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The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 5]

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Chapter Fifty-Six

Sound of Silence

“Sometimes I think,
I think I understand
The fear in the boy
The fire in the man
Sometimes I watch
The wonder in your eyes
That, and you leaving
I have memorised”

‘Roosterspur Bridge’, Tori Amos

The new-found freedom bestowed upon Contessa dragged like an albatross around her neck. A hollow, aching pit in her stomach became a constant companion and, without detentions to supervise and evenings with Severus, she attempted to fill the void with other pursuits.

But, even after copious amounts of reading, hours of potion-making, and evenings atop the Astronomy Tower with Aurora Sinistra, nothing seemed to diminish the yawning chasm of loss.

One week after she’d been released her from her vow, she found herself standing in the empty Headmaster’s office, staring into the piercing blue eyes of Albus Dumbledore’s portrait.

The old wizard smiled benevolently.

“Where is Severus?” asked Contessa.

“In his quarters, as he is every evening.”

“How has he been?”

“Hard to say,” Dumbledore replied evasively.

“Albus...” Contessa faltered as a prickling sensation of barbed wire tightened around her ribcage. She knew what it meant. “I miss him.”

Dumbledore’s eyebrows rose fractionally, but he smiled understandingly. “I don’t know what more we can do, Tess.”

Contessa wasn’t so easily discouraged. “There must be some way for me to reach him.”

“I’m all ears,” Dumbledore said kindly, his hands opened outwards, welcoming.

“He told me he was cutting me loose, severing the obligation,” she began, “but he never actually said he didn’t wish to see me again.”

The flicker of hope stirring in her abdomen was almost extinguished by the former headmaster’s pitying gaze.

“I’m sorry, Tess, I think he’s deliberately cut himself off. I can’t imagine him letting you in again.”

“How can you know that?”

“Years of observation.”

Contessa’s head dropped, but the warmth in her chest refused to be dispelled. Her instinct told her Dumbledore was wrong. Perhaps, if she treaded softly, Severus might open up to her again. It had to be worth a try.

As she lifted her head, her intuition roared in approval. “I’m going up there,” she said firmly.

Dumbledore shook his head slightly. “He won’t let you in.”

“I have to try, Albus.”

The portrait shrugged its shoulders then gestured to the staircase. “Be my guest.”

As she climbed the stairs to Severus’s quarters her stomach rippled with trepidation. Over the last month the gnawing loss of their friendship had never left her, and she was beginning to realise how much Severus meant to her. It seemed some feelings had never truly faded. They had lain hidden behind other concerns, dormant, but not completely diminished.

Contessa could hear the blood pounding in her ears as she slid the copy of Knitting with Kneazle-fur from the bookshelf and watched the casings separate, revealing the solid-oak door to Severus’s personal chambers.

Contessa brushed the joints of her fingers against the raised grain of wood, hesitating. She remembered the hollow black wells of Severus’s eyes and her sense of his anguish when he’d spoken of losing her. It had been the strongest indicator yet that his feelings had transformed beyond mere friendship. This might be her last chance.

Biting down on the wave of apprehension threatening to engulf her, Contessa took a deep breath and knocked twice on the door.

The sound of silence stretched out as her heart beat out the seconds: ten, fifteen, twenty. When nothing happened she quelled her disquiet and grasped the cold door handle.

She pushed gently down and, for the first time in weeks, the iron latch yielded to her touch.

The door creaked open.

Steeling herself, Contessa’s breath caught in the back of her throat as she crossed the threshold.

Across the room, sitting on an antique sofa in the middle of the flickering gloom, was Severus.

Dressed head-to-toe in black, a leather-bound book resting in his lap, he looked at her wide-eyed across the divide. He didn’t turn to look away, nor did he arise to greet her. He was like a charmed snake, hypnotised by a seductive flute, caught between the urge to strike or slither away.

Contessa wondered if stepping further into the room would break the enchantment and cause him to recoil or attack. She wanted to remain forever locked in the eerie serenity of his gaze.

Severus seemed caught somewhere between joy and terror as Contessa reached out to close the door behind her. When she turned to face him once more, the memory might as well have been an illusion; he was supremely focused on the book in his lap, appearing calm, except for whitened knuckles gripping the binding.

Contessa moved quietly to sit down on the opposite sofa, ignoring the pulse throbbing in her throat and the deafening tick-tock of silent seconds drumming in her ears.

