Treasured in Darkness
“Letting go, it’s so hard
The way it’s hurting now
To get this love untied
So tough to stay with this thing
‘Cos if I follow through
I face what I denied”
‘Washing of the Water’, Peter Gabriel
“Come on, Contessa, get on with it!”
Severus watched her slender fingers running up and down the potion flagon which rested on the coffee table in his living room.
“That’s easy for you to say,” Contessa replied. “You’re not the one having to take it.”
After a weekend spent preparing the oleander-root variant of experimental potion, the time had come to test it. Contessa was, understandably, nervous.
Severus tapped his fingertips on the table. His usual modus operandi would involve humiliating the other person into action but, ever since his experience with the last trial of the potion, Severus felt less inclined to do so.
“I’m confident the antidote will work,” he said instead.
Contessa sighed resignedly. “Alright then.” She picked up the bottle and swallowed half of its contents, before sitting back on the sofa. She rubbed her hands against her knees whilst she waited.
Severus watched her features change into a frown.
Contessa looked up at him, perplexed. “Nothing.”
“I don’t feel any different.”
“That’s good,” Severus said. “Isn’t it?”
Contessa shrugged her shoulders.
Severus retrieved his wand and pointed it directly at her. “Can you tap-dance?” he asked slyly.
Severus scrutinised Contessa’s face for the first signs of the curse hitting home. Her temple creased and her lips narrowed as she concentrated.
“Nope,” she said eventually. “The curse found its way in and I was able to block it.”
Severus grimaced and shook his head. “I was sure this would work. How do you feel?”
“Fine, really. Just a bit more anxious than before, but that could have something to do with your veiled threat,” Contessa said, smiling.
Severus couldn’t believe the potion had had no effect at all. A hiss of exasperation escaped his clenched teeth.
“We’re missing something,” he said. “We have to be.”
Contessa wrinkled her nose at his scowl. “It didn’t work on me.”
But Severus wasn’t about to admit defeat. He knew his potion recipe couldn’t have a neutral effect.
“We should give up and move on,” Contessa said, dejected.
“No,” he replied firmly.
Severus snatched the half-empty flagon from the table and, to Contessa’s complete surprise, dropped the remaining potion into his mouth.
The liquid tasted bitter on his tongue and, as it slithered down his throat, it burned like chilli peppers. Somewhere deep in his abdomen, a vacuum began to build. It was as if something had sucked all the air out and left nothing but a wide, empty hole.
“Severus, what’s the matter?”
Contessa’s concerned voiced penetrated the vacuity and Severus noticed her reaching inside her robes for the antidote.
“No,” he instructed her. “No antidote. If the potion affects me differently we should study the outcome and learn from it. Cast the Imperius Curse now.”
Contessa did as she was told, but the curse penetrated Severus’s mind and he deflected it with ease. He huffed and shook his head, communicating the potion’s failure.
The edges of the vacuum had now become palpable, eating away at Severus’s insides as if trying to escape from his body. His heart seemed to be sinking slowly towards the void, and the resulting ache gnawed at his sternum.
He was aware that Contessa was still with him and, curious to know why the potion would affect him in a different way, his rational mind prepared itself for another sojourn into uncharted territory.
With Contessa’s steady presence keeping him safe, Severus allowed himself to embrace the sensations in his body and the memories they evoked.
He found himself taken back to the windswept hilltop, one cold winter’s night, long ago. It was the night he’d asked for Dumbledore’s help to keep Lily safe from the Dark Lord. Shivering, he could hear Dumbledore’s voice, scathing and filled with contempt.
Contessa’s voice drifted into Severus’s awareness.
“Can you hear me?”
This time, it was easier for him to speak. “I can.”
“It’s another memory.”
There was a long pause, then Contessa’s voice, full of concern. “I still have the antidote.”
“Where are you?”
The icy wind had been stilled by a flick of Dumbledore’s wand, and Severus stood, disarmed and vulnerable in the presence of the Headmaster.
“What’s he saying?”
“He’s… suggesting… if Lily means so much to me… I should ask the Dark Lord to spare her… in exchange for her son.”
Contessa didn’t reply straight away and Severus felt a nauseous swirl of disorientation, mingled with his recollection of terror and desperation.
Then her voice, calm and clear, rang like a bell resonating warmly through the freezing void. “How do you feel when you hear him say that?”
Severus’s stomach swooped and the back of his neck prickled with hot electricity. “I’m frantic, as though sand is slipping through my fingers. I’ve done everything I can to protect Lily, but I must do more. I know Dumbledore can help, and it kills me to have to ask him, to expose myself. But I’m beyond caring about the risk and the shame – Lily is all that matters. It’s my fault she’s in danger. It’s because of me that the Dark Lord is hunting her down.”
The vacuum pressed its icy extent further into Severus’s chest, causing a new wave of anxiety.
“You’re desperate to protect Lily, willing to risk everything to keep her safe.”
“Yes. But when I tell Dumbledore I’ve already requested the Dark Lord’s mercy for Lily, he says I… disgust him.”
“How do you feel?”
Severus’s stomach cramped. “Ashamed.”
The word hung in the air like a spectre, and Severus fought the urge to shrink away. He opened his eyes and found Contessa’s compassionate gaze, unfailing and resolute.
For one long, bizarre moment, Severus couldn’t understand why this admission had not disgusted her, too. Surely he was a contemptible creature, unworthy of her acceptance? Had he not broken every taboo with the intensity of his love for Lily Evans? Was he not selfish, amoral and undeserving?
But there in front of his eyes was Contessa, unwavering, kind and accepting. Severus was stunned.
“You felt ashamed. You loved Lily and you wanted to protect her.”
