11 August: the fudge is a metaphor Who: Lily and Severus What: Lily's making an offer she really hopes Severus won't refuse When: Sunday 11th August Where: Cokeworth (their old stomping ground) Warnings: Allusions to unpleasant happenings and consequences, but in itself harmless
Lily wasn't late for the meeting she'd arranged with Severus purely because she'd given herself an additional half hour for arguing about it with James. Well, she preferred to think of it as allaying his reasonable concerns and using them as a checklist to make sure I really have thought of everything, but she accepted that to an outsider it would probably look a lot like arguing.
In any case, she pushed through the door of Lulu's Coffee Nook precisely on the dot of three with some trepidation. Unfounded, as it turned out that the place she remembered being a dreary linoleum greasy spoon that hadn't served anything worthy of the name coffee had, in fact, reinvented itself into a modern and breezy cafe, complete with fancy exposed light fittings and a list of their single-origin fair trade coffees of the week. She'd looked it up on the internet before she suggested it to Severus, but hadn't quite believed it could be true until she laid eyes on it herself.
Severus was already inside, if only because he had very strong feelings on the subject of punctuality. That, and he preferred to have at least a few moments alone to assess his surroundings; entry points, exits, general quality of patrons inside a building, and whether or not this was all some particularly elaborate and pointless trap meant to lull him into a false sense of security. Lily would be excellent bait for that, though she had to know that inviting him anywhere near the old neighborhood was only going to result in tension.
Actively loathing a place made it difficult to relax and enjoy a hot beverage. Admittedly, he hadn’t been around in a while. This business, like others around it, seemed to be enjoying some kind of gentrification. Odd, but not wholly unwelcome.
He lifted a hand in greeting, as if somehow Lily might miss him, and managed to tuck it back down into his lap without fidgeting.
Spotting Severus was both a relief and simultaneously the opposite. He'd come, but that meant Lily was really going to have this conversation. No need to rush, though; Lily came over to his table, still stealing surprised looks around them. "Can you believe this place?" she said, sliding into the other chair. "I didn't think Cokeworth even knew what a frappucino was. They have cronuts! I am definitely getting one." If the babble didn't give her away, the slight uncertainty to her smile might have. She added: "I hope you're well?"
“You might want to reserve judgment until after you’ve tasted them,” Severus pointed out, dry and obviously dubious regarding this establishment’s ability to produce anything edible. It looked fine. It smelled fine. But he’d believe it when Lily managed to take a bite and not spit it right back into a napkin.
Not his fault, he thought. He could remember this place when it was all cracked vinyl and the stale smell of smoke.
“I’m fine,” he allowed, in afterthought. A brow lifted, though his gaze didn’t divert from her face. “You look as if the rumours of your demise were all very wildly exaggerated.”
Lily's smile curved toward wry at that. She spread her hands, as though saying, here I am. "Despite the best efforts of some, I pulled through. Though given how many attempts there have been this year, I thought it might make sense to lie low." The lightness of her tone belied the weight of what she was discussing. "At least until things are a little more resolved." She turned in her seat a little, looking around. "Is it table service here? Do I order at the counter? What can I get you, Severus?"
“I’ve only seen people at the counter,” Severus answered, having watched the process for a few minutes prior to Lily’s arrival. He liked to know what he was getting into before risking embarrassment by waiting for service that might never manifest. “A cup of dark roast. One sugar.” He liked to keep things simple and without frills.
Lily flashed a smile, and stood again. "Be right back."
And she was, relatively speaking, after one animated conversation with the girl behind the counter, money changing hands, and gaining possession of a plate with a sugar-dusted cronut. Oh, wait, two plates, the second smaller, with a little square of something dark. "They have fudge as well!" Lily exclaimed as she settled herself and her bounty back at the table. Cronut for her, and she nudged the small plate across the table towards Severus. "I'm entirely happy to eat this one too if you've gone off chocolate orange things since we were kids."
