“I’ve laced up both my boots
So try and twist the knife
I am steel
I don’t feel
Anything at all”
‘Steel’, Charlotte Martin
The swoosh of the Floo roused Severus from his trance-like state; he’d lost track of how long he’d stared at the wooden grain of his coffee table.
Emerald flames erupted in the fireplace. Out of the corner of his vision, Contessa stepped from the hearth into his living room.
He was going to have to remedy that with immediate effect.
She stood silhouetted against the flames, still wearing the clothes she’d worn for dinner in the Great Hall. Severus had watched her cosseted up with Aurora Sinistra, animated in discussion throughout the entire evening meal. The rest of the teaching staff were sombre after Severus announced the appointment of the Carrows as heads of discipline, but Contessa seemed oblivious to the scene unfolding around her.
Severus had observed all this through his peripheral vision. He had not made eye contact with her, nor did he have any intention of doing so now.
The Potions Assistant remained standing by the fire, her eyes boring into the side of his head. Contessa’s gaze left a burning sensation on the back of Severus’s ear.
He was not going to look at her.
Severus picked up the book he had thrown to the floor half an hour previously, and leafed through the pages until he found his place. He settled back on the sofa and rested the book against his crossed legs, trying to read.
His attempt was as futile as it had been thirty minutes ago, but he didn’t care. It was all he could do to avoid looking up at the woman standing in his quarters.
Agonising seconds passed, stretching to infinity. Severus seemed unable to swallow; his mouth and throat had dried to sand.
Then, with a rustle of robes, Contessa crossed the room. Her boots thudded softly against the scarlet and gold rug. She sat down on the opposite sofa, perched on the edge of her seat.
Severus made no attempt to move, staring at the same paragraph he must have read ten times over. As he waited, tension built with bubbling nausea in his chest. He knew Contessa wouldn’t be dissuaded so easily. She would see through his repressive facade, and he deeply regretted granting her such access.
It would not happen again.
He wanted her to leave now. Take the hint and go. But he knew she wouldn’t. She would persistently search for his truth, digging and prying for an answer. Looking for one more fragment of his soul.
Part of him still wanted her to see him, to find him, to know him.
But he had to put a stop to it. Once and for all.
Severus’s heart beat faster as the divergences tussled, trying to find a winner. Contessa’s voice caught him off-guard.
“Severus.” Her voice was so soft it was almost a whisper.
No, he told himself. Don’t let her in again; it’s too dangerous.
His tongue pressed against the back of his gritted teeth and he snapped his book shut. The closure of the binding made a satisfying thump and caused Contessa to flinch. Severus’s lungs swelled with authority and his bones turned to steel.
“Contessa,” he said curtly.
Severus enclosed himself behind heavy armour and, somewhere deep inside his core, his fear gave a crooked smile. He found the confidence to raise his head and look her in the face. His eyes, calculating, narrowed to slits and his nostrils prickled with alertness. He wanted to be able to savour her panic. It was only fair for her to feel as vulnerable as he.
And, with a hot pulse of attestation, Severus found a glimmer of what he sought – Contessa’s eyes were wide, lips parted ever so slightly in surprise. He watched her mouth opening and his eyes traced the bottom teeth of her trembling jaw line... Her lips invited him in, mesmerising him, offering him another chance –
No. Absolutely not.
She didn’t want him.
And he would be damned if he was going to allow himself to need her. He had to get her out of the room as quickly as possible.
She watched him for a long moment, taking in his demeanour, changing her countenance into something more accepting of him. The alteration yanked a chord within him, as if a string had been plucked deep in his guts. But where there had once been hope and yearning now lay hostility and suspicion.
“No supper tonight?” she asked, clicking her fingers experimentally to summon his house-elf.
Severus maintained his hard composure, staring straight into the blue wells of her eyes. “I’ve instructed Binky to cancel all further suppers.”
He felt a burning ache of satisfaction as Contessa’s gaze dropped to the floor. Severus awaited the outcome of his provocation with bated breath and almost gleeful, child-like anticipation.
He was, however, disappointed.
“Something’s changed between us, hasn’t it?” she asked.
He fought to keep his mask of steel in place.
Where was her obstinate refusal to accept his authority? Where was her anger over his decision to make the announcement to Hogwarts on Valentine’s weekend? Why was she not reprimanding him, criticizing him, telling him he was wrong? Why would she not react? Why wasn’t she making it easy for him to walk away?
Severus gave a minimal reply to the question she posed.
But he knew that wouldn’t be enough. He was certain she’d press for more.
“What’s changed?” Contessa asked.
Severus’s heart felt like a cold stone in his chest, knocking against his ribs, threatening to shatter bones.
“Everything,” he forced out.
He watched her expression: stunned, uncertain and then slightly exasperated.
Good. He could work with that.
“I don’t understand,” she said quietly.
“No?” he replied callously.
Contessa gaped, holding on to the edge of her composure. “I want to understand. Tell me what’s happened.”
Severus rose to his feet, redressing the power balance, trying to find a way to get her out of the room, out of his life, out of his heart.
He would force her to leave if he had to.
He paced around the back of the sofa, but Contessa remained seated, unprovoked.
“You say you want to understand, but I don’t believe it,” Severus said, his fingers clawing the back of the sofa. “It’s all a lie.”
Genuine confusion crossed Contessa’s face; she was lost for words. Severus pressed on, feeling more certain of his theory than ever before.
“You and Dumbledore, you came up with this ploy. Merlin knows what either of you were trying to accomplish, but I see through the illusion. I know it’s not real.”
“Severus,” Contessa managed, shaking her head, flummoxed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“No?” he asked coldly. “Really? No idea at all? Well, let me enlighten you. I’m talking about your Vow.”
“My vow?” she said, unnerved.
“That’s right,” he replied, hoping he wouldn’t have to fill in the gaps.
Contessa stared at him with a blank expression. Severus flexed the muscles in his hands in annoyance. She wasn’t going to give anything away. He turned his back on her.
“Unconditional acceptance,” he said sarcastically. “I mean, really, what does that mean?”
He turned to see a tide of perplexity and disbelief spread across Contessa’s features. Severus realised he was going to have to spell it out for her.
“How can you truly accept me for all that I am? It’s pretence, a fabrication. If you had to take a Vow in order to be able to accept me then your acceptance isn’t real, is it? You’ve deceived and coerced me into thinking something is authentic when it is quite the opposite.”
“Severus, no –”
“No, I can see it plainly now. You can’t pull the wool over my eyes any longer.”
“I haven’t –”
“There isn’t anything you can say to me which I won’t view with suspicion, because it’s all based on fallacy.”
Contessa opened her mouth to speak then closed it again.
After a moment’s pause, she said calmly, “I can’t be forced to feel something, but I know what I do
feel is real.”
“Whatever it is, it’s something I don’t want. I don’t want your pity and I certainly don’t need your dutiful devotion. I don’t need anything at all.”
Severus thought he could see tears glistening in Contessa’s eyes. She didn’t seem to have an answer to that. He crossed his arms and waited, reviewing his standpoint in his mind.
Her promise of unconditional acceptance meant nothing to him if she didn’t return his feelings. She wasn’t in love with him. He didn’t want unrequited feelings in his life again.
Better, then, to nip them in the bud this time. He would control and shut them away behind the safety of his armour.
“What do you want, Severus?” her voice was equanimous.
He paused, his eyes raking over her body, taking in her open posture and calm demeanour.
Severus reminded himself that it wasn’t genuine. It was all because of her Unbreakable Vow.
“I want you to leave.”