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And They Didn't Live Happily Ever After

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Chapter One
"The Pub"


Disclaimer: Oh, that I had a smidgen of our dear J.K. Rowling's talent or I wouldn’t be using her characters. They are hers alone. I'm just borrowing them for a while, I promise to return them only slightly used, but cherished nonetheless.

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Dear Hermione,

Meet me in Muggle London at the Swift & Stump
pub near Tower Bridge tomorrow at one o'clock.
Please don’t tell Ron, as this concerns Ginny.

Thanks,

Harry
-------

Hermione read the letter a second time before folding it up neatly. She carefully placed it in her pocket, thankful that Ron was still asleep when the owl post came that morning.

She wondered if Harry needed help picking out a gift for his wife. Hermione was the only woman who knew Ginny well enough to know her style, much less size, if it came to lingerie shopping.

It seemed a bit odd, really, when Hermione thought about it. Harry and Ginny's anniversary was two months ago, it was still another two months before Ginny’s birthday and Christmas was half a year away.

'Maybe Harry got himself in the doghouse and wants to apologize with a nice diamond bauble,' she mused to herself. She then thought some more. Maybe Harry was ready to talk about other things.

Hermione pushed those thoughts aside to reflect on her own marriage.

She sighed heavily, feeling the invisible weight of disappointment on her own shoulders. Three years as Mrs. Ron Weasley, and the honeymoon was over long ago.

It didn't take a clever witch to know that Ron did not come from a family of means, but she thought that his circumstances would at least have driven him to make a wholehearted go at making something of himself in the world. Second string Keeper for the Chudley Cannons, while moonlighting as a barkeep at The Listing Broomstick, was not what one aspired to in one's youth.

There were days when Hermione kicked herself for allowing Ron to talk himself out of finishing Auror training, shortly after the fall of Voldemort. She had known it was a bad idea then, but kept her mouth shut for once, as she didn't feel like butting heads with Ron again just a few months before their wedding. Instead, she went to Harry to ask him to convince her fiancé to stay the course. Harry only shrugged, saying that Ron had made up his mind and it was out of his hands.

Putting down her now cold cup of tea, Hermione closed her eyes and tried to think of things she should be grateful for, before she headed off to work.

'Harry and Ron survived the war, both in one piece. All of the Weasleys lived. We have our health. I have a good job at the Ministry with little chance of being unemployed in the near future. We have a roof over our heads, albeit a rather small one, but at least it fits two people.'

She paused while trying to think of other blessings, but drew a blank.

All the positive things she could think of only reminded her of the things she was growing steadily resentful of. Yes, the golden trio had survived the war, but so did Fudge and his inane administration. Yes, all the Weasleys lived, but Albus and Minerva did not, both passing away in the last days of the war. Yes, she had a good job, but she was the main breadwinner of the household.

It took quite a few months of convincing herself that it was all right for a wife to earn more than her husband. She didn't mean to sound so anti-feminist in her head, but she still had a few old-fashioned values, such as the man being able to earn enough money so that when it came time for children, the woman could stay at home for a few months recovering from childbirth, without worrying that the rent wasn't going to be paid.

It wasn't that they lived hand-to-mouth, but between the upkeep on Ron's professional Quidditch broom, food, rent and other basic necessities, money was tight. Ron's meager salary with his two jobs, and Hermione's low-level job in which she was indispensable, but hardly compensated for her skill, knowledge and efforts, was barely enough to keep anything in their vault at Gringotts. There was little room for extravagance or unplanned splurges.

And that last thought... their flat. Room enough for two and a baby, as Molly had not so subtly hinted at during the past three family gatherings.

It wasn't as if Molly did not have enough grandchildren already. She had more than enough to qualify for her own township. It was just she didn't have any grandchildren from her two youngest children.

Hermione and Ginny both bore the brunt of Molly's grilling as to why they hadn't got ‘round to procreating. The brunette witch had politely sidestepped the questions by stating she was just getting her career started and that there would be plenty of time for children once they got a little more financially stable.

Molly countered with her own argument that if people waited until they had enough money before having children, no one would have any. She used herself as an example of how she made it work, despite Arthur's meager income. She clearly expected Hermione to take the same drastic measures. The Weasleys had enough love to fill in some of the shortcomings, but love did not put food on the table.

Ginny wasn’t quite in the same situation. Harry had inherited a sizable fortune of his own, and had a good paying job as an Auror. Mrs. Potter didn't work in the traditional sense, but volunteered for many charities and committees, which took up as much time as full-time employment.

Frequently, at family gatherings, Hermione and Ginny would make a quick escape to the back garden when the talk turned to which wife of the Weasley men was due with the latest grandchild. But at the last get-together, Molly ambushed Ginny as everyone began to sit down to dinner, chastising her for not trying to get pregnant. To this, Ginny hotly retorted, "I'll have kids when I'm damn good and ready–and NOT BEFORE!"

Ginny stormed from the table and Flooed back home, only to receive a Howler from her mother before the night was out. Hermione went to visit the Potters the next day. She found Ginny smashing every breakable object within the house. Harry remained shut up in his study, servicing his latest broom.

That was over two months ago, and Ginny still seemed upset over the incident.

Hermione hoped that Harry might be able to shed some additional light on the matter when they met the next day, and if not, maybe Hermione could finally broach the subject with Ginny at their weekly Wednesday lunch, day after next. There was more than just irritation from her mother's haranguing involved.

Rising from the rickety kitchen chair, Hermione headed over to the dresser and took a piece of parchment in which to scribble a reply. After signing her name, she tied the note to Pig's leg and gave him a treat before the tiny owl took wing into the clear June morning.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hermione stepped into the pub and looked about the dark paneled interior, searching for the telltale thatch of unruly black hair. Near the back in a somewhat secluded booth, she saw the top of his head poking just above the back of the divider.

"Hi Harry," Hermione warmly greeted her old friend as she reached the table. She stopped cold with the pleasantries once she saw his upturned face, marred with dark circles and tears. His boyish features looked tired and drawn. A light crease was imprinted on his forehead, bisecting his famous scar.

Quickly, Hermione sat down, and her face immediately changed to one of concern.

"What's wrong, Harry?" Her tones were hushed and urgent.

The last time she had seen Harry this distraught was when Albus and Minerva died almost four years ago, just a week before the final battle.

Her mind raced through a hundred scenarios, trying to think of anything that would make her old friend so upset about Ginny, and required her discretion to not mention this meeting to Ron. Only one thing seemed to come to the top of her mind. Children.

Kids were a sore point with both Ginny and Hermione lately. After her blow-up with her mother, the youngest Weasley ranted to Hermione that she just wasn't emotionally ready for kids. She wasn't ready for the commitment to a squalling ball of flesh, as she so often referred, with sotto voce, to her many newborn nieces and nephews in confidence to Hermione. Of the many reasons she stated for why she wanted to put off children, was that she and Harry needed some more time to settle into marriage, do things that young couples do, like travel, and be insouciant for a while, without additional responsibilities. She blamed Voldemort for stealing many of the carefree years of her youth, that she was intent on reclaiming, plus interest.

Harry had never said one way or another that he was ready for kids or not. Certain he was finally going to discuss the issue with her, Hermione blinked and asked him to repeat what he just said, sure she had heard wrong.

"Ginny's having an affair."

Chapter Text

Chapter Two
“A Life More Than ‘Mione”

 

Disclaimer: Rowling owns it all, lock, stock and barrel full of pickled dragon spleen. I bow humbly to her and the universe she has created. Not a brass farthing nor a single Knut is being made off of this.

 

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"What?" Hermione still couldn’t believe what she had heard. It seemed an implausibility, and wholly against Ginny's nature.

 

Harry closed his eyes, hoping that the rising tide of despair would abate enough to let him answer Hermione's questions without completely breaking apart. He could barely admit it himself, and having to repeat it a third time would surely rent his heart in two.

 

Flustered and shocked, Hermione blurted out, "Are you sure?"

 

Harry nodded morosely. A torrent of tears began trailing down his cheek, and splashing on the heavily varnished tabletop. Even during the tenebrous days of the war, Harry never looked so fragile and on the verge of shattering into infinitesimal shards.

 

She wanted to hug him, but the table that was between them hindered the action. Instead, she reached across the table and grasped his hand, offering some solidarity with that simple gesture.

 

The logical part of Hermione's mind took charge, while her emotional side kept chanting, 'Please, let it not be true.'

 

Swallowing down the growing lump in her throat, Hermione slowly said, "Tell me what you know. Start at the beginning."

 

Harry sniffed and grabbed a pile of napkins from the dispenser on the table, blew his nose and cleared his throat.

 

"It was a couple of months ago," he began, his voice gravelly and thick with emotion. "You know that Ginny is always working of some sort of committee or another. And you know how Molly has been nagging us, or Ginny rather, for kids."

 

Hermione nodded, encouraging him to continue.

 

"Well, Ginny has been reluctant to get pregnant, saying we have years ahead to start a family. She wants to travel and do things. I told her we could still travel with kids, like Bill and Fleur do, but she doesn't want to do that. She says the kids will stop us from having spontaneous fun like young couples have when they don't have to worry about arranging a babysitter..." Harry licked his lips nervously. "Or other things."

 

Hermione remembered that Harry was always a bit uncomfortable when talking about sex, even engaging in "boy talk" with Ron when she wasn't around.

 

"Well," Hermione paused, trying to think of how to word it delicately. "She has a point. You have years to start a family; you're both very young. You're almost twenty-three and she's just twenty-one. My parents didn't get around to having me till they were in their late twenties. Just because she doesn't want to get pregnant right now doesn't mean she's having an affair, Harry."

 

"But I want kids now. I've always wanted a family of my own. And there's other things," he added quickly, an inflection of anger in his tone. He took a deep breath and straightened his spine before continuing.

 

"A couple of weeks ago I had to stop by home after lunch to pick up a few things I forgot. It was Thursday, so Ginny has her weekly board meeting with the Magical Beast Preservation Society. Or so she said," he finished darkly.

 

Truly intrigued, Hermione leaned closer to Harry as he continued his tale in more discreet tones, "When I was in the study looking for a file I needed, a head popped into the fireplace. It was some witch from the board asking if Ginny was there. I said I didn't know where she was. The witch said that there were a few questions they had for Ginny. It seems she resigned from the board six months ago, without telling me, and that they needed to follow up a few things since they were currently in a meeting."

 

Sighing, Harry sat back and closed his eyes, "I just knew something was up then. When I came home at the end of the day, I asked her how her board meeting at the Preservation Society went and she just said, 'Oh the usual stuff. Nothing much happened, just business,' and left it at that."

 

Harry opened his eyes, and the anger in them made Hermione a bit worried. Before she could open her mouth with possible reasons as to why Ginny might be deceiving her husband, he growled, "She lied to me. She bald-faced lied to me. So next Thursday comes around and I decided to follow Ginny using my invisibility cloak. Well, I should have said something to the witch about not mentioning talking to me, because when I was following Ginny, she kept stopping and looking over her shoulder. At one point, I noticed she used a locating spell and her wand was pointed directly at me, though I was half a block from her. She knew," he said, shaking his head, "she knew I was there. Next thing I know, she Apparates and when I try a locating spell on her, it won't lock. She blocked me. Can you believe that?!?

 

"That night, I asked her about the board meeting and she casually replies–" Harry coughed to clear his voice before switching to a mocking falsetto, "'Oh, I'm so busy and I got tired of some of the politics involved; I decided to resign this week. It wasn't like they really needed me anyway.'"

 

Furrowing her brow, Hermione gently replied, "Maybe it's just she didn't want to disappoint you. After all, you did found that society in honor of Hagrid after he died."

 

"NO!" Harry looked around, leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner, his eyes darting around to see if they had anyone eavesdropping on their conversation. "There are things Ginny used to constantly ask... things... in the bedroom. There are some acts I just won't do; I'm just not 'into' certain things. And about six months ago, she just stopped asking."

 

Hermione could have been knocked over with a feather. She was flabbergasted and utterly speechless. She hoped it wasn't true, but the evidence strongly indicated otherwise.

 

"She's getting her 'needs filled' by someone else," Harry said sarcastically, with emphasis on the euphemistic phrase. A sneer was flitting at the corners of his mouth.

 

Before Hermione could find her tongue and speak, she felt something brush her legs under the table.

 

"Here, take my Invisibility Cloak. I need you to follow her. I'm ninety-nine percent sure there's someone else, but the one-percent in me is begging that it's something else. Anything but this."

 

She gathered the silky material into her lap, her fingers nervously clutching the cloak. "I... I... Harry," her mouth gaped, searching for words. "I don't–"

 

"Please, Hermione. Please. I'll go mad if I don't know. The idea of her with another man would torture me. I'm not sure what's worse, knowing or not knowing. Do this for me," he begged and the tears returned, threatening to fall.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

She didn't remember her walk back to the Ministry, but somehow Hermione found herself sitting at her desk. She still clutched Harry's Invisibility Cloak.

 

Finally coming to her senses, as it would not do for a Ministry official to come into her office with an Invisibility Cloak rumpled in her lap, she cleared out her bottom right drawer and deposited the cloak in it. She triple locked the drawer before donning her work robes and heading off to the lab.

 

Stepping into the room, she could tell from the malodorous scent that the latest shipment of Chupacabra bile had arrived from Mexico.

 

"Hello, Marge."

 

Hermione's lab partner, an elder witch whose indeterminate age was somewhere between a hundred and eighty and death, grunted in acknowledgment. It was considerably more than she did most days when the young witch greeted her.

 

'Why do I have to have a partner who's as sociable as Filch?' Hermione allowed herself a quick inner grumble before she began her task.

 

Sighing, she sat on her stool and measured out a small amount of the odious bile for testing. Hermione knew that there was a backlog of orders for this item, what with all the apothecaries around Britain; however, she wouldn't let this shipment clear through customs until she was sure that its quality met Ministry standards.

 

Hermione Weasley took her job at the Department of Standards & Regulations very seriously. It was a thankless job, but a vital one. Before the department was created over three hundred years ago, ingredients poured into the country with varying amounts of potency and consistency. Some ingredients weren't even what they claimed they were on the box!

 

Upon a rather unfortunate accident, involving the Minister’s wife, her cat, and a potion that was designed to correct the animal’s digestion distress (made with faulty ingredients), the Department of Standards and Regulations was founded.

 

Since then, the Department of S&R, as it was known within the Ministry, ensured that no other catastrophic incidents would occur with the import of potion ingredients. The department letterhead still carried the crest of the cat's exploded carcass to remind the employees of the seriousness of their task.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

After the entire shipment of the Bezoars from Greece was finally tested, Hermione looked up at the clock on the wall. It read, 'Time to Go Home.' She was sure it was later than that, as both her and Marge had a habit of staying later than most Ministry employees.

 

Hermione shucked her work robes and put them in the hamper for the house elves to clean. The diurnal act of leaving her uniform for someone else to clean nightly always bothered some small part of her, but her mind was elsewhere that evening. Instead of focusing on the continuance of elf slavery after the war, another item in her long list of regrets, her thoughts were on the cloak in her bottom drawer and her conversation with Harry.

 

Tucking Harry's cloak under her robes, she exited her office and headed towards the elevator. Harry's words were continuing to replay themselves in her head when the elevator opened and she stepped inside.

 

"Main floor?" asked the elevator operator.

 

"Yes, please."

 

It killed her to say 'please' to him, but she figured that she should hold herself above reproach in her manners. The Muggle-born witch figured that if those pure-blood bigots ever rose up through the ranks of society or the Ministry ever again, they could never accuse her of being rude.

