Trick of the Light
Severus seethed disbelievingly as the fizzing crackle of the Floo transported Contessa out of his office. He took several steps towards Dumbledore’s portrait.
“How can you lie to her, after all she’s done for you?” he snarled at the old man.
“Severus, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”
Severus kicked the leg of his desk with his booted foot, but the pain in his toes didn’t drown out the pounding in his head.
“You’re perfectly well aware, Dumbledore. You can’t release someone from an Unbreakable Vow! You must know this!”
“Indeed I do.”
“Then how can you make her believe it’s possible? You’re putting her life in danger.”
“Tess’s life is not at risk.”
“How can you –”
“I would never ask anyone to make an Unbreakable Vow, Severus. It goes against all my sensibilities.”
“What? But...” Gradually, comprehension dawned like the sun breaking on the eastern horizon, causing Severus’s brow to crease. He appraised Dumbledore sceptically. “You told me she’d taken an Unbreakable Vow,” he said slowly.
Dumbledore smiled patiently. “No, Severus, I don’t believe I ever told you that... However, you might have interpreted my meaning in a way I did not intend.”
Severus fought past his building rage, trying to remember Dumbledore’s exact words during that first night at Squirrel’s Leap. However, before he could retrieve the memory, a new understanding emerged.
“You deliberately misled me,” he accused Dumbledore.
Dumbledore cocked his head contemplatively. “No. Not misled. Merely neglected to clarify, as I recall.”
Enraged by Dumbledore’s repeated manipulation, Severus felt a ferocious surge of adrenaline which threatened to overwhelm him. But he was also alert to the way this changed everything. Him. Contessa. The Vow.
As the cloud of mirage swept away, revealed now as a trick of the light, Severus was dazed by the complexity and enormity of its repercussions.
It simply couldn’t be true.
“No,” he growled. “I don’t believe you.”
Severus turned his back on Dumbledore’s portrait and strode across the office to the fireplace. He took a handful of Floo Powder and flung it into the fire. Without a backward glance he marched into the green flames.
In an almost continuous movement, he stepped out of the Floo and onto the hearth rug of Contessa’s dungeon quarters.
She was seated facing the fire, astounded by the arrival of the man who had been avoiding her for weeks.
She stood up nervously, but Severus didn’t give her opportunity to speak.
“Tell me it’s not true,” he demanded.
Contessa’s mouth fell open and her eyebrows pinched together. “What isn’t true?”
“The Vow you took,” he said urgently. “Tell me...” He halted, cut short by a bout of nerves stealing the breath from his lungs.
“Tell you what, Severus?” she asked, baffled by his lack of eloquence.
When he failed to answer, Contessa continued, “It doesn’t matter now, anyway. I’ve been released from my obligation.”
“No! It does matter. You can’t be released from an Unbreakable Vow – that kind of Dark Magic cannot be rescinded!”
“Severus, what are you on about? I never took an Unbreakable Vow! How did you come to think that?”
He shook his head, confounded. “I –”
“You thought I was bound by magic?” Contessa interrupted. She dropped to the sofa, looking away in bewilderment. “How could...?” she began, but her question was superseded by an incredulous sounding, “What?”
Severus huffed, shamefaced. “Dumbledore prevaricated. I thought he’d said... He led me to believe your vow was unbreakable; that you had no choice about –”
“Severus, why on Earth would I agree to make an Unbreakable Vow? Especially when I didn’t know to whom I would be beholden? It’s not the sort of considered decision a Ravenclaw, such as myself, would make!”
The exasperation in her voice stopped Severus in his tracks. Why hadn’t he realised that? Contessa wasn’t a Gryffindor; she wouldn’t expose herself to unnecessary risk-taking. How could he have been such a fool?
“I...” He faltered, his world tilting on its axis. The sideways motion left him nauseous. “So,” he stammered, “your vow was non-magical.”
“Yes. Well, more akin to a promise or undertaking. I mean, providing you with shelter was easy enough, but the unconditional element – that’s much more difficult to provide. It’s a way of being, rather than a choice or decision. It can’t be given unwillingly.”
Severus’s puzzlement gained in intensity. “You’re saying you didn’t have to accept me completely?”
“No,” Contessa replied. “But I was encouraged to.”
Severus found himself groping for the armchair next to the fire. He sat down, stunned by the revelation.
Each and every one of those moments when Contessa had been there for him, with her kind and steady understanding, her openness and her empathy; all had been authentic. She hadn’t deceived him. She’d given him a gift more valuable than anything he could’ve hoped for, or even dreamed possible. She’d accepted him genuinely, with every fault, idiosyncrasy and foible; for all his darkness, and each tiny glimmer of light.
Severus suddenly understood the worth of the gift bestowed upon him, tangible like a crystal ball in his hands, but also finite and fragile: a present which would be easy to break unintentionally.
He’d given that gift away the moment he’d asked her to leave, and now Dumbledore had released her from her obligation, he stood to lose it once more.
Asking her to give that gift again was fraught with peril. He didn’t know if she’d give it willingly and, if she did, when she might take it away again. Crippled with doubt and self-reproach, Severus wrung his hands together. He couldn’t bear to lose her a second time.
“Severus, I’m sorry.” Contessa’s words broke through Severus’s forethought.
He looked at her concerned face, sadness echoed through her blue-grey eyes, and sympathy furrowed her brow. His heart ached, bruised by shattered illusions, desperate to save itself from further harm.
“I had no idea you were labouring under a false impression,” she said softly. “If I’d known –”
“No, Contessa. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I doubted you. I didn’t realise the value of what I had, and now that it’s gone –”
“It’s not gone, Severus.”
“Yes, it is. Dumbledore released you; you’re free of your burden –”
“It was never a burden.”
“No. You don’t understand. I’m cutting you loose. I don’t expect you to do anything more for me. You’re free.”
And with that he rose to his feet, wrapped his cloak securely around himself, and bade her goodnight.
He forced to numbness the knot that was tightening in his stomach as emerald flames carried him back to his office. Severus ascended the stairs to the minstrel’s gallery without looking at Dumbledore’s portrait and slid the brown leather spine of Knitting with Kneazle-fur from the bookshelf outside his door.
Within moments he was closeted within the low illumination of his quarters, safe inside the gloom, comforted by its dark edges.
Sheltered and secluded, Severus locked himself away in his illusionary dungeon of reassuring familiarity.
He was better off this way.
No one could find him.
No one could hurt him.