it was me or, ha ha - " she almost couldn't speak now, she was laughing so hard – "or, or Luna!" She wiped her eyes and giggled, trying to compose herself.

Lupin chuckled despite himself. He was fairly certain he knew where this was going, but there was no sense counting his chickens yet – not five minutes ago he'd been quite wrong in his first guess. "Enlighten me," he replied, eyebrows raised. "Why is that funny?"

Ginny instantly sobered. "Oh. No, Professor, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you, it's just that, well, the thought of you wanting me or Luna – or any teenage girl, as you just said – and then after what's happened with me and Luna, well, Hermione's just not very observant, is she?" Her mouth twisted into a wry smile, and Lupin was suddenly reminded very much of Arthur. Despite maintaining an aura of innocence and even naiveté, that man knew exactly what was going on around him. And so, apparently, did his daughter.

"Call me Remus, Ginny," he said softly. "And can I wager a guess that you're here because you want to tell me what's happened between you and Luna?" He looked at her with kind eyes.

Her cheeks caught fire then and her gaze dropped to her hands. She nodded.

"All right, I'm listening," he prodded gently, wondering vaguely when he had assumed the position of teen counsellor to the newly gay at Hogwarts, then remembering that Snape wasn't exactly likely to fill the role if he didn't. He stifled a laugh at the thought.

Ginny looked up at him, a shy smile on her lips. "She kissed me last night."

Lupin felt himself smiling back. What a happy pair they would make, he thought, but then he immediately clamped down on his enthusiasm. Ginny still had a significant family hurdle to overcome if this was going to be her life. "That's wonderful, Ginny," he said cautiously. "Were you surprised by this?"

Ginny considered the question. "I guess a little," she admitted. "But I can hardly even remember now what I thought before it, or during it. All I know is that afterwards, it was like…" She sighed and collapsed back against her squashy chair, a dreamy look on her face. "It was like it's always been this way between us, like we've always been meant for this, you know? I can't remember yesterday, or the day before – I can't imagine how we lived without this."

Lupin almost teared up at her words. He was suddenly assaulted by memories of his own first kiss, first real kiss, his awakening… it had been like coming home after years of aimless wandering, and suddenly, nothing before it made sense, nothing before it felt right. He understood exactly what Ginny meant.

He found himself nodding at her. "I know," he murmured absently.

She smiled. "I thought you would," she said carefully. "I thought you would… understand."

"And why did you think that?" he asked with interest.

"I don't know." She shrugged. "I can just sort of sense these things."

Lupin laughed at that. "Oh, my dear," he said, "you have no idea how very like your father you are."

She smiled proudly. "Thanks."

They sat in comfortable silence for a few minutes before Ginny spoke again, a new darkness in her voice. "I mean," she began, "it feels right, and I want to be with her. I want to try, at least."

Lupin nodded.

"But…" She sighed. "How do you do it? How do you keep something amazing like love a secret? How do you live like that?" Her eyes filled with tears. "I can never tell anyone how happy I am, can I?"

Lupin's chest tightened as he watched her. Ah yes, he thought sadly. There was the wonder and awe of that first kiss, of suddenly knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, where you belong in the world. But then, after that, there was the hiding, the lying, the secrets… the wholehearted belief that the only way to keep that happiness was to keep it private – not to let the outside world taint it for you, steal it from you.

"Oh, Ginny," he said helplessly, rising and taking her hand, lifting her out of the chair and into his arms. The emotion of the past twenty-four hours was suddenly too much for her, and she began sobbing into his shoulder.

"It's not fair," she whispered, hiccoughing. "Why should I have to hide it? Why should I have to hide her?"

"You're young, Ginny," he soothed, stroking her hair. "You're still so young – you don't have to decide anything yet. You can decide later, if you want to tell people. You don't have to hide anything, if you don't want to."

She pulled back and looked at him, wiping the back of her hand across her eyes. "You do," she said accusingly.

A grimace flashed across his face. "And that's my choice," he said quietly. He suddenly didn't feel like pointing out that the Ministry had some very explicit laws on the books regarding these things among men, which quite frankly were not there for women. That was always a chat they could have another day.

"But why!" she cried all of a sudden. "Why don't you and Professor Snape shout it from the rooftops? You both deserve to be happy, don't you?"

Lupin winced. Arthur and his daughter and their fucking intuition. We are, he wanted to say. We're happier with our secrets than we would be without them – not to mention that neither of us really wants to get hauled off to Azkaban for shagging each other. But he knew in his heart that he would be lying – that they weren't happier this way.

"Ginny, whatever you think you know about Professor Snape and me - " oh gods, Severus would unleash several Unforgivables on both of them if he could hear this conversation right now - "well, it's our business, all right? And it's complicated." He almost snorted. That was the understatement of the century. "I'm happy to talk this out with you, and help you in any way I can, but you can't pass judgement on my life, is that clear?" He didn't mean to sound so harsh with the girl, but honestly, he didn't need love advice from a fifteen-year-old.

Ginny nodded and sat back down, letting another minute go by before speaking again. "What about your family?" she asked. "Do they know?"

Lupin paused, then shook his head. She really had no problem with asking all him all the most difficult questions that he had refrained from asking himself for a long, long time. His family hadn't been too sorry to see him go off to Hogwarts, truth be told – to let Dumbledore worry about locking him up every month in an iron cage, to free themselves from the obligation of coming up with new excuses to tell the neighbours about the noise. They had kept their distance ever since his graduation. Not much to be proud of, having a werewolf as a son; he didn't figure that much good could come from him pointing out that they actually had a gay werewolf as a son.

But he shook himself out of his own memories and focused on the girl beside him. She wasn't in for an easy time, he guessed, knowing what he did about the Weasleys. "Ginny," he began carefully, "maybe you should take some time, before you say anything to your family."

She snorted. "Yeah," she said with bitterness tainting her voice. "Mum's not likely to be too happy about it, is she?"

Lupin's eyes widened, again caught off-guard by the girl's astuteness.

"Not that she's a bad person, mind," Ginny backtracked slightly, seeming to remember that she was talking to a good friend of her parents, after all, and possibly shouldn't denigrate them outright. "She's just so traditional! She's already talking about finding me a husband, and all the wonderful kids I'm going to have, etc etc." She rolled her eyes.

Lupin just looked at her sympathetically, letting her talk.

But she paused and looked up at him suddenly, her eyes narrowed. "What do you know about Charlie?" she demanded.

Oh.

