fic repost: the bauble (pg; severus, albus, et al) Title: The Bauble Beta:: The wonderful carolinelamb. Many thanks are also due to therealsnape for her patience and help with the story's coda. Word Count: 9,866 Characters and/or Pairings: Severus, Albus, Rolanda, Minerva, Poppy and assorted Hogwarts staff. Gen, with strong suggestions of Rolanda/Minerva and hints of other relationships. Summary: That year, they decided to throw a party with plenty of punch and a wicked game. Disclaimer: I do not claim to own any of the copyrights, trademarks, or registrars of or having to do with Harry Potter. Author's Notes: Slightly edited version of the story written for flaminia_x at hoggywartyxmas. She asked for a party with "reluctant/grumpy people playing holiday games", getting tipsy. Having never played a holiday game before, this prompt stumped me for longer than I'd care to admit. I ended up enjoying the challenge, however -- thank you, flaminia_x, for the encouragement to think out of my usual box!
There was an immense need to celebrate and no particular reason to. It was late December 1990. Term thus far had been singularly unremarkable. The weather was warm and dry and not especially festive. And yet one could not help but feel that something extraordinary was about to take place.
Harry Potter, of course, was due to arrive at Hogwarts next September. Nothing about this bit of news was unexpected—everyone had had at least ten years to process the fact—and yet it was undoubtedly the source of the building anxiety. There was a prevalent and oppressive feeling that now was the beginning of the end. That things would never be the same again, perhaps even apocalyptically so. One came to an unspoken consensus that the dying moments of whatever this was, whatever this transitory semblance of peace and freedom had been, should be enjoyed to the utmost.
Usually, the staff dealt with the winter solstice and its celebrations as a partial respite from the daily routine. There hadn't been a staff party in several years. When Horace Slughorn had retired and with him the tradition of decadent merrymaking, one had almost been glad; while spectacular in some ways, those parties had been tedious. These days, it more than sufficed to gather in the headmaster's office and down an obligatory glass of sickly-sweet sparkling wine (never proper elf-made champagne, it seemed) at the stroke of midnight on the New Year. One primarily used the holidays to escape the children and each other. Some people managed to avoid being seen altogether.
This year was—different. Rolanda, checking up on a student with severe Quidditch injuries, had glumly mentioned to Poppy that she could do with a bit of holiday cheer. Poppy, half-distracted by her patient, had suggested they throw a party. Rolanda had instantly pounced on the idea. Surprisingly, so had nearly everyone else. Irma and Aurora, in fact, had overcome inveterate shyness and volunteered to help. With Albus' support, they had then managed to persuade even the most reluctant into attending. The only exceptions were Quirinus, whose mother had unexpectedly died, and Charity, who wished to celebrate the winter break with her Muggle husband and children. Both were understandably gone home early.
Sybill had "predicted" the date: three days before Christmas. Hagrid had felled and brought in a gigantic example of what he deemed to be a Proper Christmas Tree (a Nordmann Fir that Pomona had magically engineered and planted three years back). Filius and Minerva had taken turns dressing the tree with all manner of glistening and fragrant things: beeswax candles, gingerbread, sugar plums, chocolate coins, brightly wrapped toffees, enchanted doves that really nested and cooed in the branches, trumpets, violins, bells and transfigured figurines that really played and sang carols, fragile glass ornaments from Thuringia bearing the Hogwarts symbols. Bathsheda had supplied gold baubles of her own design representing the runes for luck and peace. Albus had created a self-consuming and self-renewing star to grace the highest point of the tree. On the day of the party, Irma, Septima, Aurora, Poppy and Rolanda had made a concerted effort to move the heavy, rather lumpy armchairs into a more socially conducive arrangement, an intimate circle around the fire and Christmas tree. Mr Filch had cleaned the staff-room until even the well-worn floor seemed to sparkle. The women had then covered the scratched, tea-stained old table with a red and green tablecloth and every delicious and comforting holiday food and drink one could imagine. Every unadorned surface magic could reach was trimmed with branches of fir and spruce and holly, with winter flowers and permanently frozen icicles. Even Severus had helped with the preparations (if only because he owed Poppy a rather large favour): He had agreed to mix the specialty drinks no house elf ever seemed to get quite right, eggnog and punch.
Whether he had actually done so, however, was not immediately clear.
"We might have to ask Albus to make the punch," Rolanda said grimly, shortly after the party had officially begun. Only Poppy, Aurora and Irma were arrived, and yet Rolanda already had a hankering for punch and was put out not to have it on hand.
"Severus will pull through," said Poppy. She wore a hooped dress of red velvet with a black ribbon trim and puffed sleeves, and her hair was done up in elaborate Swedish braids. It was the first time anyone had seen her in something other than her nunnish hospital gown, and thus without a wimple, in what seemed years.
"Ever the optimist. I don't know what possessed me to insist that he come. He's only even more unpleasant at Christmastime."
Irma sniffed. She wore her customary black, and her dark hair was pulled back in a tight bun as per usual, but she had taken pains with her dress: sleek form-fitting black with a black feather trim. It gave her mysterious depths no one had suspected existed, but also made her seem more like an underfed vulture than ever.
"He does make an excellent punch," said Aurora, tucking back the embroidered sleeves of her golden dress robes and daintily gathering a handful of walnuts from a bowl on the table, where an enchanted nutcracker was shelling them at incredible speed.
"Yes, and I'm sure, deep down, he does enjoy the holiday," Poppy said. Aurora coughed. "Speaking of enjoyment, Rolanda, you look absolutely delicious tonight. I could positively eat you in that dress."
Rolanda straightened and smiled, one hand playing with her long chain of white pearls, the other set on her slender hip, where a belt made of a pearlescent sparkling substance set off a green dress that would have been at the height of fashion in the twenties. Her short grey hair was held back with a feathered headband that brought out the keenness of her yellow eyes. The fact that Rolanda had probably worn the dress, pearls and headband as a young witch in the twenties lent the outfit an especial charm.
Poppy smiled back. She had a peculiar smile, distant and yet undeniably warm. It crinkled the skin around her pale eyes and was difficult to read.
Irma, examining Rolanda's dress with some measure of envy, pursed her lips and began stroking the feathers sewn into her neckline.
Aurora hid a smile behind a handful of walnuts.
The door opened. "It smells heavenly in here," said Pomona, cheeks reddened from the outdoors. Her hair was windswept and wild, she smelled of earth and flowers, and she bore an enormous wrapped gift in her large, callused hands.
"Oh good, you brought a gift," said Rolanda. "Let me put it under the tree."
