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The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 2]

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Chapter Twenty-Four


On the evening before Contessa was due to move to Hogwarts and take up her position of Potions Assistant, she decided to pay Severus a visit at Spinner’s End.

She Apparated onto the cobbled street underneath the silvery moonlight and made her way to Severus’s home at the top of the terrace.

When she knocked on his door there was no reply.

Contessa pondered outside for a moment, wondering if the conversation she needed to have with Severus could wait until they were at Hogwarts.

Upon reaching her decision, she reluctantly started to undo the enchantments around his house, in the order which Severus had shown her on her first trip to Spinner’s End. This was the first time she’d visited when Severus was not at home, and she felt some trepidation at crossing the threshold into his private sanctum.

Letting herself in to the tiny front room, she lit the candelabra in the ceiling and stood for a moment, contemplating her surroundings. Contessa was inquisitive enough to want to walk around the house and see what lay beyond the boundaries of the ground floor, but she also sensed the impropriety of such an exploration.

Peeking through the open door to the stairs, she mentally reprimanded herself and turned back into the front room. Contessa selected a Potions book from Severus’s substantial selection and settled down on the threadbare sofa, prepared to wait as long as necessary for his return.

Hours later, Contessa placed the book on the small coffee table and got up to select another volume. She noticed a vast array of Dark Arts books and a number of titles which appeared foreign and rather specialist. Severus was obviously a man who liked innovation and she found herself drawn in to his world of experimental magic.

Placing a new book down on the coffee table, Contessa padded into the kitchen and started to make a cup of tea.

She didn’t hear the front door creaking open or the sound of footsteps towards the kitchen doorway. When Contessa walked back into the front room she noticed the lights had gone out.

Reaching for her wand to cast a Lumos Charm, she found herself slammed against the wall of books. Her wand and her cup of tea dropped from her grasp as she felt a firm hand tightening its grip around her neck.

Gasping for air, she looked into the darkness, attempting to make out the features of the black cloaked figure bearing down upon her.

“Severus…?” Contessa wheezed, feeling light-headed and starting to see stars in her vision.

The vice around her throat instantly loosened and the candelabra re-lit itself.

Severus stood before her, his wand pointing at the ceiling light. He looked tired and irritated.

Contessa’s hand went to her neck, massaging her throat. She was confused by Severus’s demeanour as he considered her with growing impatience.

With a small growl of annoyance, Severus raised his wand and pressed it lightly against Contessa’s neck. He uttered a brief incantation and the pain and bruising around her throat vanished.

Severus stepped away, and saw the books on the table and the cup on the floor.

“I see you have made yourself at home,” he said coldly.

Contessa cleared her throat. “Yes, I…err…thought it better to wait for you here…” Her voice trailed off as she noticed the pool of spilt tea on the faded carpet. She picked up her wand to clear up the mess.

“Allow me,” Severus said sleekly, raising his wand.

He cleaned the carpet with a charm and left the room to prepare two fresh cups of tea.

Contessa sat down again on the sofa and waited. Flicking through the second book on the table, she found she was unable to read. Adrenaline still pumped through her veins and she felt distinctly unwelcome in Severus’s home. She placed the book back down on the table.

When he reappeared at the doorway, she locked eyes with him and asked boldly, “Do you always greet visitors with such hostility?”

Severus’s eyebrows rose in response and a smirk played out on his lips.

Eventually, he answered, “You are the first to have unrestricted access to my home…I’m not accustomed to unexpected company.”

Contessa realised that, during the time Severus had spent away from Squirrel’s Leap, he had been reacquainted with his usual solitude. Her arrival had broken into that private world.

She smiled sympathetically. “I know how that feels.”

Severus turned back into the kitchen, returning moments later with two mugs of tea. He set them down on the table and sat down, looking pale and distant under the flickering candlelight. Severus looked at the two books she had selected from his library.

“An interesting selection; I take it you’ve been here a while.”

“Oh, I hope you don’t mind, you have a fascinating collection of books,” Contessa replied in an apologetic tone. “To be honest I didn’t realise how late it was.”

