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Nargles at Christmastime

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If one walks about ten meters down Knockturn Alley, turns right on Wrong Street, walks a few meters to the third building on the right, and goes up to the third floor, one will reach apartment number 21. Of course, no one just walks down Knockturn Alley during wartime. Nor does one skip down Knockturn Alley, or sing Christmas songs while doing so, or knock on Death Eater Severus Snape's door. That would be the height of lunacy. But there are certain young women who are lunatic enough to try, and lucky enough to get away with it.

It is the fifth of December when Severus meets such a woman. The date isn't as important as the day of the week, which is Tuesday. It is on Tuesdays that Nott comes to report to Severus on his undercover work, which Severus will then inform the Dark Lord of on Thursday.

He opens the door to the length the chain will give and sees the expected young woman around his age. She's pretty enough to look at, but not beautiful enough to be noticeable: exactly Nott's type. By the lack of confusion on her dreamy face, he assumes she is Nott in Polyjuice. Nott likes to dress up in beautiful women to give Snape some sort of good reputation. Mostly, it makes the neighbors think he calls on prostitutes.

Just staring at a dead Muggle girl's face, because she must be dead for him to use her so conspicuously, makes him want to cringe. He refrains and instead says, "Password?"

After a long moment, she says, "You don't have a Christmas wreath," with obvious confusion, her voice high but soft. She glances at the back of his door again as though she is waiting for it to appear.

"Shut up and give me the password," he replies. "Otherwise I won't let you in."

All she does is shrug. "I have four weeks. I think your door is lonely."

He closes the door, takes the chain off, and opens it fully. He doesn't know if he's going to curse her or let her in, but by that time there is no sight of her. For the next hour, he works on his potions and convinces himself he imagined her, or that the potion fumes finally got to his head. Just in case, he opens the kitchen window and breathes cold winter air.

He closes his eyes, thinks of something other than red eyes and red hair, and opens them again to catch a purple-robed figure entering his apartment complex with a giant wreath. It's twice the size of her head and looks like it would fit better on that half-giant Hagrid's door than his own.

There isn't anything to do but open his front door and wait for her, leaning against the frame. She's puffing when she appears, a splatter of red in her cheeks despite the unbearable cold outside.

Severus thinks she's mad, or Muggle-born. Both are fatal on this side of Diagon Alley. "The Feather-Light Charm didn't occur to you?"

"Christmas is already magical enough." She takes out her wand, and doesn't seem to notice when his own wand whips out and points at her head before hers is fully out. She doesn't pay him or his wand any mind, and instead says, "Haereatis!" while pointing at the wreath. Severus hasn't seen that sort of naiveté in years. It makes every part of him bristle and want to curse her, to teach her that there are bad people in the world she seems to only partly inhabit.

The wreath doesn't stick to the door even when she tries the charm again, but Severus doesn't take pity on her and tell her it will never work. By signing the flat contract and forking over an additional fifty galleons per month for the special clause, Severus gained the right to be the only person to be able to use magic on the things in his flat. That would include the door. He has the option of allowing others to perform magic in his house, but so far, he hasn't found someone he could trust that much.

Eventually, the woman gives up, muttering, "Nargles must have gotten to it first."

"You're not Nott," Severus states. They're still outside his flat, in an uncomfortably unsecure area, but he's not inviting her inside unless she proves herself not hostile or gives him the reason why she's here in the first place.

"Not Nott." Her lips quirk. "I'm Luna. I need you to help me with a potion."

He's tired of closing the door on her face, and he also doesn't want her to decide he needs a Christmas tree as well as a wreath, so he just says, "No." The gesture for her to leave doesn't seem to inspire movement. A pity.

"I can't leave if you don't help me," she says sternly, as if to a reluctant child.

Severus bristles at the slight, can't help mentally going through the darker curses in his magical repertoire. The Dark Lord has gotten him used to unleashing his baser impulses, but he reins them in. He can't curse a possibly pureblooded witch in the middle of broad daylight. Instead he asks, "What're you going to do, camp out in the hallway? Go home."

She stands her ground. "I need you to help me first." She steps forward. "Can I come in? It's quite cold out here."

He sighs, rubs his forehead, and against his better judgment lets her in. The wreath she brings inside with her is made out of pine needles and holly leaves and smells like winter. It's sprinkled with cranberries and acorns, and, oddly enough, also with raspberries.

