A Beautiful Lie
Contessa closed the door inside Severus’s personal chambers and rested her back against the solid oak panel. Her knees were close to giving out and she fought the urge to slide down and collapse into a quivering pool on the floor.
It was the second time she had felt Severus’s breath lingering on her neck, but this time her skin had been softly kissed.
Her collarbone still tingled with the memory. She almost couldn’t breathe.
Contessa tried to recover her composure as her clenched fists gently banged against the door. Years of ingrained resistance to Severus’s authority mingled with the exquisite sensation of his lips brushing against her skin and the delicate caress of his fingers against her jaw and neckline.
She was annoyed with his ability to demean her and dazed by his power to make her literally weak at the knees. And there was also a feeling of awe.
Severus had been able to act out his role convincingly, undaunted by the sudden appearance of an adversary and unfazed by the part he had to play. Contessa envied his ability to detach himself from his emotions. She knew the unrequited feelings she harboured had hindered her ability to play along.
Amycus Carrow’s muffled voice was discernible from the outside and Contessa placed her ear carefully against the wooden door.
“She’s still got spirit, that one,” Amycus was saying. “Are yeh sure yeh’re controllin’ her completely with the Imperius Curse?”
Contessa heard the clinking of china, and pictured the Death Eater taking a seat and helping himself to her cup of coffee.
“She is controlled at precisely the level I require,” Severus replied.
There was a slight pause.
“She didn’t seem that submissive just then,” Amycus remarked.
Contessa imagined Severus raising his eyebrows, planning his next words with great care. She wished she’d pretended to be more compliant and hoped Severus had an answer which would easily explain her insubordination.
As usual, the falsities dropped from his lips with practised ease. “I don’t want her to be too meek and subservient – otherwise where’s the challenge?”
Contessa shivered. The lie sounded so beautiful, wrapped in the velvet timbre of his voice. She closed her eyes as butterflies fluttered upwards towards her throat.
Amycus grunted. “Yeh always did get a kick from them power games.”
Severus’s reply was smooth, steering the conversation away from their deception. “I believe you wished to discuss Miss Lovegood?”
Contessa sighed and slowly breathed in the air of the bedroom. There was a noticeable medicinal smell, much like that of the dungeons, and its sharp, herbal aroma suffused the room.
She opened her eyes and cast a Lumos Charm. The candles sprang into life as Contessa walked cautiously into the chambers.
The bedroom was oak-panelled and held an air of understated grandeur. A large four-poster bed with emerald green velvet curtains dominated the room.
The space was fairly tidy, with the exception of Severus’s cloak, frock coat and assortment of crumpled robes strewn across the bed, and the usual towers of books at his bedside. It seemed the house-elves were curbing some of the Headmaster’s untidier tendencies.
Contessa looked around for somewhere to sit down and noticed a dressing table opposite the foot of the bed. There was no stool. The only place to sit was the bed and she was loath to follow Severus’s instructions to warm it for him – he was already pushing his luck, as far as she was concerned.
Staring at the bed, she started to entertain the notion of slipping underneath the sheets. The stone-coloured pillowcases glowed in the candlelight and she was drawn to run her fingers across the material. Crisp cotton slipped under her touch and Contessa’s hand teased the warm brown quilt where it met the paler sheets. She envisioned herself sliding underneath, surrendering to…
A pop sounded suddenly, yanking Contessa brutally out of her daydream. Binky the house-elf appeared at the opposite side of the bed and, without looking up, proceeded to collect Severus’s discarded robes from the bed, presumably taking them to be laundered.
Contessa snatched her hand away from the bed linen and took a step backwards. The elf flinched and looked up at her, eyes wide with panic and surprise.
“Good evening, Madam Marchbanks,” he squeaked. “Binky apologises for the intrusion.” He looked around furtively. “The Headmaster’s personal chambers are usually unoccupied at this time of the evening.” Binky’s face was full of remorse as he bowed apologetically. The house-elf then removed the belt from Severus’s trousers and began lashing himself in punishment.
