Storm Clouds Gather
The sound of Horace Slughorn’s voice made Contessa jump in her seat. So engrossed had she been in her thoughts, she hadn’t heard the door to the Potions office open or the professor’s footsteps as he crossed the room.
Red ink from her quill had dropped in blotches upon the parchment she was marking and the nib had dried completely. She felt her cheeks burning as she hurriedly withdrew her wand and Tergeo’d the spilt ink from the first-year’s homework.
“Horace, good morning,” she said, clearing a frog from her throat. “Sorry, I was miles away.”
“My apologies for interrupting,” he replied genially. “You seemed in a wonderful daydream.”
Contessa smiled bashfully. She had been rather preoccupied with thoughts of Severus over the last few days, fascinated by how much he had loosened up in her presence and other subtler changes in his demeanour.
It seemed as though she’d swum into Severus’s shore and was walking along the beach, feeling the warm sand beneath her toes for the first time. She felt privileged that she’d been shown things which no one else had seen.
However, Contessa still had a sense of the unspoken; there was much she didn’t yet know. And she was also aware of other walls standing in her way, preventing her from moving further inland.
But she knew Severus trusted her and felt comfortable with her. It was true he’d made some dubious choices in his life, and had done some terrible things, but as he revealed more of his true nature, Contessa found it easier to understand him and keep her unconditional vow.
And, as her amorous feelings for Severus continued to disperse, she was relieved her confusion had finally passed.
“I need to talk to you about Potions detentions,” Horace said earnestly, taking a seat on the stool beside her. He ran his palms over his bald head.
“I was wondering how much longer the status quo could continue,” she replied.
“Not much longer,” Horace said regretfully. “There aren’t too many problems with my Slytherins – most of them are keeping their heads down – but the other Houses are in something of a quandary. Ever since the teachers started carrying out extra night-time rounds, they’ve struggled to provide enough detention time. Minerva’s been hit worst, what with all those Gryffindors in the DA. It’s bad enough that the Carrows are breathing down our necks, telling us our punishments are ineffective. I fear storm clouds are gathering all around us.”
“What can I do to help?”
“Well,” Horace said, licking his lips in anticipation, “I was going to suggest you hand the Potions marking back to me. It’ll give you a bit of time to yourself during the day, and then in the evenings you can supervise detentions en masse for the less serious offenders. That way the professors can concentrate on teaching and holding detentions for the main culprits.”
“So, I’d have a mixed bag of Houses and years each evening.”
Horace grimaced slightly. “I know it’s a lot to ask of you, Tess.”
“No, it’s OK. I’ll have to talk to Filch about it; I can probably glean some ideas from him. What about the Headmaster?”
“I’ll run it past him first,” Horace said. “I don’t want to get you into trouble again.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me; Snape’s perfectly capable of finding his own excuses.” Contessa’s rehearsed reply reminded her of her commitment to see Severus twice a week. “I’ll have to finish by eight o’clock a couple of nights a week, but I could make myself available at weekends.”
“Thanks, Tess. It’s always good to have a few options.”
“When do I start?”
“If I can gain the Headmaster’s approval, could you start tonight?” Horace’s smile held a silent plea.
Contessa looked at him quizzically. “Has something happened today?”
“Something happens every day. But today the balance tipped. I don’t know how much longer we can hold back the tide.”
“Sorry I’m late,” Contessa said as she stepped through the Floo Network into Severus’s quarters one day later. It was Friday night and she was half an hour behind schedule. “I had some problems controlling a bunch of fifth year girls – practically had to stop them clawing each other’s eyes out in detention.”
“Gryffindors or Slytherins?” Severus asked.
“Both,” Contessa groaned. “The Slytherins are being provoked to the point of retaliation, and when they snap all hell lets loose. I don’t think pooling detentions is going to work – tension is high and tempers are frayed – it’s too much for one person to handle alone.”
Contessa sat down and watched Severus rub his forehead irritably.
“I don’t have any other options… or, at least, not one that I’m willing to give serious consideration. The Carrows have been very vocal in their suggestions, none of which I care to entertain.”
“You’ll have to make a decision soon; otherwise your leadership will appear weak. You don’t want the Carrows to usurp you.”
“I know.” Severus sighed. “I wish Potter would get a move on. I fear all that sleeping outdoors has addled his puny brain.”
“Have you had any news from them?”
“Nothing since the close scrape at Xenophilius Lovegood’s home. Phineas says they’re still camping, he’s heard them talking about Beedle the Bard, of all things.” Severus rolled his eyes.
