Chapter 1 : Life, Love and Laughter
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"Excuse me, Melanie?"
She jumped, for she hadn't heard him come up the steps to her front door with her. "Who are you? What do you want? How do you know who I am?"
The man looked at her quizzically then down at his suit, bright red with a large black belt and black boots, overly large black sack slung over one shoulder. "Did I get it wrong? I'd have thought who I am was obvious."
"Santa Claus?" The woman said skeptically. "You're Santa Claus."
The man smiled. "As for what I want: given who I am, I would think that is obvious too."
"Look, I've had a really rough day, if you're looking to collect for a charity or something--"
"I saw you before you know: showing that ratty old photograph to anyone who would pay attention. Looking for your daughter's lost dog, showing everyone you could find, hoping someone had seen him. You've spent all afternoon looking for a little lost dog that your 7 year old daughter treasures. Polly is her name, isn't it? And the dog? His name is Marvel."
"Ok, that's creepy. How do you know that? I'm warning you, I carry pepper spray, and my husband Ben is just inside."
The man cocked his head to one side and a gleam rose up in his eye. "Peppers come in spray form? That's amazing. My wife always has to grow ours in the garden out back."
The woman opened her mouth and then closed it again as she stared at him. There was an odd twinkle in his eye; it wasn't mischievous, it was generous. His face was flush with the cold, but there was a warmth in his voice, and a curiosity. He was odd to be sure, but there was something about him that begged her to trust him. She nodded slowly. "He ran out just as Polly was getting home from the doctor's. She and Ben looked everywhere, but they couldn't find him."
"You took all afternoon off of work after he called telling you Marvel was gone, didn't you?"
The woman nodded, tears welling up in her eyes as she took the grainy picture out of her purse again and held it out to him with trembling hands. Marvel was a puppy, and Polly was no more than three and bald as an egg. Santa of course, had seen the picture two hours before, when the woman accosted him as a random stranger on the streets, panic-stricken, looking for the dog. Of course he looked much different then, with his tall, thin build and his graying ginger hair. The man found the poor creature not fifteen minutes later, dead in the street, struck by a car. He'd held the woman as she cried over her beloved pet. "It's just a cheap picture, camera-phones weren't so good back then, but it always was my favorite. You can see they adored each other right from the get go. We got him when Polly was battling her leukemia; he got her through the nightmare of chemotherapy. I don't know how I'm ever going to tell Polly that he's gone. The house will just be so quiet without him."
Santa nodded as he softly added, "It's hard to lose love and laughter."
"Santa's lost someone then?" The woman took a step closer to the man. She looked closely, the hair was real, the rosy cheeks were real, and the kindness and curiosity in the man's face was real. So was the pain, even as he tried to hide it.
Santa quickly pulled himself back together again, and rose up to full height as he handed her back the picture, "Now then. What are we going to do about your Polly?"
"Not much to be done then? Is there?" Melanie shrugged. "Somehow I have to tell her the truth. It's going to devastate her."
Santa shook his head. "You could take another route."
Melanie's shoulders sagged. "Look, I really don't have time for whatever game you're up to. I've had a long day, my boss is furious with me for missing the last 5 hours of my shift and I have to go in and break my little girl's heart."
Santa shook his head again. "No, you don't."
"I don't?" Melanie said completely exasperated. "Unless you can come up for a passable replacement for Marvel--"
Santa smiled. "Well, I am Santa Claus."
"No. No, I don't know what you're up to, but children need to understand loss, and death, and grieving. It's a natural part of life. Especially hers."
Santa leaned in close to her. "Not Polly: not this Christmas." The bewitching gleam Santa's eye grew stronger.
"What do you need me to do?" The words escaped Melanie's lips before she even thought about it. If there was anything, anything at all that would help Polly this Christmas, Melanie was willing to do it. Chances were that she didn’t have many Christmas’s left.
"Close your eyes," the Santa Claus said as he gripped the edge of his sack. "Close your eyes and open your heart to bigger possibilities."