Lupin fought to keep his face neutral, momentarily marvelling at how Hermione could be so clever with books and learning and so clueless in the wider world, while Ginny, while certainly holding her own in the classroom, had truly enviable powers of observation and insight into the world around her. "Charlie?" he asked innocently.

Ginny appraised him. "Mm-hmm." She nodded. "I knew it. You know something. What is it? I heard Fred and George talking once, about Charlie going away so that Mum couldn't bother him anymore about getting married."

Lupin was silent.

"He's gay, isn't he," Ginny said, not bothering to lift her voice into a question. "And he had to move to Romania to get some peace from Mum? Oh no…" She shook her head sadly and stared into space.

Lupin swallowed and looked at her. "Ginny, it's not my place to interfere in your family's business," he began.

"But," she interrupted, "you do know about it, right?"

He nodded in resignation. "He didn't run away, Ginny," he said quietly. "And your mother didn't drive him away, all right? So don't think that."

"Then what happened?" she whispered.

"He liked dragons." Lupin sighed. "And there was a place in Romania, sort of a commune, I suppose. A very… free place, you might say." He paused and glanced sideways at her. "I spent some time there myself, in my twenties," he confessed, as Ginny's eyes widened. "Not with the dragons, mind – those creatures can spot a werewolf a mile away, and won't hesitate to rip him to shreds. No, I worked with some of the less dangerous creatures, did some tutoring, odd jobs…"

His eyes misted over as the memories floated to the forefront of his mind. They weren't unhappy memories, but they were ones he didn't often revisit, for the simple reason that they always evoked more memories, other memories, of what had driven him away from Britain in the first place… that night in October of 1981…

"Anyway," he continued, noticing that Ginny was watching him in fascination. "Your father and I have been very good friends for a long time, as you know, and… well, he wrote to me about Charlie. Said he was going through a tough time, that he was unsure about… things."

Ginny smiled sadly and nodded.

"We corresponded a bit," Lupin continued, lost in his thoughts now, "and I put him in touch with some friends of mine there. They were good people – people who had all sorts of ideas about freedom and liberty and the right to one's own choices…" He chuckled. "I thought Charlie might like them, and it turned out that I was right. They had a lot in common, you might say, and he decided he would be happier there. As far as I know," Lupin concluded, "he has been."

"Dad wouldn't have cared, though, would he?" she asked hopefully.

"No," replied Lupin, recalling his conversation with Arthur the night before. "He didn't care. He will always love all his children, you know, and so will your mother," he stressed. "So don't go assuming terrible things about her, all right?"

Ginny grimaced and looked away.

"Ginny," warned Lupin. "Please. Promise me you won't judge your mother until you've spoken to her. This is all very new for you, remember. You shouldn't go making decisions and assumptions about people's reactions yet, all right?" He sought her eyes desperately.

"All right, Remus," she replied slowly. "I promise."

He smiled. "Good. Now, what say we go join the others, hmm?"

"Yeah," she agreed, rising from her chair. "I suppose I should go find Luna before Ron asks her out again."

Lupin snorted, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder as they walked to the door.

"And I haven't talked to another brother of mine in quite some time," she continued thoughtfully. "It might be time to send him an owl."

"You didn't hear it from me," Lupin groaned. "I try not to make a habit of running around the Wizarding community outing my friends."

She giggled. "So my secret is safe with you?" she asked playfully, a hint of nervousness in her voice.

"Do you even need to ask that?" He raised his eyebrows at her. "Of course it is, Ginny. I told you – it's up to you to decide who you feel comfortable talking to about this."

She nodded as she opened the door. "Remus?" she said, turning to look at him. "Thank you."

Hermione thanked the gods that Dumbledore had allowed her to begin her Apparition training over the summer, much earlier than her classmates, as she appeared with a pop at the gates of Hogwarts later that morning. If there had ever been a travel emergency, this was it. She still had no idea what to say to Professor Snape, and it was more than likely that not only was she about to make a grand fool of herself, but she was most certainly about to forfeit her chances of passing her Potions NEWT.

But she had started this mess, so the least she could do was help Remus get out of it.

She crossed the grounds quickly and pulled open the great front doors, wondering in passing that they never seemed to be locked, even on holidays, but she shook the thought from her head and strode towards Snape's office. When she got there, she knocked timidly on the door.

To her surprise, she immediately heard footsteps approaching and the door flung open -

"Lupin, for fuck's sake, I told you I didn't want to talk to - "

He stopped dead when he saw Hermione and rapidly composed himself. "Ah, Ms. Granger," he sneered. "I, ah, was not expecting you."

"I'm sorry to disturb you on Christmas Day, Professor," she began, "but I really must speak with you. May I come in?"

He folded his arms and attempted to stare her down with his most intimidating glare, blocking her entrance to the room. "Ms. Granger, if this concerns your letter and gift, then Lupin has already explained the misunderstanding to me, so we thankfully do not need to have any uncomfortable chats about why I am not advisable dating material for you. Good day." He moved to close the door.

"Professor, wait!" she insisted, stepping forward. "I'm glad that's been cleared up, and I do sincerely apologise for the mistake – I certainly never intended to place you in such a… compromising position."

Snape quirked an eyebrow. "Fine, Ms. Granger, see that it doesn't happen again. Good day."

"But there's something else you should know," she rushed on, afraid he would try to close the door again.

"Ms. Granger, it has been a trying few days," he snapped. "Whatever it is can wait until the new term begins." He whirled around and retreated back inside his office, reaching to close the door.

"No, sir," she said boldly, darting an arm out to hold the door open, "it can't. You need to know what Remus said to me in the dark last night, when he thought he was talking to you."

Snape stopped in his tracks. "And why, Ms. Granger," he hissed, not turning to face her, "would you jump to the absurd conclusion that he thought he was talking to me?" His voice was like shards of ice cutting through her, and she almost retreated in abject fear.

"Please, sir," she begged, summoning all her courage. "He- he said he knows you think it's just about sex, what you have - "

Snape whirled around, his eyes blazing, but Hermione plunged on.

"But that for him, it's not. I mean, it is, and it's incredible, but it's also more than that." She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. "He loves you, sir, that's what he told me. He said that you two had never talked about that before, but that he didn't care if he scared you away – he had to let you know how much you mean to him."

Snape was breathing rapidly, his nostrils flaring, his cheeks flushed, as Hermione gathered her cloak around her and prepared to bolt down the hall.

"He said he thinks he's been in love with you his whole life."

She saw Snape's face twitch, but he said nothing.

