Cloak of Numbness
Severus’s damaged soul tried to knit itself back together as he rested his head on Contessa’s shoulder. The agonising memory of Lily’s death began to fade as his conscious mind brought him back into the room, and slowly the pain of loss ebbed away into something more tolerable. Something more familiar.
The rush of adrenaline subsided to a creeping nausea, permeating his gut. He wanted to shroud himself in his customary cloak of numbness, make the torment of anguish disappear. But the potion had placed that cloak too far from reach. If only he hadn’t panicked and thrown the antidote into the fire, he could rid himself of these feelings now, Occlude them away, as he did so many other things.
Contessa helped him onto his feet and guided him back to the cushioned sofa. They sat down facing each other, next to the fire. The room’s illumination was low as the embers of the fire smouldered in the hearth, issuing lazy crackles as the fire began to die.
The hollow pit in Severus’s stomach started to burn as he brushed the grainy tracks of tears from his face. Out of his peripheral vision, he could see Contessa sitting leaning forward, watching him closely. He wondered how long it would take for the potion’s effects to wear off so he could resume his pitiful existence: a long and lonely search for redemption.
“You should Imperio me before the potion wanes,” he told Contessa.
Contessa took a long moment to reply.
“No, I don’t think so,” she said quietly.
Severus lifted his head, perplexed. Contessa’s compassionate gaze caused the burning, cavernous emptiness of his stomach to travel a circular route around his abdomen. Severus was aware that the words coming from his mouth were completely disconnected from the feelings snaking their way around his body.
“We should not waste the opportunity,” he said, but he did not truly feel the cool rationality which his tone attempted to convey. Dimly, he wondered for whose sake he was being rational.
Contessa shook her head minutely but maintained eye contact. Her gaze met him in a place which seemed both alien and mysteriously comforting.
“I think a potion which forces someone to relive traumatic memories is best consigned to the dustbin,” she replied. “I wouldn’t want to use it, even if it did repel the curse. We don’t need a bottled Dementor.”
There was a note of sadness and regret in her voice which filled Severus with unexpected warmth. He knew that such a potion would probably have a market for torture and punishment, and lamented its abandonment. But, as they were researching neither of these uses, he remained silent.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Contessa said softly.
Severus watched her eyes glistening on the edge of tears, and fought back his own, wondering why she was almost crying. Then reality hit him. They were still wearing the rings. He realised now that Contessa had Occluded herself, and was experiencing his thoughts and feelings by return.
He looked down at his Tiger’s Eye ring, contemplating whether or not to remove it. Part of him wanted to reclaim his privacy, but another part couldn’t bear to be alone with the emotions threatening to engulf him.
It seemed Contessa was strong enough to stay alongside him and, with the ring firmly ensconced on his little finger, the moment became one of precious unreality.
In his mind’s eye, Severus saw himself standing at the edge of a frozen pool, similar to the one in which he had placed Gryffindor’s sword. He was drawn to look into its icy surface, even though he was scared to see what the reflection held. The thought of the cold water beneath the frosty mirror made his toes curl. He really didn’t want to fall into the freezing water and become trapped, unable to escape.
His eyes searched Contessa’s again, seeking contact and reassurance.
He heard her thought in his mind. I’m a good swimmer.
The back of Severus’s throat felt hard and dry as he swallowed and looked away.
Silence lingered, the only sounds coming from the glowing embers in the fire shifting in the grate. As the radiant light dipped again, Severus felt secure in Contessa’s presence.
Out loud, she said gently, “You lost the woman you loved.”
“Yes,” he murmured. Then, after a moment’s deliberation, he added, the only woman I ever loved.
Contessa’s posture changed slightly but she didn’t look away. “And you love her still…”
“Now, more than ever,” Severus vocalised his thoughts, without realising he had spoken.
“Your love grows stronger with each passing year,” Contessa said softly.
The burning in his abdomen was spreading into his chest, searing persistently at his heart. “I’ll never love anyone like I loved Lily.” Her name on his tongue expelled one of the fiery serpents inside him.
“It seems no one can replace her in your heart.”
“She’s all I have.”
They sat quietly, whilst Severus explored the room in his heart occupied solely by Lily. Happy moments with his childhood friend mingled with memories of their deepening bond as they progressed through their years at Hogwarts together. She was the only person who he’d felt loved by, and the only one who had accepted him for whom and what he was. Severus squeezed every last drop of joy out of the warm, rapturous glow of the past, basking in his devotion to the one woman who meant everything in his world.
“Her friendship gave you something you’d never experienced before,” Contessa reflected.
He knew she had seen, and he knew she had understood.
“I loved her, accepted her, completely, for all the things she was, even though she was Muggle-born. I thought she accepted me too…” Severus felt a vice closing around his ribcage as the reflection on the pool’s surface began to change. “At least she did… until…”
His eyebrows pinched together as the clamp around his chest held its position – an established place – like a cast-iron girdle around his heart. He forced a deep, shuddering breath into his lungs.
“Her acceptance of you changed?” Contessa asked softly.
Severus’s abdominal muscles cramped as Contessa prodded the pool’s frozen surface. He had previously avoided agitating the icy mirror, but her gentle enquiry and willingness to accompany him seemed to make it easier to contemplate breaking through the surface. With the heel of his boot, he smashed down hard into the layer of ice.
He leaned forward to look into the dark waters beneath.
