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The Ghost of Grimmauld Place

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Saturday 18 th  December 1971

Potter Manor, Entrance Hall

"James!" Hermione shrieked, careless of her dignity as she threw herself down the stairs and into his waiting arms. He laughed as he hugged her, scrubbing his hand through her hair.

"Alright, alright. I wasn't gone that long."

"Not that long!" Hermione gasped, pulling back to stare him in the face. "Four months!"

"Hardly," James snorted, but smiled. "Did you miss me, then?"

"Nu-uh," she grinned, and James grinned straight back at her. Then he moved her slightly to one side and waved someone forward.

"Hermione, this is Sirius Black and Remus Lupin. Remus, Sirius, this is my sister Hermione."

Two boys stepped into her eyeline, both the same age as James, both looking like distortions of familiar images. She recognised Sirius as the boy who'd apologized for his mother in Flourish and Blotts, though he'd only been there for a few seconds. Up close, she had a worrying double-vision when she looked at him, as though she saw both future and past overlaid. He was striking even as a boy, with creamy skin she doubted would ever see the pains of acne and thick black hair lying sleek against his head, but she knew he'd make an extraordinarily handsome man. "Pleased to meet you," Sirius beamed, stepping forward to bow over her hand, laying a smacking kiss on her fingers and winking up at her. She couldn't contain a laugh even as she shook her head.

"Don't you know you're not supposed to actually kiss the fingers?" she asked in a prim voice, though her amusement added a pleasant thrum. "Not unless they're your wife or…" she blushed, but forced the word out, "lover."

"A bloke can hope, can't he?" Sirius joked, dodging out of the way of James's elbow. "Oi!"

"Feel free to ignore him," James rolled his eyes. "He was raised by wolves."

The other boy, Remus, let out a soft snort and looked faintly startled for doing it. He smiled shyly when Hermione turned to him. "Hi," he said with a wave, and Hermione was swept away on another tide of memories. Broken images of Remus as an older man, greying hair and scarred where now there was soft, unblemished flesh, flashed through her mind. He had the same moss-green eyes he'd have then, and the same three-inch scar across his cheek and temple which would stretch as he grew. She saw a snippet of him standing at the front of a crowd, a smile on his worn face, draped in patchwork robes. Another of him stooped over a kitchen table somewhere, huddling with a mug of some steaming liquid as though it were the Gods' Ambrosia. Another of him slouched on a couch with Sirius sat next to him, laughing loudly at whatever the other man was saying.

Hermione's smile felt warm and bright and genuine as she returned his greeting. She knew these boys. Well, she thought. All of the details weren't there yet, but they would be. She could be patient.

If she'd come from the future, then it stood to reason that she'd return, eventually, wouldn't she?

Wednesday 24th December 1971

Potter Manor, Family Sitting Room

"James, you put that down right now!"

"Ha! Look at your face, Sirius!"

"Your father and I knew each other from the Ministry, you know. I was a great supporter of his bill to enhance living conditions for hags."

"James! Leave Monty alone!"

"But mum, Monty likes it!"

"He's got a point, Mrs Potter…"

"Whuff! Ruff!"

"Oh? He never mentioned it… but I don't think he likes talking about his Ministry days very much."

"A pity, really, what happened. Oh well. All's well that ends well, eh?"

"Bork, bork, bork!"

" James Potter that dog is not a reindeer!"

"But mum, look! He can fly!"

Hermione watched the chaos from an armchair in the corner, where she pretended to read a book so that James wouldn't drag her into his trouble. She hadn't gotten past the first page, however, so absorbed was she in her watching. James was on top form this afternoon, driving their mum completely mental, with Sirius as his partner-in-crime, every bit as mischievous and maybe slightly cleverer. Remus, sadly, had been button-holed by Charlus and therefore was unable to join the fun, which might turn out for the best, actually, given that Dorea looked about to maim someone.

She sniggered as Dorea grabbed both of the boys by the back of their collars and shook them once as though they were misbehaving puppies. James pouted up at her while Sirius cringed back, causing Dorea to drop them immediately, her demeanour changing from irritated to concerned between heartbeats. Hermione dropped her book into her lap and sat up straight, her eyes along with her mother's on Sirius.

"What…" Dorea managed to articulate as she looked down at Sirius, who had paled out at the realisation of what he had done. Then, with no warning, Dorea's expression heated to pure furious fire, and she charged out of the room. Charlus hopped up immediately to run after her. Sirius turned to James, his eyes wide.

