The Great Christmas Tree Challenge
In the end, Sirius disappeared for two days, with the permission of Headmaster Dumbledore, to attend Alphard’s funeral. Sirius had needed some persuasion at first. He wasn’t sure that he would be able to stand there and look at the lifeless body of one of the few family members he had that actually cared about him. The only one of his friends who was able to get through to him was Remus. Remus was the only one who had ever attended a funeral of a loved one and could tell Sirius what to expect. Besides, Sirius surmised that it would be a small gathering, nothing at all extravagant. He knew the Black Family couldn’t spare a Knut for Alphard’s funeral, he knew many of them were glad that he was gone. In fact, Sirius was the only one in attendance. He had expected Andromeda to come, but she must not have been able to get out of whatever obligations she had.
Sirius expected he looked rather foolish, standing in front of Alphard’s lifeless body all by himself, but he didn’t care. He didn’t care at all. As far as he was concerned, he could be the only person there and still represent the Black Family – the small, good side of the Black Family. This side was very limited. He didn’t want the rest of his family there. They wouldn’t mourn Alphard; they would pretend to or they would openly scorn his existence and his final request – for Sirius to inherit his fortune. Sirius wouldn’t have had the patience to deal with that. He probably would have thrown every caution to the wind and hexed his family into oblivion. He would have enjoyed that, but he didn’t suspect he would enjoy being expelled from school.
November turned to December and the castle was coated in layers of snow and was decorated for the coming holidays. As usual, Hagrid dragged twelve Christmas trees across the snowy grounds, leaving deep crevices in the four feet of snow. The trees now stood proudly in the Great Hall, covered in colourful baubles and faeries. The suits of armor had been polished and had taken to singing Christmas carols, though Peeves the Poltergeist had elected to insert his own choice words into the songs and they were generally rude words. As a result of this, Mr. Filch could be seen chasing the Poltergeist out of the suits for hours on end. Some of the teachers, Professor Flitwick the most prominent among them, had decorated their classrooms for Christmas with wreaths and holly.
“What are you three doing for the holidays?” Remus asked one day at breakfast. It was a Saturday morning, two days before the full moon, and Remus was looking as peaky as ever. There were dark patches under his eyes that stood out particularly on his white face. He had not been sleeping well lately, and it was showing.
“Well,” Sirius began in a business-like fashion, setting aside his dish of fried tomatoes and bacon. “I will be venturing to London where I will proceed to burn down Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place. Who wants to join me?”
Remus rolled his eyes. “Who’s not doing anything illegal?”
James stepped in before Sirius could say anything else ridiculous. It was best not to irritate Remus Lupin so close to the full moon. “What did you have in mind?”
“My parents invited you guys and your families to come to our place, if you’re not already doing anything, that is.”
James shook his head, grinning. “I don’t think my parents were planning anything special. I’ll write to them.”
Remus nodded happily. “What about you, Pete?”
Peter shrugged. “I’ll write to my parents and see.”
Smiling, James stood up and bid his friends farewell. He was heading to the Quidditch Pitch to get a bit of flying practise in. Laughing to himself, he left to the cries of ‘mental!’ issued from Sirius’s mouth. Sirius couldn’t understand James’s complete obsession with Quidditch. Sirius loved the sport, but James took it all to a new level entirely. Peter mumbled something about getting some research for his Transfiguration paper done in the library and also disappeared. Now it was only Remus and Sirius who sat at the table.
“What do you want to do today?” Remus asked, spooning his uneaten porridge around in his dish. It was cold now and looked very unappetizing.
There was an unusual amount of seriousness in Sirius’s voice when he made his suggestion. “Go hex Professor Finely until he cries?”
Remus’s brow furrowed. When Sirius wanted to hex someone, it was usually Snape. “Any particular reason why?”
Sirius did not answer right away; he merely stood up and dragged Remus with him. Completely bewildered, Remus followed, trying to match Sirius’s quick step. Sirius led him into an unused classroom just off the Entrance Hall and slammed the door shut with unusual force. “Sirius?” Remus chanced uncertainly. He wasn’t sure what Sirius was so upset about, but he knew it had to do with him.
“When are you going to tell Dumbledore?” Sirius barked impatiently, crossing the room until he was standing right in front of Remus.
“Tell Dumbledore what?”
“That Finely is threatening you!”
