The Wisdom of Hindsight
Contessa awoke the following morning riddled with anxiety. She regretted some of the things she had said to Severus in the heat of the moment, and wished she had expressed her feelings in a more constructive way.
Although a month had passed since she had taken up her position at Hogwarts, Contessa still didn’t know where she fitted in Severus’s life. He was the only person who knew who she really was, and she found the mixed messages of their working relationship confusing. It was hard to know who to be when she was around him.
Their past as teacher and student had been tumultuous at the best of times, but over the summer Contessa had learned to tolerate the man, and even like him. Initially, her trust in Severus had been a function of her belief in Dumbledore; she trusted Dumbledore’s judgement. But now Contessa trusted Severus unreservedly of her own accord.
The cold light of day brought a dawning realisation; her reprehensible behaviour had repaid him poorly. Severus was relying on her to be steady and resolute. Last night, she had been neither.
Contessa was struggling with the boundaries of their relationship. She worked for Severus as Potions Assistant and was therefore his employee. But she also reported to him as a spy and that afforded a different status. Additionally, she was now spending time with Severus twice a week. The evenings they shared were in private, and Contessa could imagine settling into an easy dialogue with him, like the one they had established at Squirrel’s Leap. Calling him Headmaster in this situation was so unnatural to Contessa; she didn’t know how to relate to him when they were alone together.
Her recent attraction towards Severus was even more bewildering. The new feelings didn’t seem to want to co-operate and be tucked away out of sight. Unwanted thoughts distracted her from the job at hand and she was struggling to find her place in the bigger picture. Dumbledore held so many cards close to his chest.
Severus still had her elm and dragon-heartstring wand. It had been the last thing on her mind when she had made her hasty departure from his office and Contessa was sure that, in the heat of the moment, Severus had forgotten he had confiscated it. The moment she arrived in her pitch-black quarters she kicked herself and had to light all the candles by hand.
Contessa hoped that Severus would return her wand forthwith, but he had not. Her indignation prevented her from asking for the wand back and her stubbornness meant she had spent the whole morning doing her work without the assistance of magic. The experience had been frustrating and felt like punishment.
When lunchtime arrived, Contessa followed the streams of bustling students to the Great Hall, where she lingered outside the doorway. Peeking around the backs of some tall seventh year boys, she glimpsed Severus sitting at the top table at the far end of the hall. He looked as pale and imposing as ever, silently watching the students filing into seats at their house tables.
Feeling a surge of advantage, Contessa turned on her heel and hurried down to her dungeon quarters. Severus would be engaged for a least half an hour; time enough for her to speak to Dumbledore alone.
A handful of Floo powder and a flash of green flame transported her into the Headmaster’s office.
Dazzling daylight made the room look very different from the night before and she became aware of dozens of eyes assessing her cautiously. Ignoring the Headteacher portraits, Contessa walked over to the desk, behind which hung the portrait of Albus Dumbledore. He greeted her with a knowing smile.
“Good afternoon, Tess,” Dumbledore said cordially. “To what do we owe this visit?”
Contessa relaxed at the older man’s benevolent manner. “I need some advice, Albus. I’m struggling.”
Dumbledore nodded slowly, looking at her over the rim of his half-moon spectacles.
Contessa rested her hands on Severus’s desk as she leaned forward, and felt a thin piece of wood roll underneath her fingertips. Casting her eyes downwards, she gasped when she realised Severus had left her wand in his office.
Her heart leapt to her mouth as she picked up the wand and turned it over in her hands. Contessa was tempted to pocket her wand, but realised Severus would know she had visited his office without permission.
With a sigh, she placed the stick of wood back down on the desktop and slumped into the chair across from the Headmaster’s desk.
Holding her head in one hand, she muttered, “What am I going to do?”
Dumbledore’s gaze was sympathetic. “What is it that’s troubling you?”
“I’m lost, Albus. I thought I knew where I stood with Severus, but since we arrived at Hogwarts our relationship has changed. He’s become distant and cold. The equality we had found at Squirrel’s Leap has gone, and I’m confused. Sometimes I feel insulted.”
“What do you find insulting?” Dumbledore asked.
