Wednesday, 23 December 1998
Severus grumbled as Twiskett took his boots from him with a flick of a finger.
“I polished them myself yesterday.”
Twiskett gave him a sceptical look, complete with raised eyebrow, which demonstrated he had been observing Severus for a very long time.
“All right, the day before yesterday. But it’s a good potion. One of my own.”
Twiskett shrugged one shoulder and disappeared with his boots. Damned house-elves; let them sleep under your bed just once, and they took that as leave to become completely impertinent. And, of course, to think they have leave to handle all your things, including your wand—to save your life, but nonetheless …
Severus didn’t have time to get into a complete sulk before Twiskett returned, boots floating above his head. Severus grabbed them and sat on the edge of the bed to shove his feet into them. They did look more acceptable. Better than acceptable. They shone like new.
He knew that he was just in a bad mood because of the party that the Headmistress was throwing for the staff. He opened his wardrobe with more vehemence than was required. The staff party that the Headmistress and the Deputy Headmaster were throwing for the staff. He had protested loudly, long, and often, but to no avail. Not only was he required to attend, but he was required to behave as a host. Minerva should have been a rabbit, not a cat, with all of her hare-brained ideas, he thought as he pulled a long black jacket from the wardrobe and tossed it onto the bed, quickly following it with a waistcoat, also black. She’d reassured him that there wasn’t much to it. Then she had had him help her decorate the room for the party. He really shouldn’t stand for it. It was hardly dignified. But he humoured her. As usual.
He turned to see Twiskett with another article of apparel floating in front of him. Twiskett smiled. Severus rolled his eyes.
After putting on his waistcoat and tucking his watch into his pocket and adjusting its chain, he fiddled with the silk necktie that Twiskett had brought him. Minerva had given it to him the previous day, asking that he wear it to the party. “Be a little festive, Severus!”
A little festive, indeed! After fussing with it in front of the dresser mirror for a few minutes—well, several seconds—Severus threw the cravat down in disgust. It wasn’t even a proper tie. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do with it.
Twiskett popped around in front of him, perched on top of the dresser. He pointed at the tie and looked hopeful.
“It’s hideous,” Severus said. “It’s … green.” Christmas tree green, Minerva had called it.
“It’s a present,” Twiskett reminded him.
“And it’s too long. And too wide.”
“It’s a present.”
Severus sighed deeply. “Very well.”
Twiskett picked up the neckcloth with the tips of his long fingers and tossed it over Severus’s head. He wiggled his fingers, and Severus felt the stock wind itself back around his neck, its ends coming down in front and then tying itself with a simple flip. Twiskett smiled and tucked the tie into the front of Severus’s waistcoat, flicked a finger to adjust the top of the tie so that it puffed out a bit, and then he gave him a friendly pat on the tummy.
“Thanks,” Severus grunted. Twiskett Disapparated from the dresser and popped down behind him. Severus looked in the mirror. Hmm, not as dreadful as he had thought it would be.
Severus stepped back and picked up his jacket. As he was shrugging it on, he heard Twiskett rattling around in the drawer of his bedside table. Increasingly impertinent. But useful.
Twiskett closed the drawer and turned around, holding up Severus’s double-snake ring. He hadn’t worn it in months. The elf smiled and tugged on the cord around his neck, pulling out his own double-snake, this one in the form of a pendant. He held Severus’s ring out to him.
Severus shrugged and put the ring on his right ring finger. He supposed if he was going to play host, he might as well get fully into the role. He still thought that Albus would have been a better host than he, but Minerva said to view it as an educational experience, and hopefully, an enjoyable one, as well.
He walked up to the first floor, wishing he had access to some of the secret passages and short-cuts that the Headmistress did. But then he would arrive at the party room sooner, and he did not want to do that. But he was a host, so he could not be late, either. Minerva had decided to hold the party in the old Defence classroom, which had been used for the younger students’ activities on Halloween, since it was larger than the staff room but more out-of-the way than the Great Hall—which would have been too large, in any case. The room hadn’t been used as a classroom in several decades, though it was occasionally used for demonstrations.
He had helped Minerva to hang holly, ivy, glittery Charmed icicles, and fairy lights. Minerva had also introduced him to her Charmed sprig of mistletoe, giving him a light kiss on the lips as it hovered over their heads. She had laughed at his expression, then showed him the little bit of matching mistletoe twig that she had in her pocket, explaining that she used that rather like a wand to control where the mistletoe would appear.
“You plan on directing the mistletoe over the heads of unsuspecting couples?” Severus asked, consternation on his face.
“Oh, perhaps. Or popping it over the head of some individual and waiting for someone to come give them a little kiss and free them,” she said with a laugh. “There was a different one available that would pop about the room randomly, but I thought that might be a little too … dangerous. Some people might find themselves in very awkward positions. I don’t want to humiliate anyone … maybe embarrass them just a little, but only in fun.”
“I think it is childish. And beneath you,” Severus said stiffly.
“And you needn’t worry, Severus,” Minerva replied. “Your encounter with the mistletoe is already behind you—unless there’s another witch you’d like a kiss from. You were one of the people I was considering when I decided against the random version. I thought it might make you embarrassed if a bit of mistletoe suddenly appeared above you and required you to act upon it. This one should be just a little fun, and if I see that anyone is very uncomfortable, I can simply pop it away again.”
