The Hardest Word
The only sound in the Headmaster’s office came from the scratching of Severus’s quill as he worked through a pile of correspondence from the Ministry of Magic.
After he’d run a bath for Contessa, he’d visited her quarters to retrieve some robes, which he’d laid out ready for her on his bed. Not wanting to rush her, Severus had left his quarters to give her space.
The stack of parchments now balanced precariously on the end of his desk provided a welcome distraction as he waited for her to reappear. He treasured her proximity; however, as time marched on, Severus became edgier as he awaited her arrival.
Something had been said last night, a word had been spoken, the truth of which he needed to know.
But, the longer Contessa took, the more intense his nervousness grew and he no longer knew if he even had the courage to say the word out loud.
“Excuse me, Severus,” said Dumbledore’s voice from behind him.
Severus turned to face the portrait.
“I have a message from my portrait at Griselda Marchbanks’ home,” Dumbledore said.
Severus was on his feet immediately, studying the bright blue eyes of the former headmaster. The old man took a seat in the portrait’s throne-like chair.
“A relative has arrived and wishes to come to Hogwarts to visit Tess,” Dumbledore said, clearly unaccustomed to being a messenger.
“A visitor?” Severus asked. “Who, exactly?”
“Oh, she didn’t say,” said Dumbledore blithely.
Severus grunted under his breath. The last thing he wanted today was an unwelcome guest. He had plans. There was a conversation to be had, at the very least. He bolstered himself, ready to face Contessa when she finally graced him with her presence.
“Tell the visitor they should arrive at the castle gates at five o’clock this afternoon. Filch will meet them, and I’ll instruct the Dementors to stay away.” Severus withdrew his wand and sent the requests magically.
Dumbledore huffed as he heaved himself out of his chair and stepped out of his portrait to deliver the message.
Severus sat down again at his desk, and picked up his quill. His stomach churned as he glanced at his timepiece. It was eleven o’clock in the morning. He had the best part of the day to spend with Contessa before handing her over, and he needed to make things right.
The Dark Lord’s visit had been difficult for both of them. Contessa had been a puppet-on-a-string, at the command of the man responsible for her fiancé’s and father’s deaths. Whilst she now wrestled with the aftermath of feelings, Severus, too, had almost fallen foul of his own emotions.
His skin crawled when he’d watched Contessa wrapping herself around the Dark Lord. Severus couldn’t bear to see her sullied by the Dark Lord’s manoeuvring, knowing that she had been used purely to illicit a response from him. He had managed to contain himself in front of the master Legilimens, but only just.
They had narrowly escaped exposure, and Severus had spent the rest of the night consumed by the terrorising nearness of threat. The hazard had always been there, of course. But the difference now sprang from his well of feelings, flowing untamed like never before. Severus was sickened by the thought that their relationship might put her at risk. If it hadn’t been for him, the situation would never have come to pass; Contessa wouldn’t have been traumatised, and he wouldn’t be feeling so damned responsible for it all.
He couldn’t bear to see Contessa’s safety jeopardised; he wouldn’t lose her like he lost Lily. Not at the hands of the Dark Lord.
Not ever, if he had anything to do with it.
And he knew one thing for certain: he’d do everything in his power to protect her and keep her out of harm’s way, for as long as he lived.
He intended to make it up to her today. He had to.
The sound of footsteps on the stairs pulled Severus out of his reverie. The ink of his quill had dried whilst he’d stared vacantly across the room. He placed the white plume into the inkpot and watched Contessa descend the stairs from his quarters. She appeared brighter and less sickly than before, wearing the formal teaching robes he’d left out for her. The smell of essential oils followed her like a scented cloud.
Contessa looked down at her attire. “I take it there’s a reason I’m dressed like a professor today?” she asked, shaking her arms in their sleeves.
Severus stood up, put on his frock coat, and fastened its buttons diligently with well-practised fingers. As he shrugged on his cloak, Contessa looked slightly overwhelmed.
“We’re spending the day in the castle grounds,” he explained. “A mock interview, as far as the other residents of Hogwarts are concerned. We’ll do the full tour; it’ll do you good to get some fresh air.”
