This was originally written for the SSHG promptfest on LiveJournal. My amazing beta Híril bears no responsibility for any social solipsisms committed by the characters, and any remaining mistakes are my own. Please point them out if you notice any.
On Saturday afternoons, the most beautiful woman in Venice could be found inside Palazzo Sanguini receiving her admirers. Unlike its Muggle equivalents, the palace boasted a garden. A tiny balcony had been magically enhanced several centuries ago, and it was now filled with a profusion of flowers and shrubs that set off Heloïse Zabini's looks to a nicety.
Severus had never seen a woman look more lovely than the thrice-widowed self-proclaimed lady did, surrounded by magnolia flowers almost as soft and smooth as her delicate skin, petting a kitten in her lap.
All the trappings of wealth – robes from Paris, glossy locks curled in the latest mode, jewellery worth more than the palace itself – could not disguise that she would have been just as lovely in a plain cambric gown in the bleakness of an English garden in February.
Then he noticed her companion, and received a nasty shock.
Lady Heloïse's dark skin and black hair had the advantage of being unusual. Combined with her undeniable beauty, they put any other women in the shade. It certainly did not make the bushy hair and unassuming profile of the female discreetly bending down to whisper in the lady's ear appear to her advantage.
Nevertheless, Severus' head snapped back as she straightened up and unconsciously gave him a full view of her not-quite-pretty face.
Hermione Granger had no business lending Lady Heloïse a thin veneer of respectability in a Venetian palace. Severus made it his business to tell her so at the first available opportunity.
“What are you doing here?” he hissed when she approached him Levitating a tea cup, filled with reassuringly English tea.
“Serving tea, Professor Snape. What does it look like I'm doing?”
“Do not call me professor, and stop taking refuge in semantics. Why are you in the company of – of that woman?” He jerked his head in the direction of Lady Heloïse graciously extending her fingertips to a French gentleman.
“I am her companion. I realise it is not a consideration for you, but unfortunately women, even if they are witches, are forced to consider the proprieties if they wish to cut a figure in the polite world.” They both watched the Frenchman, stretching his language's capacity for flowery compliments to unknown heights, present an enchanted rose to Lady Heloïse, who looked very much like someone who would not be content with a life in seclusion.
Hermione Granger, however, was quite a different type of female.
“I am conversant with basic social mores, thank you. I fail to see how you became the person providing her with a somewhat threadbare cloak of respectability. Particularly as I would have expected you to pursue more scholarly interests.”
“How, exactly?” Miss Granger landed his tea cup with a clatter. “Single ladies do not pursue careers in the Ministry. Nor do they set up their own research establishments, even if they have the means to do so. They can become teachers at Hogwarts, but only by acquiring experience first, which unfortunately, means decades of drudge work with no guarantee of a position at the end.”
Severus found himself so much in agreement that he nodded, before remembering he was supposed to be lecturing her.
He had also dreamt of becoming a Hogwarts teacher, but so far more than a decade of teaching dunderheads basic wand work had yielded no better returns than short stints of supply teaching. That was how he had encountered Miss Granger. It had been impossible to miss her eagerly raised hand in any of the classrooms where he had been called in to cover illnesses or other staff absences.
Severus had no particular liking for the Know-It-All, but he had to admit she had brains.
She had penned a particularly impressive analysis of the way different parts of the Amortentia Potion interacted to make the final product so powerful, and once he had let her answer questions occasionally she had shown her abilities were not restricted to Potions. It was a waste of potential for a mind like hers to be reduced to polite platitudes in the drawing rooms of the aristocracy.
It was waste of his own mind, but at least Severus had tried and failed to improve his lot.
“The conventional route is to get married,” he pointed out.
“My marital state is none of your concern, thank you.” She turned around, headed for the next table, when he stretched out to grab her wrist. “Kindly unhand me, or you will feel the pointy end of my wand.” Her eyes were sparkling with anger, and Severus wondered if the Weasley who had dangled after her at Hogwarts had failed to come up to scratch.
“It's not fit for you,” he hissed. “You're a – a woman of probity, and she...” He glanced at Lady Heloïse who was surrounded by a court of gentlemen, all vying for a sign they were the lady's favourite. “She is sailing very close to the wind. One more whiff of scandal, and then –“
“There will not be any more scandal,” Miss Granger said, returning to her placid self. “That is what I'm here to prevent. What brings you here, seeing as you don't seem very eager to pay court to my mistress?”
Severus cast a jaundiced eye over the line of hopefuls, picking out his charge by the pale blond hair. “I'm bear-leading the Malfoy progeny through Europe. So far, I have not encountered any unsurmountable challenges.” He watched Lady Heloïse inspect the trinket Draco had insisted on bestowing upon her, and hoped very much his luck hadn't turned.