“Hmpf. It is still childish.”
“Oh, probably, but sometimes it can be fun to be just a little childish—or childlike. Not to go too far, of course.”
“I can see that I was correct in resisting helping you with this party. I wish I had been successful.”
“Severus, it’s just a game. That’s all. And do give me some credit. I know the staff well. They’ll have fun with it.” She looked at him with that damned twinkle in her eye she seemed to have acquired recently. “And do be sure to tell me if there is another witch—or wizard!—whom you would like to have a little canoodle with!”
“No, thank you!” She seemed to be becoming as barmy as Albus. It must be a hazard of being Head of Hogwarts.
Minerva laughed. “All right! But if you change your mind—”
“Well, maybe someday.”
“I am quite certain it would be a traumatic experience for whomever I was forced to kiss,” Severus grumped.
“I doubt that, but I wouldn’t want it to be one for you, either, Severus dear,” she said, patting his arm. “Now come help me with the table decorations.”
Severus rolled his eyes and followed Minerva over to the tables and helped her finish decorating them.
Stepping into the high-ceilinged room that evening, Severus was impressed, despite the fact that he had helped decorate it earlier in the day. Now that it was dark out and the candelabras were lit, the icicles twinkled, the fairy lights glimmered, and some soft, old-fashioned Christmas music floated through the air, the effect was very pleasing, especially with the various swathes and wreathes of greenery hanging from the walls, ceiling, and buffet table. The house-elves had delivered a motley assortment of comfortable chairs, a couple settees, and several small round tables at just the right intervals to place one’s drinks or plates of snacks. It certainly looked festive, comfortable, and inviting. Minerva waved to him from across the room.
“Thank you for coming a bit early, Severus,” she said as she crossed over to him. “I anticipate that people will begin arriving soon. Albus said something about drinks first with Sharon, Filius, and Pomona, so they’ll be coming together. I hope they aren’t too late.” She seemed happy, but a little nervous as well.
“I am certain that Professor Flitwick will ensure their timely arrival,” Severus said. “And Hagrid never misses a party, so he’ll be here early, too, I’m sure.”
“I’m always a bit nervous that people will arrive in awkward intervals and become bored,” Minerva confided. “But the room looks very nice, don’t you think?”
“Indeed. That was my initial impression,” Severus said, looking around the room. “Not overdone, but … comfortably festive.”
Minerva smiled. “I’m glad you’re getting into the spirit of it. I was worried this afternoon that you planned to have a miserable time.”
Severus snorted. “I do not plan to have a miserable time at parties, or at any other occasions. It is simply the way they usually work out.”
“Ah, well, let’s hope tonight is different, eh? At least that it’s not completely miserable!”
One corner of Severus’s mouth turned up. “I might be able to manage that.”
“Now do try to mingle and be welcoming, Severus.”
“I cannot change who I am,” Severus retorted.
“I’m not suggesting you change into someone else, just that you add to your repertoire of skills. It will stand you in good stead when you become Headmaster.”
Severus’s eyebrows rose. “Have you been sampling the mulled wine already, Minerva? Headmaster? Hardly.” He paused and a look of concern flitted across his face. “You aren’t ill, are you? The Healers at Mungo’s haven’t found any problems, have they? You aren’t planning to step down!”
“No, no, Severus, no worries on that score. I am in fine health. Good for another sixty or seventy years, I expect. Not that I can imagine being Headmistress for that long, but I have no plans to retire very soon, either.”
“Other than your sudden incapacity or unexpected retirement, I cannot imagine any circumstances under which I would become Headmaster. The Governors wouldn’t have it. I would be terrible at it, too.”
“I doubt that, but here come Hagrid and Rath! Go greet them and show them the drinks table, Severus.”
Severus snorted. “One way to make myself popular: show people where the booze is,” he said sotto voce before setting off across the room to greet the two wizards, leaving Minerva laughing lightly.
The guests arrived in quick succession after that, usually in twos and threes. Severus continued to direct people to the drinks table and the food buffet, which allowed him to minimise the exercise of his small-talk skills, since everyone then turned their attention to the food and drink. Poppy came in on her own, and she complimented him on his tie before he could move her along to the buffet.
“It was the Headmistress’s idea,” he said.
“It looks fine on you,” Poppy replied. “Very seasonal, too.”
“Mm. The drinks table is over there, where the crowd is, and you may help yourself to food on the buffet,” he said, gesturing across the room. “Enjoy your evening.”
“Thanks! You, too!”
Albus, Pomona, Filius, and Sharon arrived next, and all of them commented on how nice the room looked, and Pomona also complimented his tie. He was beginning to think there was a conspiracy amongst the witches to draw attention to his new article of apparel. His suspicions grew when Vector, arriving with David and Laura Manning, also nodded in approval and told him it was a handsome tie.
“It is a tie. There is nothing extraordinary about it,” Severus replied.
Vector’s eyes widened. “I was simply trying to tell you that you look nice tonight.”
“Did Minerva tell you to say something?” he asked suspiciously.
Vector laughed. “No, Severus. You really do look nice. It’s pleasant to see you in something festive and a bit different from the usual. If you’ve been getting compliments, enjoy it!”