"Sit." He points to the couch. She's obedient enough to move towards it, which he's thankful for. He's enough on the edge that any extra movement on her part could result in him cursing her half-way to Hogwarts. In pieces. He hates having people in his flat.

His living room holds one sofa and a rickety wooden chair. The flat itself is small, with only one bedroom, which he has converted into a laboratory, a bathroom, and an open area that functions as a kitchen and living room. He hates the flat almost as much as he hates his father for not drinking himself to death yet and leaving the house to him.

It makes some sort of odd sense that the woman, Luna, takes the chair. He's learning to expect her to do the opposite of what any sane person would do. Which means that in theory, he should be safe with her in his flat. But he's not that trusting. He leaves his wand in his lap and sits down across from her.

"What kind of potion is it, and why do you expect me to make it?" Severus asks. He expects it to be a dangerous, illegal, or just plain uncommon potion. Not an impossible one.

"I'd like you to finish someone's work on the cure for the hydric plague." She doesn't stop at his scoff, nor at his expression of disbelief. "It's half-finished and the witch who began these notes studied the virus for over twenty years. She was on the verge of a breakthrough when she died. I have a few samples of the disease—" He's about to throw her out, or Banish her somewhere, because one doesn't just bring samples of an extremely deadly virus into another person's home, when she takes out about five magically sealed medical bags. They are safe enough for him to relax, and he is even more assured when she hands them to him without any threats. She continues, "—and I just need you to find out how to make the potion work."

The woman is mad, plain and simple. Severus wonders if she's aware of the utter impossibility of the task. "Would you like Santa to bring you a diamond necklace as well? There's no cure for hydric plague, and there never will be."

"I wouldn't mind a raspberry necklace that doesn't crush the berries but still makes them edible. I tried, a few years ago, and they kept staining my shirt or being eaten by nargles. Raspberries are nargles' favorite food, after all." Her hand reaches into her pocket, and Severus twitches for his wand until he remembers her own is behind her ear. She's the worst kind of idiot for having it there. He knows a dozen curses that could activate her wand with the tip in his sight. He would never let a wand that near his head, not even his own.

Luna takes out a packet of notes and hands it to him. The handwriting is familiar, and he tries to place it while he reads over the notes. The analysis of the disease is the work of a solid Healer, and the potions expertise is remarkable. There are only a few people in the world who could have written this.

"Why is the Healer who wrote this not finishing it?" he asks while reading the list of ingredients. They're all out of his price range, but he assumes she knows she has to pay for them.

"She died last month," Luna replied. "It was very sad, but expected."

"From the disease?"

"Yes." She doesn't give any more information. Severus doesn't need it. That's all anyone without a death wish needs to know to tell her no. He thinks this is why she went to him. Maybe she's heard how reckless he is with his potions, his game of taking a poison before creating an antidote.

He's read enough books to know the effects of hydric plague. It's a curious disease, one of the few that started out as a dark curse until it mutated just enough to spread on its own. One of the nastiest diseases he can think of. The Dark Lord would use it on the Order if he could, but there hasn't been a case of it in decades. Severus wonders if she's aware of what she's given him. One look in her eyes says yes, she is, but before he can ask who she works with—or for—there is a knock on his door.

Severus points her at the bathroom door. "Hide and don't make a sound, or I'll let him kill you." He doesn't check to make sure she followed his instructions before he opens the door to reveal another young woman, this one with Nott's usual sneer of disgust.

"How can you live in such a hovel?" he asks, and pushes Severus aside to enter the flat as he says the password. Today, Nott is a brunette with a nice backside, but Severus is too focused on the minute shuffling coming from his laboratory. Luna either got the two doors confused or had a death wish, apparently.

He listens to Nott's report with his usual apathy, filtering out Nott's whining of how he hates being a girl, even though he gets information much faster that way. Not even the chance to kill Muggles every week cheers him up. Thankfully, he's too dull to notice Severus' preoccupation, and if he does, he probably assumes Severus just wants to go back to his lab. Which he does, desperately. Who knows what that woman could be doing to his precious potions. One wrong breath of air near something and she would have him and the entire building dead.