 

Antonin Dolohov closed the door, and the two figures stood silently as the elevator hummed and then came to a slightly jerky stop.

 

"Have a good evening."

 

She nodded in reply. Hermione wasn't sure if he had finally been broken with the humility of such a low-level job or that he was just becoming a better actor. Regardless, she always kept her wand at the ready, just in case. The first time she had come face-to-mask with him was in the Department of Mysteries and her impression of him had been firmly set from then on.

 

Walking through the main lobby, she glanced at the mass of canvas that hid the new fountain. It was going to be unveiled next week, on the fourth anniversary of Victory Day.

 

The answer to the questions of what the new sculpture would be was kept a big secret. Only a few top Ministry officials, and the artist who conceived and created it, knew what the fountain looked like.

 

A betting pool sprung up around the Ministry as to what it would be. Top odds were for a magical beast menagerie, with mostly dragons, unicorns and phoenixes. The next pick was a sculpture of Dumbledore and other prominent wizards, odds running at four to one. The long shot, at a hundred to one, was a sculpture of Harry Potter vanquishing Voldemort.

 

Harry made it be known in the few interviews he gave after the final battle that he didn't want statues raised in his image to glorify him. He said during one of the few public speeches he ever gave, that people should look to themselves to find the hero within. Some people claimed to have never understood what he meant by it, but Hermione thought it was some of the most eloquent and humble words ever spoken.

 

Before she stepped into the cool summer evening, she spotted Jugson with his push broom. He had his wand out and was cleaning up the last of the cobwebs on the high ceilings of the Ministry atrium. As a custodian, it was one of the few spells he was allowed to perform with his wand. The young witch instinctively tightened the grip on her wand and kept it that way until she was well clear of the Ministry's front steps.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Illuminated in the watery evening light, she could see Ron's pile of Quidditch robes as she lay in bed.

 

'If I have to pick up his clothes one more time...' Hermione contemplated how to finish the thought. She wasn't sure if she would scream, hex him or boycott the laundry again. Instead, she just began to cry silently.

 

It was just all too depressing at the moment. Ginny and Harry's marital problem, her less than promising job, her small flat, Ron's prospects. Where was the life she had dreamt of after the defeated Voldemort?

 

'Maybe life is just as mundane and anticlimactic for wizards and witches as it is for Muggles.'

 

As practical as she was, there were times she thought her life would be more satisfying when she "grew up." A job that commanded a bit more respect and challenged her mind. There were days she could feel her mind atrophy under the same mindless repetition of testing one box or jar of ingredients after another. Perhaps if the pay was better, it would compensate for the sheer boredom of it, but she knew money would not solve her sense of dissatisfaction.

 

It was an amalgamation of all the little things. And with the news of Ginny's possible infidelity, it all came to a head.

 

While wondering if "the old Crone was coming for a visit" soon (a common witch euphemism for menstruation) was the reason for her maudlin attitude, Hermione heard Ron come home from his night shift at The Listing Broom. She shut her eyes and pretended to be asleep. The nagging about his housekeeping habits could wait until morning.

 

After listening to him shed his clothes, she felt him settle into bed behind her. Right when she allowed herself to relax a little, Ron nudged up against her, his cock pressing up against her, where her thigh met her arse.

 

He was in the mood again. Hermione figured if she feigned arousal, he might be done with his business quickly.

 

She shifted her legs to allow him access, and he slipped inside of her from behind. Thankful that he at least lubed himself up before trying to penetrate her, she pretended to stir from her sleep.

 

Giving a fairly convincing drowsy groan of amorous delight, she arched her back to allow him deeper penetration. He took this as a cue to begin jack hammering his body against her.

 

Just as she could count on properly preserved Bubotuber Pus to turn the right shade of green when rapidly boiled for two minutes, she could predict Ron's orgasm by the rising pitch in his keening grunts. Hermione moaned a little louder to help push him over the edge.

 

Ron shuddered and deposited his sticky semen inside her.

 

Once he corked off, Hermione slipped from his sweaty embrace. How he could work up a sweat that easily she could never quite figure out.

 

She turned the shower on as hot as she could stand, washing away her husband's leavings before she began to stroke herself.

 

Though Ron seemed an adequate lover, she only had a sample of one in which to judge. She wondered if turning Viktor down for sex when she was fourteen was a bad idea after all. At least she would have a basis for comparison.

 

Remembering how Victor made her insides squirm, when he would whisper deliciously naughty and forbidden ideas into Hermione's ear, she felt a small orgasm ripple through her. It was enough to take off the perpetual edge of sexual frustration that constantly coursed through her body.

 

Perhaps if she had been a few years older, Hermione would have taken up Viktor's offer on many of those things that he had suggested in the dark and private corners of the castle they hid themselves away in a few hours at a time. Such simple and mild acts when compared to intercourse: A little petting, a hand slipped into her knickers, his mouth on her nipples.

 

It was too late to even explore those things. She was married now, and Viktor was an even bigger Quidditch star.

 

She sighed, remembering she just wasn't emotionally or mentally equipped to handle such sexual activities at the time. Hermione was not one to live in the state of buyer's remorse. She was married, so she would just have to make the most of it.

 

'All those trashy bodice ripper Ginny loves to read are full of crap. Heights of passion and blinding ecstasy, my arse,' she thought bitterly.

 

Hermione knew she had settled for a mundane life, as well as a mediocre sex life.

 

After toweling off, she slipped back into bed and looked at her husband.

 

‘At least he has a decent body,’ she thought; glad for some small concession fate had thrown her way.

Chapter Text

Chapter Three
"Sua Cuique Voluptas" (Everyone Has His Own Pleasures)

 

****WARNING: Mild, consensual BDSM, very consensual.****

 

Disclaimer: Miss Jo (Rowling) owns everything. I own nothing in this story, except a really dirty imagination.

 

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Florean Fortescue's was the perfect idea for lunch. Hermione needed a healthy dose of chocolate to lift her spirits. Enough theobromine to put her into a state of catatonic bliss seemed to be the right dosage, if she could even eat that much without having to be turned on her side and rolled out the door afterwards.

 

Looking down into her lap, Hermione noticed she had shredded her fourth paper napkin out of sheer nervousness. Ginny was due to arrive any minute. The redheaded witch was observant and would immediately notice if her friend was jittery and distracted.

 

Hermione took one large cleansing breath, holding it before exhaling and regaining her composure.

 

Ginny flounced into the parlor, swinging a length of fringed and beaded silk charmeuse over her shoulder before sitting down in her seat across from Hermione.

 

"Drama Queen."

 

"Don't you know it," Ginny teased back.

 

Thankful Ginny's entrance gave her something to immediately comment about and ignore the tightness in her chest, Hermione asked, "So, what's new?"

 

She watched Ginny's reaction carefully while trying to remain nonchalant as ever.

 

There was a small twitch in the left corner of Ginny's mouth. Other than the small tic, Ginny's demeanor was exactly the same as it was every week when they met for lunch.

 

"Nothing much," she threw out. "Same old thing. Committee meetings, trying to talk Harry into taking some time off from work for a holiday, finishing the last of the renovations to that cursed house he refuses to sell, so on and so forth. The life of a bored housewife."

 

Hermione choked on Ginny's last sentence. Coughing, as her water had gone down the wrong windpipe, she hoped that didn't tip Ginny off in anyway.

 

"You all right, Hermione?"

 

"Yes (cough)… um… yes. Swallowed wrong." Hermione straightened her robes, which looked a bit shabby when compared to Ginny's.

 

"So, are you ready for the next family gathering?" Ginny asked with tightness and dread.

 

Closing her eyes, Hermione sighed and began to gently bang her head on the tabletop, which drew a few looks from nearby tables, but the two friends could care less.

 

Lifting her head, once her own dramatic display had conveyed her own feelings, Hermione replied, "No, but I supposed I'll have to go. Want to skive off?"

 

Ginny barked a short laugh, "We can go to the spa. Facials, a massage and a long soak in the champagne springs. My treat!"

 

Both women looked at each other with a mischievous glint in their eyes. It was too tempting, but to feign illness to get out of one of the obligatory Weasley family gathering would only drive Molly Weasley to fret about. No doubt, it would result in a surprise visit from the matron with a fresh pot of chicken noodle soup and a newly knitted scarf with which to keep warm. And it would probably do just that, in the fireplace.

 

The twins attempted to skive off once, and it resulted in Molly dishing out heaping piles of hot guilt, slathered with shame and a generous side dish of hurt feelings. Both witches vividly remembered the sight of the plump, older witch beating both fists against her ample bosom in a fashion that would have made Sarah Bernhardt proud while chanting, "Oh, how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child."

 

Both sighed in resignation of their doomed fate. Another lovely afternoon ruined with screaming children, squabbles between Ginny's brothers, and the other Weasley women comparing which brand of diapers absorb more while whipping out blue-veined milk engorged breasts to feed their latest spawn. And let's not forget the hen pecking from the grand dame, beating her dead horse about when they would get down to business and start making babies.

 

"Too bad the whole Ministry is shut down for Victory Day," Hermione said glumly. "At least I'd have the excuse of work to bow out."

 

"And what, leave me to the vultures? You know how it is. Harry and Ron see each other and then abandon us for the rest of the day while they go play Quidditch, then the thinly veiled innuendos from Fleur, Angelina, Penelope, Florence, and Grace about how you can tell how a man is in bed by the way he plays Quidditch. Good God, they way they compare their husband to the rest of them… it's nauseating, especially since they're my brothers. And if I have to hear about how quick Harry is to catch the snitch one more time, I'll scream."

 

That comment brought Hermione's mind back to Harry's conversation with her the day before. Was Harry as quick in bed as he was on the pitch? It certainly made her think of how Ron's style did match his bedroom prowess. Basically, a bit clumsy at first, little confidence unless encouraged and then looking for a way to finish the game as quick as possible. If Harry was quick in bed, could this have been a driving force for Ginny to seek satisfaction from another source?

 

Hermione didn’t even want to delve into those thoughts, as that would lead her down the road of her own unfulfilled sexual needs.

 

"Let's change the subject to something pleasant. I don't want to go back to work depressed," the brunette witch pleaded as she eyed the Sybaritic Mountainous Matterhorn Sundae on the menu. “Enough chocolate to raise the spirits of the dead!” read the description. It also came with a legal disclaimer that Florean Fortescue's was not responsible for broken zippers, popped buttons or ripped seams from overindulgence, regardless of one's depressed state.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

After ruining a second test batch of shrinking violets, Hermione realized that she needed to go back to her office and think in private. Sitting at her desk, while pretending to read the latest Journal of Potions Quarterly, she replayed portions of her lunch with Ginny in her head.

 

The "Quidditch equals the bedroom" comment belied nothing beyond Ginny's disgust for her sister-in-laws' salacious remarks. Hermione had thought about offering to take Thursday afternoon off from work to go shopping with her, but that would only raise Ginny's suspicions much like Harry's questions about the Preservation Society. She was no more likely to skip work than cheat on a test. Neither of them wanted to bring up the subject of children, and Hermione had already heard Ginny's many reasons to wait before. No, there was nothing during their lunch that would indicate Ginny was hiding something. Not that Hermione would be able to tell anyway.

 

Though Ron was a terrible liar, almost as bad as Hermione, most of the other Weasleys had a natural knack for deception. The twins could lie with the ease that should have made them natural candidates for Slytherin. There were times Hermione wondered if lying well was a prerequisite for being sorted into Slytherin, or did they provide special classes to the first years down in their common room.

 

Ginny was also very good at hiding her emotions, a skill developed after her episode in the Chamber of Secrets. She had confided to Hermione many years later that no one in the family wanted to talk about what happened between her and Tom Riddle. So to perpetuate her mother's desire to maintain the façade of normalcy, Ginny had to work through all her emotional scars by herself. Upon this news, Hermione had offered her services as confidant and confessor without judgment.

 

Ginny had taken up the older witch's offer on more than one occasion and Hermione listened with cool detachment, for fear that tears would hinder the passive therapy she could provide. Ginny had done a formidable job of fixing her own soul, but there were still some tattered corners that needed mending.

 

Placing the journal back on her desk, Hermione headed off to the lab. The shrinking violets would not test themselves. She hoped that Ginny would not pass by the corner of Diagon Alley and Le Soleil Levant Mews at one o'clock, as Harry had described.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The next day at twelve thirty, Hermione mentioned to Marge as she was leaving for lunch that she had some errands to run, and would probably be out the rest of the afternoon. The aged witch raised her left hand in recognition of hearing her co-worker, her bent, white, wiry-haired head never moving from the cauldron set in front of her while her right hand continued to stir in slow methodical movements.

 

A quick swing by her office for Harry's cloak, and she was on her way. Fortunately, Diagon Alley was just a brisk five-minute walk from the Ministry building.

 

Once through The Leaky Cauldron, she stepped into the antechamber to Diagon Alley, and donned the cloak with only the worn bricks as witness to her disappearance.

 

Hermione glided between lunchtime patrons and house-witches shopping with their gaggles of children in tow. After finding a suitable spot in which to watch for Ginny without being walked into by someone passing by, she surveyed her environs. It certainly wasn't the most fashionable region of Diagon Alley, but it wasn't as unsavory as Knockturn Alley.

 

A few minutes past one, Ginny swept past her and stopped at the corner. Hermione recognized the cloak, as she helped Harry pick it out earlier that year. If it weren't for that fact, she would have missed Ginny as her hood covered her hair and face.

 

Hermione watched as Mrs. Potter stopped and performed a locating spell, just as Harry had described. No doubt she was checking to see if her husband was following her again. Once convinced he was nowhere in the vicinity, she stalked forward down the narrow alley.

 

Leaving a discreet distance between them, Hermione followed her sister-in-law and saw her duck into a nondescript building with no markings, except for a wooden sign over the door with a depiction of red ginseng root. Hermione slipped inside, thankful there was no front door to betray her presence. She watched Ginny ascend the stone steps to the third floor. Many years of practice evading Filch helped Hermione climb the stairs without making a sound. She watched from the landing as Ginny knocked on a green door with chipped and peeling paint before opening it.

 

"Hello? Anyone there?" Ginny called out to a seemingly unoccupied flat.

 

Before Hermione knew it, the door slammed shut and Ginny let out a short shrill scream.

 

The former Dumbledore's Army member bolted for the door, fumbling in her pocket for the extendable eyes Harry had leant her with his cloak. Knowing it was better to assess the situation before stumbling into a room full of dark wizards, she placed the thin thread into the keyhole and peered into the eyepiece.

 

What Hermione saw, stunned her. Ginny was stood manacled, naked in spread-eagle fashion, while a figure in a black hooded cloak circled her, his features hidden in shadow.

 

Pulling out her wand, Hermione took a deep breath and began to count to three before bursting through the door to save Ginny; however, before she could reach three, the bound witch spoke in a mildly annoyed voice.

 

"Could you loosen these a bit? They're a tad tight."

 

"I'm sorry, pet," replied the hooded figure. "I just got a bit enthusiastic over your visit."

 

Hermione's mouth hung open in disbelief as she continued to watch the spectacle playing out on the other side of the door. The Extendable Eyes gave her a full view of the room, from the expansive bed and simple armoire to a few doors that must have led to a bathroom and a kitchen.

 

"Now, where were we? Ah, yes," hissed the wizard menacingly. "What have we here? An Auror sticking her little nose where it doesn't belong?"

 

Something familiar in the voice struck Hermione, but she couldn't place it.