Severus watched the exchange from the corner of an eye; not intending to intrude, but slightly too paranoid to let it go without observation. He was surprised to see her return with fudge, much less a flavour he’d never really grown out of enjoying, and a smile cracked his expression as he ducked. “No, I haven’t. I’m surprised you remember that.”
Lily was so pleased to have got it right that she spoke without thinking. "I like to remember the things that make my friends happy." She second-guessed the words almost as soon as they were out of her mouth. "Sorry, I don't mean to dredge up history or--" She stopped, took a breath, ignored the warming of her cheeks. "Obviously there's a reason why I invited you here. But the fudge doesn't have an ulterior motive. I just thought you'd like it."
But Lily felt a little like the reason she'd invited him now sort of sat between them, a veiled third party at the table. She nearly startled when the waitress suddenly appeared with their coffees.
Thrown for a beat, Severus grimaced and glanced aside to offer a half-hearted thanks to the server dropping off their drinks. He knew there was a reason for this invitation, and perhaps it was better not to pretend otherwise. This wasn’t a social call. They hadn’t been friendly for the sake of it for years. “Right,” he agreed, quiet. “Thank you.”
Lily sighed, feeling like she'd messed this up already, but dodging wasn't going to help anything either. So she said, "I suppose we might as well get to it, then," as she added sugar to her coffee. Set down her spoon, settled her handbag on her lap, lifted her wand just enough to cast a surreptitious ward against eavesdropping, and took another breath. "I need your help, Severus. I have an opportunity to do something incredible. Something impossible, except apparently it isn't. But I don't think I can manage it alone. And... well." She gave Severus a fleeting smile. "I always got the best results, especially on something new, when I was working with you."
To business, then, and Severus straightened up, tension drawing his shoulders back. He didn’t know what to expect, exactly, and Lily’s hedging wasn’t illuminating. It was flattering, yes, and once upon a time, he would’ve been satisfied enough with that. Still, looking for flattery and validation had gotten him into a great deal of trouble, so he was warier now. Taking a sip of coffee, he let the moment stretch before venturing a cautious, “Something in our mutual field, I take it. Which impossible task have you set for yourself?”
No real way to say it other than to say it, and no way for Lily to contemplate it--even now, days after she'd first seriously considered it--without a faintly disbelieving smile creeping onto her face. "I think we can make alkahest."
Fortunate that Severus had already swallowed his mouthful of coffee or they might have suffered a mess. He still made a choked noise before shaking his head, dumbfounded in the face of Lily’s assertion. “You cannot possibly be serious. No one’s been able to do that. There aren’t even cohesive theories on how, and even if you presume some of the wilder notions may be close… they’re still dangerous.”
"Yes." Lily had to agree on all of that. She took a sip of her own coffee that might have been prim if not for the lingering smile--really, this was such a wildly improbable opportunity, and she was finally discussing it with someone who really and genuinely understood. "Dangerous, yes. Please don't ask how we got the dragonfire. It's the lack of cohesive theories where I really need your help. I've got access to some rare sources that really help narrow things down a bit, but there's still such a range, not least in ingredient notation and preparation assumptions."
Lily stopped herself there, biting her lip for a moment. She'd got a little carried away; had that been too much? Had she given anything away? McGonagall had been quite firm about keeping things close, and Lily understood--agreed, even--but it was just so dizzying.
Severus opened and closed his mouth, because of course he wanted to ask. He had so many questions, enough that he couldn’t actually begin to articulate them fast enough, but… that was good. It meant he had to stop and mull things over before blurting out the first thing that leapt to mind.
(It was inappropriate, anyway. Probably. Who could even tell anymore?)
“And that’s what’s struck your interest,” he tested, eyes wide. “Coming across these sources? Where did you even find something tangible enough to make it worth the effort?” Vague references and half-cocked theories were all well and good for intellectual exercises, but Lily had to have something if she’d already gone to the trouble of acquiring the heat source that most theories hedged around as the best (nearly only) option.