"And then he took his jumper off and said he was going to show me – er, you – exactly how he felt, and I thought he'd really been talking to me so I kissed him, and then of course he realised it wasn't you, and he jumped so far across the room you'd have thought I'd poured scalding water on him, and he started yelling at me, and I started to cry, and then he felt bad and was trying to comfort me, and… " She sighed. "That's when you and Harry and Ron came in."

She stood staring at him for a moment, stilling her breathing, as Snape remained frozen in front of her.

"Anyway, um, I'm sorry, Professor, I'm so sorry. I never meant to cause trouble for the two of you, I just didn't know, I was stupid… and anyway, um. He loves you. I just thought that you should know that. In case you didn't."

Her cheeks bright red, Hermione dashed away down the corridor, not daring to look back.

Behind her, Snape made no sound, but she heard the click of the lock as the office door closed again.

Chapter 5

Christmas dinner began as a rather subdued affair. Molly had delivered a large goose as promised, roasted to perfection in a tray laden with baby onions and carrots, with steaming pots of garlic mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, truly aromatic gravy, and a fresh loaf of cornbread to accompany it. Harry and Hermione had volunteered to lay the old mahogany table in the dining room with the Black family's cherished ancestral china (Sirius having thoroughly de-hexed it the year before), gilt-edged goblets, and best flatware.

Hermione Charmed the serviettes to reflect the House colours of the dinner guests – five crimson and gold Gryffindor versions, one blue and bronze pattern for Luna, and one in emerald and silver for Snape. Despite Lupin's protests, she had insisted on setting a place for her Potions professor at one end of the table. When the group gathered just before three o'clock for the feast, however, Snape was nowhere to be seen.

"It's all right, Hermione," Lupin said to her quietly, unfolding his serviette and placing it neatly on his lap. "I think Albus needed him to help with some Order business today." He ignored both her sceptical glare, and his own heavy heart.

Though Lupin spoke little throughout the meal, the kids traded animated stories about their past school term, their Quidditch rivalries, and Gryffindor's chances for the House Cup that year. He watched them and was suddenly reminded very much of his own youth, sitting around with James and Sirius and Peter, discussing these very same inane things… and he wondered when, and why, his life had become so much more complicated than that. At that moment, gazing across the table at Snape's empty chair, Lupin missed that old, easy life of his very much indeed.

Lost in his own thoughts, Lupin hadn't been following the conversation around him, which seemed to have drifted to tales of woe from Potions classes past.

"Yeah, and remember that time, Harry," Ron was saying, diving into his plate, "when we put shrivelled newt testicles into the boil cure potion that second time we had to make it, instead of crushed snake fangs? I thought old Snape would lose his mind at us, haha…" Bits of potato flew out of his mouth as he trailed off, noticing belatedly that the room had suddenly become as silent as a graveyard.

The entire table turned to stare at the black-clad figure that had just appeared between the dining room's elegant French doors.

Lupin's fork clattered to the table, while Ginny exchanged a nervous look with Luna, Ron hastily wiped his mouth, Harry eyed the newcomer with suspicion, and Hermione's face broke into a broad grin.

"Professor!" she exclaimed, rising hastily and starting to pull out the free chair in front of the Slytherin place at the table. "Please, have a seat – we've saved a place for you… lots of food, so good of you to come..."

Her five stunned companions all whirled their heads around simultaneously to stare at her with incredulity, as Snape stepped into the room, his eyes taking in the dinner scene before gliding up to the head of the table and landing on Lupin. They remained there for a long, intense moment, their inky depths shining with unreadable emotion.

"No, thank you, Ms. Granger," he replied in a low voice, his eyes never leaving Lupin. "I'm not here to eat."

The group's collective gaze followed Snape's, as Lupin sat unmoving, seemingly in shock. After several seconds he found his voice. "Then what are you here for, Severus?" he asked quietly.

"I'm here to finish something I started this morning," he replied, taking another step towards the head of the table. "Something I started very badly, that is. I don't suppose I could hope that the box I gave you hasn't found its way into the rubbish bin?" His black gaze bore into the other man, though his face remained neutral.

Lupin shook his head, reaching slowly into his robes and producing the tiny lacquered box. He hesitated a moment, breathing rapidly, then reached out to pass it to Snape. The electric charge that ignited when their hands touched could have lit the air around them on fire.

"Excellent. Now, Ms. Granger, if you might assist me for a moment?" Snape finally tore his eyes from Lupin and turned to Hermione, who immediately felt her cheeks flush.

"Oh!" she said in surprise, rising again and coming around to his side of the table. "Of course, Professor." She looked back to see her friends' faces locked in expressions of disbelief and smiled to herself. She had a feeling she might know what this was about.

Snape had produced a worn piece of parchment from his robes and handed it to her gracefully. "Have a look through that, if you please, so that you're familiar with it. I don't want this screwed up, quite frankly."

Ron snorted loudly and Hermione almost dropped the parchment. Everyone at the table except Lupin sniggered into their serviettes. Lupin simply stared at Snape incredulously, his mouth partly open.

"Um, of course, Professor. I'll try not to," said Hermione, stifling a giggle.

"Good. Now, Lupin, you'll have to wipe that utterly ridiculous look off your face and get up. I'm not doing this by myself, after all." All business, he waved Lupin over to stand in front of him, which the other man did, though slowly.

"Snape, what's going on here?" he finally asked. "We're trying to have Christmas dinner, all right? So maybe you should - "

"No, I shouldn't. Now shut up and stand still. This is no picnic for me either, you know." He turned back to Hermione as Lupin crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head slightly. "Have you got all that, Ms. Granger?" he asked, as though she'd been copying down Potions ingredients from the blackboard.

But when the group turned their heads back to Hermione, they saw that her eyes had filled with tears. "Yes, sir," she whispered, shivering.

Harry was on his feet in a second. "What is it?" he demanded, reaching for the parchment. "Hermione? Are you all right? What does it say?" He turned accusingly to Snape. "What do you really want here? Why are you trying to ruin our Christmas!"

"No!" Hermione called out loudly, clutching the roll to her chest and out of his reach. "Sit down, Harry. I'm fine, really." She hastily wiped her sleeve across her face as the tears spilled down, and she turned back to Lupin. "Don't you dare let him leave without saying this," she warned, waving the parchment in front of her. "Don't you dare."

Snape glared at Harry. "If I may continue, Mr. Potter?" he said icily, as Harry slowly lowered himself back into his chair, worried eyes still trained on Hermione. "Good. Now, Ms. Granger, if you could please control your emotions, this will go much more smoothly for all of us."

