The Undiluted Truth, Chapter 13
It was an incontrovertible fact that Severus Snape was not fond of Christmas. He had not truly celebrated it since he had had that fight with Lily; he'd had no interest, nor had he had any true friends to celebrate it with. He'd received the various pointless trinkets and cards that the staff exchanged among themselves, of course, and gone to the annual Malfoy Yule ball, as well as enduring whatever inanities that Dumbledore decided to foist on the inhabitants of Hogwarts each year, but it was, at best, a half-hearted display of cheer.
After all, what use did he have for extra books and socks and bottles of cheap firewhiskey, and why should he bother buying them for others who would doubtless be just as tired of them as he? Why would he want to go to a ball notorious for the two worst kinds of wizards- politicians and Death Eaters- and nod and smile and pretend that Madame Lilith's cosmetic potions were a truly remarkable achievement in the field, or reminisce with Crabbe and Mcnair about the good old days of muggle baiting? And why, in Merlin's name, would he look forward to a holiday tainted with memories of being dragged bodily into the Evans' house by a singing Lily, eyes shining with the joy of the season, and put to work making ten different kinds of candies and biscuits, while Mrs. Evans smiled indulgently and sat an embarrassed Severus down at the table with the family to enjoy all the freshly baked and mixed treats?
No, Lily was dead, and she had been lost to him long before that. Now all he had to look forward to was the same hopeless pattern of pointless gift-giving and party-going, exhausting staff functions, and infuriating detentions to give out after the inevitable snow battles and holiday pranks and general shenanigans brought on by a surfeit of sugar and boundless enthusiasm. And today promised to be the same as every other Christmas before it and every one that would follow, at least until he was done to death by Death Eaters or perhaps Dumbledore's infernal "ice-breaking" games each year.
It was not. The day started like every other holiday- he woke at the usual time, dressed in his customary dark teaching robes, warded as heavily as armor, and headed down to the Great Hall to drink a fortifying cup of coffee, sidestepping the small stack of packages that the house elves had left in his front room- he would open them later. The hall was already crowded, of course, as those of the little simians masquerading as students that had remained at Hogwarts were especially excitable this morning, and he already had the beginnings of a tension headache forming in the front of his skull, which Albus's loud "Happy Christmas, Severus!" did nothing to help. Severus stewed in silence, gulping his coffee to discourage his colleagues from trying to talk to him.
The first inkling that the day was not going to go according to his expectations came when an owl landed in his porridge.
Now, in Hogwarts that unusual phenomenon happens more than one would expect. Owls- even official mail owls- are still animals, after all. Some are trained more thoroughly than others, but of course no bird, no matter how well trained, does not have its occasional caprices and failings, and there is always the chance that one might be ill or injured. In this case, however, it was none of those things. The reason this particular bird was not very large, and as it had struggled to land it had overbalanced itself with the neatly wrapped package it had been carrying and had toppled over into said breakfast with a miserable churring sound. Severus simply stared at it for a moment, then hesitantly tapped the package with his wand. It gave a little shower of purple sparks, and his eyes widened. It was warded. Not warded as in "this is top secret and will only be able to be opened by the intended receiver" or as in "this will kill you if you don't take it to a cursebreaker in a dragonhide bag". No. The kind of warding that meant that whatever resided in that box was probably as fragile as Felix Felicis before the hens' teeth were added in the thirty-third step.
Severus frowned. His first inclination was to hand it to Sinistra, who was sitting next to him, as she would be much more likely to receive this kind of gift or order, but it had his name on it, albeit in the loopy, stylized penmanship that denoted the use of a rather expensive quik-quotes quill. So it was meant for him. But who could have sent it? It might have been one of his usual orders of rare ingredients, but the slightly sloppy warding and the lack of an invoice and return address rendered that theory unlikely, and last Severus had checked Hogarth's Potions Supply Depot didn't giftwrap their orders in tasteful silver paper. But who else could it be from? No student, except perhaps some of his Slytherin upper years, had ever dared (or cared) to get him a present, and the few that did always had some sort of ulterior motive, like the good little Slytherins that they were, which, due to the fact that the package had no return address, seemed unlikely; it couldn't be a bribe if he did not know who had sent it. The same went for any former students or yearmates, too, and it did not show even so much as a spark of dark magic when he subjected it to a surreptitious scan. So what was it, and who in Merlin's name had sent it?
Something was nipping at his fingers. He glanced away from the package with a little start, only to see the fluff-ball of an owl that had brought him the package nipping at him impatiently for a snack. He absent-mindedly fed it a bite of bacon, glaring at it a little for daring to break his concentration, when all at once he noticed the golden hieroglyph on its wing (not-toxic and noninvasive) that marked it as a school owl. A school owl! So the sender had to be living at Hogwarts or at least in Hogsmeade, because no one else would have access to a school owl or feel the need to use one. Severus stared at the package for a bit longer, thoughts still marinating, before finally giving it up with a huff. He would just have to open it later, in the comfort and security of his warded rooms. Perhaps the name tag from the sender had simply fallen off, and more clarification would be within? Severus pulled it out of his breakfast, cast a cleaning spell, and simply set it by his plate. The he looked at the porridge again. He could have probably just have cast a decontamination spell, but there is, of course, always a limit to how well such spells work, and he had rather lost his appetite anyway. The little clump of white fluff on the edge of the bowl did not make its contents any more appetizing, either. He picked it up and rose.
"Severus! You're not eating with us? It's Christmas!"