"Did I do something?" he asked, but James was staring after his mum with an incredulous look.

Later that night, once Dorea had gathered herself and returned, the whole family was once more gathered in the family room, music playing lowly from the radio, melding with the hum of conversation. Dorea and Charlus were swaying beneath the kissing bough suspended from the ceiling, mistletoe half gone, smiling at one another and talking in low voices sporadically. Remus was curled up on the edge of a settee, a book in his lap. Sirius and James sat opposite one another by the fireplace, playing Wizards Chess with tense faces of complete concentration. Hermione was sprawled on the floor by James's feet, using his legs to prop her up as she re-wove the wreath that, originally, had been hanging on the kitchen door – that is, until James, Sirius and Remus had decided they really wanted to play quidditch, a game which, in the descending dark, had ended with James losing control of his broom and smashing into the poor thing. Of course, with James, a quick spell had repaired the damage, but wreaths had to be made by hand, and James was rubbish at that.

The clock above the mantel chimed nine, breaking Dorea and Charlus apart, catching the boys' attention and riveting it to her mother. Dorea walked slowly, regally, towards the timepiece and tapped it with her wand with great ceremony, the silence that fell laced with anticipation and excitement.

"It's time," Dorea announced, an indulgent smile on her face as she saw how her children had perked up, even Hermione vibrating with excitement. She clicked her fingers and Bell appeared in the doorway, laden down with old-fashioned torches, which she laid on the table by the French doors, the yule-candle that flickered there lining their wooden handles with gold. Behind her, Pollo followed, his arms full of coats and hats and scarves, which he dumped unceremoniously on the carpet at Charlus's feet, to an amused look from his Master and a scathing glare from the Head House-Elf. Batty brought up the rear, his tiny feet clad in elvish wellington boots from his outside work, his darkened, calloused skin looking harsh against the delicate red, white and green ribbons he carried. These he dropped on the sideboard beside the torches, before all three elves bowed and retreated.

"Come on, coats on!" Dorea hurried them, picking through the pile to throw each one to its respective owner. "Charlus, the lamps, please!"

As each child lined up in front of Dorea, Sirius looking rather confused as he did so, Charlus picked up a torch in one hand and proceeded to tie a ribbon around its shaft, before bending it to the candle and lighting its wick. Flames flared up instantaneously, licking at the metal cage that encased it, crackling merrily. While Dorea supervised the dressing, he used his free hand to sling open the French doors into the night, allowing entry to a brisk, cool wind that carried the earthy smell of the woods with it.

Hermione snuggled happily into her mittens and scarf, hurrying over to tie her own ribbon to a torch. She chose the white ribbon, and it fluttered in the breeze as she hoisted the torch into her arms, overbalancing a little at the unexpected weight of it. There was a sense of age in the wood, and the metal was close to rusting out, but it hardly mattered – the torches were more ceremony than function, as Dorea would have lit the woods with witchlight at various intervals, and the pure white shine of the moon was also beneficial. She bit her lip to fight off a manic grin in answer to James, who stood opposite her, bouncing on the balls of his feet, all of his teeth bared as he stared off into the night.

Once everybody was wrapped up and cozy, Dorea led them into the garden and whirled back to face them. Sirius still looked rather nonplussed, which put a smirk on Dorea's face, and Remus seemed somewhat subdued, but no less anticipatory as he gazed into the night. "Right, kids," Dorea said, meeting each of their eyes in turn. "I want no funny business. You get the log, you come right back, understood?"

"Yes, mum," James and Hermione chorused, stretching up on the balls of their feet, their attention fixed on the treeline that was their goal.

"Good. Now, I know it was supposed to be your turn last year, James, but as we have guests, I'd like Sirius and Remus to be the ones who choose it. Is that understood?"

"Yes, mum," James said, slightly more subdued. Beside him, Sirius startled and grinned up at Dorea, his entire face alight.

"Good. Be smart about it. Don't go harassing the poor creatures. Your father and I will be waiting."

"Let them go, Dorea," Charlus grumbled, leaning against the doorframe. "It'll be midnight before they get back at this rate, and then what will we do?"

Dorea shot her husband a sharp look, but sighed. "Alright. Ready? Set? Go!"

On her word, all four children set off at a gallop for the treeline, James pulling ahead with a joyous whoop. Hermione ran just behind him, laughing with the sheer joy of being free, ignoring how the wind whipped and stabbed at her bare cheeks and eyes. They called the tradition 'Bringing In The Log', a way of finding the perfect yule log to burn in their fireplace, and it took more instinct than eyesight.