“She wanted me to be different, to give up the Dark Arts, to be more like them,” he said bitterly, remembering the House of Gryffindor’s oh-so-noble peers. “But I couldn’t make a choice like that at the drop of a hat – not quickly enough for her, anyway – and then she… withdrew. My apology meant nothing to her, and she closed the door on me.”
“You lost her.”
“When I lost her, I lost everything.”
“When she withdrew her friendship, you felt as though you’d lost everything.”
“I did… I do.”
“And you felt…?”
“Hollow. Empty. Alone.” Severus knew these feelings well; they rose to the surface whenever his defences were brittle. And in recurrent nightmares. “I’ve felt that way for as long as I can remember.” Then, unexpectedly, the sensation of a clenched fist formed deep inside his abdomen. “There’s something else now, though,” he said, surprised by the new emotion gradually uncoiling in his stomach.
“Can you describe it?”
“It’s like a heavy, solid fist opening itself deep inside my guts.” He stopped, not knowing how to articulate what was happening.
“Does it make a sound?”
He listened closely. “Yes,” he said. The roar of emotion ascended his throat, where it halted, afraid. This was a different kind of anger to the one he lived with every day; it wasn’t directed at himself and its vibrations seemed to reverberate through his entire body.
“You’re feeling angry,” Contessa said, grounding him.
“I can’t allow myself to feel angry with Lily,” he said, and the feeling strangled him, like icy fingers closing around his windpipe.
“What does feeling angry mean to you?”
“It hurts and it stings,” he answered, grimacing. “How can I feel that way about the best thing that ever happened to me?”
Contessa’s blue-grey eyes were kind and caring. “You remember her with love, so it seems your anger is misplaced.”
Severus tried to gulp down a choke, feeling as though his body was tearing itself in two, starting at his throat.
“Where does your anger go?” she asked him.
“It stays inside.”
“What does it do?”
Warm, salty water trickled down his cheeks and his chest felt open and vulnerable. “It tears me apart.”
Adrift inside the gaping chasm of his heart, Severus almost lost himself in the frozen waters of the pool. Then he heard Contessa’s voice, strong and resilient, like a life-raft amidst the chunks of ice floating on the water’s surface.
“Your anger hurts you when it stays inside.”
Severus realised the extent of the harm caused by the lump of ice lodged in his throat, ripping his soul apart as it cut through his body.
“What does your anger want?” Contessa asked.
The feeling, trapped in his throat, started to throb. It wants release.
“Can you let it out?” she asked gently.
Severus’s breath froze in his chest, consumed by horror and panic. “It’s too dangerous.”
Contessa’s soft and steady presence lifted him from the icy pit. “It feels dangerous to release your anger,” she said.
“I’m afraid I’ll hurt you,” he whispered, searching her eyes, wanting to protect her, wanting to see if she could…
Contessa smiled a small, sad glimmer of encouragement. “I trust you.”
Her words fortified him from deep within.
Hot snakes slithered down his right arm, hissing and spitting as they travelled inexorably to his hand. He needed something to throw, something to smash. He needed to make something disappear in a satisfying burst of energy and movement.
The lump in his throat felt like a balloon being pumped full of air, crushing into his windpipe. He knew if he didn’t act soon he would deprive his body of the oxygen he needed to live. His eyes found the empty, discarded potion bottle dropped on the living room rug.
“I’m here, Severus. Where does your anger want to go?”
Contessa’s voice acted like a catapult, thrusting him forward.
Suddenly he was standing, and had scooped up the amber-coloured flagon from the floor. He ran his fingers along the cool, ribbed edges of the glass, tightly gripping the tiny vessel in his hand. He flexed the muscles of his arm as the serpents passed through, sliding free from their prison.
With a gurgling rumble deep inside his throat, Severus swung his arm back and, with the force of snakes springing from his palm, he flung the potion bottle across the room.
Glass shattered, hitting the breast of the chimney and sending shards into the grate. Vapours from the remaining drops of potion spiralled upwards in a white snake-like wisp, and the serpents were sibilant in approval.
The last embers of the dying fire fizzled out and the Replenishment Charm ignited. Newly chopped wood settled in the grate, spitting and crackling as it caught fire.
Severus noticed the strangled feeling in his throat had gone, and the burning in his arm had now faded to a warm, fluid heat. He stood for a while, watching the logs on the fire kindle, inhaling the aroma of burning pinewood.
Eventually he knelt down and reached for the poker by the side of the fireplace. As he stoked the fire and felt its warmth on his face and hands, Contessa joined him, mirroring his posture in front of the fire.
“Your anger found a way out,” she said, her voice quietly comforting. “And you didn’t hurt me.”
Severus turned to look at her concerned, beautiful face, lit up by the flickering iridescence of the fire.
“How do you feel now?” she asked.
As his anger faded, his body felt more alive than ever before.
“The numbness has gone,” he said simply.
With a pang of sorrow, he felt the effects of the potion beginning to wane. He wondered if he could now reach for his cloak, to numb the buried emotions he had uncovered in its absence.
He had feared these feelings, denied and suppressed them.
Severus felt Contessa’s hand slip into his grasp as the pain of grief became visible beneath the melted, smashed surface of the pool. He knew they could look into its depths together, to know and name the darkness held within.
He left the numbing cloak behind at the water’s edge.
Severus had travelled too far to turn back now.