"This game of yours certainly sounds intriguing," Pomona said with a smile, adjusting ample red dress robes as she headed towards the buffet.
"Let's just hope everyone remembers their gift."
"Have some moonshine," said Poppy, handing Pomona a teacup of the stuff. "Don't worry, we're all having some."
Pomona took it with gratitude, nodding over in the direction of the buffet. "Cider, hot chocolate, mulled wine and moonshine," she said, a pleased look on her face, "you girls certainly seem to have thought of everything."
"There's punch and eggnog as well," said Rolanda darkly. "That is, there will be punch, if—"
"Hello, Filius," said Aurora, drifting over towards the opening door with a diminishing handful of walnuts.
Filius wore robes made of shimmering china blue silk that no one had ever seen him in before. He was humming a Christmas tune. At the sight of Aurora, herself resplendent, indeed queenlike in her golden robes, he smiled and said, "I come bearing a gift—"
"Oh good," interrupted Rolanda. "I'll put it under the tree."
Filius looked startled, but he pulled a square box from his pocket and handed it to Rolanda.
Poppy began pouring moonshine into teacups. After an awkward pause, Aurora and Filius launched a circumlocutory discussion about the differences and similarities between African and European holiday rites.
The gift secured beneath the tree, Rolanda turned back to Pomona. "As I was saying, Severus was supposed to make the punch, but we don't know whether he actually did."
"Oh, you can count on Severus. He may seem grumpy—"
"Grumpy! Spiteful and self-serving, more like."
"Moonshine?" Poppy asked Filius.
"That may be the case, but he would never shirk a duty, no matter how small."
"We'll see about that." Rolanda turned her head at the sound of the opening door. Her features lit up with a kind of fierceness. "Minerva! Get in here—we've been waiting for you for ages."
"Minutes," muttered Irma.
"A wee little bird told me some nonsense about moonshine in teacups," said Minerva, smiling. She had tied her hair loosely at the nape of her neck and wore a longish bottle green dress with white satin slippers. A tall rectangular box in tartan paper was held between her slender hands. Rarely had she seemed more relaxed. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?"
"Your bird was well-informed," said Rolanda, winding past Pomona to take up a teacup from Poppy. "If I may," she said, relieving Minerva of the gift. Her expression intensified as she handed over the teacup in exchange, saying with an odd sort of gravity, "Your moonshine."
Their fingers brushed ever so briefly.
"My thanks," said Minerva, fingers curling around the cup. Her eyes were bright.
Aurora and Filius paused their conversation. Aurora glanced surreptitiously at Rolanda and Minerva while nibbling one end of a walnut.
"I'll just go put this under the tree," said Rolanda, moving very slowly and fondling the gift in her hands.
"So do you think—" Filius began, in obvious hopes of continuing the conversation with Aurora, only to fall into renewed silence as the door opened once more.
Minerva and Rolanda backed away to let the newcomer step in. Minerva hid a smile at the sight of the headmaster in garish candy-cane striped robes; Rolanda, by contrast, looked disappointed.
"Albus. About time," she said. "You wouldn't happen to know where Severus is, would you?"
"No," said Albus breezily. "Why?"
"He's in the dungeons, brewing, I'd expect," said Minerva, sipping at her moonshine.
"He's supposed to be here. With eggnog and punch."
Minerva blinked. "Surely you didn't actually get him to agree to come?"
"How charming and very unexpected," said Albus, his expression not giving anything away. He peered over half-moon spectacles at the teacup in Minerva's hands. "It seems we shall not suffer from a lack of liquid entertainment, in any case. What are you drinking, Minerva?"
"Hagrid's moonshine," called Poppy.
"You did bring a gift, didn't you, Albus? For the game?"
"Why yes. I'd nearly forgotten. Here you go, Rolanda." A rumpled package was extended. As Rolanda stepped back to place it beneath the tree, Poppy bustled forward with yet another teacup. Albus favoured her with a cryptic smile. "Ah. Eternal thanks, Poppy."
Septima, Sybill, Bathsheda and Hagrid each arrived separately but in swift succession. Even Cuthbert, who could hardly partake in the festivities, drifted in. Rolanda took care of their gifts while Poppy passed out brimming teacups. Hagrid was handed a beer stein of his own moonshine.
"We've been enjoying it ever so much, Rubeus," said Poppy.
"Why, it hardly burns at all," said Septima, looking at her teacup in surprise. Filius and Aurora were quick to join in agreement. Enthusiastic approbations soon followed from the others.
"I foresee that this party shall be a success," said Sybill in warbling tones. No one paid attention. Making a face, she downed her moonshine in one go, then moved over to the table to sample to mulled wine.
Rolanda edged closer to Minerva, her expression stormy. "That little snake! I've half a mind to go down to the dungeons and drag him up here by his hair."
"I'd rather you weren't hexed."
"Point." Rolanda, having given up on punch, was now sipping moonshine from a teacup herself. "Still, I have to admit I'm surprised. For all his Slytherin wiles, I never actually thought of him as the promise-breaking type."
"Perhaps he simply forgot all about it. Severus has a tendency to become obsessively preoccupied with his work."
"Don't defend him."
Minerva smiled faintly. "He is very young."
"That's no excuse. You're younger than I am, yet everyone agrees that you're—"
"I'd rather you didn't finish that sentence."
"I was going to say 'far more responsible', which isn't anything you aren't already perfectly aware of yourself, Minerva."
"I happen to disagree."
"What are you two whispering about?" said Albus, suddenly appearing before them. His blue eyes seemed like they could pierce through even the most opaque secrets. Someone, probably Albus himself, had incongruously charmed some colourful bon-bons to twirl against his long beard.
Rolanda jumped, her expression settling into a mix between irritation and alarm.
Minerva, by contrast, merely smiled. "We were just saying what a shame it was that Severus couldn't be here. I wonder if it simply slipped his mind."
"Unlikely," said Albus, and his eyes seemed to twinkle behind his glasses, "but certainly possible. It is, of course, yet early."
"True," Minerva conceded. "And he does have a penchant for dramatic late entrances."
"Late entrances my arse," said Rolanda, taking a long drag of moonshine. Her cheeks, elastic and tanned through constant exercise, were growing rosy. "I've never met anyone more anally punctual in my life."
"Now that I think about it, Severus is late to almost everything but the classes he teaches," Minerva said. "Have you ever seen him show up for a staff meeting on time?"
Rolanda grinned. "I'm always half-asleep during staff meetings, what do you think?"
Albus made a soft noise that was probably laughter. "It is good to see you so well, Rolanda," he said.
