Life in Florence was everything Severus had imagined Italy to be.
Venice had been too confined for his taste, the physical constrictions of the city built on a lagoon aggravated by the magical community being sandwiched in with the Muggles. In Tuscany, there was space to breathe, literally and metaphorically.
The hills reminded him of home – in Cokeworth, the faraway peaks had symbolised bigger and better things to the raggedy boy impatient to leave. At Hogwarts, the clean air and Scottish hills had symbolised the clean break he had made with his past – a confirmation that not only Severus had changed, but also everything surrounding him.
The rolling hills cradling Florence were not mere geography – they held secrets of their own, like the Etruscan graves of Fiesole and the wizarding village Vigliano. Severus found it soothing to look up at them, like a confirmation everything was well with the world.
In the city below, Draco and Severus were discovering the benefits accrued by more than a millennium and a half of practising magic.
The wizards of Florence may reluctantly have withdrawn into the shadows when the International Statute of Secrecy was passed in 1692, but they had retained their mark on the city. Whole squares had been tucked away from the Muggles, unfolding at the tap of a wand for those in the know. All the great wizarding families – the Miniatis, the Orlandinis, the Guadagnis, the Battistas, and of course the Medicis – had retained their palazzos, although they occasionally masqueraded as a warehouse or leper hospital.
Severus could happily have spent a whole year's salary in the apothecaries catering to the specialist potions makers – the Italians seemed blissfully ignorant of trading embargoes restricting the availability of rare, volatile ingredients.
Their days proceeded at a leisurely pace – riding had to be done side by side with Muggles, but even Draco was willing to put up with their presence in order to exercise his own horse in the mornings.
The large community of Britons, settled and transient, provided plenty of company. Draco found several cronies, and Severus gratefully turned a blind eye to their revelries as Lady Heloïse's attractions diminished. They still saw plenty of the lady and her indefatigable companion – Draco still formed part of her court, but sometimes chose to sleep off the exigencies of the previous night rather than pay his addresses.
There seemed to be a never-ending stream of genteel amusements: picnics, al fresco concerts, balls and occasions, and the Malfoy heir was invited to most of them. His tutor was not equally sought after, but as Severus contrived to speak to Miss Granger whenever the occasion arose, he considered himself fortunate.
“Well played, Miss Granger,” he had greeted her the first time they paid a morning visit to Lady Heloïse in her ornate apartments, decorated in the lavish style popular a century ago.
“Wasn't it?” she agreed. “I trust you can rest easy now?”
Severus gingerly sat down on a gilded monstrosity that would not have disgraced a throne room. “You clearly have an idealised view of the responsibilities of a bear-leader – I will not be able to 'rest easy', as you call it, before we are back on English shores.”
“I see your sunny disposition remains the same.” Miss Granger's neat appearance (apart from her hair, of course) and modest dress made her surroundings look unbearably gaudy. “How do you like Florence?”
“Exceedingly. It is – “ Severus was at a loss to explain. “It feels like home,” he admitted like it was a character flaw.
“You are obviously more refined that I am – I still can't quite believe I'm walking the same streets as Michelangelo and Botticelli. Not to mention Volpi – did you know he was the first to use cores in wands?”
A lively discussion about wands was only interrupted when another caller was ushered in. Draco bristled as soon as the name – Mr Viktor Krum – was announced, while it took Severus several minutes to get the intruder's true measure.
Mr Krum greeted his hostess as expected, but when offered a chance, he migrated to Miss Granger's side, leaving Lady Heloïse to be entertained by Atticus Fawley and an unknown Italian gentleman. It was fortunate the latter was there, because Severus did not think Lady Heloïse would take kindly to being eclipsed by her dame de compagnie.
“Miss Granger,” Mr Krum announced, as if they had met in the middle of the desert rather than a Florentine drawing room. “I am charmed to renew our acquaintance.” Severus may as well have been in the previously mentioned desert, as far as Krum was concerned – he only had eyes for Miss Granger.
It only went downhill from there.
Unable to get a word in edgewise, Severus had to console himself with the previously agreed visit to the Uffizi galleries on the morrow – apparently, there were several examples of fine medieval wands in the collection.
He waited until the maid accompanying Miss Granger had melted into the background in the courtyard outside the galleries before pouncing.
“I hear Mr Krum is quite the celebrity.”
“Is he?” Seemingly unconcerned, Miss Granger was inspecting the statues adorning the facade. “Look, there is Pisano.”
“His name would be familiar to any follower of Quidditch,” Severus informed her sternly.
“Well, I am not, so I'm not surprised I had not heard of him.”
“Furthermore, Mr Krum is the scion of a prominent Bulgarian family, famous for their connection to the Dark Arts,” he continued with determination.