They reached the treeline in less than a minute, stumbling to a stop in the shadows of the oaks, whirling and panting as they waited for Sirius and Remus to catch up. Remus stumbled to a stop just in front of them, his cheeks glowing red and eyes sparkling from the exertion. Behind him, Sirius leaped over a bundle of twigs and halted, his face confused but exhilarated. Last year, when it had just been James and Hermione, they'd ran and ran with their hands linked until they'd been in the deepest, darkest part of the woods, where there was always the lurking idea of danger, despite the safety enforced by the property's wards. There, they'd both searched blindly for that guiding light, the flicker of magic that would guide them to whatever they needed for the ceremony. It had been a quiet, playful affair with the two of them sharing jokes, helping each other over logs and fallen trees, generally demonstrating their closeness and affection.

It would be different this year. Not bad, but different. Hermione had been experimenting for most of the holiday, trying to find a place in his life where she could fit now that he had other friends, other people to play and laugh and prank with. Of course, it was unlikely that any of his new friends would scold him, correct him and care for him the way she did, but he was an eleven-year-old boy – he wasn't old enough to appreciate that as anything other than interference.

James cleared his throat, pulling himself up into an imperious position as he surveyed them like they were his loyal subjects. "Sirius Black! Remus Lupin!" He cried in a fair imitation of a King's Summons. "You have been called to service in finding The Yule Log!" Pronouncing it carefully to ensure the capital letters were emphasised, he jumped up onto a rotting tree stump to continue his town crier routine. Hermione rolled her eyes and leaned against a tree, unable to help the curl of her lip. "Are you aware of the responsibility you now hold – in – your – very – hands?!"

Sirius smirked. "No?"

James did an exaggerated double-take, though there was some genuine shock there, too. "No?"

"No," Sirius shrugged. "We live in a town house. In London. Besides, Walburga doesn't like Yule."

"Doesn't like Yule?" James poured disbelief into his words.

"Nope." He shuffled a bit in place, staring at the ground, until Hermione took pity on him and changed the subject.

"It's not so difficult," she said in a reassuring tone, patting his arm. "There are hundreds of discarded logs in the woods, all over the place; Charlus leaves them around all year. You've just got to choose one for our house. It should have – I don't know how to describe it – a pull?"

"And it could be anywhere?"

Hermione nodded. "Any log you like, so that we can burn it into the new year."

Sirius turned to Remus. "Have you done it before?"

Remus shrugged with his hands dug deep in his coat pockets, the furry inner lining of the loaned garmet brushing his cheeks. "We lived in a village once where all of the villagers would get together on Christmas Eve and search together in the local forest. I chose the log then – really, I don't mind, you do it."

"Alright, then," Sirius nodded, a smile growing on his lips. "Let's go."

Sirius took the lead from there, crashing through bushes and around trees like an excitable pup, stopping every now and again to spin in a different direction and stomp that way. James followed, nimbly dodging obstacles and springing over bushes and tree-stumps like he belonged there. They shouted to one another gaily on their trip, occasionally throwing things at each other, generally causing a ruckus. More than once, Hermione had heard the frightened squeal of one animal or another as they dove back into their dens, hiding from the rampaging humans. Remus and Hermione followed, chatting quietly. Hermione found she liked Remus; despite his ability to be just as loud and offensive as the other boys (and Hermione knew from James's stories that he wasn't as sweet as he appeared to be; he was, after all, the reason poor Eden Simpkins had ended up walking around with a toilet seat stuck to her stomach – though it was anybody's guess as to exactly why she was using the men's bathroom in the first place, not to mention the odd positioning. All James had to contribute was the opinion that 'fifth-years are very strange') he was also more thoughtful, and though he might not be as naturally intelligent as Sirius or James were, he spent more time reading, which gave them much to talk about.

It was at least an hour before anything of note happened, as she and Remus were passing under a pair of ferns and lost sight of James. There was a yell of victory, a great scuffling, and as the pair of them emerged from their evergreen prison they caught sight of James and Sirius wrestling on the ground. James was on top, with Sirius wrenching his head back with one hand in his hair, a foot pressed against his stomach as the other reached for something hidden in the undergrowth. James, in turn, was alight with the thrill of a fight, one knee pressed against Sirius's groin, the other foot against his flattened calf, as he lay punches anywhere he could reach. Remus choked slightly upon seeing the situation, but Hermione waved him away.