“Severus’s preference for the use of a formal title,” Contessa replied. “I mean, I can understand the need for it in the company of others, but when we are alone together I can’t see what the problem is. I spent all summer calling him Severus. Calling him Headmaster in private is belittling.”
“So, you don’t regard him as Headmaster when you are alone together.”
“No, I don’t. But he appears to treat me like an underling the whole time. It flies in the face of everything we had previously achieved and, frankly, makes it harder for me to keep my vow.” Contessa paused as she contemplated her reaction. “I suppose I questioned his authority over the decrees to try and raise myself to his level.” She sighed. “With the wisdom of hindsight, I can see I was disrespectful and my behaviour uncalled for. I’m just the Potions Assistant, at the end of the day.”
Dumbledore listened calmly from his portrait. “In a way, you’re feeling powerless.”
“Perhaps,” Contessa considered. “I don’t feel I have any direction. I don’t fully understand how my role at Hogwarts helps in the grand scheme of things.”
“I never keep all my eggs in one basket, Tess. In time, you will come to realise what your presence here can accomplish. However, for the time being, you are a great deal of use to Severus as an informant. He will need your help to retain control of the school and prevent it slipping into the hands of another Death Eater. And the Headmastership places Severus in the best possible position to help Harry Potter. As soon as we know of the boy’s location we can bequeath the sword of Gryffindor to him. Then, when the time is right, Severus needs to pass on certain information to him. You are here to facilitate this, ensuring Severus is able to help Harry when the time comes.”
Contessa nodded, but couldn’t help feeling glum. “I understand all of that. Somehow, it’s not enough. Something is missing.”
“Then you need to find a way to make your time here more fulfilling. I’m sure Hogwarts will provide you with many opportunities.”
Dumbledore smiled patiently. “You’ll know when they arise; I cannot foretell them. Perhaps you should speak to Sybill Trelawney?” he said with a hint of mischief.
Contessa smirked in response. “I’ll give that some consideration,” she replied with sarcasm.
The conversation paused as Contessa considered her other predicament.
“There’s something else, isn’t there?” Dumbledore asked perceptively.
Contessa nodded and a lump formed in her throat. She looked around at the other portraits uncertainly. “I need to talk something through in private,” she replied, alluding to the other Headteachers listening to their conversation.
Dumbledore contemplated her seriously for a moment. “Certainly.”
He gestured the request to the frames hanging on the walls of the office. Generations of Headteachers left their portraits with a cacophony of groans and indignant mutterings.
After a short space of time, Contessa and Dumbledore were alone.
“What is it?” he asked gently.
Contessa fumbled with the armrests of her chair. “I’m all over the place. I never thought it possible, but I’ve started to have romantic feelings towards Severus.”
A brief silence followed. Contessa looked up at the portrait, beseeching Dumbledore to have a ready-made answer. He smiled back at her sadly.
“This is unforeseen,” he said earnestly.
“I know.” She sighed. “What should I do, Albus?”
“Does he return your feelings?”
“I seriously doubt it.”
“Well, that makes it simpler.”
Contessa looked at him, bewildered. “How do you mean?”
“I mean the path forward is clearer. If your feelings are not returned, the outcome is predestined. Rather than concealing and ignoring your feelings, you need to find a way to acknowledge your feelings to yourself. Work with them, instead of against them.”
Contessa shot Dumbledore a suspicious look. “You make it sound as though I’m in denial.”
“From what I saw of the fracas last night, I would tend to say you have been in denial.”
Contessa swallowed this comment reluctantly, but as embarrassing as it might be, deep down she knew there was truth in it. “Merlin’s beard, you are right,” she said.
“Don’t deny your feelings, Tess. You can’t tell Severus how you feel, but if you try to suppress your feelings they will prevent you from keeping your vow. Severus needs your unconditional acceptance now more than ever.”
“I think there is a limit to what can be achieved with Severus. He’s not ready.” Suddenly, Contessa felt very tired and weary.
“Perhaps not, but you will be there for him when he is,” Dumbledore replied.
Contessa accepted this dolefully. “I shall try to be patient.”
With a nod which expressed much more than gratitude, Contessa left the Headmaster’s office, her wand lying unclaimed on the desk.