The Great Wall
Contessa’s hand was being crushed as Nate led her out of the entrance hall and through the courtyard. The mild, humid breeze caressed her face as she stumbled behind her brother on the gravel pathway outside the castle.
“Nate, slow down!” she gasped.
He stopped and turned to face her.
“I can’t believe you’re cooped up here with that greasy git!”
“He’s not greasy, Nate,” Contessa said irritably. “Grow up!”
“Grow up? Are you kidding me? You hate that man – you did nothing but complain about him in your seventh year.”
“Yeah, so I heard.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“He’s You Know Who’s right-hand-man, is he not?”
Contessa snatched her hand away. “I’m not having this conversation with you; I can’t believe we’re arguing already.” She sighed and set off for the castle gates. Her brother’s footsteps thudded behind her. “When did you get back?” she asked.
“This morning.” Nate stuffed his hands in his pockets as he stepped into pace at her side.
“How long are you home for?”
“At least a month.”
“Yeah. Reckon I need to hang around for a while. Listening to Gran today sent shivers down my spine. Things have really changed these last few months.”
“I know,” Contessa said regretfully.
Nate nudged her arm with his elbow. “But, hey – look at you! Up for a professorship at Hogwarts! How did you manage to get a job here in the first place?”
“Dumbledore set up the position for me before he died.”
“You kept that one quiet.”
“Well, I’ve not seen you for over a year! And you’ve not written to me since Alex’s funeral last summer.”
“Yeah. Sorry about that. You know I would’ve come home if I’d known, but your owl didn’t reach me in time. I’d been potholing for a while – it made me hard to locate.”
Contessa smiled. Her brother had always been the daredevil of the pair. She looked him up and down, taking in his healthy physique and his tanned skin. “It’s good to see you.”
Nate grinned. “I’m here to whisk you away, Tess – get you out of this place. What are you doing closeting yourself up with Death Eaters? Surely it’s not work for the Order?”
“It is,” Contessa replied. “Sort of.” She bit her lip.
“I can’t believe that,” Nate said, shaking his head.
Contessa wrinkled her nose. “I’m not asking you to.”
“Come on, Tess. I’m your big brother. You can tell me anything!”
Contessa dipped her head, ignoring his comment. When they reached the gates, she passed through and waited for Nate to follow. “Let’s go and get some lunch at Hogsmeade,” she said.
Nate crossed his arms and didn’t budge, staring at her with a crooked smile.
Contessa rolled her eyes and threw her hands up in the air. “Alright, then! There’s someone at Hogwarts.”
Nate crossed the boundary and waited whilst Contessa secured the gate. “I knew it!”
“How?” she said charily.
“I could just tell.” Nate grinned as he set off down the lane. “Who is he? Someone at Hogsmeade? One of the shopkeepers?”
Contessa hid behind her hair in an attempt to cover her crimson cheeks.
“Come on, Tess. Tell me!”
“No,” she said firmly. “It’s nothing, really. We’re not together or anything.”
“Does he fancy you?”
Contessa glared at her brother. “I don’t know. Sometimes, I think he does.”
“You should ask him out.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Course you can!”
“It’s not that simple.”
“I’ll ask him for you.”
“No. You won’t.”
“Tess, it’s time you moved on, fall in love again, you know?”
She took a moment to reply. “I already am. In love, I mean. But it’s complicated.”
“God, he’s not married, is he?”
“Tell me who he is, then.”
“No. Anyway, stop harping on about it. You’re not exactly the world authority on sustaining long-term relationships. Why are you really here? Running from a girl again, are you?”
Nate grimaced. “Might be.”
“I knew it!”
Nate shook his head. “We can still read each other like a book.”
“Let’s not talk about our love-lives then, shall we?”
“Where are you staying?” Contessa asked.
“With Gran. But I thought it’d be nice to see Squirrel’s Leap again, and I want to take you out for your birthday. Come away with me for a few days, Tess, before term starts?”
“I don’t know if I can.”
“Of course you can! Snape’s told you you’ve not got the job. And you can spare a few days out of your complicated love life, can’t you? Come home with me.”
Contessa knew her excuse for remaining at Hogwarts had now been relinquished and her necessary evasiveness had backed her into a corner. She sighed resignedly. “He won’t like it.”
“Who won’t? The man?” Nate said with amusement. “He’ll get over it. It’ll stop him taking you for granted. Let’s go back to the castle and pack your trunk.” He tugged on her arm to stop her from walking any further. “Gran would love to see you.” His hazel eyes twinkled.