He directed her to the drinks table.
A whoop of laughter came from the other side of the room, and Severus looked over just in time to see Sharon Carter bend over and give Filius a kiss. She grinned as the mistletoe disappeared with a little pop, and Filius laughed and blushed. Severus looked for Pomona, and saw her pointing and laughing. The mistletoe popped over to her next, emitting a little ring, and as she wasn’t near anyone, she couldn’t move until someone came over and gave her a kiss.
“Happy to oblige!” Hagrid, the closest wizard, said with a grin. He came over, then bent and gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek. Now both of them were stuck under the mistletoe.
“A proper kiss, Hagrid!” Pomona said, putting her arms around his waist as far as they would go.
Hagrid obliged with a peck on the lips, and the mistletoe vanished. It didn’t immediately reappear, though, so Severus assumed that Minerva was going to play with her mistletoe throughout the party. He hoped that she remembered not to trap him into kissing anyone. Not that he was incapable of kissing a witch, of course, but he really didn’t want to be the centre of attention like that, having people giggling and pointing. He felt himself begin to blush at the mere thought.
Albus appeared at his elbow, a glass punch cup in each hand. “Mulled wine, Severus?” he asked, holding out one of the cups.
Severus took it, though he didn’t want it. “Thank you.”
“You should get yourself something to eat.”
Severus shrugged. “I’m not particularly hungry.”
“There are a few nice little tidbits over there that might tempt you.”
“I am aware. I helped Minerva plan the menu,” he replied with a long-suffering sigh.
“Minerva was very pleased to have your help.”
“Do you know about her mistletoe?”
Albus chuckled. “Oh, yes. Her idea of helping people to relax and have fun.”
“She’s becoming as manipulative as you,” Severus said.
“Oh, heaven forfend!” Albus replied, his eyes twinkling. “Never that bad, I hope!”
The corners of Severus’s mouth twitched briefly. “No, that would probably be impossible, you’re right.”
Albus laughed heartily. “Go have a nibble of something, Severus!”
Severus wandered across the room, unsure how to enter a conversation already in progress, and decided that getting a “nibble” of something would occupy at least a little time, and he could also find something more palatable to drink. He abandoned his cup of mulled wine on a small table as he passed by, and made his way to the buffet. Although he wasn’t hungry, he picked up a plate and put a little of almost everything on it but the sweets. A few people smiled and said something to him about the food, but he couldn’t think of anything clever or witty to say in response, so he just tried to look pleasant and nodded. He thought he probably looked more frightening than pleasant, but he was doing his best.
He really wasn’t good at parties. During the years after he had first joined the Death Eaters, he sometimes had to attend parties held in the Dark Lord’s honour, or simply at which most if not all of the other guests were Death Eaters, and he had played the bored young intellectual, playing a role even before he became a spy. He had learned what kinds of nasty rejoinders would elicit laughter or nods of approval, and he had honed that skill.
Contrary to popular belief, most Death Eaters wouldn’t have been caught dead in orgies or the bloody mass rape of prisoners; they were too finicky and such displays would have offended their sense of aesthetics. Not that many of them were averse to a little casual partner swapping at parties—some found that a sign of sophistication. They’d also often warm up for their festivities by participating in some recreational Muggle-baiting—which could be quite nasty, sadistic, gruesome, and inhuman—or by indulging in a little terrorism of some well-known Muggle-lovers. But when in their own homes, the pureblood Death Eaters liked to maintain the appearance of gentility and civilisation. The Dark Lord’s return changed that as he became more deranged and more obsessed with punishment, pain, and the display of raw power. Even finicky purebloods had to at least feign enjoyment of the Dark Lord’s entertainment, and to participate lest they became the focal point of the next floor show.
Bella and her group had been an exception to the rule; she had been pleased to bring the horrors of the worst torture of Muggles into her own living space, and to engage in open debauchery as it pleased her. She was a favourite of the Dark Lord, and always had been, and when Bella had turned a hungry eye toward him, Severus had felt fortunate, honoured, and excited, among other things, but most of all, he had experienced a heady sense of power, believing that his connection with Bella would ensure him a place in the Dark Lord’s inner circle. He had quickly realised his error. Rectifying that error was not as quickly accomplished.
Malfoy had actually tried to warn him off a “relationship” with his sister-in-law, but Severus had thought that Lucius was just trying to keep him from rising within the Death Eaters ranks and coming to threaten Malfoy’s own position. When Severus told him as much, Lucius gave him his usual supercilious smile, shrugged slightly, and told him that he hoped he had fun. They hadn’t spoken of it again. And Severus most assuredly hadn’t had fun.
Needless to say, Severus knew he could not rely upon any skills he had developed when interacting with Death Eaters, and yet his former manner of interacting with his colleagues was neither necessary nor desirable. He observed the others, and he saw the way Pomona smiled when David Manning recommended a particular savoury pastry, and then she called Filius over to try it, feeding him from her own fork. Severus could not imagine feeding anyone from his fork—and he presumed it was their close relationship that made that acceptable behaviour—but he could try that “sharing” technique demonstrated by both Manning and Sprout. He would attempt it at his first opportunity, which came up alongside him at just that moment.
