The night before Christmas break, Lily and Severus

Brewed a potion and said, "Oh, clever us!"

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The memory of Lily's laughing voice brought a scowl to Severus' face as he ladled smoke-coloured Pepperup Potion into flagons. First through fifth-year, he and Lily had always brewed a potion together before leaving for winter holiday. She'd created the inane couplet and tried each time to persuade him to recite it with her. Without fail, he had declined. Last year, however, he'd planned to finally say the words. For some reason, although they hadn't spoken in months, he'd believed she would keep their tradition—concede that she'd missed spending time together. He had waited hours, eager to make concessions in return.

He'd been a fool.

Severus no longer harboured any illusion Lily would walk into the dungeon or change her mind about renouncing their friendship. She was popular, Head Girl; with a rich boyfriend who shared her House affiliation and politics. A Half-blood Prince could never compete with a Pure-blood. He had no social status or wealth.

At dinner earlier, Gryffindor gossip reached the Slytherin table, confirming Severus' belief that the one thing he had to offer would forever be unwanted. Rumour had it James Potter planned to give Lily Evans a betrothal ring for Christmas.

The news made Severus' choice to remain at Hogwarts even more prudent. If he went home, he might do something rash—something that would put Potter in hospital and himself in Azkaban. If he managed to avoid the Evans' neighbourhood, it would still be a rotten holiday. He'd constantly imagine Lily and Potter in her cosy home surrounded by family and friends, happy and smug, while at Spinner's End he and his mother would hole up in the library—the only place grandfather's Muggle-repelling wards ensured Tobias Snape never staggered into.

"Bah humbug," Severus muttered. He cleaned his equipment and worktable and placed the flagons in a basket on Slughorn's desk. His housemates would be drinking spiked punch and boasting to each other of the parties they would attend and the Christmas gifts they would receive. He had no desire to join them.

Of more interest was one of the many Notes to Self scattered carelessly across the desktop.

Discuss with Hagrid the possibility of acquiring Acromantula venom and faery phlox. Dante's Apothecary in Knockturn Alley advertises they will pay top Galleon.

Professor Slughorn, not content with the many gifts from former students, wanted to make money selling rare potions ingredients. Severus doubted he planned on braving the Forbidden Forest. Discuss with Hagrid no doubt meant he would try and talk the groundskeeper into doing the work for him. Self-preservation was a Slytherin hallmark.

And so was ambition.

If he had enough money, Severus could afford to apprentice to a Potions Master. He'd buy tailored wizard robes and not feel shabby and out of place in elevated circles. While Acromantula venom was beyond his skills to obtain, he should be able to locate a faery circle if school lore had more than the proverbial grain of truth to it.

He borrowed a stasis sack from the student cupboard. Since the dungeons were frosty in winter, he was already wearing a cloak over his robes. He took his gloves out of a pocket and put them on, mentally running through the list of charms he would cast. He needed night vision in order to see without a glowing wand acting as a beacon to predators and in addition to a Disillusionment charm, concealment spells to hide any trace of his footsteps or scent.

Outside, Severus shivered beneath the lash of icy wind and cast one more spell: a warming charm. He moved forward and almost fell on his face. The concealment spell didn't just muffle noise; it caused him to walk a slight distance above the snow-covered ground. He took half a dozen wobbly steps to get used to gliding on air. It felt like learning to skate.

His altered vision, sensitive to longer waves of light, tinted the night hues of greys and blacks with an overlay of red. The effect was festively macabre.

When he neared the tree line Severus focused his mind on visualising a path to the faery ring. As foretold, the undergrowth parted. Leaves rustled behind him, but he kept moving forward. If the forest's magic closed the path in his wake he had no wish to see it.

From time to time, a shimmering light would appear to his left or right, extinguish when he turned his head, and then reappear a distance away. A variety of Will o' the Wisp, he presumed. He never veered from his course.

Beneath the dense canopy the air was warmer, protected from the harsher elements. Snow drifted downward from the upper branches.

Suddenly, the path ended. Severus frowned. The grassy clearing in the trees was a few metres away. Did the magic of the circle nullify that of the forest? If he was expected to charge through the underbrush to show his determination, the requirement would have to be satisfied with a walk. He could only glide so fast without losing his balance.

Before he reached the faery ring the thunder of hooves stopped him in his tracks. A centaur burst into the clearing, reared onto his hind legs, and then planted his feet on the ground.

"Get off me."

Whatever magic kept the grass verdant and free of snow amplified voices. Severus clearly heard what was growled in a tone darker than the centaur's hair and skin.

A woman in a long black gown dismounted. "I never asked for a ride, Bane. You insisted." Her profile was elegantly pale, her voice calm. "You bind yourself to tradition."

"I cannot set myself against the heavens. The planets foretold your presence—and our acceptance." Resentment threaded the words.

The woman's hand brushed across horsehide. "Has my pact with your clan been so onerous? Have you not enjoyed our friendship even a little?"

