The characters/toys still belong to JKR for anyone who has forgotten. Silly people.

Chapter 22

A festive air fills the castle in the weeks leading up to the Yule holidays and, indeed, it does look beautiful with the trees that Hagrid brought in for the staff to decorate. The scent of pine wafts through the Great Hall and the ghosts are caroling through the halls. Most of the professors are in a jovial mood (particularly Slughorn) and seem to have given up (with a few exceptions *cough*McGonagall*cough*) in the week before the holiday on seriously expecting to get work out of their students.

Hermione and most of her friends are taking the train home for the holidays, and while Hermione is rather nervous about the weeks she'll be spending with Gus, she's also looking forward to them in a way. She's been writing to him weekly since their meeting back in September and this morning she sent Ambarisa to the Rookwood estate with directions to await her there. She figures he'd rather fly than sit in a cage for the duration of the train trip. Certainly Harry's Hedwig always looked bored or slept on the train.

Ironically none of her friends notice Hermione's lack of reaction to the bright red locomotive that carries them to and from school each year – as a 'new' student she /should/ have had some reaction, however, like them by this time she's so used to riding the Express that, unlike remembering directions in the castle, she just doesn't think to comment on the train at all. Thank goodness for unobservant friends.

Alice is riding with Frank, and Marlene prefers to sit with some of her 6th year friends, and Lily always rides with Severus on the train, but given Severus isn't spending the holidays at home this year she (who naturally has preferred not to sit in the company of the Marauders in the past) decides to join Hermione and 'her boys' since she doesn't have Severus to sit with. Sitting with Alice and Frank is just a little too third-wheel awkward after all.

James is actually quite thrilled when he finds out that he isn't going to lose Lily's company to Snape now that she finally seems to be enjoying his company. Thankfully he has enough sense after enthusiastically greeting Lily when she follows Hermione into the compartment to limit himself to a, "Oh, that's too bad," after Lily explains that Severus isn't going home for Christmas this year.

"Now then, I fully expect you two to dance with me if we're at the same balls," Hermione says to James and Sirius after they all settle into the compartment, before grinning at Remus. "And you, mister, better be at the Potters' ball, no excuses. I wrote my brother to make sure he accepted that invitation in particular since I'd like to spend New Year's Eve with my friends."

She gets jaunty salutes back from Sirius and James, while Remus places his hand over his heart, "I wouldn't dream of missing it this year, dear lady," he assures her, glad that the moon will not be full that night.

Lily looks largely amused by the easy acceptance of their 'orders'.

"The Yule Ball for St. Mungo's, the Ministry Yule Gala... and whatever ungodly family hosted horrors we're both in attendance at, gotcha," Sirius adds with a smirk. "The first two you'll have both of us, the others vary by host." James smirks and nods. "That it does."

Remus and Lily exchange looks and grin, "Better you three than us," is their agreed upon sentiment.

"One or two balls or that sort of thing over a break would likely be fun, but a lot of them? I don't envy you," Lily adds. "Especially since you're probably going to have to spend several hours getting fitted for dress robes if you're going to a lot of parties from the sound of it."

"Ugh, yeah... I don't even like clothes shopping... but thankfully I don't have to do much aside from veto anything I find hideous. Gus actually likes clothes... it is so bizarre," Hermione groans to her amused audience.

"Poor you," the boys chorus, before James and Sirius look at each other in mock dismay, "You know, we're probably going to have to have fittings too! Poor us!"

"Oh, Lily? I need your address, by the way... oh and phone number just in case I happen to be sort of in the neighborhood or something calling first is only polite before coming over after all," Hermione adds. She's got a few ideas spinning in her head for checking on Mrs. Snape and what to do for the woman if she needs more than some good Muggle over the counter medicines.

"You think you might be in my neighborhood?" Lily asks, looking a bit perplexed but taking out a bit of parchment and a quill never the less to copy down her address and phone number.

"Definitely a possibility. I've an errand to run and it sounded like it might be nearby," Hermione replies, looking at the address and then nodding.

"Well, if you do, call if you can and if you can't don't worry about it, just knock. If I'm home, I'm home. My mum and dad are pretty friendly... Petunia, well... is Petunia," Lily replies.

