The Best Presents Are Unexpected
Seven candles stood proudly straight, gracing the sugary monstrosity that was Dora’s birthday cake. Andromeda had frowned when Ted had first explained the muggle custom to wish for something while blowing out the candles. Neither fate nor magic worked that way, both needed intention and a strong will, but seeing her daughter now, staring intently into the flickering flames, the young face scrunched up in utter concentration, reconciled her with what she felt was some barbarian rite.
A sideward glance directed at her husband revealed that he was apparently just as excited as their child, probably remembering some naïve wish he had had, a lifetime ago, when magic had truly been wishful thinking to him.
Finally, after what seemed like enough time to plan up her entire future and fill it with childish hopes that would never happen, Dora opened her eyes again and leaned forward. Taking a very deep breath, she blew out every single candle with utmost care. That had to be one hell of a wish.
“Can I open my presents now?” she then asked impatiently, as if it had not been her spending endless minutes pondering over the candles.
“After breakfast, dear,” Andromeda said, only just managing to keep herself from sighing as twin disappointed expressions appeared on her daughter and husband’s faces. That had been another tradition Ted had brought into their family, presents only after the cake, and as no one wanted to wait until the afternoon, there had to be cake for breakfast. Dora did not protest that, of course. And Andromeda herself had never had a chance against those two, no matter what proper decorum dictated her to do. It was, maybe, a good thing that no one of her family deemed them worthy enough to keep in contact. This complete corruption of proper pureblood etiquette would only lead to constant arguments.
“But I’m not hungry,” Dora whined, snapping Andromeda out of her quite cynic musings. Arguments, what a joke. Any visit of a member of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black here would only end in blood and tears.
“Well, I can understand that,” Andromeda smiled indulgently, almost enjoying to crush her daughter’s hopes with her next words. “So much sugar in the morning really is not good for you. You can have some fruits and we’ll keep the cake and presents for later, when you’re grandparents are here.”
That earned her a truly contemptuous snort, before Dora simply turned her back to her and grinned widely at her father. “Dad,” she exclaimed pompously. “Cut the cake. I want the biggest piece.”
Chuckling silently, Andromeda leaned back in her chair, burying her nose in a freshly brewed cup of tea, content with just watching her family, both of them children in their own way. Not that she would have them any other way.
“You, too, darling?” Ted asked her, holding out a plate to her that held a considerably smaller piece than Dora’s.
Declining politely, she assembled a much more healthy breakfast for herself, lots of vitamins and other ‘revolting stuff’. Well, the girl had to take the energy for all her shenanigans from somewhere.
She had not even finished half an apple, when Dora, bits of cake adorning great parts of her face, looked up at her hopefully. “Presents?,” she asked, fidgeting impatiently on her chair.
Stretching out an arm to clean up her squirming daughter, naturally ignoring all her loud protests, Andromeda waited a couple heartbeats, just long enough to raise doubts.
“Okay,” it was a long, suffering sound, but neither Dora not Ted waited to hear it finished, jumping up excitedly and racing over to the living room, where a small mountain of packages awaited the slaughter they would experience from the child’s hands.
Now that she was all alone in the kitchen, Andromeda did allow herself to sigh, but lay her food aside, following them at a much more dignified pace. As it was, she had not missed anything. Ted sat on the sofa, watching Dora take up every package, reading the card rather than just opening it.
Worry lines appeared on the young face as she got to the last present and had, apparently, not found what she was looking for.
“Where is it?”, she turned around to her parents, her whole demeanour heart-broken.
“Where is what?” Ted asked carefully, knowing the answer full well. But, sometimes, knowing the end of a game, did not negate the fun of actually playing it.
“Where is his present?” Dora asked, eyebrows furrowed.
“Who are you speaking of, darling?” Andromeda would not let herself be excluded from all the fun this day.
“Mum,” Dora cried out indignantly. “Dad.”
Ted, never good enough to hide the laughter in his eyes, though their daughter was thankfully still too young to catch them at all their lies, leaned towards his wife. “Did you forget to get old Mr. Merrywart’s present? I bet he’s been hiding these crackers away for ages.”