Contessa ran to the other side of the bed and extracted the leather belt from the elf’s hand, holding Binky still in her grasp to prevent a further attempt at self-harm.
“There is no need for that,” Contessa told Binky. “Besides, we have a delicate situation unfolding. One of the Carrows is with Severus in the living room.”
Binky’s eyes narrowed and his ears twitched. “Binky understands, Madam.” His eyes flickered once again to the leather belt in Contessa’s hand, clearly fighting the urge to continue chastising himself. He licked his lips.
Contessa coiled the belt in her hand and opened the dresser drawer nearest to her, stowing the makeshift weapon out of sight.
Binky slumped in relief. His saucer-shaped eyes searched the room, taking in the rumpled edge of the sheet where Contessa had been standing.
“Binky can turn down the bed for Madam, if required.”
Contessa eyed the bed and her cheeks burned, hoping her stare alone would return the sheets to their former pristine state.
“That won’t be necessary, Binky,” she said, trying to appear nonchalant.
Binky gathered up the remaining clothes, straightened the sheets and bade Contessa goodnight.
Standing alone once more in Severus’s bedroom, the thought of the Headmaster expecting to find her waiting underneath the covers became a real predicament. Contessa wondered if he would choose to humiliate her with a mocking smirk, or praise her for her pragmatism. It was, after all, unlikely that he would join her in the warm bed.
Of course it was. She shook herself again.
Contessa collapsed to a sitting position on the edge of the bed, her feet nudging one of the teetering piles of books by the bedside table.
With a sigh, she realised she had no appetite for reading and wondered how long Severus would be occupied. The patterned rug at the side of the bed held her attention for a while as she waited.
A quarter of an hour later, lost in a trance, Contessa jumped at the sound of the door snapping open. Severus strode into the room, his boots clicked sharply on the floor until he stopped a few feet away from her. His fingers entwined as he clasped his hands together and, despite wearing casual clothing, he appeared stern and imposing. Contessa leapt to her feet tremulously.
“Has he gone?” she asked.
“Thank God,” Contessa exhaled.
“And what exactly have you been doing for the last fifteen minutes?” he snapped, raising his chin slightly and looking down his hooked nose at her.
“I beg your pardon?” she replied indignantly.
“I specifically told you to warm the bed for me. Instead you saw fit to tidy the room and perch on the edge of a bed like a Bowtruckle camouflaged in its tree.”
Contessa felt a hot and heady flush envelop her. “Who the hell do you think you’re talking to?” Her hands moved to her hips.
Severus’s eyebrows arched and he looked down at her imperiously. “I am talking to a shameless temptress of a Potions Assistant, who cannot be trusted to maintain a charade.”
The words ‘how dare you’ never quite made it out of Contessa’s mouth; they were superseded by the swift movement of her clenched fist. Her punch landed on Severus’s cheek before he could mount a defence.
He looked back at her with mild surprise and caught her wrist to prevent further blows. Severus winced as he rubbed his face with his free hand, flexing his jaw experimentally.
“Temper, temper,” he said patronisingly into the awkward silence. “You really need to learn to control your emotions. You almost gave the game away.”
Contessa suppressed a low growl forming in her throat. “Pardon me for being distracted by your vampiric tendency of going for my neck –”
“Not then, Contessa. You just about held it together when Amycus entered the room. But if he’d decided to barge into the bedroom he’d have found a sheepish-looking slip of a woman staring pensively at the floor. Hardly a vision of Imperio’d lust and temptation.” Severus’s low voice was scolding as he continued to hold her tightly by one arm.
“If you thought I’d actually warm the bed for you then you’re seriously deluded,” Contessa retaliated. Her chest heaved with her ragged breath but, deep down, she knew the untruth of her words.