 

"You'll never get me to talk!" Ginny shouted defiantly while struggling against her chains, her breasts swaying with each movement. Her loose coppery hair fell forward, the ends brushing against the tops of her breasts.

 

If this is what Harry meant by Ginny asking him to do certain things in the bedroom, Hermione understood why he had refused. Yet, despite the lurid scene of Ginny's fetish being played out before her, she couldn't stop watching.

 

"Oh, but I don't want you to talk. I want you to scream." The man approached her with his wand drawn. Instead of casting a curse, he dragged the length of wood along her body, flicking the tip of it across both her nipples.

 

Ginny let out a gasp of surprise and pleasure. Writhing against her bonds, the chains clinked and jingled, which only made the unknown figure chuckle with delight as he watched her.

 

"Don't deny it. You liked that," he coolly purred.

 

"No!"

 

Hermione could see his hand slip between Ginny's legs and a single finger stroked along her folds. He brought his hand up to his face, still hidden within his hood. She heard him lick his finger.

 

"Ah, the nectar of Dionysus. Your body betrays you. You can't help it." His finger went back to stroking her slick flesh hidden under her red curls.

 

Ginny writhed as his hand stroked her some more, her hand gripping the chain above the manacles. Her face grimaced and Hermione wasn't sure if it was from pleasure or a desire to be released. The prisoner whimpered, closing her eyes while allowing a brief smile to spread across her face.

 

The man walked behind Ginny and surveyed her backside. "Such a nicely wrapped present the Order has sent me. Shall I open it now or wait till Christmas?" His hand began stroking her arse in slow circular movements with one hand while dragging the tips of his fingers of his other hand along her spine making her involuntarily shudder.

 

Growling, she struggled against her bonds once more.

 

The figure slowly shook his head as he walked back in front of her. Tipping her chin up to look at him within the hood, he growled, "Tell me, little Auror, are you prepared to give me what I want? Or shall I extract it from you?"

 

The man in black dropped to his knees in front of Ginny and dipped his head so that his face was buried in her sex, his hood still in place. From the look of exquisite pleasure on Ginny's face, Hermione could tell he was licking her as his fingers spread her lips apart for better access.

 

After several moments of Ginny moaning and spreading her legs as far as she could under her current imprisonment, the man sat back on his heels.

 

"Tell me what you know and I'll let you off easy. Refuse, and I promise a death filled with exquisite agony. You'll be begging me for release from the torture."

 

Hermione could easily read into the double entendre of his statements. Though spoken with malice, under these circumstances, he promised Ginny a sexual adventure.

 

"Torture me if you must," Ginny spat at him, "but you'll never make me betray the Order."

 

A deep cackle rose from his throat, filling the room with the sound. "Oh, but you leave me little choice."

 

He rose and he sauntered behind Ginny, his strides confident and graceful while his booted feet softly thumped on the wooden floor. Standing behind her, he parted his robes and opened the fly of his trousers.

 

Hermione could not see him pull out his cock, as part of his body of hidden behind Ginny, but she could tell when he finally entered his chained 'victim.'

 

Ginny let out a gasp, then moaned, "No."

 

"Yes, tell me," he demanded as he began to move in and out of her.

 

"No," she whimpered, her face twisted in glorious agony as he quickened his pace.

 

"Yes!" he grunted, his hands grabbing her hips tightly. Hermione wondered if there would be bruises, and if so, how would she hide them from Harry.

 

"No," she answered with less conviction.

 

"Yes!" he hissed as he reached around her hip and began stroking her clit.

 

Ginny responded by arching her back even more as he tucked his hips under to plow into her deeper.

 

"Yes!" she cried, "Yes, anything you want. I'll tell you everything."

 

He fucked her harder as his hands slid up her body and grabbed both nipples. He pulled them taut, away from her body. Ginny responded by wailing louder and bucking against him. The slap of skin against skin that echoed through the room was in syncopation to their labored pants.

 

Hermione was horrified when she realized her own bizarre, voyeuristic participation in this. Her own breath was coming fast and shallow and she noticed that her knickers were already sopping wet. Her insides were squirming like they used to when Viktor would whisper those forbidden ideas to her. She could not recall being this turned on in years, and it shamed her to think that she could react in such a way while watching Ginny cheat on Harry.

 

Ginny let out a piercing scream and shook as she came. The man continued to ride her, but at a slower pace, his hand sliding back down to her clit to prolong her orgasm.

 

Once Ginny's orgasm waned, she slumped against her bonds while keeping her back arched. The fine hairs around her face were plastered to her skin. Slow moans escaped her mouth in rhythm to the sensation of his cock sliding in and out of her at a languid pace.

 

"Mercy," Ginny pleaded.

 

"But I'm just getting started," he replied in a slightly sinister tone.

 

"No seriously, my wrists are starting to chafe."

 

He stopped and pulled out of her. His cock, glistening with her juices, sprang free. As he walked around to face Ginny, his rigid member bobbing around, Hermione saw how big he was. He certainly put Ron to shame.

 

Ron contradicted the old wives tale about shoe size corresponding to one's endowments. When she and Ron finally got around to having sex after graduation, she was pleased he was not big for fear that it would hurt the first time, but soon she found that his size rarely satisfied her baser instinct to be filled and stretched. Hermione wondered how it would feel to have something that large and wide inside of her, but banished the thought quickly, ashamed at entertaining such an idea, even briefly.

 

Once she was released from her restraints, the hooded and cloaked man picked Ginny up and gently set her on the bed.

 

"Do you want me to heal those now?" he tenderly asked, as her hands disappeared into the folds of his hood. Hermione could tell from his movements that he was kissing her bruised wrists.

 

"No, later. I still need you inside of me," she replied.

 

Leaning back onto the bed, she held out her arms beckoning him to join with her again.

 

Standing up, he began to undress. First his boots came off followed by a pair of black pants and black shirt, while keeping his concealing cloak and hood on the whole time. Clothed in nothing but the sweeping garment, he moved back towards Ginny.

 

"No. Take the cloak off. No more fantasies, no more games, just you," she said.

 

He dropped his hood, and Hermione clamped her hand over her mouth to keep from gasping out loud. For a split second, she thought it was Lucius Malfoy, but she remembered watching him receive the Dementor's Kiss. It was Draco. That platinum blond hair that reached the top of his shoulders, and his profile were unmistakable.

 

The cloak fell to the floor giving Hermione a full view of his body. She blushed furiously.

 

Malfoy’s had filled out, his manly body made Ron look as though he was still in adolescence. Draco had sinuously long and lean muscles, over a tall frame, his back flaring gently like a fan to his shoulders; his bottom had a hollow from the muscle of his hips. The shape of his back from his shoulder to his arse was like a French curve and he moved with an elegant grace. Hermione was transfixed.

 

Draco climbed onto the bed, and Hermione turned away from the door. She quietly slumped to the ground, her back to the wall.

 

She could hear murmurs of mutual pleasure through the walls before the sound cut out.

 

'Ginny must have finally remembered to put up a silencing charm.'

 

Hermione's head spun. She’d vaguely wondered where Draco had disappeared to from time to time. The answer was clear; he never left.

 

When Voldemort was finally killed almost four years prior, Draco was a member of the Order. Harry, Ron and Hermione had all been suspect of his allegiance to Dumbledore, especially since he’d joined shortly after receiving the Dark Mark, but Professor Snape and the Headmaster had vouched for him, stating, "He has seen the error of his ways." The three of them never trusted him, and Malfoy treated them with the same disdain as before.

 

Between the younger Malfoy and Snape, enough information was gleaned to plan a final attack that resulted in a swift and decisive victory.

 

It was while Hermione and Ron were on their honeymoon that Fudge decided to implement a new plan regarding all Death Eaters. Hermione only learned about it the day she returned from Italy with Ron.

 

Fudge decided the best way to reform the former followers of You-Know-Who was to offer them the option of a Dementor's Kiss or a job appointment through the Ministry. Many of those jobs were so low on the social and pay ladder that many had decided to give up their soul to the insidious ethereal beings. It was as close to suicide as was possible in the wizarding world. There were a few who took neither option. Hermione would see them hanging out near Knockturn Alley begging for food, living in alcoves. Those who did live 'al fresco,' as Ron called it, had pawned off their wand for a few bottles of Firewhisky or a hallucinogenic potion that would disguise the reality of their fate for a few months.

 

Though Hermione did not mourn the absence of Malfoy, she did frequently wonder where his mentor went. She had secretly hoped that all those years as a spy had helped Snape in slipping out of the country. Perhaps if Malfoy didn’t escape, then maybe Snape didn’t either.

 

Hermione sat there, contemplating the whole situation for well over an hour, before she heard the door click open.

 

Ginny stepped halfway into the hallway and spun to look at Draco, who was standing in the doorway. She looked impeccably clean, with not a hair out of place, as if the afternoon's activities never took place. Malfoy stared at Ginny with a look Hermione could only place as troubled longing. His silvery gray dressing robe was tied loosely at the waist, while his fine platinum blond hair fell across his face covering one eye.

 

"I'll owl you when we can meet next," Ginny whispered to Draco, as she tucked the errant hair behind one ear. "I just wish–"

 

"Shhhh. I know," he whispered back, one finger gently placed on her lips.

 

Hermione felt as if she was invading a private conversation between two lovers. In a sense she was. But she promised Harry she would find out if Ginny was cheating on him or not.

 

Ginny tipped her head up and Draco kissed her gently one last time, his hand cupping her cheek.

 

The door closed shut and Ginny heaved a soft sigh before walking away and down the steps.

 

Hermione waited until Ginny was down one flight before rising, feeling her knees protests after sitting still for so long in a not-too-comfortable location. After a few hobbled steps, the ease of her joints returned, and she swiftly descended the stairs to catch up with Ginny.

 

She saw the adulteress walking at a leisurely pace, lost in thought. Hermione moved quickly to catch up with her. Still concealed under Harry's invisibility cloak, she grabbed Ginny's arm and spun her around.

 

The look of utter horror and shock on Ginny's face, and the cowering of her body made Hermione pause for a moment. With her free hand, Hermione pushed back the hood and revealed her face. Ginny let out an audible sigh of relief before the look of panic returned.

 

"Please don't tell Harry, oh sweet Circe, please! I'll tell you everything, just don’t tell Harry," she begged, her body shrinking as if she would at any moment get on her knees in the middle of the street and ruin her robes without a second thought.

 

Noticing her head was still floating in the middle of the air, Hermione pushed her hood back up while still keeping one hand on Ginny's arm.

 

"I'll give you thirty seconds to Apparate at my flat, or I'm going to tell him everything I saw and heard," she replied with steely harshness.

 

Ginny blushed when she realized the whole of her statement and meekly nodded before disappearing with a pop.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four
"Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa" (My Sin, My Sin, My Most Grievous Sin)

 

Disclaimer: Miss Jo (Rowling) owns everything. Right down to the knickers and teacups. I just make them dance their little dance.

 

============

 

Hermione Apparated home immediately, and found the younger witch frantically pacing in her tiny parlor. Ginny was already in tears and shaking.

 

"Please don’t tell Harry. I'll tell you anything you want to know, just–"

 

Hermione held out a hand to stop Ginny's urgent pleading; a disapproving scowl accentuated the look of disgust in her eyes.

 

"How could you… shag… that… how could you fuck Malfoy?!?" she screamed in disbelief. "Of all the people! And you're married, Ginny! How could you do this to Harry?"

 

Ginny sank onto the couch, placing her face in her hands and began to sob hysterically. She lifted her face up to Hermione and her slack mouth hung open as the sobs continued, her shoulders caving in towards her chest and her back hunched over. Hermione almost pitied her… almost.

 

Feeling that there was something vaguely familiar about the situation, she remembered Harry's emotional fragility a few days prior.

 

Hermione spoke the same words with less sympathy.

 

"Tell me what you know. Start at the beginning."

 

It took a few moments for Ginny to compose herself enough to speak. Her breath hitched several times before she could calm herself enough to begin.

 

"It started during the war."

 

"You mean you've been banging him for four years?!?"

 

"No! No." She took a deep breath before continuing, her breath hitching one more time. Her eyes glazed over as she started to recall all the events that led up to this moment.

 

"Right after Draco came over to our side I found him sitting on the back step at headquarters. He was charming some leaves and binding them together, making them fly like a butterfly. I commented on how lovely they were and we just started to talk. You and Harry and Ron were so convinced he was a spy and treated him like shit–"

 

"Wait a minute! He called me a mudblood–"

 

"After you lot took one look at him when Snape first brought him over to Twelve Grimmauld and started calling him names and accusing him of being a spy. I remember. I saw and heard it all, I was there! All he wanted was a second chance and you three wouldn't give him one."

 

Hermione looked away and scowled. She wasn't too proud of her behavior that day and later realized she was wrong, but the thought of having to apologize to Draco Malfoy was a bitter pill that was too big for her to swallow at the time.

 

"All right. I admit I wasn't… polite."

 

Ginny snorted at her choice of words.

 

"Go on," Hermione commanded.

 

"Well, he was feeling like it was all for nothing when I complimented him on his 'butterflies.' He actually smiled, well it was kind of like a half-hearted smirk, but something in his eyes told he appreciated that little gesture. Next thing you know, it's dark and we spent the past three hours just talking."

 

"Talking? Talking about what?" Hermione couldn’t think there was anything Malfoy and Ginny could talk about, much less for three hours.

 

"Well, first it was favorite charms, then moved onto Astronomy which wound up turning into a comparison of Greek gods to Roman gods, which then turned into a discussion of charms and spells of Greek origin versus Latin and the types of magic those civilizations favored."

 

That sounded like the sort of discussion Hermione would love to have with anyone. She hadn’t had an engaging conversation like that in ages.

 

"Next thing I know, it's dark and Mum is calling us all in for dinner. He looked at me with something like gratitude and said, 'Thank you.' I think he was just glad there was someone who was willing to believe that he finally realized he made a mistake in swallowing all the codswallop his father fed him over the years."

 

Ginny sighed and smiled a little. Hermione allowed her a brief moment to gather wool.

 

"The next week when I saw him, it was after a meeting. I offered to make him a cup of tea, but he said that he wanted some lunch instead. So, we went into the kitchen and I started to make lunch and he insisted I sit down. He said he would make lunch for the both of us."

 

Hermione's mouth dropped in stunned disbelief. "You mean Mr. 'This-is-servant's-work' deigned to dirty his precious hands to–"

 

"This is exactly the kind of attitude that made him call you that awful name."

 

Hermione went back to silently grumbling as Ginny continued.

 

"So he made us lunch and we talked for a while. He asked what N.E.W.T. level classes I was taking and offered some tips. Just as we were finishing up, his Dark Mark started to burn. Snape came in and said it was time to go. I told him to be careful and he just smiled at me."

 

The tears returned and Ginny's breath began to hitch. "I don't think he ever had anyone really care about his well being, not like that anyway. The stories he's told me about his father and mother would just horrify you. It's like they only cared that he would marry some pure-blood witch and carry on the Malfoy line. They never really cared for him as a person. They gave him things he asked for, but never bothered to love him."

 

Ginny obviously had feelings for him, but Hermione could feel little pity for a boy that made her life hell for so many years. It could be that he’d changed, but she didn't want to contemplate it at the moment.

 

"After that day, I didn't see him again for quite a while. School started and he would occasionally write me a letter and at Christmas he sent me a nice box of scented soaps. He told me never to write him as it was too dangerous, but on a few occasions I wrote a letter and gave it to Snape to pass on. I wrote in the letters that it was okay for him to burn them if he needed to."

 

Hermione continued to watch Ginny's face as she recounted her tale.