"Sounds good," Hermione says.

"What sort of errand?" Sirius asks, nosy boy that he is, though to be fair James and Remus look curious too.

"Oh, just some things that I used to do with my mum at Christmas time... helping people who need help, that sort of thing. I can't rightly go anywhere near Cambridge so I worked out a few other places that I can do a bit of good. Not that those sorts of things are just for Christmas mind," Hermione replies. It isn't even a fib, since apparently her other self and her mother did do a bit of charity work at the holidays (and other times, though much of it was more anonymous). This isn't so much charity as helping a friend.

The boys seem satisfied with her answer enough to leave off with further questions, and while Lily seems to have more questions based on her answer, she doesn't voice them.

There's a little pause from the group's conversation as the trolley lady comes by with sweets and everyone makes their purchases, passing around some to share while munching on others.

"So... that leaves the important question – do you want your Christmas presents at Christmas or do you want to wait until New Years when we'll see you?" Hermione asks the others with mock seriousness.

"Oh... that's a tough one," James says, while Sirius gives Hermione puppy dog eyes, "We could pretend it's Christmas and do them now!"

Lily and Hermione both smirk at that and shake their head, "Ah, ah, ah, that will never do," the girls say with exaggerated firmness. "He was probably one of those little kids that woke up before everyone else and had all the parcels unwrapped before everyone got up... whether or not they were his," Lily says with a laugh.

Sirius grimaces slightly. It didn't /quite/ work out like that thanks to Kreature and it wasn't a very good Christmas for him either. His parents didn't find much humor in such childish behavior from their heir even if he was four at the time.

James on the other hand has a very sheepish look on his face. "I did that once. I wasn't quite four and couldn't read the tags."

Hermione catches the look on Sirius' face and subtly pats his hand before deflecting to Remus, "How about you, Remus, did you ever open your presents before everyone else got up? I think I got through a few before Mum woke up one of those very early years, though they were all mine. I knew my H's from her D's you see."

Remus mumbles something looking a bit sheepish.

"What was that?" Hermione asks grinning.

"Either I was too little to read at all or I was already reading full stop... the Christmas present opening didn't have an in between for me," he says more clearly this time. He started to read somewhere around when he was three... or at least he could read his name, which is a good deal shorter than Hermione's. Of course he didn't have a mum with an equally long (slightly longer) name either. Hermione would have had it easier if her mum had had a short name instead of Desdemona. Lengthwise there isn't much difference.

"I always woke Petunia up and then we both woke our parents up or I'm sure that brilliant idea would have occurred to me too," Lily says.

"It wasn't as fun as it sounds," James says, apparently willing to share his experience with the rest given he is apparently the only one who got through the whole gift pile. "They were so disappointed, they laughed a bit, but I remember when Mum went to see about breakfast I was trying to put the wrappings back on because I knew they were really disappointed... which... totally didn't work either come to think of it. Probably completely the wrong ones for the wrong things so the tags wouldn't match who the gift was for either. That actually seemed to make everything alright again."

Partway through James' story, Lily actually takes his hand. She can actually picture a little James doing that with a slightly gleeful expression turning to guilty innocence when his parents arrived and looked disappointed to have missed their little boy unwrapping his Christmas presents. It's a soft smile on her face as that picture shifts to the same little boy trying to make things right again (failing miserably but trying... cute, very cute).

"Most kids start unwrapping early at least once I think, though getting through the whole pile... that's something," Hermione says, chuckling, "There's something to be said for seeing reactions to presents, though."

'When you care about who is receiving them anyway,' Sirius thinks, but doesn't voice. He's past caring what his parents think of their gifts, bought out of obligation and only as much thought as to be certain that they are correct lest he have to hear about that as well as everything else they find wrong with him. He takes a bit more care with Regulus' present but the last few years it has been harder since he hasn't felt like he knows his little brother any more – since his little brother has been turning into one of /them/. He takes a deep breath, more determined than ever to pull Regulus aside soon.

Hermione isn't the only one that has picked up on Sirius' mood, though she and the boys are the only ones who know what's behind it. Lily just notices that he's lapsed into thought (and perhaps broodiness as he does sometimes). The others just let him know, each in their own way that they're there for him. Hermione pats his hand again, James kicks his foot lightly, and Remus just catches his eye a moment (not all at the same time obviously, that would be odd).

