The First Glimpse
During the week following the appointment of the new Headmaster, Severus called at Squirrel’s Leap every couple of days to confer with Dumbledore’s portrait.
Contessa sensed that Severus was busy; his visits were brief and to the point, and she had not imposed unwanted conversation upon him.
At home late one evening, Contessa was sitting on her sofa, dressed in a vest-top and shorts, ready for bed. Curled up in a blanket, she was reading an old Potions book by candlelight. Her new job was due to start in a few weeks’ time and she was refreshing her memory ahead of her return to Hogwarts.
Fawkes soared in from outside and landed heavily on his perch. The phoenix was now fully grown, about the size of a swan, and he looked rather large and out of place in her tiny living room.
A crack of Apparition sounded, causing Contessa to jump in her seat. The wind chime tinkled. She looked at the clock, tutting at the lateness of the hour. As Contessa rose from her seat, Severus knocked and let himself in.
Wearing his customary black robes, Severus looked slightly surprised to see Contessa dressed in her nightclothes. Standing facing each other, their awkwardness grew in intensity.
Severus’s hand twitched on the door handle as the chill of the night air rushed in. Contessa shivered and subconsciously wrapped her arms around herself. They both began speaking at the same moment.
“To what do I owe…” Contessa began.
“My apologies,” Severus said curtly.
Nervous laughter followed as they looked away from each other. Severus closed the door.
“I’ll go and change,” Contessa offered, hurrying upstairs.
She returned moments later wearing a set of rather crumpled robes, and saw Severus sitting in the armchair, leaning forward on his elbows with his hands clasped together.
The formality of his posture sent a ripple of trepidation through Contessa.
As she sat down on the sofa, Severus looked at her. His cold, dark eyes appeared pensive in the candlelight.
Contessa leaned towards him anxiously, sensing his sombre mood. Now that he was here, he seemed reluctant to speak.
Severus eventually retrieved something from inside his robes. After turning it over in his hands a few times, he passed the item to Contessa.
She felt cool metal in her hands and looked down to see a tarnished silver chain. It was a St Christopher pendant.
Her heart leapt to her throat as she read the inscription on the back. Contessa swallowed hard, attempting to control the tears forming in her eyes. She looked back at Severus in shock.
“Where did you find this?” she asked.
Severus looked down at his hands again and took a moment to answer. “Buried at the side of a Muggle railway track; a Niffler found it for me.”
Contessa breathed in anxiously. “This was Alex’s.”
Severus nodded once.
“You found his body?”
Severus made eye contact again, his expression grim. “Yes.”
Contessa felt as though she had been punched hard in the stomach. Tears streamed down her face and she wept quietly, almost forgetting Severus was there.
He fidgeted nervously, seeming to regret being present at such a personal moment. However, he did not leave.
Contessa heard a flap of wings and the warm weight of Fawkes landed on her knee, warbling softly.
With the phoenix’s song to soothe her, the familiar feeling of grief was joined by a new emotion – an ache of relief and gratitude. Finally, she knew what had been keeping Severus occupied during his stay at her home, and throughout the summer.
The phoenix lingered for a while as they sat in silence; Contessa’s laboured breathing was the only sound. Contessa noticed Fawkes looking at Severus expectantly. Severus peered back at him with exasperation.
Fawkes issued a melodic whirp and hopped onto the coffee table. With a graceful beat of his wings, he rose into the air and flew out of the window into the garden.
Severus looked troubled and exposed. He fumbled in his pocket and offered out a handkerchief. Contessa accepted it gratefully and dried her eyes and nose.
Turning the hanky over in her hands, she said quietly, “Thank you, Severus.”
His composure became rigid, as if unaccustomed to accepting gratitude.
“You didn’t need to do this,” Contessa said sadly.
Severus’s expression changed to one of confusion. His eyes met hers uncertainly, as though asking a question.
“We were to help one another…Dumbledore expected me to help you.” Whilst Severus’s voice was perfunctory, his puzzlement was obvious.
