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On the evening of her birthday, Tess arrived in the Headmaster’s office wearing a silk dress in the shades of Ravenclaw House – dark blue and bronze.
Severus noticed the colour matched her eyes, which seemed bluer than usual, and the bronze edging of the dress’s neckline and straps brought out highlights in her wavy brown hair.
Her hands brushed her hips nervously. “From your expression, I assume my appearance suffices?”
Severus cleared his throat. “Without a doubt.”
“I received your owl,” Tess said, smiling. She indicated to the garment thrown over her arm. “I’ve brought a coat instead of a cloak. I take it we’re leaving the castle?”
“We are.” Severus slid a tailored black jacket over his shoulders and fastened the buttons. He glanced at his watch. “We should go; we don’t want to be late.”
As they descended the spiral staircase, he caught Tess peeking at him with a curious look on her face. They didn’t speak again until they left the castle and were approaching the boundary wall.
“Where are we going?” Tess asked.
“It’s a surprise.”
“A surprise?” Tess groaned. “I hate surprises.”
Severus allowed himself a tight laugh. “I thought you might.”
On the other side of the gate, Severus took hold of her hand and together they Apparated to a deserted country lane. The road was lined with the season’s first bluebells, and the sun was setting against the stunning backdrop of the valley. A dark cloud loomed overhead, threatening rain. Tess wandered over to a nearby fence to look at the cattle in the field, grazing in the dwindling daylight hours. The sky was pinkish-yellow against the landscape’s silhouette.
“Is that Pendle Hill?” Tess asked.
“You’ve been here before?”
“No, but I’ve read about the witch trials here. I’ve seen pictures, but didn’t realise this part of England was so pretty.”
A drop of rain landed on the side of Severus’s nose, and he looked up at the blackening clouds above them. Tess quickly buttoned up her coat whilst Severus selected a fallen tree-branch at the roadside, withdrew his wand, and Transfigured it into a umbrella.
The black brolly was just about large enough for the two of them but Severus would’ve happily given the protection from rain entirely to Tess. He was delighted, however, when she huddled under its shelter and slipped her arm around his elbow.
Severus tucked his wand away. “No more magic when we get to the top of the lane,” he said dryly. “Not unless you want to be strapped to a ducking stool and drowned in a pond.”
Tess laughed. “I’m sure you’d save me from such a fate, Severus. That being said, we may drown in the rain before we reach our destination.”
Heavy raindrops drummed on the umbrella as they walked to the top of the hill. As they turned the corner, Severus spotted a restaurant with lights shining merrily in the downpour. They hurried across the road and looked through the windows. There were no customers inside. Perfect.
Tess shivered against him, as a cold gust of air almost toppled the umbrella. She squeezed his arm and smiled. “You’ve brought me to an Italian restaurant?”
Severus searched her features; her blue-grey eyes shone with amusement and her hair flew about in the wind.
“I thought you’d want to get out of the castle,” Severus said. “Muggle territory and Italian cuisine seemed like a safe choice.”
Tess laughed, the corners of her eyes creasing into a stunning smile. Lingering tensions drained away as Severus watched the beguiling woman on his arm.
“Happy birthday, Tess.”
Unexpectedly, she flung her arms around him, hugging him tight. Severus could detect the faint aroma of strawberry in her hair, and he was disappointed when she released him from her hold.
A stream of water slid from the brolly as it tilted to one side, and then Tess ducked out from underneath its cover and stepped into the restaurant’s porch.
Severus closed the umbrella and passed through the door, following Tess inside. The air was warm and garlicky, and they took off their coats and hung them up to dry.
Within moments of their arrival they were greeted by the waiter and showed into the restaurant. There was a small table reserved for them beside a leaded window with a view across the purple horizon. Pendle Hill loomed ominously in the distance as storm clouds fast approached the setting sun, blotting out the remaining sunlight.
Severus had to stop himself from lighting the candle on the table with a Lumos Charm, to afford them extra illumination. The waiter pulled out Tess’s chair.
“This is a real treat,” Tess said excitedly as she took her seat opposite Severus.
The waiter lit the candle with a gas-lighter, and wandered off.
“I can’t remember the last time I ate at a Muggle restaurant,” Tess said in a low voice.
