By the time the morning arrived, the weather had broken and large thunderclouds loomed in the distance. Rain pelted on the windows of Squirrel’s Leap as Severus and Contessa ate breakfast together.
A flash of lightning followed by a low rumble of thunder brought Contessa out of her reverie. She met Severus’s eyes with a sad smile and he felt a brief pang of sorrow in response.
He would soon leave for Spinner’s End and the thought was thoroughly depressing. Severus tried to spend the smallest amount of time possible at his childhood home; the place held so many unhappy memories for him.
Severus had lived in his dungeon quarters at Hogwarts for the last sixteen years and, such was his preference for them, he always spent Christmas and Easter holidays at the school.
It was only during the summer, when Hogwarts castle was closed, that he used his home at Spinner’s End.
The month spent at Contessa’s cottage in the rolling green hills of the countryside had taken him out of his comfort zone. However, he had appreciated the contact it had afforded him. Severus had been able to protect Harry through his connection with Dumbledore’s portrait, and his acquaintance with Contessa had secured his link to the Order of the Phoenix.
Severus knew that Contessa had been very useful and valuable, and he also had to admit she’d been better company than he’d expected. She was respectful enough to leave him on his own when that was what he needed, but was always there in the background, a steady and consistent presence.
Whilst Severus understood the Unbreakable Vow had bought her trust and loyalty, he was still grateful for the kindness and respect she had shown him.
The stormy weather seemed to match Severus’s mood as he contemplated leaving his sanctuary, realising only now what an oasis it had been.
“Are you packed up?” Contessa asked, after a loud clap of thunder bounced him out of his thoughts.
“I am,” Severus replied, his voice formal in an attempt to hide his discomfort.
Contessa nodded and started to clear away the breakfast table. Fawkes ruffled his feathers and shook himself, sending a couple of sparks across the room. He looked at Severus and warbled a doleful lament.
The last thing Severus needed was the phoenix adding to his darkening mood.
Dumbledore strode into his portrait and greeted the room with an incongruously cheerful good morning. Severus walked over to the portrait and gave Dumbledore a brisk nod in response. Within moments, Contessa was at his side, welcoming the former Headmaster.
“I take it you’re ready to head off for Spinner’s End?” asked Dumbledore.
“Yes, I’ll be leaving shortly,” Severus replied scratchily.
Fawkes chunnered sadly in the corner and Severus rolled his eyes.
“I think he wants to go with you,” Contessa commented dryly.
Severus shot her a withering look and she chuckled in return.
The phoenix contemplated the pair seriously and this served to subdue them at once.
Severus knew it was time to leave Squirrel’s Leap now he was a free man, no longer on the run from the Ministry.
The Dark Lord would be choosing two new teachers for Muggle Studies and Defence Against the Dark Arts, and appointing a new Headteacher. Severus needed to take his place at the Dark Lord’s side and ensure he was highly regarded, if he was to return to the school as one of its complement of staff.
“How am I to keep in touch with you?” Severus asked Dumbledore.
“This portrait is not going anywhere for the time being. Take Tess along with you today, so she knows where to find you.”
Severus nodded. “I shall visit Squirrel’s Leap often enough to maintain the illusion that Contessa is still under the Imperius Curse, and therefore does not require a Death Eater to tail her.”
Dumbledore smiled in agreement. “That should work well; continue to use Tess as your contact in the Order. She will also be a useful lever in your next task.”
“I shall confer with the Dark Lord immediately on recruitment for the posts at Hogwarts, and put myself forward,” Severus said brusquely, not completely sure how Contessa could help him to secure a position.
“I expect you to be the next Headmaster of Hogwarts, Severus,” Dumbledore said pointedly.
“The Headmaster?” Severus asked in surprise.
“Yes, it’s the ideal position. You will be able to do more to protect the students, and help Harry when the need arises.”
Severus was momentarily lost for words; he hadn’t considered the Headmastership. He wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about being Dumbledore’s successor; it had been inappropriate to imagine Dumbledore being permanently replaced, let alone being succeeded by him.
After all, it had been he who had killed the Headmaster all those weeks ago.
He returned Dumbledore’s gaze with an air of diffidence.
“How can Contessa help me win the Headmastership?” he asked.
Dumbledore turned to Contessa, with a look of mild astonishment. “You haven’t told him yet?” he asked.
“Told me what?” Severus asked Contessa.
She hesitated, fidgeting uneasily on the spot. Contessa seemed unsure about how he was going to react. Severus braced himself for the worst.
“I’m coming with you to Hogwarts,” she replied sheepishly.
Severus almost laughed out loud. His expression must have given him away, as Contessa looked at him quizzically.
The temptation was too much for Severus. “You can’t possibly be joining the teaching staff,” he said sarcastically. “Hogwarts would never cope.”
Contessa shot him a look of indignation, but Severus caught a glimmer of underlying humour in her eyes. A small smile played out on Severus’s lips.
“No, I’m not going to teach,” she said, as if explaining to a small child. “I’m going to assist Horace Slughorn in his teaching of Potions.”
Severus raised his eyebrows in response. “The Potions Master has never needed an assistant.”
Contessa opened her mouth to speak, but Dumbledore’s portrait cut in.
“The Potions Master has never been past retirement age, that is until Horace returned to Hogwarts,” Dumbledore said evenly. “Last year was a struggle for him, and now he’s Head of Slytherin too. I needed to make sure Horace was able to stay on for another year, to prevent the Dark Lord replacing him with a Death Eater.”
Severus could see the validity of Dumbledore’s reasoning. “What will the new role require?”
“Tess will be the new Potions Assistant, she will help Horace to prepare the potions he uses for his lessons, maintain the school stores of ingredients, and help to mark some of the homework. It will remove some of the more onerous responsibilities and allow Horace to concentrate on his Slytherin students and teaching.”
Contessa continued to fidget as Dumbledore explained her new job.
Severus realised the precedent had already been set when Dumbledore had allowed Sybill Trelawney to teach Divination alongside Firenze. He supposed it was a practical enough tool to help Slughorn stay at Hogwarts.
Having Contessa around would prove useful, if he were to win the Headmastership. She could continue to inform him of the activities of other teachers, and possibly the students, by acting as a double agent.
There was also the fact that Contessa had spent a large amount of time in the dungeons, mostly in detention, and knew them like the back of her hand. Severus had instructed her to clean every nook and cranny of the potions storage cupboards, classroom and office, at some point in her final year. Contessa had broken the record for the Ravenclaw spending the most time in detention, and that was just during his first term as Potions Master.
Severus knew she would make a perfectly adequate Potions Assistant; she had been an adept student and had been the only person in her year to achieve an Outstanding Potions NEWT. He also realised there was some further value in having her around, given she was the only living person who knew of his true loyalties.
“I’m sure I can convince the Dark Lord of the benefits to the plan,” Severus said smoothly.
Contessa relaxed a little and seemed to stand straighter. Severus had the impression that his opinion of her suitability had carried great weight. He caught himself feeling flattered.
“Excellent,” Dumbledore said emphatically. “I look forward to seeing you in the Headteacher’s office at Hogwarts.”
Severus nodded curtly. Contessa smiled in return, her features full of relief.