“Says Draco Malfoy's tutor. If you're so concerned with a whiff of Dark magic, I suggest you revise your choice of employer. Or is this another thing that only applies to females?” There was a dangerous glint in her eye.
“They also consider Muggle-borns inferior to pure-blood wizards and witches. Reportedly,” Severus added quickly as he realised her raised chin was one step beneath a declaration of war.
“Lady Heloïse is a second-generation half-blood, so there is no need to be concerned. Besides, Mr Krum has been perfectly pleasant to me,” Miss Granger declared, and Severus realised she had no idea what was o'clock.
It was obvious to Severus that Krum, whatever his other failings, displayed his superior taste by admiring Miss Granger rather than her illustrious employer. Probably nothing would come of it, and he had certainly done his duty by putting her on guard, but he still felt a niggling sense of unease. It would not do to refrain upon it, however, or the inconveniently observant Miss Granger may notice.
“I believe the galleries lie this way,” he said instead, offering his arm.
It worked like a charm – she stepped forward eagerly. There were no crowds this early – the galleries opened for wizards before admitting the Muggle populace. After showing their wands as credentials, they ascended the imposing staircase together and got lost in a world of pensive madonnas and colours brighter than real life.
Lost in contemplation in front of the dancing Graces, Severus had to be roused by the surprisingly deep voice of Venus:
“La signora sta parlando a Lei, signor- ”
“Excuse me –“ Severus made sure his eyes were averted from her naked limbs (Muggle art was sometimes easier, if less interesting), and was recalled to reality by Miss Granger's amused voice.
“I see you are an admirer of Botticelli.”
“Yes.” There seemed to be no point to elaborate further; either she would understand or she would not.
“I have never seen anything as –“ she struggled for words, “graceful as this. Look at their hands –“
The Graces smiled and continued dancing, their slender hands intertwined with otherworldly charm. The exquisite flowers in the thick grass moved gently beneath their feet, each a harbinger of spring and a hidden message. For once, Severus did not need to decipher all the secrets of centuries ago – he was content to simply marvel at the beauty of the world Sandro Botticelli had committed to the canvas and given eternal life.
Afterwards, he never knew how long they spent in the galleries. Time had ceased to matter when they got to the Duecento, and his memory of the following hours were hazy and razor-sharp at the same time.
Most wizards with cultural aspirations were acquainted with Muggle art – the number of surviving magical paintings from certain epochs was simply too small to be comprehensive, not to mention the fact that magical and artistic talent were not necessarily correlated.
Some masters had been wizards – others, like Da Vinci, had not, and not even Lucius Malfoy cared to argue they were undeserving of their place in the history of art.
Severus had nothing but contempt for those who pretended to revere what they had been taught was superior. He knew Miss Granger well enough to realise she would not affect admiration she did not feel – he had never dared hope she would share his own delight in the portrait of a serious youth, staring back at them as if he were looking out of a mirror, or be absorbed in the shocking shadows of Holofernes being beheaded right next to him.
They had parted with few words, as if speaking would end the spell even when the bustle of the Piazza della Signoria had not.
Severus bowed, turned around and bumped into a manservant who burst into a stream of indignant Italian. Usually, he relied on Latin and French to comprehend the gist of it, but this time Severus found himself unequal to any more strenuous mental exercise than apologising several times and retreating in ignominy.
When he turned around, Miss Granger had gone – he could only hope the yawning maid had borne her home with speed.
Draco and Severus attended Sunday mass at Santa Maria Novella – English protestants had to make do with what they could find in the way of worship, and there was usually a sprinkling of fellow foreigners at the back.
When the congregation rose at last, after many a false alarm for those unfamiliar with when to kneel and when to rise, Lady Heloïse was escorted out on the arm of Viktor Krum. Draco had rushed to her side, but a dawdling dowager who insisted on wrapping her stole just so around her shoulders slowed him down at the crucial moment. He overtook the dowager as soon as humanly possible, leaving Severus in his wake.
The latter was insensibly cheered by finding himself shuffling out right next to Miss Granger, who had no discernible reason to fall so far behind her employer. Standing on the top of her toes looking around, a vainer man than Severus could have been forgiven for believing she was looking for him.
She restrained herself to an undignified squeak as Severus pinched her arm, but relented sufficiently to offer it to him. “Mr Snape – what a charming surprise. And what exquisite manners you have, too, sir.”
“Believe me, where I was raised it was considered the pinnacle of sophistication. You should be slapping my cheek about now, and then we would practically be engaged.” The problem with Miss Granger was that she was far too easy to talk to.
The relative darkness of the church gave way to the blinding glare of the piazza outside, and Severus offered an unusually devout prayer that the burning spots on his cheeks went unnoticed.
