"You reckon we can sneak around tonight?" Sirius asked as he and James followed Remus to where he would have his transformation.
James snorted and looked around the wooded area. "Fun as that would be, Lily would probably kill us," he said. "Apparently they like their neighbors."
Remus looked over his shoulder. "Yes, they, unlike the two of you, have what we civilized people call manners. Besides, this isn't like back home; our neighbors are far too close for me to even dare risking a late night werewolf run."
"Oh come on, Moony!" Sirius said, catching up to the werewolf and putting an arm around his shoulders. "You've been locked up with the little woman and the young'uns so long, you've forgotten what it's like to have fun!"
"I know you didn't just call my wife 'the little woman', Padfoot," James said. "Because if you did, I'd make sure she slipped something into the Christmas pudding."
Remus laughed weakly at Sirius' face. Though it had been an empty threat, Sirius didn't put it past James or his wife to poison the pudding just enough to make Sirius' evening miserable. Sirius very quickly changed the subject. "How much further is this place, Prongs? We're going to have to carry Moony before long."
"It's just up here," James said, pointing his lit wand towards a group of trees. "Dumbledore wanted it far enough out of the way that neighbors or Muggles might stumble on it."
"Good thinking," Remus said, glancing through the snow covered branches at the rising moon.
It was another few minutes before the three Marauders reached the stone well that led to Remus' transformation area. "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good," James muttered, tapping his wand to the stone cover. He'd planned on making Remus do it as a sort of christening ceremony, but he looked barely able to stand at the moment, let alone open a door. Before their eyes, the stone lid separated from the middle and revealed a stone staircase.
"After you," Sirius said to Remus, grinning.
Remus rolled his eyes and led the way down the steep stairs. He lit his wand at the bottom and his eyes widened. He had expected a simple stone room that would be uncomfortable and cold. He'd expected to have to spend the whole night on a dirt floor with nothing to keep his mind off his transformation. Instead, the short hall opened into a large room with stone walls and wooden floor. The moment he stepped into the room, several lanterns lit, as did the fireplace directly across from the entrance. The walls were mostly hidden by several Gryffindor banners along with blown up photographs of Remus' friends.
"We thought it'd be a tad easier for the wolf if the two of you were surrounded by familiar things," James said, walking past his best friend. "Make him remember the good times we had at Hogwarts, you know?"
Remus swallowed a lump that had suddenly developed in his throat. "I'm sure he'll love it," he said with a small grin. "And what keeps someone from falling into the fire?"
"Permanent shield charm," James said proudly. "Now, gentlemen, the usual rules apply: wands will be put away until moonset tomorrow morning, and Moony, it's time to strip. Wouldn't want those lovely clothes to get ripped to shreds, would we?"
While Remus took his clothes off, James and Sirius very carefully turned their attention upwards to the ceiling that Dumbledore had insisted on charming to look like the ceiling in the Great Hall at Hogwarts to reflect the weather outside. Currently, the sky was bright white with a very dull orange tinge as snow clouds moved in.
"Looks like a storm tonight," Sirius muttered. "We'll be walking back in the morning in six feet of snow…"
The two wizards turned back as they heard their friend's breathing begin to hitch. Remus was hunched on the ground, an old blanket covering his body. "Now," he said croakily a few moments later.
Exchanging a glance first, James and Sirius began their simple transformations into their Animagus forms. Remus looked up and forced his mind to focus on the large black dog and tall brown stag whose antlers seemed to very nearly scrape the ceiling. The full moon broke through the snow clouds on the ceiling and Remus felt his own transformation begin. His bones broke, his muscles tore, his body organs rearranged themselves. As always, it felt like several agonizing hours later that the majority of the pain stopped.
Moony opened his dark eyes and whimpered as he raised his head to look at his surroundings. When he was able to focus, he spotted his pack mates watching him in concern. Briefly, he growled threateningly at the animals before a voice woke up in the back of his mind.
No. They're your friends, remember? Remus Lupin told the werewolf. They're here to help you. Do not harm them.
The threatening growl subsided and was replaced with a playful bark. Moony's tongue hung out of his mouth to communicate with the dog and stag that he remembered them and they would not be hurt if they approached closer.
