It was all Severus' fault.
It was always Severus' fault, he thought sourly. From the fall of man to the rise of Voldemort, somewhere along the line he would be implicated. He was the archetypal can-carrier for Hogwarts staff and pupils, and, if it wasn't for Fudge, he'd be filling the position for the entire magical world.
He failed to see how he could be blamed for the unfortunate concatenation of events that had led inexorably from him having a day off with a stinking cold – the first day off in ten years, mind you – to Albus taking over his classes, and failing to supervise them adequately, and thence to being caught in an all-too-forseeable accident, leading to the Headmaster's immobilisation in a hospital bed at the mercy of Poppy Pomfrey.
The first he'd known of it was when he'd been summoned from his Bed of Pain to the Infirmary and had been expected to guess what the effects would be of the purple slime now covering half of the first year Gryffindors and all of Albus.
Albus had apparently decided to nobly sacrifice himself for the good of the school, and thrown himself over the cauldron as a human shield. The more sensible approach would have been to cast a shielding charm or, failing that, throw a Hufflepuff over the cauldron.
Severus knew from bitter experience how difficult it was to remove potions stains from clothes.
"What do you think it is?" asked Poppy.
"How the hell would I know?" he replied, wondering where his hanky was. His eyes were watering, and he didn't want anyone to think that he was upset about Albus.
This perfectly reasonable response, at least to his mind, received a very frosty reception. "Well find out then," Poppy snarled. "This is all your fault."
"How is this my fault?" he replied magisterially, his attitude only mildly undermined by the occasional sniff.
Poppy didn't have an answer for that so she gave him a filthy look, and ordered him out of the Infirmary so her patients could get some peace and quiet.
Severus clearly needed to speak to Malfoy if he wanted to get to the bottom of this occurrence. Lucius Malfoy, named after his grandfather in a sickening display of obsequiousness, may only be 12 but he was the most likely culprit. Not that he would have got his hands dirty himself, oh no, but he would have been the guiding force, the eminence grise, the mastermind behind it all. Failing that, if he hadn't been involved, he would at least know who was responsible and could be persuaded to snitch with very little encouragement.
If Severus played his cards right, the little scrote might just cough to a couple of other pranks, in the hope that he would get a reduced sentence for the combined offences, and so boost Severus' clear up rate. Severus had learned this technique from listening to Moody's reminiscences and wasn't too proud to use a technique that had been employed to such good effect by Aurors just because he hadn't thought of it himself.
There were days when Severus thought teaching at a boarding school was very much like being a governor of a maximum-security establishment such as Azkaban, only without the Dementors. That was on a good day. On a bad day he thought that the comparison was entirely accurate and that Trelawney was some sub-species of Dementor.
Before summoning Malfoy to his office, he had to find a hanky. He may not be able to turn off the Snot Tap his nose had turned into – and he thought Poppy's comments about his obvious capacity for overproduction in that department both uncalled for and unkind – but he would at least maintain a semblance of dignity.
Hanky found, a hearty blow effected, he settled himself behind his desk and despatched a house elf to summon Young Mr Malfoy.
Young Lucius was barely recognisable as a Malfoy, all dark hair, and a less than patrician nose, taking after his mother's side of the family. Draco had married the girl, whatever-her-name-was, over strenuous objections from his parents, and had apparently never regretted the decision, living in a kind of domestic contentment that Severus rather envied.
Unkind rumour suggested that there had been some sort of Snape input into his genes, hence the decision to name him after his grandfather and drive home the message that he was a Malfoy. No one looking into those grey eyes could doubt it; they were just as cold and distant as Old Lucius could have hoped for.
Snape had it on good authority that Lucius wasn't happy being called Old Lucius. Not happy at all.
Judging from the lad's behaviour, this delicate compliment had been duly rewarded, the rift between father and son healed. Young Lucius had been duly taken under Old Lucius's wing, and indoctrinated to the Malfoy Way, with the result that he was arrogant, obnoxious and underhanded, and believed that the World owed him a living. He seemed to think that these qualities made him the sine qua non of Slytherin and Professor Snape's pet student.
It was a shame that didn't extend to keeping him on a lead or the use of a muzzle.
This expectation of preferential treatment was so deeply engrained, that a mere year's exposure to Severus' teaching style had yet to knock some sense into him.
"Mr Malfoy, how good of you to join me." Sarcasm was wasted on the lad; he took that comment at face value.
"Professor," Lucius acknowledged with a composed air.