She nodded silently, her eyes wide. She glanced down at the parchment again and had to work very hard indeed to suppress a smile.

"All right, then." Snape turned to the group. "Well. Since I am to have an audience for this, I really must insist on your full attention. I am here to announce to you that your Christmas dinner has just become something of a… ceremony. That is, if Lupin here agrees to… participate in it." He swallowed thickly and glanced at Lupin, whose mouth had dropped open again as he eyed the box in Snape's hand.

"Oh no, Snape," he said quickly. "Oh gods, for the love of all things holy, not now…" His eyes darted around the table.

Ginny rose suddenly, comprehension dawning on her face as she, too, eyed the box. "Why not now?" she demanded, glaring at Lupin, her hands planted firmly on her hips. "We just took a silent vote, and we decided that the ceremony should happen now." A grin tugged at the corners of her mouth, as Ron and Harry exchanged looks of absolute confusion, and Luna gazed dreamily at Snape and Lupin.

"She's right, of course," Luna added, smiling at Ginny. "The Quibbler has done several surveys, and they all show that Christmas weddings have a much greater success rate for the marriages than those that occur any other day of the year."

"Wedding!" Ron sputtered, looking from Luna to Ginny to Hermione to Lupin to Snape with an expression of horror on his face. "What the hell are you on about!"

"Mr. Weasley," replied Snape coldly, "you will have to remove yourself from this room and, I might add, forfeit the remains of your goose leg, if you cannot control your outbursts."

Ron caught Harry's eye and threw his hands up in the air. "Those two!" he hollered, gesturing at the other side of the table. "You're all mad! Am I the only one here who can see that they're both men!"

"So?" Ginny hissed, grabbing Luna's hand and staring angrily at her brother. "You're a stupid git – does that mean we shouldn't let you get married someday?"

Ron's mouth flapped open silently several times in astonishment as his eyes locked on Ginny's hand, intertwined with Luna's. He sat back down with a thump, too shocked to speak.

"Thank you, Ms. Weasley." Snape smirked at her. "That will do. Now, could we get on with this please, before Ms. Granger is reduced to a puddle of tears on the floor?"

They all looked back at Hermione, who was still leaking like a sieve as she continued to scan the parchment. She jumped, wiping her eyes again. "Sorry," she mumbled. "It's just that this is so… that you… I just never would have believed that you could - "

"Yes, quite," Snape interrupted. "Now, you are going to officiate – can you handle that? I could always ask Mr. Weasley to do the honours, if you don't feel up to the task." His mouth twisted into a wry smile as his gaze fell on Ron, who was still looking shell-shocked.

"Nope," replied Hermione cheerfully, smoothing her hair back. "I'm up for it." She winked at Lupin and grinned.

"Good." He turned at last to Lupin again, who had been silently observing the conversation with something like panic in his eyes. "Then let us begin. Ms. Granger?"

She nodded, looked down at the parchment, and took a deep breath. "Ladies, gentlemen, and insufferable Gryffindor brats," she read, glancing up and biting her lip as Ron and Harry grimaced. "We are gathered here today because some rather misguided Muggles have decided that the birth of their lord and saviour should best be celebrated by purchasing inane material objects for each other, in the utter over-commercialisation of a holiday ostensibly devoted to the memory of a penniless carpenter." She tripped a few times over the excessive verbosity, but finally reached the end of the sentence and paused to giggle. Snape shot her a deadly look.

"And since we are already here for that," she continued, composing herself and concentrating on doing her best Snape impression as she recited the parchment's words, "we might as well get something else over with." She straightened her posture and gazed evenly at Snape and Lupin. "Repeat after me, please, Professor," she instructed. "I, Severus Snape - "

"I, Sev - "

"No, wait," Hermione interjected. "I think you should hold his hands for this." She glanced at Luna and Ginny for support, and they nodded rapidly.

"Yes, definitely," confirmed Ginny.

"It would help," Luna agreed.

Ron and Harry exchanged appalled glances, while Snape sighed.

"Very well," he replied, reaching out tentatively for Lupin's hands. They looked at each other then, really looked at each other, for the first time since Luna had revealed the exact nature of the ceremony, and Hermione's heart flipped over as she watched them fall into each other's eyes.

"Much better." She nodded approvingly at them. "OK. I, Severus Snape - "

"Oh, for Merlin's sake," Snape muttered, then cleared his throat. "I, Severus Snape - "

"Being of sound mind and body - "

Lupin coughed at that, smirking as he ran an appreciative and completely undisguised glance up and down Snape's body.

"Being of sound mind and body," Snape repeated through gritted teeth, glaring at Lupin.

"And not being under the influence of any intoxicating, hallucinogenic, or other judgement-altering potions - "

Ginny giggled.

"And not being under the influence of any intoxicating, hallucinogenic, or other judgement-altering potions…" Snape raised an eyebrow at the girl.

"Have come here today to tell Remus Lupin - " Hermione's voice softened as she looked up at the two of them.

"Have come here today to tell Remus Lupin…" Snape gazed evenly at the other man.

"That…" Hermione took a deep breath and chanced a quick peek at Snape, who pursed his lips and nodded at her to continue. "That every second I am not in his presence makes me older, weaker, and more generally despicable as a human being."

Lupin's eyebrows shot up, but Snape nodded at Hermione to keep reading.

"And that every second I am fortunate enough to be in his presence… makes the rainbows shoot over the moon, and all the furry creatures in the Forbidden Forest laugh and play merrily together, as pink hearts explode overhead like fireworks…"

Snape dropped Lupin's hands and grabbed the parchment from Hermione. "I did not write that," he snarled at her as she put a hand to her mouth to hide a giggle.

"Sorry, Professor," she said meekly. "I couldn't help it."

Lupin laughed and shook his head. "Thanks, Hermione, but let's see what he really wrote, hmm?" He turned his grey eyes back to Snape. "I for one am rather curious."

Snape wordlessly handed the parchment back to Hermione, his eyes boring pure emotion through the man in front of him. Hermione's lip trembled as she continued, her voice soft.

"…every second I am fortunate enough to be in his presence allows the sun to rise anew on my battered life, on the soul I believed had been condemned to damnation. He redeems me; he is the only one capable of saving me, and he does so – daily, nightly – without asking questions, without demanding commitments, without voicing expectations that I could ever do the same for him. I was certain I did not do the same for him – that I could not, because my heart was blackened by the miserable experiences of my wasted life." Hermione paused as her voice began to quiver, reduced to barely a whisper now. The dining room was so silent that a pin could have dropped on a cushion, and all seven heads would have whipped around at the clatter.