“Lovely party, Severus, great food,” Vector said as she surveyed the buffet. “I don’t know what to try next.”
He had noticed at meals that Vector appeared to enjoy dishes with apples in them.
“Here, have you tried this, Professor?” Severus asked, putting a miniature apple turnover on a plate and handing it to her. “You may enjoy it.”
“No, I haven’t. Is it good?” she asked as she picked it up between two fingers.
“It is apple,” he replied, not having tried it.
She bit into it, chewed slowly, and nodded. “Yes, it is, very good. Thank you, Severus!”
He smiled slightly. One little success. But now he didn’t know what to say next. It was ridiculous. He sat next to her every day at dinner, he had taught with many of these people for years, and yet he had no idea how to socialise with them. Fortunately, at just that moment, there was a little ting-a-ling, and the mistletoe appeared above Albus, who was in conversation with Sharon Carter. She laughed and put her arms around his neck as he bent and gave her a sweet kiss on the lips. The mistletoe popped away, and Sharon gave Albus a swift hug and whispered something in his ear that made him laugh.
Severus raised an eyebrow, but he knew that Minerva was in control of the mistletoe. He supposed that if she wanted Albus kissing the very young, rather pretty Head of Gryffindor, that was her business.
“You look positively scandalised, Severus,” Vector said with a smirk.
“No, simply … bored.”
Vector chuckled as if she didn’t believe him. “He’s known her since she was two days old, did you know that?”
“Albus and Minerva were among Sharon’s very first visitors after she was born. This summer after she was named Head of Gryffindor, Albus showed me a photograph. Sharon, very tiny and wrapped in pink, her parents, and Albus and Minerva. And now that tiny baby is the Head of Gryffindor.”
“Hmpf. I was not scandalised.” He put a Kalamata olive in his mouth so he would not have to say anything more. He could not be scandalised by such foolishness. It was, after all, a far cry from partner-swapping.
There was another little ting, and Severus and Vector immediately looked over to see Caspar Lloyd looking up at the sprig of mistletoe floating over his head. He tried to step out from under it, but he couldn’t move away. He looked around hopefully.
Olivia Ouellette walked over to him and ruffled his hair. “You always were one of my favourite Gryffies, Cas. Always pulling a stunt of some sort.” She gave him a friendly peck on the mouth, and the mistletoe popped away.
“Poor Caspar—he was probably hoping for someone like Sharon or Helena,” Vector said, helping herself to some cheese.
“I didn’t think that Ouellette, well, I’d heard that, um …”
“That she doesn’t like men?” Vector asked. At Severus’s nod, Vector said, “She likes ’em just fine, as friends. She does prefer her lovers in a different flavour, however, you’re right about that.”
Severus put some hummus and a piece of tomato on a bit of pita bread. Minerva had been careful to make sure there were a number of vegetarian dishes available. It would never have occurred to him to do that in particular, but all of the vegetarian selections were actually quite tasty. There was another ting-a-ling, and it was Albus again, this time with Helena Benetti, the youngest member of staff and the most beautiful witch at Hogwarts. Probably one of the most beautiful in Britain at the moment. Minerva must feel quite secure. Of course, Albus probably saw Helena as a mere child, and no doubt, she saw him as a sweet, grandfatherly figure. Albus was blushing, though, as Helena stood on her tiptoes to kiss him. Severus supposed Albus wasn’t so grandfatherly that he couldn’t appreciate the young witch’s beauty and vitality.
“Some blokes get all the luck,” Caspar grumbled as he came up beside him and reached for a little cheese custard tart. “Old Dumbledore gets an international Quidditch star with looks to die for, and I get … her.” He gestured at the witch who had joined them at the table and was looking over the sweets.
“Yes, Albus is the lucky one,” Olivia agreed as she scrutinised the mince pies. “He got Helena, and I was stuck with you, Lloyd!” She grinned at the Ancient Runes teacher, who laughed good-naturedly.
Vector joined in the laughter, and Severus smiled slightly. He wasn’t very comfortable with most teasing. It could be difficult for him to distinguish different sorts of teasing, and he was aware that he was probably too thin-skinned most of the time. Gareth McGonagall had told him that just the week before when they ran into each other in Hogsmeade. The other wizard had teased him about his presence in the village on a weekday evening, said something about secret assignations, and Severus had bristled in response. He wished he could be easier with others, at least with his friends. It was very tiring to be constantly on guard, as if waiting for the other shoe to drop, the next blow to fall.
He felt suddenly claustrophobic, surrounded by these laughing, smiling people at ease with one another, and he stepped back. He forced himself to breathe calmly as he edged his way around to the drinks table, where he picked up a bottle of butterbeer and then retreated to a corner and sank into an upholstered armchair. He didn’t like butterbeer, but his mouth was dry, and it was the only thing that he could pick up without having to pour it into a glass. And he didn’t want anything very alcoholic.
Severus uncorked his butterbeer and took a sip. He was probably the picture of cool poise and self-assuredness, but he didn’t feel that way. He was ridiculous, he thought. To survive the Death Eaters, to fool the Dark Lord year after year, to serve him, to perform gruesome acts with aplomb, and through it all to maintain his sang-froid—at a cost to himself, but nonetheless, to do so successfully. And now to find this ordinary life so fraught with challenge and anxiety-inducing interactions with colleagues who were innocuous compared to his former comrades among the Death Eaters—it was absurd, and he felt contempt for himself.
