Chapter 8: Yule
I can't allow you to spend the Winter Solstice all by yourself. I confess I had indulged in the fantasy of inviting you to the party my family organizes like every other year. My mother is always ranting at me for not having ever brought a guest, and I would be obliged to you if you gave me a chance to shut her up once and for all. All that had stopped me from inviting you earlier was the fact that I don't really know how you feel about Muggles. When you told me of how much you regretted the past, I had assumed, maybe with naivete, that you had abandoned certain prejudices altogether. I notice now I could even be wrong. If so, my invitation is inopportune because you know my mother isn't a witch, and many of my relatives who will be there are from her side of the family. I apologize if I come across as uncouth, because I only mean be honest. Please, consider the possibility of joining us for Yule if it doesn't make you uncomfortable.
Regulus folded the missive and put it aside, chewing on his bottom lip and staring sullenly at the quill in his hand as if he could will it to write an adequate reply by itself. He had no idea how he could refuse Charity's invitation without causing an irreparable break in their friendship. He knew well how close she was with her parents, because the enthusiasm with which she had fleetingly described them to him in a previous conversation was been difficult to miss or forget. Her father was a pureblood wizard who, like many others before him, had been forced to infiltrate the Muggle world to pursue an artistic career as theatre actor, while her mother was a Muggle ballerina he had hopelessly fallen in love with along the way. From what Regulus had heard, it seemed the pair conducted a bohemian lifestyle - which Charity clearly so admired - in London.
So if he snubbed her family's company for the upcoming festivities, regardless of how many pretty words he used to deny his past ideals, Charity would just think he was playing the Slytherin to hide the fact that he considered her mother's race inferior. Which wasn't ... completely untrue, because while he no longer considered Muggle-hunting and ethnical cleansing as more than the senseless butchery they were, it wasn't saying he thought Muggles were equals to the magical folk. He hadn't the experience to say where the difference between the two races ended and the likeness began and he had the feeling that any conclusion he would be able to reach would equally disquiet him.
Yet he knew the only way he would ever stop looking back was by looking ahead.
Regulus tried to picture himself surrounded by Muggles, eating between Muggles, talking to Muggles. In spite of himself, he was bit curious about them - were they as intelligent as wizards and witches? How did they conceive a world without magic? How would they interact with the Sophocles Burbage side of family?
There was the fact that Plato Pomfrey, Charity's uncle, was deceased during the War, killed by some Death Eater while he tried to bring his Healer's expertise to an Auror camp, so it was unlikely that Poppy Pomfrey's brother would have liked him better than the mediwitch did.
Still, Regulus had promised himself that he had done with running and hiding, and this was the ideal instance to prove the trueness of his resolutions. He couldn't digest the supposition that Charity would despise him if he disappointed her expectations. He wouldn't insult her generosity so, even if he had brave hordes of Muggles and frowning parents to avoid.
Morgana, I'm going to feast at Yule among Muggles and magical folk alike...
The Winter Solstice came by before Lily fully realized it, although she enjoyed anticipating it with an enthusiasm she hadn't felt from perhaps her childhood. James and Sirius sent a Christmas card and a stuffed puppy for Harry, charmed to change its colour every time it was touched. The gift, however it reassured her that they hadn't forgotten about their son and godson in this time of celebration, angered her as well. From what they had explained to her before accepting this mission, any violation of their cover might be dangerous for both their assignment and their well-being - so why were they risking it so imprudently? She knew she could trust that they were brilliant enough to hide their tracks, but it didn't ease her worry. Taken singularly, Sirius and James were perfectly capable of acting like sensible adults, if they so chose. But when they were together... it brought out both their best and their worst sides, reviving a certain reckless Marauder-iness which disquieted her a little.
She was determined to not dwell over them long enough to ruin her good mood; there was something unique and miraculous in being a spectator to the Hogwarts festivities. Christian and pagan decorations representing glass angels and snow fairies mingled joyously and the singing armours sang both Solstice chants and Christian carols, underlining how simple it was within those walls at least - the coexistence of two religions so different, whose seasonal celebration shared some customs like gifts, decorating trees, carolling. It seemed only bloodlines and House rivalry could create real divisions within both the wizarding world and Hogwarts.
