The Unforgivable Curse
As the end of winter term approached, the portrait of Phineas Nigellus Black reported Ronald Weasley’s departure from the golden trio. The news caused Severus some consternation. The Weasley boy would be unable to return to the wizarding world and, forced into hiding, he was placing Potter in greater danger. At least Miss Granger had sense enough to remain behind; the Boy Who Lived had a better chance of surviving the winter months camping in the freezing outdoors with her around.
The Quibbler continued to cause a nuisance at Hogwarts. Severus had been forced to ban the publication from the school, but he knew copies were still in circulation. He was resolutely ignoring the Carrows’ suggestions and, because Miss Lovegood maintained her low profile, Severus had not needed to resort to remedial action which would place the girl in jeopardy.
During the last week of term Contessa had informed him she would be spending the Christmas holidays at the Marchbanks’ family home in the Brecon Beacons. As there were very few students remaining behind, and all but one of those were Slytherins, the majority of teaching staff had decided to vacate the castle. Only the Carrows were staying, along with Severus and Argus Filch.
Contessa had asked Severus to keep an eye on the sole remaining Gryffindor student and he couldn’t fathom why Contessa had made it her personal responsibility to look after Robert Selwyn. The boy would have the whole of Gryffindor Tower to himself over Christmas and there was nothing Severus would’ve liked more than to spend time at Hogwarts all alone; the solitude greatly appealed to him. However, when he expressed this to Contessa, she seemed a little upset by his assertion. He could not comprehend why.
On the last night of term, the students and staff enjoyed the traditional Christmas feast and the children went back to their Houses to pack their trunks ready for the Hogwarts Express, scheduled to depart the following morning at ten o’clock.
Contessa met Severus in his quarters and they spent the diminishing hours of the evening with a bottle of port, talking about new advances in potion-making. Severus had watched his glass being refilled by his guest several times. He couldn’t remember falling asleep.
He awoke quite late on the Saturday morning but felt strangely unconcerned. He was sure that the Carrows would oversee the students’ journey to the train station without any difficulty.
Severus got out of bed and padded to the dressing table mirror, staring at his unshaven reflection. He ran his fingers through his hair in an attempt at taming it then rummaged in the wardrobe for a particular item of clothing. He found a dark green, silky dressing gown embroidered with strikingly coloured dragons on the lapels.
Severus lifted the robe from its hanger and shrugged it over his shoulders. His feet found a pair of slippers on the floor.
He wandered into the living area of his quarters and clicked his fingers to Summon his house-elf. Binky appeared next to the fireplace, carrying a tray of two servings of scrambled eggs on toast and a pot of tea. For some reason which Severus couldn’t ascertain, this didn’t seem unusual.
Severus threw a handful of Floo powder onto the fire and took the silver tray from the elf. When Binky popped out of existence, Severus took a careful step onto the hearth, green flames tickling at his bare legs, and pronounced his destination.
His old quarters in the dungeon.
The Headmaster’s personal Floo Network transported Severus instantly and he arrived gracefully without a drop of tea being spilt. Holding the breakfast tray in his hands, he stepped out of the fireplace and looked around the room. It looked much the same as always, but he noticed extra candelabras dotted around and a distinct floral aroma… Was it freesia, or jasmine? The smell was out of place in these quarters which, now that he thought about it, no longer belonged to him. So what was he doing here?
His hands began to shake slightly on the tray as consciousness pervaded his mind and the false sense of calmness dissolved. He caught a flicker of movement in the corner of his eye and turned to see Contessa at the doorway to his old bedroom, grinning from ear to ear.
Severus felt his nostrils flare as realisation dawned with a sickening crunch. The contents of the tray started to slide around and he looked down at the breakfast which Contessa had compelled him to deliver. A low growl escaped his lips.
He placed the rattling tray of food on the table as Contessa skipped into the living room and landed on the sofa, gleefully crossing her legs like a pixie.
He turned to leave.
“Good morning, Severus,” Contessa said, barely able to contain a giggle. “How lovely of you to bring me breakfast!”
Severus’s lip twitched and a hot shudder ascended his spine.
“Mmmm,” Contessa continued, talking to his back. “Scrambled eggs.”
Severus could practically hear her mouth watering and, to his dismay, he noticed his saliva glands respond in kind. He closed his eyes and shook his head.
“How did you know they were my favourite?” she asked him with fake innocence.
Severus turned around to face her, his jaw set tight and hands clenched into fists.
“You Imperio’d me,” Severus said in a low, croaking voice. Acid rose in his stomach, quelling his appetite.
Contessa watched him closely for a moment.
“I did,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. The smile that formed on her face did not goad, in fact Severus thought he saw a glimmer of sadness in her eyes.
