The following day Contessa came home from her day’s work at the Ministry and Apparated into the garden of her cottage. It had been over a year since this particular courtesy had been required, and she knew that her peace and solitude was now broken.
The sound of her arrival sent a red squirrel running for cover into the apple orchard. Fawkes was swooping lazily through the air in the late afternoon sunshine, and he glided past her in welcome as she made her way towards the house.
The phoenix landed in her herb garden and started ripping leaves from the large and straggly rosemary bush. It was good fortune that the bird’s main food stuff was available so close to the cottage, as Fawkes was looking rather decrepit in the late evening sunshine. He seemed to have lost some tail feathers and was bald in quite a few places.
Inside the boundary of the Disillusionment Charm, the cottage looked the same as always. Contessa breathed in the scent of lavender and smiled as she watched the sleepy bees bumbling around the flowerbeds, but her cheerfulness was short-lived when she noticed all the curtains in her cottage were drawn.
Contessa’s stomach bubbled with acid at the thought of the man she knew to be waiting inside her home.
After performing the Tongue-Tying Curse, she had shown Professor Snape into the guest room, bade him a hasty goodnight, and hurried off to bed. A sleepless night had ensued, culminating in a rushed departure to work the following morning. She had left Snape a note inviting him to make himself at home and to help himself to food in the kitchen.
Now upon her return she knew she could no longer avoid a full conversation with the man Dumbledore had bound to her.
Shoulders hunched in resignation, she knocked and walked through the front door of the cottage and into the living area. The room was conspicuously gloomy with the curtains closed.
Sensing Snape was not in the immediate vicinity, she opened the curtains and surveyed the wreckage that was her living room. Books littered the floor, some open and strewn across the sofa. Candles were lit around the room.
Contessa smirked at the absurdity of it all. Why would anyone closet themselves up like this on a beautiful summer’s day? She knew the answer: a man who was accustomed to living in the dungeons.
Throwing the parcel from Madam Malkin’s onto the small dining table, she set about clearing up the mess and blowing out the candles. However, within moments, books were flying onto the shelves of their own accord without her intervention.
“Good evening, Miss Marchbanks.” Snape’s low voice took her by surprise, and she turned to see him standing at the doorway to the kitchen.
The wand in Snape’s hand was directing books from the floor to the bookcase. He was wearing the shirt and trousers of the previous evening; the white shirt had been repaired and the bloodstains removed, but it still looked a bit scruffy with its sleeves rolled at the cuffs.
“Good evening, Professor Snape,” she replied dryly.
Immediately she became aware that they had begun to play a game. By addressing each other formally, she had travelled back in time to her seventh-year NEWT Potions class with the new young Potions master.
Contessa was not going to be dominated by this man again, and certainly not in her own home. She met his gaze with a resilience that belied the uneasiness she felt inside. Silence hung in the air as they regarded each other, each searching for a crack to appear in the other's demeanour.
Snape spoke first. “It is inappropriate to use the title of Professor; I suspect I’m out of a job now,” he said sleekly.
Contessa nodded. “What am I to call you?”
Snape watched her for a moment, and Contessa prepared herself for the expected sarcastic reply.
“Severus,” he said smoothly.
Contessa's eyes widened as the barrier she had erected collapsed in front of her. An awkward silence stretched out again, and she shifted uncomfortably under his steely gaze.
Eventually she said, quietly but clearly, “My friends call me Tess.”
Severus seemed to consider this for a moment, until his lip curled.
“Contessa it is then,” Severus replied silkily. He turned back into the kitchen.
Despite not being the first to break, Contessa knew she had lost that particular power struggle.
With a sigh, she turned to Dumbledore's portrait, expecting to see him shaking his head in despair. However, the frame remained empty.
“He has been gone for most of the day,” came Severus's voice from behind her.
“Yes, he’s spent most of the day travelling between his portraits at the Ministry and Hogwarts,” Contessa replied automatically, turning to see Severus carrying two plates of food towards the dinner table.
“Oh...” she began. Contessa became aware her mouth was bobbing like a goldfish. She closed her mouth and looked up into Severus's face; he was clearly enjoying watching her stunned expression.
“You did say to help myself to food,” he said sardonically.
Her eyes flashed. “Yes, of course I did... I didn't expect you to... ”
“It was just as easy to cook for two as for one.” He cut her off with a hint of cool impatience.
“Of course,” Contessa replied calmly. “Thank you, Severus.”
She hurried to make space on the table and picked up the large brown paper parcel. “I got these for you from Madam Malkin’s,” she said. “A change of clothes.”
Severus nodded his thanks as she moved the parcel out of the way, and he placed the food on the table.
“I hope you like black?” she added wryly.
His eyebrows arched in reply, and his head jerked slightly as he sat down. Severus held out a knife and fork for her. Contessa took them from him graciously and sat down at the table.
Contessa ate in silence wondering how he could have produced such a sumptuous meal from the known contents of her cupboard.
“This is delicious,” she offered him.
“You sound surprised.”
“I didn't mean...”
“There is very little difference between the making of potions and the preparation of food,” he said dismissively.
She considered this before replying. “That may be so. However, your cooking is still excellent.”
He regarded her for a moment before nodding stiffly and resuming his meal.
“Tell me about the vow you took,” Severus said after a while.
Contessa swallowed her mouthful and sat, knife and fork in hand, contemplating her answer.
Severus looked up enquiringly.
“It was to provide a safe haven for a member of the Order of the Phoenix at their time of greatest need, ensuring they stayed alive and fulfilled their purpose. I vowed to trust in that person, despite their actions, and no matter how disloyal they might appear.” She paused for a moment as she weighed up the appropriateness of telling him everything.
“And? ” Severus asked.
She met his gaze unflinchingly.
“And accept the person completely without any conditions,” she finished.
Severus paused to consider this before smirking.
“A tall order,” he remarked. “Dumbledore has an interesting sense of humour.”
Contessa laughed quietly. “Indeed he has.” Her smile faded as recent events came into memory. “Or rather, he had.”
They finished their meal without further conversation. Severus got up to clear the table.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” said Contessa, getting up and finding the copy of the Daily Prophet in her robes.
She placed it at Severus's side of the table. A solemn picture of Dumbledore graced the front page.
“The funeral is in two days' time.” Contessa noticed a shadow appear across Severus’s eyes. He turned to leave.
“The Order is meeting the day after the funeral,” she said. “We will start to plan what happens at Privet Drive when Harry Potter turns seventeen and the protective charms lift.”
Suddenly, Severus dropped the plates back down on the table, and rolled his sleeve further up his left arm. Contessa recoiled at the sight of the Dark Mark burning black into his skin.
“The Dark Lord calls,” Severus bit out through the pain.
With one swift flourish of his wand he was dressed in the long and oppressive robes of a Death Eater.
Contessa struggled to hide her revulsion at his appearance. However, he appeared not to notice, and his face was inscrutable as he affixed his mask.
With an abrupt jerk of his wand, he Disapparated from the room.