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The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 7]

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Chapter Forty-Four

Once a Year

Spinner’s End turned out to be a veritable treasure trove for Contessa, and she returned to Squirrel’s Leap with over a dozen publications from Severus’s personal library. She quickly realised why Severus had chosen to store so many of his books at home; it was unlikely Dumbledore would have allowed his Potions Master to bring such literature into his school. Contessa noted wryly that the current Headmaster would probably have no such qualms.

Contessa spent the remaining two weeks of the Christmas holidays perusing various texts on the Imperius Curse and making a shortlist of potential potion ingredients and methods of preparation.

As the start of the school term approached, Contessa packed her trunk a couple of days early and called to see her uncle at the bakery to collect a special order, which she fitted carefully into her luggage before heading off to Hogwarts.

Darkness had descended by the time she made her way carefully across the icy grounds of the castle, escorted by a silent Argus Filch. Mrs Norris hovered at Contessa’s feet, sniffed the levitated trunk and miaowed with a hint of frustration.

Trying not to trip up over the caretaker’s pet, Contessa felt the fleeting tingle of the Tiger’s Eye ring, which she was now wearing on a chain around her neck. After the events of Christmas Day, she had promptly made a decision to avoid temptation; as interesting as it might be to covertly drop in on Severus’s thoughts and feelings, she knew it would be a wholly unacceptable breach of privacy. Moreover, she was concerned that Severus would do the same to her, and she couldn’t afford the risk that he might discover what she truly felt for him.

The ring had been tingling, but stopping short of turning cold, intermittently for the last fortnight. Contessa surmised that Severus was fiddling with his own ring absentmindedly, causing her band to alter its state. She found the sensation, and the thought which accompanied it, very comforting.

Alone again, and on her way down to her dungeon quarters, Contessa crossed Alecto Carrow on the stairs. The fat, squat witch stepped to one side to allow Contessa to pass.

The Death Eater’s eyes narrowed and she grinned malevolently. “You’re back early.”

Contessa felt a hot iron burning somewhere deep in her abdomen. “I am,” she replied. “Not that it’s any business of yours.”

“Couldn’t stay away from your Slytherin master for a moment longer, eh?” Alecto rasped.

Contessa felt indignation rise to her throat and her nostrils flared as she took a deep breath, resolving to play along with the game to avoid suspicion. “I would appreciate it, Professor Carrow, if the Headmaster and I are left undisturbed tonight. I have a surprise for Professor Snape.”

Alecto’s top lip disappeared into a thin line and she raised her jaw, looking down her bulbous nose at Contessa. “No doubt,” she said suggestively. “I’m sure that can be arranged. Snape’s spent the week lurking in the dungeons; I imagine he’ll be looking forward to his pet returning to the castle.”

The podgy witch issued a self-satisfied smirk and trudged up the steps, leaving Contessa bristling and biting down on her tongue. She set off down the stairs for her quarters at a brisk march, boots clicking mercilessly on the stone floor of the corridor.

With a flurry of activity, Contessa unpacked and then Floo’d a request to Binky and the house-elves in the kitchen. Pausing at the mirror in her bedroom, she looked at her reflection and ran her fingers through her long, knotted brown hair. She wore a polo-neck jumper and jeans and, as she contemplated which clothes to change into, she realised her jaw was set tightly and her teeth were still grinding together after her exchange with Alecto Carrow.

Sighing, she willed herself to let go, knowing Severus didn’t need to be on the receiving end of her untenable annoyance, and particularly not on a day which came but once a year.

When Contessa slid the inconspicuous edition of Knitting with Kneazle-fur from the bookshelf outside the Headmaster’s quarters, and knocked on his door, Severus took a while to answer. Eventually the door creaked open and suddenly Contessa was glad that she‘d decided not to bother with a change of clothes.

Matted hair hung about Severus’s face in an untidy, black mess. He wore black trousers, socks, and a rumpled white shirt with sleeves rolled at the cuffs. The shirt was unbuttoned midway down his chest, and his Tiger’s Eye ring glinted against his pale skin.