Contessa knew she wouldn’t be able to refuse him.
“OK,” she said, with a sad sigh.
“I can’t believe you’ve got to ask Snape’s permission!” Nate exclaimed as they ascended the spiral staircase to the Headmaster’s office.
“It’s not permission, Nate. It’s good manners.”
“He’s got you right where he wants you,” Nate muttered.
Contessa tossed him another glare. “Behave yourself when you’re in there, OK?”
Nate shrugged. “Sure.”
After knocking and opening the door, Contessa found Severus still seated behind his desk, with several balls of screwed-up parchment dotted around the tabletop and floor. He watched her through heavily-lidded eyes.
“Headmaster,” she began hesitantly.
Severus made a show of dropping his quill onto the desktop and threw her an intolerant look.
“My brother wants to take me back to see my family for a few days.”
Severus sneered. “Are you seeking my permission, Marchbanks?”
Contessa was about to reply, but Nate interjected, “She doesn’t need your permission, Snape. She’s being – what is it they call it? – polite.”
Severus’s dark eyes gleamed.
Nate stepped forward. “Go and pack, Tess. I’ll wait here with Snape. I’m sure we’ll find a few things to talk about.”
Contessa started to panic. “No, Nate. That’s not necessary.”
“I insist.” Nate’s voice was a fierce hiss.
The two men were eyeballing each other maliciously, and Contessa exhaled with exasperation. The last thing she wanted to do was leave them alone together in the same room. But she also knew she had to play along with the charade.
Contessa looked at Severus helplessly.
Severus raised his wand casually and the fireplace roared as Floo Powder hit the flames. With a jerk of his head he indicated his wish for Contessa to make a speedy trip to pack her trunk.
Unnerved, Contessa practically ran to the hearth, emerging seconds later in her dungeon quarters. Hastily, she threw an assortment of clothes together and rammed the lid down on the wooden chest, almost losing a finger in the process.
With her heart racing like a runaway train, she lugged the trunk into the Floo and materialised again in the Headmaster’s office. Her luggage clunked onto the stone floor.
Severus and Nate were locked in a silent standoff, staring at each other with utmost loathing. However, their wands were not drawn.
Contessa suddenly found it easier to breathe.
“Are you ready, Tess?” Nate said. His eyes didn’t leave the Headmaster.
Severus was statue-like, standing with his hands clasped in front of him, disdain oozing from every pore.
“I am,” Contessa said quietly.
Nate retrieved his wand and levitated her trunk. She followed him to the door and watched him take the first few steps down the spiral staircase with her luggage in tow. The stone stairway began to move.
From the landing, Contessa called down to him. “I just need a minute, Nate. I forgot something important. Meet me in the entrance hall; I’ll be there soon.”
Before her brother could argue, Contessa turned and closed the door as she stepped back into the office.
Severus had resumed his seat behind his desk.
He assessed her suspiciously. “That was the quickest trip ever witnessed. Did you squirrel-away a Time-Turner for leisure purposes?”
His sarcasm was bait; Contessa knew that. Severus was protecting himself with armour and maintaining a distance behind his Great Wall.
Contessa also knew better than to play the game. She walked around to the side of his chair and leaned against the back of the desk, traversing the barrier.
With his personal space invaded, Severus dropped the facade. He leaned back, closed his eyes and rested his head against the soft padding of the tall chair.
Contessa watched his teeth clench together and his lips part.
“I’m sorry I have to leave,” she said quietly.
His hard expression faltered and a glimmer of sadness flickered across his pale features.
Contessa reached out and laid a hand on his arm, feeling the soft woollen fabric of his frock-coat and the rounded edges of buttons abrading her fingertips. His armour melted under her touch.
Severus opened his eyes and stared into space.
“When is it your birthday?” he asked huskily.
“In three days’ time.”
Severus nodded once. “Go,” he said softly.
Contessa squeezed his arm tenderly and pulled away with a long stroke. Severus gazed at the floor.
At the doorway, she turned and said, “I’ll keep in touch via Dumbledore’s portrait.”
Severus didn’t reply.
She wrapped her hand around the door handle and the iron latch creaked open.
Then, just as she was ready to depart, Severus’s silken voice rippled across the room.
“Come back for the evening of your birthday, Tess.”
His tone was more request than command.
“I will,” said Tess.