 

"I didn't see him again until after Victory Day. He and Snape were still undercover, as they were trying to flush out the last of the Death Eaters."

 

Hermione nodded, remembering it all and encouraging her to continue.

 

"We would meet up in the attic at Twelve Grimmauld and have a picnic lunch there on the floor, and a couple of times we met in Muggle London as well, so we could meet out in public without some witch or wizard recognizing us. One day, a few weeks before your wedding, we went to a moo-vee."

 

Hermione giggled briefly. She always thought the way the Weasleys pronounced Muggle inventions was so amusing.

 

"We sat there in the dark in the back and he kissed my hand. It was like an electric shock ran straight up my arm. I looked at him and I kissed him,” Ginny smiled broadly, her face still red and splotchy from crying. "We didn't watch the rest of the movie cause I couldn't stop kissing him. It was the most wonderful kiss in the world. No one has ever kissed me like that and it never felt so good. Michael Corner, Dean, Seamus… even Harry. It never felt so good to be kissed. I was dizzy and excited, and I thought my heart was going to leap out of my chest."

 

The look of sorrow returned to Ginny's face. "So afterwards, we tried to think of a good time to tell my family that we were seeing each other. I thought right after the wedding while you and Ron were away would be the perfect time. Ron couldn’t kill him if Ron wasn't here. Besides, they just finished capturing the last of the Death Eaters and they were finally going to announce Snape and Draco as war heroes. The risk of some Death Eater bent of vengeance was gone. Then the day after the wedding Fudge comes out with that... that,” Ginny became flustered and angry, "STUPID, BLOODY LAW! 'All Death Eaters must abide by these rules.' All the work that Draco and Snape did… gone. Out the fucking window! This new decree that Fudge presented essentially said it didn't matter that Snape and Draco spied and risked their lives and help bring an end to the war. 'Any witch or wizard bearing the Dark Mark shall be under parole of the Ministry for the rest of their life.' And you know who drafted this law?"

 

Hermione shook her head. She had read bits of the law, as were published in the Daily Prophet, but she had not gotten around to reading the fine print.

 

"Moody!"

 

Understanding began to dawn on Hermione's face.

 

"That's right, that fucking loon! Never trusted Snape and trusted Draco even less. He wanted to make sure that they would not be seen as heroes… EVER! The law could have said 'convicted Death Eaters,' but no. Moody drafted it so that he could have the last word on his 'constant vigilance' campaign."

 

Ginny rose and began to pace the floor once more. This time her fiery hair matched her famous Weasley temper.

 

"So, the day after the wedding, this law comes out. Draco is gone. I don’t know where to find him. Snape is gone too. I asked Mum and Dad where they went. They don’t know. I asked Dad to fight this so Snape and Draco are exonerated. It turns out Fudge threatened Dad; if he so much as made a peep about Snape and Draco, they would fire him from the Ministry, and have it printed in the Daily Prophet he was a Death Eater sympathizer. I went to Shacklebolt and even Luna, now that she’s an editor at The Quibbler. Fudge has it sewn up so tight that they'll never get out from under this law! The only two people who could vouch for Draco and Snape that Fudge could not publicly condemn as Death Eater sympathizers would be Dumbledore and Harry. Dumbledore's dead. And if they were selling tickets to see Draco and Snape thrown down a pit that led straight to Hades, Ron, Harry and Moody would pay through the nose for front row seats."

 

Hermione watched Ginny and wondered if she was going to wear a hole in the floor. "So? Why doesn’t Draco just leave?"

 

"He can't. Boy, you haven't read the law, have you? 'No Death Eater shall ever be allowed to leave Great Britain.' Fudge put that little clause in himself. Seems if the Death Eaters are still around doing demeaning jobs; that will help ensure he gets reelected. 'Look, the Death Eaters have all been put in their place.' With them walking around, sweeping Diagon Alley, or being a conductor on the Knight Bus, he makes sure people see how he's beaten them, and that they are under control."

 

"Don't tell me you sympathize with them?" Hermione asked, disgusted with the idea of Ginny could even feeling pity for them.

 

"Merlin's teeth, NO! I wish they would all just get the Dementor's Kiss and go away. It's just an injustice that this law be applied to Draco."

 

Hermione wondered if she knew what happened to Snape, but thought it could wait until later. Shaking her head, as they were heading off on a tangent, she brought the conversation back to Ginny's infidelity. So far, Ginny's answer didn’t satisfy her.

 

"So what has this got to do with you shagging Malfoy?"

 

"After the wedding, Draco disappeared. Harry, all of a sudden, has an interest in dating me. I asked him why he didn't bother with me before and he says he didn't think he'd live long enough to get around to dating. I really didn’t want to go out with him; all I could think of was Draco. But as the weeks went on, I gave up hope of seeing Draco. No owl, no word nothing. So I eventually agree to go out with Harry and by Christmas he proposed."

 

"Don’t you love Harry?" Hermione asked, hoping her answer would be yes.

 

Ginny sat back down and gave a great troubled sigh. "Yes," she began reluctantly, "I love him, but I'm not in love with him."

 

The whole thought seemed to contradict itself. "What do you mean? What's the difference?"

 

Ginny looked at her sagely, and Hermione saw a woman who looked far wiser than she was, as if she knew the secret that held the fabric of the universe together. She felt as if she was not privy to that information, but somehow the younger witch had discovered it.

 

"If you don’t know, I'm not sure I could explain it."

 

"Try," she replied, angry at Ginny, but for some reason she couldn't explain.

 

"It's when you care for someone more than yourself… but more. When someone you love hurts, you empathize with them and can feel upset or hurt or angry. But when you're in love with someone and they hurt, you feel like you've been hurt yourself. Family and friends be damned, they are the most important person in the world and you'd give up everything for them."

 

She was scared to ask, but she had to. "Are you in love with Draco?"

 

Ginny began crying again, her shoulders shaking and she slumped further into the couch. "Do you want to know why I don't want to have kids now? Do you know why I'm putting it off?"

 

Hermione shook her head, knowing now that Ginny's excuses before were just that.

 

"It's not that I don’t want kids, it's just I don’t want them with Harry."

 

Hermione felt the wind knocked out of her with that statement. It unsettled her to her core.

 

Ginny continued, "When a witch and wizard marry, the bond is only permanently sealed with the birth of their first child. Until they produce a child, they can still divorce. Once a child has been born, they are magically bound to one another… forever. If I put off kids, I still have a chance to… to… get out of this marriage!"

 

This was one big fact that she was not aware of, nor had anyone bothered to enlighten her on the matter. What was worse was learning of Ginny's desire to leave Harry eventually.

 

"So what? You're going to leave Harry and marry Draco?"

 

Shaking her head, Ginny wailed, "I don’t know, I don't know. I keep hoping that each time I see Draco, it will be the last, and then I'm with him and I don’t want it to end. Then I see Harry and he's so nice, but he doesn’t make me feel the way Draco does."

 

Remembering Ginny chained and bound, Hermione retorted bitterly, "Harry did say you were probably getting your needs filled somewhere else. And no wonder! I saw what he did to you." Ginny looked mortified. "No wonder Harry said there were certain things you asked that he wouldn’t do!"

 

Ginny's back shot up straight and she glared at Hermione. "Do you even bleeding know what I asked Harry to do? Do you know what he wouldn’t do for me? Did he say exactly what he wasn't into?"

 

Hermione shook her head wondering if she even wanted to know.

 

"I asked him to spank me."

 

Hermione's mouth fell open.

 

"Yes, that's right, spank me. He said I was sick and that he could never hit a woman. I told him it's not hitting; it's a little fantasy. So I asked if he could blindfold me and I was met with the same look of disgust. Harry likes his sex plain. Plain and boring! Different positions and that's it, dearie. You should have seen the look of horror on his face when I suggested bringing a sex toy to bed."

 

Hermione didn’t know whether to laugh at the whole situation of Harry's penchant for unimaginative sex, or feel pity for the woman across from her whose sex life was more boring than hers.

 

"So you're having an affair with Draco."

 

"No, I pay for Draco's services."

 

Hermione's mind was close to bursting from all she had seen and heard today, but this just about made her mind split open like a ripe melon.

 

"WHAT? You PAY for him to… to… to... I can’t even say what he did to you," she spat.

 

"Fuck me like there's no tomorrow. Cause if Harry finds out, Draco's date with a Dementor is as good as certain."

 

"Harry would never do that."

 

"You want to bet? Harry hates Draco, and what would make him go off the deep end more than finding out his wife is screwing his last living enemy. Harry's word is a good as gold. Harry could cast the Killing Curse and no one would say a thing about it. He's the golden boy who saved the world. One false word to the Ministry and Draco is off to rot as an empty husk in Azkaban!"

 

"But pay? You pay Malfoy?" Hermione shook her head. It just seemed so sleazy.

 

"Not him. Another wonderful little clause in that insipid law. Only pay through the Ministry is allowed. Seems that only if you work through a Ministry sanctioned job can you earn any money. All of the Malfoy fortune in Gringotts, on British soil, was confiscated. Fortunately, Draco's father, the syphilitic lunatic that he was, had the good sense to have over half the family fortune deposited in other Gringotts around the world. Switzerland, Cayman Islands, Singapore and a few other places. But if a single coin passes into Draco's hand that is not through an official Ministry job, he gets a kiss."

 

"So if you pay him-"

 

"I don't pay him, I pay Lavender."

 

"Wait, what?"

 

"Draco could never do any of those jobs the Ministry said would be 'acceptable.' That damn Malfoy pride. I told him I didn’t care if he scrubbed toilets at the Leaky Cauldron, but he said he'd rather go the route of his father had taken than do that. So there are some jobs the Ministry turns a blind eye to." Ginny began counting them off on her fingers. "Prostitution. Trash picking. Begging. They seem to deem those jobs so socially disenfranchising, they are willing to let those activities slide by unnoticed. I offered to pay so he wouldn’t fuck other women and he said he could never be a 'kept man.' I told him the contradiction of his statement, as he's being paid to do what he does, but he says there's a difference. That damn Malfoy pride again."

 

"So Draco is a… a…" Hermione was finding word difficult to come by that day. "A gigolo?"

 

Ginny nodded, her face a mixture of pity, disgust, sorrow and anger. "When I found out, I'm glad I put up a Silencing Charm, because I don’t think I ever yelled so much. But after I calmed down and we talked, I realized it was, short of a Dementor's Kiss, one of the few things he could do."

 

Hermione could not fathom a choice between prostitution and living the rest of her life in a catatonic state. To her, there always seemed to be another way.

 

"So, when did you find Malfoy?"

 

"About Christmas time, a year and a half ago, I was feeling depressed, as another family gathering was on the horizon. I begged Harry, asked him if we could go away for Christmas. Anywhere! But he said he had work and couldn’t take the time off. I swear! We haven’t had a single holiday since we got married. He won’t take time out of work for a simple fucking holiday. Work comes first, then I come a distant second."

 

Hermione could relate to that fact. Where as Harry would not give up working, her and Ron could not afford a holiday. The only reason they had a two-week honeymoon in Italy was because Harry paid for the holiday as a wedding present.

 

"Anyway, I'm sitting in a tea shop trying not to cry into my cup of Christmas tea, and who happens to sit herself in the empty chair across from me? None other than Lavender Brown. She looks at me and says, 'Man trouble?' I don’t know how she did it, but she had me spilling everything to her. I mean stuff I couldn’t even tell you till today. Well, everything except giving her Draco's name and his former occupation as Death Eater spy. She just has this way about her that she didn’t have before."

 

"You mean Lavender Brown? Cosmetic-empire Lavender Brown? More-money-than-God Lavender Brown?"

 

Ginny nodded in answer to Hermione's question.

 

Upon graduation, Lavender Brown had launched her own company, with seed money from the Weasley twins as silent partners. It was an instant success, and the twins pocketed a nice return on their investment. Apothecaries throughout Britain and the Continent stocked her goods. They were top quality at reasonable prices. Part of the reason was that she hired freed house-elves, from Death Eater families, for the manufacturing process, thus ensuring product quality and consistency. Lavender's knack for Potions, where beauty was concerned, served her well. Her line of soap was the finest available, and there wasn't a wizarding household in most of Europe that didn’t have at least one of her products.

 

"But she's such a gossip. Do think that was wise telling her all those things?" Hermione wondered if Ginny had lost her mind and wanted all her dirty laundry circulated in certain social circles.

 

"She's changed. She is discreet. And with her business on the side, it pays to be so."

 

"So what you're saying is Lavender is a Madam? I mean, runs a brothel?"

 

Ginny gave a sardonic chuckle. "In so many words, yes."

 

"And you pay Draco to bonk you and do things to you Harry won’t do?"

 

"Well, let me finish my story." Ginny took a deep breath before finishing her tale. "So, she says that she 'knows' a nice gentlemen who can help me out. And I couldn’t believe I was entertaining the idea of hiring some random man to spank me, but the next thing I know, I've paid Lavender a fee and I'm at Draco's door not even knowing he's the one she set me up with!

 

"I think she has some sick sort of desire to see people squirm," she said morosely. "She knocks on the door and Draco opens it. He looks at me, I look at him and we can’t speak. She then says in an all too innocent voice, 'Oh, do you two know each other? How interesting.'

 

"I swear, if Draco wasn't on parole, he would have hexed her four ways to Sunday. He was close to strangling her with his bare hands. But we were so glad to see each other. It was like he never went away. That first visit all we did was talk... well, I screamed at him quite a bit and he screamed back, but we talked and I cried. I've gotten over the fact he sleeps with other women, and some women don’t even sleep with him. They just want someone to talk to."

 

"Talk?" Hermione was dubious.

 

Ginny laughed and nodded, "Yeah, can you imagine that? That's what Draco and I did the first four months we met. I paid Lavender to meet him and we talked, and kissed, and talked some more and kissed some more."

 

"Talk. You paid to talk to him?"

 

"Harry doesn’t talk to me anymore. We've run out of things to say. It's not like we had much to talk about when we were dating anyway. Besides, you wouldn’t believe the number of women Draco gets who just want someone who'll listen to them. Their husbands tune them out and they have no one to talk to about anything other than how the children are doing, bills being paid, boring stuff that drives some women mad or make them bitter at an early age."

 

Hermione felt like she would go mad at times being married to Ron. It seemed since the defeat of Voldemort, and after the wedding, they had run out of things to say to one another as well. She had no interest in Quidditch and he had no interest in anything academic.

 

"There are some who just want a man to have sex with, someone who can make them feel sexy and special once in a great while. It's just sex. I'm the only one he kisses. It's just too intimate an act for someone in that line of work to do. He's had offers for him to kiss other women, but he declines."

 

"So, when did you guys start..." Hermione made a vague hand gesture to imply what she could not say. She really was having a very hard time with words that day.

 

"It was about a year ago. I couldn’t stand it anymore. Harry's lack of creativity in the bedroom; you know he called me a nutter once – to my face – when I suggested he tie me down once. Everything was getting to me and Draco was being such a good listener. He started giving me a neck rub, and the next thing I know, we’re on his bed naked and he's making love to me. Not sex, but real, honest to God love. He felt so good and I can't tell you how many orgasms I had. I lost count after eight."

 

Ginny laughed, her face brightened, "You know, I never understood how a man could fall asleep so quickly after sex, but after that afternoon with Draco, I just wanted to pass out and sleep for days. I fell asleep in his bed, still tangled in his arms. I'm convinced now that you haven’t been properly fucked unless you want to go to sleep as much as the man does after sex."

 

A secret surge of jealously swept through Hermione. It now seemed that she did have the most pitiful sex life on the planet.