She paused, clearly thinking about the terrible Quidditch accident a few weeks earlier, about the Ravenclaw student who had nearly been killed trying to dodge a rouge, illegally enchanted bludger from his own team. "Yes, well. Thank you, Albus."
"It appears there will be punch after all," said Albus after a pause, turning slightly to nod at the table. The crystal punch bowl, which had stood empty but seconds ago, was magically filling up with a foamy pink liquid; a glass decanter of eggnog had mysteriously appeared beside it.
Rolanda's troubled expression instantly gave way to a mixture of relief and annoyance. "The little blighter actually did it!"
"Quiet, or said 'little blighter' will hear you," murmured Minerva, eyes fixed on the opening door.
It was not Severus who stepped through, however, but Mr Filch. He was carrying a silver cauldron in the crook of one elbow and a small wrapped gift in his other hand. Mrs Norris darted in between his feet, a red collar around her neck.
"What have you got there, Argus?" asked Rolanda.
His watery eyes roamed the room seemingly aimlessly. "Refills," he said.
"More punch?" said Minerva.
"The nerve!" Rolanda exclaimed. "Getting others to do his dirty work for him, is he? Why didn't Severus bring it himself?"
Filch looked shifty and insulted. "The Professor's"—Filch, who usually contracted his "the's", only ever referred to Severus Snape as The Professor—"got enough to do."
"Where is Severus, Argus?" asked Minerva.
Rolanda snorted without amusement. "Prowling after students breaking curfew, I expect."
Filch narrowed his eyes but said nothing, dragging himself and the cauldron towards the buffet table. Minerva pursed her lips. Rolanda rolled her eyes and followed Filch in order to collect his gift. He seemed rather reluctant to give it to her and watched her suspiciously as she placed it beneath the tree.
"I suppose it doesn't really matter if Severus shows up," said Rolanda upon her return. "He held up his end of the bargain."
"Any more would have probably been too much to ask," agreed Minerva.
Albus seemed vaguely amused. He was twirling a lock of his beard and his eyes were twinkling.
"Let's try the punch," said Rolanda, emptying her teacup in a single swallow. "I've been looking forward to it all day."
"I'm looking forward to this game you've planned."
"Oh, right. The game." Rolanda raised her voice. "Listen up, you lot. It's great you could come. Brilliant, really. I don't know why we don't do this more often." There were murmurs of agreement. "So there's plenty of food and drink. Load up, try the eggnog and the punch. Indulge a bit, and when you're ready, come sit down by the fire so we can play a game."
The murmurs increased in volume. Smirking, Rolanda led Minerva over to the punch bowl.
Bathsheda exchanged a smile with Aurora and Filius.
Albus meandered over to where Pomona and Poppy were chatting with Hagrid. "That tree is a feat of magical engineering," he said into an opening in the conversation. "I dare say it is the finest specimen I have seen in my many years at Hogwarts."
Hagrid puffed up with pleasure. Pomona merely nodded. "The technology has improved by leaps and bounds," she said. "In the past, we simply used to graft and interbreed; nowadays, with the new potions and finer laboratory tools, we can actually intervene with the plant's growth at the cellular level. I can only imagine how much more exciting the field must seem to young people nowadays."
"So you're saying you could do this with any plant, not merely the fir?"
"Blimey," said Hagrid with a burp.
"In theory, yes," said Pomona. "Are you interested in a particular species?"
Albus' eyes gleamed.
Then the door opened with a bang, and the entire room fell silent.
Albus turned to the newcomer with a knowing smile. "There you are, my boy," he said.
"Professor!" cried Filch.
"Severus?" hissed Rolanda.
"Severus, how good of you to come," said Poppy, striding over to the bottle of moonshine and filling up the last teacup to the brim.
Severus had not bothered to change out of his black teaching robes. They were fraying at the edges and made him look like a bat. His black eyes were narrowed, his lips caught in a permanent frown. His long black hair, uncombed and greasy, hung in limp strands over large, pale ears and hollow, angled cheeks. There was something flat about him. He was a creature of lines and shadows and seemed to move on a two-dimensional plane, like a portrait. One would never have guessed he was thirty. Not that he seemed older. It was more that he did not really seem to have an age, like a changeling who could appear as a child in one moment and an aged old man in the next.
At this present moment, he was glaring ferociously at Albus. Then, with a sneer for everyone else, he strode over to Poppy, robes billowing behind him.
Albus plucked a bon-bon from his beard and began sucking on it, his eyes filled with delighted cunning.
The conversation resumed, growing in speed and volume from whispers to murmurs to a near roar.
"The punch is lovely, Severus," said Minerva kindly.
"Hear, hear," muttered Rolanda, already on her second cup.
"Best punch I ever had," said Mr Filch, looking at Severus greedily.
Severus ignored them all. "Do you consider my debt paid," he demanded of Poppy, yet so quietly only she could hear him.
"Yes, of course, Severus. I only hope that you find it in yourself to enjoy the party."
"Not bloody likely," he said, taking the proffered teacup, gathering it close to his chest, and glaring at anyone—Filch, Rolanda and particularly Albus—he caught so much as glancing in his direction.
"You might be surprised."
Severus glowered and sneered. "Ever the optimist."
"You know, that's not the first time I've been told that today."
"Of course not," said Severus, taking a quick swallow of moonshine. His expression soured as it travelled down his throat, but he managed not to cough. "It is something people will continue to tell you for the rest of your life."
"Just as people will always remind you that you're an eternal pessimist?"
Severus nodded tightly, his eyes scanning the room, his expression closed and distant. He took another sip, smaller this time, of moonshine. "Just so."
"I can live with that, I suppose."
He sneered, fingers clenching around his teacup. "You would say that."
Rolanda came up to them wearing a half-incredulous, half-wary expression. "Severus, did you remember to bring a present?"
"I brought the bloody drinks."
Annoyance flitted across her face. "Not the same. The present is supposed to be something wrapped that can be placed under the tree."
Severus glared at her, but Rolanda refused to back down. He stuck out his chin and crossed his arms, the teacup clutched in the white-knuckled fingers of one knobbly, pale hand. "I don't recall any such instructions."
"Bollocks. It was on the—"
"Anything would do," Poppy interrupted. "It doesn't have to be wrapped. A potion, perhaps—something unused and easily replaceable on your person."
Severus scowled, but his free hand began to fish in a pocket of his robes. "Will this do," he said frostily, thrusting a small glass vial of some cream-coloured substance at Poppy's nose.
"Delightfully," she said, taking the bottle in hand. "Thank you, Severus."