“Nor can I, but with the curfew, Death Eaters and Dementors at Hogsmeade, this seemed more conducive to an evening out,” Severus said. “And we can’t risk being seen publically together in the wizarding world.”
“No,” Tess agreed.
Severus was pleased by the note of sadness in her voice.
Menus arrived and they took a while to choose their meal. Occasionally Tess glanced around the restaurant and bar area, looking a little bemused.
“There’s no-one else here,” she whispered over the top over her menu. “I hope the food’s alright.”
“The food will be fine,” Severus replied. “I suggested to the waiter that he should refuse further bookings tonight.”
“You can’t Confund a Muggle for my birthday!”
“He isn't Confunded,” said Severus defensively, even though the thought had previously occurred to him. “I paid him.”
Tess blushed. “So it’s only us?”
“Yes,” he murmured. “And the waiter.”
The aforementioned man arrived at the table with a notebook and pen and proceeded to take their order.
Severus unfastened the top button of his shirt, as the waiter laid out a napkin on Tess’s lap and left them alone again.
“You suit that shade of green,” she commented, watching Severus as he manoeuvred his dark waistcoat and straightened the cuffs of his sleeves which, in the candlelight, appeared more black than green. “You look...”
“Like a Muggle?” Severus supplied.
Tess giggled. “Not like any Muggle I’ve ever seen. But that’s not a bad thing. You look... dark and mysterious.”
Having heard the realness of the compliment she’d bestowed upon him, Severus studied her face. He couldn’t remember the last time a woman had made a favourable remark, or at least done so genuinely.
“You look beautiful,” he offered.
“Thanks,” Tess replied, slightly pink in the cheeks.
The waiter arrived with red wine, uncorked the bottle and poured it into two large glasses. All the while, Severus and Tess remained silent, snatching tentative glances across the table.
When the waiter departed, Severus was unsure what to say next. So far the evening had gone exactly as planned, but now his mind was blank and his heart was skipping like a schoolgirl playing Double Dutch.
“Have you been here before?” Tess asked.
“Oh. No. But I know the village. My mother’s family are from these parts.”
Tess leaned forward and rested her head on her upturned palm. “You haven’t told me much about your parents.”
“There’s not much to tell.”
“I’d still like to hear it.”
Severus took a sip of his wine and settled back in his chair. He supposed this conversation was inevitable, in a way. He just hadn’t banked on it happening tonight.
“My mother passed away the year I left Hogwarts. She didn’t tell me she was ill, didn’t tell me she was dying. She refused to seek help and just wasted away before my eyes.”
“Where was your father?”
“He’d left the year before.”
“What was he like?”
Severus ran his fingers through his hair, wondering how much he should say. He never talked about his family to anyone.
“I have his nose,” Severus began awkwardly.
“I like your nose,” Tess said.
“You wouldn’t have liked him. He was a swine,” Severus said bitterly.
Tess didn’t respond, but her eyes searched his inquisitively.
Severus took a deep breath. “He smoked, drank, and my parents argued constantly. When I was doing my NEWTs I found out he was physically violent towards my mum, and had been for years.” Severus’s innards twisted at the memory. “She’d been hiding the bruises and broken bones with potions and healing charms. When I witnessed an attack for myself... I sent him packing.”
“What do you mean?”
“I Imperio’d him. Forced him to sign over the deeds of the house, pack his belongings – all of them – and then I slipped him a Memory Potion. I dropped him off in Cornwall and left him to fend for himself. I doubt he even knows I exist.”
Tess was contemplative. “That’s so sad.”
Severus peered at her for a long moment, perplexed.
“You lost both of your parents within a year of each other.”
“We weren’t close. Hogwarts was my real home.”
“Do you ever wonder what became of him?”
Severus considered his reply. “Occasionally. Mostly when I’m wishing him ill.”
Their first course arrived. A wave of garlic assailed their nostrils. The waiter smiled and retreated to the bar.
“I noticed your brother hadn’t changed much,” Severus commented, changing the subject.
“Oh, I’m sorry about him. He was always over-protective; he drives me crazy.”
“How long is he home for?”