"I'm sure you know why you're here."
"Not at all, Professor," Malfoy said, all limpid innocence and sincerity. You could almost see the metaphorical halo shining behind him.
"Potions. This morning. Purple slime? Is any of this ringing any bells?"
"Certainly I was in Potions this morning," Malfoy said airily. "I do recall there being some sort of accident, but what can you expect when they allow someone inexperienced in the subtle art of potions to take a class. I don't see why you'd want to see me about that, sir?"
Severus wouldn't go so far as to say that flattery was wasted on him, he was no more immune to the charm of a compliment than the next person but rather less likely to experience it. It's just that he would prefer it to be a little more subtle and not laid on with a trowel, or so patently false. Still, there was no need point in explaining this point of view to the boy, and dealing with the inevitable protestations of sincerity. He wanted a quick solution to the problem. He didn't particularly care who had done what to whom, and as far as he was concerned, Albus was in charge of the class, and it was therefore his responsibility to sort it out. Once he was vertical again anyway.
Having to discipline his Slytherins might lead the Headmaster to a better appreciation of his methods for keeping order in lessons, and stop the constant references on his Annual Appraisal form for the need to work on his communication skills. His communication skills were fine, thank you: he talked; they listened. If they didn't listen the first time, it might be necessary to shout.
Shouting worked. He hadn't had a potions accident in twenty years. Not even with Neville Longbottom in his class. A point he intended to make to Albus at his next pay review.
"Mr Malfoy, I know you were responsible. I'm tired. I'm poorly. I want to go back to bed with a hot water bottle, a box of tissues and a half bottle of Firewhiskey. I do not want to spend my afternoon poncing around in my lab trying to work out what you've done to the Headmaster. So, I'm prepared to offer you a deal. You tell me what happened on a no-names basis – as a disinterested eye-witness, shall we say – and I don't write to your grandfather about your various wrongdoings this year."
"Grandfather won't care about that," he said scornfully.
"I grant you he won't care what you've been up to, but I can guarantee that he'll be less than impressed by the way you've gone about things. You've been caught bang to rights on many occasions. Lucius may be many things, but he was never sloppy."
The point was not lost on the boy. His smug self-assurance faltered, and was replaced by a slight frown as he worked out the consequences of no longer being the blue-eyed boy of the Malfoy patriarch.
Shouting worked, but sometimes blackmail was more effective.
"I may be able to help, sir," he replied, radiating sincerity. "After all, it is in the best interests of the school to have the Headmaster back on his feet as soon as possible."
Severus just hoped that the little sod would get on with it. His nose was tickling, indicating the arrival of another tidal wave of snot, and he would be on full sniffle in a couple of minutes. He wanted his bed, with the cooling charm for his pillow, and the warming charms for his feet, and he wanted it now. It might have been nice to have someone with soothing hands to pander to his every need, and offer him some sympathy and encouragement, but he'd settle for an alcoholic stupor.
"We were making a simple Soothing Potion this morning, sir. I noticed that Someone had added Stokley root to the potion. I can't say who, sir; I'm sure you'll understand that I can't break my fellow students' confidence."
"You really are a cretin, aren't you Malfoy?" Severus said conversationally.
"Do you really think Aurors would give a damn about you not wanting to be a snitch?"
"Aurors, Malfoy. Stokley root and purple slime can mean only one thing. Poison. Your little prank this morning managed to create one of the nastier poisons available, and only the quick thinking of the Headmaster saved the class from death and permanent injury."
The boy was trying very hard to look unconcerned, obviously having been instructed on the Necessity to remain Suave at all times. "I never said it was me, sir?"
"What do you think will happen if the Headmaster dies?"
"Dies?" Malfoy abandoned any attempt at Suave and settled instead for Bunny in the Headlights.
"I'd say it was entirely possible. Which will mean Professor McGonagall would have to call in the Aurors to investigate a suspicious death, and which will mean that Potter will almost certainly be involved. Who do you think would be his prime suspect?"
The legendary Malfoy intellect was brought to bear on the question. "Erm, me, sir?"
Actually, it was more likely to be him, Severus thought, time having done nothing to diminish Potter's dislike of him, but at least he had an alibi, and hadn't even been within fifty feet of the accident when it happened. Not that that would stop Potter from insisting on giving him hell, just for old time's sake.