There was a murderous gleam to Severus' eye and an unpleasant twitch to his lips, but he said nothing, tossing back a large gulp of moonshine.
Rolanda gave him a final glare before returning to Minerva and the punch bowl. "That man," she hissed.
"I know," said Minerva with a little smile, and they clinked glasses together.
"Let's start the game," suggested Rolanda. "We can eat while playing, what do you think?"
"I'm ready whenever you are."
"Right. Right, you lot," Rolanda announced, ignoring the way Sybill began to titter into her glass of punch, "Start moving towards the chairs. Bring your plates and drinks, of course."
"This should be fun," said Poppy cheerfully.
Severus bristled. "You never said anything about a game," he said, sounding betrayed.
"I thought Albus had told you. Anyway, the point is moot. There's no getting out, not now that Rolanda's gotten started."
He gave her the look he reserved for simpletons. "Of course there is."
"But you can't leave now—you've only just arrived."
"I refuse to play some game for daft ninnies—"
"Come, come, Severus," said Albus, surprising him by the crook of his elbow and dragging him forward. "You wouldn't want to miss this."
"On the contrary, headmaster—"
"Oh, but I insist," said Albus jovially. "Come now, sit beside me."
Severus had glowered and hesitated, but at these words he sat. His expression contorted from annoyance to anger to something so incandescent it was a wonder the room didn't burst into flame.
Poppy, seeing the look on his face, poured a generous glass of eggnog and sent it floating his way. He took hold of it and drank, but refused to even glance in her direction.
"Poor lad," said Pomona. "He really doesn't know how to have a good time."
"Some people simply never learn," said Irma snidely.
Poppy smiled sadly. "Eggnog?" she asked.
"Oh yes, dear."
Irma merely shuddered.
With the exception of Cuthbert, who floated longingly above the food table, everyone had soon chosen a seat. Rolanda sat nearest to the tree, Minerva at her side. Poppy and Pomona claimed the next available seats, followed by Hagrid and Septima, Aurora and Filius, Sybill and Bathsheda, Irma and Mr Filch. Severus and Albus took up the seats closest to the fire.
"So," began Rolanda in the tone of voice she used as a Quidditch referee. "You were all kind enough to provide a small gift. Thank you very much. Here's how we're going to settle the question of distribution." A bowl filled with scraps of paper floated over to her elbow. "Each of you will draw a number, like this." She drew a paper scrap and nudged the bowl towards Minerva, who followed suit.
"Now this is how it works: The person with the lowest number has first dibs on the presents. Yes, you get first choice of any present under the tree. However, don't count yourself lucky too quickly. Everyone after you will have a choice of opening a new present or—" she smiled in a way that reminded those who knew her well that she'd nearly been sorted into Slytherin, "—of stealing someone else's."
"Stealing?" said Filius. He had seemed rather excited by the prospect of choosing gifts at first; now he looked agitated.
Aurora was examining her scrap of paper with a frown.
"Yes, Filius, stealing. Now, if your present is stolen, you of course have the option of picking out something new from under the tree or stealing one from someone else. Presents can only be stolen three times before they are retired from play. Also, if someone steals your present, you can't just steal it back: it has to have passed through at least one other person's hands. All right—are you ready? Good. Let's begin. Who has number one?"
"I do," said Aurora. She looked nervous and kept on glancing at Filius out of the corner of her eye.
Rolanda made an impatient sound. "Honestly, this isn't some kind of test. I'm sure all the presents are just as good as the others. Just pick something."
Albus leaned over the side of his armchair to peer at the scrap lying face down on Severus' lap. "What number did you get?" he whispered.
"As if I would give you that sort of advantage," hissed Severus, crushing the scrap in his palm.
"Advantage? Why Severus, it's just a game."
"A game we both know perfectly well you're playing to win," said Severus, so softly only Albus could hear. His dark eyes were tracking Aurora's movements closely.
Albus looked delighted. "That makes two of us, then," he whispered, straightening as Aurora began unpacking the gift she had chosen. It was obviously the gift from Filius, with sky-blue and silver wrappings and a charmed bow.
"Oh my," said Aurora, lifting a miniature wizard's chess set of ivory and ebony from the wrappings. It had clearly been hand-carved and charmed by Filius himself; as Aurora opened the chess set to take a closer look at the pieces, she exclaimed over their extraordinary naturalism and beauty.
"Impressive indeed," said Minerva, looking at the chess set with great interest.
Filius was watching Aurora's every movement with a kind of rapturous attention. "I'd been working on it for a while," he volunteered. "It seemed like this would be the proper occasion to give it to . . . someone else."
"Good Lord," muttered Irma.
"All right, who has number two," said Rolanda, yellow eyes tracking the room impatiently. "Hagrid? Well, go pick something out."
Hagrid ended up choosing Pomona's gift: a potted seedling. "Flesh-Eating Mugwort!" he exclaimed. "Jus' wha' I needed for the garden."
Pomona beamed. "I thought some kind of insect repellent and general good luck charm would be useful."
"Ah, Pomona, tha' was mighty kind of yeh."
"Remember, your chosen gift may not be what you end up with at the end," said Rolanda, sounding slightly exasperated. "Who's next?"
Septima rose and picked the crumpled gift from Albus, which turned out to contain several pairs of woollen socks. Little reindeer and candy canes danced merrily across the weave. "Ah," she said diplomatically. "How very seasonal."
"One can never have enough warm socks," agreed Albus, plucking absently at his beard.
Severus drank his glass of eggnog empty, cancelled the self-refilling charm and set it down on the floor.
Two other gifts had been chosen and opened by Bathsheda and Pomona—a relatively common, yet illustrated 1944 edition of Hogwarts, A History from Irma, and a generously sized flask of moonshine from Hagrid—before Rolanda became truly impatient. "Surely you aren't all intending on playing nice," she complained.
Yet Poppy, who was next, merely chose the unwrapped vial Severus had provided at her request. "What is it?" she asked, uncapping it and sniffing at the contents.
Severus glowered. "Hand crème."
He scowled at the inquisitive faces of his colleagues, slouching back into the chair with his arms crossed over his chest. "Anti-venin."
There was a collective pause. Minerva sat forward, a look of vague concern on her face. "Severus, you don't honestly think that someone here is trying to poison you—right?"
Poppy came to his rescue. "Of course not, Minerva. It's a very useful ingredient—I really should have recognised it right away—and not quite as easily replaceable as you led me to believe, Severus. Thank you."
Sybill, the next player, tittered into her self-refilling glass of punch. "Sybill," warned Rolanda.
