Draco's face was transformed: the studied indifference he liked to cultivate in social settings had been replaced with unholy glee. He pushed his way through the crowd gathered for a select soiree to share his amusement with Severus.
“Krum's got his just deserts! Just look at him there.” He nudged Severus gently towards a lone figure propping up one of the columns in the courtyard of Palazzo Miniati. Seeing as the building had weathered almost four centuries on its own, it did seem rather redundant. “That's a man who has been unlucky in love, if I ever saw one.”
Severus' treacherous heart lifted, only to come crashing down again. Draco was still under the impression that Lady Heloïse was the object of Krum's affections, so he was hardly a reliable observer.
Still, Krum was decidedly downcast.
It was risky, but Severus decided it was worth it regardless. He shifted unobtrusively so he was directly in Krum's line of sight, and sent out a tendril of consciousness.
As usual, Draco did not know what he was talking about – the face in Krum's mind was clearly Hermione's. Severus almost took a step backwards when he was hit with the intensity of his depression – Krum may as well have been shouting from the rooftops that he had been turned down, and was miserable about it.
Severus did not know what to think or what to do – all he knew was that he had to speak to Miss Granger.
Searching the dazzling crowd for Lady Heloïse was easy – she was centre of attention as always, standing near the main staircase and twirling her fan at a turbaned envoy from somewhere exotic. Her companion was more difficult to find – she favoured grey and dull green gowns in company, and was unlikely to be surrounded by a court of admirers.
Severus had not put his eyes on her for more than two weeks – suddenly he could not bear one more moment without Miss Granger. Fortunately, the occasion was restricted to wizards-only, so he could make use of a discrete Point-Me charm. His wand rose upwards in a surprisingly lewd manner, and Severus pocketed it quickly.
Up – he tilted his head and saw only the deepening sky at first. Then, the dark edges surrounding the courtyard opening to the elements took shape. He was able to make out servants bustling with trays and jugs, before spotting an unmoving figure leaning against the bannister two storeys above. Sweeping past Lady Heloïse, he commenced the climb towards Miss Granger.
If Krum was addressing her by her given name, Severus was damned if he was going to keep calling her Miss Granger inside his own head.
Unfortunately, once he reached her, he realised he had no idea what to say.
“You shouldn't seek me out like this, Mr Snape. It will give me quite the wrong impression.” She still was not looking at him, and Severus realised his absence during the last weeks could be perceived as a deliberate snub.
“If I act as my usual charming self, it should soon set you right.”
She snorted. Severus' eyes had adapted to the dim light, and he could see traces of tears on her face.
“Is it –“ A new interpretation of events, only too likely, occurred to him. “Did Krum offer you a carte blanche?” he asked, aghast.
“Severus Snape!” Hermione sounded more like her usual self, and Severus tucked away the memory of her using his given name deep down, next to his memories of getting his Hogwarts letter and his first new wand. “How dare you suggest he did – and even it it were the case, how on earth would it be any of your business?”
“Otherwise I can't figure out how you would be foolish enough to turn him down!”
She drew a long heaving breath. “Of all the – Why do you even care if I marry Viktor Krum or not?”
“He can offer you a home of your own and a comfortable life, and all the opportunities to experiment in magic you could ever dream of. Everything, in short, that I cannot.” Severus stared down at the dancing couples below. “You once told me no one had proposed marriage to you. Now the most eligible bachelor this side of the Alps has, and you refuse his most flattering offer. You have clearly taken leave of your senses.”
“Not at all,” she said. “I simply found my requirements have changed. Unfortunately, I am no longer satisfied with marrying the first man who asks me. I'm afraid it has to be a surly Potions Master or no one.”
Severus' hand moved of its own accord until it clasped hers. They clutched the banister together, like they were grasping a future that never would happen.
Severus left the gathering at Palazzo Miniati as soon as he could contrive to slip out through the tradesman's entrance. There was nobody else there he wanted to speak to, and as far as Hermione was concerned, words were superfluous.
