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The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 5]

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Chapter Nine

A New Memory

Severus stood in the living room momentarily stunned, as he watched Contessa bounce merrily into the garden. He was finding her mood changes rather unpredictable and infuriating.

Dumbledore’s portrait coughed quietly at him from across the room. Severus met the Headmaster’s gaze with exasperation. Dumbledore’s eyes followed Contessa’s path out of the house, and he inclined his head towards the front door for emphasis.

Severus was about to reply, but thought better of it. He knew Dumbledore was expecting him to find some way to repay Contessa for her help with the rings. There was no point in arguing.

With his shoulders hunched he slouched out of the cottage.

Across the garden, Severus could make out the figure of his hostess running around the apple orchard. In one hand she held an empty flask, the size of a jam jar. He watched her as she flicked her wand with increasing annoyance.

When he could no longer wait without intervening, Severus approached her with caution, not wishing to stray into her building temper.

“It’s too early. The sun has not quite set,” he told her with cool rationality.

Contessa flashed a look of irritation towards him before resuming her pointless task.

“Stop,” he commanded her forcefully, grabbing out for the arm which held the glass jar and pulling her to face him.

For a fleeting moment the rings touched and a rush of anger and frustration engulfed him.

Contessa seemed to sober instantly.

Placing the jar on the ground, she straightened, looking down at the Tiger’s Eye ring on her little finger. Severus noticed suddenly that her engagement ring was gone. A feeling of sadness took him by surprise and he shook it off habitually.

Contessa carefully removed the silver ring and pocketed it.

“We don’t need these now,” she said with a trace of hardness in her voice.

“No,” Severus agreed, taking off his ring and holding it out towards her.

She looked at it briefly before turning away. “Keep it,” she said stiffly. “It might come in useful.”

Severus watched her tight features as he tucked the ring inside his robes and followed her to the wooden bench at the back of the garden.

Contessa sat, facing the sunset, her features heavy with the weight of the day’s events. Severus stood next to the bench, facing the same pink and orange skyline, wondering how he was going to find a way to help this woman. And the sooner the better, if he wanted to be released from his obligation.

As he stood watching the sun sinking on the horizon, he could smell the heady scent of jasmine in the air. Bats started to poke their heads out of their nests in the roof of the cottage and swoop around the garden silently. Severus watched them darting gracefully and was reminded of Fawkes. The phoenix had renewed himself after his master’s funeral.

Suddenly an idea came to him.

Unexpectedly, Severus was pulled out of his thoughts by a question.

“Will Death Eaters be frequent visitors?” Contessa asked him, fidgeting nervously on the bench.

“Why do you ask?” he replied, unsure of what had prompted her query.

“I was thinking about what you said earlier – that the Dark Lord would send them to fetch you.” Contessa shuddered. “What should I do if they arrive?”

Severus paused to consider his answer. He sat down next to her on the bench.

“Death Eaters are unlikely to come to the cottage,” he said with conviction.

“How do you mean?”

He sighed. “The Dark Lord believes you to be under the Imperius Curse.”

Contessa nodded at this, but without comprehension.

“I’ve asked him to keep my location secret so that we are not disturbed…”

“I don’t understand,” she said with a hint of impatience.

Severus turned away from her and faced the setting sun. “The Dark Lord believes I am enjoying more than just your company,” he said quietly, ignoring the scoffing sound emitting from the woman beside him. “It is my reward for loyal service.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, Severus felt his cheeks burning, and he was infinitely grateful for the ambient glow of the sunset hiding his discomfiture.

“Enjoying more than just my company?” she repeated incredulously. “Unbelievable.” Contessa shook her head and rose from the bench, striding away until she was out of reach with her back towards him.

“Surely the Imperius Curse cannot perform such a remarkable feat!” she pondered. “Or can it?” she rounded upon him, but her expression suggested she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to hear the answer.

Severus watched her as the sun dipped below the horizon, her redoubtable profile bearing down on him with indignation. He knew that the answer he gave would be judged instantly, but he also felt compelled to give her a truthful reply. He took a deep breath.

“It can,” he responded, his voice clipped in the twilight.

Contessa blanched and her eyes narrowed. Turning away from him, she picked up the glass jar and stalked towards the orchard.

Severus watched her for a short while as she gathered Fawkes’ first meal. It was no surprise that Contessa thought him capable of such coercion, but her implied rejection of him gnawed at an old wound. Memories of a swirl of red hair disappearing behind the Fat Lady’s portrait flashed before him.