Contessa’s smile was sorrowful, and Severus’s heart pressed softly against his sternum.
“That sounds lovely, Headmaster,” she said, relieved.
Some of Severus’s tension drained away. His shoulders relaxed.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Alright. The bath oil was nice and soothing, what was it?”
“I thought so.” Contessa frowned. “I must’ve had delayed shock. Last night I was so serene and peaceful, under your curse and...latterly...his. It’s as though my body took time to catch up.”
Severus watched her closely, wondering what thoughts were foremost in her mind. Perhaps he could reach inside and seize them...
He reprimanded himself for considering such an infringement. He would have to do this the old-fashioned way. He took a deep breath.
“The Dark Lord said something last night, after he used Legilimency on you,” Severus began tentatively. “Do you remember?”
Contessa blinked, her eyebrows pinching together in concentration. “No, not really...”
Her eyes searched his for a clue.
Petrified of saying the hardest word of all, Severus’s heart began to clatter like a panicked bird trapped in a metal cage. He was within a hair’s breadth of folding, but he had to know, one way or another.
“He said your devotion lay beyond the Imperius Curse,” he began shakily, “that your emotions... suggested... you loved –”
Dumbledore reappeared vociferously in his portrait at the same time as the Doorbell Charm rang. Severus’s heart stumbled, forestalled on the edge of a cliff, watching the gravel beneath his feet plunging to the watery depths below.
Before he knew what was happening, Contessa was standing in front of Dumbledore’s portrait, receiving the news that the family guest had Disapparated ahead of schedule. Judging by the look on Contessa’s face, she hadn’t heard at all the last words Severus had uttered.
When the latch on the door turned, Severus knew the visitor was already upon them. Contessa turned excitedly to face the door as Severus fought the urge to hex the intruder to oblivion.
As the entrance opened, Severus crossed his arms against his chest, erecting his defensive wall.
A handsome, almost burly man strode confidently into the room, with Argus Filch several paces behind, panting for breath.
“Nate!” Contessa exclaimed as the dark-haired man swept her up in his tanned, muscular arms and swung her around the room like a small child.
When her feet found the floor again, she wrapped her arms around the intruder, enveloping him in a bear hug.
Severus dismissed Filch with a wave of his hand. The caretaker looked contrite as he closed the door.
“What are you doing here?” Contessa asked the visitor, her voice full of wonder.
“Come to see my little sister, of course,” the man replied, flashing a pearly-white smile. His hazel eyes sparkled. “I’ve made it home in time for your birthday.”
Severus’s nostrils flared. Her birthday? How had he not known it was her birthday? That only served to add insult to his injury.
He held back a growl.
“It’s not for a few days yet, Nate. Not that I expect you to realise,” she said, almost reprovingly.
Contessa was beaming at the man. Beaming.
It was, for all intents-and-purposes, as if Severus wasn’t in the room.
And it was his bloody office.
He cleared his throat with a long, dragging rumble.
Brother and sister turned to look in his direction, Contessa radiating happiness, her hand curled around her brother’s arm. She ushered the man towards Severus.
“Nate, let me introduce you to Sev–”
Severus shot a piercing look which halted Contessa’s lapse. Her head dropped apologetically and Severus eyed her, satisfied he had prevented the disclosure.
So engrossed was he in her features, Severus failed to notice her brother had walked towards him. A moment later he was being slapped hard on the back with a hand the size of a Quaffle.
“Severus Snape,” said the curiously accented voice from behind him.
“Nate,” Contessa said, stifling a giggle, “you’re not in the Outback now!”
Severus turned to get a better look at the man – he was about the same height as Severus, but more heavily-built, wearing torn jeans and a checked shirt. His smile was broad, revealing a set of perfectly straight teeth. Contessa’s brother placed his hands casually inside the pockets of his jeans as he sauntered back to her side.
Severus’s composure broke into a sneer. He recognised the man – a student in the year below himself at Hogwarts – he had been a Beater on the Gryffindor Quidditch team.
“Nathan Marchbanks.” Severus glowered.