“So you're in exactly the same boat as I, then: why put up with poor prospects in England and be miserable, when you can travel on the Continent instead?”
Severus did not bother agreeing – Miss Granger had obviously hit her head on the nail. It would have to be a sufficient reward in itself.
Severus did not go to the lengths of actually unbuttoning his robes – like Draco and other aspirants to fashion did, offering a tantalising glimpse of their shirts – but as he crossed Piazza San Marco at midday he resolved to unpack his summer set sooner rather than later. It was unseasonably warm even for Italy; several of the ladies gathering under the colonnades wore summer gowns, light muslin fluttering gently on the mild breeze.
He recognised Lady Heloïse, dipping her parasol in a coquettish way that made him curious who she was talking to. Predictably, Miss Granger was hovering in the vicinity, but the other party to the conversation was hidden behind a pillar.
Pretending to admire a watch in the shop window next door – it was sure to cost more than his annual stipend – Severus tried to peer around. All he could see was a head of platinum-blond hair, fashionably cropped.
There was no point pretending to himself it was anyone other than his hapless charge (Draco would probably insist he was Severus' employer, which only showed how little he knew). Of course, the Malfoy heir was bound to home in on Lady Heloïse like a bee attracted by a particularly stunning flower. It was, after all, Severus' responsibility he made it through his European tour intact, and nothing in Severus life had ever gone without hitch.
“You do not have much faith in me, do you?” The omnipresent Miss Granger had drifted his way, unnoticed – she was quite adept at using her breathtaking employer to her own advantage, Severus noticed.
“I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“I told you before it will not amount to anything.” A smile was lurking in her unremarkable brown eyes, as if she were laughing at him.
Severus did not like when people laughed at him, especially not when he did not know the reason. “I was not aware you had specialised in Divination at Hogwarts.”
“Have it your own way, then – waste your time worrying needlessly when you could be enjoying the view.” She turned towards the opulent exterior of Basilica di San Marco, resting her eyes on it like an old friend.
Severus did not know why he kept talking to her, even when he had been offered an opportunity to eschew conversation and return to his attempts to overhear what Draco was saying to Lady Heloïse.
“Does it not bother you?” he asked Miss Granger.
His glare only made her smile. “Being the paid attendant of that woman. You're worth a dozen of her.”
“That's either the nicest compliment you have ever paid me – it may also be the only one, in fact – or you really do not have a high opinion of my employer.”
Severus did not – the only thing he despised more than witches who only had time for frivolities were those of a mercenary disposition, and Lady Heloïse neatly fell into both categories. It had been Miss Granger's qualities he had borne in mind, rather than her employer's deficiencies. However, he was hardly going to admit that to her.
Regretting he had not opted for silence when given a chance, Severus ploughed on with determination. “You seem quite satisfied, Miss Granger. Not all of us are blessed with the same happy disposition.”
There was a sharp intake of breath. “You seem determined to make yourself unpleasant, Mr Snape. I wonder why that is.”
Severus would be damned if he ever understood women. “I seem to have missed a crucial part of this conversation.”
“Or else you have the imagination of a frog. That is a possibility, too. Has it occurred to you that I am making a determined effort to be content with my situation, rather than finding reasons to lament my lot?”
It had not. Severus had never seen the point of putting on a happy face to the world when a sullen one would do.
“I should have remembered you were in Gryffindor,” he muttered. Miss Granger was spared from coming up with a witty rejoinder by Lady Heloïse finally abandoning her attempts at flirting in the colonnade. As she did so on the arm of Draco Malfoy, any relief Severus may have felt was short-lived.
Even worse – they seemed to have agreed to a repeat assignation.
“Mr Malfoy tells me there is a Palladian villa in the vicinity. I simply could not leave Venice without seeing it – the frescoes are meant to be outstanding. What do you say, Miss Granger – shall we brave the rigours of the countryside?” Lady Heloïse was very good at creating the impression she was a rather stupid woman. Perhaps it had helped attract her three hapless husbands.
“I can assure you no rigours will be involved – I can easily arrange a Portkey. The housekeeper –”
It seemed incredible even to Severus, intimately familiar with the Malfoy ability to ignore everything that did not pertain to themselves, but judging by Draco's impression of a fish gasping in the air this was the first time he registered the identity of Lady Heloïse's companion.
“Granger – I didn't expect to see you here!”
“How do you do, Mr Malfoy? I'm looking forward to renewing our acquaintance. Such as it was.”