Severus had long ago become accustomed to being alone; he felt certain it was his destiny. No one would accept him for what he truly was. Dumbledore was the only person who knew him well, but the Headmaster had been prone to judging him. Severus had a sense that he never lived up to the Headmaster’s expectations, despite his well intended actions.

No, Severus had learned he fared better if he kept himself hidden. His talent and flare were of more importance; sharp intellect was a worthy value.

Deciding it would be better to leave Contessa alone, Severus gathered up the remnants of the wine and glasses and picked up his book. He returned to the cottage, moving twitchily through the descending darkness.

Fawkes was chirruping softly in the living room. Severus went over to the perch and stroked the baby phoenix gently. “Supper is on its way,” he reassured him.

Sinking into the armchair, Severus reopened the book he had been reading. Contessa had a small but excellent library with which he could while away the long hours alone.

Darkness had fallen completely by the time she returned inside. The glass jar was full to the brim with Stunned moths. Contessa appeared calmer now; it seemed she had taken out her frustration on the poor creatures and had procured enough moths for a whole week. Severus admired her pragmatism.

Contessa walked past the armchair and fed the baby bird by hand, until it was full to bursting. Fawkes clucked happily back at Contessa and then settled down in his nest of ashes. Contessa watched the phoenix as it fell into a deep slumber.

Turning to face Severus, she looked at him uncertainly.

“You have another question?” Severus asked evenly.

Contessa shifted uneasily on the spot. “What happens if the Dark Lord himself pays a visit?”

Severus had not anticipated this question and his eyebrows crept slowly up his forehead. “That is unlikely.”

“But not impossible?” she pressed.

Severus sighed inwardly. Contessa needed to feel prepared for all eventualities. It was a Ravenclaw trait.

“Act as though you have been Confunded,” Severus suggested, “a vacant, glazed expression.”

She snorted quietly. “I know the Dark Lord is an accomplished Legilimens,” she began, some trepidation in her voice.

“You wish me to teach you Occlumency,” Severus surmised.

“No,” she replied, shaking her head. “I’m an adequate enough Occlumens. However, should the Dark Lord seek access to my memories…how do I know which ones to show him?”

Severus sensed immediately that she had a point; he might need such a memory himself. He searched his own recollections for an appropriate scene.

“Well, this evening we shared a glass of wine in the shade of the oak tree.”

“Very romantic,” she sneered. “The Dark Lord expects you to woo me?” Her voice was scathing.

“No,” Severus conceded. He placed his book down and rose to his feet.

They looked each other up and down, sizing each other up. Dumbledore’s portrait let out a soft chuckle.

Contessa’s eyes flashed viciously and she turned to face the picture frame with her hands on her hips.

In one swift movement, Severus gripped Contessa’s forearm and roughly pulled her back towards him. The force of the about-turn sent her body colliding into his. He held her tightly and noticed a wave of surprise and fear in her eyes.

“Let go of me!” she demanded, struggling against his pincer-like grip.

Severus held her firmly. “It will be better for you if you do not fight.” His voice was hypnotically soft and low.

Contessa relaxed a little in his arms; she seemed to have realised his plan. Severus inclined his head closer and closer, until their noses almost touched. Her pupils dilated and she held her breath in suspense.

Severus’s head turned slightly to the left and his black hair grazed her cheek. Into her ear, a voice of dark velvet whispered, “Close your eyes.”

Contessa let out a little gasp, but Severus felt her compliance as her eyelashes brushed against his cheek.

Holding her still for a moment, his breath warm on her neck, Severus closed his eyes too.

Then, gently, Severus let go of Contessa and walked quietly away.

He watched her for a short time and took in her rigid, tense posture, her hands clenching furiously at her sides. She didn’t open her eyes.

Severus saw her now as a woman; no longer a student, with a striking beauty in her unsettled features. The moment he realised his appreciation of her, he quickly reminded himself of Lily and customarily shook off the unwanted feelings.

He clapped his hands together once.

Contessa jumped and opened her eyes, surprised to see him so far away from her.

“That memory should suffice,” Severus said coolly.

Contessa shivered as though waking up.

Severus picked up his book and made his way to the stairs, pausing briefly at the bottom. “Goodnight.”

Contessa stood gazing at him, but did not return his parting gesture. She seemed unable to speak.

Severus ascended the stairs and closed the door of the guest room on her discomposed face.

The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 5]

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