Watching the party’s ebb and flow, but not paying attention to any of the interactions, Severus considered that it was far better to remain aloof than to attempt to become something he was not, an ordinary, collegial wizard. Besides, it was likely a sign that he didn’t belong if it was so difficult for him to interact. He was different. Perhaps even superior in some ways, a serious scholar … Severus sighed and took the last swallow of his butterbeer. No, that was the lie he used to tell himself when he was younger; he wasn’t going to use that any longer. He was just different. Even now, an outsider. Different, but not superior. Many of his colleagues were certainly serious scholars—Cahill was deadly dull and unimaginative, but serious—and there were at least a few who could even be considered brilliant, and that was not including Dumbledore in their number. Vector was no intellectual slouch. Sprout, as much as Severus might find her occasionally irritating and annoyingly motherly, was quite a dedicated and enthusiastic scholar of Herbology. Caspar Lloyd was not only a scholar of Ancient Runes, but spoke over a dozen languages and could read several other ancient ones, and was an expert on the effect of tone, pitch, and resonance on verbal spell-casting. Ouellette had written a number of important papers in the field of Transfiguration.
And then there was Flitwick, cheerful, light-hearted, musical little wizard that he was—and who was just now recovering from a pseudo-passionate kiss from Vector—Flitwick was a talented Charms master and had been quite a brilliant scholar in his younger days. And as a duellist, he still wasn’t shabby. He had offered to practise duelling with Severus over the Christmas holiday, since Severus was scheduled for two duels in the spring. That was a pleasant prospect, Severus thought. Something to look forward to. He still didn’t know who Filius planned to have him duel, but since he was trying to put together interesting pairs, Severus was hopeful they would be challenging.
There was a ting-a-ling, and Albus was now kissing Poppy under the mistletoe. It seemed to Severus that it took a little longer than usual for the mistletoe to disappear that time, their kiss lingering as they waited for the tell-tale pop releasing them, and he glanced over at Minerva, who was looking quite smug and amused. Poppy and Albus were laughing now, though, so Severus supposed it was all acceptable.
“Is this a mistletoe-free zone?”
Severus looked up at Vector. “I do not know.”
“If I didn’t know better,” the witch continued, perching chummily on the arm of his chair, “I would think that Albus was in control of that mistletoe—I think he’s kissed almost every witch in the room now, and even one wizard. But he’s been surprised, I’m sure of that.” Vector looked over at him, her eyes narrowing. “On the other hand, I don’t believe you’ve been stuck once, Severus. Are you directing it?”
Severus snorted. “That is not my idea of entertainment.”
“Mm, I suppose. I thought it was random, but I’m seeing a pattern emerging.” She grinned. “If I hadn’t had a few drinks, I could probably do a quick calculation and tell you who it is, because it certainly isn’t random.”
“Who hasn’t been stuck under it, other than me?” Severus asked.
“Rath has just managed to escape it. There were a couple of occasions where it appeared over a witch with whom he had been speaking just seconds before.” Vector frowned. “But I don’t think that he’s doing it.”
“It’s more of a witch’s game, don’t you think?”
“Mmm, I suppose, but all of the witches have been kissed, I think.”
“Who kissed the Headmistress?” He had missed that.
Vector laughed. “Shunpike, Hagrid, and Cahill in rapid succession. Poor witch! Not long ones from any of them, but, well, it’s a party, so I won’t say anything.” She looked around, then bent closer to Severus. “All right, I will say something,” she whispered. “No witch with any taste would willingly kiss Cahill. That’s why I know it can’t be Minerva who’s doing it.”
“I think this must be a mistletoe-free zone, though,” Vector said, taking a sip of her firewhisky. “If it’s not, then I know you’re the culprit, as unlikely as that might otherwise seem.”
“Perhaps it is someone who doesn’t like me,” Severus replied. “I am certain there are a few of them. Or someone who is foolishly enamoured of me and doesn’t want to see me kissing other witches.”
Vector laughed. “Well, if it were someone who didn’t like you, they’d plague you with the mistletoe, I’m sure, and if it were someone who was enamoured of you, she’d make sure that she was caught under it with you at least once.”
“I suppose.” Severus put his empty butterbeer bottle on the floor beside his chair. “I am going to get another drink. May I get you anything?”
“No, thanks, I’m nursing this one. It’s my last for the evening.” She looked rueful. “I’d have another, but I am working on a paper, and during the holidays is the only time when I have enough uninterrupted time to do any serious, extended work. So I need to be fit tomorrow.”
“I can recommend bitter lemon, plain, in that case. It is a pleasant nonalcoholic drink, and I made sure that there was some available tonight.” Severus thought that Vector was amused by that, but she smiled warmly and thanked him.
That hadn’t been so bad, Severus thought as he walked over to the drinks table to pour himself a glass of bitter lemon. He really did have to do something about this kissing business, though, or he might be teased about not being kissed, which was more likely at this point, since it seemed it was now the norm to be caught under the mistletoe.
