Blink of an Eye
Ten days passed and the secret Potions laboratory remained empty.
Caught up in a flurry of activity assisting with the teaching of Potions, Contessa found plenty of excuses to suspend her research and was tempted to scrap her hunt for an Imperius curse-breaker after the events of the last trial.
She continued to see Severus twice a week in his quarters. They had not journeyed back and revisited his previously buried feelings for Lily Evans; instead Severus seemed content with Contessa simply being in the same room as him.
Initially, Contessa had been surprised to find she wasn’t jealous after Severus’s revelations of his love for Lily. But as it began to sink in, Contessa began to comprehend the intensity of his attachment to his first and only love. He had spent most of his of life in love with one woman. So powerful were his feelings that they had become a defining part of him. His love for Lily was inextricably linked to who Severus believed himself to be; he didn’t know who he was without her, and he lived only to prove his self-worth to her.
Long ago, it seemed, Severus had made a pact with himself. He would avoid the pain of losing someone by choosing never to love again. And so he held on to his memory of Lily, unable to let her go.
And with that, Contessa knew all she needed to know. It seemed there was no room in Severus’s heart for another woman and, as long as he continued to hold on so tightly to Lily, their friendship would never progress to something more.
No longer Occluding her emotions, and for days afterwards, Contessa’s heart ached as though a stone had been thrust into its centre. The constant companion of tightness in her chest had, once or twice, in the privacy of her quarters, caused tears to flow as she mourned the loss of something she’d longed for, but never actually had.
The ache soon turned to anger, which eventually found its release on her broomstick one night, flying like a shrieking banshee around Hogwarts’ grounds.
Shortly afterwards her heart dropped onto a new wave of sadness, as she began to understand the futility of her attraction to a man whose heart belonged to another.
But Contessa knew she couldn’t run away.
She knew Severus was still there, needing her.
And she needed him too.
Although friendship was all their relationship would ever be, Contessa realised that Severus valued her greatly, and she could accept him, knowing he couldn’t love again.
And, as her conviction became clearer, her romantic feelings started to ripple away like the tide retreating across a beach.
But the tide was leaving the coastline renewed; in its place was a shore of firm friendship and unwavering loyalty. Strengthened by the pain of grief and anger, their bond had grown robust. Contessa was glad that her unconditional acceptance of Severus came naturally, now superfluous to her hastily-made vow.
Perhaps Albus Dumbledore had known her capabilities all along.
Elsewhere in Hogwarts, however, matters were getting out of hand. With the number of students facing discipline, many of Contessa’s evenings were now filled with detentions from Horace Slughorn’s Potions classes, as well as her tutorials with Robert Selwyn. She was soon going to reach the point where her evenings with Severus would be threatened; she would have no good explanation for her whereabouts if Horace asked for additional favours.
Late one evening she was helping Robert pack away his potion ingredients, after a successful attempt at making one of the trickier formulas from Arsenius Jigger’s textbook Magical Draughts and Potions. The young Gryffindor had advanced beyond the usual level for a third-year, so Contessa had decided to up the ante to gauge the boy’s potential. He had not disappointed.
“You know, Robert, I think we could progress to antidotes next time,” Contessa was saying as she picked up the brass scales from the workbench in the Potions office. “Strictly speaking it’s not something you’d start until your fourth year, but I think you’d enjoy it.”
Robert smiled. “Yeah, that’d be good, Miss,” he said, trying not to sound too interested.
“How’s it going with the other Gryffindors these days?”
“Could be worse, I s’pose,” he replied.
Contessa usually anticipated this question would illicit a mumbled reply, but this time Robert’s tone was more assured.
“Has it got a bit better?” she asked, placing the brass scales in the cupboard.
“Yeah, a bit. You see, they think I’m in detention when I’m here at night. And, well, there’s some kudos for being in detention, especially if you’re a Gryffindor. Or a member of Dumbledore’s Army.”
Contessa felt her eyebrows creeping up her head. “And you’ve not told them otherwise?”
“Don’t see the point, Miss.”
Contessa laughed. “Fair enough.”