Time stretched out before her, threatening to sap her resolve. But she didn’t waver. Deciding that honesty and genuineness were the order of the hour, she leaned forward and clasped her hands lightly on her lap. She knew her time would be limited should Severus choose to expel her from his quarters.

“I’ve missed you, Severus.”

He twitched involuntarily and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed.

“If you tell me to leave, I shall go,” Contessa said softly.

She waited for a response. Nothing came.

“I want to update you on the Carrows,” she began.

Severus’s head tilted slightly.

Contessa pressed on, encouraged. “Today they instructed students to practise the Cruciatus Curse on those who’ve earned detention.”

With one jerking movement, Severus made shocked eye contact. His expression soon turned to one of remorse.

“I know there is little you can do, but I thought you would want to know,” said Contessa.

He nodded once, pensive, then resumed reading his book. Contessa sensed their moment of contact break.

Not wishing to overstay her welcome, she bade him goodnight and departed.

Twice a week, Contessa visited Severus in his quarters and updated him on the goings-on in the castle, each time staying a little longer.

She didn’t ask him any direct questions, or indeed expect any kind of response, and as time passed by the tension seemed to ease, despite the lingering silence.

Aurora Sinistra seemed to have taken it upon herself to be responsible for Contessa’s welfare and, a week before the school term ended, Contessa found herself cajoled into setting up her telescope one crystal-clear evening.

Despite Contessa’s protestations of a prior commitment, Aurora had eventually persuaded her to meet on the Astronomy Tower, under the proviso that Contessa could break for half an hour at eight o’clock.

The velvety blackness of the moonless sky and Aurora’s continuous commentary on the moons of Jupiter absorbed Contessa, and she lost track of the hour.

She was in the process of realigning her telescope, mapping Jupiter’s progress across the night sky and observing the planet’s moons strung around its equator like a bejewelled necklace, when the door to the tower flung open.

The two witches almost toppled over with fright as the Headmaster charged through the doorway and strode across to the ramparts. Severus’s arms were crossed against his chest and his cloak flapped in the breeze as he stood before Contessa. His black hair was teased away from his face, and his hooked nose bore down on her with abundant condescension. But she saw, in his eyes, measures of fear and uncertainty.

She knew, instantaneously, the reason for his appearance at the top of Hogwarts’ highest tower. She was late. Severus had come to find her.

Aurora stepped forward. “Headmaster, if this is about the fifth year’s Astronomy OWLs...”

“No, Aurora, it is not,” Severus said. His voice purred with silken disdain, each word enunciated to inflect superiority.

Contessa shuddered despite herself. She had missed the sound of his voice, and her aural experience caused a choke to descend her windpipe, leaving warm fluidity in its wake.

Severus turned to face the Astronomy professor. “Kindly leave me alone with our Potions Assistant.”

Aurora cast Contessa a significant look, probably concerned to leave her alone with the man who threw Dumbledore from the top of the same tower the previous summer.

Contessa nodded, encouraging Aurora to depart, and watched her retreat and close the door behind her.

Severus’s posture didn’t alter. He was taut, his expression belligerent. But Contessa knew something else was going on behind his mask. Severus was there because she hadn’t attended his quarters on time. This must mean that he wanted her there. This must mean he still cared.

His stern, imposing countenance seemed to demand an apology, but Contessa had nothing to say sorry for. She knew that his mask concealed a child-like, vulnerable person, reaching out for contact. Reaching out for her.

Nevertheless, for all intents-and-purposes, the Headmaster towered imposingly before her, and Contessa fought back the urge to apologise. She would not collude.

Instead, she said, “Severus, I’m glad you’re here. It’s a beautiful night.” She turned to face the sky.

His brow furrowed, but his arms relaxed, coming to rest at his sides. Then he too looked towards the heavens.

Contessa ushered him towards her telescope. “Take a look,” she offered gently.

One eyebrow rose on Severus’s pale forehead as he crouched down towards the eyepiece. His fingers caressed the circumference of the lens as he cocked his head to one side, facing her.

His expression was characteristically inscrutable; however, his emotions were evident in his voice.

“I want you to remain at Hogwarts for Easter.”

He looked into the eyepiece and adjusted the focus, playing down the magnitude of his statement.

A smile, unseen by Severus, crept across Contessa’s face.

“OK,” she replied quietly.

Contessa stared towards the distant planet twinkling brightly on the western horizon, as a balloon in her heart swelled with warm, tender air.

The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 5]

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