Disclaimer: Harry Potter & Co. are property of J.K. Rowling and her publishers.
A/N: Merry Christmas, folks!
Remus Lupin and the Christmas Snail
A band of green oozed slowly across the field of red, glistening like jellied sugar crystals. In the dim room, protected from sunlight by a swathe of grey curtains, the trail of green slime appeared to glow softly, and occasionally, where struck by a stray beam of sun, it cast umber sparks from its prismatic surface. It advanced with seemingly infinite slowness, and yet after five minutes of watching, an observer would realize with a start that the end of the verdant stripe was, in fact, ten centimetres further left than it had been.
Remus Lupin, sunk in drowsy apathy, watched the snail make its deliberate way across his quilt. It did not occur to him to flick the intruder away. He was still half-asleep and entirely exhausted from a miserable Christmas Eve spent in his less-than-pleasant wolf form. The snail's slow passage held a dream-like quality to his dazed senses, reminiscent of a phantom escaped from some fanciful child's painting. After all, who had ever heard of a green snail?
The adventurous gastropod was more than merely green. Its fleshy parts were the colour of young pine needles, but its shell was a swirl of dark green and red, flecked with winking speckles of gold. Its feelers, which were unusually long and mobile, terminated not in two fleshy lumps, but in twin silver stars much like tiny sprigs of tinsel. As it moved, a faint jingling elicited from its body, as if a host of miniature bells was concealed within its shell.
The soft sound of the invisible bells lulled Remus back into the slumberous realm of the night. As the room grew blissfully hazy, his last sensation was surprise at how comfortable he felt, despite his recent transformation and the winter chill.
He awoke hours later with a sneeze. The sunlight, piercing a tenuous path through the curtains, had travelled across the room to rest, at last, upon his pillow. Heavy dust floated in its beam, tickling his sensitive nose and bringing him completely out of peaceful oblivion. Remus sat up abruptly, shaking his tousled hair aright and drawing the thin quilt around his bare shoulders. Fresh scratches marred his skin, but he took no notice of them.
It had been a glum end to an unpleasant year. The full moon coincided with Christmas Eve, and so he had not been able to spend the holiday with his few remaining loved ones. Instead, Christmas morning found him at the Deme Inn, a dilapidated edifice in a gloomy court opening off Knockturn Alley. He was not fond of the place, but more reputable establishments generally did not accept werewolves.
Remus shivered, trying not to contemplate the future. He had almost no money left. The rising power of Voldemort had prompted near-hysteria in the wizarding world when it came to Dark Creatures, and he hardly dared show his face in public for fear he might be recognized. He hadn't seen Harry in months. Or Dumbledore, for that matter. In fact, he had been avoiding all his friends. In these times, anyone who associated with him could be in danger. He didn't want to see Dumbledore or Tonks condemned as a Death Eater for befriending a werewolf.
He shook his head ruefully. It didn't do to dwell on such things. The present moment was enough to deal with.
His room was small, colourless, and empty, except for the creaky, dust-covered bed and his scant belongings, strewn haphazardly across the splintered floorboards. Streaks of an unidentified substance stained the dingy walls. Tumbleweeds of dust lay in the corners. His red quilt and battered black suitcase shone with unprecedented vibrancy, as if to compensate for their tired surroundings.
Remus yawned and swung his legs out of bed. The floor was gritty ice under his feet. He shuffled over to his suitcase, upending it in a disorganized search for something to wear. Wrinkles and frayed threads infested every article of clothing he owned, as if to wilfully spite his fastidious care.
He had gotten as far as a pair of boxers and a faded, green sweater when the music began. Children's voices, singing. He froze, socks in hand, turning his head from side to side to locate the source of the melody. It was familiar; it evoked long-buried memories of carolling in Hogsmeade, of Christmas cookies and Christmas pranks.
"Come they told me… pa rum pum pum pum… A newborn king to see…"
A smile left its ghostly footsteps on Remus' face. His eyes, gazing into the past, did not see his foot begin to tap. His ears, lost in childhood reminiscence, did not hear the soft hum vibrating from his throat. Had the snail still been present to see him, it might have laughed in its invertebrate heart at this towering creature, hopping around on one foot while trying to pull on a sock and singing Christmas carols under his breath.