Of course Sirius was upset about this. He had been harping Remus about it on and off ever since school began. But Remus did not want to trouble the Headmaster with this. Remus already had caused Dumbledore enough trouble. His acceptance into this school was work enough for the man. Sirius, on the other hand, though Dumbledore would want to hear this. Sirius kept insisting that this would be a repeat of fourth year if his friend said nothing, yet Remus had to disagree. There was no rabid werewolf on his tail this time. He doubted Finely had enough spine to act on his words. “I don’t want to bother Dumbledore about it,” he muttered, throwing himself down into one of the empty chairs.
Sirius’s jaw tightened. “Dumbledore would want to be bothered with this! I know what Finely said is bothering you.” When Remus said nothing, Sirius’s eyes widened and he continued. “You see! You haven’t been sleeping at all lately and it’s because you’re worried. Sweet Merlin, I’ve shared a room with you for six years, I think I know when you’re worried. You’re not sleeping because you know what Finely said is true!”
Remus spoke through clenched teeth. “Finely won’t do anything about it.”
“How can you be so naïve?”
“He’s had all this time to do something and he hasn’t! If he really believes Voldemort will use me, he would have seen to it that it happened by now. But nothing’s happened!”
Sirius’s fists tightened at his sides. When he next spoke, he sounded as if he was casually talking about the weather. “Do you remember that time when we were fourteen and there was a crazy werewolf who wanted to do you in and he didn’t do it until May but we knew about it in September? Ha… I don’t think this situation is any different, Remus!”
Remus gritted his teeth and he turned to stare out the window. “Just forget about it, Sirius.” There was a clear warning in his voice.
“Why? Why do you want me to forget about it?”
“Because I don’t want to think about it!”
“So it is bothering you!”
“No! I know there’s always going to be someone out there wanting to make my life hell. I’ve learned to accept it.”
Sirius looked at him dubiously. He didn’t believe a word of it, but he was not going to question him any more about it. Not for another few weeks, anyway. He simply shrugged. “C’mon, let’s go stop James from getting frost bite.”
The Lupin house was not very large to begin with and now, with seven extra people squeezed into it, there was hardly any room to move at all. Each group of people – the men, the women and the boys – had selected one room to hide in the entire time. The men were occupying the sitting room, while the women found themselves in the kitchen. The boys had taken refuge in Remus’s bedroom, staring through the railings, watching as Harry, Charles and John were locked in a fierce battle of wits – Gobstones. Each one of the men had put in five Galleons, which would go to whoever won the match. So far, they were at a stalemate. It didn’t seem that any of them would win and this game would go on well into the evening hours. They had already been at it for an hour and a half.
“Why don’t you just give up?” James suggested loudly. Surely the men would realise there would be no winner proclaimed and this game was a waste of time.
Charles glanced up at his son and shook his head vigorously. “Sorry, James, we’re finishing this.”
Harry nodded eagerly, pointing to the pile of Galleons on the table. “I’m not leaving until I get my fifteen Galleons.”
John laughed loudly and elbowed Harry in the ribcage. “You mean we’re not leaving until I get my fifteen Galleons, Harry.”
Remus chuckled and leaned back from the railings. “I think I figured out where we get our betting habits from.”
“What was that, Remus?” Harry called from down below.
“Nothing, Dad.” Remus stood up and crossed the room so he could sit on his bed. Shaking his head exasperatedly, he said to his friends, “Honestly, they’re worse than we are.”
“I dunno,” Sirius said fairly, looking over his shoulder so he could partially see into the downstairs, though he could only make out the tops of the men’s heads. “They’ve never bet on how a teacher will leave school.”
James scowled. Sirius was never going to let them forget that he had won that time. “I still can’t believe you won that.”
Sirius grinned broadly. “And I’m still enjoying those Galleons.”
“Stuff it, Padfoot,” Peter muttered.
When it became evident that the men were not going to finish their game within the next century, the boys abandoned Remus’s room and wandered into the kitchen, where they were met with Anna, Hannah and Maggie. Anna was standing at the stove; a pot of water was boiling on the stovetop. Hannah and Maggie were insisting that they could do everything by magic and get it done faster, but Anna wouldn’t hear it. She didn’t want her guests lifting a finger or, in their case, a wand.
“Mum, why don’t you just let them do it by magic?” Remus said, sitting down at the kitchen table.
Anna turned to face her son. As she did this, she failed to witness Hannah jabbing her wand in the direction of the pot of boiling water. The water came to a full boil instantly. “They’re our guests… Remus, what are you looking at?”
Remus quickly tore his eyes away from the steam rising from the pot and stared innocently at his mother. “Nothing, Mum.”
Anna eyed her son suspiciously, but went back to her cooking. She was, indeed, surprised to see the water bubbling fiercely. She did not, however, discover the source of it. “Would you look at that,” she commented quietly.