"It's a very old cache," Lily hedged, fiddling with her cronut and getting powdered sugar all over her fingers for her troubles. "Decisions are still being made over what to do with the discovery, so I'm afraid I can't say too much more. I thought you might be sceptical, though, it's only sensible, so just as an example..." She dusted her fingers off on her napkin, and then wiped them again on her skirt for good measure, before reaching into her bag and pulling out a book.
Not just a book, probably better to say a tome. It wasn't enormous, but it was bound in board and leather and gilt in a way that just didn't get done any more. The cover was decorated with ornate words that were nearly indecipherable from the fading and flaking of the paint and, moreover, being in... some sort of Celtic dialect? "The title works out roughly as Secrets of the Cauldron of the Dagda," Lily said helpfully. "And yes, I am having an awful time with translation charms."
The gleam in dark eyes was nothing but curiosity as Severus eyed the book. He’d always been one for learning. He loved books and libraries and knowing things simply for the sake of having the knowledge, and the temptation was clear on his face. His fingers twitched, but he didn’t reach for that book. “May I?” He asked, after clearing his throat. He’d yet to touch his fudge. His hands were very clean, but he’d go bully someone in the kitchen here for gloves if necessary.
Lily held out the book with a smile. "It's got good preservation charms. Just don't spill anything on it because I really don't want to have to explain that to the librarians." Not least because they were intangible. "I've got a ribbon in there on what I think is the most useful page, but I've been doing a lot of cross-referencing in the other pages trying to figure out just what the ingredients it's talking about might actually be in this day and age."
“Mm. I imagine there’s a fair bit of inference one has to do to work forward,” Severus mused, gingerly taking the book and turning the pages until he found Lily’s ribbon. “Paracelsus wasn’t jotting down notes about potassium carbonate, after all.” Not in so many words, anyway. Language changed. Tracing back and then leaping forward again to modern materials, that was only part of the trick.
Welsh in general was a bastard conglomeration of syllables that made a lot of sounds like gurgling. Medieval Welsh was worse, and Severus wasn’t even wholly sure that was what he was looking at. “Cross-referencing this must be a nightmare.” Still, he stroked a light fingertip over an illustration, admiring.
"I've been keeping a table of possible correlations and it's starting to look like some sort of logic exercise, and honestly..." Lily trailed off in a rueful smile; Severus had a better idea than most of how poorly Lily actually did with pure theory. She knuckled down, but she much preferred to be doing. "I think I have enough of an understanding to start running experiments without causing too much damage. But there's a lot of work ahead." She shrugged a shoulder, and lifted her coffee for a sip, watching Severus over the rim of the mug. "Of course, since I'm hiding rather than working right now, I suppose there's never been a better time."
Severus, on the other hand, loved logic exercises. He loved theory and philosophy and making things needlessly complicated. Sure, execution was great and a project well-done could be celebrated, but Severus could happily turn himself in circles for a while testing and tinkering and refining and never lose his patience.
Tilting his head, he considered Lily and then the book he still held. “You’ll do this with or without me,” he remarked, slow. Like he was feeling his way through the way the words tasted on his tongue. “Because this isn’t about doing the impossible for the sake of it.” He made a little noise, almost a laugh. Only Lily would be looking at making history not for the fame or the accolades.
And there, of course, was the problem that Lily had always known would be here--she smiled to have been right, to have known that Severus would never be distracted, would always be able to take the little pieces and pull on them like strings, see what they were tied to. "Doing the impossible will be a nice bonus," she said brightly--and it would be, and she did like being able to dig into a challenge, to take a problem and solve it. But none of that was why she was here. Being able to have that as motivation would be a luxury, at this point. "I'm going to do this," Lily agreed. "It needs to be done." She watched Severus closely, cradling her coffee cup in her hands. She didn't want to keep things from him--didn't think that would work well at all--but she also very much didn't want to push too hard. Too fast. In the wrong spot.
Severus set the book aside. It posed too great a temptation to stay in his hands right now. Instead, he picked up his coffee again, and took measured sips as he watched Lily. She was holding something back, and he wasn’t sure he deserved to pry. Years ago, he would’ve dug at the problem with a perfect lack of self-consciousness. Now, he hesitated. “You did always have particular opinions about doing what needed to be done,” he sighed.