"Let me see. Grandfather is an Infamous Death Eater, who only managed to escape more the Dementor's kiss because he was still in Azkaban when Lord Voldemort fell, and a father who everyone assumes was a Death Eater and who Potter hates with a passion. I'd say that was a pretty fair assumption. All it would take is a quick swig of veritaserum and you'd be spilling your guts."
"You won't tell anyone, will you sir?" Malfoy asked.
Severus would dearly like to see the blame for this morning's fiasco pinned where it truly belonged, but McGonagall would be unbearable and you never knew when you'd need a favour – or two – from the Malfoys. "No," he said, suppressing a sniff. "Just try to control your natural urges to bring a period to your fellow students' existence in future."
Lucius nodded. He didn't need to be told that he Owed Severus a Favour now; he was Slytherin enough to know that you got nothing for nothing in this world.
Severus opened a drawer, and abstracted a pink bottle of sugared water. He had no idea what happened when you added Stokley Root to Soothing Potions, but it was unlikely to be anything serious. It would take too long to explain this to Poppy, who would no doubt argue that waiting and seeing what happened to the Headmaster was an unacceptable diagnostic tool, so it was simpler to give her a placebo. Not to mention the leverage that he now had over the youngest Malfoy. "Take this to the Infirmary and give it to Madame Pomfrey – with my compliments – and tell her to administer it to the Headmaster at the rate of three drops mixed in water, every three hours."
"Yes, sir. And thank you sir," Lucius said earnestly, heading towards the door at a brisk trot.
As soon as the door closed behind him, Severus erected the sort of Wards that would keep a Dark Lord at bay for several months, and went in search of his bed leaving a trail of clothes behind him.
He punched his pillow into a more pleasing shape, wrapped the counterpane around him until only his nose was visible and he resembled nothing more than a chrysalis, and settled down for a nap.
Sod Poppy. Sod Albus. Sod Malfoy Senior, Junior and Intermediate. And sod Potter for good measure.
He felt marginally less grumpy when he woke the next day. Which, as his colleagues were quick to discover, was not the same as saying that he wasn't grumpy at all.
The Snot Tap having dried to a mere trickle, his sense of smell and taste had returned, and he was busily engaged in consuming an enormous, if seriously unhealthy, breakfast when Poppy interrupted him. "Severus, I need you to drop into the Infirmary and look at Albus. That potion seems to have done the trick, but there are one or two residual problems that I need your advice on."
He swallowed his bacon before replying waspishly, "There's no need to thank me, Poppy. It was what anyone would have done: bravely battling illness to produce a cure, regardless of the cost to myself."
She gave him a long, level look that would have reduced a lesser man to blushing confusion. "Just wait and see," she said. "Just wait and see Albus' condition before you start patting yourself on the back."
That sounded ominous, so he restricted himself to just one more helping of scrambled eggs.
When he arrived at the Infirmary, Poppy was waiting for him with arms crossed and a tapping foot. The children who had been making the place look untidy on his previous visit, had been released into the wild, and the ward was empty apart from the last bed which had screens pulled round it.
This was obviously Albus' sickbed, and this was the best that Poppy could do to offer him some sort of privacy. Severus was beginning to worry. What on earth was so terrible that prevented the Headmaster from returning to his own rooms and being cared for by a House Elf or two?
"Right," said Poppy. "Now, before you go in there, I want you to promise that you won't display any reaction to what you see when you open the screens. Not a flicker."
He hardly dared ask. He nodded his agreement, stepped bravely forward and peered cautiously round the screen.
No. That didn't make the horrible vision go away. It couldn't be denied; the evidence was all there before him.
Albus was Purple.
From the top of his delicately mauve hair to his presumably violet toenails, Albus was purple.
Severus was grateful for all the hours he had spent in the company of a scaly overlord; not by the slightest flicker did he reveal his hysterical desire to laugh.
"Albus, how are you?" he asked evenly.
Albus glared at him suspiciously, searching for any sign that Severus was deriving any amusement from his situation. "As you can see, I'm not doing very well."
"You do look a trifle peaky," Severus replied blandly.
Albus glared at him. "Poppy tells me that this is likely to last for a month or so. Which isn't really a problem as regards the school. Minerva is always telling me that I need to take a holiday, so I shall, and she's more than capable of running the school. There's only a couple of weeks to the end of term, and then it's the Christmas holidays."
Severus made a noncommittal grunt.
"However, there are certain tasks that I I can't delegate to Minerva, and I think you're best placed to sort it out for me." Albus looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to pick up the conversational snitch.
