Thread of Hope
The following day, Contessa arrived home after a long day at the Ludicrous Patents Office. The Ministry of Magic had been a wonderfully cool underground escape from the heat of the summer. Now, Contessa relished the glow of the late evening sun warming her skin, as she made her way across the garden.
The rosemary bush was now a twiggy stump in the earth and, by the looks of it, Fawkes had started on her thyme plant. Contessa wondered how long the phoenix would be staying; she realised she was enjoying having the bird around.
The only sign that Severus had returned from his meeting with Voldemort were the drawn curtains in the window. She entered the living room to find the space neat and tidy. Fawkes was dozing, head under his wing, in the cool shade. He clucked softly, welcoming her home. Contessa noticed the phoenix had a couple more bald patches and was starting to resemble a half-plucked turkey.
At the top of the stairs, she knocked on the guest room door.
“Severus?” she asked gently. “Are you there?”
There was a moment’s pause and the door opened slowly.
“I am,” Severus said softly, squinting in the light of the hallway.
“Good,” said Contessa. “I’ve brought dinner. Have you eaten?”
“Not yet,” he answered quietly.
Severus seemed to deliberate before replying.
“Fifteen minutes it is.” He nodded curtly and closed the door again.
On her way downstairs, Contessa noticed that Dumbledore’s portrait was empty. She wondered if he preferred to make himself scarce at meal times, and she secretly wished he would spend more time at the cottage. It might make the awkward conversation with Severus a little easier to bear if Dumbledore was around.
A quarter of an hour later, Contessa and Severus sat down for dinner without speaking. Contessa found the silence unnerving. How were they to survive the next few weeks together like this? Dumbledore had intimated they were to help each other, but how?
She willed herself to open the conversation and asked, “How did your meeting go with He Who Must Not Be Named?”
Severus met her gaze before answering lazily, “Well enough.”
Contessa nodded and realised there was nothing else forthcoming. “What did he want?”
Severus chewed his mouthful of food slowly and looked her in the eye. “A report on my activities.”
Contessa returned his stare steadily. “An update?”
“Yes.” Severus took another bite of food.
She waited and then asked, “What did you tell him?”
“That I’ve placed you under the Imperius Curse and you’re now acting as an informant.”
“The Imperius Curse? I hadn’t noticed.” She smiled ruefully.
Eyes like wells of black ink seemed to contemplate her and Contessa wondered if the man in front of her had any trace of a sense of humour. Severus returned his focus to the meal in front of him.
“He Who Must Not Be Named believes me susceptible to the Imperius Curse?” she asked, attempting to hide the indignation in her voice.
Severus didn’t look up. “The fact that you are a former student of mine would suggest that I have a certain advantage.”
Contessa felt her eyebrows rising in provocation and she was tempted to disagree. “Really?” she asked with a trace of sarcasm.
“I cannot speak for the Dark Lord. However, I presume he believes I have an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, and know how to manipulate you.”
Contessa bit back a retort. “I see,” she replied. “Thank you, Severus. I feel much more at ease about having you in my home.”
Severus raised his head and made eye contact again. Contessa regretted her sarcasm instantly.
“You have my gratitude, Contessa.” The calm sincerity in his voice was unmistakeable.
Contessa realised her eyes had widened in response and she winced slightly. An apologetic smile played out on her lips.
“Actually, it makes a nice change to have some company,” she answered truthfully.
Silence lingered again for a short while. Contessa watched the pale angular features of her once formidable opponent; she had never noticed the sadness in his face until now.
“My condolences about your fiancé,” Severus said quietly.
Contessa felt a flurry of butterflies and a familiar dull ache in her abdomen.
“Thank you,” she replied as her eyes dropped to the table. Putting her knife and fork down, she reached out for her wine glass. Taking a sip, she considered her response.
“Alex went missing fifteen months ago. He was on a mission for Dumbledore, seeking help amongst the goblins.”
Severus’s brow furrowed.
“He worked in the Goblin Liaison Office,” she explained.
Severus nodded in understanding.