Nathan nudged Contessa’s arm with his elbow and returned Severus another toothy smile. Severus was about ready to break his jaw.
“You can call me Nate,” Nathan said sociably.
“And you can call me Professor Snape.”
Contessa’s hand slipped around Nathan’s elbow, beseeching him to stay at her side.
“You two know each other?” she said uncertainly.
“Not really,” Nathan answered. “You were in the year above me, weren’t you? In Slytherin?”
Severus nodded once.
“Weren’t you best friends with Lily Evans before she started going out with James Potter?”
Contessa’s eyes bulged and she tugged insistently on her brother’s arm.
“You remember Lily, don’t you, Tess?” Nathan continued, undeterred. “You were in the Slug Club together.”
Contessa blanched gauchely.
Red hot fingernails clawed their way up Severus’s back. How had he not made that connection? How many other things had he missed?
Severus was glad he was not holding his wand, as untold curses and hexes would have fired unrestrained. He grappled with the edges of his control.
“I seem to recall,” Severus said, his voice as cold as ice, “you were instructed to arrive later this afternoon.”
Nathan looked at Severus as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Severus wondered how cheery he might be if subjected to the Cruciatus Curse, or if his perfect white teeth were being extracted one by one –
“Why, I’m not interrupting anything, am I?” Nathan asked.
Severus shot Contessa a pointed look, expecting her to explain her commitments to her brother before politely asking him to leave. However, from her countenance, it was clear she’d forgotten the afternoon he’d planned for them as soon as Nathan had walked into the room.
Severus’s heart constricted as he watched her torn expression.
“Headmaster, I –”
“If you are serious about the Care of Magical Creatures Professorship, Madam Marchbanks, you will remain at Hogwarts until sundown.”
Nathan scoffed, turning towards Contessa. “You’re up for the Care of Magical Creatures job?” he asked, laughing. “You’re kidding me! You can’t tell a Crup from a Jack Russell, let alone converse with a Jarvey. Remember when I persuaded you to cancel the Silencing Charm on Uncle Hector’s Fwooper? Mum was nearly driven to distraction by the bird’s singing by the time Hector found out. He nearly had his Fwooper licence taken away. It was so funny!”
“It wasn’t funny, Nate,” she admonished. “You got me into loads of trouble with Uncle Hector. I couldn’t tell him it was your idea because he Silenced me for the rest of the day.”
Nathan grinned reminiscently, and eventually Contessa smiled too.
Severus felt his ire rising with each passing second.
After her encounter with the Dark Lord, Nathan was giving Contessa something she needed, and it was one thing with which Severus couldn’t hope to compete; Contessa’s brother offered a plentiful source of distraction. Nathan shared a vast history of memories, stories and experiences with the woman whom Severus loved.
They were only halfway through the Easter holiday and Contessa was slipping away, becoming wrapped up in her brother’s easy charm, comfortable in his assured and calming presence.
Severus’s lip curled as jealousy spiked, causing bile to rise in his throat.
“Thanks, Nate,” Contessa said. “You’ve probably just cost me the job. I was supposed to be touring the grounds with the Headmaster today as part of my interview.”
Finally, the words Severus had hoped to hear. Too late, though.
“Are you going to offer Tess the job, Snape?” Nathan asked bluntly.
Severus took his time to answer. Contessa’s bluish-grey eyes pleaded with him silently.
Damn, damn, damn.
“No,” Severus said shortly, uncrossing his arms and striding to the back of his desk. He swept his cloak to one side and sat down, taking his quill and reaching for a new parchment. As he dipped the feather into the inkwell, he looked up at them again. “Why are you still here?”
Contessa appeared crestfallen as Nathan grabbed her by the hand and dragged her to the door.
“Maybe you could take me on a grand tour of Hogwarts? I’d like to see how much it’s changed.” The twang of Nathan’s accented voice grated on Severus’s nerves like fingernails on a blackboard.
And then Severus was alone in his office, staring at the door closing behind Contessa.
The nib of his quill scratched through the parchment below and snapped, covering his fingers with green ink.
Severus balled his fist and thumped the desk. The vibration sent the stack of parchments scattering across the floor.