Nott tells him only one good bit of information: There was a spike of energy near Hogwarts that morning, almost large enough to be noticed by the Muggles. The entire Ministry is abuzz about it, though it's been kept quiet from the public. It's not their lord's work, that's certain, and from what he's eavesdropped as a temp in the Auror Department, it's not the Order's, either. As quickly as Severus thinks that the woman in his lab has something to do with it, he discounts the idea. There's not enough evidence for that kind of wild speculation. Still, it's a hunch that he'll ask her about.

The most interesting part is what he hasn't said. He hasn't mentioned anything concerning a hydric plague attack, nor has he ever in the past. Luna had to have gotten the samples from somewhere, and they must be recent if she still has hope that a Potions Master can help her.

After the usual moaning about Severus' lack of hospitality, Nott leaves through the fireplace for his house, to rest for a day and visit his sons. Severus wonders for a moment how he explains his appearance to his wife each week, or how he explains away why he's gone for most of the week, but it isn't any of his business.

"I pointed to the other door," he says to Luna after inspecting his laboratory for damage. There was one empty table that morning, but now it's covered in potions supplies, medical bags, and a stack of parchment. "What am I being paid for this?" is the only question on his mind. He's decided to do the job, not that she would have given him a choice about turning it down.

"Glory and eternal gratitude," she says as though that is enough to live on. "And fifteen galleons per hour."

That is enough to convince him. She slides into the background as he casts a charm on the notes to read themselves aloud and starts cleaning and sterilizing the ingredients and his workplace.

"The deadline is?"

"Four weeks from three this morning."

Considering that she's given him an almost impossible task, Severus doesn't ask why the time is important, or what she had to do with the magical spike. He's half a day behind already. Not to mention, he's worried enough about the fact that he doesn't have approval from his lord to work on this, but something holds him back from getting permission. Maybe it's sympathy toward the woman, or the moral inability to unleash something that could devastate magical Britain.

That day, she stays until evening, and he has to physically nudge her to get her to leave his flat.

"You'll do it, though, won't you?" she asks worriedly. He nods, and she is airy and happy again. "Don't let the wackspurts distract you!"

She leaves without another glance, and Severus can't help watching her disappear around the corner. She's an odd customer, but she's nice enough, and doesn't poke her nose into his work.

The next day, he wakes up at six and goes to St. Mungo's. The young witch at the main desk directs him to Apprentice Healer Ringhorn, with whom he went to Hogwarts with. She was two years above him in Slytherin House, and properly appreciates the mark on his arm.

Her face goes white when he asks her what she knows of the hydric plague.

"I'm going to Japan next week to study it. They've had an outbreak there, but it's very hush-hush," she answers. "You can't use it. Please don't use it. It would kill everyone."

He takes a sheet of her handwriting and compares it to the writing on Luna's notes. It is the same, yet the one on the notes is smoother, more practiced. He mulls the mystery over at night when he can't sleep and forgets Lily for a while. It is easy to forget Lily when he works, so he works on the Dark Lord's poisons and Luna's cure almost day and night, only stopping to sleep a little and eat a morsel.

Several times, he notices Luna open her mouth to tell him to rest and eat, but she doesn't. He wonders who she's going to lose if he doesn't find the cure. All the samples are from one person, he's noticed. The sad look he sometimes catches as she watches him work confirms it.

Three days into the project, she must start getting bored, because starts knitting while he works.

"You're a hundred years too young for that, and not a complete hag," Severus tells her. "Go play some Quidditch or something. You're what, twenty? Don't you have a job?"

She shrugs. "Not really. Not right now. Gramps would give me a job if I asked, but I don't want to. I want to finish this scarf."

"Why is it so colorful?" he asks eventually, almost unable to look at the mess of yarns at her feet lest they somehow cause him to abandon his all-black wardrobe.

She shows him all the balls of yarn she has: black and yellow, silver and green, red and gold, blue and bronze. She's making a scarf with all the Hogwarts House colors. And she's going to get lynched for it, or worse.

"You're a right idiot," he tells her. He hopes it will stick for once, but it's like she has selective hearing. She's probably too busy listening to nargles and wackspurts instead of to actual people.

"My friend, he went to Durmstrang, and sometimes feels lonely in Britain. I think it'll help him," she explains.