“She was all that mattered to me,” he continued, heartened. “I asked for amnesty for Lily but I knew the plan wasn’t foolproof; there was a high probability the Dark Lord would kill her, regardless. I couldn’t bear to lose her, or be the one responsible her death. If I hadn’t heard Trelawney’s prophecy, if I hadn’t reported all I’d heard to the Dark Lord, Lily might still be alive today.”
“You feel guilty. You jeopardised Lily’s safety unwittingly – you didn’t know.”
“I should have known, should’ve seen the consequences…”
“You blame yourself for her death.”
“I am to blame.” The vacuum in his gut seemed to come to a halt, with his heart balanced precariously above the cavernous void, throbbing as it pressed into his ribcage. If he let the feeling escape it seemed his heart would be lost forever, consumed by the black hole within. It was safer, then, to stay here in uneasy equilibrium, than risk succumbing to the dark depths of despair.
“You say you are to blame, even though she wasn’t killed by your hand.”
Severus swallowed reluctantly. “Not by my hand, no,” he said through gritted teeth. “But if it were not for me, she’d still be alive.”
“And if she were still alive…?”
“She’d be with that imbecile, Potter.” Severus noticed his eyelids were very warm as he closed them. Warm and dry.
“She’d be with someone else.”
Bitterness clawed at Severus’s throat. “With her husband and her family, probably wouldn’t even think about me – forgotten my very existence.”
“What do you want to say to her, Severus?”
Severus opened his eyes again. It hadn’t occurred to him that there might be something he wanted to say. And now that there was a chance to say something – anything – countless feelings jostled for position. Somehow, inexplicably, words found their way out of his mouth.
“I’d say I’m sorry. Sorry for not being the man she wanted me to be.” He paused as a red-hot serpent coiled itself around his spine, and his remorse faded slightly. “I could have been a better man if she’d given me a second chance. Instead I was forced out into the cold, and I’ve languished there for over twenty years, wishing I had died instead of her.”
“You’ve lived your life trying to say you’re sorry, and you’ve suppressed your anger after being abandoned by the woman you loved.”
Severus’s bottom lip pressed into his chin as the beginnings of a sob formed in his throat. His eyes watered, threatening tears, but he willed himself not to cry. Something he heard in Contessa’s words provoked a sense of futility and for the first time it seemed that living a life of atonement was folly.
But Severus wasn’t quite ready to concede that. He lived for Lily; she defined him to his very core and he couldn’t imagine being himself without her. He resolved he would make it up to her by doing what needed to be done; Severus could no longer protect her son, but he could ensure Harry Potter received all the information entrusted to him by Dumbledore. If it was the last thing he did.
And, perhaps, when he did, he might be able to forgive himself.
Contessa’s bluish-grey eyes met him across the divide, and Severus marvelled at her ability to walk alongside and accept him so completely, knowing some of his deepest flaws and his darkest, weakest emotions. It was as if she didn’t need him to be anything more than everything he already was.
He supposed it was the unconditional vow she had taken that helped him feel safe and, in a new and strange way, loved.
Somehow it seemed unreal, this sense of being cared for and treasured in darkness. Suddenly Contessa was like a precious stone unearthed before his very eyes.
He might have to consider thanking Dumbledore for finding him this gift. Severus would not have known to look for her, or believed such a person existed.
There was something different about Contessa, he realised. As with Lily, he shared a friendship with her, greater than any bond previously experienced. And yet somehow, when he was with Contessa, Severus knew he could be himself. Whatever he was, she was okay with. She knew he was a Death Eater, knew he loved the Dark Arts, knew he was bitter and twisted, preferred to be alone, loved another woman to the point of self destruction… All these things Contessa knew. And she was still there, steadfast, resolute and loyal.
It was something he had never encountered before and now her acceptance had leaked through into his perception, he realised that Contessa treasured him in a way which Lily never had.
Here was a woman, sitting opposite him, her attention fixed solely upon him, offering him a connection he never thought possible.
All of a sudden, Severus’s broken soul felt cherished and valued.
The vacuum in his abdomen filled with warmth and… another feeling… one he recognised but hadn’t allowed himself to feel for such a very long time.
Severus couldn’t bring himself to say the words in his head, but the warm and tender ache in his heart soothed his remaining doubts. It was as though he had a chance to start anew, to live his life differently. To free himself from the chains he had worn for so many years.
With a start, he realised they had been sitting in silence for almost half an hour. He shifted on the sofa, forcing blood to move through his immobile limbs.
Knowing he could not verbalise the revelation of his feelings for Contessa, Severus needed to switch the focus elsewhere. It was too soon to make any sort of admission to her, too uncomfortable, too dangerous. He racked his brain for the last words they had spoken.
They had been about his remorse for his part in Lily’s death.
That moment seemed an eternity ago.
“I’ve made a decision,” Severus said.
“I know what I need to do to put things right.”
Contessa leaned forward and reached out for his clasped hands. She placed warm hands on top of his and squeezed gently. He allowed this contact for a moment, before pulling away.
“Why do you think the potion affected me differently?” he asked. The tone of his voice signalled a wish to conclude the conversation.
“I’m not sure,” Contessa replied, one hand resting now upon her knee, the other sweeping back the wavy brown hair falling across her shoulders. “These last two attempts were based on Memory Potion and seemed to unlock suppressed feelings. Perhaps I didn’t have the same repressed emotions to release, so there’s been no effect on me.”
It was conceivable. Severus sat back in his seat, altering his posture to indicate his wish for her to leave.
Wordlessly, Contessa stood up and padded softly to the door. She placed her hand upon the doorknob.
“Tess,” Severus called across the room.
Her name tingled slightly on his tongue, and he watched a small smile curl around her mouth.
“Thank you,” he said sincerely.
She nodded once, wished him goodnight, and left him on his own again, swimming in a warm pool, out from which he never wanted to climb.