Padfoot responded with his own canine grin and crouched low to the ground, barking playfully while the majestic stag stood beside him, seemingly rolling his hazel eyes.
"When's Dad getting back?" Harry asked, entering the kitchen early the next morning. He sat beside his brother at the table and very carefully poured himself a glass of pumpkin juice. "Uncle Padfoot promised to take me up the mountain today."
Lily glanced at him over his shoulder as she flipped the sausages in the frying pan with her wand. "Any moment, Harry," she told her oldest son. "And I'm not sure you and Sirius will be able to get past the backyard in this storm, let alone up the mountain and back safely."
"But you promised we could go!" Harry said.
With a sigh, Lily looked out the kitchen door. A blizzard was whipping up outside, and Lily could barely see the trees a few yards away. She hoped James, Sirius, and Remus hadn't gotten lost… "If the storm lets up, you can go," Lily eventually told Harry. "But as of right now, it's out of the question."
"There's Dad!" Nicholas said, pointing out the window.
Lily's head turned quickly and she temporarily abandoned breakfast in order to hold the door open for her husband and friends. Remus was being held up by his two friends, his head covered in a sweatshirt to shield him from the cold. "Come on, quickly!" Lily called to them. "I'm freezing!"
"Keep your knickers on, Lily!" Sirius yelled back, sounding slightly annoyed. "It's kind of hard to hurry when you've got snow hitting you in the face with the force of a bludger!"
The three wizards entered the kitchen and Lily closed the door before turning around to face them. While Sirius and James had been spending full moon nights with a werewolf in their Animagus forms since they were fifteen, Lily still worried about their well-being. They and Remus looked fine, other than the fact that they could barely keep their eyes open.
"Hungry, Remus?" Lily asked as James helped him to a table. Harry and Nicholas were now begging Sirius to transform into the big black dog so they could ride on his back. "Boys, let Sirius relax for a few minutes, all right?"
"It's fine, Lil," Sirius said, holding Nicholas. "Maybe after I take a nap…"
Lily busied herself with making plates for her family. Once Remus had eaten his fill, he quietly excused himself and went upstairs to get some sleep. From experience, Lily knew Remus would be mostly back to normal some time after lunch. While James and Sirius went upstairs to get their own rest, Lily found a way for her sons to quietly pass the time: helping her wrap Christmas presents for the wizards.
When Sirius finally wandered back down after lunch, yawning the whole way, he stopped to look at the newly, and rather badly, wrapped presents under the tree and chuckled. He looked at Lily. "Teaching the boys, are you?" he asked.
She nodded. "I tried to show them the proper way, and Harry was starting to get it, but Nicky wanted to do it his way or not at all," she said, scooting over on the couch so he could sit beside her. Sirius smiled and rested his head on the couch's back. "There are sandwiches in the kitchen if you're hungry."
He shook his head. "I'm still full from that wonderful breakfast you made."
Lily looked at him with a raised eyebrow. "Sirius Black isn't hungry? I'm in shock! Are you ill?"
"Funny," he responded, nudging her in the side playfully. "I have to admit, I've missed having you around. There hasn't been anyone to threaten to curse off my body parts." Lily laughed. "But you're better off out here, the boys especially. Things aren't looking too optimistic back home."
Amusement subsiding, Lily studied Sirius' troubled face. It was very rare that anyone saw his worry. "Somebody will beat him," she told Sirius. "Nobody's invincible, Sirius, not even Lord Voldemort."
He gave a humorless snort. "Tell Dumbledore that," he responded. "With the way he's been talking, the only way this war is going to end is with a bloody miracle." He gave Lily an apologetic look. "Sorry, you don't need to be hearing all that, do you?"
"At least someone's telling me the truth," Lily responded a tad bitterly. "Every time I talk to James, he skirts over the worst of it – last week he told me Dorcas Meadowes went on holiday, then Dumbledore sent me a package of letters from Alice Longbottom, and she told me what really happened." Lily shivered.
Sirius nodded. "Well, in James' defense, he knows that if he tells you everything, you're going to worry, but if you only know parts–"
"I'm not a weakling, Sirius," Lily said firmly. "I've handled a hell of a lot more than he gives me credit for."