Contessa stifled a laugh as she watched his emotions playing out on his face.
“But you’ve already helped me, Severus. You gave me confirmation of Alex’s death. I didn’t expect anything more.”
Severus opened his mouth to speak, and closed it again, mystified. Contessa could see the cogs turning in his head as he realised his debt had already been paid.
His lips pursed and his hands dropped to his sides in defeat. “I had no idea.”
Contessa smiled forlornly and started to get up. “I need a drink.”
Severus touched her hand lightly, signalling her to remain seated on the sofa. He walked into the kitchen, returning with a bottle of firewhisky and two glasses and sat down next to her, pouring out two large measures.
Contessa took a glass and downed the liquid in one gulp. Red hot flames hit the back of her throat and she coughed a little. Placing the glass back down on the table, she looked at Severus again.
His eyebrows arched, but he held back further comment, pouring more firewhisky into her empty glass. Picking up his own, he offered his in toast, and Contessa and Severus clinked their drinks together before taking another sip.
Severus relaxed back into the cushions, his face as inscrutable as ever. Contessa wondered fleetingly how long he would stay with her; she really didn’t want to be on her own just at the moment. Contessa leaned back into the sofa with a heavy sigh.
Contessa awoke several hours later with a stiff back and a tingling shoulder.
Her head banged in protest as she opened her eyes, and she felt a parched dryness in the back of her throat. Turning her head slightly, her cheek brushed against a black cotton shirt, and she became aware of another sensation; Severus’s chest rising and falling underneath. She was covered in a blanket and leaning into his arm.
Comprehension dawned quickly and she tried to move her head without disturbing him, but his eyes snapped open with a start. Severus looked down at her with surprise, momentarily discomposed. He quickly realised where he was, and rubbed his forehead, wincing slightly.
Contessa sat up and stretched, feeling embarrassed that she had forced Severus to spend an uncomfortable night on the sofa. She saw the empty bottle of firewhisky on the table and understood the cause of their respective hangovers. Contessa stood up slowly and the room spun before her eyes. Severus started to get up but she held her hand out to stop him.
“Stay there,” she croaked.
Moments later she was shuffling back into the living room with a small, cobalt blue potion bottle, and a large jug of water.
Severus sighed in relief as she handed him the tiny bottle and he placed two drops of the potion onto his tongue. Closing his eyes and flicking his head back, some colour returned to his pallid face and the redness in his eyes disappeared.
“Thank you,” he said, offering the bottle back to Contessa.
She poured him a large glass of water and then medicated herself, sitting down sheepishly on the sofa.
“I’m sorry I put you through such an uncomfortable night,” she said awkwardly.
Severus shook his head. “No apology necessary.”
Contessa smiled a little and continued to drink copious amounts of water. Gradually, sobriety and clarity pervaded her mind and body.
“I’ll give the location of Alex’s body to the police,” she said steadily.
Severus looked at her quizzically. “The Muggle police?”
“Yes,” said Contessa. “Alex was Muggle-born. His parents will want a proper funeral.”
Severus’s eyes widened in surprise and understanding. Contessa wondered fleetingly about Severus’s views regarding Muggle-borns. Then a thought struck her - had Alex been alive today, he would have been on the run.
“I’ll be going, then,” Severus said, after finishing his second glass of water. He rose to his feet.
Contessa remained seated, but reached out to touch his hand. Severus gave her a sidelong glance, as if unsure what she expected from him.
“Thank you for all you’ve done, Severus,” Contessa said gently.
He paused and looked down at the floor for a long moment. His hand brushed hers as he turned to leave, walking resolutely to the door.
Standing with his fingers grasping the door handle, he turned around to look at Contessa. Their eyes met briefly before he looked away.
In a low, quiet voice, Severus said, “I lost someone too.”
She made eye contact with him again and saw sadness in Severus’s dark eyes.
Contessa’s heart leapt with realisation; he had given her the first glimpse into his soul. She nodded her head in respectful understanding.
Severus turned the door handle and swept out into the bright glare of the morning sunshine.