“I had to tell Professor McGonagall about it last week though, ‘cos someone told her I was always in detention. She called me in to see her ‘cos she didn’t know anything about me being in trouble, so I explained it was just tutorials.”
“Oh, it’s fine. I told her you were getting extra help ages ago. She must’ve been concerned that no one informed the Head of House of your so-called detentions.”
As they were clearing the last of the debris away, Contessa almost dropped the mortar and pestle she was holding when the door flung open unexpectedly. Robert turned around, startled, and his posture straightened immediately upon seeing the Headmaster striding into the office.
Severus’s eyes glinted malevolently in the candlelight as he came to a halt beside the workbench, his billowing cloak following in close convoy. He crossed his arms in front of his chest, lending him the appearance of an upside-down bat.
Severus’s pale skin, dark eyes and iniquitous manner reminded Contessa of the rumour she’d heard during her seventh year that the new Potions Master was a vampire.
She suppressed a smile as she counted the numerous black buttons on the sleeves of his frock coat, until the clunking sound of winchesters being hurriedly stowed away bounced Contessa back into the present moment. She frowned as she watched Robert stuffing the bottles onto the shelves, attempting to make as fast an escape as possible under the Headmaster’s stern gaze.
“Good evening, Headmaster,” Contessa said, with a deliberate tone of impertinence.
Severus didn’t look at her, and simply nodded once in acknowledgement.
Contessa placed the mortar and pestle back down on the bench and waited silently. She felt a flicker of amusement at staging their game in the presence of an innocent. She turned to see Robert hot-footing his way out of the office without a backward glance.
Contessa saw the door swinging behind the sandy-haired boy and heard the faint echo of his footsteps as he ran down the corridor. She turned to face Severus, failing to notice her tutee had left the door slightly ajar.
“That was hardly necessary,” she admonished Severus.
Severus’s arms remained entwined, but his shoulders dropped as he relaxed. Contessa watched distractedly as his fingers slipped under his cloak and gripped his bicep.
Perhaps her attraction had not yet left the building.
“You are forgetting that most of the students hate me; I’m merely living up to their expectations.”
“And it’s a stereotype to which you easily conform,” she observed.
“Of course,” he said, with a slight air of impatience. “Remember the school must believe we’re still at loggerheads.”
Contessa smirked. “Yeah, well, you’re not so scary to me anymore.”
Severus rolled his eyes. A moment later his arms dropped to his sides and he leaned back against the workbench.
“What brings you to the dungeons?” Contessa asked. She rested her hand on the tabletop and her fingers nudged the cold stone of the mortar bowl.
Contessa’s bemusement soon turned into curiosity. “Pardon?”
“Oleander root,” Severus repeated. “It should be the next ingredient we try with Memory Potion base.”
Contessa was stunned at Severus’s renewed interest in potion-making, after the consequences of their last endeavour. She took a moment to catch up with him.
“Don’t tempt me to Summon a bluebottle,” Severus mocked.
Contessa snapped her jaw shut and, despite her mouth having turned dry, she swallowed reflexively. “You’re ready to try again?”
“Of course,” Severus replied. “And this time it’s your turn to test the potion.”
“That may be, but I’ve no intention of taking a potion containing oleander root; it’s notoriously toxic.”
“Plainly you haven’t given the matter enough consideration,” he said, his eyes glittering as he leaned in closer. “In combination with Murtlap, we should have a viable potion.”
Contessa took some time to think his theory through, reluctant to agree to something she might later regret. Eventually, she conceded, “It’s a good idea.”
“You sound surprised, Contessa.” Severus’s forehead creased as he tilted his head to one side. “Perhaps the fact that I am the master and you are the assistant momentarily evaded you?”
The teasing in his voice caused Contessa to simper, and her bottom lip grazed against her teeth as her smile became more pronounced.
Severus’s cheeks rounded as he chuckled.
Neither of them heard the faint creak of the office door and, seconds too late, Contessa noticed the pointed hat of Professor McGonagall entering the room. The older witch’s eyes were wide with surprise and, assessing the situation, her expression became almost feline.
In the blink of an eye Contessa’s smile died, and the alteration of her countenance caused Severus’s bearing to change. His lips parted into a glower and he crossed his arms before turning to face the Transfiguration Professor.
