Out in the Cold
Contessa rose to her feet unsteadily, Severus’s request for her to leave still ringing in her ears. Queasiness wrapped around her abdomen, compressing her until she felt dizzy with vertigo. The worries and fears she’d carried around all day long were bursting out, growing dozens of heads, and each one bayed for her blood.
Dread clawed at her chest as she looked at Severus. He stood before her with crossed arms and unblinking eyes, as cold, guarded and untouchable as the Potions Master she had known as a seventeen-year-old girl.
His rejection of her burned like a bullwhip stinging into her skin. His posture indicated contempt, clearly expecting she would obey his order to leave.
But Contessa was ground to the spot, partly paralysed and partly unwilling to accept the loss and walk away. Her eyes beseeched him, only to be met by a snarling face as he extracted his wand. She heard the clunk of the latch and the creak of hinges as the front door to his quarters opened at his behest.
His expression inscrutable, Severus pocketed his wand. When Contessa didn’t make for the exit he turned his back on her, striding towards his bedchamber. The door banged in its frame as he closed it behind him.
Dismay descended her body in a bilious trickle. She stood statue-like, hoping he would return to the room, wanting him to be ready to meet her, to open up to her, to trust her.
As the seconds slipped away it became apparent that Severus’s door was not going to open and he would not reappear.
Reluctantly she walked away, leaving the door open behind her as she descended the stairs to the Headmaster’s office.
Tears began to roll in earnest down her cheeks and she gripped the banister rail at the bottom of the stairs to steady herself.
For a long minute she looked up at Severus’s open door, hoping he might still come back.
Her heart thumped like a bass drum when she heard his footsteps and saw the cuff of his sleeve as he grasped the door handle, only to watch the door being pushed closed. The bookshelves rolled back into place concealing the portal to the Headmaster’s chambers.
Her final ray of hope flickered out. Contessa’s heart sank so low she thought it might expel itself entirely.
She didn’t understand Severus’s behaviour – what had motivated him to cast her out into the cold, or what had made him doubt her sincerity. Contessa could speculate and theorise but ultimately she knew he was a complicated man and her assumptions were mere postulation.
As she rubbed her forehead with frustration and dried the tears from her cheeks, her body felt as though she had been flung from a high-speed train. She looked around the room to find her bearings.
Every single portrait in the Headmaster’s office was either staring at her, or in the hasty process of looking away. A flush of embarrassment burned her cheeks; she had forgotten she was on show.
Hurriedly, she ran her fingers through her hair, cleared her throat and walked across the office towards the fireplace, hopeful for a quick escape.
Dumbledore’s voice drifted gently toward her, stopping her in her tracks. She turned to face him, feeling an ache of uncertainty and shame. She knew she had failed.
“Tess, what happened?”
“He...” Her voice croaked in her throat and she cleared it again. “He sent me away, told me to leave.”
Dumbledore’s eyebrows lifted high above his half-moon spectacles. “Why?” he asked.
Contessa paused as she considered how to answer the question. She settled on the truth. “I don’t honestly know. He was ranting about my vow, saying I wasn’t genuine, implying I’d deceived him.”
She saw Dumbledore’s lips purse as he absorbed the situation.
Magda McDougall broke the silence. “Ungrateful dunderhead,” she muttered from the other side of the office.
Phineas Nigellus Black tutted disdainfully.
Dumbledore waved his hand to quieten the crowd. “What exactly did Severus say?”
“He said my unconditional acceptance was fabrication. He implied I wouldn’t willingly accept him. I was only doing it because I had to, because of my vow.”
Dumbledore’s bright blue eyes bulged slightly and he swallowed, clearly perturbed by what had transpired.
Tess walked over to stand directly in front of his portrait. “Albus, what should I do?”
“Do nothing,” he answered calmly. “He’ll come around.”
“I’m really not sure –”
“Leave it for now, Tess. Give him some time.”
“It’s for the best,” the portrait said benignly.
“OK,” she acceded.
Hesitantly, she returned forlorn to the Floo.
Hogwarts soon became a changed place under the Carrows’ regime. The Death Eaters quickly sank their claws into the ringleaders of Dumbledore’s Army and Contessa had seen Neville Longbottom sporting a black eye the last time she had passed him in the corridor. All kinds of horror stories had reached her ears and some of them chilled her to the bone.
Not that any of that news had found its way to the Headmaster, or at least not via his only spy in the castle.
For two weeks Contessa had arrived at the Headmaster’s office by Floo (having found the connection to Severus’s quarters terminated) and for two weeks he had not replied to her knocking on his door. When she tried the handle, she found it locked.
After periods of intense vacillation, Contessa had on each occasion left her Potions requisition on the Headmaster’s desk.
The following morning she would find the signed parchment had been shoved silently underneath the door to her quarters. Once or twice she ran her fingers across the small, spidery ‘Severus Snape’ as if it might somehow reconnect them.
But no such connection seemed possible. Whenever she saw him in the Great Hall at mealtimes, or passed him fleetingly in the corridor, he treated her with cold indifference.
And so Contessa had spoken to Dumbledore’s portrait again after her sixth attempt at meeting with Severus on their allocated evenings.
Dumbledore conceded that Severus was not ‘coming around’ as he’d hoped and he would have to intervene. Now was not the time for the Headmaster to be cut off from the developments in the school; he had a mole whom he was refusing to utilise and this oversight might ultimately place everyone in jeopardy.
A note stuffed under Contessa’s door the next morning, written in Severus’s hand, requested her attendance in the Headmaster’s office at nine o’clock that evening.
When she stepped out of the fireplace into the circular office and dusted off her formal robes, she caught a glimpse of Severus seated behind his desk, his quill scratching fervently at the parchment beneath.
He didn’t look up, but said flatly, “Dumbledore requested a meeting with us both.” He rose to his feet and turned his back on her to face the portrait.
Dumbledore smiled at Contessa in greeting and she shuffled across the office to stand next to Severus.
“Good evening, Albus,” she said placidly. She turned briefly. “Severus.”
He glared then stepped in front of her, before walking past and standing behind her, out of her range of vision. She bristled, but held her composure. Even after three weeks she didn’t have an explanation for his behaviour.
“Thank you both for attending,” Dumbledore said cordially, apparently unaware of the tension in the room. It reminded Contessa of the many times he’d intervened during quarrels at Squirrel’s Leap, and she was sad to notice how far her relationship with Severus had receded.
“Tess, it appears that the vow you made at my request now only serves to hinder you in your mission,” Dumbledore began.
Behind her back, Severus scoffed.
“Therefore,” Dumbledore continued, undaunted, “I have come to a decision.”
Contessa could feel her ears pricking and her nerves standing on end with the realisation that something significant was about to happen.
“With immediate effect, I am releasing you from your vow,” Dumbledore said magnanimously.
Contessa’s breath caught in her throat and her heart skipped a beat. She was aware of stony silence from the man standing at her back.
“Albus, I –” she protested.
“It’s for the best,” Dumbledore interrupted. “You should return to your quarters now. Severus and I have something to discuss.”
Contessa turned to see Severus unfolding his arms in disbelief, his mouth agape. He met her eyes for a fraction of a second before glowering once again at the portrait of Albus Dumbledore.
Sensing it was time to make a swift retreat, Contessa advanced without delay to the fireplace and stepped headlong into the Floo.