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The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 6]

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Chapter Forty-Six

Frozen in Time

As had been expected, the students of Hogwarts reacted angrily towards the abduction of Luna Lovegood.

During the first few weeks of term Dumbledore’s Army stepped up its activities, causing chaos at every opportunity. And, if they were able to get away with it, some of the professors turned a blind eye to their antics. With only the Carrows doling out severe punishments, the trouble-makers ran amok with sabotage and graffiti.

The Carrows had responded by establishing a Dark Arts Academy, but so far only the children of Death Eaters had become members, with the notable exception of Robert Selwyn.

Contessa continued to coach the third-year boy in potion-making, and was juggling tutorials with an increasing number of detentions for Horace Slughorn. Whilst Robert was still being bullied – his father was one of the Death Eaters involved in the kidnapping of Luna – it seemed the Slytherins had started to lose interest, so life had become slightly easier for him.

Potions experimentation had fast become the pursuit to which Contessa and Severus most looked forward, and the new laboratory had thus far produced three potions which they had tested in the privacy of the Headmaster’s quarters.

Contessa had fallen soundly asleep within moments of swallowing the first potion and, when the antidote proved ineffective, Severus had to carry her through the Floo Network to her quarters and put her to bed. She had been startled to find him sleeping on her sofa when she awoke the following morning.

As they had decided to take turns testing the potions, Severus had tried the second batch, only to find it completely ineffective when the Imperius Curse was cast; Contessa’s spell found its way past the potion and Severus deflected it thereafter. Apart from a few abdominal cramps, which had been reversed with the antidote, Severus had not suffered any ill-effects.

The third trial yielded more spectacular results – Contessa had placed one too many Billywig stings into the potion, and spent a large portion of the evening giggling uncontrollably whilst levitated in Severus’s living room. It seemed to Contessa that Severus had taken an inexcusably long time to administer the antidote, allowing for the fact that she had been hard to reach, circling the crystal chandelier and banging her head occasionally against the ceiling. Eventually Severus had performed a miraculous feat of levitation, hovering before her without aid of a broomstick. It was almost as though the Headmaster could fly.

On Friday the thirtieth of January, Contessa arrived in Severus’s quarters, flushed with success, after she had finished preparing the fourth potion ahead of schedule.

Severus was lying on the sofa with one arm curled around his head.

“What’s up?” Contessa asked as she placed two flagons of potion on the coffee table and took a seat opposite him.

Severus stared into space, as if she wasn’t there, until finally giving in to a sigh and slowly rising to a sitting position. Contessa watched his fine-looking hands as he ran his fingers through his scruffy hair. His lank, black locks disobeyed his command and quickly fell back into his eyes. He barely seemed to notice.

Contessa was aware that Severus hadn’t bothered to change his clothes; he still wore his boots, black trousers and white high-collared shirt. A black necktie hung unfastened around his collar and the creased, unbuttoned shirt revealed his Tiger’s Eye ring dangling on its chain. Contessa wondered how long Severus had lain there, and she deduced he hadn’t remembered she was coming for supper.

She didn’t expect an answer to her initial greeting and waited patiently until his dark eyes met hers.

“Have I arrived at a bad time?” she asked.

The crooked, yellowing teeth of Severus’s bottom jaw became visible for a moment. He cleared his throat. “Today is no different to any other day,” he said gruffly, staring at the floor as he clasped his hands and rubbed his thumbs together.

It occurred to Contessa that, to Severus, today seemed very different to a normal day, but she didn’t know why this would be the case. And she knew better than to push for an explanation.

“I’ve brought the new potion,” she said instead.

“So I see.”

“We could leave it for another night, though, if you prefer.”

There was a short pause as Severus shifted in his seat and gazed pensively into the fire. Then, in one swift movement, he grabbed the flagon of experimental potion from the table and rose to his feet, striding purposefully to stand next to the fireplace.

He downed the contents of the bottle in one gulp and immediately took a sharp intake of breath. The empty flagon slipped from his grasp and he simultaneously dropped to his knees. Hunched over on the rug by the hearth, Severus cradled his stomach, taking ragged, pained breaths.

Within moments Contessa was kneeling directly in front of him. It seemed as though her heart had stopped beating as she held out the potion’s antidote.

Up close, she saw Severus’s face had drained of colour and he was shaking, as if shivering from the cold. With his gaze fixed upon the floor, Contessa couldn’t raise his attention to the potion in her hands.

“Severus, take the antidote,” she said, lifting the small green bottle into his line of vision.

Unexpectedly, Severus reached out and seized the flagon, and proceeded to hurl it into the fire. Glass shattered against the chimney breast and the potion evaporated instantly into the Floo.

