Twilight on Christmas Day found Arthur at the edge of the wood at the back of The Burrow, chopping firewood with a level of energy that suggested barely suppressed violence.
Remus approached cautiously, and made sure the older man had seen him before he spoke. “Would you like a hand, Arthur?”
Arthur eyed him rather dubiously. “You can stack,” he said at last.
“I’m stronger than I look,” said Remus in some embarrassment.
“It isn’t that. We’ve only got the one axe.”
Remus began to stack the wood behind the broom shed. The first stars were out, and their breath hung like clouds in the frosty air. He waited.
“Percy always seemed like such a good child,” said Arthur at last. “Never gave us a moment’s trouble, not even when he was a baby... Molly and I never could give the children much, but we tried to teach them the difference between what was right and what was easy. It’s hard to think that one of ours could go so far wrong.”
“He’s very young, Arthur. Give him a few more years to sort things out.”
“You were his teacher. What did you think of him?”
“The same as you. He was a very good student.” But it had been a negative sort of goodness, Remus thought, as blank as the snowy fields that stretched out on either side of the village. The kind of goodness that kept its hands clean and its nose in its schoolbooks, and didn’t lift a finger to protest the censorship of the Prophet or the imprisonment of Stan Shunpike.
“Was he a good Defense student?
“In some ways,” said Remus noncommittally. He saw where the question was tending. Defense Against the Dark Arts was one of those subjects that showed the true character of the student; one needed a good heart and spirit as well as a good mind. “He was very hard-working, and his results on the written portion of his N.E.W.T.s were some of the best I’ve seen.”
“But he had trouble dealing with the unpredictable. Boggarts, for example.”
“But that’s a third-year subject.”
“Yes. And he’d never asked for help with it, so nobody knew.”
“He’s got too much pride.” Arthur gave the axe a final swing and sat down on a stump. “He gets it from me, I reckon. I wonder if...”
“Nothing. It’s only – if I had taken another job when he was young, I wonder if things might have been different ... Because they all felt the sting of being poor, I think. Well, not Charlie so much – he always followed his heart, could’ve played professional Quidditch if he’d wanted to, but he loved dragons too much. And maybe not Ginny, but the others. It’s made them hungry for the things we couldn’t give them.”
“And if you had chosen to go chasing after the money – rather than staying where you could do the most good – what sort of example would that have set them?”
“You’re right, of course. But then again, I wonder if I wasn’t fooling myself about trying to do good within the Ministry. If I had walked away from it all, like ... Listen.”
A girl’s voice, high and clear, echoed across the frozen fields. In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan. Earth as hard as iron, water like a stone...
“That’ll be the Lovegood girl. Trust her to go caroling when everyone else in the village is settled in by the fire.”
Luna caught sight of the two men and waved a magenta-mittened hand in their direction before she strolled into the wood, still singing.
Remus thrust his hands into his pockets to warm them. “It’s getting colder. Should we ask her in for some eggnog?”
“She won’t come,” said Arthur. “She goes her own way. Probably got it into her head that somebody needs to sing Christmas carols to the squirrels.”
Judging by his memories of Luna as a student, Remus found this easy to believe.
“Anyway, what I was about to tell you was that Martin Lovegood’s always gone his own way too. He used to work for the Prophet, but he walked out the first time the Ministry tried to lean on them. That would’ve been – oh, ‘72, ‘73. You wouldn’t have been more than a child. And I’ve been thinking, perhaps it would have been better if I’d resigned over – over some of the things that have gone on.”
“If not much earlier. I sometimes think that if I had half Martin’s integrity, I’d have left the day old Crouch started throwing people in prison without a trial. Let’s walk, it’s warmer.”
Remus was inclined to think that going back inside the house would be warmer; but as Arthur seemed to be in a confidential mood, he followed his host into the wood. “But you couldn’t very well have resigned, could you? Not with all those children to support.”
“Well, that’s exactly it, isn’t it? I keep feeling like Molly and I have been selfish.”
“Arthur, two more unselfish people than you and Molly never lived!”
“When I look at you – and at Tonks and Moody and Dumbledore – knowing that you’re risking your lives every day, and knowing you’ve paid too much of a price already –”
“It isn’t too much.”
“It is. Do you think I haven’t got eyes? Do you think I can’t see that you’re all but killing yourself out there? And meanwhile we’re snug at home – comfortable, and about as safe as anybody can be in these times, and Dumbledore insists on giving us the softest mission in the Order ... ‘Just look after Harry and be a family to him,’ he said. That isn’t work. We would have done that anyway.”
Remus pictured a certain clock with nine hands pointing to “Mortal Peril,” and thought that not many people would.
“You’ve been a family to all of us,” he said slowly, “and it makes more of a difference than you know. I shouldn’t have had the courage to face Greyback without knowing that it would keep homes like yours safe, and I don’t believe I could have gone on these last few months if I hadn’t had the promise of being able to visit at Christmas.”
It was the closest he had come to voicing a complaint since the beginning of his mission. Arthur did not respond immediately, and when at last he said “Thank you,” his voice was thick. They stood in the middle of the wood feeling rather awkward, as the night wind died down and the creaking of frozen branches and clatter of icicles subsided. Now they could hear a clear voice that wound its way through the trees.
The ivy bears a leaf
As green as any shoot,
Because the chill of wintertime
Pierces not the root.
“I’ve never heard that verse before,” said Arthur. “Have you?”
Remus smiled. “I expect she thought the holly got more than its fair share of the verses, and decided to even things out.”
The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.
They listened, hands in pockets, until Luna finished her song and got the bright idea of acting out “Good King Wenceslas,” following her own footsteps back to the village with a load of firewood tucked under her arm. Remus realized belatedly that they had been walking in circles, and it was in fact the Weasleys’ firewood. Arthur didn’t seem to mind. “We’ve plenty of it, and I don’t think Martin is much of a hand at chopping his own. Too busy chasing Snorkacks. Shall we go in?”
“Yes.” Remus looked up at the darkened sky with its icy pinpricks of stars. “It’s getting late. And,” he added in the hushed voice that people used to report the latest rumors of Death Eater activities, “you shouldn’t stay out in the woods too late at night. Not these days.”
Arthur tensed. “Why not?”
“Well, perhaps there’s nothing in it – but I’ve heard there are werewolves around here.”
Remus ducked and ran toward the bright lights of The Burrow as Arthur took aim with a handful of snow.