Severus goes back to his potions. Luna rarely mentions her friends, and he doesn't want to think of her having normal friendships, relationships, when she's not at his flat. He wonders what she thinks of him, the lonely potioneer with greasy hair and yellow teeth, whose only visitor comes once a week wearing a different face each time.

He decides to take the fact that she knows of his skill as a sign that she was a Slytherin or a Ravenclaw at Hogwarts, a few years above him, and he just hadn't noticed her. Because otherwise, he might be helping a Gryffindor or Hufflepuff, and therefore indirectly helping the fight against the most powerful wizard in the world, one who would break his mind with pleasure if he got an inkling of something suspicious.

The Dark Lord assumes he's working hard on his poisons, and Severus doesn't correct him. He doesn't know why he's concealing the information. If the Dark Lord finds out and kills Luna for taking up his time, it wouldn't be Severus' fault. He wouldn't even care. He blames his secrecy on delayed teenage rebellion and dismisses the idea that he likes her company.

Seventeen days into the project, he collapses onto his couch and tells her, "It's not going to work. Find another potioneer. A better one." He hates admitting it, but it's true. He's not skilled enough for this. He doubts anyone is skilled enough to find the cure to an incurable disease.

"You'll do it," she assures him calmly from his chair, which she has since transfigured into a more stable one.

"Do you ever listen when someone is talking? I'm saying I can't do it. Wizards have battled the hydric plague for centuries, why would you ever think I could cure it?" His incompetence chaffs his pride, but he won't lead her on. "Your stupidity has probably spread to me. I give up," he spits at her. "Take your notes and your mystery and leave."

She looks up from her knitting, her eyes bug-like in their width, taunting him with the fact that he hasn't figured out who she is yet. "I can't leave yet. You haven't found a cure." She's a broken record that he just can't throw away.

"There are no cases of hydric plague inside Britain," he says, watching her eyes widen. Had she really not expected him to figure it out? "There is an outbreak in Japan, but it's contained and has some of the best Healers in the world trying to heal the survivors. They don't need me."

"No, but there's someone else who needs you." She leans in earnestly, looks into his eyes. "There is an outbreak in Britain. It just hasn't happened yet."

He doesn't speak for a moment, then two. "You're from the future." Just saying something like that makes him feel like a fool.

"I am," she confirms. She doesn't seem to be lying, as far as Severus can tell. He's not a great Legilimens, not yet, but he can tell when most people are.

"If you're from the future, you know who I am," he says slowly. Her face doesn't change. "What I am. Why would you ever think I won't hand you over to the Dark Lord, who will then fry your mind to get information on the future?

"Because it will rip a hole in time and cause everyone who's seen this version of me to go mad." This doesn't seem to bother her, but hardly anything does. "And because I trust you. I didn't trust you, once. I was blind. But the nargles pulled my attention away from the you behind the white mask, and you're not a bad person, once you take it off. You should do it more often."

She's never seen him in a Death Eater mask, he knows that much for sure. But maybe she's seen the future version of him in one.

Once, when he asked her why she loved Christmastime so much, she told him she spent time in a dungeon once during the holidays. "It was very boring," she'd told him without mentioning any names or details, but her tone was strained enough for him to know she didn't mean the Slytherin dungeons. Now, he suddenly hopes to God and to Merlin that it wasn't him who held her there. He can't bring himself to ask.

"Fine," he says, deciding to go along. "Say I believe you. Say you're a time traveler. Why are you here now? I'm bloody nineteen years old."

"Because this is your peak. You're creating potions, making discoveries. It's beautiful. You're at the turning point of your Potions career."

"I'm making poisons, it's not exactly difficult," he spat.

"I'm making a scarf." She held it up as if to show him something he hadn't seen twenty times by now.

"My peak? This isn't my peak, you dumb blonde. A wizard's peak is in his fifties, maybe sixties."

This time, Luna says nothing. She waits for him to understand, and he does. He doesn't want to, Merlin knows how much he doesn't believe it. Potion Masters can peak early if they suffer a personal tragedy. Their creativity stunts, their love for their craft dies. But Severus doesn't care enough about anyone (Lily doesn't care about him anymore, so he sure as hell doesn't care about her) for that to happen.

"Am I going to die? Is that why I peak so early? Tell me, woman!" he yells, but Luna tells him nothing. Her face is a wall of blankness, and he can imagine she's had enough Occlumency practice to shield her mind from him.