"But I have nearly lost him. Coming so close, on so many occasions, to losing him forever has convinced me that I can do the same for him. That I must. That my dark and desperate soul is capable of knowing love, of giving it and receiving it, if I only step out from behind my masks and allow it. Today, I am here to say that I love him with a passion so blinding I almost cannot breathe, and if he tells me he does not love me the same way, that he wants me banished from his life, then I will retreat into a shell of myself and live out my remaining days in blackness and pain, waiting to welcome death."

Hermione finished her quiet recitation, breathing heavily amidst the silence in the room.

"No pressure or anything," Ron finally whispered to Harry, and Lupin chuckled, breaking the tension.

His eyes shining, Lupin stepped forward and in one swift movement captured Snape in a breathtaking kiss. Not caring one whit for the teenagers surrounding them – some of whom had evidently never even heard of men kissing before, never mind witness it – he seemed to unleash every ounce of accumulated passion in his soul, clutching at Snape's shoulders as the other man moved strong hands into his hair, their mouths joined so seamlessly that the grinning onlookers could scarcely tell where one man ended and the other began.

For his part, with his eyes closed and an eddy of unbridled emotion streaking through his blood, Lupin felt so light-headed he could barely remain standing. He felt as though Snape's lips on his, Snape's arms around him, were the only things holding him upright in this world, and he never, ever wanted them to let go.

"Wooooo!"

"Hurrah!"

"Oh yeah!"

The gaggle of cheering female voices resounding through the dining room as Hermione, Ginny, and Luna began to applaud wildly, finally parted the lovers. Harry and Ron joined in eventually, Harry in particular gaining slow appreciation for the scene in front of him as he clapped his hands and allowed his face to slip into a grin. Ron remained dumbfounded, but clapped along with the others, his eyes darting uncertainly around the room – everywhere but at the happy couple.

Snape stepped back from Lupin and winced as he looked at the group, as if realising for the first time that after this spectacle, he would never regain his carefully cultivated authority over these bloody kids when the new term began.

"Wait," Ginny interrupted, raising a hand to silence the applause. "Is that it? Doesn't Professor Snape have to repeat what Hermione said? Doesn't Remus have to say something?" She glanced at Luna for support, but the other girl just smiled dreamily and shrugged.

"I suppose they could if they wanted to," she said thoughtfully, "but I'm quite convinced it's a done deal as of now."

"It's all right, Ginny," Lupin said in a soft voice, gazing at Snape. "I'll make sure he repeats that to me later. His head might pop off if he forces himself to actually utter anything emotional in front of you lot."

Snape folded his arms over his chest and glared.

"All right, but you should tell him," insisted Ginny. "You have to tell him how you feel!"

Snape glanced at her, then over to Hermione, his mouth quirking dangerously towards an actual smile. "Not that I would object to that, but Ms. Granger did already accomplish that on your behalf, earlier today."

Lupin's eyes widened as his gaze darted to Hermione, who stood blushing, still holding the parchment in one hand.

"Oh, um. I might have told him what you said last night, is all," she muttered, looking at the floor. "I'm sorry, Remus, I didn't mean to interfere, I just- I wanted to make sure he knew."

"You're sorry?" he sputtered, crossing over to her. Before she could object, he took her in his arms for a grateful hug.

She relished the warmth of his body and felt a momentary pang of sadness that this could never be hers. But her mind flashed back to the words on that parchment, and she knew that this was the way things had to be, that nothing in the world made as much sense as these two did, together. She had no desire to tamper with that. None at all. She squeezed her arms around him briefly, then let go, not trusting herself to hold on too long. She reached up and placed a quick kiss on his cheek. "Congratulations," she said happily, then turned to Snape.

"Don't even think it," he warned.

But Hermione grinned devilishly and cleared her throat. "By the power vested in me by, um, Professor Snape, I now pronounce you…"

Ron looked green.

"… in love forever. Sorry Professor," she added wickedly to Snape, "but it's not just about sex anymore, all right?" Before he could protest, she hopped up and gave him a peck on the cheek as well, blushing furiously. "Congratulations."

Snape grimaced while Lupin broke out in laughter at that, as Ginny and Luna resumed their cheering, and Harry quietly reached across the table for the tiny lacquered box.

"Wait a second," he said. "Won't you be needing these?" He handed the box to Lupin, catching the man's gaze and smiling.

Lupin nodded, and it looked to Hermione like he was having a very difficult time holding himself together. "We will indeed. Thank you, Harry."

He pulled his wand out of his robes and tapped the box. It performed several lazy circles in the air before opening and landing back in his hand, the twin bands gleaming in the late afternoon light streaming in through the dining room windows. With shaking hands, Lupin reached inside and took one gently between his fingers, then trained shining eyes on Snape.

"Well," he asked hoarsely, "are you going to give me your hand or not?"

Snape slowly raised his left hand, palm down, but a second later changed his mind and dropped it again, beginning the gesture over again with his right hand. Lupin regarded him for a moment, then allowed a smile to creep across his lips. The others may not have understood what had just happened, but Lupin did. It was far from legal, what they were doing, and the fewer questions they had to answer about wedding rings on wedding fingers, the better. He grasped Snape's right hand and pushed the ring slowly onto the third finger.

He glanced quickly at the kids, then leaned in and whispered quietly in Snape's ear, "You are mine, Severus – I want you, only you, all of you."

Snape's face remained neutral, but his eyes held Lupin pinned to the spot. He reached for the box and plucked the remaining band out, hesitating slightly before grasping Lupin's right hand. "Are you sure you know what you're doing?" he asked quietly, ignoring their audience. When Lupin nodded, Snape said nothing more but pushed the band gently onto the other man's finger, gazed at it for a long moment, then brought Lupin back to his chest in a crushing embrace.

As they stood in the middle of the dining room, suddenly oblivious to everyone else around them, the five teenagers at the table looked around at each other with varying degrees of understanding on their faces. Ginny and Luna let their eyes fall on each other, clasping hands under the table and beaming at the newlyweds. Hermione watched the two girls with a new sense of recognition and happiness snapping into place inside of her, and thought that they were the most stunning young couple she had ever seen – the men in front of her lost in each other's arms notwithstanding, of course. She raised her eyes to Harry and found him already looking at her with admiration. He winked at her and reached across the table to take her hand, which she gladly offered.

