The Sugar Quill
Author: ProfessorWannaBe  Story: Burns Night  Chapter: Default
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Severus scowled at the mirror

Severus scowled at the mirror.  As usual, it reflected his pale face, framed in black.  Black hair, black robes; there were even black drapes behind him.  He did not frown at the unfashionable cut of his clothes or the dullness of his shoes, not even at the sickly look of the inevitably greasy hair that accentuated a pronounced nose, both of which had drawn teasing all his life.

 

No, it was the mirror itself that earned Severus’ glare.  It was a rickety old thing.  Age spots marred the surface and the frame listed from an inexpertly applied Reparo charm to the cracked leg.

 

‘Don’t know why I keep it,’ he muttered as he turned his back on the offending mirror.

 

In fact, he did know why; he just hated the evidence of his own sentimentality.  The mirror used to stand in his mother’s room.  She had not been a beautiful woman – he had realised this at a very young age – but once a year she dressed in an elegant Muggle gown and took the time to inspect herself in this mirror.  Severus remembered the sequins and silver trim that lent their charm to the plain woman she was the rest of the year.  The occasion for this annual transformation was his father’s office Christmas party.  After the elder Snape had gone, the mirror sat neglected until Severus brought it to his own flat and put it to a similar annual use.

 

Rather than host a Christmas party, Severus’ employer – a respected purveyor of scores of potions – insisted that his staff attend the Burns Supper hosted by his good friend Archie Burns.  No one actually believed Archie’s claim to be descended from the celebrated bard but on Burns Night the truth of it did not matter.  It was an honour to be invited, as Severus was often reminded at work in the days preceding the event.  It was also a tacit condition of his employment or he would have spurned the favour.

 

Severus snatched his wand from the bedside table as he strode into the hallway.  He tucked the wand into his robes before donning a black winter cloak.  He turned down the lamp that stood on the narrow table by the door and picked up the bottle of whisky that sat beside it along with the embossed invitation.  Together they would allow him entrance to the dreaded festivities.  Cradling the bottle in the crook of his left arm, he left the flat looking as if he were going to a funeral rather than a party.

 

*****

 

Severus blended so well with the shadows that only the crunch of his boots on the gravel path warned of his approach.  He could see a puzzled doorman peering into the dark winter night with a cautious grip on the wand in his pocket.  By the time Severus finally entered the weak lamplight of the doorway, he was convinced that the doorman was more than he seemed.  A gust of chilly wind lifted the man’s lapel enough to expose his Magical Law Enforcement badge under the dull light.

 

‘Cutting it a bit fine tonight,’ the ersatz doorman commented in casual tones that belied the alertness Severus detected in his manner. 

 

These gatherings must be a nightmare for the Ministry, Severus smirked to himself, while handing over his invitation and responding aloud with a terse, ‘Perhaps.’

 

The invitation passed the officer’s intense scrutiny and he returned it with a pleasant, ‘Enjoy yourself,’ which clashed with the keen stare accompanying it.  It was a passable attempt at Legilimency – clearly the reason this particular officer took the post – but the attempt had been so predictable that Severus easily evaded the probe with the bit of poetry he had inadvertently memorized through repeated attendance at this very event.

 

Some hae meat and canna eat.
And some wad eat that want it:
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.

 

Beyond the age-blackened door, a modest entrance hall brought relief from the cold.  Dark-panelled walls that held portraits of Archie’s more recent (and believable) ancestors flanked a small fireplace on the left side of the room.  A padded bench leaned against a carpeted staircase across the room.  An old man sat staring into the fire until the draft from the door alerted him to the latest arrival.  Severus could almost hear the creaking of his old bones as he stood and shuffled over to receive the cloak.  Without need, the servant pointed to the open doors by the foot of the stairs.

 

The cacophony coming from the parlour could not be missed – unless you were as deaf as the old man.  Severus steeled himself for the ordeal and passed through the doorway.  He had the misfortune to step right into the path of his boss who was turning away from the bar with a drink in each hand.  Alcohol splashed over them both and onto the carpet.

 

‘Severus, my boy,’ Mr Milne enthused.  ‘So glad you could make it.  I’d about given up on you.’

 

It was evident that the spilled drink would not have not been the man’s first.  He seemed not to notice his dripping sleeve or the small puddle at his feet.  Severus pulled out his wand and cleared the mess, ignoring the patronising tone in Mr Milne’s welcome.

 

‘Get yourself a drink and come on over.’  He jerked his head toward the front window where Severus saw his co-workers nursing their glasses.  ‘They’ll be announcing supper at any moment.’

 

Setting the bottle of whisky on the bar but eschewing a glass of his own, Severus followed his employer to the knot of potion-makers.  A couple of curt nods and a listlessly raised glass acknowledged the completion of their company as announced by Mr Milne, ‘Look who I found at the bar.’

