“When faced with my demons
I clothe them and feed them
And I smile, yes I smile
As they’re taking me over”
‘Strange Glue’, Catatonia
The replica sword arrived at Hogwarts late the next night, under an autumnal cover of darkness.
Severus hid the original sword of Gryffindor in a compartment behind Dumbledore’s portrait and handed the duplicate sword over to the Carrows. They made a public display of taking the sword away from Hogwarts, and Severus informed the teaching staff of its removal. With Contessa’s whispers into the ears of the students, Severus felt convinced that another attempt at theft was unlikely.
Longbottom, Weasley and Lovegood commenced their detentions in the Forbidden Forest and Severus hoped the message had been heard, loud and clear, by all the students of Hogwarts. He feared the consequences if he was unable to control the school. The Dark Lord expected him to deliver his promise but Severus did not want the students of Hogwarts to suffer unduly.
Severus and Contessa met for supper on Tuesday and Friday evenings and he noticed she had become increasingly temperamental. Contessa seemed uncomfortable and tense in his presence, rarely making eye contact. Severus didn’t know what to make of it, but he presumed she was finding the transition to double agent both taxing and confusing. He made a mental note to offer his guidance the next time he saw her on the Tuesday night.
Autumn was well underway, the October days bright and sunny, nights drawing in with the first signs of frost. Before the sun had properly risen on the Tuesday morning, Filch came bursting into the Headmaster’s office, seething with rage.
The caretaker escorted Severus to the corridor outside the Great Hall.
Boldly emblazoned across the wall of the passageway was the message “Dumbledore’s Army – still recruiting”. The graffiti was imprinted with several protective charms and hexes, which made its removal time-consuming and arduous.
Severus was furious with the audacity and ingenuity of the DA, and he and the other teachers were still struggling to remove the writing from the wall when a group of early-bird students arrived for breakfast. Severus sent them back to their houses and ordered the house-elves to serve breakfast in the students’ quarters, in an attempt to control the number of people seeing the message daubed outside the Great Hall.
Later that day he held a staff meeting, informing the teachers their night-time rounds would become more frequent in order to prevent students sneaking out of their rooms at night. Severus also reinstated Umbridge’s old decree forbidding gatherings of three or more people and banning unofficial student societies.
Severus regretted having to make this pronouncement. He had no respect for Dolores Umbridge or her methods, and did not wish to follow in her footsteps. However, he felt it was the only way to curb the activities of the DA and dissuade those students who might be tempted to join the mutineers.
That evening Severus attended dinner in the Great Hall and found the atmosphere subdued. Many teachers point-blank ignored him and more students than normal scowled disdainfully as he walked by.
None of this bothered Severus. He had known from the outset he would not be a popular Headmaster. The only thing that troubled him was Contessa’s reaction.
She had scowled fervently at him during the staff meeting and cut him dead when she passed him in the corridor, her face strained and flushed. Tonight, in the Great Hall, she steadfastly refused to meet his gaze. Severus could not understand her reaction, unless it was merely a façade to throw people off the scent.
Contessa arrived in the Headmaster’s office by Floo powder later that evening and, judging by the look on her face, it seemed the last place she wanted to be. Severus arose from behind his desk and met her at the fireplace. She returned his gaze warily.
“Good evening, Contessa,” said Severus, his voice constricted and tight.
Contessa made eye contact and her face contorted with suppressed emotions. “If I am to call you Headmaster, I prefer to be addressed as Madam Marchbanks,” she said frostily, “if you don’t mind, Sir.”
Severus recoiled from her hostility and took a step backwards. He could not understand why she was still having difficulty using his proper title, unless she was being deliberately insubordinate. In the space of a heartbeat, he recovered his composure and surveyed the Potions Assistant with a sneer.
“Since I am Headmaster, I shall call you whatever I like.”
Contessa’s eyes narrowed into slits and she looked away with exasperation, sighing heavily. “Do we have to do this tonight?”
Nonplussed, Severus paused for a moment. “What do you mean?”
Contessa’s gaze held a silent plea, leaving Severus even more confused. He raised his eyebrows haughtily to cover his lack of comprehension.
“Is all this really necessary?” she asked irritably. “My coming here for supper but not being allowed to call you Severus…It seems absurd.”
“It is necessary now more than ever,” Severus replied, without fully grasping her point. “I need the information you can provide to help me maintain control of Hogwarts. I cannot allow Dumbledore’s Army to resurface under my nose – the Dark Lord will believe me incompetent and replace me.”
Contessa rolled her eyes slightly and seemed to swallow something back. Her shoulders hunched in submission.