He had always known it was useless – he could barely manage to support himself, never mind adding a wife to the equation – but as long as Severus had believed his feelings were unreciprocated the whole thing had seemed like a pipe dream anyway. The wave of despair that stunned him at the precise moment he found out the woman he loved returned his affection was unexpected, but after some reflection he concluded it was logical.
Nothing in his life had turned out the way he wanted it to, so naturally the same would apply to love.
At some distant point in the future he might be able to rejoice in the fact that he had won the heart of a good woman (and a brilliant witch, at that), but at the moment Severus was too heartsick to do anything but wallow.
He did see the necessity of putting an end to their agony as soon as possible. It could not be, so it was of the utmost importance to arrange his removal from Florence as soon as possible. Fortunately, he was a Slytherin, and recognised the importance of planning for all contingencies – all he had to do was to deploy his plan for accelerating their removal to Rome.
Some strategically placed memoirs later, Draco was itching to discover the pleasures promised by the famed courtesans of Rome. All that remained was to fix on a date of departure and bid farewell to their friends in Florence.
As a single man, Draco did not entertain beyond offering his cronies dinner at their lodgings. The quality of the people he had befriended in Florence demanded a more dignified exit that his hurried exodus from Venice, however, so he set about procuring the use of the magnificent Villa Guidagni overlooking Florence from Arcetri, within spitting distance (for wizards, at least) of the city walls.
As usual, Malfoy Galleons were accepted currency everywhere. The owners had no aspirations of belonging to the higher echelons of society, so negotiations were refreshingly straightforward. It fell on Severus to organise the festivities, as Draco had more pressing engagements elsewhere trying to cram in as many of the pleasures Florence could offer before leaving.
Severus did it willingly – far better to compose an elegant menu designated to tempt the palate of the fussiest dandy and debate seating arrangements with the major domo who came with the villa than to think about Hermione.
He sent her a note with the invitation:
I hope you will come to bid me farewell.
It felt like writing his own order of execution, but there was no other way. Even wizards could not live on spells alone, and he wanted so much better for his Hermione. She might accept Krum's proposal, in time – the fact that he had looked at the companion rather than the lady and noticed her many qualities suggested he was not in the common way. If he persisted in his suit –
Severus threw himself back into the myriad of inconsequential things required to move their makeshift household to Rome, preferring not to dwell on what would happen once he had left Florence.
Musicians procured by the industrious major domo were playing on the upper terrace, and Severus wondered if the sleeping Muggles in the surrounding hamlets were dreaming about lords and ladies dancing in the dusty barn behind the church.
Lady Heloïse was announced, and his eyes moved of their own volition to the space two steps behind her, where Hermione should have been.
Perhaps Krum had been more persuasive than he had accounted for.
Severus was trying very hard not to be sick all over the exquisitely polished marble floor when a butterfly buffed against his hand and became a solid scrap of parchment.
Meet me by the fountain,
Severus had never felt less like a lover stealing a clandestine meeting as he descended the steps to the lower terrace. Near the steps, some guests had been tempted by the charmed jets jumping and dancing on surface of the long fountain, but for the most part the area was deserted.
Except at the very end, where a solitary figured revealed itself as Severus drew nearer. He should have known she would not risk her reputation by failing to use a simple charm, but it still brought a jolt to his heart to see her familiar shape suddenly outlined against the view of the city below.
“Splendid, isn't it?”
Severus considered – anything to take his mind off their impending goodbye. “For all its beauty, it still has the same vices as any other city. More perhaps, considering its prosperity.”
Apparently, Hermione also preferred to discuss trivialities rather than their impending separation. “So you would rather look down on, say, Manchester, instead of this?”
“As usual, you are jumping to conclusions.”
“Known in the Muggle world as making a logical inference, but logic never was a strong point of wizards.” If she left herself open like that, it was only because she was building up to attacking from the side. Severus took the bait – he was not going to turn down what might be his last chance to parry with Hermione.
“Witches, of course, are an entirely different matter,” he said loftily. Before Hermione could expand on the theme – virtually a gilt-edged invitation – she grabbed his arm and squeezed it, hard.
“Shh,” she breathed into his ear, and Severus could not have moved even if he had wanted to. When he forced himself to pay attention to his surroundings again, rather than dwelling on the delicious sensation of Hermione's voice in his ear, he realised she was slowly extracting her wand from the embroidered reticule she was carrying.
