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The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 4]

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Chapter Thirty-Six

Past and Present

Since the air had been cleared, Contessa’s relationship with Severus had found a firmer footing and, now that Robert Selwyn was benefiting from her tutorials, she finally felt settled in her role at Hogwarts. Contessa was helping the Death Eater’s son to perfect his potion-making and regain some self-confidence and, even though the boy was still on the receiving end of taunts and abuse, she had noticed a change in his demeanour. It was a good start.

However, it was tiring for her to be on guard around the teaching staff and controlling her outward appearances to blend in with others. Contessa found it easy to be derogatory about the Headmaster – her years of practice were coming in very useful, but she was pleasantly surprised by how much she enjoyed spending time with the man she once despised.

Tuesday and Friday evenings were the only time when Contessa could truly be herself. Severus seemed more at ease around her and their evenings together had often been the highlight of the week.

Her feelings towards him were still the same, but, now she’d looked them in the eye, they were no longer disabling or destructive. Contessa was certain Severus would never return her feelings and she knew a relationship with him would be counterproductive. Too many important things were at stake to risk muddying the waters with romance, and she was slowly coming to terms with reality.

A week before Halloween, Contessa arrived at Severus’s quarters on the Friday evening, to find him stretched out along the length of the sofa. Facing the fire, his nose was buried in a leather-bound book. He was dressed in his usual black trousers and white shirt, but had removed his necktie and unbuttoned his waistcoat.

Severus looked around at Contessa as she entered the living room and he gestured for her to join him on the second antique sofa opposite him.

She kicked off her boots and sprawled back onto the cushions. The fire warmed her sock-clad feet as she lay watching the crackling flames.

After a short time, Severus finished what he was reading and placed the book on the table at his side. Contessa turned around on the sofa, feeling too comfortable to bother sitting up straight. She dug her elbow into the cushion and propped her head on her up-turned hand, watching Severus’s impressive figure from across the coffee table.

“Nothing much to report,” she said idly. “All quiet at the moment. The students are looking forward to the Halloween feast.”

Severus frowned a little and turned to an upright sitting position, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his lap. His long fingers played with the torn cover of his reading material. He appeared preoccupied.

The firelight sent flickering shadows over his hooked-nosed profile and Contessa felt a swooping sensation as she found herself lost in his dark, brooding features. She couldn’t understand why she’d never noticed how handsome her former Potions Master was; his thin, lean frame cut a curiously powerful silhouette. Long black hair framed his pale features, hiding emotions from the casual observer. She was captivated by a sense of his loneliness and vulnerability, seen only by her, on very rare occasions.

Contessa opened her mouth to speak and then stopped, giving herself a mental shake. That wasn’t what she was here for.

Severus snapped his fingers lazily and Binky the house-elf appeared at his side, holding the usual silver plate, with its shiny domed cover. The elf looked at Contessa pointedly and gave her a little wink. Her eyes widened in response and she sat up quickly with instant alertness.

Grinning appreciatively, Contessa couldn’t wait to see the efforts of the house-elves, and wanted to catch Severus’s reaction. She could tell he knew something was going on; Severus was watching her suspiciously from across the coffee table.

A pot of coffee and two cups appeared on the table before them. Binky lifted the cloche, revealing a seasonal parkin cake decorated with floating miniature pumpkins, about the size of apricots. The minuscule lanterns twinkled and diminutive bats darted between them, emitting tiny shrieks as they flew above the moist treacle and ginger cake.

Contessa giggled. “Oh, Binky, that’s marvellous – beautifully done! Please thank the kitchen for me; it’s just what I wanted.”

“As Madam wishes,” the house-elf replied with a smile and a formal bow.

Binky popped out of existence and Contessa turned towards Severus, hoping to see an expression of amusement or, at the very least, cynicism on his face.

Instead his features were rigid, as if frozen in place.

“Oh, you don’t like it,” Contessa said uncertainly.

Severus grimaced. “This was for me?” he asked quietly.

“Yes,” she replied, unsure of how a simple cake adorned with symbols of the upcoming festivities could cause him such dismay. “Halloween is next Friday night, so I assumed we would be forgoing our usual supper in favour of the feast. I asked the kitchen to bake us a special cake instead.”