He was beginning to get a bad feeling about this. If he hadn't been summoned to advise on how to remove the purple stains, and he couldn't think of anything more helpful than bathe in bleach, then he was going to be asked some other favour. Yes, he was stuck at Hogwarts over Christmas, but that didn't mean he was up for anything more energetic than eating, drinking and contemplating his expanding waistline.
Albus looked grave.
Here it comes, Severus thought. I'll lay you a fiver it has something to do with Potter, or … he couldn't think of anything he would like to do less than see Potter again.
"I have a confession to make. Something that I've been keeping from you all these years."
Oh fuck. Please don't decide to come out of the closet now. We all know you're gayer than a house full of monkeys on acid. We just don't want to know the sordid details.
"I am Santa Claus."
Well, that was unexpected. Clearly Albus wasn't merely Purple, but also deranged. "Of course you are Albus," Severus said soothingly. "It's the beard, isn't it? It gives you away every time."
"I don't mean I'm actually Santa Claus," snapped Albus. "I'm only 130 you know, not some semi-mythical and eternal figure. I mean, that several years ago I successfully bid for the rights to operate the Santa Claus franchise in the UK."
"What Santa Claus franchise?" he asked, bewildered, allowing Albus' inexactitude over his age to pass unchallenged.
"Well, obviously the idea of Father Christmas being able to go round the world in one night and deliver all those presents is clearly ridiculous. I mean, it worked at first, but as populations have grown, and more and more people believe in him, well, it's just become too much. So, decade or so, wizards of a certain standing are allowed to tender for the position of Santa Claus for their country. This last time round, I was successful, so I've got to see to the deliveries on Christmas Eve. Obviously, I can't do it, so I thought you could do the honours."
"Me? Deliver presents? To the whole of the UK?" Severus sat down on the edge of the bed, desperately trying to think of a way out of this dreadful situation. It seemed there were worse things than talking to Potter. "Why can't you do it?"
"I'm purple. Have you ever seen a purple Santa?"
"Well, can't you cast a glamour or something?" He hadn't seen a purple Santa and he had to admit it would clash dreadfully with the red suit. Green would have been much more tasteful. Positively Christmassy in fact.
Albus shook his head. "We've tried. Nothing lasts for longer than ten minutes or so, and then, bang, I'm purple again."
Severus looked at Albus in horror. "There must be someone else who can do it?" he asked plaintively. "Minerva, for instance, she's organised and she's always struck me as someone who actually likes the little bleeders, I mean, children."
Albus seemed to have recovered that horrible twinkle in his eye that usually meant trouble for some poor sod. "Severus, much as I admire Minerva's many good qualities, she is manifestly unsuited to the role of Santa Claus. It is Father Christmas and not Mother Christmas, after all."
"But she could wear a glamour, or a charm, or something. With a pillow down her trousers and a fake beard, no one will know."
"I will know," Albus said firmly. "I will know that we delivered an inferior service, and cheated all those children out of the true meaning of Christmas."
"But Headmaster," he whined.
"But nothing, Severus. I have spoken."
When Albus took that tone of voice there was nothing to be done but go along with it. He was lumbered with the job now, and could kiss his peaceful Christmas goodbye.
Albus sometimes suggested that his middle name was Ebenezer. He denied it; Scrooge was an amateur.
Severus thought that 'A Christmas Carol' made a promising start but had rapidly descended into a morass of cheap moralising and gross sentimentality. All that was really required for a happy ending was the banishment of the ghosts, which any competent Wizard could have achieved easily, and the replacement of the skiving Bob Cratchett with a couple of House Elves, thereby removing the source of the complaints and doubtless improving the quality of the work. Scrooge would then have been able to devote his time to research and reading, without the constant complaints of people who seemed to have vinegar and not blood running in their veins.
Tiny Tim was obviously swinging the lead.
He therefore considered himself to be the least suitable candidate in history for the role of Father Christmas, including Genghiz Khan.
Before Albus had disappeared to parts unknown for his holiday, he had provided him with the list of Good Children, which seemed to him to be inordinately long. Father Christmas' intelligence service was clearly lacking, and probably involved some sort of self-certification process, because the list included the names of several children that he knew for a fact to have been naughty during the course of the year because he had awarded them detention.
And surely Terence Goyle, though clearly as stupid as his elder brother, was far too old to be still believing in Father Christmas at 14?
He tried to think of all the things he knew about Father Christmas. Admittedly it wasn't much. He'd been noticeably absent from his life, presumably on the basis of his bad behaviour. It's what his father had always said, though he wasn't always the most reliable person. Maybe the cheap sod had nicked the presents and flogged them off, so he could have a drink or five.