Unconsciously, Severus’s posture relaxed. His fists unclenched and his hands slipped against the silky material of his dressing robe. Except that it wasn’t his robe; he’d never seen it before in his life. As he looked down at the shimmering embroidered dragons adorning his chest, his eyes narrowed. He felt cool air circulating around his ankles and a moment later his stomach flipped, sending a rush of blood to his cheeks.
He spun on his heel and stepped towards the fireplace.
“Please don’t leave,” Contessa said despondently.
Looking back over his shoulder, through a haze of conflicting emotions, he saw Contessa perched on the edge of his old Chesterfield settee, fidgeting with her bare feet. Her brown hair fell in unkempt waves across her shoulders. The last vestiges of sleep clouded her eyes and the pallor of her skin suggested dehydration and a possible hangover.
Severus turned slowly and noticed her cotton pyjamas were patterned with a black and orange cartoon-style duck. Her attire was almost as ridiculous as his. Could that be intentional?
Suddenly he found it harder to feel anger and humiliation. Severus’s fingers rubbed his chin, taking in the prickly texture of his stubble. His tongue felt dry against the roof of his mouth.
Contessa’s eyes met his, blue-grey and hopeful.
“You little minx,” he said into the silence, with a hint of regret and perhaps amusement.
Her eyes widened and she smiled again. “Well, I had to prove my point. That’ll teach you to throw down the gauntlet again.”
“I didn’t think you had it in you,” he replied.
“Thanks a lot,” Contessa said, eyebrows arched.
Severus paused. She had misinterpreted. “I didn’t mean you were incapable of performing an Unforgivable Curse – I never doubted that for a second. I just didn’t believe you capable of deceit and coercion.”
“I learned from the best,” Contessa replied wryly.
“So it seems.”
Severus’s heard a rumble emanate from his stomach, and his hand covered it surreptitiously.
“Sit down, Severus,” Contessa said gently. “The eggs are going cold.” She picked up the teapot and poured two cups of tea. “Besides, if you leave now, you won’t find out how I managed it.”
Severus knew instantly he was caught on a hook, about to be reeled in. He would exact his revenge another time, when she least expected it. Now was not the time to be a sore loser.
Reluctantly, he sat down at the other end of the sofa, feeling the cool leather of the sofa through the thin material of his robe. He picked up a cup of tea and took a sip. The warm liquid slid down his throat, calming and soothing in the way that only tea can.
“So,” Severus began. “You got me drunk enough to fall asleep…”
“Yes. I had to wait an hour or so until you fell into the rapid eye movement cycle.”
“When I was dreaming… Why?”
“Because that’s when your mind is active and you’re more susceptible to the influence of the curse. It slips in as part of your dream.”
Severus looked at her for a long moment, impressed. The theory made complete sense.
Contessa picked up her plate of scrambled eggs and started to tuck in. Severus found himself doing the same.
“How did I get into bed?” he asked in between mouthfuls.
“I left the suggestion to go to bed if you awoke during the night,” Contessa explained.
“And to undress myself?”
Severus paused. “That’s a relief.”
Contessa laughed. “The Sobriety Potion I took last night reined me in a bit. It’s a shame it didn’t prevent the hangover, though.”
Severus’s head tilted as he appraised her. “So that’s how you managed to out-drink me and still have the ability to perform the curse.” His forehead creased and he settled the fork against the plate with a clink. “You are surprisingly devious, Contessa. Perhaps you could’ve been in Slytherin after all. Thinking up methods of Imperio’ing people in their sleep, who’d have thought you capable?”
Contessa’s eyes narrowed as she reached out for her cup of tea. Her frown bemused Severus.
“I know you mean that as a compliment,” she said, “but I can’t take full credit.”
“Pity. Why not?”
“Well, it wasn’t my idea originally. When I was younger I had the trick played on me by my cousin for a dare, although to be honest at the time I thought it was a fluke. Your goading motivated me to try it; I never imagined it would be so successful.” Contessa smiled at the plate of food. “The eggs are excellent.”
“I assume you gave Binky his instructions?”
“Indeed I did,” Contessa replied. Her eyes twinkled as she looked at the pattern of dragons on Severus’s dark green robe.
Severus suspected Contessa must have asked the house-elf to place the dressing gown in his wardrobe. He wondered if she was retaliating following his Transfiguration of her clothing a few weeks ago.
Severus exhaled with a tight laugh. “Your foresight is noteworthy; however, I’m more intrigued by the ease with which you cursed me. I’ve never heard of that method, and now that I come to think of it, I wonder why it hasn’t been tried before.”
“Well, generally speaking, it’s almost impossible to break into a wizarding home whilst the owners are asleep. Everyone protects themselves with various alarms and deterrents, and would be awake before anything untoward could happen. It was only easy for me because I have access to you.”