Out of the corner of her vision, Contessa saw one of Severus’s eyebrows arch as he appraised the intruder. Contessa cleared her throat quietly, trying to still the sensation of her quickening heart rising into her larynx.
“Good evening, Minerva,” Contessa managed, hoping to convey a mixture of welcome and unease, befitting of the charade.
“Tess,” Minerva replied crisply, before addressing Severus with a nod. “Headmaster,” she said askance.
“What do you want, Minerva?” said Severus, in a voice laden with acid.
Contessa tried not to wince at his hostility.
“A word with Tess, if you don’t mind,” Minerva replied.
“Certainly,” said Severus. He made no attempt to leave the room.
Minerva eyeballed the Headmaster for five long seconds, before reluctantly kowtowing to his authority and turning to face Contessa.
“It’s with regard to Selwyn,” Minerva began awkwardly, giving Contessa a distinct impression that the professor was doing some quick-thinking. “He’s made excellent progress, and I was hoping you could open up your…tutorials…to other students.”
Contessa was momentarily stumped for words, placed piggy-in-the-middle between Headmaster and Professor. She opened her mouth to speak, but found herself cut off by Severus.
“It seems somewhat…inappropriate…for the Transfiguration Professor to encroach upon the remit of the Potions Master, Minerva. Horace is perfectly capable of deciding who should receive Potions tutorials. Besides,” he continued, turning to face Contessa with a sneer, “I’m here to curtail our little upstart of a Potions Assistant’s extra-curricular activities. It’s high time she learned her limits and focused on her job, which she already performs with woeful inadequacy.”
Contessa’s jaw dropped at Severus’s insult, temporarily forgetting that the slight on her character was completely in keeping with their subterfuge.
“But –” Minerva spluttered.
“No ifs, no buts, Minerva. I’m the Headmaster and I’m in charge of the staff and students at Hogwarts.”
Minerva looked as though she was about to disagree, but she quickly adopted a suitably chastised demeanour and cast Contessa an apologetic look.
Contessa let out a halted breath. She smiled at Minerva, before affecting a grimace at the continued presence of the Headmaster. Minerva’s brow puckered as she turned on her heel and closed the door behind her.
Seconds ticked away, and Contessa listened to her heartbeat thrumming in her ears.
Headmaster and Potions Assistant remained motionless, staring at the door.
After a while, Contessa’s eardrums started to burn. “What did you do that for?” she asked incredulously.
Severus unfolded his arms slowly. His chin receded into his neck and he tilted his head towards her, affronted.
Taking another breath, Contessa steadied herself against the workbench. “You’ve cost Robert Selwyn his tutorials,” she explained, moderating her tone.
“I won’t allow the teachers to dupe you into providing extra detentions.”
“How do you know that was what she was asking for?”
“I’ve known Minerva for a long time. She came here to ask you to supervise additional detentions; the guise of tutorials was for my benefit alone.”
“And so you made the decision for me?” Contessa asked, unable to hide her disgust.
“Perhaps you have indeed forgotten your place, Contessa.”
His tone was perfunctory and Contessa faltered, knowing she had overstepped the mark.
“Robert will be upset,” she said in a conciliatory voice. “It seems a shame that he’ll have to suffer.”
Severus shook his head intolerantly. “You shouldn’t waste your time pitying the boy – he’s perfectly capable of looking after himself. More to the point, you knew your evenings were unsustainable with the detentions you’re providing. One less evening a week spent on tutorials will give you more free time, and we can get started on the next version of the potion.”
Severus looked rather pleased with himself as he gave the latter part of his evaluation. Contessa knew he was offering a peace treaty, albeit with selfish motivations, in lieu of her diminished responsibilities. She couldn’t help but smile at his disingenuous compromise, because she knew it was his way of showing fondness.
Although she was disappointed for Robert, she knew the loss of his tutorials was unavoidable. At least she’d been able to help him.
Contessa turned to confront the problem which they had deliberately sidestepped.
“Do you think Minerva suspects anything?” she asked in a low voice.
Severus paused, appraising the closed door with a frown.
“I hope not.”