 

Avoiding personal relationships with these men was one of the easiest tasks ever set by the Dark Lord.  Milne’s operation was an excellent cover for nefarious brewing.  Nearly every employee had been recruited – or coerced – into serving the Dark Lord in some capacity with Milne himself being none the wiser.  The real beauty of the situation was that only Severus knew the extent of the infiltration.  One or two might realise that they were not alone but most thought themselves singled out for their skill.  Milne had done a good job at collecting excellent potion-makers and the Dark Lord was taking full advantage of it.

 

Milne set the second drink on the windowsill, apparently saving it for himself.  Between sips on the half-empty glass in his hand, the already tipsy man began to regale his employees with stories of previous Burns Suppers.  Severus was relieved to hear their host call for his guests to join him at the table.

 

The dining room had been magically altered for the occasion to accommodate such a large company.  An extra long head table held place settings for eleven – including Mr Milne – along one side.  At each end, another table ran perpendicularly to create a U.  The potion-makers were scattered across the four sides of the lower tables.  Severus welcomed the separation from his co-workers but his assigned place was on the inside at the join with the head table, much too close to where the dreaded haggis would be set.

 

Archie stood by his place at the center of the head table wearing his best kilt.  He smiled at all and sundry while his guests found their own places.

 

‘Tak yer seats,’ Archie boomed in his thickest brogue.

 

While his host gave his opening address – thanking them all for coming, appreciating the variety of whiskies they had brought, reminding them of the Bard’s influence on Scottish culture – Severus continued to observe his dinner companions.  His co-workers were not the only ones in this room that were being used by the Dark Lord.  He was not even the only Death Eater on the guest list, although it was unlikely that Archie had any idea that he was hosting such sinister company.

 

Severus nearly missed the Selkirk Grace (the bit of Burns’ poetry he had pulled from memory at the front door) when his gaze landed on Minerva McGonagall.  It still disconcerted him to see his former teachers away from school.  This was the second time the Transfiguration professor had turned up here since Severus had completed his studies at Hogwarts.  He had met her once in Diagon Alley and suffered her inquiries into his well-being.  On two other occasions, he had been able to alter his path to avoid a direct meeting.  If it weren’t for her obvious political leanings, he might have been more interested in conversation with such a talented witch.  It would be hard to avoid her following the meal tonight since she sat at the foot of the table between him and the door.

 

The whole company stood as pipes began to blow behind the kitchen door.  The wheeze of the piper exploded into a painful din as the door was opened for pipes, chef and haggis to enter.  Severus closed his eyes, swallowed hard and tried not to think about the approaching main dish.  When the piping stopped, he steeled himself for the inevitable as he opened his eyes and turned to face the steaming dish that had been set in front of Archie.

 

With evident glee, the host launched into another recitation of Burns:

 

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang's my arm.

 

Now facing away from his own table, Severus could survey the rest of the room while the poem droned on.  A few more of the Dark Lord’s pawns sat at the other table besides those in Mr Milne’s employ.  There was a young woman that Severus thought he recognised from Hogwarts but he had not recollected her name before Archie boomed the fateful phrase.

 

An cut you up wi ready slight

 

With a flourish, Archie drew his dirk and plunged it into the haggis as the line was uttered.  A smattering of applause and murmured approvals were quickly silenced as the poem continued its maundering.  Severus endured the remaining stanzas but abstained from the enthusiastic appreciation for Archie’s annual performance.  He was now quite ready to take up the whisky glass that had appeared beside his place and joined in the toast, ‘To the haggis.’ 

 

The burn of the alcohol prepared his palate for the traditional meal.  The cоck-a-leekie soup settled his stomach but a second glass of whisky was required to choke down a few polite bites of haggis.  Neeps and tatties would tide him over until he got home.  Throughout the meal, Severus deflected attempts by adjacent diners to engage him in conversations about ‘Rabbie’ Burns.  Other than Milne’s employees, everyone attending the event either was interested in Burns himself, his poetry or had a general appreciation for their Scottish heritage.  They were boring.

 

The dishes vanished at last.  Coffee appeared and great bowls of Typsy Laird.  The trifle was the only part of the evening Severus truly enjoyed.  This dessert was so rich he could only take a small portion but he relished each bite.  Many of the guests were still sipping coffee and nibbling their sweets while the ‘Immortal Memory’ speech was delivered by some Burns-enthusiast friend of Archie’s.  Severus ignored him.

 

Toasting the lasses was an excuse for another sip of whisky to finish off the meal.  Many of the diners should have stopped a glass or two ago in Severus’ judgement.  The responding toast was offered by McGonagall, who appeared a bit unsteady as she stood.  Although unsettling to see the professor in that condition, he was impressed that she was able to deliver her repartee with aplomb.