 

Ginny's secret smile made her face glow, despite the tears still staining her face, "I love him, but I just can’t bear to leave Harry. And it's not like he can just leave England. He’s trapped in this life until he can find a way out."

 

"And what, take you with him?"

 

"If he asks me to go with him? Yes. I'd give up everything to be with him. Family, friends, everything. But that's not going to happen. He's stuck until he can find a way out."

 

Hermione stood up and headed to the kitchen quietly to make a cup of tea. She couldn’t think properly unless she had some tea first.

 

Ginny came to the doorway to the kitchen and watched her friend. "Now do you understand why you can’t tell Harry? I was miserable before Draco came back into my life. Even if I never saw Draco again, I think it's only an eventuality that I'll leave Harry some day."

 

Hermione's anger returned and she spun on her friend, the teakettle clutched in a white-knuckle grip. "Then why the hell did you marry him?"

 

"Cause everyone expected me to! 'Oh Ginny, you're so luck to be dating Harry.' 'Oh, Ginny, when is he going to pop the question?' Everyone expected me to just fall head-over-heels for Harry. Everyone expected me to marry him and the pressure from my family was just too much to bear by myself. You were so elated with the idea yourself; I didn’t have the heart to tell you my reservations. Everyone thought that because I had a crush on him a long time ago, that I would still carry a torch for him. Well, I gave up on that little girl fantasy a long time ago. I grew up! Let me tell you something, Hermione," Ginny said, advancing on her friend with rancor, "be careful what you wish for. You just might get it."

 

Ginny slumped against the kitchen counter, her hip resting against the chipped white tiles. "When I was a little girl I wanted to marry the famous Harry Potter. Well, here I am, Mrs. Harry Potter, and I'm bloody miserable. Harry won’t talk to me about work, saying it's classified, and I don’t want to hear about Quidditch. I used to be into it, but between my brothers and Harry, I'm sick of it now. Harry wants peace and quiet. I tried fighting with him, but he hates conflict. He's willing to fight dark wizards, but in his personal life he won’t deal with anything unpleasant.

 

"It's those damn psychotic Muggles who raised him. They made his life hell and now he doesn’t want anything to upset that perfect little world he always dreamed of. Perfect wife and perfect home, topped off with perfect kids I'll have to change and feed and bathe, and be stuck with Harry till I'm old and have forgotten what it was like to feel alive."

 

Ginny slumped to the floor and cried. Between soft sobs, she begged, "Please don’t tell Harry. He'd kill Draco. And if that happens… I don't know. A large part of me would die." She whimpered in the most piteous manner. "Please… please… please,” she pleaded, whispering the last 'please.'

 

Hermione empathized with the wretched woman who sat at her feet, looking defeated. She couldn’t understand her relationship with Malfoy, but she could understand the need for a soul mate. That one person who could make her feel all the things Ginny described from her time with Malfoy.

 

The teakettle began to whistle. Hermione hadn’t made up her mind whether she was going to tell Harry or not. She had been so certain of the conversation she would be having with him the following day, but in light of all Ginny had said, she felt a certain solidarity with the desperate witch.

 

Once she poured the tea, they both sat at the small wooden table in stony silence. The only sound was the gentle scrapping of their mugs against the wood as they set them down after each sip.

 

Hermione thought about what Ginny had said. The law, Malfoy's predicament, Ginny's courtship with Harry after the war, sex with Harry, sex with Malfoy, Ginny's feelings, Moody's vendetta against Snape and Malfoy. Her mind buzzed and she felt numb from it all. She would have to think on this tonight.

 

"So, what are you going to tell Harry?"

 

Hermione placed her head in her hand. Harry was her best friend, but so was Ginny. Though she and Harry didn’t talk like they used to when they were at Hogwarts, there was a bond that was built from years spent together.

 

"Don’t know. I haven’t made up my mind."

 

Ginny rose and looked at the clock. "I have to go home. If I'm not there when he gets home, it will only make him more suspicious." Ginny placed a hand on her friend's shoulder. "You do what you think you have to do. I won’t see Draco again until you've made up your mind."

 

Hermione raised her head. "Can’t you stop seeing him? Or just talk only?"

 

Ginny looked at her with that same wise look on her face, as if she were the mother knowing everything and Hermione was just an innocent child who could not comprehend the ways of the adult world.

 

"I would stay away, if I could. I don’t like betraying Harry, but I married him thinking I lost Draco. If I knew Draco was still out there at the time, I wouldn’t have married him. I made a choice and now I'm regretting it. I have to live with it, but if I can find some happiness, even if it is for a few hours a week, then I'm willing to risk it all."

 

Ginny walked to the doorway to the living room before she turned to look at Hermione over her shoulder, "What ever decision you make, I'm willing to live with it. Even if it means Draco's death."

 

And then she was gone.

 

Hermione broke down and sobbed hysterically.

Chapter Text

Chapter Five
"Mirrors, Illusions and Reflections"

 

Disclaimer: The usual. Rowling owns it all and is fabulously rich (deservedly so!), and I'm a bored housewife who hopes the tech sector will improve so I can go back to work.

 

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Hermione cried for an hour before she could stop. She cried for Ginny's predicament. She cried for the broken façade of Ginny and Harry's marriage, and all the things she believed their marriage held that hers didn’t with Ron. She cried because she was certain she would never experience the kind of love that her friend had described.

 

It pained her to think about it, but upon further analysis later in the afternoon, she came to the conclusion that she loved Ron, but wasn't in love with him. Except that there was no one else in her life that she loved as much as him. It was a lukewarm love at best.

 

She continued to cry, out of pity for her own pathetic sex life, and all the things she was growing ever resentful of: Fudge, her job, her husband, her in-laws, her life. She was especially angry at Fudge and Moody for that law. It certainly did a thorough job of controlling the Death Eaters, but at what cost to Malfoy and Snape? It had been blindly applied to them. It angered her more that Snape, for all his years of hard work and thankless toil of spying, had eventually been stabbed in the back by a fellow member of the Order. And those who would speak up in defense of them were blackmailed into silence. This was the sort of injustice she fought against, and here it was staring her in the face. The work for a better world only resulted in one that appeared to be pretty, but hid grotesque atrocities.

 

Once calmed down, she noticed that Ron would be home soon from Quidditch practice, and she did not want to fend off questions about why she looked like a demented hag from all her crying.

 

Hermione still didn’t know what she would tell Harry tomorrow. She knew she was going to have a long night ahead of her in which to lie awake and contemplate things to say.

 

First she had to get to her medicine cabinet and use some of Lovely Lavender's Puffy Poof Eye Crème. A dab under the eyes always took away the tired crying look.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Ron bolted through the door with his usual enthusiasm after a good practice.

 

"'Mione? You home?"

 

"Yes," she called out from the bathroom. Mrs. Weasley checked herself in the mirror one last time for any signs she had been crying. Convinced she looked passable, she walked out to greet her husband.

 

"You're home early," he commented with surprise.

 

"I had some errands to run this afternoon. They took so long that it wasn't worth it to go back to work, so I just came home." It was true, in a manner of speaking. She had told Marge the same lie, so her fibs would correspond.

 

"What's for dinner?" he asked, his face bright and cheerful in expectation of another meal cooked by his lovely wife.

 

Hermione tried to not look pained. She hadn’t even thought of dinner. Glancing over her shoulder, she looked at the kitchen. Ron had not done the dishes as he’d promised for the last three days. They were beginning to teeter back and forth, threatening to fall over. She hadn't noticed the state of the place while Ginny was there, and now felt a bit ashamed that her friend saw what a pigsty it was.

 

It had been a very emotionally taxing day for her and the thought of having another battle with Ron over his share of the housework made her inwardly wince. The beginnings of a headache was starting to creep up from the base of her skull and wrap its meaty hands on either side of her head, gripping it like a vice till the pain shot through her temples like an arrow through her head. If she didn’t get a dose of headache relief potion soon, it would quickly turn into what Hermione termed as a 'knitting needle through the eyeball' migraine.

 

Not bothering to answer Ron's question, she ran back to the bathroom and downed a vial in hope that she caught it in time.

 

Ron appeared in the doorway and leaned against the jamb. "You look exhausted, love. Let's go out to dinner instead. You look like you need the break."

 

She looked at him out of the corner of her eye and weighed her options. Spend money, which they had little to spare, for a mediocre dinner that was a tad overpriced for the fare, or avoid a battle over housework while still figuring out what to fix for dinner. With what she had been through, she was willing to toss a few Galleons away for a little relaxation.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The chicken was rubbery, the sauce had separated and the wine was corked. She was willing to overlook those appalling culinary blunders in search of some quality time with her husband.

 

Since Ron had taken a second job at The Listing Broom, the couple had become as passing ships in the night. She would be in bed when he came home from the evening shift at the pub, and she would be up and out of their flat before he rose and went off to Quidditch practice. They had the weekends, but most of them were taken up by a weekend Cannons game, in which she would come and play the supportive Quidditch wife. She always brought a book along, just like in her school days, and would periodically peer up from it to see how the game was progressing. On a few occasions, the Keeper for the Cannons had been injured and Ron would get a chance to play. Hermione would put her book down and watch her husband fly about, and do a fair job of blocking the Quaffle. The game would give them something to talk about for a few days, with Ron asking if she had noticed a new move he had been working on with the team during the week.

 

Ron had been rambling on about how the coach was considering moving him to first string, an ongoing promise that the man never delivered on, when Hermione interrupted him.

 

"Do you think we could talk about something other than Quidditch?" she asked, hoping her request had not seemed peevish, but polite instead.

 

"Like what?" he replied, as if there was nothing in the world better than to talk about his favorite sport.

 

"Oh, I don’t know." Hermione's mind frantically searched for a topic they could mutually discuss, a dim fear growing in the back of her mind that she and Ron truly did not have anything in common anymore. "Don't you ever wonder what happened to Snape after the war?"

 

"That overgrown bat? You must be joking. Yeah, he did some stuff for the Order, I'll grant you that, but if I never see or hear of him again, that's fine by me."

 

"Don't you ever wonder if the Death Eater Decree was applied to him? If he got away? He did work for the Order, so he shouldn't have to be punished under that law."

 

Ron frowned and answered in a sour tone, "Well, I think he deserves a little hell, especially after all those years he tortured us and treated us like something he scraped off his big, black boots." He ignored the injustice of the situation and seemed glad at the idea of Snape suffering.

 

Desperate for a new topic, she blurted out, "I haven’t talked to your Mum, yet. Are we all going to the fountain dedication ceremony?" She really didn’t want to talk about his family, but it seemed she was short on ideas to talk about at the moment.

 

"Yeah, Dad mentioned something about it. You haven’t heard anything on what the new sculpture is, have you? There's a betting pool going down at the bar. If you had a hint, then maybe I could win us a nice pile of Galleons."

 

"Ron," she whinged, "please don't go wasting any Galleons on some bet. No one knows except Fudge, McPebbles and Dennis Creevey."

 

It was starting again. The lecturing tone and if she didn’t stop it now, they would end up bickering again.

 

"You're no fun sometimes, Hermione." That comment raised her ire unlike the other times he had said it to her before. "It's not like I go spending Galleons left and right. It's a one-Galleon bet. The pot stands at five-hundred ten Galleons and I thought it would be nice if I won, then I could buy you some new robes and shoes."

 

"Well, maybe if you hadn’t quit Auror training, you'd have a decent job instead of trying to live some childhood fantasy you won't let go of. Face it; your coach is never going to give you the position of Starting Keeper. He's kept you strung on the line for almost four years now, promising you that position. Other teams have made you offers and you keep turning them down. Some silly dream to be Keeper for the Cannons. Maybe if you made choices and decisions in life as well as you play chess, then maybe we wouldn’t be so poor!"

 

Hermione realized her voice was rising in volume, and dropped it several decibels before continuing her tirade is a hissing whisper.

 

"I'm tired of picking up after you. Two simple bloody chores–dishes and trash–and you don’t even do those. I do all the shopping, laundry, cooking, pay bills, run the household, buy all the presents for Christmas and birthdays for your whole family, work overtime at the Ministry in the feeble hope of a promotion for all my hard work. And for what? A tiny flat, and barely enough money to exist, but not live?"

 

Furious, Ron's ears were turning purple, but Hermione couldn't care less. Her nerves were shot. What was worse was that she realized that maybe she and Ron were better together as friends, and not as husband and wife. She felt like a shrew when he was around. She didn’t mean to, but with greater frequency, that seemed to be the case. The worst part was she finally admitted to herself that they had grown apart. He was still the same dreamer she knew at Hogwarts and she had moved on to mature into someone else.

 

Ron stood up. "Don't expect to see me home tonight," he said venomously; then he Apparated before leaving the restaurant.

 

Hermione scrubbed her face with the heels of her hands, quietly muttering under her breath, "Bugger, fuck, double bugger, shit… bugger all."

 

She got the bill and quickly left, after throwing down some money with a meager tip for the abysmal food.

 

Desperate for a shoulder to cry on, she wanted to go visit Ginny, but after that afternoon, and with the thought of Harry there wondering if his wife was cheating on him, she banished the thought. Ron's brothers and their wives could not provide the solace she needed, especially with wailing babies and ungovernable toddlers to abrade her fragile nerves.

 

It had been so long since she had talked with any of her old schoolmates from Hogwarts, she had fallen out of touch with most of them. The Weasley clan demanded much of her free time and she had let correspondences lapse. Instead of going to visit anyone, she wandered Diagon Alley for a while, lost in thought.

 

Her mind returned to Ginny's confession earlier in the day. Her bad sex life, the lack of mutual interests, and the lackluster marriage. It was shockingly like her own in many ways. It scared her, too. Was she doomed to leave Ron? And why did she not want to have children, besides the financial issues involved? And she knew why, but ignored the truth. She would get stuck raising the child, or children, all by herself. If Ron did make Starting Keeper, there would be a huge pay raise, but he would be gone more than he was now. So in addition to keeping house and working, she would have the children to look after. She knew Molly and the other wives would be more than willing to help out with taking care of the children, but there was still more to it. And until that afternoon, she’d been unaware of the binding magic of having children with someone. But ultimately, the thought of her giving up her career to raise children was a concept she didn’t even want to entertain, ever. So she would have to find a way to make kids and work mix, if it ever would with Ron.

 

When she thought about it some more, Hermione realized that she had never met a witch or wizard from a magical divorced family. Not one. Children with divorced parents were a common enough thing among Muggles, but she could not recall a single pure- or half-blood schoolmate that had divorced parents.

 

This would definitely be worthy of further investigation before she even considered getting pregnant by Ron.

 

She had more pressing matters to think about right now. At the top of the list was whether she was going to tell Harry about Ginny and her not so slight peccadillo. The thought of them together still made her shudder.

 

Harry was her best friend, but Ginny had become her best friend, as well.

 

If she told Harry, Malfoy would get the Dementor's Kiss and Ginny would leave Harry. If she didn’t tell Harry, Ginny might not leave him and maybe she could help them patch things up.

 

It just seemed so wrong, the idea of lying to Harry. But he said himself that he didn’t know what was worse, knowing or not knowing.

 

Somehow, Hermione wound up at a bar called Blotto's. Sitting in a back booth, she looked in her bag and wondered if she had enough money to get blind, stinking drunk. She hadn't gone on a bender since the end of her N.E.W.T.s, but tonight certainly called for ethanol-induced oblivion.

 

Just as she was about to splurge and buy a whole bottle of Doodle's Dragon Blood Wine, she heard a familiar voice.

