Elm and Ebony
Severus heard the fizzing swoosh of the Floo Network as it transported Contessa out of his office.
With his jaw set firmly, he turned on the spot to face the fireplace. The emerald flames were changing to a natural amber colour, but continued to roar with intensity.
As Severus stared into the hearth, his anger unleashed and his disciplined defences began to crumble. He had barely managed to restrain his fury in the moments before Contessa left the room. Now she was gone, rage reared its ugly, snarling face.
Severus swept across the room and came to a halt at the end of the ornate Headmaster’s desk and he wrenched it upwards, tipping it over onto the floor. The table came down on its side with a satisfying thump. Desk-top contents flew haphazardly across the room; parchments and quills scattered and an inkwell seeped dark liquid onto the floor.
The destruction felt good to Severus and he continued to vent his anger, ripping books down from the shelves lining the office. They landed with a thud on the floor as clouds of dust rose from the centuries-old volumes.
Severus stared fiercely at the pile of crumpled books on the floor as if they had somehow wronged him.
He jumped in surprise when he heard a muffled pop. Binky the house-elf appeared in the room, carrying a duster and a brush. The little elf looked startled as he surveyed the carnage in the room and he looked at Severus uncertainly, bowing cautiously to his master.
Severus’s nostrils flared as he addressed the house-elf. “What are you doing here, elf?”
Binky shifted uneasily on his feet. “Binky apologises, sir. Binky was Summoned by the rising dust…It is Binky’s duty to keep the Headmaster’s office clean.”
The elf shrank under Severus’s steely gaze.
“Not doing a very good job of it, are you, elf?” Severus lashed out.
Binky hung his head shamefully. “Sorry, Master.”
Turning to face the upended desk, the little creature ran full-speed, head-on into it. He collided with the hard surface with a sickening crunch and fell onto his back, knocking himself momentarily unconscious. A lump the size of an egg appeared on his forehead.
Recovering with a stagger and rubbing his head, Binky got to his feet and retreated in preparation for another run.
Severus stepped in front of the up-turned desk, blocking the house-elf’s path towards self-destruction.
“Enough,” Severus growled. “Leave now.”
Binky looked half relieved and half perplexed. “But the mess, Sir. What about the mess?”
Severus clenched his fists intolerantly. “It can wait. Now get out of my sight!”
With a crack, the house-elf disappeared.
Severus was left alone with his tipped-over desk and desecrated office, rage still bubbling away inside. As he looked around the room he noticed the inkwell emptying its contents steadily onto the floor, staining the rug. With a rumble of anger in his throat, Severus picked up the offending pot of ink and lobbed it into the fire. The container shattered with a tinkle, causing the flames to turn bright magenta and spit out acrid black smoke.
Without warning, the fire went out with a sizzling gasp. Severus felt his anger wane as the room’s illumination dropped and the crackles of the fire extinguished.
As the rush of adrenaline subsided, Severus slumped into a sitting position against the desk, leaning his back against the leather-covered surface. He sat with his legs hunched up, head resting on the desk-top and his eyes tightly closed.
When his heart rate slowed and his breathing became more regular, Severus opened his eyes. The fog cleared from his vision as he sobered, and he flinched with embarrassment when he observed the Headteacher portraits watching him warily from their frames.
With a low groan, Severus closed his eyes in humiliation. Contessa had forced him to act out the entire argument in front of generations of experienced Headteachers.
Despite his belief that his own line of reasoning was sound, he feared he had not handled the situation with as much skill and diplomacy as his predecessors might.
Severus kept his eyes shut as he banged the back of his head gently against the desk. It was quite clear that Contessa’s behaviour was beyond reason. She was unable to control her emotions and Severus usually saw this as a sign of weakness.
Contessa was not adept at disciplining her mind and compartmentalising her world. Whilst it had disadvantages and served no foreseeable purpose, Severus still admired her openness and honesty, even though he found her emotional outbursts irritating and unproductive.
However, her loose cannon temperament was a hindrance to their mission and clearly needed to be addressed. The task in hand was of the utmost importance and, as such, he knew had to find a way to resolve the situation and to continue to work with her.
Severus was not accustomed to this aspect of managing adults. He much preferred students in that respect; disciplining them was child’s play by comparison.
When Severus opened his eyes he noticed several portraits casting judgmental looks. Phineas Nigellus Black sniffed indignantly at him.
“I told you the Ravenclaw Revolutionary couldn’t be trusted,” Phineas said with a sneer.