Mr. Merrywart was their neighbour. Their very old neighbour. Who was known for doing all kinds of things truly old people like to do. Like accidentally giving the neighbours’ children dog biscuits meant for his equally old dog. But the box actually had resembled the one his wife used to store her famous self-baked cookies in. So it was a very understandable mistake. Ted had, also understandably, hardly managed to not fall to the floor so hard had he been laughing, when Dora had actually taken a bite, happily expecting the usually delicious cookies. Her face had been hilarious.
“You’re right,” Andromeda continued the act, standing up as if searching for something. “I’m sure I have them somewhere here.”
“Mum,” Dora went so far as to stomp with her foot, looking half-pleadingly, half ready to cry. “I mean Remus’ present.” Then her face turned worried. “You don’t think he forgot, did he?”
Barely containing a new bout of laughter, Ted opened his arms for their daughter, who, instead of rushing into them, stopped in front of him. “Dad? He wouldn’t, right?”
“No, dear,” Ted smiled, securing an escaped curl behind her ear. Feeling slightly guilty as he noticed that her hair had gone the mousy brown typical for when she was in emotional distress. If it only were not so entertaining to taunt her... “He wouldn’t.”
“But where is it, then?” Dora asked petulantly, not yet reassured.
“Maybe,” Andromeda cut in, still a bit miffed about the butchering of her birthday traditions. “He, like any sane person, does not open his presents before the afternoon tea. So, it might just not be here, yet.”
“As if,” Ted and Dora said simultaneously, sharing a conspiratorial smile.
“In fact,“ Dora continued to lecture her mother. “He told me about his birthdays. He never waited, either.” Then she added a bit more sheepishly. “And Padfoot and Prongs never let him, later.”
A shadow flickered over Andromeda’s face, as it always did when someone mentioned her wayward cousin, and only years worth of controlling her emotions stopped her from completely losing her smile. Ted, who noticed it nonetheless, touched her arm briefly before addressing Dora again.
“Better not remind him of that,” he said, only to be interrupted by an indignant frown.
“Dad,” she chastised. “I wouldn’t do that.”
And she truly would not. For some inexplicable reason, their loud and rambunctious daughter, who never managed to not put her foot into her mouth, never did so with Remus. She never talked about the things declared unspeakable, never overstepped the boundaries he had drawn so tightly around him. Maybe, Andromeda mused, there was still hope for her.
“So,” she returned to the starting point of their discussion. “Where is it?”
“Maybe you should start with your other presents first, until it gets here?”, Ted offered, although knowing it would not meet her approval, sharing a long-suffering look with his wife.
“No,” Dora pouted, making her look adorably, though neither of the adults would say that out loud and expect to live. “I want it now.”
“I am truly sorry, then,” a new voice interrupted from the door, “To have kept the lady waiting.”
Silence reigned for a couple moments, in which Dora whirled around and mustered the young man occupying their doorway. Then she shrieked and blurred into motion, hurling herself into Remus’ arms, never once thinking he would not catch her.
“It worked, it worked, it worked,” she chanted, while clinging desperately to her friend, seemingly trying to hug the life out of him. Remus held onto her no less happy, feeling like a whole wagonload of tension was falling off his shoulders.
“What worked,” he asked hoarsely, when they finally separated, every time overwhelmed anew by the sheer joy the girl showed when they met. He then managed to greet Andromeda and Ted, too, albeit somewhat awkwardly, as Dora still refused to let go of him completely.
“The candles,” Dora explained. “On the cake. Dad said to wish for something while blowing them out, and I wished for you to be here, and now you’re here, so it worked.”
Interrupting her happy rambling, she turned briefly to her father. “Dad, you’re the best.” Then, though, she scrunched up her face, looking back towards Remus. “Well, the second best.”
“Thanks, mate,” Ted muttered, mock-scowling, earning himself a sheepish look. “What a fool I was, thinking I’d have her all for myself for at least a couple more years.”
“Don’t be silly, Dad,” Dora said in a surprisingly good imitation of her mother. “You’ve still got half of me.”
