Severus stood by the main door of the entrance hall, watching the remainder of the students filing out of the castle.
The Hogwarts Express was due to depart in half an hour and the entire teaching staff were on duty, escorting the bustling throng through the courtyard to the Thestral-drawn carriages.
Amycus and Alecto Carrow were in charge of the operation at Hogsmeade railway station, with Dementors circling the route overhead.
Security was tight following the events of the previous evening – Hagrid had narrowly escaped arrest after holding a ‘Support Potter’ party in the gamekeeper’s cottage.
Severus knew that several of the party’s attendees had not sufficiently covered their tracks and had been chained up by the Carrows. The mutineers spent a sleepless night in the dungeon and, in an attempt to keep trouble on the train to a minimum, they were sent home via Portkey at dawn.
However, it could have been worse – if Severus hadn’t been able to forewarn Contessa, she would never have reached Hagrid in time, and the oaf would’ve been locked up in Azkaban without a trial. Severus was glad that his renewed partnership with Contessa was again benefiting the Order of the Phoenix.
Across the hall, Severus caught a glimpse of Contessa standing with Minerva McGonagall, watching a group of fourth year Hufflepuffs shuffling their way through the antechamber. The head-count completed, the witches walked past Severus and stepped out to see the students safely away.
He watched the back of Contessa’s head, his eyes tracing the ornament which held her hair loosely at the nape of her neck. The crescent-moon shaped hairpin glittered in the morning sunshine as she chatted to the Transfiguration professor.
Severus felt his Tiger’s Eye ring tingling on his chest and he smiled to himself.
The prospect of having Contessa back in his life awakened his lungs like a walk in the fresh sea breeze, and the cobwebs of the past few weeks were gradually being blown away.
He had feared approaching her and asking her to stay, nigh on hoping for forgiveness for his recent behaviour. He felt he’d taken an enormous risk in admitting he needed her; Merlin knew, it had been hard enough to admit it to himself.
But, that night on the Astronomy Tower, he had overcome his lifetime’s habit of keeping people at a distance. Contessa had welcomed him with grace and, ever since, his doubts had begun to trickle away. Her acceptance of him helped him break free from his self-imposed prison, to claim a prize he’d never deemed himself worthy of winning.
Watching her now, from the elevation of the steps to the courtyard, he knew they would be spending the next three weeks alone, with no interruptions. It was like a gift from the gods.
The tingling of the ring became more persistent, and Contessa looked at him furtively over her shoulder. Her bluish-grey eyes propelled Severus forwards, and he descended the steps, listening-in on the witches’ conversation.
Minerva was saying, “A few of us are going for lunch in Hogsmeade before we Disapparate home. Will you be joining us?”
“I, err...” Contessa glanced away guiltily, and Severus knew immediately that she was struggling to provide Minerva with a convincing enough story.
“What is it, Tess?” Minerva asked.
“I’m not going home for school holidays this time.”
“Why ever not, dear? Surely you don’t want to be alone in a castle full of Death Eaters?”
“Good morning, Minerva,” Severus said briskly, smirking as he made the witches jump. They both turned to face him. “Tess,” he said, inclining his head in her direction.
A flicker of shock crossed Contessa’s face at the renewed use of her shortened name. Severus noticed her eyes widen at the public display but he decided that, as he was Headmaster, he was at liberty to call her whatever he pleased, whenever he pleased. And it pleased him to call her Tess.
His eyes met Minerva’s, who nodded curtly, and then Severus raised one supercilious eyebrow at Contessa. She was still stumbling on the verge of speech, with Minerva scrutinising her for her whereabouts over the holiday. Severus cleared his throat, securing the professor’s attention.
“Tess will be spending Easter at Hogwarts, upon my request,” Severus supplied.
It was fortunate that Minerva was looking at Severus, because Contessa’s mouth gaped inelegantly.
“Why?” Minerva asked him sharply.
“It seems,” Severus began, dripping words patronizingly from his tongue, “that our Potions Assistant wishes a promotion.” He sneered at Contessa and enjoyed watching her horrified expression, before turning once again to Minerva. “This morning, she tendered her application for the Care of Magical Creatures professorship.”
Severus caught Contessa’s reaction through his peripheral vision, and had to clench his jaw to prevent laughter escaping.
Minerva’s eyes were wide as saucers. Luckily, Contessa had recovered herself by the time Minerva turned her razor-sharp gaze in her direction.
“Is this true?” Minerva asked.
Contessa pressed her lips together and nodded.
The corners of Severus’s mouth twisted into a sardonic smile.
“I’m giving her three weeks to prove herself worthy of the post. Consider it an extended job interview.”
Contessa’s forehead crinkled and Minerva was momentarily speechless.
“In that case, Tess,” she said, pulling herself together, “best of luck. If successful, you can prevent another Death Eater from teaching at Hogwarts.”
And with that, the Transfiguration professor turned on her heel and descended the remaining steps. Minerva crossed the courtyard and met Septima Vector and Aurora Sinistra in the shade of the cloisters.
Severus faced Contessa and held out his arm, gesturing for her to turn and follow him back up the steps to the entrance hall. His arm lingered near the small of her back until they reached the main door.
“What did you say that for?” she asked through gritted teeth.
He looked towards her as he climbed the last step. “You needed my help, did you not?”
“Yes,” Contessa replied, maddened, “but now I’ll have to become a professor –”
The sound of Severus’s laughter caused her to back-pedal instantly.
His voice was full of mirth when he spoke. “You can’t seriously think I’m going to appoint you as Care of Magical Creatures Professor? With your demonstrable dearth of knowledge of phoenixes, for instance...”
“You –” Contessa’s face screwed into a grimace.
“I sent an owl to Wilhelmina Grubbly-Plank this morning, advising her of her reappointment as Hogwarts Professor. I’m sure the Ministry of Magic will persuade her, should she decline.”
He opened the door for Contessa and waited as she disappeared inside.
“Besides,” Severus said to her back, “I want you all to myself this Easter, not mucking-out Hippogriffs and catching Plimpies.”
Contessa’s quizzical face brightened considerably. “Thank God,” she said, relieved. “I’m hopeless with magical creatures.”
“I know,” Severus said dryly.
He turned to close the door behind them and caught Minerva McGonagall watching intently from across the courtyard.
He returned Minerva’s gaze with a dark stare and his stomach crunched sickeningly as he wondered how much altered body language the Transfiguration professor had witnessed. Aurora Sinistra cast him a sidelong glance, ushering the suspicious witch through the cloisters.
Severus took his time to watch the professors leave and then closed the door on the outside world.
He shut his eyes and breathed in the quiet tranquillity of the empty school.
With only the Carrows and a handful of students remaining, Severus and Contessa were all but alone in the castle.