Trust Dumbledore to try to keep him here, when the best Christmas present he could imagine would be a few hours to do his own research away from nosy interfering colleagues (and headmasters) and, of course, the little dunderheads. "No thank you, Headmaster, I have a potion that urgently needs my attention. I promise I will...attend the festivities this evening." Translation: he needed to get out of here now, Christmas cheer be damned, to ensure that he would not strangle the little dunderheads, and if everything went well he could stay holed up in his rooms until Dumbledore dragged him out for whatever pointless and likely headache-inducing event that would take place that evening. The only potion that needed his attention at the moment was the headache reliever that he would be brewing as soon as humanly possible.
"Surely it can wait half an hour..."
"No, I'm afraid it cannot, Headmaster," Severus replied, and made his escape before the damned old man could try to draw him into conversation. He could swear that Dumbledore enjoyed ruining his holidays, if the twinkle in those sky blue eyes was to judge.
The halls he passed were draped with all sorts of greenery that were obviously meant to be cheerful but only served to remind Severus how many ingredients (oranges, mistletoe, cranberries, holly, and various spices and leaves) were being wasted in a fruitless attempt to improve upon the already majestic and beautiful old castle. Peeves burst out of a wall once, singing an inappropriate rendition of Deck the Halls "Break a window, pop a tire, fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la..."
Severus snarled at him, but he only gave an impish wink and continued on with "Set your brother's pants on fire," zooming off before Severus could hex him. That was when the Weasley twins showed up.
Severus was ready to scream by the time he made it back to his private quarters. He did, in fact (under a silencing charm, of course). Then he untied his cloak and let it slither to the floor. It was only then that he realized that he had yet to open the mysterious gift. Well, no time like the present...
He set it on the floor of his chambers- no need to ruin a perfectly good coffee table if it turned out to hold something explosive (and it was common knowledge that those wizards who didn't mind 'slumming' used muggle explosives sometimes, to prevent detection and magical tracking) and opened it with his wand, for fear of contact poisons or cleverly-hidden wards.
There was no magic except the quiet hum of protective wards, but inside the box was all lined with a yellowish paper that sent shivers down his spine. Exleporem. Paper that, just as waxed paper repels water, repels magic, used only for two reasons: the first being to protect delicate magical artifacts and the other to conceal traps. Severus closed his eyes, then carefully drew the box towards him, making sure to touch to outside only. When it was close enough, he warily glanced inside. And gasped.
It was not concealing a trap. At least, not of the magical or muggle variety. A political trap...well, perhaps. Because who would send him enameled cerberus teeth, fire-flowers, phoenix ash, kitsune fur, and yuki onna hair (fresh, too, if the frost lining the phial was any indication) without some sort of ulterior motive? Any one of those things was worth half his month's salary, after all. But what would be the use of a bribe if he did not know who sent it?
Severus stared down at the box in dead silence, before going straight to his lab to put the ingredients away and possibly even play with them a little before he had to go do whatever inane thing Albus had thought up to waste his time. He probably shouldn't have taken the ingredients out at all...but he was far too Slytherin not to take an advantage, even if it might complicate matters later. Though if it came down to it, he could probably talk fast enough to save his neck. Merlin only knew that one of his few better attributes was his silver tongue...
Only the Cerberus teeth ended up being put away that morning. Severus got distracted with the rare ingredients almost immediately, and was before long scribbling arithmantic equations on a spare piece of parchment, as, while putting the fire-flowers away with a special potion master's stasis, he caught sight of a squat little pot of fluxweed, and was struck by the idea of exchanging kitsune fur for the fluxweed in polyjuice to see if it would make the transformation last longer. Severus had entirely lost all perception of time within minutes, and had actually progressed to trying to brew a workable prototype...when all at once he heard the tell-tale chime which meant that a student had brushed against his office wards.
It was a good thing that the potion was at a stage where it could safely be put into stasis, because otherwise he might have been tempted to ignore the chime, or do something most unpleasant to the perpetrators of the disruption, like make them clean the outside of the astronomy tower with their toothbrushes. As it was, he was very much annoyed, but at least all his work wouldn't be wasted.
Sighing, he cast Master's Stasis, took a breathable cotton cloth from one of his drawers and put it over the cauldron to ensure dust couldn't get in (a conjured cloth would have disruptive spell residue) and made his way down the passage Hogwarts had made for him as a shortcut between his rooms and office. At last he had entered the office from the back.
A tentative knock sounded in the darkened room. Severus lit the torches with a lazy flick of his wand, then marched to the door, fully prepared to verbally eviscerate whatever fool had dared disturb him on Christmas day.
At the third knock, he yanked open the door, fury already bubbling up in the back of his throat. And he stopped dead. Two of his little Slythers were waiting nervously for him there, and around them were the fading shimmer of concealment spells. Why were two of his students, even Slytherins, visiting him on Christmas day? And why were they trying to do it in secret (which they were, judging by the fading spells shimmering around them)?
And that's when he realized the identity of one of them.
"Potter." Why was it always Potter? He tried to at least keep a civil tongue in his head, in keeping with the spirit of the season, but were it not for his formidable occlumensy shields, it would have been a losing battle. "What do you need?"
Nervous green eyes met his, then darted away before he could probe them. "Please, sir..." He trailed off.
"Can you check this for traps?" And the boy pulled out a piece of silky, silvery cloth that Severus had wished that he would never, ever see again: Potter Sr's invisibility cloak.