She let out a piercing whistle through her fingers, and stamped her foot right by their heads. Both of them, conscious of their overgrown hair, flinched back automatically so that she wouldn't catch their precious locks in her movement. "What are you doing?" she snapped. "What part of 'no funny business' don't you understand?"

"This isn't funny business – argh!" James gritted out as he pressed forward and Sirius yanked his head back even further.

"You're right," Hermione grunted, reaching down and grabbing an ear each, and twisting quickly and with all of her strength. Their immediate yells were gratifying. "This isn't funny, idiots."

"Sirius found a log!" James whined, scrambling off his friend as Hermione tugged upwards by their ears, bringing them to their feet. "I just wanted him to wait!"

"Well, Sirius?" she asked, turning to the other boy, who was trying to shake her off. He glared up at her sullenly.

"I was just cleaning it," he pouted, and did quite a believable job of it, too, because Hermione was feeling herself soften when James spoke again.

"You've never cleaned in your life!" he said, rolling his eyes and looking entirely comfortable despite the death grip Hermione still had on his ear. "You were going to pick it up without all of us here to see it."

"That's not very nice," Hermione frowned, letting go of them both.

Sirius frowned repentantly. "I couldn't help it, it's so nice."

Sighing, Hermione waved him on. He flashed her a boyish grin and lunged for the base of the oak, scrabbling around with his hands, dirt flying. Then, he lifted something into his hands and turned to them triumphantly.

The log was as thick as his arm, with a rich, dark chocolate colour outside and a butter-yellow centre. It had lay half-hidden beneath mud and decomposing leaves from the autumn just passed, and Sirius shook loose a colony of beetles that had taken root in one of the many craters littering its surface. "Perfect!" Sirius declared, taking no notice of Hermione's dubious expression. It wasn't the best-looking log in the world. Tying their ribbons around it would give new meaning to the phrase 'mutton dressed as lamb'. But Sirius appeared pleased, cradling it like it was a precious treasure. She and James shared a look before turning smiles on him.

"Alright, time for these, then," Hermione reached up and loosened the ribbon from her torch, leaving it dangling from her fist. She handed the torch to Remus and stepped forward, reaching through Sirius's arms to tie it securely around the centre, and then stepped back. The white of her ribbon glowed against the darkness of the wood.

The others followed the same routine until it was divided into fifths by the colours, and then turned, hunting for the edge of the treeline, and then taking a slower route back to the house in deference to Sirius's added weight. Dorea waited at the door, and beamed when she saw him. "Look at that!" she sang, admiring the bundle with the genuine admiration of a mother whose child has created something, no matter how horrific the result might be. "Come in, come in!"

Charlus had cleared the fireplace while they were out, leaving it bare and devoid of ashes but for a few sparse pieces of kindling and one nearly burnt-out log from the previous fire, which crackled merrily in the corner of the grate. They circled the hearth and watched as Sirius, under Charlus's instruction, placed the log dead-centre and stepped back. Dorea produced a bottle of wine from behind her back and uncorked it efficiently, stepping forward and poured it over the wood.

"Wait," Charlus said with an air of slow realization, watching Dorea systematically cover every inch of the log with her wine. "Is that my '64 Chateau de Pierre?"

Dorea paused, her eyes widening innocently as she checked the label. "Oh. So it is." She grinned wolfishly as she glanced back at her husband. "A pity."

"Dorea! The Minister gave me that!"

"The Minister must not like you very much, my love. This is the worst wine I've ever tasted." She shook the bottle so that the last drops splattered the log and smiled warmly at her husband. "All done."

"At this point in the ritual, you'd typically say a blessing," Dorea said as she turned back to her family. "But as you can see, we do things differently here." Remus nodded slowly in understanding, watching fire begin to lick up the alcohol-soaked log.

James turned to his father with a grin. "Is it time for wassail?"

Hermione let out a choked laugh as Charlus reached behind him for a tray of drinks. He met his wife's eyes over his son's head as he handed out cups of warm cider. "And you were worried that she was the alcoholic," she sniffed with a smile.

Monday 3 rd  January 1972

Kings Cross Station, London

"Come on, come on! I don't want to have to explain to your parents that the reason why you didn't make it back to Hogwarts was I just couldn't stop you dawdling!" Dorea shouted, pushing at James's back as he and his friends pressed through the crowds, using their trolleys as battering rams. Hermione wandered beside them, amused and somewhat desolate, as she prepared to send her brother back to Hogwarts for another six months.