Severus knelt, trembling, as Contessa attempted to collect her thoughts. Whatever the potion was doing to him, he was refusing intervention and she suspected a bezoar stone would meet the same fate as the antidote.

And yet he was so obviously in distress. She knew she needed to try and calm him down.

“You’re really shaking aren’t you?” Contessa said gently, hoping the sound of her voice would draw his awareness into the room.

Severus continued to shake, but he nodded jerkily before resuming his stare at the floor.

His hand moved to clutch his chest and his breathing became fast and shallow. Black curtains of hair fell around his face like blinkers, freezing him in time. Contessa sensed him panicking, overwhelmed by his senses.

Severus was trying, yet unable, to communicate with her. She remained calm and motionless on the rug in front of him.

“I’m here, Severus,” she said, her voice soft and steady.

He didn’t respond.

“Can you see me?” she asked.

Severus’s head moved fractionally upwards. He nodded once.

“Clearly?” Contessa asked.

This time he raised his head further.

“Yes,” he said. His voice sounded ragged and throaty.

Severus’s eyes focused on the Tiger’s Eye ring around Contessa’s neck. He took a deep, shuddering breath, then his breathing calmed a little and he continued to stare at Contessa’s ring hanging on her necklace.

“Tell me what you can see,” she pressed quietly.

“Your ring.”

“What does it look like?”

“Silver. Golden brown stone. It… sparkles.” His hand moved to the ring around his own neck. He inserted the tip of his index finger and moved the ring back and forth along the chain.

“How’s your shaking, now that you can see me?”

“Better,” Severus replied.

Contessa let out a breath and her Tiger’s Eye ring tingled in response to Severus’s ministrations. Suddenly, she was overcome with a hunch.

“Do you want me to put my ring on?” she asked softly.

Her question hung in the air for a long moment, and Contessa wondered if Severus would answer.

Eventually, he raised his head. Dark eyes bored into hers as he yanked the ring from the chain around his neck. The silver necklace fell to the floor like a curling, coiled snake, and Severus lifted his other hand, ramming the ring onto his little finger.
He looked down at the floor again.

“I’m going to put the ring on my finger too, if that’s OK?” she asked, feeling sure this was what he wanted.

He didn’t respond.

Contessa mentally prepared herself as she unclasped her necklace, Occluding her thoughts and feelings so she could experience Severus’s without confusion. She slipped the ring onto her finger and felt a ripple of Severus’s fear and anxiety, then shuffled forward until she was close enough to place her hand on his knee.

Severus grasped Contessa’s hand firmly and the Tiger’s Eye rings touched, sending Contessa tumbling through space and time into a black, infinite void.

After a few long seconds of nauseating flashes of light and snatches of voices, Contessa felt her feet find solid ground.

She opened her eyes and found herself standing inside Severus’s memory.

The scene was crystal clear, as if the past event was happening again now, in this very moment. She noticed her body had a visual form but, like in a Pensieve, nobody in the memory could see her. With the possible exception of Severus Snape.

The young Potions master met Contessa’s eyes fleetingly before looking away, staring down the lengths of the House tables in the Great Hall at Hogwarts.

Contessa gasped as she turned around to see a plethora of pumpkins hovering mid-air. It was the Halloween feast and, at the opposite end of the hall, she saw her younger self, aged seventeen, celebrating with the other seventh-year Ravenclaws.

A sharp scrape of wood dragged on the stone floor behind her. The young Professor Snape had risen abruptly from his seat, clutching his left forearm as though in pain. He made brief, urgent eye contact with Professor Dumbledore and left for the sanctuary of the chambers at the rear of the Great Hall.

Contessa followed him, and Dumbledore joined him moments later.

“What is it, Severus?” the Headmaster asked.

Wordlessly, Severus unbuttoned his shirt-sleeve and rolled back the cuff. The Dark Mark burned black into his arm and the surrounding skin appeared red and swollen.

“There’s no destination to the Dark Lord’s call,” Severus said, disconcerted. “I don’t know why he summoned me or where he wishes to meet.”

Dumbledore peered through his half-moon spectacles at Severus’s Dark Mark, studying it closely. “I’ve never seen the mark so angry before. It troubles me. What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know,” Severus said impatiently. “Your orders, Dumbledore?”

The Headmaster contemplated his reply carefully. “Go to our friend Lucius Malfoy and find out what’s happening. Report back to me when you have news.”

Then the memory of Dumbledore dissolved as the room swirled around Contessa and she lost sight of Severus for a moment. When the sands of time reformed, she found herself following Severus as he ran up the moving, spiral stone staircase to the Headmaster’s office.

“Severus,” Dumbledore greeted him grimly as he burst through the door.