Although the wizarding world had pagan foundations and the vast majority of ancient families remained faithful to the Ancient Religion, half-bloods and Muggleborns had introduced Christianity somewhere along the line. There were exceptions - pureblooded families like Potters and Malfoys had converted to Christianity many generations ago. It struck Lily as befitting, the way religious faith had truly nothing to do with political alignments and life choice. For Lily, learning about magic hadn't ever been truly distinct from learning the Old Religion - Eileen had initiated Severus into her faith and he had always taken for granted that being a witch or a wizard had to mean being pagan as well, passing that belief onto her. As an intrigued little girl, Lily hadn't considered it an imposition, but rather a new look to the different facets of Divinity. Although, she hadn't cared to report to her parents everything Severus taught her about wizarding culture.
This year, not more than twenty students had stayed at the castle for holidays, but the quieter atmosphere made the school more 'homely' to her, entitling her to roam along the dungeons more freely.
"Merry Yule," she said to Severus as he stood aside to allow her to enter his study.
"Merry Yule to you, too." He half-glared at the rectangular package in her hands. Evidently, he was still hung on over the commotion of the morning. Minerva had told her at breakfast of it: some students had thought it was funny to leave, as a gift, a bottle of shampoo enchanted to sing some stupid rhyme until it was unwrapped before the Potions Master's study door. Assumedly, it was the hard work of seventh or sixth years not too pleased with the Head of Slytherin House's acerbic grading. Lily didn't know whether she should have to be more sorry for the suspected students who would, guilty or not, pay for this prank for whole the rest of their school year, or for Severus, who would doubtlessly taken the accident to mean more than it was. He was just twenty-four after all, and he intimidated his students like a man of twice his age and experience. While not justified, a little rebellion and defiance were to be anticipated.
"I've heard you were a really, really good boy this year and since you are too old for Santa Claus, I guessed it was my job to reward you."
His thin lips twitched like he was fighting a smile, but he looked so enthralled with the present she had handed him that his eyes roamed over it as if to visually dissect it. It was wrapped with silver strings and a musky green paper whose background abounded of animated, fuming little cauldrons.
"I think you are supposed to open it, you know," she babbled before he had a chance to comment. So, maybe she had overdone it a little, but it was only because she loved shopping for gifts and this year her list was way too short. How was she supposed to know where they stood with each other, anyway? She liked to think they were, if not friends, at least close, to gain back a part of the understanding they had as kids.
"Must I? It looks diverting enough this way." But he did unwrap the present with a carefulness which indicated he appreciated her gift. "The Count of Monte Cristo." He read the title out loud, slowly, turning the book in his hands.
"You can not remember it, but I had borrowed mine to you a long time ago, and I remember you had enjoyed it. Maybe you'll appreciate the ending more this time around."
"I think I will. Thank you." He remembered, naturally, how much his younger self had loved it and overall how much he had regretted the impossibility of buying a copy for himself, with his father breathing on his neck for every misspent penny. It was surprising and touching to see she had remembered such a meaningless episode. To reason on it, the book had turned rather prophetic for his fate.
"I have a gift for you as well." He had bought it in spite of the unshakable certainty he wouldn't summon up the nerve to offer it to her, unless he was inspired to find a passable excuse, but Lily's look of bewildered enthusiasm was worth of any loss of caution.
"You got me something?"
"Yes, I did," he echoed her, his bemusement at her reaction so evident that it embarrassed her a little. Severus placed the unwrapped packet on the desk, at a prudent distance from a few vials and opened a drawer to remove a sachet of burgundy velvet, tied by golden chords.
Gryffindor colours, Lily realized incredulously once the little gift was in her palm. They had had a similar idea.
She undid the ribbon and the sachet swirled open, revealing... almond-sized, oblong seeds of a shiny vermillion colour. She hadn't seen anything similar before. "What are they going to grow?"