 

"Mind if I buy you a drink? You look like you could use a friend."

 

Hermione looked up. The first thing she saw was the gray and pink summer-weight houndstooth tweed dress under a very expensive pink linen robe, noticeably charmed to resist wrinkling. There stood Lavender Brown, smiling beatifically at her.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Six
"News Flash"

 

Disclaimer: Rowling owns all the characters and the canon. I own the plot and the fanon.

 

============

 

Hermione's mouth went slack with disbelief. It was just like Ginny described it. Lavender Brown had magically appeared while she was in the midst of wallowing in pity and despair.

 

Ignoring Hermione's gob-smacked expression, the blond witch slid into the booth across from her old schoolmate like the Queen sitting down for tea.

 

Hermione’s brow furrowed while her mind whirred, and the frazzled brunette wondered why Lavender had chosen that very moment to come back into her life.

 

Lavender, looking all too relaxed and well dressed for the establishment they were in, raised one hand in casual elegance and said, "Bottle of your finest and two glasses, please."

 

The barkeep, recognizing the cosmetic empire empress – and a very large tip on the way – scuttled to the back room and brought out a bottle of aged Calvados and two new, relatively clean snifters.

 

The barkeep, a balding man with a large potbelly and a slightly spotty apron, bowed repeatedly as he retreated to the bar after placing the bottle and glasses on the table. Hermione looked at him in horror; his smile was one of the examples her parents used to scare children into brushing their teeth every night before bed.

 

"So, how is married life treating you?" The richly dressed witch wiped the tip of her finger against the snifter, and frowned as she studied the dirt that appeared on her glove.

 

Hermione's eyes narrowed. It was all too suspicious for her liking. She hadn’t seen her schoolmate since graduating Hogwarts and when she was on the verge of crisis with her friends and husband, the blond just happened to saunter into the picture.

 

"I know what you did to Ginny," she replied, not bothering to hide her disgust.

 

"Ginny was not forced into anything. She chose to do what she did. She was already miserable when I met her, or hadn't you – as her friend – noticed at the time?"

 

Hermione thought back and tried to piece together any changes in Ginny's behavior between the time lines; before Malfoy and after Malfoy. Ginny did say that she hid her reservations about marrying Harry because everyone was too thrilled with the idea. And she had been, as well. The whole package of Harry, Ginny, Ron and herself living happily ever after in a Voldemort-free world, except in reality it was anything but hunky-dory. She had to admit to herself that Ginny was far better at hiding her emotions than she gave the younger witch credit for. Hermione shook the cobwebs from her muddled mind and got back to the matter at hand.

 

"How is it you know just when to show up? Just like that? I haven’t seen you for… years, and now, poof! Here you are in this–" here she paused to glance around at her surroundings, realizing she had picked the bar because it would be cheap, "– rat-hole of a dive, asking me how my marriage is. Ginny told me when you popped into her life. Is this how it works? Find women who are at the brink of emotional destruction and 'save' them?"

 

Lavender smiled at her in a reassuring way that was most unsettling to Hermione as she removed her gloves. "You were brilliant in every subject at school except flying and divination." Hermione snorted angrily, but the other witch ignored her and continued, "Though Trelawney was right only once in a great long while, she was correct in sensing my inner-eye."

 

Hermione rolled her eyes, unable to stomach the tripe she was sure Lavender was going to go on about, regarding the so-called “fine art” of Divination.

 

Lavender pulled the cork from the Calvados and poured a small measure into both bulbous glasses. "It might not be an inner-eye in the sense you know. I tend to think of it as an extraordinarily large amount of woman's intuition."

 

Hermione huffed at Lavender's self-assessment of fortune telling.

 

"No, it's not tarot cards or tea leaves, but a sense one has. Much like when a mother knows when something is wrong with her child when they are apart, or a wife's knowledge that her husband had been severely injured when he's miles away. It's that intuition that both Muggles and witches posses. I have just learned to tune into it, listen to it when someone is upset. If I could see auras, I'm sure yours would be a mixture of gray and sulfur. You're upset and in pain."

 

Hermione looked at her and understood what she was talking about. She had similar experiences with her mother. Whenever something bad had happened with Voldemort or the Death Eaters, she would receive an owl from her mother asking if everything was all right. She never understood how her mother knew to owl her at those particular moments, but with Lavender's explanation, it made sense.

 

"I don't know how to say it, but it calls to me. Did you ever wonder how I learned about all the awful news at school? I was drawn to it, and in my youthful stupidity, gossiped about. Since then I've learned discretion."

 

"Now what? Do I tell you what's wrong with my life and you set me up with a man to shag me and make me forget about how miserable my life is for a night?" Hermione asked bitterly.

 

"If that's what you want, then yes. But I have a feeling you're more of a talker. You need to get things off your chest, verbally analyze what's bothering you. I can provide a non-judgmental man, who will listen and provide a shoulder to cry on," Lavender answered with ease, while her manicured hand flicked off an invisible piece of lint off her linen robes with a sophisticated grace that Hermione envied.

 

Hermione mulled it over in her mind. If she had not had the day she had had with Ginny and her husband, she would have balked at the idea of paying someone to listen to her. However, after what Ginny told her, and after facing the harsh realities of her own marriage to Ron, it was a tempting offer.

 

"Why?"

 

Lavender looked at her with puzzlement.

 

"Why do–" she waved her hand, unable to say the words that added such a prurient nature to the situation, “–what you do? You have all this money and yet you dabble in this… trade. It seems beneath you."

 

Lavender laughed lightly at Hermione's naiveté. "The courtesans of the old days were not beneath kings and princes, except in the bedroom. Unless she was on top," she added glibly. "They provided companionship and sex. In a way, that is what marriage is. Except many witches and wizards marry and quickly forget why they wanted to get married. Their friendship falls by the way side lost in the quagmire of day-to-day life. I just help some people rediscover what they have thought lost. Some witches go back to their husbands with renewed vigor, once they remember that sex is fun and how to have a real conversation. Some wizards just need a little appreciation of their company. There are a few who like the thrill of cheating on their spouse, but some go back to their husband or wife with a greater appreciation of them, and never visit my business again."

 

The weary witch couldn't believe it, but it all made sense to her at the time. Perhaps she would regret it in the morning, but somehow, she found herself asking, "So how much would an evening with a sympathetic ear cost me?"

 

If she didn’t know better, she could have sworn Lavender's smile turned predatory. Perhaps it was the Calvados, which tasted so good and mellowed her nerves, or maybe she was just exhausted and imagined it.

 

"I work on a sliding scale. Those that can afford more, pay more. Those who do not have as much to spare," she said, her eyes sliding over Hermione's less than fashionable outfit, "pay less."

 

Hermione sat up in her seat and tried to look proud despite her slightly worn robes and slightly wild hair that began to escape its braided confines.

 

A smirk played at the corner of the madam's lips. "What were you willing to spend tonight in drinks?"

 

Hermione looked in her pocketbook. She had planned to spend every Knut she had that night or drink until she was too drunk to order another round. "Ten galleons."

 

"I'll cut you a deal. Since this is your first time, I'll charge you seven. If you like it and you come back, I'll charge you ten the next time."

 

Options weighed in her minds. Should she turn down Lavender's offer and get arseholed (along with that was the possibility that she would likely do something really stupid like the last time she got unbelievably drunk), or spend the money to have someone listen to her have a good cry.

 

That one time she got completely bladdered after her N.E.W.T.s had been rather embarrassing. She didn’t think making front page of the Daily Prophet with headlines blaring "Head Girl Bares Her Soul and More!" bore repeating. The accompanying picture had her prancing about with no top, her hands cupping her breasts singing, "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts." The little black bars over her nipples barely covered her in the photo and left little to the imagination.

 

At least if she paid some man for a little comfort, Ron wouldn’t have to read about it in the morning paper.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven
"I'm A Bad Little Hufflepuff!"

 

Disclaimer: Rowling owns all the characters and the canon. I own the plot and the fanon.

 

============

 

Severus sat in his flat, reading his latest monthly copy of Eccentric Elixirs. Since he had been essentially banned from ever touching a cauldron ever again, it was one of the few ways in which he could stay up to date on the latest Potions research.

 

It was nice to have his Thursday evenings back to himself. His usual appointment during that time slot had gone back to her husband determined to work on her marriage, inspired by some of the more creative talents he taught her. This left him with some personal time. He hoped his employer would not be bringing him any new clients for a while, as his schedule was rather full.

 

He glanced out the window and listened to the bustle of the evening. Down in the alleys below, witches and wizards were leaving restaurants to head back home, while others had just arrived for a night of drinking in the many taverns that populated the nexus of wizarding London.

 

If he hadn’t been in his current situation, he wondered if he would still be teaching at Hogwarts, or better yet, free to pursue his own research and publishing. Still, he couldn’t complain about his job at times. He had silently lamented for many years about how pitifully inadequate his sex life was. It seemed that when it rained, it poured.

 

'Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.'

 

It had been a shock when Miss Brown approached him with her unusual offer. The Death Eater Decree had just been declared a few month prior, and he was caught unaware, to his own chagrin. He should have suspected Moody was up to something when the man wouldn’t stop grinning like an idiot. Had he known what was written in that insipid law, he would have flown Britain much like the bat his students frequently compared him to. Instead, he woke up bereft of money, Potions equipment and all his freedom. A quick visit to the Burrow that morning, and Arthur informed him of his own precarious employment situation if the head of the Weasley clan contested the enforcement of the law on his two fellow Order members.

 

It was while he was wondering if he could bribe someone – with the false promise of money later – to help him get his hands on a cauldron and enough of the right ingredients so he could brew a poison for a swift and painless death that she had found him sitting on a bar stool in The Listing Broom. He was contemplating the many ways he could pull out the stopper in death. The barkeep had given Severus a bottle of Firewhisky out of pity, which made the alcohol taste less than pleasing. He hated pity.

 

Sliding onto the stool next to him, she offered to buy him a drink. He could recall the whole conversation with perfect clarity.

 

"It seems I already have one," he replied, grim images of his dead and bloated body found by the street sweepers floating through his mind.

 

"So it seems. How about a job?"

 

He remembered giving her his best sardonic laugh, but he couldn't muster the strength to make it effective enough to drive her away. It was then that he turned and recognized his former Gryffindor student.

 

"Miss Brown, if this is some sick, perverted joke, then I suggest you leave immediately!"

 

She smiled at him in a way that not only confused him, but also made his spy senses thrum with trepidation.

 

"No joke, Professor, or should I say Mr. Snape now."

 

He narrowed his eyes at her with suspicion.

 

"If you are not aware of it, I have started my own company, but have found a lack of Potions masters who are willing to work for me. You, a Potions Master par excellence, are currently unemployed."

 

Severus knew she was fully aware of the limited employment options available to him. He also knew there was more to her offer than just whipping up a batch of wrinkle erasing crème.

 

"Unless you have the Ministry's permission to offer me this job – which I doubt, as I'm not allowed to brew anything more than a cup of tea without breaking parole – then you are just wasting my time," he said with restrained anger for her taunting.

 

"Who said anything about you brewing anything? I need a consultant. Is there a law against you telling me how to brew a potion or beauty crème?

 

He licked his lips nervously. It was too good to be true. Granted, it would be Potions to perpetuate a world of vanity that had scorned him for not fitting within their narrow ideas of beauty, but he was desperate.

 

"What's the catch?"

 

She had the gall to give him a broad and warm smile. That insufferable, machinating wench!

 

"Ah, there's the Slytherin I remember." She said it with such relief; he began to worry that she was actually an uncaptured Death Eater under the disguise of Polyjuice Potion. "I have a little hobby on the side. I think you'll like it once you get used to it. You see, I have a growing list of clients who are in need of… 'company.'"

 

He didn’t like her phrasing and immediately understood the implications of her statement.

 

"So you want me to be part of your stable? What's involved? A personal interview in which you judge my performance? Some sick little fantasy in which to seduce your former teacher?" He was revolted by the whole idea and was tempted to not even bother to bid her farewell.

 

"You don’t have to shag me, unless you’d like to."

 

He could not believe his own ears; an ex-student was propositioning him. Questions about her sanity were beginning to form in his mind.

 

"I have watched you over seven years, Mr. Snape," she continued. "Despite your brittle exterior, you have the makings of a great lover."

 

He snorted at her declaration, though secretly, he always thought he would be great in the sack, despite his meager experience.

 

"As a first year, you scared the hell out of me. But as a seventh year, I saw the potential in you."

 

Severus watched her, waiting for her to break into peels of laughter.

 

"Those hands. Your voice, when you're not shouting, sneering or making disparaging remarks. Your keen sense of observation."

 

"You want a Death Eater working for you in that capacity?" He was still in disbelief of the opportunity presented to him. "Don't you think that's a little dangerous?"

 

His name had been published in the Daily Prophet along with Draco and all the other Death Eaters who were walking among the good witches and wizards of Britain. It was common knowledge now. However, his work for the Order was still a secret, thanks to Fudge and Moody's agenda.

 

"I have faith you're a good guy at heart." She winked at him. He wasn't sure if she was jibing him or knew about his life as a spy.

 

It was a tempting offer. He had hoped to parlay his new status as war hero into some time in the sack with several celebrity clinging witches, who would brag that they had shagged him, all claiming to have had the best sex in their young and nubile lives. It was a silly dream, but even snarky, sensible Potions masters could dream of being proclaimed a sex god by voluptuously beautiful witches. It was just unnerving when faced with the offer to prove how adept he was in the art of erotica and seduction.

 

"And if I refuse to become a gentleman of the evening?" He had to know just how badly she needed his potion making skills. Would she be willing to forgo this particular clause in his employment for his expertise?

 

"Then I'm willing to continue my search for a Potions master who would be willing to have a constant stream of royalties from my ever expanding empire of beauty products. I'm doing very well for myself now, but I intend to dominate the market. Everything from hair products, skin cremes, make-up, nail polish, soaps, deodorants, oral hygiene, anything related to the beauty trade I intend to conquer."

 

His mouth twitched. "Royalties?" The thought of calling her bluff quickly evaporated from his mind as he schooled his features.

 

"Of course I could not pay you directly," she said matter-of-factly. "Everything would be kept in a special vault at Gringotts held in my name under some pseudo-business venture fund. Your activities in your other job would pay well, too. Through your royalties and fees, I would take care of food, lodging, clothing, books, and anything else you are allowed to have, so not one single coin would pass into your hands, thus violating your parole.

 

"The job as companion is more of a cover than anything else. You see, the Ministry is willing to turn a blind eye to prostitution, and as your employer, I would be handling all the money. However, I think it only best that you do actually perform some of the work I claim you are fulfilling. You never know when an Auror from the Ministry might decide to look closer into my side business. Moody has been known for liberal use of the Veritaserum when it suits his needs."

 

Severus was all too familiar with the crackpot Auror's methods of hunting for the imagined evil lurking around every corner, especially since he came out of retirement.

 

Before Severus agreed, he wanted to be sure of the terms of his new employment. "I sleep with women and you'll allow me to consult on potions for your company. Is that it?"

 

"Not every woman will want sex. Some will want to talk. They look for nothing more than a shoulder to cry on, or a sympathetic ear to listen to them."

 

He knew it was too good to be true. He had to listen to the hormonal snivelings of his pubescent charges for years, as Slytherin's Head of House. Now he would have to suffer and feign interest in the inconsequential ramblings of lonely, bored housewives. Sex he could perform; all he had to do was close his eyes if they weren't pleasing to look upon. But talk?