"Ok," Melanie shrugged in disbelief.
The Santa Claus leaned in close to Melanie and whispered. "Now believe in Christmas magic."
"I'll believe in anything that will help my daughter." Melanie whispered.
Santa reached into his sack, pausing just past the opening to take hold of his son's wand and cast a quick transfiguration spell on the stray dog he had found an hour before. The dog whimpered, irritated that the first warm and dry place he'd found in weeks was being disturbed.
"Ho, ho!" Santa whispered. "The little fellow doesn't want to come out. Perhaps we could use some help?" He stepped over to the door and knocked loudly. Within moments excited footsteps came running down the stairs. The door burst open and Santa spied a young girl, the same girl from the photograph, only a few short years older and with a thick growth of dark hair. Bags underwrote the girl’s eyes, and she was out of breath from just the short run. She was obviously sick with whatever leukemia was.
“Mama-- Santa?” The girl rasped as her dad followed close behind her. “Why are you on the porch?”
Santa smiled and motioned up at the roof. “Because your fireplace is fake, it's sealed off part way up to keep out drafts. I wonder Polly, might I come inside?”
“Polly?” Polly’s dad Ben came down the stairs. Like the outside of the house, he was well kept, but not well off. “Polly, come back inside, you’ll catch the death of--- Melanie, what’s going on?
“Ben, it’s all right. I’m not sure what’s…. going on, but it’s all right.” She kissed Polly hello then went inside the house, motioning for Santa to follow her. Santa picked up his sack, the abandoned dog whimpering again at being disturbed and followed Melanie inside out of the freezing cold and snow.
The house was tiny, but clean and meticulously cared for. A small Christmas tree stood in the front window, sparse with decorations and an odd bend two thirds of the way up. Portraits filled the parlor, the funny Muggle portraits that didn't move. Nearly all of them were of the family, and most included Marvel. It was just as Santa had hoped; it was a home that was filled with love.
"Tea, Santa?" Ben offered, unable to think of anything else to say as Santa Claus sat down on his couch.
"No thank you, must be off, lots of children to attend to tonight. Polly, would you come here a moment?"
Polly took a very cautious step toward Santa as the black bag at his feet moved slightly.
"It's all right, in fact, what's inside it is for you."
"For me?" Polly took another step. "Why are you delivering it to me in person? And why are you here so early?"
Santa smiled and winked, "Because somebody was anxious to get home."
The bag rustled again, and then from out the top poked a little black nose. "Marvel?" Polly rushed over to the bag and tore it open. Out popped a filthy Yorkshire Terrier, no more than five pounds, his black eyes peering at his new mistress.
"Who's this then?"
"Honey, that's Marvel!" Ben exclaimed as the pup moved out of the bag and over to Polly, it's little tail wagging furiously at the warm surroundings.
Polly shook her head as she sat down to examine the pup. "No, that's not Marvel. He looks like Marvel, but something's off. He's limping for starters; look he won't put any weight on his front paw."
"He was just hurt in his run-about outside. He'll get better. He just needs some love."
Melanie kept completely still, unsure of how to react. It certainly looked like Marvel, if she didn't know differently, she'd swear that it was Marvel. She looked to Santa, who was busy studying her daughter.
"No," Santa said at last as he stood and walked over to the girl. "No, it's not Marvel. And you are a much smarter child than most people give you credit for." Santa sat down on the floor next to Polly, and then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a doggie treat which the Yorkie hungrily gobbled up. "Polly, I want you to listen to me. Marvel has gone away to a place even beyond Santa's reach, and sometimes that happens. You know that, don't you?"
Polly nodded, tears brimming her eyes. The little dog perked his ears up at Polly's sniffling and hobbled over to her, standing up on his hind legs to lick her with a kiss. "Why Santa? Why did you try to trick me?"
