Sitting in the dappled shade of his tree, Severus turned to see the figure of a woman opening the curtain of willow branches and stepping onto his riverbank.
She wore a silk dress of bronze and blue, and her brunette tresses tumbled over her shoulders in waves, swept by the breeze. The lime-green luminosity of the leaves seemed to dance in patterns across her features.
At first, Tess approached hesitantly, watching Severus as he arose to greet her. Then suddenly she sped towards him, flinging her arms out and almost knocking him over with the force of her embrace.
She held him tightly, seeming afraid he might evaporate if she were to let go.
Severus gathered her hair gently away from her face and cupped her chin tenderly. When their lips converged her kiss was ragged and possessive, attempting to devour and contain him, as if he might otherwise slip away. He responded patiently, kissing her reassuringly, holding her head loosely in his hands.
And then Severus tasted salt.
His fingers grazed her cheeks and discovered they were soaking wet. He pulled away from her lips and wiped the tears from her face with his thumbs.
“I didn’t imagine you would cry when I kissed you,” he murmured.
Tess pressed her head into his chest and held him close.
“I don’t want to believe this is real,” she whispered. “It can’t be real...”
Severus stroked her hair. “Why not?”
“I saw you,” she said, her voice muffled against his shirt. “I felt you die.” Tess clung to him fearfully.
“I’m fairly sure I did die.”
Tess looked up at him, not sure what to believe. “They recovered your body a couple of hours ago. You’re currently laying on the dais in the Great Hall, next to Remus and Dora. This must be a dream. I must be asleep.”
Severus saw the seriousness of her expression, her confusion, and her loss of hope.
“And I thought this was somehow my dream...” he said. “Or some kind of afterlife. Everything I wish for appears here.” He lifted her chin with his fingertips, so he could look into her beautiful blue-grey eyes. “Including you.”
He moved closer, and her eyes flickered shut as her lips welcomed him in a slow, tranquil kiss. This was what he had imagined: Tess in his arms, belonging to him, melting against him as their bodies merged, never to be parted again.
And now Severus knew a true moment of serenity. Of loving and being loved.
If only it could last forever.
He sensed a change in her when her fingers pressed into his cheek, and she softly pushed his lips away. He saw questions flicking though her eyes; all-too-quickly her Ravenclaw inquisitiveness took over, her rational mind struggling to comprehend their apparent shared existence, unable to go with the flow of the moment.
Tess studied his features as if he were some great mystery waiting to be understood.
Severus knew he had been an enigma in life; he had deliberately remained so to protect himself over the years. But he now realised he wanted Tess to understand him.
He cared little about the puzzle of his being there with her, impossibly, implausibly, in the happiest place he had ever known.
What he needed now was for Tess to know him, inside and out, the best of him and the worst of him. All of it.
All of him.
But, for now, it appeared Tess needed to know the answer to ‘How?’
Severus glanced at the grassy verge and a picnic blanket appeared forthwith, together with two plump cushions. He took her hand and guided her to sit down beside him.
Tess couldn’t relax. She fidgeted incessantly, wringing her hands, looking furtively around, trying to work out the conundrum. She turned and rested against the side of her hip, and her eyes devoured him. “Where are we?”
Severus looked around once more at the branches of the weeping willow enclosing them. “On the riverbank near my home; the place I felt most happy.”
Tess swallowed the answer with consternation. She adjusted the straps of her dress as they threatened to slip from her shoulders.
“We appear to be wearing the clothes we wore on your birthday,” Severus continued. “I assume my choice was based on the moment I was happiest with you.”
Tess smiled self-consciously. “They would’ve been my choice too.”
Severus felt a spike of fear. “Oh my God, Tess. You’re not dead too? Did you die in the battle?”
“No. I’m not dead. At least, I don’t think I am. After Harry killed Voldemort, I returned to the Headmaster’s office, hoping to see your portrait, and then... I put your Tiger’s Eye ring on my finger.” Tess looked down at her hand and there it was – his ring on her middle finger. “That’s the last thing I remember.”
Severus took her hand and kissed it. His fingers nudged the golden brown stone. The silver band sparkled in the broken rays of sunlight.
“So it must be something to do with the ring. Tell me what happened to it,” he said.
“I... took it from your little finger, and it was covered in your blood. But then the spots of blood disappeared, as if it had been absorbed into the metal. Later on, the ring soaked up the bloodstains from my robes.”
Severus pondered the repercussions. Somehow his essence could have become trapped in the ring. He remembered Harry Potter had been discussing Horcruxes when he’d returned to the castle, so that must have been how the Dark Lord had survived death all those years before.
But what new magic was this, which sealed Severus’s soul into a ring? His soul did not tear at the time of his death, if anything, he felt it heal.
He shared his musings with the woman at his side.
Her nose scrunched as she considered the question of Horcruxes and souls. “Would Horcruxes absorb blood?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“How much time do you think we have?” Tess asked.
“I think time works differently here,” Severus said. “You said my body had been moved two hours ago, yet I had barely been here two minutes when you arrived. I have the sense that we have plenty of time, although I can’t tell you how I know that.”
Tess stifled a yawn. She looked tired and weary. Severus brushed a stray strand of hair out of her face.
“When did you last sleep?” he asked.
She thought about it for a moment. “About twenty-two hours ago.”
Tess yawned properly now. Her tiredness was contagious.
Severus lay back on the cushions and gestured for her to rest her head against his shoulder. “We can solve the mystery of the Tiger’s Eye ring when you’ve had some sleep,” he said softly. “Lie down with me, Tess. I’ll be here when you wake.”
Tess sat watching him, no doubt torn between her need for sleep and her need for answers. He smiled at her, happy that she was there with him. She was all he really wanted, after all.
Her smile spread to a mischievous grin.
“There are several things I’d like to do before I get some shut-eye, Severus,” she said. Her eyes narrowed as her gaze swept his body.
Severus did a guileless double-take.
Tess laughed and slipped one leg over his hips, straddling him. Playfully, she began to undo the buttons on his waistcoat.
Then she was unbuttoning his shirt and running her warm hands up his chest, and it seemed as though Severus had forgotten to breathe. His lips, slightly parted, had nothing to say. His eyes could only watch.
If this were heaven, he wanted to stay for all eternity.
She leaned over him, locks of her hair tickling his face and chest.
“Besides,” Tess said, her voice a whisper in his ear, “I want to see what kind of underwear you imagined I’d be wearing.”
Severus felt little-used muscles contracting as a smile crept across his face.
His fingers found the zipper on the back of her dress, and Amarone lips enveloped him in a teasing kiss.