“A month, so he says. But I can only take him in small doses. He’s still a rogue, even at the age of thirty-seven. The boy got wanderlust when he finished his OWLs and the man never grew out of it.”
“You and he are very different.”
“Noticed that, did you?” Contessa chuckled. “I can’t believe he spent three days trying to give me advice about romance. The whole notion is laughable.”
“What advice did he give you?”
Caught off-guard, Tess’s gaze flickered away. She ran her fingers up and down the stem of her wine glass. “You really don’t want to know.”
Severus was cut off by the arrival of the waiter, who cleared away their plates and enquired after the quality of their starters. Tess stepped-in and handled the pleasantries, whilst Severus felt as though a water-filled balloon was bouncing around his abdomen.
He fidgeted with the napkin on his lap as the waiter disappeared, and looked up to see Tess fiddling with the place-setting on the table. If he wasn’t so nervous, he’d have laughed. They were both mature adults – how could this kind of conversation be so difficult?
Severus began to gather the courage to speak again and, just as he was opening his mouth to continue the conversation, the waiter reappeared to refill their wine.
Tess smiled at Severus’s expression.
“This is what happens when you are the only customers in a restaurant, Severus. You get the full attention of the staff.”
Her hand dropped to the table and she caressed the back of his hand.
Severus watched her fingers slipping between his, feeling the warmth of her hand pressing down upon his own. With his heart in his throat, Severus was unable to speak. Nor could he move; his legs were wobbly against his chair and his arms felt like leaden weights, paralysed at his sides.
He wanted nothing more than to reach across the table, pull her towards him, and kiss her.
And he felt certain that, once this was accomplished, the rest of his life would somehow fall neatly into place.
He could be redefined by that one act alone; the slate would be wiped clean and his core rebuilt.
A completeness which he hadn’t even known he’d craved was offering itself to him, right now, in this moment.
His mouth opened to speak, but Tess was not looking his way. She was staring at their entwined hands on the tabletop.
“I suspect Nate’s advice is probably right,” she said. “But now is not the right time.”
Tess’s fingers squeezed his hand gently as she let go.
Severus felt the breath in his lungs escape with a rush, leaving a frozen, empty space in his chest. Was she talking about him? Was she saying she had feelings for him? He couldn’t be sure.
He was about to risk everything; wear his heart on his sleeve and tell her how he felt. If only he could find the words, and air in his lungs.
Through his indecision came more of Tess’s words, shaking and sobering him.
“Hogwarts is such a dangerous place now. With the Carrows torturing students, it’s only a matter of time before the abductions and murders escalate. I – we – need to keep our focus.”
There was the word: ‘we’, not simply ‘I’. She was talking about him. She must be.
“Don’t you agree, Severus?”
His voice croaked in his throat as his mouth caught up with his brain. “Of course.”
Tess let out a breath.
Severus was still holding onto his. He wasn’t quite sure what had just happened, but he knew his opportunity had passed. Severus wondered if he’d ever find courage to say the words out loud.
When the main course arrived, it was a welcome relief. Severus steered the conversation to more familiar territory, and they talked about their Potions research for a while. They eventually came to the conclusion that their previously unheralded discovery of an Imperius Curse potentiator might provide them with a long-awaited breakthrough. The antidote had been effective, and could hold the key to discovering a curse-breaker.
And so they spent the remainder of the evening listening to the rain beating against the window pane, talking about Potions, Dark Arts, Dumbledore, the Pendle witch trials, anything and everything except about their true feelings.
As such, their pattern for the next few weeks was set. When they saw each other they didn’t touch, merely talked; conversation was a cover which allowed them to spend time together, during which they spoke of everything unimportant.
Every evening when Severus and Tess said goodnight and parted for their separate quarters, they would look at each other longingly from across the room. Neither uttered a word, but sometimes their eyes betrayed them.
When summer term reconvened, the Carrows’ punishment of students intensified. Neville Longbottom’s grandmother, Augusta, closely escaped kidnapping, and then Neville himself vanished from the school. Shortly afterwards the members of Dumbledore’s Army fled.
Then, one day in the Great Hall at dinner, Terry Boot shouted out the news of Harry Potter breaking into Gringotts and escaping on the back of a dragon.
That day, everything changed.