Filius was in the corner fiddling with Minerva’s musical box, presumably setting it to play something other than the holiday music—although it hadn’t been bad, it did become a bit cloying. He hoped that Filius would play something that would make Minerva jump out of her skin. He smirked. Something like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, or the Mekons. Gods, it had been a long time since he’d thought of the Mekons …
Listening to Muggle music, unless it was at least a couple hundred years old, was not on the list of acceptable activities for a Death Eater. On the other hand, Severus couldn’t count the number of times when a Death Eater had declared—with a perfectly straight face—that Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart had all been wizards, and that the Muggles had simply coopted their music. Muggle “theft” of wizarding property was one of the great themes of the Dark Lord’s rants, right down to declaring that Muggle-borns had “stolen” their magic from legitimate wizards (how a nonmagical Muggle was supposed to have done that was never explained), and that if a Muggle-born hadn’t stolen their magic, then they were actually the half-blood bastard child of a wizard who couldn’t keep his cock under his robes. As a result, there were a paradoxically large number of Squibs who had been attracted to the Dark Lord’s philosophy, since the Dark Lord had declared that the only reason for Squibs was that they had had their magic stolen from them at birth.
“Enjoying yourself, Severus?” Minerva asked, coming up beside him. She reached for the ladle to the mulled wine. Her cheeks were quite pink.
“It is fine—allow me.” He took the ladle and put some mulled wine in a fresh cup for her, adding a bit of the fruit to it.
“I saw you speaking with Verity a few minutes ago.”
“Yes, about that … people are going to grow suspicious if I never am caught under the mistletoe. In any case, it will make me stand out.”
“I see,” Minerva said softly. “Any requests?”
“As long as it’s not a wizard and it’s not Duffy, I don’t care.” He fought a blush. “Just don’t let it last too long.”
“Is Filius going to start some new music or what? He’s been over there fiddling with your box for a while now.”
“Yes, but he’s unfamiliar with the music available on it, so he’s consulting a list.” Minerva smirked. “He declared it a ‘pleasant, eclectic, but unadventurous’ selection of pieces when I gave the list to him. I think he plans on giving us some new charms for it.”
“I have some recommendations for him,” Severus said, smiling. “Do you know the Clash?”
Minerva rolled her eyes. “No, but from the sound of it and the smile on your face, I doubt I’d enjoy it.”
Severus chuckled. “Probably not.”
“Well, get out there and mingle, Severus! I can’t perform my mistletoe magic if you don’t mingle.”
He stepped around to the other side of the table and slowly made his way over to a small group who were engaged in lively conversation. There were a number of witches there. Before he’d made it to his target, however, there was a ting-a-ling over his head, and he looked up to see the mistletoe. Laura Walker Manning had been crossing the room at the same time, heading toward the buffet. The librarian grinned up at him.
“The Deputy Headmaster! Honoured, I’m sure, sir!” she said with a laugh.
Severus gave her a half smile, bent, and gave her a light kiss on the lips. The mistletoe immediately vanished, and Laura continued on her way. They had attracted some attention, but it hadn’t been bad, and she’d been a good sport about it.
Pomona looked up at him as he approached the group he had been heading toward when the mistletoe had struck.
“Hi, Severus! Where have you been keeping?” she asked.
Another annoying thing about Pomona, he thought: she asked unanswerable questions. He sidestepped the question. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Yes, it’s quite good. The food is fabulous! Did you plan the menu, or did Minerva?”
“It was a cooperative effort,” Severus replied smoothly.
“So, Severus,” David began, “we were just discussing the ethics of human blood-use in potions and spellwork. What do you think?”
“It is not a simple question,” Severus said. “First, you need to define what you mean by ‘blood-use,’ which may seem straightforward, but is not, then there are the questions of both purpose and source, which in turn raise further questions. It is not something that I can respond to by declaring myself in favour or opposed to it.”
Across from him, Albus smiled. “Quite. I said something similar a few minutes ago.”
“There is also a difference between using blood or other human organics in a potion and using it in a spell. There are different dangers, for one, and it seems to me that one could approve of some type of blood-use in potions work but not in spell-casting, or vice versa.” He took a sip of his bitter lemon.
“I think it is disgusting to use something like that in a potion,” Sarah Duffy said with a shudder.
“You won’t even take potions with any animal-derived ingredients, Sarah,” Pomona said, “so that’s not a surprise coming from you.”
“That’s not so! I’ll take them if the poor creature didn’t have to die for it. And no live ingredients!” The witch shuddered and grew pale. “But I don’t see anything wrong with using human blood for a spell of some sort, as long as the person donated it willingly and didn’t die of blood loss. But putting human blood in a potion—that’s cannibalism, whether the person dies or not! Disgusting!”
“That is a misconception regarding blood-use in brewing potions,” Severus replied. The witch obviously knew little about Potions. “There are occasions when no blood is actually incorporated into the potion, or in which only minute amounts of extracted components are required. And not all potions are meant for ingestion.”
Duffy didn’t look any happier with that explanation.
“There are entire systems of magic and potions-brewing that do not use any animal-derived ingredients at all,” Pomona said. “When I was in—”
She didn’t finish her sentence, as she was interrupted by a ringing. She looked up at the mistletoe. It was floating between her and Severus.
