Through the Barricades
Severus lingered in the darkness outside Malfoy Manor, somewhat relieved that he had not been blamed for the failure of the mission to capture Potter.
He had left the Dark Lord’s side before Ollivander’s interrogation had begun, but could hear the wandmaker’s screams from the driveway. Severus knew there was nothing he could do for the man.
Now he was away from the Dark Lord’s presence, the events of the chase flooded his senses. Severus was consumed by the thought that he may have killed one of the Order of the Phoenix.
The Order had paid heavily that evening, with the loss of Alastor Moody, and Severus hoped that he had not inadvertently added to the death count. The Order would need every one of its members in the coming weeks. Severus was no longer able to protect Potter; now the Order would have to keep the boy safe.
The last thing Severus had seen was Lupin speeding away with a wounded decoy flopping precariously on the broomstick. Severus didn’t know whom he had wounded with his Sectumsempra Curse, or what had become of them.
Nor did Severus know if Potter had escaped unscathed, but at least he knew that Lily’s son was still alive.
The dismal inevitability of Severus’s actions gnawed at him. He still felt guilty and responsible, regardless of his intentions. It was the depressingly familiar dichotomy of his status as double agent.
Now the price on his head could be even higher, if another member of the Order of the Phoenix had been killed by his hand.
Severus Apparated outside Squirrel’s Leap, his heart pumping with anticipation. His arrival set off a veritable firecracker of alarms and he caught a glimpse of Contessa hurrying out of the cottage by wandlight. She approached him with caution, her wand aimed directly at his chest.
He felt his insides flip in confusion as he walked towards the gate. However, he found himself rebounded by an invisible wall, the force of which pushed him backwards. Severus remained standing, just.
As he approached the enchanted barrier slowly, Severus held up his hand, cautiously testing for the extent of the shield.
“Contessa!” he called urgently.
The aim of her wand did not stray from his torso. Standing a matter of feet away, her eyes assessed him suspiciously.
“Don’t move,” she growled.
Severus froze with his hand held out towards her; he realised instantly that something had changed. Severus’s concern for the decoy grew in intensity, causing a sickening sensation in the pit of his stomach. He felt disorientated as he watched his ally looking at him with barely concealed hatred.
“What’s going on?” he asked, trying to sound commanding, without truly feeling in control.
Contessa scoffed. “You don’t know?”
Severus felt thoroughly perplexed as he wondered what had happened to cause Contessa to doubt him. Had she not vowed to trust him, no matter how disloyal he might appear?
He fought back his chagrin; his need for information was overwhelming.
“Did Lupin and his decoy make it back safely? Have you had confirmation?” Severus asked, desperation seeping into his voice.
Contessa’s eyebrows rose in response, but she did not reply.
“Please tell me!” Severus felt his anger rising. “I accidentally wounded his decoy, trying to save Lupin from Macnair’s Killing Curse. My mask slipped and I couldn’t ensure their safe escape. I almost blew my cover.”
Severus held both hands up now, pressing them into the barricades, forcefully. His arms shook as the enchantments repelled him, but he didn’t care. He needed to know the answer.
“Tell me they’re alright!” he shouted at her in frustration.
Contessa backed away with a look of uncertainty in her features. Severus removed his hands from the protective barrier in defeat and his head slumped.
“Remus and George are fine,” she said in a clipped voice.
Severus looked up again, relief spreading through him. “What about Potter?” he asked breathlessly.
“Harry is safe and in one piece,” Contessa said, scanning his features for his reaction.
Severus let out a perceptible sigh and he met Contessa’s gaze gratefully.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
Contessa did not respond and continued to watch him closely. Abruptly, she seemed to decide something and lowered her wand, walking nearer to the boundary of the invisible wall.
“Alastor didn’t make it,” she said quietly.
“I know,” Severus replied. “There was nothing I could do to protect him. Death Eaters have his body.”
Contessa nodded sadly.
They stood looking at each other from either side of the enchanted barrier and Severus had a sense of the ground feeling firmer beneath his feet. Contessa held up her hand, palm facing towards him. In turn, Severus reached out towards her until the only thing separating them was the protective barrier keeping him out of the cottage.
“I’m glad you came back,” Contessa said, her voice faint but audible in the moonlight.
Severus found himself surprised at her notion that he might not return. It had not occurred to him to go anywhere else.
His thoughts were interrupted by a flash of scarlet and gold which flew past Contessa, through the barricades. Fawkes landed on Severus’s shoulder and brushed his head softly against his cheek. The bird started to nibble affectionately on his earlobe.
Contessa gave a forlorn smile and turned away, walking back down the garden path into the cottage.
Severus stood alone with Fawkes, wondering if he should stay or leave. He wouldn’t be able to cross through the gate until the defences expired, and he knew not when that would be. Severus was filled with an urge to be safely inside the cottage, so that he could lick his wounds in private. Out here, bathed in the cold and oppressive night air, he felt exposed and vulnerable.
Feeling unsure if he should stay, and not knowing where he should Disapparate to if he were to go, Severus’s heart sank a little lower. As he turned to leave, Fawkes issued a reassuring whirp in his ear.
The sound of footsteps on the pathway caused him to turn to face the cottage again, a flurry of hope rising in his chest.
Contessa was walking towards the gate by the light of her wand, with a bottle of firewhisky in her other hand. Following behind her was her levitated telescope, which she guided carefully over the stone wall.
Contessa opened the garden gate and crossed through the barrier as though it wasn’t there. With a flick of her wand she Summoned the garden bench towards them. Without a word, she poured two glasses of firewhisky and offered one to Severus.
He accepted the drink appreciatively and downed the warming liquid in one mouthful. Contessa handed him the rest of the bottle and started to set up her telescope.
Severus sat down on the bench and Fawkes hopped onto the wooden seat, humming a low and calming song. Severus felt the soothing after-effects of the phoenix’s song and he relaxed a little as he watched Contessa working on her telescope in silence.
When the equipment was perfectly aligned, Contessa turned to face Severus and looked him in the eye for the first time since returning from inside the cottage.
Fawkes seemed to take this as his cue to leave, and he departed with a flutter of wings, heading back indoors.
“It seems a shame to waste such a beautiful night sky.” Contessa’s voice was tense and suggested unspoken regret.
Severus knew her gesture to be conciliatory and he accepted her apology wordlessly.
For the next few hours they sat together under the starlight, using the telescope to while away the dark hours, without the need to speak.
Severus allowed himself space to experience his feelings of guilt, frustration and powerlessness, in the presence of a woman who appeared to accept him despite his vulnerabilities.
Contessa did not offer him a single word of reassurance.
Severus did not need to hear any.
Eventually, in the early hours of the morning, the enchanted barrier faded away.