Rusty hinges creaked as the apothecary’s front door opened and a short, balding man stepped outside, pushing his gold-rimmed glasses up onto the bridge of his nose.
“Good morning, Professor Snape.”
Severus shrugged away the snowflakes which had settled on his cloak whilst waiting for the shopkeepers of Hogsmeade to open for their brisk weekend trade. He had wanted to be in and out with the minimum of fuss so he could Apparate to Diagon Alley before the hordes of Saturday shoppers arrived.
He waited patiently as the proprietor cleared snow from the front steps of the potion supplies shop. “Good morning, Arbuthnot.”
Severus’s hasty departure from Hogwarts without breakfast was evinced by a gurgling rumble of his stomach as he entered the dark, airless establishment. The heady aroma of potion ingredients assailed his nostrils, welcoming him.
Arbuthnot shuffled across the floorboards and settled himself behind the till, peering through his owlish glasses at Severus.
“What can I do for you, Headmaster?”
Severus withdrew a roll of parchment from inside his robes and placed it on the high wooden shop counter. “This is to be delivered to Hogwarts today.”
Arbuthnot unrolled the list of potion supplies and straightened it out on the counter, perusing the parchment with an occasional nod or mumble. Eventually, he looked up at Severus through the top of his glasses.
“I’ve got most of these in stock, but I’m out of salamander blood, and I haven't much powdered Graphorn horn. Only a couple of pinches, I’m afraid. And it’s expensive.”
“I’ll take it all,” Severus said without hesitation. “Charge it to the Hogwarts account.”
“The salamander blood will be here next week. Do you want it when it arrives?”
“No. I’m going to Diagon Alley; I’ll get it there.”
With a curt nod, Severus swept out of the shop, and Disapparated on the outskirts of Hogsmeade.
Within the hour, Severus had purchased the missing item from his list at Slug and Jigger’s Apothecary on Diagon Alley. He had also procured another ingredient from an associate on Knockturn Alley, with minimal application of duress. It was advantageous when black market traders turned out to be ex-pupils; not only were they more co-operative, they could also be persuaded to discount generously.
When he arrived back at Hogwarts, Severus found the parcel from Hogsmeade waiting for him and he immediately set off for the dungeons, checking Filch had followed his instructions to clear out an old staff room.
In his heyday, Professor Slughorn had used a chamber in the dungeons to house small, informal get-togethers for his favourite students. Severus had never been invited to join the Slug Club, but Lily’s presence had been requested at Slughorn’s soirees on many occasions.
Following the Potions Master’s retirement, the room had fallen into disuse. Slughorn had used it again upon his return, but the Slug Club had not reformed after the summer holiday, and the old chamber lay empty once more.
Stripped bare of its contents, the pokey chamber now appeared much bigger. Severus stowed his parcel of supplies on the floor, out of harm’s way, and set about Transfiguring the furniture. An old sideboard became a new laboratory bench, complete with two small cauldrons, and he placed two brown leather armchairs and a footstool upon the hearth rug in front of the fire.
When all the necessary equipment was in position, the two large cauldronfuls of potion bases he’d made over Christmas were levitated into the new laboratory. After placing the wrapped box of ingredients on the new workbench, he left the room, locking the door behind him with the succession of protective enchantments he used on his own home at Spinner’s End.
Pacing down the corridor, Severus’s footsteps seemed to bounce on the stone flags, and his chest tightened as his breath caught in his throat. Severus found he had knocked on Contessa’s door and was waiting outside his old quarters before he even realised he‘d arrived. He swallowed a hard lump in his throat and rubbed his palms against his frockcoat.
Eventually, a tousled, sleepy-looking Contessa answered the door. Her hand moved the sleeve of her pyjamas further up her wrist, searching for a watch which wasn’t there.
“Severus – what are you…? What time is it?”
Severus noticed his mouth had turned dry and his tongue seemed to be glued in place. He cleared his throat before speaking. “Just after ten.”
Contessa nodded groggily, pushing her hair from her eyes and squinting slightly.
“Can I come in?” he asked when the offer was not forthcoming.
“Oh, yes. Of course,” Contessa said as she opened her door further and followed him into the living room.
Severus found himself biting his fingernails as he waited on the sofa. Contessa reappeared a few minutes later wearing jeans and a dark green sweater, pulling a brush through her long brown hair.
“Am I presentable?” she asked, as she tucked her fingers into her front pockets and twisted her waist slightly.