From the scenery outside the train they are drawing nearer to London and King's Cross station. "I think I'm going to go find Reg, cut down on the chance of familial scenes for taking too long getting off the train and all," Sirius says as he gets to his feet and carefully frees his trunk from the luggage rack without hitting anyone with it. Even lightened as it is the trunk is still bulky after all.

"Fair enough, mate, I'll see you at the parties and if things are too... well, you can always come over and stay from Boxing Day, eh? Mum loves having you around," James says.

"Happy Christmas, Sirius, see you for the New Year's party," Lily adds.

Hermione waits until he has the trunk maneuvered and down by the door before she hops up to give the boy a hug. "Have a good Christmas, Sirius. We'll see you when we see you and at the Potters."

"Take care, Sirius," Remus says, "See you at New Year's if not sooner."

Strangely it's only now that Hermione realizes that Peter didn't ride with them.

"Merry Christmas to all, and we'll hide together at boring parties to some of you," Sirius says, with a wink for James and then Hermione. Then he's out the door and off to find his brother (and perhaps have a quick word if he can find the privacy for it. Certainly not with whatever of his brothers snakely friends around.

"So, did Peter decide to ride with Liza?" Hermione asks, directing the question to Remus and James.

"Oh, yeah, I think he did actually, huh. Wonder how that went," James says, having completely forgotten about Peter in his absence.

"Hopefully it went well," Remus says.

Hermione nods thoughtfully. She's actually surprised that she didn't remember that Peter wasn't there when the trolley came around – given that Peter seems particularly fond of food in general he should have been missed then. Peter Pettigrew is a problem. Not, however, one that can be solved just now. "Shouldn't be much longer... do you need to put your robes in your trunk, Lily?" she asks. She's pretty sure she doesn't need to bother. It's pretty likely that her brother will either be apparating with her or they'll be flooing.

"Hmm, good idea. If Petunia weren't being so overly dramatic and difficult about everything I could just drape them over my arm or something but she'd probably start ranting about 'freakish things' being close to her or something idiotic like that," Lily says with a sigh.

"Allow me," James says, getting up before Lily can and carefully getting her trunk down from the overhead rack, setting it on the bench where he was sitting. "No lightening charm?" he asks, knowing full well she knows how to do one.

"It would seem odd if someone accidentally bumped it and it tipped over easily or if someone else picks it up," Lily replies with a shrug before adding with a smile, "Thanks for getting it down for me, James."

"You're welcome, Lily, you could just lighten it a little bit, though, to make it easier for you... or... hmm..." James pauses a moment eyeing the trunk.

Remus quirks an eyebrow at James, "What?"

"Timed release... we'll have to work on those a bit more for end of the year, yeah? It'd be helpful for my Lily if she could have her shrunken trunk in her pocket and a couple hours later, when she's home and settled she can have it where she wants before it goes back to regular size as easy as you please," James says proudly.

"Yeah, should be possible. We'll have to run some tests to be sure of the precision on the time delay, can't have it expanding back while it's still in her pocket on the drive home after all," Remus agrees.

Hermione decides not to ruin their fun. Let them figure it out, it's a good thing to know and something (one of many things actually) she figured out when she was working out the logistics for her beaded bag.

Lily nods along at the description, lips quirking a little at James' "my Lily". She doesn't doubt that she could figure it out on her own (it's Charms after all, her best subject) but it's kind of sweet that he wants to help her. "Don't forget you have OWLs to study for... you don't need to spend a lot of time on that," she says.

"The professors won't let us forget OWLs," James assures her, grinning, "or anyone else really... I think even random acquaintances of my mum were bringing it up before school started. 'Oh, young James, it's your OWL year, isn't it? Do your mother proud!'" He does the imitation of a warbly old lady before shuddering comically.

Lily and Hermione giggle at the impression, Remus laughing and shaking his head. "So is that what we need to do to get you to study? Nag you in falsetto?" he asks humorously.

"Not that! Anything but that!" James cries dramatically.