“And what do I have?” Andromeda asked dryly, motioning their guest to sit, as well as that was possible with an overexcited child attached to his hip.
“You can share with Dad,” her daughter explained matter-of-factly, not caring in the least for the dumbstruck expressions on the grown ups’ faces. “Why didn’t you say anything,” she then demanded to know.
Remus chuckled, “I thought you might like the surprise.”
“Of course I do.” Then something crossed her face that looked suspiciously like guilt. “But how?”
“You know,” he started, whispering conspiratorial, “There’s that think called apparition, where you turn on the spot and, tadaa, you’re somewhere else.”
“Prat,” Dora called laughing, ignoring her mother’s disapproving glare. “I mean with your work.”
Shrugging, he said simply, “There’s nowhere I’d rather be today.” It would do no good to tell her that his rather spontaneous decision to come to England for her birthday had probably cost him another job. But, he mused, it would not have taken much longer even if he had not scheduled this impromptu leave. That was just how things were. And it was definitely better to lose a job because of something pleasant like meeting his kind of family, than his quickly accumulating sick days.
That prompted her to snuggle back into his arms, murmuring a heartfelt ‘Thank you’ into his chest, that left him with a smile so wide that it threatened to split his face in half. Andromeda and Ted watched them with indulgent impressions.
“Maybe it’s time to give you that present now, that was the reason for your little drama this morning.” Dora sat up immediately, grinning up at him like he had hung the moon in the sky. Taking a carefully wrapped package out of his pocket, he shrugged sheepishly. “I’m afraid it’s not much –“
She took it from him almost reverently, her earnest eyes never leaving his. “That doesn’t matter. I’ll love it whatever it is. Also,” she added casually, “I’ve already got my best present. You’re here.”
When Remus’ cheeks actually turned a faint pink, Ted chuckled before sighing dramatically at his wife. “Did you hear that?” he asked, clutching his heart as if in pain. “We went to so much trouble locating the perfect present for that ungrateful little brat, and all it took to make her happy was inviting Remus over.”
Andromeda nodded gravely. “I see how it is. We’re just not good enough anymore.”
Dora agreed with that, nodding nonchalantly at her parents. And because there was always a little devil riding her shoulder, she patted her father’s arm and added cheekily, “But don’t worry, maybe your present will be third-best. After Remus’, of course.”
Not able to suppress it, Remus erupted into laughter, while the other two adults sat shell-shocked for a couple moments. After sharing a look, though, a wicked smile appeared on Ted’s face, just as Andromeda adopted her most regal position, motioning toward their daughter with a royal frown.
“That, my dear, just asks for a punishment.”
“Oh yes,” Ted agreed. And then he was moving, hurling himself forward, his hands automatically finding the spots where Dora was the most ticklish. He worked relentlessly, drawing out the most elaborate shrieks from the seven year old, who was trying to hide behind Remus, who was holding his own sides, still not able to stop laughing, only to be drawn right into their little tickling war.
Later he would think, that this was worth losing all the jobs in the world. Simply being here, able to laugh freely with people who, for some indiscernible reason, kept inviting him into their home and hearts. And Dora, of course, who, with a simple look, could free his heart from all the darkness gathering there whenever he was alone. That was it, he guessed. Here, he just was not alone.
Despite Dora’s loud protests, Andromeda made her go upstairs and change into appropriately nice clothes, half an hour before Ted’s parents were due to arrive. That not only displeased the girl because she had to leave Remus’ side, which she had not done since the moment he stepped into their living room, but also because, in her opinion, a better translation for ‘appropriate’ was ‘horrible’. After making Remus promise that he would not laugh at whatever ‘dreadfully frilly dress’ her mother had chosen for her, she dashed up to her room, giving the adults for the first time this day room to breathe.
“Thank you for having me over,” Remus said earnestly, thinking that mere words were really not enough to explain that warmth spreading all through his chest.
“Well,” Andromeda countered dryly. “Thank you for making the little monster smile.”