“Have you boys finished wrapping your presents?” Maggie inquired.
“We’re trying to,” Peter told his mother with a hint of annoyance in his voice. “But someone keeps trying to see what he’s getting.”
“Am not,” Sirius muttered defensively.
“Then why did you keep looking over my shoulder when I was wrapping your gift?” Peter challenged.
“I have wandering eyes.”
“James and Remus don’t do that.”
“James and Remus actually like being surprised. I like ruining the surprise.”
James snorted and turned to Peter and Remus. “Remember third year?” Their third year had been when James, Peter and Remus pooled their money together to buy a phonograph for Sirius, as he had liked Remus’s so much. He so appropriately ruined the surprise by barging into the dormitory and, more or less, demanding to see what they were hiding. Needless to say, the three boys were not pleased with him at all.
“I knew what I was getting already,” Sirius said, shrugging. “I don’t see why you cared that I saw it.”
“It’s the principle of the thing, Sirius,” Remus said. Sirius scoffed.
Just then there were two groans of defeat and one shout of delight from the next room and then the flinging of what sounded like gold coins. Charles and Harry entered the kitchen, looking defeated and covered in smelly, sticky sap. John emerged behind them, grinning widely and carrying a handful of Galleons. “I won!” he announced cheerfully.
The three women gave each other exasperated looks. Each pair of eyes clearly said: Men… Harry and Charles pointed their wands at their faces and siphoned the sap off, still appearing to be highly disappointed. John watched them gleefully. “We’re going to chop down the tree,” Harry announced. “Are you boys coming?”
James grinned and looked at his father. “Are you going to turn that into a competition too?”
Charles frowned at his son. “What are you getting at James?”
James shrugged nonchalantly. “I was just thinking… if you did turn this into a competition, I bet the four of us could get a better tree than you three.”
The three men exchanged curious looks before their faces broke into competitive grins. Charles cleared his throat and narrowed his eyes challengingly at his son. “You have a challenge, James.”
James, Remus, Sirius and Peter sat on a particularly long log in the middle of the forest, staring angrily at the dozens of likely Christmas trees that surrounded them. Their fathers had vanished to some unknown part of the woods with their wands, ready to chop down the first tree they saw with magic. The boys, on the other hand, were staring at the long, jagged blades on the saw Harry had provided them with. None of the boys would dare touch it; for fear that they might accidentally chop off one of their limbs. They were sure their mothers would not appreciate their sons coming home with vital body parts missing and the boys were in no mood to deal with blood spillage.
“You do it,” James said to Sirius, nodding at the saw with wary eyes.
Sirius instinctively backed away from the sharp, metal object. “No way, Prongs. I’m not losing a foot.” Sirius then smirked and turned to Remus. “Moony… what do you think about chopping down the tree?”
“I think you should do it,” Remus replied calmly, returning the smirk. “Do you agree, Wormtail?”
Peter nodded once.
James tried pushing Sirius towards the saw, but Sirius resisted. “No way, Prongs. I’m not going near that thing.” Sirius stepped off the log and stood behind his friends, wanting to keep the distance between himself and the sharp object far. “You know, your dads are cheating.”
Remus narrowed his eyes in the direction that their fathers had taken earlier. “I hate admitting it, but Sirius is right.”
“Thank you, Remus.”
“If they were playing fairly, they’d have to use one of these things too.”
James suddenly jumped off the log. Without a word to his friends, he sped off through the snowy forest. When he returned, it was with the three men, who were looking rather confused. James brought them to the log where Remus and Peter were sitting and Sirius was standing behind. “Something wrong, James?” Harry asked knowingly.
“Why are we stuck with the mental Muggle blade?” James demanded. “I thought this was a fair bet?”
The three men shifted guiltily in their spots, avoiding each others’ eyes. They had thought the boys wouldn’t notice the unfair advantage in the situation. Now that the boys had, the men didn’t see what the big deal was. It wasn’t as though they were betting any money; the loser of the bet only had to clean up after dinner on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, in the Muggle fashion. The men just thought to have a bit of fun with their sons. Whoever chopped down the best tree first would get to watch the losers lament their lot the entire night. Unfortunately, the boys weren’t going to fall for the men’s trick.
“Well… you see, we don’t have another saw,” John said, keeping his eyes averted from the accusing ones of the sixteen year olds.
“And we’re not allowed to use magic,” James said, staring determinedly into the eyes of his father.