Wow. "Those are - rare."
As a matter of fact, they were difficult to acquire outside the black market in Knockturn Alley. Their petals were used for many beauty philtres and - most importantly - incenses to direct and shape nocturnal dreams. Their plant resembled a purplish-leaved hedge producing dark violet flowers which opened only by night.
"They are part of a batch I had ordered for myself. If you feel too guilty to accept them, I can keep yours as well. I will put them to good use."
"Absolutely not." Lily smirked. "Just wait until I find a new home and those will be the first addition to my garden. Is it true their nectar smells differently to different people according to what attracts them? Like Amortentia?"
"Even though the Elysian Blossoms' nectar is a minor ingredient, it has the main influence in determining the potion's scent. The flower's one is less pronounced." Severus paused, not sure if he wanted to continue. "Are you leaving Godric's Hollow?"
Lily shrugged, pushing a rebel dark red tendril behind her ear self-consciously. "It doesn't feel right living there now James and I parted ways. It's not like it makes any difference to Harry."
"I admit I didn't think your separation was so permanent."
"It is," Lily remarked with a practical tone which reassured Severus considerably. "James had left before accepting that assignment abroad. We have just to wait for one whole year of legal separation before the annulment of our vows becomes legal."
Experience had illustrated to her in rich colours it wasn't a good idea lingering too long on the James Potter subject around Severus Snape. Her eagerness to turn the conversation away from it had Lily's gaze wandering around the office and focusing on the vials and jars lined over his desk, containing heterogeneous ingredients. "Were you preparing to brew something?"
"Tonight." He nodded, gesturing as if it was long time away - but some of them had been stewed beforehand.
At a closer observation, she recognized some of them: scorpion's legs, blood of dragon, absinthe...acromantula venom?
"Are you making a poison?"
"Yes, I'm secretly planning a slow agony for an handful of Gryffindors with a disputable poetic talent."
Lily raised her eyebrows at his flat seriousness, which elicited from her an allusively sweet quip.
"Now, Professor, I wouldn't be so nosy as to inquire about your reasons to use it. My interest is purely academic. "
He waved away her flippancy with a somewhat resigned sigh, as if it had already tired him out. "It will be an Inerthius Draught."
"Do you mind if I help? It's been quite a while since I participated in any potion-making of this level of difficulty. I confess I'm a bit curious about this one in particular."
"If you are awake by then, I shall begin by midnight."
There was a peculiar magical power associated with crossroads and intersection points, both temporal and spatial; to be reminded of it, Lily became aware of the tingle of a forgotten kind of excitement. Potions brewing was an intuitive science dangerously close to art, and you had to love it to excel at it; she was sorry that circumstances had prevented her from finding out how proficient she would become.
"Crazed ghouls couldn't keep me away, even if I wasn't already insomniac."
Severus gave another of his inscrutable looks and eventually shrugged carelessly. "All right."
Later, when Lily was gone and he was sitting behind his desk, the Slytherin Head of House folded slowly the paper which had been used to pack Lily's gift and accurately inserted it among the book's pages. Caressing the cover with reluctant fondness, he struggled to come to terms with the strangeness of this Yule. Even the Headmaster had fallen a victim to the festive spirit and vivaciously insisted to stick to him a paid subscription to Potions Weekly.
Truly, Severus, it's my responsibility to ensure my professors are properly informed.
How was he supposed to properly refuse Albus after that hinted insult?
Regulus Black had felt authorized to owl him a bottle of a seasoned spiced prune mead, accompanied by a justificatory card: 'I thought it was in my best interests ensuring you were equipped to bear the incapacityof your students for at least another year.'
It wasn't as if Severus was used to letting Yule pass unobserved: ex-Death Eaters cultivated their acquaintances for the convenience's sake and it had never appealed to his imaginary sentimental side. Nor should it have.
Yet the most precious present he had received this year was knowing Potter wouldn't be quite the fundamental figure in the Lily's life anymore.