"I am a poor boy, too… pa rum pum pum pum… I have no gift to bring…"
With almost supernatural abruptness, the sunlight faded and the room plunged into twilight. Startled, Remus lost his balance and fell heavily against the bed, grabbing the mattress in a failed attempt to stay upright. He succeeded only in shoving it aside and banging his elbow against the frame.
"Bollocks," he muttered, rubbing his tingling funny bone. "That hurts."
He groped blindly across the bed, intending to pull the mattress back into place. Instead of the expected rough and lumpy mass, however, his hand encountered what felt like a ball of velvet. He drew it towards him, squinting in the darkness. It clinked.
He rose slowly and went to the window, throwing back the curtains. In the gentle, white light, he noticed two things immediately. One: it was snowing. Two: in his hands lay a bag of money.
His jaw fell open in disbelief. It took a great effort to keep from rubbing his eyes. But there was no mistake: it was a small, velvet bag, filled to the brim with Galleons. A yellowed piece of paper hung by a golden thread from the neck. It read "A thowsand kurses upon hym who dos not retern this gold two Garblecrook the Great."
A shout of laughter burst from Remus' lips. He gripped the windowsill to keep from falling yet again. Goblin gold! Some previous guest had forgotten a small fortune underneath the mattress – long ago, no doubt, judging by the condition of the bag. He would have given the entire contents of the bag to see the poor bugger's face when he realized his misfortune. A grin sprang onto his face that his old professors would have found ominously familiar. He wondered if this qualified as a miracle, or merely whopping good luck. At least one of his problems was solved, for the time being.
"Merry Christmas, Moony," he said aloud. "If only I had someone else to share it with."
As if in reply, an owl tapped its beak against the window. Remus almost dropped the bag in surprise. He had not told anyone where he was spending Christmas. Who knew he was here?
He opened the window, letting in a flurry of wings and snow. The owl, a small, scruffy bird with shining yellow eyes, alighted warily on the disordered bed and thrust out its horny leg. A postcard dangled from its talons. It hooted demandingly and glared at him, clearly impatient to be away and off to more wholesome haunts. Still, it took a few minutes of verbal and monetary persuasion before it allowed Remus to take possession of the message and flapped haughtily away.
"Pleasant day to you, too," Remus muttered absently, scrutinizing his mail.
The postcard showed a picture of an owl flying over a snow-covered pine forest under a sky full of brilliant stars. It held a red letter in its beak. As he watched, the envelope opened and words spiralled out, arranging themselves in neat stanzas around the card. They read:
You are invited!
Share the holiday cheer!
Brunhilda's Breakfast Barn
Ask for the Fawkes party
"Dumbledore," Remus breathed, "you old rogue." A sudden flood of happiness surprised him. He need not be alone this Christmas, after all. He brushed aside the protests of caution; if Dumbledore had summoned him, it must be safe.
Five minutes later, he was fully dressed and striding quickly down the street. With collar turned up and hat pulled low, he felt safely anonymous. Snow fell merrily around him, blotting out the festering sights and smells of Knockturn Alley. Music drifted once more to his ears; a children's choir was singing somewhere. As he drew nearer to Diagon Alley, the song grew louder.
"The fire is slowly dying… and, my dear, we're still goodbye-ing… but as long as you love me so… let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!"
He ran the last few steps to the connecting street, eagerness tearing at his chest. Diagon Alley opened up before him, bright with twinkling lights, full of delicious smells and indescribable colours and happy people. He stopped in the middle of the street and put down his suitcase, holding out his arms to the drifting snow. It piled up on his coat and hat. In a moment of spontaneity, he tilted his head back and caught a flake on his tongue. It was gone before he could taste it, as always. The soft coldness of it ignited a fire of joy in his heart. It dispelled the lingering exhaustion, the depression, the fear he had been living with for months. He laughed out loud and turned in a circle, ignoring the bemused glances of passers-by.