"I did," Lily agreed. "I do." Even when those opinions got her badly injured and trashed a hospital. Perhaps especially then. She rubbed absently at her hairline where she didn't even have a scar, thanks to the wonders of magical healing. She didn't take the book back, but left it sitting on the table between them for now. "I'd prefer to do this with you."
It was an incredible opportunity, Severus would have to admit; not only for the possibility of advancing their field, but also to rebuild something he’d destroyed years ago. There was also a whole mine field between them of things going unsaid, and advancing blindly into a risky situation was not something Severus liked to do if he had better options. “If we do this,” he murmured, gaze very steady, “What’s your intended use of the outcome?”
What do you intend to dissolve, if we make a universal solvent?
He thought he could guess, but wanted to hear it out loud. Misunderstandings between them so far had been fairly catastrophic. Better to avoid another.
Lily had almost hoped that he wouldn't ask; almost, but not actually, because she preferred to face things head-on whenever possible. So she lifted her chin a little, met his gaze, as she answered: "We intend to destroy the horcruxes that--" She hesitated on saying his name, but caution won out in this situation. "You-Know-Who made to cheat death. He's dead. He's staying dead. And we're all moving forward."
It was the answer Severus suspected, and almost exactly what he’d thought Lily would say. He hadn’t thought she’d tried to hedge around the subject, to lie or twist her words, because that simply wasn’t how Lily did things. So when she spit it out, Severus nodded and reached for his fudge.
That was almost entirely to give himself something to do with his hands. He needed a moment.
“He is dead,” Severus agreed, after a beat. “There are those that would prefer that not to remain the case.” He exhaled, slow and heavy. “I’m not among them, for the record.” Once upon a time, maybe, and not all that long ago… but things changed.
"I'm glad to hear it," Lily said evenly, though her grip tightened on the handle of her coffee mug. She wanted to ask, wanted to press, but also wanted, more than anything, for this to be his decision. She couldn't make it for him. She could hold out a hand to help, but she couldn't forcibly pull him out of this mire. No matter how much she wanted to. So she took a sip of her coffee, and instead asked, "Is the fudge good?"
“Very good.” Of all the questions Lily could have asked, that one was delightfully disarming. It even won the pale ghost of a smile, though it didn’t last. Severus shifted, wiping his fingers before deliberately pressing his hand along the opposite forearm. “You know what you’re risking by asking… and what I’m risking by agreeing.” He didn’t want to have to say it out loud, if he could avoid it.
"I know," Lily confirmed. "I've had a number of conversations already regarding minimising those risks, for us and for others. And I'm grateful for their perspective, as my trust has proven..." Her mouth twisted, and she abandoned that sentence. "In any case, I appreciate that there is little we--me and my colleagues--can do regarding some of the problems you may face, as things currently stand."
One shoulder hitched, dismissive. “I’ve dug my own hole, so to speak. I’m not looking for you to help me out of it. I only want to avoid misunderstandings… and I wouldn’t want you assuming more risk unless you were fully aware.” Severus might’ve made loads of bad decisions to this point, and possibly was making another now, but they were all his own. He couldn’t really blame anyone else. He would, however, hate himself if his decisions led to further pain for Lily.
"Then you'll do it?" He'd all but said it, but Lily found she needed to hear it, clear and unequivocal. "You'll help me make the alkahest?" It sounded so grand, and yet so achievable, when she said it like that; she couldn't help a tremor of excitement.
Severus huffed, but the crinkle of his eyes betrayed something like amusement. “I’ll help you. Whether or not we make anything other than a mess is yet to be determined.” As much faith as he had in his own abilities, and even with the knowledge he had of Lily’s, doubts remained. No one had been able to manage it thus far, but impossible things happened every now and then. Maybe they were owed one.
Lily's smile bloomed, pleased but also edged with a sharp satisfaction. "Oh, we're going to do it," she declared, a promise and a threat and a joy all rolled into one.