Contessa understood why Severus maligned Harry Potter, but that didn’t mean she felt the need to participate.
A squeaking pop heralded the arrival of Binky the house-elf.
Smiling exuberantly, he presented them with a large bowl of strawberries and a chilled bottle of champagne. From behind his back the elf withdrew a heart-shaped box of chocolates which he placed down upon the coffee table in front of Contessa.
Her eyes whipped up to meet Severus’s. “What’s all this?” she asked him worriedly.
Severus, uncharacteristically, appeared flustered. “I was just about to ask the same question…”
Binky shrank a little under the Headmaster’s black stare. “Binky thought Master and Mistress would enjoy an early Valentine’s celebration… seeing as their regular evenings won’t overlap.”
Contessa fought back a chuckle and watched a symphony of emotions flicker across Severus’s countenance. He quickly settled on embarrassment.
“Good thinking, Binky,” Contessa said kindly, trying to ease the tension. “After all, we do have a charade to maintain.”
Binky appeared relieved. “Thank you, Miss.”
The elf popped the cork on the bottle of champagne, bowed, and disappeared abruptly, leaving Severus gawking at the ridiculous spread of food and drink.
“I’d forgotten it's Saint Valentine’s Day tomorrow,” Contessa said conversationally, picking up the bottle and pouring bubbling champagne into two crystal flutes. She held one out for Severus and tapped her glass against his, listening appreciatively to the resonant tone of crystal.
Severus remained silent, seeming more occupied by the crackling fire in the hearth than the luxurious treats laid out before him. So excessive was his attention that Contessa didn’t speak again. She wondered how Severus felt about Valentine’s Day, given his unrequited love for Lily Evans. She supposed it was another notable date he would much sooner forget.
A loud gong bounced them both from their respective reveries. Contessa’s heart lurched, realising the Doorbell Charm signalled the imminent arrival of the Carrows.
For one brief, frightened moment Contessa noticed it was Severus who had frozen this time.
She stood up quickly and held out her hand. Startled, Severus took it, and Contessa dragged him to his feet. They didn’t have much time, and he seemed shaken and unprepared. She had to push him towards the fireplace to spur him into action.
“Come on, Severus, we’ve planned for this,” she urged him. He continued to look bewildered. “On the floor!” she commanded, panic starting to edge her voice.
Severus nodded jerkily and dropped to the floor, lying down on the hearth rug and starting to unbutton his shirt. Contessa picked up the champagne glasses and strawberries to place them on the floor next to Severus. Finally, kneeling down beside him, she Transfigured her jumper into a silk blouse.
She noticed the black fronds of Severus’s hair splayed out on the floor and Accio’d a cushion from the sofa, tucking it gently under his head. Contessa could hear the sound of the Carrows’ footsteps on the stairway.
“Are you ready?” she asked anxiously.
He nodded, jaw taut and gaze fixed on the ceiling.
Carefully, Contessa straddled his waist and selected a large strawberry from the bowl near Severus’s head. His expression was completely unreadable and it did nothing to quell her nerves.
A couple of months ago she might have relished this opportunity but, now their relationship had transcended, the situation felt entirely incongruous. And perhaps even slightly disrespectful.
It pained her to notice Severus’s mask-like face concealing his discomfort and could only imagine how difficult intimacy with another woman must be for him.
Contessa wilfully forced the last vestiges of romance and attraction aside, hoping to avoid experiencing a repeated sting of rejection. Her awkwardness was heightened by the thought of the Carrows bursting through the door at any moment, and Contessa closed her eyes briefly to calm her unease. What she was about to do would require copious amounts of self-control and she mentally chanted a mantra to focus her thoughts.
She opened her eyes again and looked down at the pale skin of Severus’s torso. His relatively hairless chest rose and fell in staccato bursts and she noticed his lips pressed tightly together. Bemused, Contessa placed her hands on the warm skin of his chest and he recoiled momentarily. Clearly, this was going to be harder for him than she’d thought.
Resolving to minimise his distress, Contessa leaned forwards, brushing past his chest and steadying herself with one hand on the floor. In her other hand she held the strawberry, suspended above Severus’s mouth.
His breath was warm on her neck as her hair fell forwards, screening her from the doorway.
A brusque knock made them both jump.
Severus’s ebony gaze met hers in wordless enquiry.
Contessa nodded immediately.
Across the room, Severus called, “Come in.”