“Headmaster,” Severus replied brusquely as he strode across the circular office. “There’s no word from the Dark Lord. He appears to have vanished. The Death Eaters are restless and fearful; no one knows what to do next.”

“I suggest you take a seat,” said Dumbledore as he Summoned a chair.

Severus remained upright, ignoring the chair placed behind him. “Why?”

Dumbledore cringed briefly before looking away, addressing the Headteacher portraits instead of his Potions Master.

“It appears Voldemort has fallen,” he said, with his back towards Severus.

Contessa moved closer to Severus and touched his arm, reminding him she was still there.

“How?” Severus asked. “And when?”

“He fell when his own Killing Curse rebounded upon him, in the home of James and Lily Potter.”

Severus’s mouth gaped open in horror. “Is she alright?” he asked, his voice little more than a whisper.

Dumbledore turned to face him. “No, Severus. I’m sorry to say that she and James were murdered by Lord Voldemort.”

Severus’s knees gave out and Contessa saw him slump backwards into the chair, ebony eyes beseeching Dumbledore to tell him it wasn’t true. What little colour he had in his face drained away and the long breath he had been holding escaped in an audible cry of anguish.

Contessa dropped to her knees at the side of the chair and twisted her hand around Severus’s icy cold fingers. Glistening beads of tears formed in his eyes, blurring his vision as they fell onto his lap. His breath came in sharp, resonating bursts as gasps of agony fought their way out of his lungs. Hot, salty tears leaked onto Contessa’s hands as she tried to console him and she became aware that Severus could see her there, alongside him.

“I thought… you were going… to keep her… safe,” he panted, gasping for air.

“She and James put their faith in the wrong person,” Dumbledore said. “Rather like you, Severus.”

Contessa felt the dagger twisting in Severus’s gut. He flinched beside her. She tightened her hand resolutely around his.

“Weren’t you hoping that Lord Voldemort would spare her?” Dumbledore continued.

Contessa noticed Severus’s muscles tensing briefly. She nestled down on the floor and soothingly stroked the back of his hand, reassuring him of her presence.

“Her boy survives,” Dumbledore said.

Severus’s head jerked briefly.

“Her son lives. He has her eyes, precisely her eyes. You remember the shape and colour of Lily Evans’s eyes, I am sure?”

Contessa’s confusion was drowned out by the sensation of Severus’s tension building like a coiled spring.

“DON’T!” he bellowed. “Gone… Dead…” His voice trailed off hopelessly.

As fog cleared from Contessa’s vision, it became clear that the depth of Severus’s loss was much more than guilt. Her breath caught in her throat and her heart ached, halted and swollen inside her chest.

And still Dumbledore persisted.

“Is this remorse, Severus?”

But Severus didn’t seem to hear. He was imploding.

“I wish… I wish I were dead…”

Contessa felt Severus’s strength bleeding away, abandoning him to the depths of despair.

“And what use would that be to anyone?” Dumbledore said.

Contessa winced at the Headmaster’s coldness.

“If you loved Lily Evans, if you truly loved her, then your way forward is clear.”

Comprehension blossomed like a thorny rose in Contessa’s chest, in synchrony with the glimmer of hope sparking from the darkest depths of Severus’s heart.

Now she understood.

Severus’s undertaking to protect Harry Potter had come to pass because of his love for the boy’s mother. A love which seemed unrequited. Dumbledore had taken advantage of Severus’s loss and turned his grief into something else – a reason for carrying on.

Whilst Contessa saw why Dumbledore had given him a raison d’être, she couldn’t help but feel the constriction of Severus’s pledge like a noose around her neck. She quailed, suffocated, wanting to cry out and make the whole thing stop. This decision, this moment, had halted Severus and prevented him from healing, trapping him in bitter desolation for the rest of his life.

She moved in front of Severus’s chair, blocking his view of Dumbledore, and took his head tenderly in her hands.

Through his shocked and disbelieving eyes he told her enough.

Contessa held Severus in her arms, cradling his head as she closed her eyes and ran her fingertips through his long black hair.

They stepped into the blackness of the void together.

When Contessa opened her eyes again she found herself kneeling in Severus’s quarters in front of the fireplace. Her hand continued to stroke his hair as his head rested heavy against her shoulder. Feeling his silent tears dampening her neck, she wrapped her other arm around him, holding him close.

Contessa lost all sense of time as she listened to the sound of Severus’s laboured breathing, and felt the warmth of his chest rising and falling in her embrace.

In the fading firelight she began to comprehend the profundity of Severus’s love for Lily Evans. He had loved her all his life, loved her still, and would never love another.

Now they were back in the reality of the present day, the significance of the day’s date finally dawned upon her.

Lily Potter, born 30 January 1960

Died 31 October 1981

The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 6]

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