“Hmmm. I might have to reconsider that,” Severus said contemplatively.
Contessa pursed her lips, but her eyes shone. “I wouldn’t blame you. But I’m not planning a repeat performance.” She dropped her empty plate onto the table and cradled her cup of tea in her lap. “I’ve been thinking though, about the Imperius Curse. There are so many people under its influence at the Ministry – it would be useful to have a potion which could identify or release them.”
Severus studied her intently. “Some sort of curse-breaker?”
“Veritaserum would be a good place to start,” he pondered.
Contessa’s nose wrinkled. “The problem is Truth Potion only reveals what people perceive to be the truth, so it wouldn’t necessarily help.” Her fingers traced the circumference of her tea cup. “But Veritaserum would be a good place to start.”
Severus felt a spike of interest. “To start? What are you planning?”
“I’ve been thinking for a while that I might attempt to create a potion which reveals people as they truly are – something which breaks through and releases them from the Imperius Curse.”
Nodding his head, Severus replied, “It sounds like a worthy research topic.”
Contessa’s excitement became palpable and her eyes sparkled with enthusiasm. “Perhaps I’ll raid the library at Hogwarts before I leave this afternoon.”
“There are a few books in the Restricted Section which would be useful,” Severus advised. “But, you should drop in at Spinner’s End; I’ve got a couple of books on the history and application of the Imperius Curse. They are a little more, shall we say, informative than those in the library.”
Contessa grinned broadly. “I’ll do that, thanks.” She took a final sip from her cup and placed it down on the table. “Do you want anything bringing from home?”
“I just thought you’d get bored. You know, three weeks in the castle almost alone.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” Severus said.
Severus observed a change in her countenance. He didn’t understand it.
“Well,” Contessa said gloomily, “I’ll stay away for the full three weeks, then.” She stood up and wiped her hands absently on her pyjamas, avoiding eye contact. “Breakfast was nice.”
Severus placed his tea cup on the table and stood up to leave. “Perhaps, next time, you’ll provide it?”
At that, Contessa looked at him and smiled again. “Not if I can help it.”
Severus spent the afternoon wandering the corridors of the deserted school checking everything was in order. It was times like these when he quite enjoyed being Headmaster. Roaming the hallowed halls of this magical place, all alone, was a source of great comfort.
He reflected how much easier it was to control the place when it was empty. But, like a shop with no customers, a school would not survive without its students.
The occasional Hogwarts ghost drifted by along the way and several portraits stood to attention as he passed. The more frequently used hallways were decorated with festive holly sprigs and garlands, and Severus was reminded that he would have to plan a Christmas Day banquet and entertainment for those residing in the castle over the festive season.
Contessa had organised the Halloween feast with efficiency and flair. Suddenly Severus wished she hadn’t gone home so soon – she would’ve arranged the affair with enthusiasm and been pleasant company for him during the tedious occasion.
The sound of footsteps broke into Severus’s thoughts, and he turned to see Filch trotting towards him with his cat in pursuit.
“Headmaster!” the caretaker wheezed, gasping for air.
“Mr Filch,” Severus replied in a clipped voice. “What can I do for you?”
Mrs Norris circled Filch’s feet, her tail curling softly around the caretaker’s leg as she watched the Headmaster with wide, amber orbs.
“We’ve just received news from the Hogwarts Express. Dementors stopped the train somewhere south of Fort William.”
“What?” Severus exclaimed incredulously. “Why?”
“The train came to a halt in a remote, deserted station and two Death Eaters boarded it. They took the Lovegood girl.”
Severus’s stomach lurched in protest. He had spent the last month protecting her and now, as soon as she was beyond his reach, Miss Lovegood had been snatched.
More footsteps echoed up the corridor and Severus watched the Carrows approaching, ugly grins suffusing their fat, squat faces.
“Who was responsible for the abduction?” Severus asked Amycus.
“Selwyn and Travers,” the wizard answered with satisfaction.
The back of Severus’s neck prickled. He wouldn’t put it past the Carrows to have engineered the kidnapping.
“They didn’t have my permission to board the Hogwarts Express,” Severus said austerely. “Staging this high-profile abduction is counterproductive to our strategy at Hogwarts.”
“But it sends out a strong message to the pupils, Snape,” Alecto chipped in. “Those kids will behave themselves next term, for fear of the consequences.”
Severus felt a ripple of disgust. “I suspect the contrary, Alecto. Selwyn and Travers have just made our jobs infinitely harder.”
Turning swiftly, Severus stalked back to the Headmaster’s office, brooding on the implications for the school. The repercussions were serious. He knew things would be different when Hogwarts reconvened in January.
As he uttered the password and stepped onto the moving spiral staircase, Severus felt Contessa’s absence like a hollow pit in his stomach.