“For God’s sake, woman,” Severus replied, exasperated. “I didn’t expect to find you draped across my bed in your underwear, but I did hope you would think to close the curtains around the bed and pretend to be ready and waiting for your Headmaster.”
This time the growl escaped from Contessa’s throat and she snatched her arm away from him, stalking out of the bedroom and into the empty living room.
She hated him for it, but Severus’s logic was sound. Contessa realised her romantic feelings for him were still clouding her judgement.
Reaching the back of the sofa upon which Severus usually sat, she stopped and hunched over. Her hands stroked the worn fabric as her mind processed the evening’s events. She heard Severus’s footsteps following her out of the bedroom and sensed him standing quietly behind her. Eventually Severus reached out and Contessa felt the reassuring warmth of his hand on her shoulder. She turned to face him.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t think.”
Severus removed his hand and gestured for her to sit down on the sofa. As she did so, he took out his wand and cleared away the debris from the coffee table. Two mugs of hot chocolate appeared before them. Contessa couldn’t help but smile when Severus tapped his wand against her cup and marshmallows suddenly bobbed on the surface of the steaming liquid.
She watched Severus sit down opposite her, on the sofa which usually belonged to her. Her heart-rate slowed and her breathing returned to normal. She picked up the cup and prodded the marshmallows with a spoon. “Thanks.”
Severus took a sip of his drink. “I know certain situations can be hard if you’re not accustomed to play-acting.” His features were softer now as he stared at the mug in his hands. “It’s even more difficult since we’ve become friends.” He didn’t look up.
Contessa had a sense of Severus’s personal struggle to verbalise the latter sentence and one word resonated through her, removing any lingering animosity or uncertainty.
Rendered speechless by a spiralling mixture of joy and sadness, Contessa wondered how long it had been since Severus had a friend. Certainly, in all the time she spent in his company, Contessa had never once heard him talk about having friends, in either a past or present tense.
Although she longed for more, she also realised that friendship alone was a compliment of some magnitude and not something which Severus gave readily.
She watched him shifting uncomfortably across the table and for the first time wondered how he felt about their masquerade. Contessa supposed it must be incredibly difficult for him when he felt no attraction towards her. She was shocked and slightly ashamed to realise she was not the only one who suffered.
Contessa cleared her throat. “Maybe, if it happens again, we should have a plan thought out in advance. If we hadn’t had to cobble it together at the last second you wouldn’t have needed to cover up for me.” Their eyes made contact again. “Your explanation of the strength of the Imperius Curse was inspired, by the way.”
Severus seemed to relax a little and his eyes widened slyly. “Yes, well, you’ve always been a bit of a challenge. Recently, once or twice, I thought I might Imperio you just to keep you quiet, but I decided you’re much more interesting company when in possession of all your faculties. Whilst you are often rather irritating, you are also entertaining by equal measure.”
“Funny. But you wouldn’t stand a chance at Imperio-ing me.” Contessa smiled. “Of course, I could have Imperio’d you if I’d chosen to.”
“I doubt that very much; it has been over twenty years since anyone has successfully placed me under the Imperius Curse.”
“Doubt all you want, Severus, but I could’ve done it. Luckily for you, I quite enjoy your quick-witted, acerbic nature. You wouldn’t have been much fun, otherwise.”
Severus regarded her suspiciously. “I am intrigued. I’d like to see you attempt the impossible and fail spectacularly. Perhaps you would like to place me under the Imperius Curse now?”
“Oh, I would very much like to, but I don’t think I’ll be able to do it at Hogwarts; the opportunities here are few and far between. However, there were numerous chances at Squirrel’s Leap. I’m quite disappointed that I let them pass me by, now that you mention it.”
Contessa picked up her drink and took a sip, determined not to rise to Severus’s bait. If she was going to have a chance at Imperio-ing the Headmaster, it would be easier if he didn’t know the method.
She covered up her conniving with a smile and settled back into the sofa with the cup of hot chocolate resting against her new silk blouse.