"Lil, you're misunderstanding me," Sirius said rather patiently. "He knows what you can handle, but if he keeps telling you that the Order members are being picked off every time we blink an eye, you're going to drive yourself completely mental. He's just trying to protect you and his way of doing that is by telling you everything is hunky-dory."
Lily's raised her eyebrows while her lips twitched. "You've been in America three days and you're already saying things like 'hunky-dory'? Remus must have knocked your head into a corner of that room last night or something."
On Christmas Eve, rather than participating in the festivities around him, James sat on the hearth of the fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate in hand and watched his sons play with Sirius, Remus, and Lily. He hated this whole situation. In less than a week, he and Sirius would be boarding a plane back to London and to the war against Voldemort, leaving his family behind once more. His sons were growing rapidly and he was missing everything. He'd promised himself growing up when his own father was absent for long periods of time doing Auror work that he would always be there for his children, that he wouldn't come home hours after his children had gone to sleep. He'd sworn his children would always know he loved them and no matter how busy he became, he would always find time to spend with them. And here he was on Christmas Eve, a mere visitor to his wife and sons.
It's for their safety, a voice said in the back of his mind.
Yeah? And what about my own sanity? he replied. I come back from Order meetings or battles or stakeouts to an empty house where I lay on the couch all bloody night, wishing my family was there.
But think about how great it will be when they come home and don't have to worry about being abducted or attacked.
James silenced the two voices. It was the same argument his mind had been having since he watched Marlene McKinnon backing down his driveway to take his family to the airport weeks ago, and it wasn't making him feel any better. He knew he couldn't be selfish about this – his family was better off where they were, safe and happy – but every day it was becoming harder to deal with.
He glanced at his left as Lily sat next to him. He smiled as she wrapped her arm with his and rested her head on his shoulder. "Why so antisocial, my love?" she asked, smiling as Nicholas jumped of the couch and landed on Sirius' stomach.
He shrugged his free shoulder. "Just thinking," he murmured, kissing the top of her head.
"Careful, James, don't want to hurt yourself," she joked. "I can already see a bit of smoke coming out of your ears." He chuckled as she pretended to waft smoke away from his head. "Come on, what's wrong? It's Christmas Eve; usually you're louder than the kids."
Again, he shrugged. "I don't like this," he said quietly, finally looking directly at her. "I miss you, Lily, and the boys."
She smiled sadly. "I miss you too, James," she told him. "But like you said, before we know it, the war will be over, and Harry, Nicky, and I will be home with you again. Right?"
He sighed and nodded broodingly. "Yeah," he said, knowing that neither of them believed his response.
"Oi, Prongs!" Sirius grunted as Harry climbed on top of him as well as Nicholas. Remus was on the couch, doubled over in laughter. "Help me out here!"
James and Lily rolled their eyes at one another, but got up, each of them grabbing a child, before Remus threw a pillow at Sirius' head. "Ow! What was that for, you tosser?" Sirius asked indignantly, throwing the pillow back as hard as he could.
"Watch your language, Black!" Lily said loudly. "Now I know where Harry's getting it!"
"All right, all right," James called, laughing. "Boys, sit down – that includes you two." He pointed at his two best friends.
Once everybody had calmed down a bit, James sat back on the hearth with Lily. "In order to continue a family tradition, everybody gets to open one gift." Harry and Nicholas exchanged excited looks as their father dropped to the carpet and slid over to the large pile of Christmas presents below the tree. "You can open your gift only when everybody has one in their hands. Anybody not abiding by these rules," James looked pointedly to Sirius, "gets nothing." Very carefully, James searched the gifts for particular gifts for his wife, children, and best friends, and Nicholas selected one for his father. Everyone now had a wrapped package sitting on the floor before them, and James looked around, grinning. "Well, what are you lot waiting for? Open them!"