The men turned their backs on the boys and conferred in quiet voices, obviously debating if they would be able to get the tree down with one of those Muggle objects. The fact that they only had one of them didn’t help the men either. They couldn’t exactly make a scramble for the saw either, as it would result in one of them getting his hands bloodied up. Nothing quite spoke the opposite of Christmas cheer than profusely bleeding hands. But the boys weren’t going to take cleanup duty so easily if it wasn’t a fair fight.
“Fine,” Harry said as the men revolved on the spot to face the boys. “How do you suggest we go about deciding who gets the saw?”
“One from each side pulls a hair out of Remus’s head and whoever gets the grey one gets the saw?” Sirius suggested cheerfully.
“I don’t think so,” Remus said loudly, stepping backwards and covering his head. He was glad Sirius was having fun with his prematurely greying hair.
“Yes, Sirius, please don’t turn my son bald,” Harry said, grinning good-naturedly. “I was thinking more of who pulls the shortest stick loses?”
“Don’t you need someone objective to hold the sticks?” James queried curiously. He did not believe for a moment that anyone standing in that clearing would play honestly. Mrs. Lupin was cooking a feast and a feast involved many dishes to clean.
“Good point,” John admitted. “Staring contest?”
Harry and Charles shrugged, as well as the four boys. A staring contest was as good a suggestion as any. Besides, it was cold and none of them wanted to spend any more time out in the freezing cold. Now the only task that remained was deciding who would go against whom. Sirius was out of the question, as he would think of something funny and would lose his concentration. James had long ago perfected the art of staring off into space, but he doubted he would be able to stare without blinking for a long time against one of the men. His excuse was that when he stared into space, he had no idea he wasn’t blinking. If he knew he wasn’t blinking, he would be tempted to blink. So this left Remus and Peter. Since Remus did not think he could handle the never-ending tirade of ‘why did you blink?’ from Sirius if he lost, Peter was going to take one for the team.
Charles was going for the men; he was prepared to do whatever it took to stay off cleaning duty for the next two days. He had the strong suspicion that if it was the boys who had to clean, the women might go easier on them. Something about mothers and their sons… If it was himself, Harry and John who were stuck with the cleaning, it was likely that the women would be merciless. They would leave stacks upon stacks of dirty dishes and silverware in the sink. The women would claim the men had no right to bet with their sons, even though it had been James’s idea in the first place.
Charles and Peter sat down on the log and blinked rapidly, trying to rid themselves of the need to for as long as the contest ran. At Sirius’s count of three, the contest began. Harry and John cheered Charles on, begging him to save them from the depths of the kitchen sink. Sirius, James and Remus were completely silent, on the other hand. They said nothing at all to Peter. It wasn’t because they didn’t want Peter to win. Their silence was the greatest sign that they wanted Peter to win. They knew he would lose his concentration if they cheered him on.
The men, however, did not know that Charles would lose his concentration because they were cheering him on. After a minute, his eyes watery and stinging, he succumbed to the temptation to blink.
“Yes!” James, Remus and Sirius shouted, each grabbing Peter by the shoulder and shaking him gleefully. “Thank you, Peter!” James cheered. He hurried over to the saw and beckoned his friends over. “Now we shall chop down the perfect Christmas tree and laugh as our fathers watch and think about the load of work they’ll have for the next two days.”
James, Sirius and Remus made an instant beeline towards a tree they had had their eyes on earlier, but were too reluctant to chop down. They still were not keen on the idea of using the Muggle device and realised that this had been their initial apprehension – they wouldn’t chop the tree down because they were scared of losing a few fingers in the process. They had been distracted enough by the injustice that their fathers got to use magic that they completely forgot about their fear. Until now. Now they were confronted with the sharp blade of the saw.
They had had a staring contest for no reason – they still had to chop the tree down with that bloody saw. What a waste of time that had been.
“James, you do it,” Sirius said, jerking his head towards the spot in the snow where the saw lay.
“What?” James yelped in an exceptionally high-pitched voice. Clearing his throat, he went on. “Why… why do you want me to do it? I’m sure Remus would chop down the best tree.”
“Sorry, no chance,” Remus said swiftly. “I think I get bloodied up enough on a regular basis, better I don’t get hurt on a day when I don’t have to.” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Peter, why don’t you try your hand at it?”
Peter’s eyes widened. “But… but I won the staring contest! I’ve done my work for the day.”
“You know, boys, we’d be happy to chop the tree down for you,” Harry offered from behind them. There was a tone in his voice that the boys knew at once was amusement. Clearly the men were enjoying themselves.
“You would?” James asked hopefully.
“Of course… except… there would be a price.”