So, there was something about stockings hung up on the chimney…..
How did that work in Muggle houses? Arthur Weasley had told him all about this new thing called central heating that muggles were using instead of open fires, which sounded much more practical than open fires with their nasty smells, their tendency to go out at most inconvenient moments, and which only warmed a patch of room three feet in front of it. The only thing he'd found to combat the cold of Hogwarts in the depths of a Scottish winter was warming charms on his long johns, double thickness robes, and the occasionally nip of Firewhiskey.
Sod it, next year he was going away for the Christmas holidays; somewhere warm with golden sands, and a beach hut, and perhaps the odd scantily clad female he could admire from afar. Admiring close up would be nice too, but he didn't want to be greedy.
Ok, so stockings on the chimney or radiator (as appropriate), what else?
Red suit – check.
Stupid hat – check.
Presents – due to be delivered tomorrow.
Method of transport – sleigh and reindeers, also due to be delivered tomorrow.
He checked on the list. There was nothing about Elves here, nothing at all. Maybe they turned up with the presents? He bloody hoped so. Surely Albus didn't expect him to do the entire run by himself. Even with the use of a time turner, it would take weeks to get that little lot sorted out. If they didn't he'd just have to use the Hogwarts Elves and be damned to this new Working Time Directive the Ministry had just issued. Bloody nonsense. It wasn't as if anyone had limited his hours to 48 working hours per week, and the last time he'd checked he was human!
Typical of Hermione Granger to spend so much time working for the benefit of House Elves who neither needed nor desired her interference, and so little time protecting the rights of poor hardworking teachers who could actually do with some time off.
By rights she should be down here protesting the cruel treatment of potions masters forced to perform duties wholly outside their teaching contract, and without the benefit of overtime. And there should definitely be a law against being forced to wear stupid bloody costumes and humiliating yourself in public.
The outfit was charmed to be impervious to fire – he'd tested that himself with a little Incendio – so that he could climb down chimneys without risk of self-immolation. The suit was appalling; it was so Gryffindor. It was clear it wouldn't fit him. It had been made to fit Albus' more generous figure. Albus' Sherbert Lemon problem had escalated over the course of Potter's Seventh Year. He'd said he could stop anytime he wanted, but had never managed to do so, and now was on a very strict maintenance regime that kept the sugar highs to a bare minimum but nothing seemed to shift the weight. It wouldn't be surprising to find that he had illicit stashes of the sweeties hidden all over the castle, and was still sucking them on the sly, though he'd never been caught doing it.
Severus looked at himself in the mirror and thought he looked a complete pillock. It was hard to imagine circumstances in which the Head of Slytherin would not look a complete pillock dressed in red, with white fur trim, but the whole air of pillockry was exacerbated by the fact that the trousers were far too large for him – even with a pillow tucked down the front – whilst managing not to reach his ankles.
He had nice ankles. He had nice legs actually, but they didn't show to advantage stuck out of the end of two red … red … things. He couldn't think of a word awful enough to convey the depths of his revulsion for these bifurcated monstrosities. He hoped that his tailor never found out about this, or he could be stricken from the list of customers.
He was supposed to look avuncular and jolly in the damned thing, not like some demented … No, his appearance defied description. He looked like nothing else on earth.
He twisted and turned, trying to see if there was any angle from which he didn't look stupid, to no avail. So, getting the damned thing altered was a priority, which meant letting Minerva in on the Big Secret.
Which made him think a bit.
Albus had obviously appointed him Father Christmas in an executive capacity, which clearly meant his duties would tend towards the supervisory. Severus had heard of peace on earth and goodwill to men, but never seen it in practice. As far as he was concerned, if his Christmas was going to be ruined, so was everybody else's. What he needed to do was find Santa's Little Helpers. And if he couldn't find volunteers, he was going to settle for conscripts.
It wasn't just the House Elves who should be making themselves useful over the festive period. There were any number of teachers lying around, slacking off, and who would be only too delighted to offer their services, especially if he told them that Dumbledore had insisted. What a shame he wasn't around any more to have his orders questioned.
Severus smirked at his reflection in the mirror. Wasn't there some sort of catchphrase for Santa? Oh yes, now he had it.
Ho. Ho. Sniff. Ho.
Scrote – short for scrotum. Not a term of endearment.
Swinging the lead: British term, meaning to fake an illness.