Lily puts her robes in her trunk and closes it again turning it upright and moving it to the floor so it's a bit more out of the way for now so James can sit again if he wants. "Alright you goof, no falsetto... probably," she says, with a grin.

"Whew, thank Merlin," James says, "Remus nagging in falsetto is really, really scary." He nods to himself.

Green and hazel eyes turn on Remus in amusement. "Aww, are you scary when you do pretend girl voice, Remus?" the girls coo.

Remus pretends to look sad. "I guess so," he sniffs, "but it's for their own good, sadly they have to be scared into studying sometimes." His lips tug as he tries not to smirk.


Yes, that was girls in unison aww'ing. Something else that can be quite scary but under the circumstances isn't particularly. Besides the guys both like the girls in question.

The train slowly pulls into King's Cross Station, platform 9 ¾ appearing as crowded as it usually is for the holidays. "I'll help you get your trunk off the train if you'd like, Lily," James offers.

"Sure. Thank you, James," Lily says. She opens the door of the compartment and nudges her trunk partway into the corridor. "Just a second... I can shrink mine since Mum or Da can resize it for me when we get home," he says, before removing it from under the seat and doing just that. Tucking his trunk in his pocket he grins happily at Remus and Hermione, "Happy Christmas, you two, I'll see you at the New Year's party or sooner."

"Merry Christmas, James, see you soon," Hermione says, giving him a quick hug. "Merry Christmas, Lily, I'll probably see you in a few days." She gives her roommate a hug as well.

"Merry Christmas, James, Lily," Remus says, returning the grin.

"Happy Christmas, Hermione, Happy Christmas, Remus," Lily says and nods, "I'll let my mum know just in case you show up when I'm out to the shops or something that you might stop over."

And with that James departs with Lily and her trunk.

"Do you need any help with your trunk, Hermione?" Remus asks.

"Just in getting it down. I just need to tap it with my wand for it to shrink," Hermione says with a warm smile.

Remus nods and gets the trunk down for her.

A moment later and Hermione has it shrunken and in her pocket. She slips her arms around Remus for a hug. "I don't know what holidays with my brother are going to be like, but feel free to write if you want and I don't know... maybe we can get together at some point before the New Year's party. I'd like to anyway," she says, looking up at him.

Remus has become a bit more accustomed to being hugged (at least by Hermione) so if anything he's a little reluctant to part with her, "I'd like that too," he says, looking into her eyes. He leans down for a quick kiss. "Otherwise you have a wonderful Christmas," he says.

"I will if you will," she counters, with a little grin.

He can't help but laugh at that. "Very well," Remus agrees. "Merry Christmases for all, it is."

"And to all a good...afternoon...then?" Hermione adds, with good humor. They both seem to be procrastinating on leaving the train a bit, wanting to delay their parting, but inevitably... "Well... I suppose I'd best go or Gus will wonder if I missed the train. Your parents are probably waiting too."

Remus nods. "True enough, though they might have just asked James where I am." He starts getting his own trunk down and then the pair start working their way through the train corridor to the nearest exit.

Meanwhile in the Station:

Lily and James happened to have disembarked right near where the elder Potters were waiting. "Mum! Da! This is Lily!" and yes, he drags...err escorts, really, the pretty redhead over to his parents along with her trunk. There's a definite sparkle of good humor in the elder Mr. Potter's eyes as he smiles at her and says, "Ah, the enchanting Miss Evans that we've heard so much about I presume?" It earns him a nudge from his wife, "Charlus, don't put the poor girl on the spot. Hello, dear, it's a pleasure to finally meet you," she says.

Lily is blushing slightly, trying to decide if she should be worried at whatever James has been rambling to his parents about her or not, but good manners kick in and she simply says, "Pleased to meet you Mrs. Potter, Mr. Potter."

Her parents are much closer to the barrier but she finally spots them from where she's standing. "Oh, there are my parents, I should be going now," Lily says, a little apologetically.

"Of course, dear, we'll see you again soon, I think," Dorea replies, with a light chuckle.

"I'm just going to help her with her trunk, be right back," James says, as his father in particular looks on with amusement.