During the months in which they had been reacquainted, Severus had almost forgotten Contessa’s old nickname. He rose to his feet and dusted off his clothes, turning away from the portrait. “This isn’t about trust, Phineas,” he said wearily. “It’s about something else.”
From behind the desk, Severus looked up at Dumbledore’s portrait. “How am I supposed to work with Contessa when she is so unreasonable?” he asked the former Headmaster. “This kind of unpredictable behaviour is the reason why I normally choose to work alone,” he added.
Dumbledore returned his gaze with a look of patient understanding. “Tess simply needs to learn the limitations of her position. You forget - the pair of you spent two months in a relationship of equality. Now she is working for you as a subordinate, but also alongside you as a spy. It will take some time for her to adjust.”
“I need her to adapt quickly, Dumbledore. I’ve been able to control my emotions since taking over the Headmastership. Why cannot she?”
“You are different people, Severus. She is open to her feelings, and doesn’t place value in containing them.”
Dumbledore paused and glanced at Severus circumspectly.
Severus had seen that look before and groaned inwardly.
“There are a few things you don’t know about Tess which cloud her opinion of you,” Dumbledore said slowly.
“Oh, I don’t believe this…” Severus replied.
From the other side of the office, Magda McDougall cleared her throat nervously. He noticed Phineas and the other Headteachers appraising Dumbledore expectantly. The hairs on the back of Severus’s neck stood to attention.
“What is it?” Severus asked, not really wishing to know the answer. “What haven’t you told me?”
Dumbledore sighed and crossed his hands in his lap. “I was hoping this would come out naturally, in time. However, I can see the need for transparency, given the current situation.”
Severus rolled his eyes and sighed in resignation.
“You are aware Tess is the great granddaughter of Griselda Marchbanks,” Dumbledore began.
Severus nodded once.
“Griselda was a member of the Wizengamot and she was present at your closed hearing. She heard me speak in your defence before all the charges were dropped.”
Severus took a moment to interpret the information. “You’re saying Contessa found out I was a Death Eater during my time as Potions Master?”
“I’m afraid so,” Dumbledore said with regret. “It was not ideal. Although your past affiliation was not common knowledge, there were of course several people who knew you once served Voldemort. During the Christmas holidays when your hearing took place, Tess overheard a conversation at home. Griselda was devastated that she’d found out.”
“So, Contessa knew of my past; I assume she was sworn to secrecy?”
“She was, and she never once betrayed you, despite being sorely tempted on several occasions.”
Severus took a deep breath in. “I did make it hard for her,” he conceded, remembering the many altercations they had exchanged. Severus had tested her to the limit but hadn’t realised the danger. “You placed a lot of trust in a seventeen year old girl, Dumbledore. You put me at risk.”
“I placed as much trust in her as I did in you, Severus. Neither of you have let me down.”
Severus bit back his sarcastic retort. Whilst he thought Dumbledore a fool to be so trusting, he could not deny the former Headmaster’s trust in him was the only thing that had kept him alive.
And now, it seemed, Contessa had placed her trust in him too. It surprised Severus that the Ravenclaw Revolutionary had kept her promise to Dumbledore despite being so cruelly provoked by her Potions Master.
“Her past resentment is more understandable now,” Severus realised out loud.
“Oh, she wasn’t exactly a saint,” Dumbledore replied with a small smile. “Tess attempted many things to bring about your dismissal, culminating in a petition amongst the students to force me to sack you.”
Severus laughed under his breath. “You’re kidding.”
“No,” Dumbledore replied seriously. “Luckily the petition was unsuccessful. Too many students were…shall we say…reluctant to sign.”
“Too scared of the Potions Master?” Severus said with amusement.
“Indeed,” Dumbledore answered wryly. “When she realised I had no intention of dismissing you, she backed down and put her energies into organising a Potions study group to help the students who where struggling. It was her method of retaliation against you.”
“That’s why she never gave me any credit as her teacher – she considered herself self-taught.”
“What can I say, Severus, you are both as stubborn as each other.”
Severus sighed deeply. Whilst this explained much of Contessa’s behaviour, it also made her Unbreakable Vow seem even more remarkable.
Out of the corner of his eye, Severus noticed the up-turned desk and the mountains of scattered books, quills and parchment. As he had sent away the house-elf, it was up to him to clear up the mess.
He reached inside his waistcoat to find his wand, intending to make quick work of covering up the evidence of his tantrum. His fingers brushed two pieces of wood and he withdrew his ebony wand and a smaller wand made of elm.
With a jolt, Severus realised he still had Contessa’s wand.