Not daring to move lest he interrupted whatever in the world she was doing – had they been spotted by a Muggle? – Severus concentrated on what he could perceive in the golden light of the setting sun.
The warmth of Hermione's body, almost indecently close – better not dwell on that. The soft breeze, carrying a sweet scent of flowers unknown to England. The soft buzzing of bees and jittery flight of butterflies seeking the flowers surrounding the fountain, accompanied by faraway music and the chatter of the idle classes. Hermione changing her stance, her wand free at last.
“Can you see it?” she whispered, softer than the hum of a bumblebee. Severus moved his head a fraction to indicate no.
“On the laurel hedge, next to the yellow roses. A Four-Eyed Blue-Tailed Damselfly!” It clearly meant something to Hermione, but unless the Italians had bred flesh-eating dragonflies, Severus could not perceive why it would concern them.
Correctly interpreting his silence as ignorance – she really was very, very clever – Hermione chanced another whisper: “It's so rare nobody has seen it for fifty years! It would be worth – oh, several fortunes. Promise you will do exactly as I say, and we will carry this off.”
Severus nodded this time, thankful for his self-imposed vow of silence as his mouth suddenly went dry. Even a modest competence would change everything –
His visions of idyllic cottages with a Potions laboratory at the back were interrupted by Hermione's elbow rudely poking him in the ribs.
“When I say 'go', Levitate me over the fountain.”
Before Severus had time to tell her it was the worst plan since Evan Rosier decided the best way to exterminate his beard was with Fiendfyre, she said: “Go!”
Fervently hoping at least one of them knew what they were about, he did as instructed. Keeping as still as possible while scanning the laurel hedge for anything blue, Severus tried to ignore his wildly beating heart.
Hermione hovered above him, rotating slowly in the air, her wand stretched like she was hoping the dragonfly would perch on it.
“Down,” she whispered, and Severus obediently lowered his wand. Hermione landed in the fountain with a splash even the sleeping Muggles could hear. Horrified, Severus watched something blue flutter away over the edge of the terrace.
“Don't just stand there, do something!” Hermione snapped.
“Accio dragonfly!” Severus may as well have tried to whistle down the wind – the glimpse of blue moved further into the distance.
“Haven't you read the book? Magic doesn't work directly on them, we have to try something else!” Hermione looked around frantically, far past noticing her soaked dress. “Ventus Aspira!”
The breeze changed direction and gained in strength, almost blowing them off the terrace.
“Idiotic woman, it is Aura Aspira!” Severus put all his strength into the spell, changing the course of the wind. While he was directing it with his wand, Hermione quickly transfigured her reticule into a net. She lowered it just as Severus started to waver, placing her foot on the handle as soon as it hit the ground.
“There!” She panted heavily, and Severus lowered his shaking arm.
He did not quite dare to believe it, peering suspiciously into the net. “Are you sure you caught it?”
Hermione did not even stop grinning. “See the pebble in the corner? It's just behind it. They can shrink themselves, but not too much.”
There was a tiny speck of blue - she had indeed caught it. Hermione fashioned a shimmery bubble with her wand and transferred it there before she shrank it to fit into her re-transformed reticule. Severus felt dizzy with their good fortune, before he recalled that he was Severus Snape and things were bound to implode sooner rather than later.
Hermione had caught the Four-Eyed Snot-Tailed Wotsit, not him.
He had indeed helped her, but it had been Hermione who had spotted the creature and contrived to capture it. Severus may not be a gentleman, but he did have some honour: the dragonfly belonged to Hermione, not the two of them.
It was one thing to nurse a tendre for a surly Northerner two decades her senior when there was no possibility it would progress any further than wistful glances. It was quite another to stick to him when she suddenly became the mistress of her own destiny, assuming she was right about the value of the insect (of course she was – Hermione had never yet been wrong about anything you could learn from a book).
That Severus would be nursing a broken heart long after he had returned to England meant nothing – he had always known Hermione was far above him in every way that mattered.