"I predict that . . . you won't be needing this," Sybill slurred to Pomona, standing up and simply snatching the flask of moonshine out of Pomona's lap.
Pomona looked absolutely gobsmacked.
Rolanda was fighting back a grin. "Well, go on, Pomona. Are you going to pick a new gift or steal yourself a replacement?"
"My word," said Pomona, shaking her head slowly. "I never thought of myself as a thief, but if we're all going to be incriminated here . . . " She turned to Septima. "Septima, if you would be so kind—I must admit, I never have enough socks as it is . . ."
Septima handed them over hastily. "I think I'll take the opportunity to choose something new," she said, stepping over to the tree. This time, she was more careful in her selection, lifting and shaking boxes to test their weight and see if she could guess what was inside.
"That's the spirit," said Rolanda, exchanging an amused glance with Minerva.
Septima's face was filled with a new determination; after having examined all the gifts, she picked a round golden package that was clearly from Aurora.
Filius narrowed his eyes.
"I wonder what this could be," said Septima softly, back in her seat and slowly unwrapping the gift. "It's so beautifully packaged." There was a collective straining forth of necks as she lifted a small metal cylinder from the nest of golden paper—
"A telescope," she breathed.
"A variation on the Guldenstern reflecting design," said Aurora after a pause.
"It's so tiny," Septima said with wonder.
"A combination of spells," Aurora admitted, looking embarrassed. "Most small telescopes this size compromise on visual resolution and quality, but I managed to enchant the glass in such a way as to eliminate most astigmatism."
Filius was looking rather sour, but everyone else in the room—with the possible exceptions of Severus and Albus, who looked bored and politely disinterested, respectively—seemed enchanted by the gift.
"It was an experiment," Aurora confessed. "From my tests, it seems to work—in fact, it has quite a range—but should you ever have any problems, let me know."
"I'm sure it will work just splendidly," Septima murmured.
Everyone sat back feeling vaguely bereft or envious, as one often does upon seeing something truly beautiful or coveted land in the hands of a friend.
"So it seems I'm next," said Rolanda loudly. "What shall I pick . . . Ah, I know," she said, winking and sweeping up a tall gift wrapped in tartan paper. A swift denuding charm revealed a handsome bottle of Speyside firewhisky—and closer inspection that it was an exceedingly rare Dallas Dhu. "Oh Minerva," Rolanda murmured. "Sometimes you're just too much."
"It was sitting in my rooms collecting dust," said Minerva. "Now at least I'll be able to share it with someone."
"You do realise, Rolanda, that it will be very difficult for you to maintain your possession of that gift," said Albus, his eyes bright with mirth and the keen edge of something else as well, some hard-to-place emotion.
She laughed. "That's all part of the game, isn't it?"
Albus smiled an almost wistful smile, an effect instantly negated by the fact that he then clapped his hands on his knees like an eager schoolboy. "Whose turn is next?" he asked.
"Mine," said Filius coolly. "And I'm sorry Septima, but I fear you are to be deprived of yet another present."
"Vector is a vector," murmured Irma to herself, spindly hands curling convulsively in her lap.
A flicker of emotion crossed Septima's face, but she handed over the telescope without a word. Filius snatched it up with the eagerness of relief. "I suppose I'd better pick something else, then," said Septima, a tremor of annoyance in her voice as she headed over to the tree. Her earlier inspections had clearly given her some insight into the gifts, for she immediately zoomed in on whatever it was Mr Filch had packaged in old newspaper.
Filch seemed astonished that she should choose his gift. His mouth opened and closed several times before Mrs Norris jumped into his lap and he found some kind of grounding in stroking her long fur.
"Fascinating," said Septima, picking out an elaborate comb from the packaging and examining it with real interest. "What design is this?"
Filch gulped. "Aw . . . it's . . ." He shook his head and looked pleadingly at Mrs Norris, as though hoping she would speak for him.
"Filch whittled it himself, Vector," said Severus. His eyes were hooded.
Rolanda gave Severus a considering glance. Indeed, everyone but Albus seemed astonished that Severus of all people had come by such personal information (and about a Squib, no less).
Severus, of course, gave nothing away with his expression except for an appearance of being extremely put out upon. In fact, to judge from appearances, he was completely uninterested in Septima and was, if anything, watching Irma with a particular closeness.
"It's exquisite," said Septima quietly. "Thank you."
"Well," said Rolanda into the sudden hush. "Who's next?"
"Me," said Minerva.
They shared a glance. "Good," said Rolanda.
Minerva took no time in choosing her gift—a large box with glittering broomsticks zipping all over the paper. Back in her seat, she rattled it once and raised an eyebrow at Rolanda. "I hope this isn't what I think it is."
Rolanda smirked. "Best open it then."
The box turned out to contain a green female Quidditch habit. It was smart and trim with a real whalebone corset and it had probably been out of fashion since Rolanda's childhood at the start of the century. Minerva looked positively delighted. "If only Wilhelmina were here," she said, stroking the velvety fabric reverently. "We could put on an impromptu match."
"We should put one on anyway," said Rolanda with a wicked smile. She startled suddenly. "Speaking of Wilhelmina—I completely forgot to put on music." She shook her head at herself and pointed her wand at an old gramophone; an energetic choir and orchestra began to perform traditional carols.
Severus sneered, picked up his empty glass of eggnog from the floor and re-activated the refilling charm.
"You know, that wasn't quite fair," commented Bathsheda, a playful glint to her eye. "That gift is tailor-made for Minerva—no one else would even begin to think about stealing it."
"Septima and I are Minerva's size," Irma objected.
Rolanda winked at Bathsheda. "Who ever said anything about playing fair?"
"Which is precisely why we love her," said Minerva, carefully packing the corset into its box.
Rolanda's cheeks were bright pink. She took a long swig of punch before turning her head to gaze around the room. "Whose turn is it now?"
"Mine," said Severus quietly.
"Oh," said Rolanda. She took another sip of punch, her eyes narrowing.
Severus set his glass of eggnog down on the floor and stepped towards the tree, his expression flat. With seeming carelessness, he picked up the first present within reach.
Albus plucked thoughtfully at his beard.
Severus returned to his seat and opened the gift with an air of utter boredom. It was from Bathsheda—a pre-print of her latest book, a compendium of useful ancient runes for advanced spell work. He flipped through the pages without saying a word. When he looked up at Bathsheba, his eyes were cold and fathomless. "Very practical."
"I certainly hope you find it useful," she said politely.
He nodded, then picked up his eggnog and downed several gulps.