 

Severus knew that this was the best time to make an exit.  Conversations returned to small groups clustered around the tables.  The babble would soon drive part of the crowd back into the parlour, so his presence would not be missed.  The difficulty was in departing without attracting Mr Milne’s notice.  Keeping an eye on his employer, Severus stood when the fellow beside him did.  Following his tablemate – who was engaged in an animated debate with the woman who had been on his other side at the table – he thought he would be able to make a clean escape before the whisky turned all this literary appreciation into sappy singing.

 

As he approached the foot of the table, however, Professor McGonagall rose from her place and stumbled into Severus.  The collision knocked the woman back against her chair, tipping it over.  Severus caught her arm just in time to keep her from falling with it.

 

‘Oh, my,’ she gasped, reeking of whisky.

 

‘Are you all right, Professor?’ Severus inquired with a quick glance at the head table.  There would be no escaping without notice now.  Every eye in the room was turned toward them.

 

‘I believe so, Mr Snape.’  She seemed steady enough that he could let go.  ‘Thank you.’

 

Her response sent his memory flying back to his first Transfiguration class.  After closing the classroom door, the Professor had come up the aisle between the desks and tripped on the strap of someone’s satchel.  McGonagall had nearly landed on the flagstone floor.  She had managed to grab Severus’ desk to avert the catastrophe and the exact same exchange had ensued before she turned to berate the negligent student.

 

During his moment of reminiscence, others helped to right the chair and inquired if she needed help.  She turned them all away, telling them she was fine.  She turned back to Severus as if there had not been a lull in their conversation at all.

 

‘I think I might have had a glass too many,’ she confided in a tone that would hardly keep her thought a secret.  ‘I had better make it an early night.’

 

There were a couple of tolerant grins thrown in her direction but most of the company had returned to their own conversations.  Severus noted that Mr Milne was still watching the little drama.  The professor’s near tumble made a great excuse for leaving early.

 

‘Shall I walk you out, Professor?’

 

*****

 

‘Thank you, Mr Snape.  I think I can make it from here.’

 

The escape from the Supper had not been quite as clean as Severus had hoped.  Mr Milne had come to the front hall while they had waited for the old man to retrieve their cloaks.

 

‘I’m sure you won’t mind seeing the professor back to Hogwarts, Severus.’

 

The unexpected journey had kept him from having to endure any more poetry.  Professor McGonagall’s vaguely slurred conversation about the weather as they had walked down the drive was far better than listening to drunken recitations of Holy Willie’s Prayer or Tam o’ Shanter.  Above all, standing at the gates of Hogwarts in the chill winter wind was a small price to pay to avoid the ghastly singing of Auld Lang Syne without threat of the boss’s – and, by extension, the Dark Lord’s – displeasure.

 

‘I should walk you to the doors, Professor.  Mr Milne will certainly ask me on Monday.’

 

‘Very well.’

 

As soon as he passed through the gates, Severus got the feeling that something important was trying to make its way into his consciousness.  He knew from experience that such intuition could not be hurried into rational thought; in fact, it was best to try to think of something else entirely.

 

‘Is Professor Slughorn still teaching?’ he inquired, although he already knew that he was.

 

‘For now.’

 

Something about her answer prodded the unformed thought into an almost substantial idea.  Rather than pursue it, Severus switched topics again.

 

‘How are the Quidditch teams this year?’

 

This inquiry produced a long-winded response that required very little participation on his part.  He was only partly listening to the woes and triumphs of the Gryffindor team as they walked up the lengthy carriageway.  The professor offered significant pauses in her discourse for his own opinions but he stuck to ‘Really?’ and ‘Indeed’ to encourage her continuing chatter while he gazed across the grounds looking for whatever had triggered his mental quandary.

 

They reached the imposing front doors of the castle in due course.  Talk of Quidditch ceased and Severus returned his attention to the professor.

 

‘Again, I thank you, Mr Snape.  You’ll understand that I cannot invite you in.  If you need a little something against the chill, tell Rosemerta to put it on my tab.’

 

‘I am fine, but thank you.  Good night.’

 

As they each turned to go their separate ways, the nebulous idea suddenly bloomed into solid existence.  Severus hurried down the steps, eager to get off Hogwarts grounds and Apparate home.  It might take some time to think it all through and even longer to plan carefully but he knew it could work.

 

 

Another big thank you to Suburban House Elf for the beta comments on this little piece.  It was originally a entry for Bewitched Mind’s Winter Holiday Challenge.  I was so busy that I let Christmas and New Year pass me by.  An off-hand mention of Burns Night at the end of January finally got the nebulous idea of Snape attending a party onto paper!  Thanks to Rella for that mention as well as her suggested improvements to the story.

//
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