All the selected gifts were chosen merely to hold the children and Sirius over until morning – Harry's and Nicholas' gifts were new pairs of pajamas, Harry's decorated with broomsticks, golden snitches, bludgers, and quaffles, while Nicholas' had different colored dragons; Sirius received a package of chocolate liqueur cauldrons filled with firewhiskey; Remus' gift was a book James knew he'd been eyeing at Flourish and Blott's before he'd left; Lily was admiring a set of rare potions ingredients found only on Tuesdays during the three-quarter moon; and the gift Nicholas had picked out for James was a compass for his broomstick.
"It's for if you get lost," Nicholas happily explained as James examined the gift.
"I love it, Nicky, thank you," James said.
Lily's brow furrowed as she tilted her head to the side, listening to something. "Do you hear that?" she whispered dramatically to the others. Everybody stopped making noise immediately. James happened to look down at his wife's lap where she was tapping her wand underneath the wrapping paper she'd taken off her gift; the effect was a very distant jingling noise that excitedly widened the eyes of both Harry and Nicholas. "Father Christmas is on his way!" Lily said, standing quickly. "Come on! If you want presents tomorrow, you've got to get to sleep! Say goodnight to Daddy, Remus, and Sirius."
The boys very quickly gave the wizards hugs and practically flew up the stairs, their mother following them, chuckling and rolling her eyes.
"Ah, to be young and carefree again," Sirius said airily, stretching out on the carpet and opening his package of liqueurs.
Before the sun had fully risen the next morning, Lily, James, Sirius, and Remus were stumbling down the stairs, still mostly asleep after staying up most of the night together. Harry and Nicholas were literally bouncing up and down, eager to do nothing more than open their Christmas gifts.
"Not until after breakfast," Lily yawned, pushing the boys into the kitchen where James had started coffee for the adults and was heating up the stove with his wand to cook breakfast.
Once the children had hastily eaten their breakfasts and the adults gave up on their own due to the children bouncing around the kitchen, asking them when they would be done, they moved into the living room. Here, Nicholas and Harry practically dove into their giant piles of presents while the adults looked on, still sipping on their coffee. "Honestly, Sirius, did you have to buy them so much?" James asked in exasperation as the boys opened several rather expensive gifts from their godfather. "You're going to spoil them!"
Sirius looked incredibly unconcerned as he watched Harry unwrap official Puddlemere United Quidditch robes shrunken to his size. "What good is it having godchildren if you can't spoil them?" he asked.
Once the adults were able to see a good bit of the floor where their presents for each other lay hidden, they sat with the boys and began opening their own gifts.
"Oh, James, it's beautiful!" Lily exclaimed, opening a rectangular velvet box wrapped in shining green paper. Inside, was a small, heart-shaped golden locket inscribed with her initials.
James watched her, beaming. "Open it," he said quietly.
She did and her mouth dropped open. Though she should have known better, she had expected both sides of the heart to each have a picture – perhaps one of James, the other of their children. Instead, when she pulled apart the clasp, an image rose a few inches above the locket, and the image changed every few seconds – one was of James and herself at their wedding, smashing cake into each other's faces; next was James holding Harry for the first time. She watched the pictures change for several minutes, the last one being one of her entire family together before she and Remus had brought the boys to America, before closing it and giving James a deep, rather tearful kiss.
"I take it you like it, then," he asked huskily, smiling against her lips.
"I love it," she corrected him, before he passed the locket and chain to him. She turned his back to him and lifted her long red pair. "Put it on, then. Let's see how it looks."
Sirius looked over at Remus. "You wouldn't be insulted if I didn't snog you for this, would you, Moony?" he asked, holding up a new pair of sunglasses charmed not only keep out sunlight at all angles, but to allow the user to clearly see in darkness and indoors, without having to remove the glasses and consequentially lessening the user's "coolness".
Remus put on a look of mock-disappointment. "Oh, but Padfoot, I was dreaming about that all night! Kiss me, Sirius!"
Lily and James rolled their eyes at their two friends as Remus chased Sirius around the house begging for a kiss, while Sirius threatened to curse off several very useful parts of Remus' body if he didn't stop soon.
Much later in the morning, Harry and Nicholas had taken their new toys and things up to their rooms to play, leaving the adults to lie around quite lazily as they listened to Christmas music on the wizard wireless. They were all doing their best to ignore the fact that in only a few more days, James and Sirius would be returning to England. Every once in a while, Remus glanced at James, catching him watching his wife as though he was trying to etch every detail of her into his mind to hold him over until his next visit.