Ron continued to appraise the entire scene around him with detached horror, but seemed to have settled into a relative acceptance of the fact that nothing he said was going to change anyone's mind about what the lot of them had evidently decided to do with their lives. He sighed dramatically and rested his chin in his hand, watching the others and shaking his head.

After dinner, Snape and Lupin retreated to the library to talk, the other guests at Grimmauld Place giving them a wide berth of privacy and taking up a variety of other pursuits: Hermione grabbed the copy of Frankenstein that she had given Lupin – well, Snape – and curled up in front of the fireplace in the main sitting room, the Christmas tree twinkling in front of her. Ginny and Luna settled into the sofa together in the upstairs lounge, kissing and chatting.

Harry and Ron, meanwhile, barely made it up to their shared bedroom before bursting into laughter.

"Oh gods, Harry, can you believe this!" cried Ron, shutting the door behind him and diving onto his bed, shaking with laughter. "Snape's a pouf! Haha – and, agh! – they think they're married! Mum will never believe this!"

Harry was slightly more reserved in his shock, but he chuckled alongside Ron. "Well," he began, "it's pretty normal these days, you know – blokes being in love and all."

"Harry!" moaned Ron. "That's disgusting! I mean, Remus I can sort of see, I guess. He's all quiet and intellectual and neat – and I'm glad he's not after Hermione at least. But Snape? Snape doesn't like anyone! And besides, I thought they hated each other! Remember the year Remus taught at Hogwarts? Wasn't Snape the one who told the Slytherins he was a werewolf and got him fired?"

"I think he just quit, Ron," said Harry. "Dumbledore wouldn't have fired him, not if he'd gotten a thousand angry letters from parents."

Ron shrugged.

"And I guess they must have worked through that, right? There must be more to it than we know – they do have a long history after all; they went to school together and everything…"

"Yeah, I guess." Ron looked bored of the subject already. "I'm tired of talking about them – let's just forget this whole thing ever happened, yeah?"

Harry forced a grin. "Yeah, all right."

"Where's Sirius's present?" continued Ron enthusiastically. "I didn't really get to see it last night – let's have a good look."

Harry's face brightened and he jumped off the bed to retrieve the box from the bureau. "Oh, right!" he exclaimed. "I nearly forgot about it. You've got to see O'Sullivan, Ron, he's bloody brilliant! He'll even do a Wronski Feint if you watch him long enough. I tell you, the best move the Cannons ever made was getting rid of Gudgeon…" He busied himself in setting up the miniature pitch and launching the Quaffle, Bludgers, Golden Snitch, and the little players themselves.

"Wicked!" Ron whistled in admiration as the match zoomed to life just over Harry's bedspread, and they sat on Ron's bed and watched.

"Look, there he goes!" cried Harry after a moment, pointing at the tiny O'Sullivan.

Ron's mouth dropped open as he watched the little Seeker, hurtling through the air towards Harry's pillow as the opposing Seeker followed closely on his tail. He pulled up at the last minute, leaving his opponent to crash spectacularly, then zipped back into the air and wrapped his tiny fist around the real Snitch, which had been hovering over one of the bedposts.

"O'Sullivan's done it again!" An announcer's voice boomed throughout the bedroom as the Seeker completed a victory lap around the bed. "Brendan O'Sullivan, the young Irish Seeker, ladies and gentlemen! He's only been with the team a few months, but boy, is he making a name for himself. Chudley certainly was lucky to lure him from the Kenmare Kestrels in the fall. If he keeps playing like this, our trusty Cannons – with their motto, 'Why win a match when losing is so much easier?' – well, they might even have a go at the championship this year…"

Ron wrinkled his nose as the commentator snickered at his own joke, and a new match began over the bed. "Harry," he said slowly. "That guy's right – O'Sullivan only joined the Cannons in September."

"Yeah, I know!" said Harry brightly. "That's why his stats are so amazing! Already by Christmas he's won twenty-one - "

"No," Ron interrupted, his face screwed up in concentration now. "I mean, Remus said that Sirius got this for you ages ago, right? And had all the players Charm it?"

Harry nodded.

"But it's got O'Sullivan in it… and he only joined in September… and Sirius… well, I mean, he couldn't have…" He swallowed and let his words trail off.

Harry's face flushed. "Who cares, Ron!" he said furiously. "I don't know how he did it – maybe he just had an advance order in or something!" He swore and looked out the window. "Why'd you have to go and remind me that he's not here?" he added quietly.

"Oh, um- I'm sorry, Harry. It's just, well, it seems odd. You have to be careful about strange gifts, you know – there's always people trying to kill you, right? Like with Sirius's Firebolt, remember? McGonagall had to check that thing right out, and - "

"And there was nothing wrong with it!" Harry snapped. "And there's nothing wrong with this, either. Who cares if the dates are a bit odd? It's a great present!" He eyed Ron suspiciously. "So don't go to McGonagall about it or anything, right? That's all I need." He ran a hand through his hair in exasperation.

"I'm not going to!" Ron shouted back. "Just- I don't know, maybe you should ask Remus a few more questions about it, is all." He pushed himself off the bed and headed to the door. "If you're going to be a prat, I guess I'll go sit around with all the gay people for awhile." He slammed the door shut behind him.

Harry sat unmoving on the bed, his mind reeling. Ron was right, he admitted – the gift had to have been purchased after O'Sullivan joined the team in September, which meant… Sirius couldn't have bought it. But then, who was it from? He gazed out the window for a long time, as the sun set on the lonely crescent and the street lamps lazily flickered to life.

A light snow began to fall as he collapsed against the bed and punched his fist into the pillow, comprehension dawning on him. You're not my father, and you're not my godfather, so just leave me the hell alone!

He winced and rolled over, burying his face in the sheets.

Bloody hell.

Harry approached the door to the library with a mixture of apprehension and caution. He could hear low voices inside, talking and occasionally laughing together, and he expected that he would not find Remus alone inside, as he had hoped. When he reached the end of the corridor he saw that the door was partly open, and he peeked inside slightly before knocking. He wanted to know what he was in for.

What he saw held him riveted to the spot for more than a few seconds, his surprise slowly replaced by a warm smile spreading across his face. Remus was lounging in one of his favourite armchairs, the worn tawny leather one by the fireplace, a glass of brandy swirling in one hand. He sat slightly sideways, one leg thrown casually over the arm of the chair, his foot playfully teasing against the knee of the room's other occupant.

Snape, Harry saw by peering a bit further in the door, sat leisurely in the wing chair next to Remus, his collar open, his robes unbuttoned and fading seamlessly into the soft black fabric of the chair. Long legs stretched out in front of him, ankles crossed, and his elbows rested comfortably on either side of the chair. He too held a half-drunk snifter of a dark liquid that matched Remus's.