 

But what other options did he have? He almost had to beg for the bottle of Firewhisky that he had sitting in front of him. Somehow this Gryffindor, who he had dismissed as a vanity driven simpleton, had presented him with an option worthy of making her an honorary Slytherin.

 

His pride goaded him to make one request before he struck such a bargain with the formidable Miss Brown.

 

"I would like to draw up a contract, so that the duties in both of my positions are clear."

 

"Of course," she offered and then plopped a sizable scroll into his lap. "I've taken the liberty of having my lawyers draw this up for me. Don’t worry, I Obliviated them after they wrote it up."

 

He read it twice to make sure there was nothing to his disliking, or violated what little dignity he had left. The contract said he would receive ten percent of the profits from products he consulted for development. As a gigolo in the service of Miss Brown, he would have the option of refusing to service any client, as long as he met his weekly minimum of three clients a week. All royalties and fees would be put into a trust under Miss Brown's name until such time as the Death Eater Decree had been lifted from him, or he had been exonerated. Only one thing was missing from the contract.

 

"May I make an addition to this contract before agreeing to these terms?"

 

"That depends."

 

"As my face and persona are well known, I doubt I would be able to meet your standard of three clients a week. Most witches would run away screaming in fright at the thought of having sex with me, much less listening to them without expecting a sarcastic remark escaping my lips. In addition, I would like to preserve my good name as an unsociable bastard. My reputation as a misanthropic curmudgeon should not be tarnished in any way. I would like to have the option of wearing a mask when interacting with the clientele, and your discretion regarding the unsavory aspects of my employment."

 

She gave a low throaty amused chuckle. "Yes, that is agreeable. And you are correct in the respect of your face being known. So glad you thought of that."

 

The contract unrolled so they could see the last clause of the contract and Severus' terms magically appearing in clear black letters.

 

Lavender produced a very expensive quill and handed it to Severus.

 

With a flourish, very much unlike his usual manner of signing his name, he put his signature on the parchment; it was followed by Lavender's rounded cursive.

 

It was done.

 

He was immediately put up in a flat on the fourth floor in a building Lavender had bought from the Weasley twins earlier that year. Of the few personal affects he had not bartered off for food or lodging yet was an armoire paneled with flame mahogany, accented with bird's eye maple and wenge wood inlay, some clothing, a few photographs and his personal library. The Ministry had confiscated every single Knut he had saved from his many years of work at Hogwarts, but at least they had the decency to let him keep most of his belongings, especially his books.

 

The only thing he did mourn the loss of was his precious Potions equipment. Every measuring spoon, scale, knife, sieve, spoon, grater, reamer, ladle, chopping board and cauldron had been confiscated. He knew Moody was sitting in the Ministry laughing his arse off. If it wouldn't have landed him a date with a Dementor, he would have transfigured the man's grotesque eyeball into a rabid Niffler trained to attack the Auror’s more delicate parts, if dark wizards before him hadn’t already hexed them off.

 

That first week was one he would never forget.

 

During the day, he would be in the Lovely Lavender research and development laboratory. Since the Ministry, as part of his Potions equipment seizure, had confiscated his work robes, the only things available for him to wear at his first day of work were robes in lavender or turquoise. Severus threatened to quit the next day if proper black robes weren't available for him. Standing behind Lavender, he would peer into a cauldron brewing the latest batch of beauty crème, his hand itching to stir the elixir just once. How he longed to feel a spoon in his hand and the familiar movements of his body swirling the liquid in clockwise then anti-clockwise motions. He made recommendations and suggestions; she listened and came up with some of her own ingredient combination theories. Though it was not as challenging as the private research he longed to do after the war, it was enough to satisfy his desire to continue working with Potions for the time being.

 

His nights were another matter. His first 'customer' was a recently graduated Hogwarts student he remembered teaching. She had not taken Potions past her fifth year, but he recalled her name and face. She had a little fantasy she wanted help acting out and Severus reluctantly agreed to fulfill her desire, while feigning a keen interest in helping her out.

 

He could still hear her cries in his head. "I'm a bad little Hufflepuff! I'm a bad little Hufflepuff!" Each time she shouted that infernal phrase, a tortoiseshell hairbrush would come thwacking down on her bare bottom. He was the 'stern headmaster' and she was the naughty schoolgirl who had forgotten to wear her knickers. After some fingering while still held over his lap, her bottom welted a bright red, she would orgasm. It was on her third visit that she mounted him as he sat on his chair and came like a wild woman. After that, he never saw her again. He always wondered what Deputy Minister McPeebles would think if he knew his precious little girl had lost her virginity to a Death Eater.

 

His other two clients that week were a twenty-year-old who wanted a brief course in fellatio, so she could surprise her fiancé on their wedding night, and a fifty year old woman who needed a shoulder to cry on. The young bride-to-be was a quick student. It took every last fiber of control, as it had been a very, very long time since he had any oral stimulation of that sort, to keep from grabbing her by the hair and driving his cock down her throat.

 

The middle-aged witch was another matter. It was then that he had a true appreciation for Albus. Severus missed the old fool. His old Headmaster had been his confessor for years. Now he was playing that role. It helped that he wore a mask. He would nod in the appropriate places, ask her the right questions, encourage her to go on, and gave her a hug when she was done.

 

Though he hated to admit it, he felt an obligation to be as an attentive listener to these women as Albus had been to him. In some strange way, it was his own way of honoring his old friend. Some had problems that were petty; others had problems he would never wish on anyone decent. Yet his simple act of listening gave them the absolution they needed, and the feeling that their concerns mattered to someone. He supposed it was another form of penance, but this version did not involve risking his life as a double spy.

 

He was snapped out of his reverie by a familiar rapping at his door.

 

Knock. Knock-Knock-Knock-Knock. (Pause) Knock-Knock.

 

It was his employer. This was her signal that she was alone and he would not have to bother with his mask.

 

Severus opened the door and imperiously looked down his great nose at Lavender.

 

"And a good evening to you too," she cheekily said, swirling her robes as she entered his flat.

 

He watched her and knew something was up. "All right. Out with it. What now?" Severus snapped at her.

 

"I see our mood had improved," she replied as she primly sat herself in a chair next to his chessboard.

 

"You know that I only have Monday and Thursday nights off. You wouldn’t be here unless you have a new client for me," he said testily. He didn’t mind the sex at all. He just wanted a bit more personal time in which to catch up on his reading.

 

"I have a very special client. She's in need of some very tender loving care."

 

"What is she, a stray cat? Send her over to Draco. He gives a fairly convincing performance."

 

"Oh no. This one needs your special touch. Besides, I have a feeling that Draco would be the last person on earth she would want to talk to at this moment."

 

Something in the way her voice paused and lilted made his spy senses tingle. "Who is it?"

 

"She's very bright. I think you'll find her an interesting conversationalist."

 

"Who is it?"

 

"She young and I'm sure quite pretty once she's cleaned up a bit and has not been crying."

 

"Who is it?"

 

"She married and she's only interested in talk."

 

"WHO. IS. IT."

 

Lavender paused, and he could see she was contemplating whether or not to smile when she dropped this little Filibuster in his lap.

 

"Hermione Weasley."

 

There was a moment of silence before he shouted, "Absolutely not! That… that… know-it-all! That Gryffindor! That little boomslang skin stealing, impertinent, pyromaniac bookworm! She set my robes on fire! That was my favorite robe!"

 

Lavender seemed to be having some perverse joy out of watching him pace the room like a caged panther, his brow furrowed. Tense muscles and potential power under a coat of black.

 

"If it's any consolation, I'll buy you some new ones."

 

He shook his head, still walking along a pattern in the rug. "Oh, no you don’t. You are not going to make me take this one. In my contract, it states clearly that as long as I meet my three client a week minimum, I can refuse a client."

 

"What if I were to take away enough of your clients so that you would have to take her to meet your minimum."

 

He stopped pacing and faced her. Shock and anger contorted his unique visage. "You wouldn’t dare."

 

"Oh, but I would. And as your employer, I could. I'm sure Macnair could take over a few of your clients."

 

"Now you are joking," he huffed. "That psychotic maniac? The only reason you have him around is so you can have him play the submissive, so witches with a penchant for pain can flay him on the rack." At least Lavender never insisted he take a client requiring him to be the submissive one. As part of his nature, he would always be the dominant one, as he could not let himself be sexually subjugated.

 

"Yes, I am joking. But I do have something to offer you if you take her on as a new client. I don't know if she’ll visit you only once or if it will be a recurring habit. Knowing the touch you have with women, I could see her becoming a regular, despite her… what do you call it? Ah yes, her noble Gryffindor nature," she smugly explained.

 

She had something new to offer him. She always did. It was this skill that got him and Draco caught in her contractual claws. He still don’t know what she promised Draco to get him into her stable, as he never volunteered that information, but it must have been something too good to resist.

 

When Lavender found Draco, he had bartered everything away. He had spent the past week living in empty alcoves. It was when he was eyeing a stray with rapt attention, considering if cat truly was the other white meat, that she found him and made him an offer to work for her. His day job was as a marketing and sales consultant with the same requirements for the evening job as Severus.

 

Draco, Ginny and Lavender were three of the only four people who knew what he did during his nights.

 

Severus stood rigidly and gritted his teeth. "Your terms?"

 

"Meet with Hermione Weasley as often as she would like, and I will let you have twenty percent of the profits of a new sexual enhancing line of potions we're going to begin working on next week."

 

Sex Potions. He could see the heaping piles of Galleons glitter before his eyes. Enough to even bribe Fudge into making a public apology to him, or pay some Auror to look the other way as he fled the country.

 

"Fifty percent," he countered.

 

"Twenty-five."

 

"Forty-five."

 

"Thirty."

 

"Forty."

 

"Deal. Now if you will excuse me, I have to go fetch your new client. She'll be here in a jiffy."

 

And with a pop, she was gone.

 

Severus slumped against the mantle with a weary sigh before walking over to his armoire. He opened it and looked at the display of masks he had available. He pulled out his Casanova mask embellished with a few gold baroque swirls, and the scarf to cover his hair.

 

Though his hair was no longer greasy, a result from the volatile oils that were released during Potions classes and permeated his hair, it was still rather limp. Lavender's attempt to give it some body had resulted in a bad case of dandruff. The best she could do was suggest a long, layered cut, leaving the length to brush the tops of his shoulder. Despite his improved follicle condition, his ex-student and fellow Order member would probably be able to identify his hair. It was unfortunate that glamour charms were so unpredictable as to when they would wear off.

 

Just as he finished checking himself in the mirror, he heard her knock.

 

Knock-Knock. Knock-Knock. Lavender had given Hermione the signal that indicated she was a client.

 

Straightening his robes and steeling his nerves, certain he would be spending the evening listening to her prattle on about academic subjects or asking endless questions, he took one last breath before opening the door.

 

Opening it, he was glad he had his mask on. Before him stood a shadow of the vibrant, though annoying, young woman he once knew. To say he was shocked would be like standing in a hurricane and commenting that it was a bit damp.

 

Glancing at her robes, he wondered how much she was able to pay. By the look of it, his handkerchiefs cost more than what she was able to afford for tonight.

 

He stepped aside and gently bowed his head in a courtly manner.

 

In his most soothing and caressing voice, he said, "Please come inside and have a seat."

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight
“Tea and Comfort, Confessions and Absolutions”

 

Disclaimer:
JK Rowling, we salute you
You own the Potterverse
We just want to honor you
Though our stories are perverse
I don’t make any money
From my twisted little fic
I just want to write about licking honey
Off of Severus'… (Is that the bad poetry police knocking at my door?)

 

============

 

Hermione looked about her surroundings, licking her lips nervously. It was a room similar to Malfoy's, except this one had a chess table with twin chairs flanking it, a settee with an accompanying low table, and the bed curtains were a dark charcoal gray instead of red.

 

Passing through the doorway, she startled a little when she heard the lock click behind her. A quick look of panic filled her eyes.

 

"You are not a prisoner here," Severus cooed. "Just merely insuring that no one will bother us. You may leave anytime you wish."

 

She pondered the idea of bolting for the door that minute.

 

'The idea of talking with a strange man… and for money! What were you thinking?' she internally chided herself.

 

Sensing she might leave and be faced with Lavender knowing he did not at least make an effort, he said, "Please have a seat. I'm here at your command to do as you wish."

 

His arm extended out to the settee, gently coaxing her to sit down. She gave a jerky nod of gratitude, and with uncertainty, walked over to the seating arrangement by the fireplace.

 

He let her lead the way, surveying his latest customer. She had on a simple white blouse that looked a little tired and almost unnoticeably frayed at the collar. The blouse looked like it had been worn and washed so many times that it took on a subtle dingy color. Her skirt was simple and dark blue, falling just below the knees. Her maroon robes were slightly out of fashion, probably purchased three years ago. The scuff marks on her shoes were hidden from a recent polishing. From afar, she appeared modestly dressed, but upon closer inspection, her dress matched her demeanor; worn, tired, dull and a little gray.

 

Had Severus seen her this way shortly after Victory Day those four years ago, he would have laughed to himself and savored the idea of this young woman put in her place. All her exuberance, confidence and self-righteousness taken down several notches. But after some years apart from the Golden Trio, he could find nothing humorous or satisfying in seeing this sad example of a woman in front of him.

 

Watching her, he noticed how she sat rigidly on the settee, her hands grasping at her knees with white-knuckled tension. Her eyes darted about the room some more, noting where the windows and doors were. She was sitting on the side closest to the door, her nearest escape route.

 

Before he sat down himself, Severus asked, "Would you like a drink? You look like you could use one."

 

Hermione shook her head. "No, I already had a few glasses with Lavender before I came here. I don’t think I would have come if I hadn’t drunk something first." She gave him a meek smile before her face returned to its worried and tired look.

 

"Tea perhaps? Something soothing?" he offered.

 

Her weak smile returned briefly. "Yes, that sounds lovely. I could use a cup of tea.”

 

No sooner has she spoken than a tray filled with cups and saucers, milk, sugar, honey, lemon and a large pot of fragrant tea appeared on the low table in front of her.

 

Severus walked over and sat on the other end of the settee, leaving a comfortable gap between them. She looked like such a frightened cornered animal; it would not do to scare her by invading her personal space.

 

He sat forward and poured the tea.

 

"Lemon?"

 

"No, nothing." The nervous witch swallowed hard. "Please."

 

She took the perfumed brew with a slightly shaky hand, noting the delicate hand painted geometric motif along the rim of the cup and saucer. Inhaling, she let the scent wash through her senses feeling their effects immediately.

 

She inhaled deeply and paused. "Chamomile… lavender… mint… raspberry leaves… feverfew…and…" Hermione inhaled once more. "… Uva-ursi?"

 

Had he not been wearing a mask, she would have seen the quirk in his smile. The uva-ursi was used in such minuscule quantities, he could barely perceive its presence, but its flavor was a wonderful sub-note in the tea.

 

"Your guess is correct." He kept his voice neutral, but reassuring.

 

She took a long slow sip, allowing the aroma to envelop her mind. Once she felt the hot liquid sliding down her esophagus, she opened her eyes and regarded the man sitting next to her more closely.

 

He wore a dark plum shirt with an elegant cut. Nothing fancy, no flourishes, but simple and well made. His trousers were black and showed off his lean, muscular legs. What intrigued her most was the mask. It was white with a few gold embellishments hiding his whole face with a large protrusion that allowed him to sip his tea while still concealing the lower half of his face. The shadow of the mask made his eyes appear black. She noticed his hair was hidden under a black scarf he had wrapped around his head, further intriguing her.