"Cheer up, 'Mi," James said, catching her expression and nudging her with his elbow. "Only eight more months and you'll be there with me."

She shot him a scathing look from pure defensiveness. "I'm not sulking, James. I'm just thinking how stupid this whole system is. I mean, come on! Getting through to Platform 9 ¾ requires you to run at it. Run! On a train station platform! It's like they're running some survival of the fittest experiment where they expect the weakest to experience death by train!"

He rolled his eyes, shaking his head at Sirius over Hermione. "Mental, isn't she?"

"Oh, shut up!" she snapped, but nuzzled her head against his arm. "Hey, isn't that – what's her name – Lily?"

James's head whipped around towards where Hermione was pointing, and they both paused for a moment to look at the scene. It was, indeed, Lily Evans, with the sulky boy she'd had by her side in the wand shop and the same perfectly coiffed mother. Hermione tilted her head to one side as she observed them – who was the boy again? And why was he so familiar? Familiar in a way that even Remus wasn't, like she saw him every day back where she came from, wherever that was. She couldn't access the memory however hard she tried, so she shrugged off the strange feeling.

"What are you staring at?" The sulky boy snapped at her. She realised that she'd been left behind by the rest of her group, and she'd wandered closer in her trance.

"Oh – sorry," she apologised immediately, feeling the flush burn up her cheeks. "It's just that you remind me of someone."

"No I don't," he said, rather disagreeably, but his harsh features had relaxed a little. Lily, at his side, frowned down at her.

"Aren't you James Potter's sister?" she asked, with a tone in her voice that made Hermione bristle.

"Yes, is that a problem?"

"He's a bully," she replied smartly, linking her arm through Severus's. "You know that? He's always picking on Sev, calling him horrible names, hexing him in the corridors."

James was? That didn't sound quite right. And then there was 'Sev', who hardly looked like a victim. In fact, he was rather imposing to her, taller than her and so very scowly. There was something instinctive in her that wanted to flinch away – which, of course, only made her more determined to stay. "Why?" she asked, then realised that might seem rude, and apologised again. "Sorry, I don't mean that there must be something objectionable about you for him to bully you, only – well, it doesn't quite add up with the James I know."

"Hermione?" And there was James, approaching with Remus and Sirius flanking him. "You wandered off – you know you're not supposed to do that."

"I didn't realise I had," she replied haughtily, bristling again at the idea that she was some helpless child to be fluttered over and protected. "I turned around and you were gone. Besides, I'd not gone far."

"You're not supposed to go anywhere at all," he said sternly.

"I'm the same age as you, James, don't you baby me!" she flipped her hair over one shoulder, not at all sure where the sudden aggression had come from. There was something about the whole situation – James being away for months, then coming back and having less time for her, and now he was apparently a bully? She loathed bullies, she knew she'd had awful experiences with bullies in the past, glimpses of herself crying in bathrooms and on her bed, crying so very much, so very heart-wrenching. She couldn't condone that sort of behaviour if it was true. Not at all.

James stared over her shoulder, his eyes calculating. "Evans. Sn-" he looked at Hermione and then back, his face twisting into a pained sneer. "Snape."

"Bugger off, Potter," Evans grunted, turning her back on them. "Come on, Sev. Alice said she'd save us some seats in her compartment."

They wandered off and Hermione was left with her brother and his friends. She crossed her arms and glared at him with all of her strength. "Do you bully him, brother?"

He looked taken aback. "Bully?"

"Yes, bully. Do you call him names, and hex him in the corridors?"

James turned to his friends for support, but they backed away, showing their hands. James looked back at her with a pained look. "Oh, Gods, you do, don't you?"

"He started it," James said firmly.

"I don't care who started it!" Hermione shouted, careless of the people around her. "You do not bully people, James Potter! You are better than that!"


"Stop doing it," she said coldly. "I can't condone that behaviour, James. Stop it."

He shook his head sadly, shrugging. "I'm not just going to let him hurt me and not fight back, 'Mi."

Their eyes met, identical hazel orbs, both shuttered and protected. "Well," she said, stepping back. Her voice sounded distant, almost alien. "I'll see you in the summer, then. I'd best go and find mum, she'll be frantic. It was lovely to meet you, Sirius and Remus."

"'Mi," James pleaded, but she shot him a look so cold it was freezing.

"Stop doing it, and we'll talk."