Their eyes were locked on each other as they chatted easily, Remus pausing occasionally to chuckle over something, which invariably led to Snape allowing himself a small smile, despite what seemed to be his best efforts against it. Harry's breath caught in his throat as he watched them. He couldn't hear exactly what they were talking about, but it seemed to him that it didn't matter. They looked so comfortable with each other, so at home in this room, in their library, he realized, enjoying a drink after dinner, lost in each other's company.

The bands on their fingers caught the light as they moved their hands – Remus to animate whatever story he was telling, Snape to calmly push a strand of hair out of his eyes or bring his drink up to his lips – and Harry almost literally felt his heart warm at the sight. And to think that this almost didn't happen, that so many people had been working to keep them apart – not just Hermione and that whole misunderstanding, Harry realized, but everyone from whom they'd felt they needed to hide their relationship: himself, certainly the staff and students at Hogwarts, probably Sirius (he admitted reluctantly), and of course the Ministry – which, if it knew about those white gold bands, would probably haul them both off to Azkaban for violating the Regulations for the Propagation of Wizardkind.

That was one lecture that Professor Binns had given for which Harry had actually stayed awake… he hadn't thought about it much since, but he recalled feeling slightly ill at the time, as the old ghost droned on about the Ministry's legislative attempts to ensure that witches and wizards married each other and produced as many lovely Wizard children as possible – which meant punishing quite severely those who refused to abide by those rules. Wizards like the two in that library, of course, would have been first on the list of those breaking the law.

He shook his head and eyed Snape with a new appreciation. The man was a colossal arsehole most of the time, and had ensured that Harry's Potions classes resembled a unique version of hell, there was no mistake about that. But watching him now, Harry was struck by how relaxed he was. He wondered if it was Remus's influence, then almost laughed out loud. Of course it is, he berated himself. What else could it be? He suddenly recalled several Potions classes in the past year when Snape had been tolerable, had left Harry well enough alone and had refrained from making even one scathing remark, assigning even one unfair detention. Had those been the days after he had seen Remus? Harry would never know, of course, but it made him smile to think of it.

Yes, he confirmed in his mind as he raised his hand to knock on the door and disturb this moment of theirs: Remus was a good man. He brought out the best in others, somehow, despite having been dealt some of life's worst possible blows. He managed to remain kind and generous, to give of himself freely when others were in need, never to ask for anything in return. Until this. He had asked for this, for happiness with this man – he had dared to wish for it, hope for it, pursue it, and he almost wasn't allowed to have it.

Harry was suddenly furious with himself for causing Remus what had surely been so much grief in the past year, and he decided he had to start making up for it, right now. He took a deep breath and knocked loudly on the door, stepping all the way inside before he could lose his nerve.

CRACK!

Ah. You at last. I was wondering when I'd get to you. You're not the last to come in here, of course, but you're really the only one of any interest to me in that room. Why? Oh, dear man, do you really need to ask me that? Because you are positively spectral this year. Haunted. I've seen you look that way before, do you remember? Yes. Christmas Eve, fifteen years ago. I almost didn't recognise you then. What's that? Well, don't be ridiculous, of course Crackers can recognise people! That's the whole point of us! Honestly, the stupid questions I've heard from this group today.

No. I recognise you. Just as I did then, though that night – it was the Weasleys' annual party, do you remember? – yes, it took some time for me to peel away the layers of grief to get to you. Oh, very well, we don't have to talk about that. It never gets any easier, does it? No. That I understand. You've been dealt some cruel blows, my dear man, and make no mistake about that – even crueller, some might say, than that lover of yours. Oh, hush up, of course I know about him! No, he sought his tragedies, you know – he needed them somehow, needed to defeat himself with them in order to feel alive. But you didn't. No, your tragedies sought you, old friend, and no one has ever deserved them less than you did.

What do you seek now? Absolution? Nonsense. You couldn't have saved them. You were meant to endure this; you were meant to survive the test. And you have. It's time to give in and fall – to stop punishing yourself with your emotional purgings. You've suffered enough. Loving him will not lead to his death, so you can stop using that as an excuse. I'll certainly never understand what you or anyone else sees in him, but I am a polite Cracker and have no intention of sticking my nose in people's private business. Yes, you've done your time, dear man. Give yourself some peace.

Now, onto more pressing matters – the boy, and that gift. Oh, dear me, you aren't really going through with that, are you? I see. Very well, then, but might I point out that you aren't doing either of you any favours by pretending he's still alive. PUT THAT WAND AWAY! For Merlin's sake, now I definitely know who you've been spending too much time with! And anyway, I'm only telling you what you already know. The boy needs you, old friend, whether he knows it or not – and you need him. Yes, you do. He's not a ghost, he's not a memory, and he's not a bad dream. He's real, and so are you, I might add – and that is precisely why you need each other.

One happy family? Oh no, I certainly never said that, so wipe that cynical sneer off your face! The gothic charmer really is a terrible influence on you, and I will not apologise for saying so. Honestly. No, all I wished to point out was that it's Christmas, you fool, and it's time to start afresh. Leave the past where it belongs, pick yourself up, and go after what you want.

It's time for new beginnings, and I daresay you're about to make an admirable go of it. Your friends can see you now, I might add, and they're proud. Off with you! Send in that Lovegood girl, would you? I have some good news for her. Oh, and Happy Christmas, dear man.

Happy Christmas.

"Oh, Harry!" Lupin looked up at him, smiling. "Come on in."

Snape frowned slightly but didn't snap into a more formal pose on Harry's behalf. He continued to swirl his drink lazily, eyeing the boy with suspicion.

"Um, sorry to bother you guys, but, um, I just wanted to talk to Remus for a second," he mumbled, his eyes darting to Snape. The man sighed dramatically and started to rise, but Lupin stopped him.

"Whatever you have to say to me you can say in front of Severus, Harry," he said pleasantly. "That's the way it is now."

Snape smirked and sat down again, reclining into the chair and resting his chin in one hand. Lupin had the distinct impression that he wasn't going to stay out of any desire to actually hear what Harry had to say, but rather simply to annoy the hell out of the boy.

"OK," Harry muttered, slinking into the room and taking a seat on the sofa opposite them. "Um, first, I just wanted to say, you know, congratulations and everything. So you're… married now, I guess?" He looked at them uncertainly, the blush rising in his cheeks.