Severus leaned back into the armchair, appearing to assess the necessity of providing an explanation. “I was at the Ministry, being interviewed for the Daily Prophet. The article on the Headmastership is to be run in a few days, to coincide with the start of the academic year.”

He looked back at her with weary eyes, impatient for her to reveal the reason for her presence in his home.

“I leave for Hogwarts tomorrow,” Contessa began. “I wanted to speak to you beforehand.”

Severus took a sip from his mug and gestured to her to continue.

“First of all, my Gran has not had any luck finding goblins willing to make a replica of the sword of Gryffindor. She is now arranging for a wizard-made copy, which she thinks will take around a month to procure.”

Severus nodded. “That will have to suffice.”

“It’s the best we can do, I’m afraid,” Contessa replied.

Perturbed by Severus’s lack of interest in the conversation, Contessa sat quietly for a while, feeling uncomfortable in his presence once again.

During the month spent living alone, Severus’s need for companionship appeared to have vanished. He had retreated into himself. Contessa felt as though they had stepped back in time.

She looked up again and made eye contact. Severus looked back at her indifferently.

“How will it work between us when we get to Hogwarts?” Contessa asked faintly.

Severus gave her an appraising look, realising the need for her visit. He paused to consider his response.

“Once I’m in post I shall hold a staff meeting, after which I’ll summon certain individuals to the Headmaster’s office. I shall call on you last of all, so you may report your initial findings.”

“How am I to gain access to you if I need to speak to you?”

Severus contemplated his answer, swirling the remnants of his tea around in the bottom of his mug.

“I can give you the password, but you will draw attention to yourself if you use the door to the Headmaster’s office too frequently,” he said thoughtfully. “I shall set up a secret Floo connection from your quarters to my office, to grant you access without being seen.”

Contessa nodded her acceptance. “I shall make sure you are alone in your office before arriving.”

Severus placed his empty mug down on the table. Contessa took the hint and finished her tea quickly.

“May I borrow these books? They might come in useful,” she asked tentatively.

“Certainly,” Severus replied. “You may help yourself whenever you like; you know how to let yourself in.”

“Thank you.”

Contessa stood up, placing the books under her arm. Severus got up to open the door for her.

“Fawkes left this afternoon,” Contessa said, hesitating by the door.

Severus’s expression softened. “I take it he won’t be back?”

“Dumbledore says not.”

“And what of the portrait?” Severus asked.

“I’m giving it to my Gran. We should be able to liaise with her through Dumbledore’s other portrait at Hogwarts; she’ll let you know when the sword is ready for collection.”

“That seems sensible,” Severus said.

Contessa watched his tired features for a moment. The next time they saw each other, their relationship would be very different. She felt anxious about how their connection would alter as a result.

“I’ll see you at Hogwarts, then,” Contessa said despondently.

“You will.”

Contessa Apparated outside the castle grounds the following morning, and Hagrid met her at the gates to escort her into the school. He greeted her with a bone-crushing pat on the back and an ear-splitting smile.

“Great ter have yeh with us, Tess,” Hagrid beamed as they walked across the grounds towards the castle. Contessa’s levitated luggage followed them in close convoy.

Contessa smiled back warmly. She’d always liked Hagrid.

“It’s good to be here,” she replied.

“I s’pose yeh know who they put in charge, then?” Hagrid whispered under his breath.

Contessa nodded grimly in response. And so her new role began in earnest.

“Figured yeh wouldn’t be too pleased,” Hagrid said with sympathy. “Not really who you’d’ve hoped for, is he?”

Contessa shook her head. “Not exactly.”

As they neared the front door to the school, Hagrid stopped walking and turned to face Contessa. His serious expression was evident through his long, wild beard and bushy eyebrows.

“I ’ope he don’t give yeh a hard time, what with yeh past and all.”

Contessa smiled inwardly. “I’ll be fine, Hagrid. I can take care of myself.”

“Aye, that yeh can,” he replied with a grin.

Inside the castle entrance they were met by Minerva McGonagall. Dressed in resplendent tartan, she appeared to be putting on a brave face in front of the other teachers. She stepped forward with a tight smile.

“Welcome back to Hogwarts, Tess. Horace is going to be delighted to see you,” Minerva said as she shook Contessa’s hand.