In the early afternoon, the most exciting thing to happen was the neighbors came over to wish them a Merry Christmas. It was amusing for Remus to watch James try not to show that he had any romantic feelings towards Lily while the visitors were there – it was all a part of their cover for Lily and Remus to be married, after all. Remus' amusement, however, deflated like a balloon when Wendy Burns' husband Carl very unhelpfully pointed out that Remus and Lily had entered the room at the exact same time and had stopped beneath the mistletoe. While the Burnses urged the couple to kiss, Remus was glancing over at James and Sirius, both of whom were watching on in amusement, though Remus could see a glint in James' eyes that promised pain if Remus dared kiss his wife. Finally, Lily rolled her eyes, grabbed Remus by the collar and kissed him square on the lips. Though it only lasted a moment, Remus' face was quite red and for the rest of the night, he had to endure Sirius and James' teasing. Luckily, the neighbors only believed Remus was shy about displays of public affection.
After dinner that consisted mostly of cakes and candy provided by James and Sirius, Lily had forced Sirius to help get the sugar-hyped children into their baths, then to bed. Somehow, James had avoided being recruited and was now sitting with Remus in the living room, both of them laughing as pounding feet ran above them, followed by Sirius' chasing footsteps.
James shook his head and chuckled. He looked over at Remus as his best friend read a book, hesitating. "Moony?" he asked quietly.
"Hmm?" Remus said, not looking up from what he was reading.
"Could I talk to you a moment?"
Remus looked up at this, noting the suddenly grim look on the other wizard's face. He closed his book and placed it on an end table. "Of course, what's on your mind?"
James stood suddenly and gestured for Remus to grab a coat. Bewildered, the werewolf did so and followed his friend out the backdoor and onto the cold, dark porch. Here, James leaned against a snow rail for some time, lost in his thoughts. "I don't know how I can thank you for what you're doing," James finally said quietly.
Brow furrowed, Remus replied, "What do you mean?"
"Leaving everything behind, coming all the way out here," James gestured around the yard, "for being so willing to protect my family."
Remus smiled a little. "James, unless you've forgotten, Lily and the boys are my family too," he said gently. "I don't have much left but my friends, and I haven't exactly left much behind – I was living in a rundown flat in a bad London neighborhood, sleeping with my wand at the ready in case someone broke in. I'd much rather be here."
"Well, either way," James said, waving this off. He sighed. "Moony, I need you to promise me something."
"Promise me that no matter what happens to me you will take care of my family," James said bluntly. Remus opened his mouth, but James silenced him. "If I don't live to see the day that Voldemort has gone, I want you to keep Lily and the boys here until danger's passed, do whatever it takes. They are all that matter to me, Remus. And if something happens to me, I want to know they are being cared for."
Remus was speechless. "Of course, James, but what makes you think anything–"
James was shaking his head. "Don't play stupid, we both know damn well you're not!" he said rather angrily. "Voldemort isn't going to stop until he's found my family, and by now, he's bound to know they're not in the country. What's stopping him anymore from coming to my home and torturing the answer out of me? Nothing!" James was cut off as Sirius called through the house, looking for him and Remus. James called that they would be a moment, then looked back at Remus with a begging look. "Promise me, Remus."
Remus searched his friend's face, finding only pain, fear, and resolution in his face. Gulping, Remus finally nodded. "I promise, James."
A small smile that didn't quite reach his eyes appeared on the other wizard's face. "Good man," he said quietly. He quickly pulled Remus into a hug, kissing him on the side of the head before his mood changed completely and he was calling for Sirius.
Remus remained on the porch for some time in confusion. What had gotten in to James? All week he'd been carefree and relaxed, only speaking about Voldemort when Lily and Remus had asked on his first night there. It was almost as though James knew something bad was coming, that he was preparing for the worst. But Remus shook his head; James was no Seer, he couldn't know what would happen in the war when he returned home.
By the time Remus returned inside nearly half an hour after James, he had convinced his mind that James was just covering all his bases and everything would be fine. His dreams, however, said otherwise.