Lupin smiled warmly at Snape and traced his foot discreetly up the other man's leg, then glanced back at Harry. "Thank you, Harry," he replied. "And yes, I suppose we are, in our own way." He paused and cocked his head to the side. "How do you feel about that?"

"On second thought," Snape drawled, rising from his chair, "I believe I shall give you two your privacy after all. This doesn't sound like a conversation I want any part of." He shot a bemused look at Lupin as he gathered his robes and left the room.

Harry watched him go, then turned back to Lupin to find him smiling and shaking his head. "Well, um, I was a bit surprised, I guess," he stumbled, "but now it's fine, I mean, as long as you're happy."

"I am, Harry, thank you. But just out of curiosity, what part of all this was most surprising to you – finding out who I am, or who I'm in love with?"

"Oh!" Harry blushed outright at that. "I- well, I already knew you were…"

"Gay?" Lupin prompted.

"Um, yeah." He looked up sheepishly. "Sirius told me a long time ago," he added.

Lupin arched an eyebrow.

"He wasn't trying to tell me all your business or anything," he continued hurriedly. "It was just that… well, I came to him last fall, when I thought that maybe I was… I mean when I was sort of…" He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Well, there was this bloke in my dorm – Seamus, maybe you remember him?"

Lupin nodded silently, watching Harry with great interest.

"Yeah, and so, for a bit there I sort of- well, I thought that maybe I wanted to… I don't know, go out with him or something." He finished his sentence very quickly and looked down at his hands.

Lupin remained silent, eyeing the boy keenly and letting him come to his own decisions about what he wished to reveal in this conversation.

"So I, um, I asked Sirius about it… you know, just to see if I was normal, if he'd ever thought like that or anything… and he said he hadn't, but that I was definitely normal. And then he said that I could maybe talk to you if I wanted to, because you'd know more about it than he would."

Lupin's concerned face suddenly crumpled. He bit his lip. "Ah," he said thickly, then forced a wistful laugh and looked away. "But… you didn't. Come talk to me, I mean."

"No," Harry agreed. "I didn't. I'm sorry."

"It's all right, Harry. We weren't on very good terms there for awhile, were we?" Lupin tried to keep the emotion out of his voice, and feared he was failing miserably. But fuck it – it was time to confront this with the kid.

Harry snorted. "I guess not. I'm sorry, Remus. It wasn't anything you did. I just… I don't know. I don't know what happened."

Lupin nodded. He did understand; it was the same for him. They had both just sort of lost track of the friendship they had once shared – no one could ever say how things like that happened, especially between adults and their emotionally unstable adolescent wards. Any parent of a teenager would surely understand exactly how Lupin felt – having a wonderful relationship with a child once, only to find it completely unravelled two years later, for no discernible reason.

He cleared his throat. "What happened with Seamus, then?" he asked, a curious look on his face.

"Oh." Harry laughed. "Nothing. It sort of… went away, I guess. I mean, he's still a nice guy and everything, but I don't really feel that way anymore."

"Ah yes, the passing same-sex fantasy." Lupin smirked. "That's even more normal than being plain old gay, Harry. Welcome to your hormonally charged adolescence, possibly the only time in your life when shagging just about anyone who walks in front of you – boy, girl, and Flobberworm alike – will seem like a spectacular idea."

Harry chuckled, his cheeks red again. "Yeah, that's for sure," he agreed. "But now I think… I mean, I know, that I'd rather spend my time with Hermione."

Lupin's eyes widened. "Oh, Harry, I didn't know that. Bloody hell, I'm so sorry about last night. I guess you really hate me now?"

"No, no, actually - " Harry looked up shyly - "I think I should thank you. We had a really good talk this morning, and I think… I think things might work out for us."

Lupin's face relaxed. "That's wonderful, Harry. I hope they do. She explained everything, then?" He eyed the boy uncertainly.

"Yeah, don't worry. I know you weren't trying to take advantage of her or anything."

"Thank the gods. I guess all of you have also figured out by now that I thought it was Severus's room?" His face coloured as Harry laughed.

"Oh yeah, don't worry, Remus," he said jovially. "The whole house knows all about it now – considering you did just marry the bloke over Christmas dinner and everything."

"Oh yes, right." Lupin nodded solemnly, then broke into a grin. "And you're OK with that?"

"Sure. I mean, I wouldn't marry Snape, but hey, if that's what you want, that's your choice I guess." He shrugged.

"Thanks, Harry," said Lupin warmly. "That means a lot to me."

They sat in silence for a long moment then, but a comfortable one, and Lupin finally felt for the first time in ages like they might actually be able to salvage a version of their past ease with each other. That maybe, just maybe, after all that had happened to them, between them, that after the traumas they had both suffered the night that James and Lily were killed, the desolation they had both felt at Sirius's death… that they might be able to reconnect with each other – to give each other something that nobody else could.

"Remus?" Harry asked tentatively.

"Mmm?"

"Maybe we could, um, go to see a Cannons match sometime, yeah? I mean, I've never really asked you if you like Quidditch or anything, but… "

Lupin looked up sharply and found soft green eyes searching his expectantly. He held Harry's gaze for a long moment, his throat too tight to speak, then finally nodded. 'Yeah," he managed. "That would be nice." He rose and clapped Harry on the shoulder. "And of course I like Quidditch. Never missed one of your dad's matches, you know."

"Really?" Harry asked, getting up from the sofa and following Lupin to the door.

"Of course. He was unbelievable, Harry, you have no idea…"

As they headed down the hall to join the others, Harry asking a million questions about his father's abilities on the pitch, Lupin chuckling and losing himself in some of his happiest school memories, the very air around them seemed to have lightened like a balloon let loose at a child's party. Lupin would later reflect on the moment, on that Christmas Day when his relationship with Harry took a decided upwards turn, and wonder if he hadn't indeed felt the very spirits of James, Lily, and Sirius hovering above Grimmauld Place that day, putting right all the relationships among the people they had left behind.

Well, he corrected himself – James and Sirius certainly would have given him several appalled second glances for that band on his finger, and the person wearing the matching one, but even that, he reasoned, they would have understood. He wouldn't have given them a choice. Is true happiness attainable? Are happy endings ever possible? He didn't know, and didn't care at that moment. All he knew was that the Christmas of 1996, after veering very close to disaster on several occasions, had turned out to be one of the best ever celebrated, as far as most of the inhabitants of number twelve, Grimmauld Place were concerned.

And as for poor Ron, Lupin thought with a smile as he and Harry called the others together in the parlour for a final glass of Festive Cheer before heading to bed – well, there was always next year.