The boys glanced uneasily at each other. They knew what was coming, yet their apprehension of the sharp blade was greater than their reluctance to do housework. “Fine,” James said, stepping aside to give the men a clear path to the tree. “Have fun mocking us tonight.”
Indeed, the men did have a nice evening, chortling quietly as their sons cleared the dishes and washed them in the sink, Muggle style. The women did go easier on their sons than they would have if it was the men, but the boys did still have a significant amount of work. While James, Sirius, Remus and Peter roamed in and out of the parlor at regular increments, gathering the silverware, the men loudly congratulated the women on a spectacular dinner. The boys, on the other hand, grumbled that there could have been less of it. There was no reason for ten people to have multiple puddings. It only made more silverware and dishes for them to clear up.
The boys continued to grumble mutinously as they scrubbed the seemingly never-ending contents of the sink, their hands closely resembling prunes now. Luckily, this was the last of the cleaning and then they were reprieved, for the night anyway. Tomorrow evening they would be in the same position, lamenting their lot even worse. Moaning rather dramatically, the four boys threw in the towel – both literally and figuratively – and trouped into the sitting room, where their parents were currently passing around some gifts. They had decided the adults would open their gifts on Christmas Eve and the boys could open whatever they chose to give each other. James, Sirius, Remus and Peter sat in front of the Christmas tree, rubbing their aching hands. They now sympathized with Muggles more than they ever had.
“That’s the last time I ever make a bet with you, Dad,” James moaned to his father, who was admiring a wool scarf his wife had knitted for him.
Charles smiled lightly and wrapped the scarf up into a neat ball before replacing it in the box and thanking his wife. “That, my son, is step one on your way to being free of your gambling habit.”
James frowned and glanced at his friends. “I wasn’t aware you were trying to cure us of a habit.”
Harry, who was busy passing out presents to his company, chuckled heartily. “Oh, the three of us decided that you were as we were heading to the woods earlier.”
“Nice to know how much faith our fathers have in us,” James lamented.
Harry shook his head. “If we let you four have your way, you would have no money left in Gringotts to survive.”
Sirius sat up straighter and looked at Harry. “I disagree. I would have all their money because they lost all of it to me.”
Remus sighed exasperatedly. “You won one bet, Sirius, get over it.”
“Yeah, but that was one important bet.”
“Like the rest of us knew Kern would leave the school doing back flips,” Peter grumbled.
The boys eventually ceased their mutinous mutterings about the bet they had had with their fathers and instead concentrated on the gifts Harry was handing to everyone. Remus could not help but roll his eyes at part of the gift Sirius had given him – a pamphlet on how to keep his hair from greying and balding. The rest of the gift, a set of colour-changing ink, pleased him much more. Sirius had great fun with the deck of self-shuffling cards, while James sat admiring his set of new Gobstones and Peter sorted through his new assortment of sweets.
A little after eleven in the evening the adults went up to bed, warning the boys that if they weren’t asleep by midnight, they would be forced asleep. John Pettigrew jokingly added that the boys would need their rest for the next day of cleaning.
“We should’ve just chopped the bloody tree down,” Sirius said quietly once the men walked out of the room. He yawned widely and stretched his arms out behind his head. “It’s not as if we would’ve chopped our hands off.”
“We could have,” Peter contradicted worriedly.
“No, we wouldn’t have,” Sirius insisted. Then he went on a more serious note. “Anyway, nothing strange has happened this year yet. No deaths, I mean.”
By now it had almost become tradition for there to be a mysterious death by the time Christmas came around. The only death that occurred was Alphard Black, but that was by natural causes. Usually the death was unexplainable. This year, however, there was nothing of the sort and Sirius could not help but be worried by that. He expected he should have been relieved, but he wasn’t.
Remus nodded. “Let’s be grateful about that.” He stood up and led the way towards the stairs. “C’mon, our dads are right. We’re going to be cleaning all day tomorrow, might as well get some sleep.”
Excerpt from Chapter Fifty Eight: The Descent Begins
Sirius and Remus explained what Professor Finely was doing and, by the time they had finished, James was livid. A professor was trying to persuade one of his students to join Voldemort and was threatening his life if he didn’t? Where did Finely get off doing that? He had no right. James was seething. “Are you bloody serious?”
“He tried getting Wormtail to convince him!” Sirius raged.
James rounded on Remus. “Did he tell Peter anything about what he wanted you to do?”
“No and I don’t want Peter to know,” Remus insisted firmly. “He’ll worry too much.”
James folded his arms across his chest. “And what do you think the two of us will do?”
“I don’t know but you won’t worry like Peter will and I don’t want to do that to him.”
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