With a jolt, Severus construed her reaction as a refusal of his company. He felt a momentary pang of rejection. His companionship had been spurned before; it was a familiar feeling. However, Severus knew he could survive the consequences. He had become accustomed to living in this manner for his entire adult life; there was no difference in this situation.
Firmly squashing any need for closeness and amity, Severus focused on the task in hand. Their alliance was necessary for the protection of the school. Turning on his heel, Severus stalked towards the stairs and led Contessa onto the minstrel’s gallery and into his quarters.
The dark rooms flickered into life as Severus raised his wand to light the candles and the fire. The level of illumination was lower now he had discovered the most efficient way of lighting the chambers, and the wavering gloom welcomed him as he entered the living room.
Severus had procured a small dining table which served its purpose for the suppers he shared with Contessa. It was an unadorned and simple piece of furniture, with two wooden chairs placed either side of the table. The seats were similarly modest and functional.
Contessa had remarked how out of place the table looked, shoved up against the wall of the grandiose living room. Since Severus had chosen it for that very reason, he hadn’t acted upon her suggestion of replacing it with something more comfy. Severus found its simplicity and practicality strangely comforting. He liked the familiarity.
He headed into his private chambers as Contessa took a seat at the table with obvious reluctance.
He didn’t feel anything now that he was safely inside his walls. Coldly detached, Severus removed his cloak and frock-coat and returned to the living room wearing trousers, a white shirt, black waistcoat and neck-tie. He snapped his fingers as he crossed the room and, as he sat down opposite Contessa, his personal house-elf appeared with a pop at the side of the table.
Binky was slightly taller than the average house-elf and his skin had a pinkish undertone which set him apart from the other elves. He wore a pair of black Hogwarts tea-cloths, tied in a customary toga. The silver embroidery of the Hogwarts crest glittered in the candlelight.
The Headmaster’s house-elf had been in service for over a decade and, under Dumbledore’s tutelage, Binky had learned an air of flamboyance. With the usual ostentation, a bottle of wine snapped into existence inside a silver bucket filled with iced water, and supper was served on a gleaming, covered silver dish.
Contessa, who was sitting with her arms folded, nodded her hello to the house-elf. Unusually, she made no attempt at conversation with Binky. Severus snapped his eyes away from her and glared at the house-elf instead.
“Good evening, Headmaster,” Binky said, bowing to Severus with grace and finesse. “Madam Marchbanks,” the elf turned to Contessa and repeated his gesture.
Severus tapped his fingertips on the table impatiently. He did not appreciate fuss or fanfare, and his ever-darkening mood was being aggravated by the pomposity of the house-elf.
“Get on with it, elf!” he snapped.
Binky jumped a little, but regained his composure quickly. He removed the cloche from the plate of food with a flourish and presented a spread of cheese, biscuits and fruits.
The selection was impressive and Severus found his mouth watering despite himself. Whilst he felt confident he would eventually knock the flair for theatrics out of the house-elf, he could imagine getting used to the excellent quality of food.
“Dismissed,” Severus addressed the house-elf curtly.
Binky bowed once more then vanished with a muffled pop.
Severus removed the bottle of wine from the ice-bucket and started to pour it into the crystal glasses which had just appeared on the table before them.
“I don’t want any wine, Professor,” Contessa said discourteously.
Severus prickled with indignation and proceeded to serve her a full glass of wine regardless. She glared at him in response.
Sitting in silence, they ate supper without eye contact and Severus found himself refilling his wine glass frequently. When Contessa finished eating, she sat with her arms folded like a sullen, sulking schoolgirl. He remembered that look from his first year as Potions Master. It didn’t bode well.
Growing more impatient with her lack of conversation, Severus pushed away his empty plate and sat back in his chair, swirling the remnants of his third glass of wine around the bottom of the glass.
“Are you going to speak at all, or do I have to question you?” he asked her sharply.
Contessa straightened in her seat and her eyes flashed. “You know what, Headmaster, I think I’ll ask the questions tonight,” she replied insolently.
Severus bolstered himself, ready for a fight seeming to come out of nowhere.
“Why did you reinstate Umbridge’s old decrees?” she asked loftily. “Do you seriously think you can prevent Dumbledore’s Army from reforming?”
“I really don’t see what that has to do with you, Contessa,” he said evenly.
She shook her head with impatience. “You and I played that game once before and it didn’t exactly work in your favour.” Her voice was laced with old hostility and she seemed on the verge of erupting.
Severus could not understand why. He sat looking into the fire, temporarily stumped. What this had to do with their shared past was a mystery. How could anything from his time as Contessa’s Potions Master be pertinent to the matter in hand?
After a short time the memory came to him, but by then Contessa had stormed out of the room and was stamping down hard on the staircase to his office.
Severus’s anger flared as he leapt to his feet and ran after her.