"Polly, Santa didn't try to trick you, Santa tested you. You see, a selfish girl would have pretended it was the same dog. A shallow girl would have gotten mad and rejected the dog. But a loving girl, a girl with her head on right would see him for what he is and make room in her heart for him: like you're doing." He nodded to Polly's hand, which was unconsciously stroking the dog. "This little fellow has known only sickness and want, and yet here he is, offering you unconditional love. Now, you say the word, and I will find another home for him. But it seems to Santa that the two of you have an awful lot in common."
"Mum?" Polly turned big blue eyes to her parents. "Can we keep him?"
"Even if it's not Marvel?" Melanie asked.
"Marvel would want me to help him, the way he helped me. Oh Mummy, please? Please can we keep him?"
The two parents looked at each other, astounded by the night and finally just shrugged at each other in disbelief.
"Right!" Santa exclaimed as he stood up. "Now that that is all sorted, I believe we have presents to distribute." He reached into his sack and pulled out four large boxes, two labeled 'Melanie' and the other two labeled 'Ben.' He walked over to the tree and placed them beneath it. "Now, no opening those until tomorrow morning. Oh, and there's one more thing, it's in here somewhere..." He reached into his sack so deeply he was almost swallowed by it. When he finally emerged he'd lost his hat to the sack, but was holding a Christmas stocking identical to the three already hanging on the mantle. It was labeled 'Fred.'
"Who's Fred then?" Ben asked. At this point, Ben was ready for just about anything.
Santa looked at Ben in as if it were obvious. "The dog of course." He mysteriously pulled a hammer and nail from his pocket and hung the stocking by the chimney with the clumsy care of a man who had never used a hammer before in his life.
The newly christened Fred barked his support.
"Now, if you will excuse me, I believe Randolph is anxious to get the sleigh going."
Melanie crossed her arms in front of her. "You mean Rudolph?"
"Rudolph! Right. Well, if you'll allow me to take my leave."
"I'll walk you out." Melanie said, buttoning up her coat and slipping on her threadbare gloves. Polly objected to staying behind, wanting to see Santa's sleigh, but Ben convinced her to take the dog upstairs give him a bath before acquainting him with his new home. Moments later Santa and Melanie were standing on her porch. The snow had stopped, and it was still bitter cold but Melanie didn't notice. "You did more than give her a dog tonight you know. You gave her a reason to live as she faces another round of chemo."
"That bad is it?" Santa asked, not knowing what chemo was other than it sounded horrible. His own experiments with Muggle medicine had certainly turned out less than adequate.
"We just registered her for a bone marrow transplant. If we can't find a suitable donor for her, I'm not sure she'll make it."
Santa leaned against a pillar of the portico offering scant protection from the elements. "No parent should have to lose a child."
"That's it then, isn't it? You lost a child. His name was Fred wasn't it? That's why you did all this for us? Was he Polly's age? Did the cancer center put you on to us?"
Santa smiled carefully. His dispensation to do this every year from the Ministry of Magic was very clear on what he could and could not divulge. "I should be getting on." Santa walked down the three steps of the porch to the front walk.
Melanie followed and grabbed him by the arm. "Who are you?"
The man turned and smiled. "I'm Santa Claus."
Melanie smiled, realizing she was getting nowhere. She reached up and kissed him on the cheek. "Then Merry Christmas Santa, and thank you."
Santa bowed slightly, "Merry Christmas Melanie." He turned to walk down the lane. "And watch out for Fred, he's sure to be a trickster that one!"
Melanie smiled as she looked up at the sky, a few stars just starting to peek out between intermittent clouds. When she looked back, Santa was gone.
Arthur Weasley arrived back at the Burrow just as the aging potion wore off. He sighed in exhaustion as he entered the garage, grateful for the protection it offered from the cold.
"You're back late tonight," Minister Shacklebolt's deep resonant voice offered as he looked up from his book. "Molly will have your head."
Arthur changed into his robes and re-transfigured the Santa costume back into his Wellington boots. "Molly understands. And you know, I think the little girl I found tonight might be a Muggle-born witch? Smart as a Ravenclaw that one: she saw right through my transfiguration spell. But she's sick, very sick. From what her mum said, it doesn't sound like she'll live long enough to see Hogwarts."