Even in this crumpled, scruffy-looking state, Severus still managed to appear impressive. Contessa felt her heart pound against her ribs and she was grateful, yet again, that he did not have access to her thoughts. The realisation left her momentarily dumbstruck and they regarded each other as if neither were sure of the other’s reason for being there.

Severus appeared to collect himself first. “You’re back.” His voice cracked with lack of use.

Contessa nodded uncertainly.

Severus cleared his throat and appraised his attire uncomfortably. “I should change,” he said, starting to turn away.

“No,” Contessa replied without delay. “There’s no need. You’re fine as you are.”

As Severus opened the door to let her in, Contessa retrieved her wand and Summoned the square cardboard box she had brought from home. With one flick of her wand the box Vanished to reveal a pannettone cake. The candles decorating the cake lit themselves as she cast a non-verbal spell.

Flickering light reflected on Severus’s startled face as Contessa smiled and said, “Happy birthday, Severus.”

Severus’s countenance did not crack into a smile. Instead his brow furrowed causing two deep vertical lines to appear between his eyebrows. He looked at her with heavily-lidded eyes. “How did you know?”

“Oh, I have my means,” Contessa replied breezily, hoping to turn the atmosphere into something cheerful. She looked past Severus and into his dimly lit quarters. “Are you going to invite me in?”

Severus appeared to pull himself out of a trance, and stepped aside, allowing her passage through the doorway.

Contessa levitated the cake onto the coffee table and turned again, standing to face him. She wriggled awkwardly as she met his intent gaze. “I thought you’d be pleased,” she ventured.

He shifted on his feet. “I am,” he said in a neutral, expressionless tone.

“You don’t seem to be,” Contessa said quietly.

Severus looked at the birthday cake again, lost in thought. Eventually he said, “It’s been a long time since…”

A heavy, compressing sensation struck Contessa in the chest as she finished Severus’s sentence in her head. A long time since anyone had remembered his birthday. Her thumbs found the back pockets of her jeans, and twisted against the rough fabric.

“Have you eaten?” she asked.

“Not yet.”

Contessa moved towards the small dining table shoved up against the stone wall of the living room and gestured for Severus to take a seat.

He looked back at the birthday cake glowing brightly on the coffee table. “What about the candles?” Severus said with a peculiar expression on his face.

“They’re bewitched; they’ll last for an hour or so. Come, sit down.”

Contessa summoned the Headmaster’s house-elf with a click of her fingers and Binky appeared at the side of the table with two servings of Lancashire hotpot and a bottle of red wine. Severus approached the table wide-eyed, running his fingers through his unkempt hair as he took his seat opposite her.

“I don’t know what to say,” he said, his voice somehow deep and hoarse in equal measure.

“Then say nothing. Eat,” Contessa said as she prodded the top layer of sliced potatoes with her fork. The hotpot issued a whirl of steam.

Severus served the wine and held up his glass in toast. Contessa mirrored the gesture and clinked hers against his. This time Severus returned a small smile.

Conversation was stilted at first, as they became accustomed to each other’s presence again. But by the time they had requisitioned extra portions of pickled red cabbage from the kitchens and poured their second glass of wine, it seemed as though no time had passed. Contessa was pleased to learn that the Sword of Gryffindor had been successfully bequeathed and sensed a weight had been lifted from Severus’s shoulders.

“I saw Alecto in the corridor before,” Contessa said. “She told me you’d been spending a lot of time in the dungeons.”

Severus nodded as he swirled his wine around his glass. “I’ve been busy preparing bases to give you a head-start on your Potions project. There’s a large cauldronful of precursors for Truth Potion, as I thought that a good place to begin. I’ve also made a base for Memory Potion.”

“Brilliant,” Contessa said as her breath caught in her throat. “That’s just what I’d been thinking, too.”

Animated discussion followed, as they shared their ideas for a potion which might repel the Imperius Curse. It seemed Severus had spent a great deal of time researching the topic and some common themes emerged as their plans for experimentation began to crystallise.