"So she's finally giving our boy a chance," he murmurs to his wife. It's a good thing neither of them would bet on their son's dating life... they'd have both lost. Happily under the circumstances given how long that their Jamie has been talking about this girl they're pleasantly surprised to see that something this year has turned her attention his way. Whether or not the relationship ends up a lasting one at least he won't be left wondering 'what if'.

"So it seems," Dorea replies with a faint smile.

On another part of the platform the Blacks are having a far more formal reunion.

"Sirius, Regulus, very good, we can go now," Walburga Black actually sounds far less put out than usual, if you were asking her elder son in any case.

"Mother," they greet her with the respectful nod she expects, though in most circumstances she sniffs when Sirius nods. Today... she doesn't, leaving the Gryffindor quite confused. "Father." Orion Black is often a silent figure beside his wife, though when he chooses to speak even Walburga listens. "Boys."

Sirius takes hold of his father's arm even as his brother is taking his mother's so they can apparate back to Grimmauld Place.

"Kreature! Take the boys' things to their rooms," Walburga shrieks in her more usual and far less than dulcet tones.

"Yes, Mistress," Kreature replies instantly, none of his muttering when it is his adored Mistress giving the orders. With a snap of his fingers both trunks and Kreature vanish.

Sirius is about to head upstairs himself when his mother catches his arm and directs him into the parlor, before patting his cheek with... fondness? No, that can't be right. Or is her vision going? Maybe she's mistaking him for Regulus somehow? He definitely considers the possibility until...

"So, Muriel Crouch told me over tea last Thursday that she saw you in Hogsmeade with the younger McKinnon girl... Marlene, is it?" Walburga says and there's a hint of pride in her tone. Of course, Muriel also went on and on for a bit over how refreshing it was to see such proper behavior from 'young Sirius'. Walburga persists in thinking of the woman as Muriel Crouch, though she's been a Prewett by marriage for almost thirty years.

"Just a first date, Mother," Sirius says, frowning slightly. "Marlene is a sixth year, Gryffindor too."

Walburga waves a hand dismissively. "Good family though. Most of them are Ravenclaw with the occasional Slytherin or Gryffindor. If her birthday were a month later she'd be in your year," she announces.

Oh no. He can see where this is heading. He likes Marlene, he really does but...

"You're sixteen now, perhaps we ought to start thinking about a marriage contract. It might be a bit more of a challenge than if you'd followed tradition," the slight glare actually has more of a feel of normality about it to Sirius, "but, making connections is still valuable and there are, of course, some possibilities even in... Gryffindor." Walburga still says the name as though it leaves a bad taste in her mouth.

"These things shouldn't be rushed, though, Mother," Sirius says slowly, "perhaps... I would wish to see how things develop a bit more... before approaching her family." He pauses lest he make a noise inappropriate for the Black scion. "It gives you time to consider those other... appropriate connections... that you might share with me... if Marlene McKinnon doesn't work out." He tries to sound confident but willing to consider the idea because Merlin help him if she thinks he's being rebellious about /this/. He'd probably find himself in an inescapable contract to someone far less appealing than Marlene before the Yule holidays end. It could be a lot worse than talk of marriage contracts he knows, but... so awkward. He's sixteen, he shouldn't have to be thinking about marriage to a girl he's only just gotten to say yes to a single date.

Walburga studies her son throughout the entirety of his reply. In so many ways he's been a disappointment to her, but at the moment she's rather pleased. He's not taking after his cousin Andromeda's low tastes in partners at least. That is something. He is taking the matter seriously. "I think, under the circumstances, that seems reasonable. I do wish to see you making an effort to get to know the young lady. We should encounter the McKinnons at some of the festivities in the coming weeks. Be sure to partner her on the dance floor."

Sirius nods. "Yes, Mother," he says quietly, "May I be excused?"

"You may. Dinner will be at eight, tonight. Your Uncle Alphard is dining with us," Walburga adds.

"That will be pleasant," Sirius says, mildly, though internally he wants to grin widely. Uncle Alphard is by far his favorite relative. He never has to wonder about how his uncle feels about him.

Then, having been excused he heads up to his room, he really needs to talk to James on their mirrors about this. It's so weird to have his parents (his mother in particular) treating him like a person again. Why? All because his crush and recent date happens to be a pureblood girl... and now they want to arrange a marriage.