Irma was next. She traced her lips for several seconds with a bony finger, brows furrowed. Then she looked up at Rolanda with a pinched expression. "I'd like the firewhisky, please."
Rolanda handed it over instantly, yellow eyes flaring up with a competitive spark. "But of course." She smiled her Quidditch smile.
"See if she doesn't win it back, Irma," Pomona said with a chuckle.
Irma sniffed and turned the bottle between spindly, pale fingers to examine the label. Meanwhile, Rolanda picked up a small red package from the steadily dwindling pile beneath the tree.
Poppy straightened with a smile.
"Oh, muscle relaxant!" Rolanda exclaimed as soon as she had unwrapped the gift. "Excellent, excellent. Well thought out, Poppy."
Poppy fussed with her skirt, almost embarrassed. She smiled her unreadable smile at her busy hands. "You're welcome."
Albus peered at Rolanda over half-moon spectacles. "I suppose that leaves Argus and myself," he said. "What number do you have, Argus?"
"Ah, go ahead, headmaster," croaked Filch, looking shifty and somehow terrified, hands stroking madly at the purring Mrs Norris.
"Very well," said Albus after a pause. "Rolanda, if you would forgive an old man with his pains—"
Rolanda's head snapped up; her eyes became, if anything, even more hawk-like and keen. She looked as though she would very much like to laugh. "You're hardly older than me, but I do understand," she said, handing him the muscle relaxant.
Minerva sat forward in her chair, eyes as sharp as though she were proctoring an exam.
"Severus," said Rolanda, "let me have Bathsheda's book."
There was silence and there was a shift. It was an imperceptible and sudden shift; it was as though a chain of dominos had been falling, falling on top of each other, pushing each other down, and one was only dimly beginning to realise it.
Severus gave her the book. Eyes narrowed in concentration, he touched the palms of his pale, long-fingered hands together so that they formed a kind of triangle. This he then drew, almost thoughtfully, to his lips.
"Madam Pince," he said softly, "I am hereby taking possession of the firewhisky."
She startled, eyes bulging with surprise as he stood suddenly and came to loom over her. He was, damn him, smirking.
"I am in compliance with the rules," he said casually, and yet nothing could have been less casual than the studied way he flicked an invisible speck of dust from his sleeve.
It was a mesmerising performance, a transformation even; only a moment ago Severus had been the badly groomed former student and almost-teenager slouching in his chair, sullenly consuming large amounts of alcohol and scowling blackly at everyone. One had treated him carefully out of fear he might explode into a tantrum. Now he was supremely self-possessed—an actor in complete control over the resources at his disposal convincingly playing out a role. He seemed to have grown in stature and depth; the flatness, the painting-like aspect was gone. Indeed, he had rarely seemed more dynamic. And yet there was an underlying purposefulness about him that was almost frightening. Certainly it seemed clear that this Severus was not the professor who lectured children on potions. That explanation would simply be too mundane.
And all the force of this metamorphosis was currently being directed at Irma. Poor Irma—her lips twisted and her nose rumpled angrily and she was defenceless. There was no need for her to speak; one already sensed what power had been mobilised against her and knew, instinctively, of her helplessness. She spoke anyway.
"Must you ruin everything?"
There was a collective inhalation of breath, a silence disturbed only by the recorded choir's enthusiastic rendition of "Ding Dong Merrily on High". Severus himself remained unfazed, his lips twitching in a kind of smile. "Surely you don't wish to cause a scene," he murmured.
She stared up at him in mute appeal. The desperation in her features was plain. Severus was pitiless; he gazed back with eyes lightless as long tunnels.
Slowly she deflated. "Very well," she said bitterly. "Take it, you—" She cut herself off just in time, shrinking into herself as though suddenly remembering the presence of the headmaster.
Albus was watching the exchange with a raised eyebrow, one hand slowly stroking his beard.
Severus turned the bottle over once in his hands, gave Irma a short, mocking bow and strode to his seat, robes billowing behind him.
"I want the book in return," Irma said, cheeks stained with humiliation.
"Oh ho," said Rolanda. "One sees why they call this game Devil's Santa." She strode over to Irma. "There you are, my dear."
Irma took the book with averted eyes and immediately hid behind its pages.
Rolanda paused, then spun on her heel to face Severus.
He sneered at her, but it was an act. It had become obvious that his mind was off plotting elsewhere. The whisky bottle glinted in his sceptre-thin hands, a mere thing to him, merely the means to an end. "I suppose you'll be wanting this."
"Be my guest," he said, holding out the bottle with complete indifference. Rolanda hesitated, then drew it up to herself in a kind of careful embrace.
Her eyes met Minerva's in triumph, but there was a new thoughtfulness in them as well.
"You must choose a replacement, Severus," said Albus.
"Of course. It is part of the game."
Severus inclined his head. Strands of black hair, heavy with oil and matt from neglect, fell across his eyes. "Very well," he murmured, rising once more to his feet. Behind the inimitable cover of hair, his eyes darted across the room. Distant and unreadable—so dark—before, now they gleamed with a shrewdness that sent a jolt of unease through everyone still watching him.
"Professor Flitwick," he said quite unexpectedly, fixing those eyes on Filius.
Filius startled, his hands instantly going to the telescope in his lap. "You don't mean—you can't mean—" he babbled.
From the gramophone, a soprano began singing "In the Bleak Midwinter". Severus stood silent, his expression inscrutable.
Comprehension dawned slowly; with it came pain. "Right," said Filius, bravely attempting to maintain face and only half succeeding. "Right. Here you go, then."
Severus grasped the tiny telescope with the outstretched fingers of his right hand and closed them in a fist around it, a fist that immediately disappeared into the long sleeve of his robes.
"Kleptomaniac," whispered Irma to her book.
"It's your turn, Filch," said Severus coolly, his flapping robes disturbing the air as he strode back to his seat.
"Not quite," said Rolanda, sounding slightly breathless. "Filius has to choose another gift first."
"Not much left to choose from, is there," said Filius, his voice pitched high in an unsuccessful attempt to sound cheerful. He ignored the raised eyebrows his comment generated. "I suppose—" Without completing the thought, he got to his feet and wobbled over to the tree, picking out one of the two remaining gifts.
It was Septima's gift, a self-made word generator and calculator that assisted in the arithmantic prediction of future events.
"It works particularly well on distant bodies," she commented, looking uneasy and guilty. She glanced at Aurora, who smiled with her eyes. "I've found it less useful in predicting human behaviour than in tracking the patterns of stars, to be perfectly honest."
"What an ingenious application," said Aurora with obvious sincerity.
