Fly in the Ointment
During the course of the following week, Severus began to feel the benefits of the relationship that Dumbledore had thrust upon him. Contessa engineered Severus’s meeting with Mundungus Fletcher and accompanied him to the remote tavern, where he had met the smelly sneak-thief and cast the Confundus Charm.
Likewise, the information Severus provided from his Death Eater meetings was being utilised to good effect, with Contessa being able to warn the Order of the Phoenix that Pius Thicknesse was now under the Imperius Curse.
So far, Contessa had found a good balance between feeding intelligence to the Order and not becoming overly involved in the planning of Harry Potter’s removal from Little Whinging. As such, Severus’s accommodation at Squirrel’s Leap had been a safe haven, providing him with a comforting refuge whilst the Ministry of Magic continued to search for his whereabouts.
The symbiotic relationship with Contessa also helped Severus feel useful to the Order, without any of its members actually knowing of his involvement. Each small contribution towards keeping Lily’s son safe was good for his conscience, assuaging some of the guilt he felt about Charity Burbage’s death.
The only thing not going well was his attempt to help Contessa, to repay her for her assistance with Dumbledore’s funeral. He was going to have to speak to Dolohov himself at this rate, but he had yet to think of a suitable pretext for the conversation.
As the 27th July fast approached, Contessa spent more and more time away from Squirrel’s Leap, working hard at the Ministry to gather enough intelligence before leaving the Ludicrous Patents Office. She was also attending regular Order meetings along with the other Ministry insiders.
Severus, on the other hand, was at the beck and call of the Dark Lord. He was feeding the Dark Lord a regular supply of information, without revealing too much detail. The fact that Contessa was not personally involved in the plans to relocate Potter had been advantageous; it was easier for Severus to withhold information when he was simply not party to it.
However, that all changed the day before Potter was to be moved from Privet Drive.
Contessa arrived home late from the final Order meeting prior to the move. Severus heard the wind chime sound, but it took a long time for Contessa to come in through the front door.
He looked out through the window and saw Contessa pacing nervously around the garden, muttering to herself and stopping occasionally to stare into open space. Severus thought better of going out to her and waited calmly by the front door.
Eventually, the handle turned and Contessa walked through the doorway with an apprehensive smile curling her lips. When her eyes met his she seemed to change her mind, but then her smile grew more convincing.
“Severus, I’m so glad you’re here,” she said, an attempt at playfulness in her voice.
Severus shot her a quizzical look but she walked towards him, undeterred.
Contessa moved in closer and placed her hand suggestively on his chest. Severus felt its steady progress towards his collarbone. Wondering what had come over her, he started to speak, but Contessa held her thumb to his lips and rubbed past them gently. Her eyes beseeched him to stay silent.
“I have news,” she said, as she teasingly removed her thumb and swept past him into the living room.
Severus watched her remove her cloak and sling it over the back of the armchair. He had no idea what she was trying to accomplish, nevertheless he felt compelled to play along.
“The Order will move as planned tomorrow at nightfall. Harry Potter will be escorted by six members of the Order, including Moody and Tonks, by broomstick.” Contessa seemed to falter before saying sadly, “I still don’t know the location of the safe house, however.”
She moved towards Severus and reached out for his arm, running her fingers down it until she found his hand and slipped it gently into hers.
“Let me make it up to you,” she said coyly, gently pulling at his arm, urging him to follow.
Severus was completely bewildered as he followed her towards the stairway. His curiosity was piqued as he climbed the stairs.
“Contessa?” he asked uncertainly.
At this, Contessa seemed to come to her senses and she stopped suddenly on the stairs, causing him to bump into her. Severus took a couple of steps back and she let go of his hand, dropping to a sitting position halfway up the stairs.
Severus stood watching her holding her head in her hands and not daring to speak.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I’m so sorry,” she said hopelessly.
“Sorry for what?” he asked with growing impatience.
Contessa looked him in the eye before saying resignedly, “You’re going to need that memory.”
She arose from her sitting position and pushed past him on her way back down the stairs. Sinking into the armchair opposite Dumbledore’s portrait, she looked tired and upset, and possibly a little guilty.
Severus walked back into the room feeling utterly perplexed. He stood next to the portrait waiting for Contessa to speak.
“Would you care to explain?” Severus said testily into the silence.
Contessa raised her head dolefully. “I’m afraid I got a bit over excited at the Order meeting,” she began timidly. “Five people volunteered for the decoy Potters. I came up with an idea…A brilliant idea.” She flinched. “I suggested we needed another volunteer to make the total number seven, which would be much more magically significant…” Her voice trailed off.
Severus was impressed with her reasoning, but he could not see the fly in the ointment. He raised his eyebrows.
Contessa swallowed. “In the end, Mundungus was persuaded to be the sixth decoy. But then Remus suggested we needed another safe house.” Contessa looked at Dumbledore’s portrait imploringly, before meeting Severus’s eyes. “Remus asked me to offer Squirrel’s Leap to the Order for tomorrow night!”
Severus’s stomach swooped as the implications of Contessa’s slip up hit him surprisingly hard.
“What was your answer?” Severus asked urgently.
“Yes, of course. How could I refuse? From the Order’s point of view, there is no reason why I should say no!” Contessa’s head hung in defeat.
Severus ignored the sickening sensation rising in his abdomen and immediately started to plan his next move. He had not anticipated the need for another place to hide from the Ministry.
“Remus is coming here tomorrow morning to help me set up the necessary protective charms.” She looked up at Severus again, searching his eyes in hope of clemency. “I am so sorry,” she said quietly.
Severus felt a sweeping sensation of loss, suddenly realising how much he had become accustomed to the certainty of his safe lodgings. His preference for self-sufficiency meant he was not usually dependent upon another person’s reliability or loyalty, but that didn’t stop him from feeling a brief sting of injury at Contessa’s hands.
He was about to respond when Dumbledore cut in.
“What’s done is done, Tess, there’s no use crying over spilt milk. We’ll simply have to work around it,” Dumbledore said calmly. “Severus will make himself scarce after sunrise, and not return until the protective charms are lifted. It’s not the end of the world.”
Contessa looked at the portrait and nodded in acceptance, but she did not appear to feel exonerated by this exchange.
“Severus, I…” she began.
He cut her off with a wave of his hand. “Your apologies are not necessary, Contessa.”
“Save it,” Severus said dangerously as he swept towards the stairs.
From behind he heard Contessa speak quietly but clearly.
“I’m sorry I let you down.”
Severus paused briefly at the bottom of the stairs.
Her earnest apology had not been requested or needed. Yet, on a new-found level, he accepted her remorse as genuine. This unfamiliar intrusion soothed away the ache of the newly inflicted wound.
Severus felt an ephemeral sense of contact, an awareness that another person was there for him.
Turning back to Contessa, he searched her features for corroboration. With unexpected surprise, he found what he was looking for.
Severus lowered his head in acknowledgement and quietly ascended the stairs.