After they finished the main course, Severus blew out his birthday candles and served a portion of cake for himself and Contessa. Later, she Floo’d to her quarters to retrieve her research and together they spread the parchments across the coffee table, poring over the information and methodically constructing a plan for the project.

Several cups of coffee later, Contessa and Severus had assembled a list of potion ingredients which Severus would arrange to be purchased, plus around a dozen ideas for potions, and some suggestions for their respective antidotes. Contessa was pleasantly surprised how efficient their partnership had been; Severus seemed to relish the mental challenge and had submerged himself in their shared intellect and creativity.

When their efforts and insights began to wane, Contessa helped herself to another slice of cake and Severus followed suit.

“This is good cake,” he said as he relaxed into the cushions of the antique sofa across the table from Contessa. “The house-elves must have a new recipe.”

“Actually, no,” Contessa replied after a mouthful. “I picked it up from my mum’s bakery on my way back to Hogwarts.”

“Then your mother is to be commended.”

“Well, it was her recipe – she was born in Italy, you see. But it’s my uncle who runs the bakery now. Mum passed away ten years ago.”

Severus straightened in his seat. “My apologies; I didn’t know.”

Contessa could sense the cogs turning in his head as he put his plate down on the table.

“You didn’t inherit the bakery?” he asked, clearly curious.

“No, Mum left it to her brother. I was always destined for a magical career at the Ministry, so she passed the shop onto her Muggle relatives. Squirrel’s Leap was my dad’s, though. He left it to Mum in his Will and it was passed to me when she died.”

“I didn’t realise both of your parents were dead,” Severus said quietly.

“Dad died during my fourth year at Hogwarts. He was in the original Order of the Phoenix.”

“You have no brothers or sisters?”

“I have a brother. He’s a high-flyer and works for Gringotts overseas. I haven’t seen him for over a year.” Contessa lifted the silver chain from underneath her jumper and ran the Tiger’s Eye ring back and forth, along its length.

Severus smirked. “That tickles, you know.”

The ring around Severus’s neck caught Contessa’s eye as it sparkled against his chest. “Oh, I wondered about that over Christmas,” she remarked. “My ring tingles occasionally too; I thought it might be you.”

His lips parted as if to speak, but then Severus’s lips pursed. “I see you’ve taken to wearing your ring around your neck,” he observed.

Contessa felt her cheeks flush slightly. “Yes, well, I didn’t want you to drop into my mind at inopportune moments. Especially since I hear your thoughts in my own voice; it’s very disconcerting.”

“Occlumency should prevent that,” he said matter-of-factly.

“I’m sure. However, I didn’t think it wise to allow you access to my subconscious mind whilst I was asleep,” she replied dryly.

Severus made a show of flinching and he frowned. “You do not trust me?”

Contessa laughed. She chose not to answer.

“I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t,” Severus said lightly. “My idle brain has concocted several Imperius scenarios. And I confess my disappointment at missing the opportunity to place suggestive thoughts in your head whilst you were dining with the unbearable toffs in your family.”

“Excuse me,” Contessa said haughtily. “There are no ‘toffs’ in my family!”

Severus laughed once. “But they do know how to bake a decent cake.”

Contessa tutted loudly, but smiled at his candour. Her eyes drifted across the coffee table, littered with her parchments and Severus’s books. She gathered the documents together in a pile then returned to fiddling with the ring around her neck as she stifled a yawn.

“I’m sorry you’ve had to spend your birthday doing Potions research,” she said, feeling a bit guilty.

“On the contrary,” Severus replied, “I can think of fewer more enjoyable ways to spend an evening.”

Contessa noticed Severus’s eyes tracing her fingers as they rubbed against the silver band looped through her necklace. Severus placed the tip of his index finger inside the Tiger’s Eye ring around his own neck.

I’m glad you’re here.

Contessa felt certain the voice she heard in her head was not her own.

Tentatively, she offered, So am I.

The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 7]

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