Filius, observing her interest, began to brighten. He straightened and looked at Septima with something approaching respect. "Indeed, such a charming device, Septima. I never would have thought of something like it myself, but it will undoubtedly come in useful. Many thanks."
Septima looked uncertain, but a second glance at Aurora seemed to cure her sense of agitation, and she smiled. "You're welcome."
"And now, Argus, it's your turn," said Albus, tapping pensively at his chin.
Sybill, sprawled asleep in her chair, let out a resounding snore. Bathsheda poked her in the side. "Sybill!" she hissed.
Sybill opened a baleful eye and shut it nearly at once.
"Now, really!" said Bathsheda.
Filch barely gave them a glance. "Is tha' reight, Professor?" he asked, as though he had not really expected to be given a turn. Perhaps he was remembering that he had never once been invited to one of Slughorn's holiday galas (except in order to clean up afterward).
"Yes, of course, Argus," said Albus.
The recording had just moved on to the next carol: "Once In Royal David's City". Pomona, unwrapping a marron glacé from its gold foil, began humming along.
Rolanda did her best to look encouraging. "So what's it going to be then, Argus. Are you going to open the last present or steal yourself another?"
"Aw dun't—" Filch coloured, hands tangled in Mrs Norris' fur, looking for all the world as though he had just been petrified.
Minerva made a small sound. Suddenly Mrs Norris, who had been luxuriating in Filch's lap, stood, stretched and jumped onto the floor, tail raised high. Filch followed her progress towards the tree with wide eyes, as though betrayed.
"Go on then, old chap," said Rolanda, making a valiant attempt to suppress her growing impatience.
Slowly Filch stood, his watery eyes still bugging out of his face. He glanced once at Severus, once at the headmaster, and once suspiciously at Rolanda. Then he got to his knees and pulled out the very last gift from beneath the tree, a large box wrapped in a shawl.
Staggering, he brought it back to his seat. Sybill had begun to snore again, but it was plain that this was her gift. If the shawl had not been a dead giveaway, then the gift itself was: What Filch pulled out of the box was none other than a tessomancy kit.
Filch seemed overwhelmed by the prospect of a brand new tea set in itself, tessomancy aside. "Aw cun't accept summat so fine," he said, looking around the room helplessly.
"Of course you can, Filch," said Severus, inspecting his nearly empty glass of eggnog with every sign of ennui. "That would rather be the entire point of this game."
"Aw dun't know wha' to say," said Filch, overcome with pathetic gratitude. "Aw guess awm thankful tha' sich fine fowk as—"
"There's no need to thank anyone," Severus interrupted. He was sitting up straight and there was something like anger flashing in his eyes.
Filch met his gaze and faltered. "Well—"
"We're glad you like the gift," said Rolanda swiftly, her eyes darting between Severus, Filch and Minerva. A frown tugged at her lips. "And if only Sybill would wake up, you could tell her yourself."
The party devolved from there: While Rolanda, Filch and Bathsheda surrounded Sybill and attempted to rouse her with various sobering charms (never a substitute for a potion), Filius and Aurora stood and went over to the nutcracker shelling walnuts, while Poppy inched closer to Minerva to admire her new Quidditch outfit. Into the relative quiet, Pomona and Hagrid began comparing plum pudding recipes. Septima, suddenly anchorless, wandered over to a platter of mince pies, while Irma huddled even further into her book.
Severus drank the last of his eggnog and stood. Albus, watching him closely, tugged at his sleeve.
"Help an old man to his feet?"
"As though you need it," said Severus scathingly, but after a pause he held out his left hand, which Albus took.
Severus disengaged his hand the moment Albus was standing. Albus, for his part, clasped his hands together and beamed, his gaze alighting on various points in the room. "What an excellent idea this was."
"I'm sure you think so," said Severus, sneering. Within his sleeve, his right hand was still clenched around the telescope. "Don't try to stop me from leaving this time, Dumbledore."
"Not at all, not at all. I was planning on leaving myself." Albus smiled, showing yellowing teeth. He raised his voice. "Thank you Rolanda, Poppy, for this highly entertaining diversion. I don't think I've had such a good time since Armando Dippet accidentally transfigured himself into a Christmas tree." There were a few snickers, then Albus continued, "Now, if you'll excuse an old man—"
"You're not leaving already, are you, Albus?" asked Minerva.
"The party's only just begun!" said Rolanda, yellow eyes flashing.
"Ah, but you will enjoy yourselves more this way," said Albus benignly, lifting his hands in an appeasing gesture as further protests were raised. "And I am, I must confess, really very tired."
While Albus was still speaking to the group, Poppy stepped over to Severus, hooped skirt rustling. "I presume that's your cue to get going as well," she said. Eyes narrowed, Severus opened his mouth, but she forestalled him with a raised hand. "You don't have to defend yourself: I know you wanted to leave ages ago. I just wanted to tell you how glad I was you came. Things were quite exciting with you here."
"Yes, very exciting indeed," said Minerva, who was listening to Albus with one ear and Poppy with the other. She turned to look at Severus, eyes gleaming.
"The punch was well worth the wait," said Rolanda from beside Minerva. There was a note of gruffness to her voice. "And . . . it was good of you to come as well."
Severus looked a bit pale and somehow as though he would like nothing better than to spit disgustedly on the ground, but he managed to keep his expression mostly blank. "Thank you for the invitation," he said in a clipped voice. In his right sleeve, his fist clenched.
Albus allowed Hagrid to clap him on the back, thanked Poppy once more for the muscle relaxant and then turned towards the door, his blue eyes bright and cunning. Severus was already well on his way out. Smiling faintly, Albus followed him with a speed that belied his earlier statements about age.
"O come let us adore him . . ." sang the recorded choir.
"Happy holidays!" called Aurora.
"Happy Christmas!" bellowed Hagrid.
"Sleep well!" added Poppy.
Albus turned back briefly, his smile wide. "And a good night to you all."
The moment they were outside, Severus made to escape for the dungeons. Albus stopped him with a hand to his sleeve.
"Walk with me a little," murmured Albus.
Severus gritted his teeth. He was swaying slightly and looked sicklier than was his wont. Without saying a word, he followed Albus down the corridor into a long shadowed passageway that finally led out onto a balcony.
It was cold enough that they had to use warming charms on their hands and cheeks, and terribly dark, as the view faced the Forbidden Forest. The moon was nowhere to be seen, the stars were gone behind a black veil of fog, and even the lights of Hogsmeade seemed to have blinked out of existence.
For a long moment, they were both silent. Severus spat over the balustrade, a disgruntled, queasy expression on his face.
"Severus," said Albus in a warning tone.