“And I, him,” Contessa replied. “It’s been a long time, actually.”

Hagrid said his goodbye and departed for the gamekeeper’s cottage.

Contessa followed Minerva down the stairs to the dungeon, her trunk in tow. As they reached the bottom steps, Contessa had a sneaking suspicion about what was to follow.

“You’ve been allocated Snape’s old quarters in the dungeon,” Minerva said stiffly, turning to face Contessa at the bottom of the stairs.

“Oh, you’re kidding me,” Contessa replied dubiously.

“I’m afraid not, dear. The decision was not made by me,” Minerva said in a clipped voice. But then her expression seemed to soften. “However, it’s logical for you to reside in close proximity to the Potions classroom.”

Contessa swallowed Minerva’s reasoning stoically, trying not to show her disapproval. The thought of living in the dark enclosure of the dungeons made her queasy; she craved daylight and natural open spaces. Contessa had loved her time in the Ravenclaw Tower with its beautiful panoramic views of the Great Lake and Highlands.

Minerva opened the door to Severus’s old quarters and they entered together, levitating Contessa’s trunk onto the cold stone floor of the living area.

The house-elves had been into the quarters since Contessa had packed away Severus’s belongings. The place was clean and tidy, but felt spartan and unwelcoming. Contessa was struck by the marked contrast between her pretty countryside cottage and the oppression of the dungeon. She realised, for the first time, how out of place Severus must have felt when he first arrived at Squirrel’s Leap.

“I’m sure you’ll fix it up in no time at all,” Minerva said, with an attempt at cheerfulness.

Contessa smiled in return. Looking around the quarters, she suddenly felt the urge to leave the décor mostly as she found it. There was something freeing about Severus’s uncluttered and minimalist approach. It seemed that living in these surroundings might help her empathise with Severus and give her insight into his character. In some ways it was an extension of her unconditional vow.

“I’ll be fine here, Minerva. Thank you.”

The women closed the door on Contessa’s new quarters and walked down the corridor towards the Potions classroom.

“Horace arrived yesterday,” Minerva explained. “I broke the news of your appointment to him this morning.”

“How did he take it?” Contessa asked nervously.

“You’re about to find out,” Minerva said with a hint of mischief, turning the door handle and leading Contessa into the classroom.

Contessa’s heart leapt as she saw Horace Slughorn, adorned in flamboyant purple robes, standing over a steaming cauldron. He stirred carefully and muttered to himself under his breath as he worked.

As Contessa approached she could smell the unmistakeable aroma of jasmine. Inquisitively, she approached the cauldron to get a better look at its contents.

Horace looked up to see his former pupil, muttered a charm to pause the potion’s development and flung his arms around Contessa.

“Tess, my dear girl!” he chuckled affectionately. “How splendid it is to see you again!”

Contessa laughed her greeting into his ear as he continued to hug her enthusiastically.

“It’s lovely to see you too, Horace.”

The Professor pulled back and held her at arm’s length, studying her closely. “My my, you’re looking very well indeed,” Horace said with a grin. “Beautiful as ever.”

Contessa blushed a little and laughed in return. “You old charmer.”

“Less of the old, if you don’t mind,” he said genially. “I’m thrilled to have you here with me – couldn’t believe my luck when Minerva told me this morning.”

Minerva smiled kindly. “You have Albus to thank for that.”

“Indeed I do, and what a gentleman he was,” Horace said with a trace of sadness. “You and I will make a formidable team, Tess.”

“I hope so,” Contessa replied. “I’m so glad to be here with you; after all you’ve done for me over the years.”

Horace shrugged it off. “You were always destined to go far, my girl. Now, let’s see if I can’t train you up to replace me when I take my second retirement.”

Contessa found that thought very amusing. She walked over to the bubbling cauldron, and caught a whiff of fresh coffee and baking bread.

“Is this Amortentia?” Contessa asked eagerly.

“Yes, for my sixth years,” Slughorn replied.

“I’ll leave you to it, shall I?” Minerva said as she made her way to the door.

Horace and Contessa looked back at Minerva and smiled, settling down for a day’s potion-making and reminiscing.

The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 2]

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