“Hermione, pray allow me –“ Krum had somehow acquired a distinctly feminine parasol, which he offered to Miss Granger with unnerving panache. Somehow, in the short space of time since escorting Lady Heloïse through the green-tinged bronze doors of the basilica, Krum had managed to offhand the lady to Draco and two other admirers smoothly enough not to cause offence. As a Slytherin, Severus was forced to admire his aptitude, although his suspicions reached new heights.
A wise man would have Lady Heloïse's measure and take very good care not to antagonise her, if he wanted to court her companion. In this shallow world, it would indeed require a wise man to recognise the simple fact that Hermione Granger was worth a dozen of her noble employer, so it was only logical that Krum would go about his business cautiously.
Severus did not have a parasol, nor the polished manners that currently were being flaunted beneath his nose in broken English.
Withdrawing in sullen silence (at least he could sulk with the best of them), he only paused to nod to Draco before turning the corner towards Via delle Belle Donne. The irony of the name failed to entice as much as a twitch of his eyebrow.
Once he had left the piazza and the chattering church-goers, Severus' pace slacked. He had nowhere in particular to go, so he was in no rush to get there. The city was far more enticing than their lodgings, but he had had as much art as he could swallow for the moment.
A dusty bookshop caught his eye – it wasn't until he was halfway through the door Severus realised it was magical, as the portly-looking man with glasses behind the counter used his wand to kill a fly.
“Mi dispiace, Signore! Sto chiudendo per il pranzo –“
Severus communicated his ignorance of Pranzo and whatever he was getting up to with a shrug, and the shopkeeper changed tack.
“Ah, Inglese –“ How he was able to decipher Severus' nationality was unclear. “Here, I show you –“ the man said in broken English, pulling out a dusty wooden box filled with ageing books.
Contrary to expectations, it wasn't complete rubbish. Severus passed over a well-worn copy of Marmion and picked out a volume that was reassuringly magical – Snarling Creatures And How To Tame Them. The moving dragon on the cover was a bit of a giveaway.
He ended up with a small pile of books: Olde and Forgotten Bewitchments and Charmes tickled his interest; a Latin Potion encyclopedia he found at the bottom could prove useful, and a Muggle novel by an unnamed author with a surprisingly pithy opening line. He lingered over Bestiarium Magicum, even though he already owned it – Miss Granger had mentioned she would like to read it, and since Severus' copy was in storage in England awaiting his eventual return, it had been out of his power to lend it to her.
For once in his life, a generous impulse won out – aided by the shopkeeper informing him it only cost a florin, appealing to his Northern thriftiness.
It may be a paltry thing, but at least Hermione Granger was a woman who could appreciate the value of a book.
Severus had the book dispatched by messenger, preferring not to witness for himself whether Krum continued his courting apace.
If he were, Severus' presence would only hinder matters. If he were not, a prolonged absence would make no difference to Miss Granger, who no doubt would find other sources of intelligent conversation. As his absence coincided with Draco taking himself off to attend the Palio in Siena along with some of his cronies, Severus went an unusually long time without news from Lady Heloïse's establishment.
Draco returned from Siena a trifle worse for wear, but thankfully not too badly dipped, and Severus anxiously awaited his next visit to Lady Heloïse.
Severus was kept waiting, Draco having discovered a delightful bit of muslin who was only too keen to get her hands on some British Galleons. It took much dexterity and Slytherin guise to extract Draco from her claws without giving the former a hint Severus was meddling in his affairs, and there was little leisure to visit ladies of quality for some time.
Forced to keep his temper on short leash lest he took it out on Draco and spoiled all his handiwork, Severus took to his room turned several innocent chairs into splinters before he found the reason for his malaise.
It promptly sent him into a depression – Severus may not be the most perspicacious of men when it came to his own feelings, but he was only too well versed in the ways of the world. Continuing down the same road would only cause himself misery, if he were fortunate enough to escape public scorn.
Suddenly, the tall patrician buildings outside his window, bathed in golden afternoon light, did not seem so different to the low rows of tiny houses where he had been raised. Then as now, he had wanted the spectacular future that was just out of his reach so badly he almost could touch it. It was dangling in front of his outstretched fingers, and he was powerless to grab it.
Too good for the likes of him, rough voices whispered in an accent Severus had shed as soon as he had been able to modulate his vowels.
A gilded mirror hung above the fireplace (the house where he had been born had only had an open fire, and his first memories were tinged with smoke).
Severus stared at the pale man in his stern robes as if he were a stranger in his own life as well as in this country, before his exasperation got the better of him and he swirled around in a cloud of black wool.
For a moment, it looked like the stranger in the mirror remained, while Severus had gone.