“Oh, well! Severus?”
Severus thought that Pomona looked overly pleased to be getting a kiss from him, but she was a very physically affectionate witch, he had noticed. She put both hands on his waist. Very tactile. Almost the exact opposite of him. He attempted not to look displeased, and he bent, putting one hand on the short witch’s shoulder, and gave her a gentle kiss, which she returned. There was a pop, and the mistletoe disappeared.
“My pleasure,” he replied politely.
Pomona laughed. “Nice of you to say.”
The conversation moved on, away from any serious debates about blood or ethics, and Severus stayed and nodded politely at intervals. He wished that he could leave early, but Minerva had specifically stated that without a very good reason, a host couldn’t leave his own party early. It didn’t seem fair to him. Can’t kick the guests out, can’t leave … it would just go on and on. He smirked to himself as he imagined an unending party, always with the same guests, same food, same drink, same music. Now that would be hell.
“Something funny, Severus?” Sharon Carter asked. She had come up just after he had kissed Pomona.
“Not really … Well, yes, but not very nice.”
“What?” Sharon persisted. Now everyone was looking at him, expressions of expectation on their faces.
“I was just imagining a never-ending party, where the guests never change, the food and drink are always the same, and the music always repeats, on and on unceasingly.”
“That sounds like hell,” Olivia Ouellette exclaimed.
The corners of Severus’s mouth turned up. “Exactly my thought.”
Minerva came up to the little group and put her arm around Albus’s. “I missed something?”
“Ah, my dear, Severus just told us that a party with us is hell!” Albus replied with a twinkle.
“What?” Minerva laughed, though she looked taken aback.
Olivia broke in. “Dumbledore is refining the punch line to its minimum, but leaving out the essential details!” She related Severus’s “joke,” and Minerva laughed.
“Well, this party won’t be unending, and Filius has changed the music, so I think we’re safe from being trapped in Severus’s nightmare. In fact,” she said, looking up at Albus and giving his arm a squeeze, “I think that this music is actually danceable.”
“I can take a hint,” Albus said, and the two moved away, dancing to the music Filius had selected, soft, but with a Latin beat.
“Would you like to dance, Severus?” Sharon asked.
“I try to avoid it.” As he saw her blush, he remembered how he hated going up to witches and having to ask them to dance, and as a wizard it was an accepted and expected role for him. “However, I believe this evening to be an exception. If, of course, that was an invitation …”
She grinned. “It was!”
Severus danced one dance with Sharon, then he retired to his corner armchair. It wasn’t very sociable of him, but he’d done his duty, he thought. And watching the party was actually rather enjoyable now. Albus and Minerva stepped over to the buffet, and Severus saw Minerva reach into her pocket. Some poor unsuspecting soul was about to be caught under the mistletoe, he was certain. He looked around the room, waiting for the little ringing. And there it was. Severus snorted. Rath hadn’t escaped this time, and he was standing with Caspar Lloyd. Severus suppressed a shudder. He was glad he had specified to Minerva “no wizards.” Somewhat to his surprise, though, Rath gave one of his small, dry smiles, and leaned over and gave the shorter wizard a kiss.
He really had not needed to see that. But Caspar hadn’t minded, apparently, though it hadn’t been much of a kiss, either.
Minerva was at it again, though, and now Poppy, who was sitting beside Flitwick on one of the nearby settees, was her victim. Filius giggled, Poppy glanced over at Pomona, shrugged, and then she gave Filius a kiss. She got up immediately afterward, though, and wandered over to Severus.
“It’s Minerva. It’s got to be Minerva,” Poppy said grumpily. “She thinks she’s funny.”
“Unhappy with the mistletoe game?” He would have thought that the Hufflepuff matron would have enjoyed that sort of thing.
She shrugged. “I’m just tired of it, that’s all.” She sighed. “I’m actually just tired. It’s getting late. I think I’ll be retiring soon. I need my energy for my family the next couple days. A lot of little children running around. I love them, but Violet’s kids—my niece and nephew—are procreating at quite a rate.”
“Together?” Severus was appalled. Pureblood families sometimes encouraged the marriage of cousins, even first cousins, but there hadn’t been any sibling marriages in centuries. It was disgusting.
Poppy, though, laughed. “No, no, no. That’s why there’s so many of them. First Ivy and her husband have one, then Geoffrey and his wife have another—there’s now five, and another one on the way.”
“Ah. I see.”
“It’s a lot of noise and activity, and Aunt Poppy has to have energy to play!”
Severus quirked a smile. “You are leaving in the morning, then?”
“No, in the afternoon, and I’ll be back in the evening on Boxing Day.”
Severus nodded. He seemed to remember that from the schedule. Minerva, Albus, and all the Heads of House were the only ones who were going to be in residence all three days from Christmas Eve Day through Boxing Day. Even Hagrid was going to be gone on Christmas Day that year, though Rath was staying. It didn’t matter at all to Severus, since he had no family, and his only friends outside of the school were going to be with their own families, themselves. He knew that other staff didn’t like having to be at the castle over Christmas, but he had nowhere else to go unless he went to Spinner’s End, and that would be depressing. Minerva herself had handled scheduling everyone else’s holiday, which was just as well. He didn’t want to have to worry about accommodating others’ family plans or dealing with conflicts and disappointment. Minerva would be much better at that.