“I think he underestimated the danger he was in; he went alone and unarmed, so as not to prejudice the talks. Wandless, he couldn’t defend himself. The evidence suggests he ran into a Death Eater. A few weeks after his disappearance we were forced to concede that we had lost him.” She paused. “It’s been so long now... I accept he must be dead.” She looked down at the engagement ring on her finger and played with it absentmindedly.
Severus waited for a moment before responding. “You are right,” he said gently. “He is dead.”
His voice was compassionate, kinder than she had ever heard it. As she looked into his eyes she felt a fleeting connection between them. The contact was lost as she was engulfed in the reality contained in his words.
“You have news? Confirmation?”
“Yes,” replied Severus.
“Tell me, please.”
“He was murdered by Dolohov,” Severus answered. “He proved resistant to the Cruciatus Curse. Dolohov killed him by accident rather than design; the Dark Lord was not pleased,” he added, unthinking. “I’m sorry,” he finished quietly.
Tears leaked down Contessa’s face as she rose abruptly from the table.
“Thank you, Severus.”
He nodded once.
“More wine, I think.” She left the room.
Alone in the kitchen, the news swept through her like a whirlwind. Propping herself up against the work surface, she took some time to let the information register. Although Alex’s death had been declared by the Ministry, a body had never been found. A memorial service had been held and the whole family had grieved, but Contessa must have still been holding on to a thread of hope. She still wore his ring.
Severus had confirmed the worst case scenario. Maybe now, at least, she could start to move on.
She took some time to regain her composure.
When calmness arrived she felt a wave of enormous gratitude towards the bearer of bad news. She doubted Severus would understand how much he had helped her.
Contessa picked up the bottle of wine and walked back into the living room. Severus had almost finished eating. She poured out two more glasses of wine before sitting down again.
Severus was quiet and subdued, but somehow the silence seemed less awkward.
“I’m not working tomorrow,” she said after she swallowed her last mouthful. “The Ministry has given me the day off to attend Dumbledore’s funeral.”
Severus nodded once, his eyes were downcast and his lips pursed.
“It’s being held at Hogwarts tomorrow afternoon,” she continued.
Severus arose from the table suddenly, picking up his plate and reaching out for hers.
“Oh,” said Contessa, “I’m so sorry…I wasn’t thinking.”
Severus left the room and she heard the clinking of crockery in the kitchen. He was clearing up, in order to avoid talking to her. How could she not have realised?
Contessa approached the kitchen door and spoke to his back. “Perhaps you could accompany me, under a Disillusionment Charm?” she offered uncertainly.
“Hogwarts will have security in place, it would be unwise to enter into the company of Ministry officials,” he said, bringing an end to the discussion.
Contessa helped to clean up the kitchen at Severus’s side. There must be a way for her to help him grieve. The funeral would be hard for him, undoubtedly, but nevertheless an opportunity for Severus to say goodbye. She searched her brain for a solution to the conundrum.
Lost in her thoughts, she jumped when Severus wished her goodnight and made his way back to his room. Contessa fiddled with her engagement ring as she watched him climb the stairs. A wave of inspiration hit her.
“Severus, wait!” she called, walking towards the bottom of the stairway.
Severus stopped midway up the stairs, looking down at her patiently.
“I have an idea,” she offered.
“There is a pair of rings in my family, I think Uncle Hector has them.”
“They are linked by a Protean Charm. When placed on the finger, Colligomens can be cast,” Contessa explained.
Severus showed the first signs of interest. “A complex bit of magic.”
“Yes, but I’ve done it once before; I’m sure I can do it again.”
Severus seemed impressed. “It could work, I suppose. Protean Charms are effective within the grounds of Hogwarts.”
“I agree.” Contessa felt a flush of excitement. “I shall speak to Hector tonight.”
Severus inclined his head in acceptance and ascended the stairs, closing the door to the guest room quietly behind him.
Contessa hastened to the fireplace. With a sprinkle of Floo Powder and a flick of her wand, she placed her head into the warm green flames.
Above the fireplace, Dumbledore reappeared in his frame, smiling.