“You're not going to faint, are you?” she asked suspiciously. “My smelling salts are in my reticule, and besides, I didn't think you would be so poor-spirited.”
“I was merely contemplating your good fortune. How did you know what it was, by the way?” To his surprise, Severus found he would rather prolong the inevitable than find out his fate.
“I found it in the Bestiarium Magicum you gave me, of course.”
“You would naturally find the key to enormous riches in a book.”
“What did you think I was going to do with the Bestiarium, use it for lighting fires?”
“I thought you may perhaps read it to Lady Heloïse during the long evenings,” he said, his voice surprisingly steady.
Hermione snorted. “I must do something for Lady Heloïse, I suppose – it would not be fair to just cast her loose.”
It was Severus' turn to scoff. “I have never met a woman more likely to cast her anchor somewhere without the least provocation.”
“It is hardly her fault her first husband was idiotic enough to ride his winged horse while inebriated.” Hermione was surprisingly passionate in her defence of a lady who did not treat her with any particular consideration, other than what any well-bred woman showed to her dependents. “No one bats an eyelid when a man goes through several wives, but as soon as it is a woman who outlives them, you are all up in arms.”
Severus was well aware that Lady Heloïse would face a dearth of options unless she was willing to relinquish her independence and live with her relatives, but he had not realised Hermione sympathised with her predicament. “Do you actually like her?”
“I like her inability to settle for doing what people think she should do, asking herself what she would like to accomplish instead.”
“Bringing three husbands to a premature end?”
“Two, at most. I have yet to come across any conclusive evidence. Perhaps I should encourage her to marry Draco after all – that would solve the problem neatly.”
Severus felt all the blood drain from his face. “If you have any regard for what becomes of me at all, please do not. The best I could hope for if that happens is that Lucius doesn't leave my remains too disfigured.”
“I did not realise you intended to linger long enough to find out – would you not rather leave your post as soon as possible?”
Knowing Lucius Malfoy as he did, Severus felt obliged to warn her: “It would not matter if I went to the Antipodes – Lucius would obliterate me if I let his only son marry a half-blood of questionable reputation and provenance.”
“I see. I will have to think of something else. Sooner rather than later, though, don't you agree?”
Severus noticed his wand arm was shaking. “Hermione,” he began, not knowing how to continue. If there had been classes in love-making at Hogwarts, Severus would have received a T.
“Yes, Severus?” She was rather closer than he remembered.
He swallowed. “You do not have to go through with this, you know. Everything has changed now. As a wealthy woman, you will be able to have your mother live with you. You can have your own Potions laboratory, all the finest ingredients –“
“And so I shall. With you, although I confess I would be glad if you would agree to my mother coming to live with us, should she wish it.”
“It is your fortune, to do with as you wish. Are you certain this is what you want?” There was no need to spell out what he meant – his less than agreeable appearance and misanthropic tendencies required no pointing out.
“Carrying out first-rate Potions research with you?” Hermione looked uncertain for the first time since catching the dragonfly. “I was rather hoping you wished to marry me, as well.”
“I'm afraid the proprieties would demand we were married –“
“Sod the proprieties. Do you want to marry me or not?” Gryffindors certainly cut to the chase.
Severus found it strangely exhilarating to cast aside a lifetime of obfuscation, albeit it terrified him, too. “More than anything. Will you do me the honour of accepting my hand in marriage?”
“I think I proposed first, but yes. I cannot think of anything that would make me happier. Not even a Potions laboratory. Although I should make it clear that it is our fortune, not mine, if you should wish to set out on your own.” Hermione did not seem to be able to stop talking, so Severus took matters in his own hands.
“I see you don't,” she said as soon as their most improper embrace came to an end.
“If you are foolish enough to consent to be shackled to me, I would be an irredeemable dunderhead if I let you slip away.”
Crunching gravel announced the arrival of other guests. Severus detached himself from Hermione with some difficulty, but as she let her hand slip into his the loss seemed less acute. Pretending to admire the view, they looked out over Florence in silence.
Severus held onto the banister with his other hand, just in case he lost control of his magic and drifted off towards the skies, propelled by sheer happiness.