“I hope you enjoy your holiday,” he said.
“You’re staying here for the entire holiday, aren’t you?” Poppy asked.
He nodded. “But I do have plans.” He did. He and Gareth were meeting for drinks over the weekend, and when Hermione returned from her skiing holiday with her parents, they had tentative plans for dinner at the Three Broomsticks one night. It wasn’t much, but he didn’t want people to believe he was just stuck at the castle.
“Good. Well, I do think I’ll be taking my leave now. Thank you for the lovely party, Professor!”
“Good night. Have a good Christmas.”
Severus watched the witch walk over and say good-night to Minerva and Albus. It looked as though her departure was the signal to others that the party was coming to an end, since several others went over and spoke to her, then waved to him in his corner chair, and wandered out. Severus rose and went over to Minerva and Albus.
“The party is breaking up,” he observed.
“Yes, sadly,” Albus said, sounding genuinely sad about it.
“It was a success, I believe, Headmistress,” Severus said.
“Yes,” Albus agreed. “Except in one respect.”
Severus raised an eyebrow.
“I have kissed every witch but one—and even two wizards,” he said with a rueful chuckle, “but the one witch I have wanted to kiss has not met me under the mistletoe!”
Minerva smirked. “That,” she said softly, “is what you get for accusing me of only wanting an excuse to kiss all the good-looking wizards on staff!”
Severus snorted a laugh at that. “It didn’t look to me as though you suffered at all, Albus.”
“No,” Albus agreed with a twinkle, “I didn’t suffer! Though I do think that Filius will be keeping a wide berth for a while!”
Minerva laughed. “I had actually meant to have you kiss Pomona, and they moved at just the wrong moment! Caspar didn’t seem to mind, though.”
“We’re both Gryffindors, my dear, ready to try almost anything once, just throw caution to the winds!” Albus chuckled.
After Hagrid had come up and said good-night, giving her a kiss on the cheek without benefit of mistletoe, Minerva said, “That was what gave me the idea for Rath, actually—Caspar being so good-natured about it with you.”
“And Carleton didn’t mind,” Albus said.
“No, it was for his benefit. Caspar quite likes the ladies, himself, I believe.”
“Did Lloyd ever get to kiss Helena?” Severus asked.
“No.” Minerva chuckled and her eyes gleamed. “Actually, Olivia told me what Caspar had said about being jealous of Albus’s kiss with Helena—”
“So you had him kiss me, yes, I know, very amusing, my dear.” Albus shook his head. “Do you see what I have to put up with, Severus? I’m just a toy to be played with to her!”
Severus barked a laugh. “I think you enjoy it, too.”
“He’s got your number, Albus,” Minerva said. She looked around. Only Filius and Pomona remained, cuddled together on a sofa, looking very comfortable, but fortunately—from Severus’s point-of-view—not engaging in any kissing or other intimacies.
“Can we leave now?” Severus asked.
Minerva and Albus both laughed. “If you wish, but I still owe Albus his one special witch—but only after this, I think.” She reached into her pocket, and before Severus knew what had happened, the mistletoe was hovering over his head. He grimaced and moaned.
“Well, make a witch feel unloved and unappreciated!” Minerva said, acting put out, though she had a twinkle in her eyes.
Severus rolled his eyes, but cooperated when Minerva pulled him down and gave him a kiss.
“Good night, Severus dear. Thank you for humouring me and for helping with the party. Everyone enjoyed it.” She squeezed his arm, smiling, but with tears welling in her eyes. “I’m very glad you’re still with us. We both love you, you know.”
Too much mulled wine, Severus thought. Minerva did become sentimental after a few drinks. “Yes, thank you. It was a nice party.”
“And don’t forget Christmas Eve in our suite!” Albus added brightly. “Presents!”
Severus nodded. He couldn’t very well forget, since either Albus or Minerva had mentioned it at least once a day for the last week.
“Good night, Albus, Minerva. See you in the morning, I am sure,” Severus said.
As he moved away, he heard the ting-a-ling, and he looked back to see Minerva gathered in Albus’s arms. The mistletoe didn’t vanish, and it didn’t look as though they would be through anytime soon. In fact, they might appreciate more privacy, he thought. He walked over to Filius and Pomona.
“May I walk you back to Hufflepuff, Professor Sprout? I am just leaving, myself.”
“No, no, that’s fine. I thought I’d go up to Filius’s rooms and then Floo back to mine from there, um, later.”
“I see.” Severus glanced back at Albus and Minerva. Still under the mistletoe. He cleared his throat. “I believe that perhaps we might like to leave the Headmaster and Headmistress to their, um, mistletoe.”
Filius raised his head and turned to see the couple. He smiled. “Yes, Pomona dear, I think we’d be more comfortable up in Ravenclaw Tower.”
Pomona grinned and winked. “Let’s leave them to it, then.”
As they left the room, Severus closed the doors, cast a precautionary Imperturbable, and then a very light ward that would prevent access but not egress. It would wear off in a few hours, but it would serve its purpose, he thought. “Happy Christmas,” he said softly, then he turned and went down to the dungeons and his own suite.