Severus had not been teaching them for long, but it had required dimness of epic proportions not to register that Draco Malfoy and Hermione Granger were like oil and water. Pitted against each other by their respective houses from the day they entered Hogwarts, every other circumstance underlined their differences. Muggle-born wizards were generally absorbed by wizarding society, despite occasional sneering by pure-bloods; it was vastly more difficult for witches without beauty or wealth to grease their path.
At Hogwarts, unlike the real world, brains counted for more than either, and Granger had plenty of that. Even if Draco had possessed her work ethic, it would have been doubtful if he could have competed with her in earnest.
True to form, Miss Granger won the current battle of wits; her curtsy was fooling no one that she regarded Draco in any way superior, however elevated his social standing. He recovered himself enough to bow in return.
For once, Severus welcomed Lady Heloïse's tinkling laugh.
“How charming – two school friends reuniting! You never told me you went to Hogwarts with Mr Malfoy, Hermione.”
“It must have slipped my mind,” Miss Granger said smoothly. “I often think with fondness of our schooldays, of course.”
Severus glanced at her sharply – there was a hint of wistfulness in her voice that had absolutely nothing to do with the stroppy Malfoy progeny next to him.
“So do I.” Draco had finally recovered himself, remembering the object at hand. “Please join the expedition – it wouldn't be the same without you there, Miss Granger.” As all four of them knew there could be no exploration of the Palladian villa unless she accompanied Lady Heloïse to ensure the proprieties were observed, he did not deceive anyone. “And you too, Severus,” he added belatedly.
“I would be delighted to,” Miss Granger answered promptly.
Draco wasted no time settling a time and a date for the excursion, and was very pleased with himself when they had bid the ladies goodbye.
“Stroke of good luck I bumped into Pucey in Milan – it was he who gave me the direction of the gentleman who owns the villa at present. Not that I would have bothered, normally – those old places are stuffier than words!” he confided as they walked towards their lodgings on the other side of the Grand Canal.
“I'm sure I will contrive to amuse myself,” Severus said drily.
“You're not going to cut up stiff, are you? You like those things – it was you who dragged me through the whole Louvre. It was full of Muggles, too!” Draco shuddered delicately, and any sympathy Severus may have felt died.
“You would be well served if I did not come – I'm sure Miss Granger is much better read on Renaissance architecture than either you or Lady Heloïse.” The down-at-heel Calle Cavalli took them through several small squares before leading them straight to the Apparition point by the Grand Canal.
“Severus!” Draco stopped short and almost collided with a boy carrying a basket full of fish. Only a discreet flick of Severus' wand, hidden safely beneath his robes, saved him from the ignominy of being showered in fish.
Draco stepped out of the way to allow other pedestrians to pass, but he remained stationary. “Please! I can't spend the whole day making conversation with Granger!”
“You are hardly endearing me to the prospect.” Severus had no intention of betraying to Draco that he would prefer the company of Miss Granger to Lady Heloïse – at least the former did not pretend she did not possess a brain.
Draco gritted his teeth, to Severus' pleasure – this excursion promised to deliver an excellent return, and he would not even mind seeing the famous villa. There was a long way to go until Draco would equal his father, but at least he had learnt something in Slytherin. He abandoned the subject until dinner that evening, broaching it over an excellent port that went some way to mollify Severus.
“You know father would approve of me broadening my horizons, as he would put it.”
“Indeed,” Severus agreed. Unbeknownst to Draco, his father had taken considerable pains making clear what he expected his son and heir to learn on the Continent, some of it not fit for his mother's ears. Furnished with the direction of a select Roman brothel and the best wizarding tailor in Paris, Severus had momentarily considered declining the task.
Two things had held him back. The first had been that it was traditional to reward the person that had been one's guide on a Grand Tour handsomely – with no other prospects of employment other than tutoring brats, Severus had no better option.
The second had been that offending Lucius Malfoy, the only benefactor Severus had managed to acquire, would have been the crowning folly to Severus' history of poor decisions. Any hope of ever achieving his dream rested on the impeccably clad shoulders of the wizarding world's leader of fashion. If the price entailed keeping Draco out of trouble as he acquired the polish required to step into his father's place in time, then so be it.
Entertaining Miss Hermione Granger while his hapless charge flirted with a widow whom his mother would refuse to receive hardly fell under his brief.
“I would be most appreciative if you would assist me on this occasion,” Draco said winningly, and Severus changed his mind immediately. Even Lady Heloïse could not get up to much mischief touring a historical mansion, and having a favour in the bank with Draco may well prove invaluable later.
“It will be my pleasure,” Severus lied.