On second thought, Severus doesn't want to know. He doesn't want to see his death coming, to quake with fear as the date approaches. He grabs a bottle of amaretto from a shelf. It's not the exact type he and Lily snuck from his father's stores, just once for a taste, but it's familiar enough for comfort, so he evens out his half-filled mug of tea with it. He hears it's still Lily's favorite liquor. Would Lily care if he were to drop dead? He doesn't think so.

He hates Luna for a moment, because she has told him another thing that he'll have to keep secret from his lord, created another path to his death. It's suicide, not telling the Dark Lord what he's doing. It's either his death or her death. He's startled at how much he wants to keep her safe from harm.

"Pumpkin juice is much better for you," Luna says.

"Fuck off." He snarls the words out of habit, but he's not angry anymore. "If I'm going to die, I might as well get a good drink in before I do."

"Everyone dies."

"Not without getting drunk at least once," he says, and hands the bottle to her. She looks it over curiously, reads the label, sloshes the liquid from side to side. Severus summons a mug, because he doesn't have anything fancier, and some ice, and she takes a few sips.

Between the two of them, they drink until their conversation is almost forgotten, and sing Christmas carols until they pass out on the couch. Severus wakes up with a headache, which goes away after a Pepper-Up Potion, and a good mood that he just can't shake. Luna doesn't even need the potion; apparently, she wakes up perky and happy every morning, despite drinking almost as much as Severus did. Severus makes sure to sneer at her for it, but his sneers come out awkward and unthreatening.

They spend Christmas in that happy haze, and exchange odd yarn figures that Luna teaches him to make as presents. Severus doesn't have any knuts to spare for gifts, and Luna's money is only for the potion, so they make do with what they have. It's enough. Not only that—it's the best Christmas Severus has had in years.

Between wanting to set fire on his research materials and hoping Nott doesn't notice that a second person's been visiting his flat often, Severus thinks his current work might be his masterpiece as a potioneer. It's difficult and grating on his patience at the best of times, but every time he takes a small step forward, he feels like he's on top of a cloud, held up by nargles and utter happiness. He wants to shout to the world, "Look, a Slytherin can do good!" He wants to show it all to James Potter, rub it in his face that he's doing better than he is. Most of all, he wants to show it to Lily, to prove that he isn't evil after all.

But he won't, because this research, this cure, won't be needed for many years.

At the same time, he loses his love for making poisons, his appreciation for the fine art of traceless killing. He's still devoted to the Dark Lord's cause, but he stops taking pleasure in his tasks.

The Dark Lord notices.

"Severusss," he says, interrupting Severus' monologue about his newest potion, "You're hiding something from me."

The Dark Lord walks around him, like an animal stalking its prey, his cloak sliding behind him with a slithering sound. Severus' knees are shaking despite the fact that he should be able control them. His body is the one thing he should be able to control. But he can't, because he's so damn scared of death, and even more scared of what will happen to his—his friend, because he has to admit, if only to himself, that he cares about her. His robes cover his tremors, but that doesn't matter when he drops to his knees to beg forgiveness.

He tells his lord a beautiful story about a potioneer in love with a pureblood friend who visits him sometimes, and assures him that it's only infatuation. Severus loves the Dark Lord's cause far more than a stupid woman.

"More than your preciousss Lily?" the Dark Lord asks. Severus wishes desperately that he'd hidden Lily in the depths of his mind when the Dark Lord searched through it on the day of his marking, but there were too many memories of her to hide. It's usually enough for the Dark Lord that he has no contact with her, but not today.

His face touches the floor, so no one sees his expression. "Of course not, my lord."

Later, Dolohov tells him, "The broad is pregnant. Potter's been going on and on about it at work. Man, am I sick of it. Can't stand those always happy types."

The meeting ends an hour later, very late into the night, but Severus Apparates one block over and walks the rest of the way home. The cold wind cures his shakes but does nothing for his misery.

Luna is home when he comes back, and she's starting the Ravenclaw colors on the scarf. He's glad she hasn't started the Gryffindor portion; he doesn't think he could take seeing red and gold tonight.

"How was your meeting?" she asks, as though he was at a civilized office meeting instead of a revolutionary group's.