Bane's tail slapped side to side. "No amount of bows and arrows will buy my friendship. Others delude themselves you are the incarnation of Epona, but I know what you truly are." He grabbed the woman by the shoulders and lifted her into the air, feet dangling. "You are a parasite!"

"I am liminal being caught between two natures, as are you." She reached out to stroke his cheek. "Why do you deny the affinity between us?"

As the woman's velvety voice lowered, so did the centaur's head. Severus was transfixed. The tension between the two was electric. He couldn't look away.

Bane's mouth hovered above the woman's, and then he jerked his head back. "Feed so I may leave."

"As you wish." An instant later, her teeth sank into his throat.

Bane's face twisted as though he felt both torment and pleasure. "Fina!" he cried. "Enough!"

The woman dropped lightly to the ground. "The less you allow me to take the sooner I must feed again."

"I know, curse you."

She blocked his way when he made to leave. "Others are willing to take your place. Ronan—"

"Is weak. He would become your slave. Is that what you want?"

"No."

"Then do not speak of it again." Bane left the clearing at a gallop.

The vampire—Fina—watched him go and then turned to gaze in Severus' direction. "I hear your heart pounding," she called. "Come forward and tell me what brings a schoolboy into the forest."

He couldn't Apparate in the Forbidden Forest and outrunning her was impossible. Severus had no choice. "How did you know I was male and go to Hogwarts?" he asked, breaking the Disillusionment charm yet not making eye contact. He preferred not to be entranced by a vampire.

She said, "The Lady of the Wood has long been a Hufflepuff legend. Every few years a romantic boy hears it and gets up the nerve to brave the—"

"Hufflepuff?" Manners be damned, he cut in to set the record straight. "I am Slytherin, madam, here for faery phlox, not romance. While I'm sure your legend is . . . inspiring . . . I've never heard it." He had no liking for faery tales, except when Lily used to read them, and even then he'd watched her face more than listened.

He glanced at Fina to see if he'd angered her and became struck by her resemblance to one of the few faery tale characters he remembered.

"My skin is white as snow, my lips red as blood," she whispered.

"And your eyes." They glittered like rubies, not that he would say such a Hufflepuff-sounding thing.

She smiled. "The better to see you with, my dear."

Severus dragged his gaze from hers. "That's a different faery tale, and you used Legilimency without my knowledge." Someone else might have been frightened. He wanted to know, "How?"

"Experience."

His shiver had nothing to do with a chill. The air was balmy as the height of spring. What he would give to delve into minds without bringing emotions and memories to the person's consciousness. The information he gained would be valuable indeed. "Teach me," he said. "I'm staying at school over holiday, no one will supervise what I do or care. I'll come to the forest every evening." He had no Galleons, nothing to barter. He tried guile. "Unless you're afraid Bane will become jealous."

"And shoot you full of arrows?"

"Uh, no." He'd counted on her wanting to make the centaur jealous, or wanting to prove she wasn't afraid. He hadn't considered the possible lethal consequences.

The corners of her mouth turned down. "Do not worry. These days Bane avoids me whenever possible."

Severus remembered all the times Lily averted her eyes from his in the corridors and waited until he retrieved potions ingredients to approach the student cupboard. He wasn't aware of Fina moving closer until she stood directly in front of him.

"There are many kinds of affinity," she said. "For what you and I share, I will teach."

"Thank you."

"You are welcome, but the phlox you seek this night is not mine to give."

"I have silver for the faeries," he said, taking out the Celtic knot ring bought the previous December and kept in his pocket ever since. He tossed the symbol of his embarrassing sentimentality into the grass.

Nothing happened.

"Sing a song," Fina said.

"I only remember one, and I'm more likely to be punished for it."

Faint laughter wafted on the air.

Severus grimaced. "Remember you asked," he said to his unseen audience and sang, "Hogwarts, Hogwarts, hoggy warty Hogwarts." He looked at Fina. "Teach me something please . . . ."

Tiny, star-shaped flowers appeared and fluttered down like snowflakes. By the end of the song, they covered the ground in a blanket of white.

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A/N: I took a break from Remus and Tonks to write a fic for someone who got shafted in a fic exchange. When I wrote it I discovered that writing, like true art, isn't by the numbers, and my imagination considers prompts open to interpretation. I tried to retain the spirit of the request although it isn't a Halloween story. I got the title from a book site search for "Spooky Christmas" (I was severely title-challenged). I saw it and knew instantly with New Moon out in theatres and a vampire in the story; this was the title for me. :)

I used a couple of phrases from the PS chapter 15 lines in which Bane declared he couldn't set himself against the heavens and the planets foretelling. Now you know why he was such a grumpy git. UST will do that to a man, even when he's half horse. The Hogwarts song is from the first book.

If readers have enjoyed this unusual Christmas story, I'd appreciate the gift of a review. They're always the perfect size and colour, and best of all never have to be returned. ;)