Severus nodded in understanding, but his expression did not change. “I don’t celebrate Halloween.”

“You don’t?” Contessa asked in amazement. “But it’s the one night a year when Muggles entertain the notion of witchcraft and wizardry, so we all stay indoors and have a party. It’s tradition.”

The bats above the cake had now lost interest in the floating lanterns and were soaring in between the steaming coffee pot and empty cups, knocking the china over with a clink. Contessa took out her wand and with a quick flick the miniature bats vanished.

Severus remained silent with his head turned away, gazing into the fire. He wrung his hands tensely.

“Why don’t you celebrate Halloween?” Contessa asked in a quieter, softer voice.

He sat poised for fight or flight, clearly wishing he was elsewhere.

Then, with one swift movement, Severus picked up the coffee pot and proceeded to serve their drinks. Contessa watched him as he added milk and sugar and offered her a cup. She took it from him wordlessly, nodding her thanks and sitting quietly as she waited for his reply.

Severus warmed his hands on his cup of coffee and peered down at the table with pensive, unfocused eyes. “Halloween holds a particular anniversary which is not cause for celebration.”

After a moment’s pause, Contessa still didn’t understand. “It was the day You Know Who was killed, or so we thought. But surely that’s another reason to celebrate?”

Severus continued to stare at the table. “Other lives were lost that day.”

“Yes, Harry Potter’s parents,” she said, seeing a different viewpoint. “Were you close to them?”

“No,” Severus answered abruptly.

Contessa had a sense of being pushed away; she had stumbled on something, but she was unsure what. Why would Severus be so perturbed by the Potters’ fate if he had not been personally close to the couple?

She searched her memory for a clue.

She knew Severus had switched allegiances by the time the Potters were killed; he was her Potions Master when it happened. Contessa could still remember the day – she had been at Hogwarts’ Halloween feast when Dumbledore, McGonagall, Hagrid and Snape had been called away urgently. They returned later that evening and announced Voldemort’s death to the school.

“What happened that night, Severus?”

There was a long pause. “I am responsible for the death of the Potters. I unwittingly gave information to the Dark Lord which led to their murder.”

A lump formed in Contessa’s throat and she attempted to swallow it away. “I’m sorry, Severus. I didn’t know.”

“No-one knew.”

Contessa’s memory of the event replayed in her mind. “I remember that night at the Halloween feast. You were so cruel and bitter towards the students afterwards. I thought you were sorry the Dark Lord was dead and I hated you even more…” Her voice trailed off as she realised the depths of her past misconception.

“You thought me a Death Eater through and through.”

Contessa’s eyes widened with horror. “How did you…?”

“Dumbledore told me a few weeks ago,” Severus said languidly.

Contessa rubbed her forehead. At least it was out in the open now. She looked at the cake sadly. “I couldn’t have done better with the cake, could I?” she asked wryly.

She finally caught Severus’s ebony gaze, and the tension eased slightly as she detected a glimmer of irony. Contessa raised her wand again and the cake disappeared from the table.

“So, you won’t be looking forward to the feast next week,” she said softly.

Severus looked back at her, caught unawares. “I cancelled the feast, so it’s of no consequence.”

Contessa gaped, astonished. “Severus, you can’t do that! There’ll be uproar!” she blurted.

A trace of comprehension crossed his face and the corners of his mouth curled in disgust. Contessa didn’t want to press the matter, but the importance of the feast could not be overstated.

“The traditions need to be upheld, Severus, otherwise people will talk,” Contessa explained. “No matter how you feel,” she added gently.

Severus shrugged his shoulders in defeat. “I will not be part of the preparations for Halloween.”

Contessa placed her coffee cup down on the table decisively. “Right, well, I volunteer to organise the feast for you.”

“Whatever you want,” Severus said dispassionately.

Feeling she had gained his acceptance, Contessa rubbed her hands on her knees in preparation for her next recommendation.

“I’ve had another idea as well,” she began.

Severus looked back at her with arched eyebrows. She held his gaze steadily until his features softened.

“Regarding the bequeathal of Gryffindor’s sword,” she said tentatively. “With the thirty-first of October being the anniversary of his parents’ death, Harry Potter might put in an appearance at Godric’s Hollow.”

The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 4]

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