Severus is about to take out the firewhiskey when she hands him two balls of thread and two Conjured sticks. "These should fit your hand size," she tells him. "This is how you begin a scarf."

Her hands are warm on his own, on which he hadn't worn gloves while walking home. They quickly warm up while she shows him how to knit a scarf and brings his hands through the motions. She sits next to him on the couch. He can't remember the last time someone he cared about was this close to him. Not since Lily. Maybe not since his mother.

"Potter's wife is pregnant," he tells her, missing a stitch as he does. She pokes his hand to make him realize it, but says nothing as she knits beside him. He should be working on his potions, but he's too keyed up for it. Besides, there's something inexplicably relaxing about this. "I was hoping he would never reproduce. There should be a law preventing someone like him from passing on his genes."

There should be something that prevents him from caring for people, too, because he's sick of loving Lily. He'll never stop, he knows that much, but it's hard to love someone deeply when she doesn't even want to see his face. When she's pregnant with another man's child. It shatters a small hope he still had, that maybe if she didn't have children with Potter, she could still one day leave him. It was a nice fantasy.

Finally, he asks the last question that has been bothering him. "Why go through all this trouble to save one person? There's not much of a chance I'll be able to do it by the time you go back to wherever you came from." Neverland, maybe. "My friend's grandfather died from it. If all the money in the Black vaults couldn't save Arcturus, why are you still so hopeful that your friend can be saved? Who are you trying to save?"

This time, it's Luna who has to pause, lest she ruins her stitching. "There was an assisted outbreak of it in Diagon Alley a few months ago. My friend was one of the first Aurors on the scene. They didn't know what it was at first. By the time they figured out they couldn't contain it with curse-containment charms, it had already spread to his entire team. I want to save him because he's amazing. Because he helped so many people. Because I don't want to live in a world that doesn't have him. He's not a saint, or a born martyr, but that makes his goodness so much more amazing. He helped me, a long time ago. Showed me a world where I wasn't odd or friendless. I want to help him like he helped me."

Severus can't help but return to his work the next day. There's something beautiful about Luna's face when she speaks about the people she cares about. Even though he's envious, he can't help being infected by her willingness to help this person. He's going soft, but that'll end in less than a week when she leaves. He doesn't think about that.

Two days before his deadline, he has one packet of the diseased cells and one dose of a modified potion. It would have to be taken over a series of years, but it would theoretically flush the hydric plague out of a person's body. He's confident in the potion, but he hesitates when he's about to dump it into the bag. He has one chance to prove himself.

The potion works perfectly, and he turns to Luna with a triumphant grin. It feels odd on his face, this feeling of elation, but for once he doesn't care.

He holds a stack of parchment out to her. On it are the ingredients, procedure, and dose information to cure the formerly incurable hydric plague. "Your research, madam."

She looks up from her green and silver tie she's making, and gingerly takes the papers. Then there's a flurry of movement and two arms around Severus' neck, holding him tightly against her.

"Thank you," she whispers in his ear. "The sky loses many stars. But you've helped keep one shining."

He doesn't think she's talking about her friend.

She releases him, and her eyes are wet when he looks into them. He turns his head away, unable to look at her.

She takes his hand instead, and presses it to her cheek. "You'll see me again."

He hears what she isn't saying quite clearly: He will see her again, but she'll never see him.

The potion is finished, but she stays with him until she absolutely has to leave. Before she does, she wraps the Slytherin-colored scarf around his neck and tucks the ends into his robes.

"It'll keep you warm. And I spelled charms into it to keep wackspurts away. They shouldn't bother you now."

He can't find words to say what he feels, so he says, "Thank you," and hopes she understands.

Then she's gone, and there's another magical spike near Hogwarts. Severus goes back to working on poisons and kneeling for the Dark Lord. Nothing and everything has changed.

There is no Christmas wreath on the door of Severus' apartment, because wreaths attract too much attention on a street for poor dark wizards and other such unsavory people. Nor is there a stocking over the fireplace or a lit and ornamented tree in the living room. But on the small balcony, there is a bowl of raspberries, left for the nargles and eaten by the birds. Because if there is one thing the owner of this flat wants to believe, it is that there are imaginary creatures who will watch over the well-beings of reckless young women who knock on Death Eaters' doors. Severus thinks that if he were ever to name such beings, he would call them nargles.