Severus’s lip twitched. He consciously suppressed the urge to smile, and rose to his feet, offering her his hand after he had thrown a handful of Floo Powder into the fire.
They stepped into the Floo Network together, and Severus guided their transportation to the new Potions laboratory. When they arrived Contessa let go of Severus’s hand, gasping with surprise.
She looked around the space, clearly recognising it as Slughorn’s old bolt-hole, and walked across the room to run her fingers along the surface of the workbench. Her head turned and she looked at Severus with wide eyes. A smile curled around her mouth and her eyes sparkled.
“Well, what do you think?” he asked her.
“It’s perfect,” she replied reverently, looking around the room once again as she walked back towards him.
This time, he forgot to conceal his smile and Contessa beamed in return. Her shoulders rounded suddenly and her lips parted, and Severus was struck by the unerring sense that she was about to reach out and hug him.
Instinctively his body tensed and he dipped his head to stare downwards at the floor, paying close attention to the threadbare rug at his feet, his fight-or-flight sense freezing him in place.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Contessa’s shoulders drop and her posture straighten, and he felt safe to look up again. She met his gaze fleetingly before looking quickly away, knowing she had been shunned.
Crestfallen that he had pushed her away with his lifetime’s habit of keeping people at arm’s length, Severus felt a sharp spear of disappointment arch through his abdomen, eventually sinking into the floor beneath his feet.
Contessa’s hands were stuffed into the front pockets of her jeans when she spoke again, a wobble evident in her voice. “I didn’t expect you to go to all this trouble.”
Severus shifted on his feet and clasped his hands behind his back. “It needed sorting before the start of term; I don’t expect to have much spare time when the students arrive back tomorrow. We need a discreet place to work from, so Horace won’t become suspicious.”
As he talked he was aware he was smoothing over the cracks, minimising what had just happened between them, and somewhere in the back of his mind he wondered if she’d ever offer again.
Contessa wandered over to the leaded windows set high in the dungeon walls. She stood on tip-toes and peered out at the thready, white light of the winter morning. “Who knows about this place?”
“Only you and I. Filch is aware I’ve appropriated the room, but doesn’t know what I’m using it for. My house-elf has been instructed to answer our summons from here.”
Contessa seemed to perk up. “We have room service?” she said with a small giggle. “Excellent!”
“The door to the laboratory will remain locked and we can access the room through the Floo. It’s connected to your quarters and to the Headmaster’s office and quarters, so we can come and go as we please.” Severus paused for a moment. “I’ve also taken the liberty of establishing a connection between your quarters and my own. It seemed… prudent.”
Contessa’s head rolled backwards as if hit by a Stunning Spell, and Severus suddenly felt very warm underneath his snug-fitting high collar. He moved away from the fireplace, but this did nothing to quell the woodpecker drilling holes in his windpipe.
“You’ve thought of everything,” Contessa said when she recovered herself. “It’s like our own Room of Requirement.”
The woodpecker in Severus’s throat ceased its endeavour and vanished as he took a long breath out.
“Open the parcel,” he said, gesturing to the box on the worktop.
Contessa frowned and laughed softly as she walked towards the workspace. “It isn’t my birthday for months.”
Severus approached the bench from the other side and pushed the box in her direction, before sitting down on a stool. His arms rested on the table as he watched her pick at the strings of the parcel.
She sat down on an adjacent stool and tore the brown paper from the bundle, gingerly removing the contents and placing them on the bench. A carton of brightly patterned Fwooper eggshells caused a gleeful intake of breath, but it was the tiny silver tin of caviar-like eggs which surprised her most.
“Merlin’s beard, Severus. Where did you get these?” Contessa lifted the circular tin to her nose and took a tentative sniff. “Aren’t Runespoor eggs black market?”
“I’ve been to Knockturn Alley this morning.”
“You really have been busy whilst I’ve been asleep,” she said, sounding impressed as she surveyed the selection of potions supplies. Suddenly her temple creased and her hand moved to rub her midriff. “Well, I can’t get started on an empty stomach,” she said lightly. “Will you join me for breakfast?”
Severus clicked his fingers and Binky appeared within moments. They enjoyed two full English breakfasts and a large, steaming pot of tea as they discussed which combination of ingredients would form their initial trial-run.