Severus levelled him an accusing stare. "You cheated," he said.
"For a jar of muscle relaxant? Hardly, my boy."
Severus shook his head with some effort. He swallowed, and his voice rasped when he finally spoke. "The outcome was too neat. You influenced it somehow—the order of the draw."
"Even if I had done such a thing, that wouldn't be quite the same as cheating." Albus was beginning to sound cheerful. "Each gift was itself a surprise—surely you aren't going to tell me that I knew in advance what everyone was going to bring." Severus snorted in disagreement. "Furthermore, even had I been able to guess the contents of every gift, there were too many other unpredictable factors—the influence of the gift wrapping, for example, and then individual whims."
"That's rubbish." Severus looked as though he'd like to spit again. "Predicting their reactions was the easiest part."
"Perhaps. Then again, who would have guessed that Irma would choose the firewhisky?"
"You, obviously," said Severus sourly, wrapping his arms around his middle—whether against the nightly cold or an upset stomach, it was difficult to tell. "Besides, it was clear to anyone with a pair of eyes and a brain that she would take the most expensive item on offer. And before you say it, no, the telescope is not worth even half as much."
"I was not going to say anything of the sort. I was as genuinely astonished by the final outcome as everyone else." Severus opened his mouth, a vein throbbing at his temple, but Albus held up a restraining hand. "Severus, surely you're not complaining about how things turned out. You told me you were playing to win and you did so spectacularly. The telescope is exquisite."
"The telescope is a bauble," said Severus, scowling at the floor. His hair hung in a thin curtain before his face. Suddenly his chin jerked up and the curtain fell back, revealing eyes unusually wide and wary. Severus seemed to be searching Albus' expression for some kind of permission. Perhaps finding it, he relaxed, leaning his elbows against the balustrade. Although his skin looked unhealthily pale, although his hands were trembling, there was something almost sensual about the pose, especially when his eyes hooded and he allowed himself a malicious little smile. "I just wanted to see the look on Flitwick's face when I took it away."
Albus wore a stern frown, but the fondness in his voice told a different story. "And here I'd thought you'd simply appreciated the symbolism of the thing."
"I know that you appreciate it," said Severus, sly and trembling despite his warming charms.
"How could you not after that performance?" Severus seemed to realise that he was crossing a line and at the same time seemed unable to stop himself. Possibly he was more than a little drunk.
He sneered; his sallow cheeks grew pink. "It was either the telescope or the chessboard; the telescope was something less of a cliché."
Severus fumbled with his sleeve, pulling out the telescope and holding it out from his slender palm. "Here. I don't want it. You can add it to your already astronomically sized collection of useless trinkets."
"You have a singular way of voicing criticism, I'll grant you that," said Albus mildly. His fingers lingered over Severus' palm before he pocketed the telescope. "Thank you for both."
"The criticism and the gift?"
"They're one and the same," said Severus, drawing himself to his full height, only to grimace and bend over at his middle. "And now I'd best be off. Something's wrong with my stomach."
Albus looked as though he wanted to make an offer to accompany him, but something held him back. "You should take Sober-Up," he said carefully.
"Thank you, Dumbledore, for once again stating the obvious. Good night to you."
A wistful smile. "Good night, Severus."
Albus remained behind long after Severus' footsteps had died away, one hand stroking his beard, the other fondling the metallic gift in his pocket. After a while, he turned his gaze onto the forest below, wreathed in mist. The telescope found its way out of his pocket; he expanded it to its full length and gazed below into the almost impenetrable darkness.
"The vanquished here is victor of the field," he said quietly.* ". . . You old fool."
* ~ *
As soon as the door had closed behind Albus and Severus, Rolanda turned to Minerva with wide eyes. "You don't think . . ."
Minerva, her own eyes narrowed, took a sip of mulled wine. "Oh, but I do."
Rolanda's mouth worked silently for several seconds. "Well, I never."
"Don't make too much of it. I fear it's an entirely one-sided affair."
"Is it?" Rolanda lifted her glass of punch and sipped thoughtfully.
Poppy came up to them carrying a handful of candied oranges and pruneaux d'Agen. "That all worked out quite nicely, wouldn't you say?"
"Very nicely," said Minerva softly. "I only hope that neither of you were the ones who charmed the outcome of the game."
"What?" Rolanda said, looking a cross between shocked and disgruntled.
"Ah," said Minerva. She appeared to have drawn a conclusion that amused her greatly, for her eyes were twinkling. "I should have known."
Poppy popped a candied orange peel into her mouth.
"What's this about a charm?" demanded Rolanda, loudly enough that Aurora and Filius turned in her direction. Minerva pursed her lips. "I'm not finished with you," muttered Rolanda, before saying in her Quidditch voice, "but of course. We should try out the holiday bingo sets—Amelia spent such a long time charming them to sing "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day" properly."
"Bingo?" said Filius. It was well known that bingo was one of his favourite games.
"Oh yes, with prizes," said Rolanda, having successfully captured the attention of the entire room. "You didn't think we were finished? Drink up, drink up, and then we'll start."
When Rolanda turned back, Poppy was smiling her secretive smile. Minerva placed a hand on Rolanda's arm. "Surely you noticed that things worked out better than they should have. Even poor Irma and Filius didn't walk out of the game completely empty-handed."
Rolanda frowned. "I don't know," she said slowly. "If Severus hadn't happened to picked Bathsheda's book but the tessomancy set, for example, then perhaps Irma would have never given me the opportunity to take the whisky back . . . but that's all luck, pure luck. And, very probably, Slytherin cunning." She shook her head. "That said, I still don't see why the game had to have been charmed. In fact, I would argue that it wasn't—otherwise Filius would have kept the telescope."
"Not if it was Albus who charmed the game," said Minerva.
Poppy weighed the fruits in her hand. "Don't you see, Rolanda?" she said quietly. "Severus and Albus were playing a game of their own. Winning the telescope had special meaning for them both."
Now Rolanda looked sceptical. "I think Severus was just being a git, as usual."
"We'll probably never know what they were really up to," said Poppy. "Nonetheless, it's a nice theory, isn't it?"
Minerva's lips twitched.
Rolanda looked at Minerva fondly. "It's nothing we can decide in the next few minutes, I'd say," she declared, linking arms with Minerva. "Let's do play another game. In which, of course, no charms of any sort shall help determine the winner."
Minerva smirked and followed Rolanda to the glittering tree, the warm fire, their smiling and chattering colleagues.
Poppy closed her fingers around the fruits in her palm and smiled.
-- *Victor and Vanquished (by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
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