Kingsley reached into the Santa sack and pulled Fred Weasley's old wand out of its carefully placed holder and examined it. "I'll have Minerva check to see if her name is in the Book of Admittance. If so, maybe we can have our healers discretely step in to help."
Arthur smiled as the two men walked slowly through the yard, feeling both their age and the cold. The lights burned brightly inside the Burrow and Arthur smiled, pleased with his night's work. "Thanks for helping me with this Kingsley. I couldn't do this every year without you. You'll get his wand back to the war museum?"
Kingsley nodded, "You sure you've got room for me at Christmas Dinner tomorrow? You've got your entire family home this year and then some."
"Molly wouldn't have it any other way, and neither would I." The two men shook hands and Kingsley disapparated off into the night. Arthur stopped at the front door for a moment and closed his eyes; his forehead gently fell forward to rest on the door and he whispered the same prayer he did every year: "Merry Christmas Fred. I hope he's just like you."
He slipped silently in and found his house crammed to the brim with more than two dozen people all listening intently as Molly read the grandchildren a Christmas story from Beedle the Bard. He smiled as he took it all in, waving a quick hello to Teddy Lupin who was in the kitchen pouring an overly large amount of peppermint liquor into a mug of hot chocolate for his grandmother, Andromeda. Arthur motioned to Teddy's hair, which tonight was sporting a red and white candy cane pattern. "Very festive," he mouthed.
"Pocket!!" Little Lily Luna, not quite three years old waived her arms excitedly as she saw her grandfather, her green eyes shining brightly as she climbed down off of Harry's lap and ran over to him.
"There he is!" Exclaimed Molly. "See? I told you he'd be home before bedtime."
Arthur eyed a small, elderly gentleman in the corner sulking moodily. The Weasley clan certainly had a habit of inviting people over; Molly called it picking up strays. Somehow, she always managed to find enough food to feed even unexpected guests. "Good evening, I'm Arthur Weasley. Who are you?"
"That's Albus." Ginny said as she handed a glass of hot spiced wine to her father. "James found what was left of your aging potion and the garage and got him to drink it. Happy Christmas Dad."
"Oops." Arthur said carefully avoiding the glare he knew Molly was steering in his direction. Something tugged on Arthur's pants and he looked down at his youngest granddaughter.
Big green eyes stared back up at him, "Gampa!!! Pocket!"
"Oh! Does somebody want Gampa's magic pocket? Hang on, hang on...." He pulled his wand out of his sleeve and touched it to the breast pocket of his coat, then picked up the small child and gave her a kiss on the forehead as she reached into the pocket and pulled out a small sweet which she eagerly devoured.
"Candy right before bedtime: you're hopeless Dad," Ginny kissed her father before going back and sitting next to Albus to wait out the potion. It was an argument she had long given up on.
Molly came over and slapped him on the arm for leaving his potion out then kissed him on the cheek as well. "You look frozen; I'll just pop you up some stew."
Half an hour later Arthur sat at the kitchen table, his belly full and his ears ringing with the sound of laughter. The younger ones had gone upstairs to the various bedrooms to camp out for the night, mostly to pretend to be asleep while the anxiously awaiting Christmas morning. Some of the older ones, Teddy, Victoire, Dominique and Albus, who got to stay up late on account of the potion debacle, played Exploding Snap in between laughing over Canary Creams or Neville Nougat, which caused your ears to suddenly transform into a cactus. All was well, and Arthur smiled as he thought of the little stray dog that now had a devoted new owner, and the little girl who now had a new reason to fight her sickness.
Life. Arthur thought. That's what the world needs more of. Life, love and laughter. He had brought the first two to Melanie, Ben and Polly. The laughter, well that was up to Fred. Arthur drained his hot spiced wine and went to the stove to spoon himself up another mug. He had no doubt that Fred was up to the task.
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