A couple of hours later the laboratory was ready for the first batch of experimental potion; Severus had raided the school stores for the remaining basic ingredients, and Contessa had retrieved their combined research and found a spare radio which she made room for on the mantelpiece above the fire.
It was dark outside by the time their first attempt with Truth Potion base neared completion. Contessa fiddled with the radio, trying to find a signal for the nightly broadcast of ‘Potterwatch’ whilst Severus stirred the potion, which had become increasingly thick and tar-like. Contessa gave up on the radio with a sigh and ambled over to the cauldron, taking a peek inside.
“Ah,” she said, wrinkling her nose at the black glue setting in the bottom of the cauldron. “Not a particularly auspicious start to the proceedings.”
“I seem to remember telling you we shouldn’t add Flobberworm mucus at the same time as the Jobberknoll feathers,” Severus responded dryly.
“You said no such thing!” Contessa replied with a hint of humour. She pulled out the ladle and watched the glutinous mess falling in sticky lumps back into the cauldron. “I don’t think we’ll bother testing it. Come and sit down – it’s time we had a break.”
Severus Vanished the day’s work with a flick of his wand and ordered two cups of coffee as Contessa resumed fiddling with the dial on the radio.
As Severus sat down, the radio burst into life and the familiar voice of a past Quidditch commentator crackled as the reception began to clear.
“I recognise that voice,” Severus said, sneering at the memory.
“I don’t know who it is, but his codename is River.”
Severus tutted loudly. “It’s Lee Jordan. Ex-Gryffindor commentator, he was a biased little sod. Not a very original codename, either.”
Contessa shushed Severus as she sat down opposite him, and he raised his eyebrows, knowing that the Order of the Phoenix’s broadcast was unlikely to tell him anything he didn’t already know.
Recent news of Dirk Cresswell going on the run seemed to upset Contessa, and she explained that the Head of the Goblin Liaison Office had been her fiancé’s boss, and had attempted to hide his Muggle-born status from the Dark Lord’s regime.
After a Muggle-focused report delivered in the deep, booming tones of Kingsley Shacklebolt, Contessa leapt slightly in her seat as the ‘Pals of Potter’ contributor was introduced to the airwaves.
Severus recognised the werewolf’s intonation immediately. Suddenly, the cup of coffee in his lap seemed much less appealing.
“It’s Remus!” Contessa whispered, her eyes shining.
“I know.” Severus mouthed the words, attempting to hide his reaction.
It didn’t seem to work, as Contessa cast him a reproachful look. “What’ve you got against him?” she said, shaking her head.
Severus took a long time to word his reply, pretending to listen to the news of Luna Lovegood’s extended kidnapping. Eventually Contessa nudged him with her foot and he peered back at her, wondering what she would want to hear; if he didn’t break this particular eggshell, the witch might indeed make a boat thereof.
“He and I didn’t like each other much at school. I always suspected he was a werewolf, not that it ever got me anywhere… Everyone else thought he was positively angelic.”
Contessa’s reply caught Severus unawares.
“You were in the same year at Hogwarts?”
He watched her, measuring her unexpected response carefully. “Yes. You didn’t know?”
“No,” she said, looking away from him. “I mean, I was a first year when Remus was made Prefect. I didn’t mix much with the older students, but I always remember Remus because lots of the Ravenclaw girls had a crush on him.”
Severus’s stomach clenched as he watched a reminiscent smile curve its way around Contessa’s mouth.
“I hadn’t realised you and I attended Hogwarts together for three years,” she said contemplatively.
“You don’t remember me?” Severus asked, trying to forestall the bitterness spreading in his gut.
“Not really. I mean, I’d heard of you, but I couldn’t place you, even when you became Potions Master,” Contessa recollected. “Anyway, do you remember me?”
“No,” he conceded, staring into his cup.
“You were very young to become Potions Master, then.”
Severus took another sip of his coffee. “Twenty-one.”
“You looked older than twenty-one when you started teaching.”
“Thanks,” he replied sarcastically.
They listened to the remainder of the feature in silence. When the programme had finished, Severus placed his empty cup on the floor.
“I’m sure you’re aware things will change when the students arrive back tomorrow – Miss Lovegood’s abduction is likely to act as a catalyst for Dumbledore’s Army.” Severus suddenly realised he didn’t want the day to end. He looked back at Contessa’s face and saw compassion and understanding in her eyes.
“What are you going to do?” she asked gently.
Severus hung his head apprehensively.
“I really don’t know.”