“And shut her up about how we ‘absolutely have to invite Remus again, because we haven’t seen him in forever’,” Ted added in an astute imitation of his daughter’s most whining voice.
“I mean it,” Remus tried again, maybe a little desperately.
Ted’s face grew serious. “We mean it, too.” He said, almost solemnly. Then he was back to his usual joking self. “Though I’m not sure I can forgive you for only scoring third-best present because of your sudden appearance. I fought long and hard with Andromeda to get Dora that broom. And now she barely even spared it a glance.”
Andromeda huffed. “I told you –“
“Oh, no,” her husband interrupted. “You hoped she wouldn’t want it because she suddenly discovered her own ‘girlyness’ or some such nonsense. But I tell you, she’ll love it.” Shrugging he glanced at their guest. “That is, when her best present is gone again. She can actually take her second-best flying with her.”
Apart from a story book, to get her through the evenings when he could not be there himself to tell her some, Remus had gotten her a small badger figurine, thus declaring her his most loyal friend. Naturally, she had fallen in love with it at once, and hugged it close, despite her mother’s half-hearted protests at such a ‘Hufflepuff present’ when her daughter would clearly not get into that house.
Andromeda harrumphed. “It will be your fault when she breaks her neck.” Through their chuckles, Remus could hear her murmur something that sounded suspiciously like, ‘Not that she would actually need a broom for that,’ which only managed to set him off laughing loudly again.
When they had calmed down, Remus suddenly remembered his manners and, redness creeping into his cheeks, asked, “Maybe I should get on my way. Your parents will be here soon.” He had, after all, only meant to visit in the morning, not stay the whole day.
But both of his hosts shushed him almost instantly. “Stay,” Ted said easily. “You’re practically family anyway.”
“And Dora would never speak with us again, if we’d send you away early,” Andromeda added dryly.
“But I don’t want to be a –“ Twin glares silenced him. It was not hard to admit to himself how happy he was for not having to leave just then, for being able to enjoy the simple warmth of belonging somewhere.
“Mum,” Dora whined from the doorway, “It’s – pink.” Her pitched voice easily showed that she would have chosen some very different words, if her mother had not threatened to actually wash her mouth with soap if she ever used them in her hearing again. So, to not prompt her into a tirade about the absolute horridness of her dress, Remus schooled his face into a neutral expression before he turned towards her – only to have his self-restraint severely tested.
The dress certainly was pink. It was also frilly. And – Andromeda could not have chosen a more un-Dora-like dress. Swallowing the probably hysterical laughter rising in his throat, Remus regarded her carefully. “It is – pink,” he finally agreed, earning himself a pleading glance from Dora, and a threatening one from her mother.
Thankfully the doorbell saved him from having to think up a diplomatic answer to appease both females, while Ted tried – and failed – to hide his snicker behind his hand. Now, though, they all sprung into action. Ted took Dora’s hand and made for the door to greet his parents, while Andromeda left for the kitchen to bring in the tea. Suddenly feeling awkward, as he usually was when meeting new people, especially ones he wanted to have a good impression of him, he followed her, hoping to make himself useful.
Andromeda, of course, instantly saw through his motives. Clicking her tongue, she pressed a tablet into his hands. “They’ll like you,” she said, entirely too casual. “No matter what. Dora adores you, that will be enough.”
With that, she was gone, leaving him with no one to hide his burning cheeks from. He really had to get that under control. After all the teasing the Marauders had gotten up to, he had thought he did not blush so easily anymore. But, as it was, he had thought very wrong. It only took new people to do the teasing.
Straightening his shoulders, and chastising himself for it in the same moment, he walked back to the living room, plastering a smile on his face that only turned real when his gaze fell on Dora, who apparently waited for him impatiently.
“And that,” she announced, before he had any chance to say something himself, “Is Remus, my very best friend.” Clambering over to him, she re-attached herself to his side, beaming like the happiest person on earth.
Just as Andromeda had predicted, he did not have to do anything. Dora’s grandparents watched the ease with which she interacted with him. And when they smiled at him, it was warm, honest.It was the easiest thing in the world to smile back.