He passed the choir not much further down the street. They were schoolchildren, too young yet to attend Hogwarts. A small crowd had gathered to watch and sing along. Someone thrust a paper cup of hot chocolate into his hands; he stammered a "thank you" and wandered on, disoriented by this gesture of kindness. The cobblestones rang like bells beneath his feet; the snow brushed his cheeks like kisses. The wind was full of poetry. His throat ached with the beauty of it. He could not believe how quickly the world had changed – last night he had wanted nothing better than to never wake again, and today he could not remember how unhappiness felt. In the privacy of his mind, he dubbed the phenomenon "the reverse Dementor effect." The thought made him laugh again.
Brunhilda's Breakfast Barn stood not far from Flourish & Blott's. It was a low building with a roof of straw, and looked like nothing so much as an oversized Viking hut. Remus could not imagine a more charming place. He found himself whistling as he strode to the door.
He stepped inside, only to run full-force into a body coming from the other direction.
"Oof!" he gasped, reeling backwards from the collision – but not before he had recognized his accidental assailant. "Tonks!"
"Remus!" the young woman sputtered, crimson and breathless. Her hair stuck up in inky black spikes, no doubt intended to contrast the snow. Her cheeks were bright pink. "Wotcher! Fancy meeting you here! Dumbledore'll be spiffed. I'm rather pleased myself." She squinted at something over his head. "Oh my, look… we're under the mistletoe…"
And before Remus could protest, she had pulled his head down to her own and kissed him firmly on the lips. A second later, she was skipping away into the snow.
"Can't talk now, must meet Dung for something!" she called over her shoulder.
Remus stared after her for a minute before shaking himself and scurrying through the door. A wave of warmth enveloped him, melting the snow on his hat. Water dripped down the side of his face. He took off the hat and shook his head, sending drops flying. By the time he was done, his hair was nearly as mussed as Tonks'.
"Can I help you?" a plump, blonde lady with pigtails asked politely.
He glanced around. He was in what appeared to be a reception room. The floor was dirt and there were strange, brightly-coloured paintings on the wooden walls. A door in the opposite wall presumably led to other rooms.
"I'm looking for the Fawkes party," he said.
The hostess led him through a large common room crowded with rough, wooden tables. Four roaring fires lit the space; a collection of shields, spears, and swords hung from the walls. The room was mostly empty, populated only by a few individuals silently consuming their breakfasts.
There was a staircase at the far end of the common room.
"They've reserved the whole cellar," the blonde woman told him cheerily, "Go right on down, he's expecting you!" She blew him a kiss and bustled away, her pigtails swinging.
Remus was not at all surprised to find Albus Dumbledore waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs, in front of yet another door. The Headmaster's robe was embroidered with brilliantly life-like sprigs of holly, and small bells hung from his beard. A perpetual smile hovered around his lips.
"Albus," Remus said wryly, "I should've known you wouldn't leave me to myself."
"I had some extra Christmas cheer, and know of no one more deserving of it than you," the old wizard replied with benign blandness. "No one should be alone on Christmas." He gave Remus a curious look. "Although it seems you are not quite alone, after all."
"What do you mean?" Remus frowned, glancing around him. "I don't see anyone."
In reply, Dumbledore reached forward and picked something off his collar. He opened his hand to reveal a large, green snail. Its tinsel feelers waved disarmingly at Remus, and the bells in its shell echoed the ones in Dumbledore's beard.
It took a moment for Remus to find his voice. "Am I still dreaming, then?" he asked weakly.
"Not at all," the Headmaster said happily, "it's a Christmas snail."
"A Christmas… snail? I've heard of Christmas reindeer, teddy bears, and kittens, but never snails, Albus."
"I'm not surprised. They're very rare. They only live one day, you see – Christmas Day. But rumour has it they bring good luck to whoever finds them. Or whomever they find, if you will."
Remus stared hard at the other man's face, suspicion prickling in his thoughts.
"Something tells me you made this up," he said finally.
Dumbledore laughed, a sound like a child's song. "Perhaps I did." He deposited the snail back on Remus' shoulder. "Now, if you're quite ready, everyone – with the exception of the truant Tonks – is waiting for us."
"Everyone?" Remus asked, forgetting about the snail leaving slime trails on his coat, "is Harry here?"
"Everyone," Dumbledore said, throwing open the door.
"Professor Lupin!" a host of voices chorused.
A grin split Remus' face. Maybe it was only one day, and maybe his luck wouldn't last. But he would take what he could get.