 

She wondered if he was less than handsome or was this his way of remaining anonymous. The brief idea that she could one day stand next to him in Flourish and Blotts and never know he was the same man popped into her mind.

 

He sat with ease and calm, the antithesis of her current state. Watching him, she saw the graceful movement of his hand as he set the cup and saucer back on the low table in front of them, and then recline against the back of the settee like a cat lounging in the sun.

 

Severus continued to watch her in silence. She squirmed under his gaze.

 

"So," she began shakily, "what do we do... erm… I mean, what happens now?"

 

He was usually not a generous man, nor forgiving in nature, but he knew she was a line about to snap if not treated delicately and encouraged kindly.

 

"I was under the impression that you needed someone to talk to."

 

He could see the tears already forming. It was a new world record for him. Usually they needed to talk a bit before the crying started. The strong and proud girl he remembered from Hogwarts was gone.

 

“Hermione’s Tears” by AquiliaSevera

"I don’t know what to do. I'm lost (sob). I have no one to talk to about this. It's all so confusing and complicated," she quietly cried. She bent over and put her hands in her face, crying without concern of what the gigolo might think of her blubbering.

 

He pulled out a crisply pressed handkerchief and offered it to her.

 

Peering out from between her fingers, she saw the white square of fine Irish linen and took it, dabbing at the tears before blowing her nose loudly.

 

"Why don’t you tell me your problem. Start at the beginning, that's usually the best place," he assured her genially.

 

She sniffed once and wiped at some more tears before she began. "You see, I have a friend, a good friend. Well, he suspected his wife was cheating on him and he asked me to spy on her and see if she was. So he loaned me his Invisibility Cloak."

 

Severus felt his heart begin to thump loudly in his chest. He only knew of one person who owned such a cloak.

 

"Anyway, I followed her today and found out he was right."

 

Severus reached for his tea, as his mouth had unexpectedly gone dry.

 

"I saw her with… this bloke, who we all hated while we were at school together. And the worst part is, she’s my best friend, too."

 

He set his tea down and watched as her hands continued to grip her knees, her legs locked tightly together.

 

"And so I confronted her and she tells me that she's been seeing this other person on the side for a while. And the worst part is, she's not in love with her husband. Well, she loves him, but not in love. Oh, I don’t know. So, I can only assume she's in love with this other man. And now my friend, the male friend, is going to ask me if his wife has been deceiving him. See, he found out she wasn’t doing what she claimed to have been doing some afternoons, and he started putting the pieces together. If he finds out, she says he'll probably kill the other man, which he could do since he's an Auror, I guess, which I don't think he would… I hope. But she says if her… lover dies, then she'll leave her husband."

 

She drew a long breath, reaching for her tea and taking another long sip, hoping it would calm her nerves.

 

"If I tell him what his wife is doing, then someone might die or get a Dementor's Kiss and she’ll leave her husband. If I don’t tell him and lie, then that's letting her continue this… affair. He's my best friend, but she is too. And the worst part is, after talking to her, I've realized that my marriage is just as miserable, in its own pathetic way."

 

Severus' mind whirred. Though she left out the names, he knew exactly whom the actors in this sordid little tragedy were. He fought to keep his concentration on the conversation. If he played his part well, he might be able to convince her to not tell Potter about Ginny's infidelity with Draco.

 

"Dementor's Kiss?" he asked softly. "Surely a man wouldn’t get such a harsh punishment for adultery with another man's wife," he said in placid, innocent tones.

 

"Well, it's a long story. One I don’t want to go into at the moment." Since Malfoy was one of Lavender's employees, if she named him, then this man might feel some need to protect one of his own. She did not feel like having an Obliviate – or worse – cast upon her.

 

Severus nodded his head, allowing her to go on.

 

Hermione continued the tale of her conundrum, and how she felt she was between the proverbial Scylla and Charybdis. She went on about her own marriage, how it scared her that she might wind up a bitter old woman if she stayed in her marriage, her shock regarding the undisclosed magical bond wrought from bearing children, and dread over a life stuck with her husband.

 

Periodically, she stopped to cry a bit before continuing. Severus kept pouring her tea, refreshing her cup every so often. Hermione's bleak marriage was nothing he hadn’t heard before, but news of Potter's suspicion was a twist he was not expecting.

 

When she finished, he asked, "So, will you tell your male friend about your female friend's activities? Or help them save their marriage?"

 

It was a very Slytherin way of phrasing the question. From what she’d told him, it sounded like she had already made up her mind, but needed to talk it out with someone before finally deciding.

 

"I don’t know. I won’t know until I see him. I don’t know if I can lie to him; he's not the sort of friend you can just lie to."

 

He nodded in his most convincing sympathetic manner, conveying the part of the non-judgmental listener.

 

"I’m sure you'll do the right thing," he said, knowing the girl would never care for the idea of a dead man on her conscience. Her Gryffindor nature would not allow it, even if she did despise Draco.

 

Hermione looked about sheepishly. "It there a toilet?" She had drunk most of the tea and no doubt needed to relieve herself.

 

"Through that door," he replied with a gesture towards the door on the opposite side of the room.

 

He rose when she did and bowed his head. Once the door clicked shut, he silently swore to himself. 'That boy is going to get us both killed.'

 

The sound of rushing water brought him back to the present. She would be leaving soon and Draco's fate would be in her hands. If Potter knew what had been going on between his wife and Draco, the Auror would no doubt snap. He always had doubts about the boy's mental stability. And despite Potter and Draco working in the Order together, their animosity towards each other surpassed the hatred that he and Sirius Black had for one another.

 

Hermione was rinsing her face, hoping the cool water could reduce some of the puffy redness. Looking about the well-appointed bathroom, she saw an assortment of sample-sized bottles in a basket with a note that read, “For your convenience.”

 

Inside the basket was a small tube of Lovely Lavender's Puffy Poof Eye Crème, a small bottle of Luxurious Lathering Lotion, Redness Reducing Salve and other products from the Lovely Lavender product line. She dabbed the Puffy Poof Crème on around her eyes and worked some of the salve into her cheeks noting how they quickly returned to their non-splotch even color.

 

Once satisfied that her appearance was no long frightful, after a quick pass through her hair with a hairbrush and a botched braiding job, she looked in the mirror.

 

It was good to finally talk to someone about a few of the things about her marriage she couldn’t tell Ginny or Harry. Ginny, as Ron's sister, had her own bias and Harry was equally friends with Ron as with her. There was no one she was close enough to, especially since she had become estranged from her parents. As much as she hated to admit it, it was the best seven galleons she spent in a long time. Hermione’s heart felt a little lighter, though the weight of the responsibility to Harry still sat heavy on her shoulders. Since the wizarding world did not have anything even remotely like a priest or psychiatrist, she supposed this was as close as she could come on short notice. There was the Muggle Alliance Network, but she needed someone that night.

 

'We only talked,' she reminded herself. 'It's not like I did anything wrong.' But she still couldn’t help but feel that she had somehow been unfaithful to Ron. Pushing the guilt down deep inside of her so it would not resurface anytime in the near future, she squared her shoulders.

 

'This is just one time. I'm never doing this ever again.'

 

For a split second, she averted her eyes from the reflection in the mirror. Somehow, she didn’t want to face herself and the idea that she might want to see this strange man again. He had been attentive and considerate. Ron used to listen to her like that years ago, when he wasn't jumping to conclusions or shooting his mouth off with hasty remarks. And she and Harry hadn’t talked like that in years either. Somehow, now that that they were grown, the dynamics of their friendship had changed. In the world of boys and girls, they were just friends, but as adults it had slowly evolved and she could no longer completely confide in them like she once could.

 

This man, this gigolo, had given her comfort. He provided release and relief from her burdened heart. Perhaps now that she had done what she needed to do, she'd never see him again.

 

She wasn't sure if it was the mask, his scent of patchouli, sandalwood and musk, or the peculiarity of the situation, but she enjoyed the evening more than she had thought she would. The atmosphere was serene, with no reminders of the housework that needed to be done, the tiny size of her flat reminding her of how cramped her life had been feeling, and no Ron to grate on her nerves.

 

Hermione closed her eyes and solemnly swore to herself, 'Never again. Thank him for being a patient listener, then bid him good-bye.'

 

Opening the door, she saw him sitting on the settee patiently waiting for her. He rose with a languid grace and she swallowed hard once more. He had a body unlike Ron’s. Though shorter than her husband, he was still taller than her by about five inches. He had a man's body, similar to Draco’s in the way it had filled out, but different. Not quite so broad in the shoulders, but proportionally wider than Ron's. She could see his leg muscles flex under the drape of the fabric as he shifted to his other leg, inviting her to sit back down.

 

“Languid Pose” by AquiliaSevera

Quickly, she wondered if he had well defined abdominal muscles. Ooh, she had a weakness for those. She quickly snapped her mind back to the present and out of her insane daydream of what this man would look like without his shirt on.

 

With purpose, she strode over to him and offered to shake his hand. "It's been lovely. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have had someone to talk to."

 

He took her hand. Instead of shaking it as he would another man's, he bowed slightly and brought her hand up to his face, guiding her knuckles just under the protruding mouth area of his mask. His lips gingerly brushed her knuckles while keeping eye contact with her.

 

"I'm so glad to have been of service to you this evening," Severus answered in his most seductive voice.

 

She was paralyzed. The touch of his mouth on her hand sent a shock from that small patch of skin straight up her arm to her brain. Hypnotized by the eyes that never left hers as he kissed her hand, she felt her pulse quicken and her heart hammer against her rib cage. Somehow, it had become quite difficult for her to breathe at the moment and Hermione wondered if she was still riding out her buzz from the brandy, as the room seemed to tilt a little.

 

His mouth lingered on her hand a little before he rose from his bow and released her hand.

 

Coming to her senses, she snapped her mouth shut. Flustered at her momentary lapse of sanity, or was it control, she gave him one more nervous lopsided smile.

 

In her haste to exit her environment, and regain control of her hormones which had suddenly begin to rattle the bars of their cage, she walked over to a door that led to the kitchen area. Opening it, she realized her mistake and scanned the room desperate to find an escape route. Spotting the door in which she entered into this den of dawning temptation, she bolted, slamming the door with nervous energy.

 

Once out in the dim hallway, she ran for the stairs and flew down them as if she were on a broom.

 

Severus was amused beyond all measure at her startled response to his charms. He quietly chuckled to himself at how he discombobulated the young witch. His enjoyment was short-lived as Minerva's voice began lecturing him in his mind.

 

'That poor girl!' he could imagine the old biddy exclaiming. 'Severus, how could you do that to her, and in her state!'

 

If his old colleague and friend could see her most prized student today, she's be rolling over in her funeral pyre. Thoughts of gagging the mental image of Minerva with her own tartan scarf drifted through his mind.

 

Severus did have a conscience. It usually came in the voice of Albus or Minerva in the back of his mind while his own personality played the devil to their angels on his shoulders. Two against one was not exactly a fair fight.

 

The image of Albus looking at him over his half moon spectacles still haunted him. 'My dear boy, you did an admirable thing giving her comfort. I'm proud of you.' He could hear the phantom voice of his old Headmaster, knowing the wizened man would be simultaneously praising him and giving him a reproachful soul-penetrating stare that said he should not have teased the distraught woman.

 

Severus pulled off his mask and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. The relished feeling over Hermione's discomfort had fled, replaced by a sense of disappointment and reluctant shame.

 

Glancing at the bed curtains charmed to reflect the mood of his clients, he noted the subtle swirl of purple in the gray folds of the fabric. He supposed it wasn't nice to arouse a sexually frustrated woman, but he tamped down the surge of guilt.

 

"It's not like I'll be seeing her again," he said to the imaginary Albus and Minerva he envisioned sitting at his chess table.

 

He could imagine the silent glare they would both be giving him over their spectacles, were they both still alive.

 

"Hell, if you both hadn't died I wouldn’t be in this cursed situation."

 

Rubbing his eyes, he knew that if they were both alive, they would ask him to help her in anyway that he could.

 

He still didn’t know what she did for a living, as she’d spent the whole time fixated on her most pressing problem. It would be something he would have to inquire about at a future date, if she ever came back. No doubt the imaginary Headmaster and Deputy Headmistress in his head would not stop pestering him until he found out.

 

Severus knew they didn’t really exist and his flat was not haunted. He just preferred to think of them there, so he wouldn't have to deal with the uncomfortable notion that he really did care about what happened to one of the most promising students Hogwarts had produced in several generations.

 

Certain that he would not be able to enjoy reading his magazine for the rest of the evening, he drew a bath in which to soak and think some more.

 

Sitting in the scalding water, he remembered how Mrs. Weasley looked. She was thin, too thin for his liking. Women were supposed to have curves, not bony angles. The quality of her hair reminded him of his own when he spent hours in the dungeons sticking his head over simmering cauldrons in which to judge if potions were coming along nicely or if he would have to prevent another caustic disaster. Whereas his hair was greasy, hers has lost the luster associated with youth and health.

 

Wondering if she had pursued a position involving potions, he thought of her hands. They were slightly stained a distinctive faint purple, indicative of working with shrinking violets. Her hands were nimble and slightly callused similarly to the way his used to be. Severus rubbed at his hands, remarking at how time had erased the rough calluses where the handle of his favorite knife and spoon used to cradle against his fingers and palm.

 

She was so repressed; it was pitiful. The tension in her voice regarding her marriage to Ronald Weasley told him pages alone. Her edginess, the way her body vibrated with potential energy, her dissatisfaction with her husband on so many levels. He had not spent the past years as a shoulder to cry on without picking up on the typical signals of a woman unfulfilled and desperate for release.

 

An image of Hermione under him naked and crying out in pleasure filled his mind. He immediately evicted the thought from his mind.

 

Severus had had sex with women Hermione's age and younger. Some of them had come fresh from the halls of Hogwarts seeking experience that their boyfriends lacked. So why the thought of carnal relations with this particular woman bothered him was a concept he would have to ponder another time.

 

Sighing, he considered the other pressing issue at hand. Hermione's knowledge of Draco and Ginny's affair was a tangle in the little world they currently lived in. He had warned the young wizard about the danger involved with sleeping with an Auror's wife, but Draco disregarded it and took his relations with Mrs. Potter to a sexual level anyway. He claimed it would have happened sooner or later, which was the unfortunate truth.

 

Love was something he found to be a burden at times. It could be used against you in the most dangerous way, if you weren't careful.

 

He would see Draco in the morning and tell him of his possible impending doom then. It would do no good to tell him now, as it would only deprive him of a good night's sleep. The boy was so picky about getting his beauty sleep. Besides, there would be no where to run to if Mrs. Weasley decided to tell Potter everything, and he would need his rest if confronted with an enraged husband.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hermione practically ran the whole way home, located on the far end of Diagon Alley. Once she was standing at her front door, she paused to collect herself.

 

"Get a grip on yourself," she scolded herself.

 

Thoughts of the gigolo filled her mind. His lips on her mouth, sending those same tingling currents through her body, his hands on her breasts, holding her tight around the waist to his body, suffocating her in drowning kisses. Her legs wrapped about his waist, her nails in his back, her head arched back, his scented skin on her skin.

"Stop it," she quietly hissed to herself. Hermione shook her head back and forth, hoping the physical act would somehow purge the enticing visions in her mind.

 

Opening the door, she was surprised to find Ron sitting on the couch, waiting for her.

 

"Ron!"

 

To say she was surprised to see him there was an understatement. Usually when he threatened to be out all night after one of their fights, she wouldn’t see him till the following evening when their tempers had returned to normal and they could fight in rational volumes.

 

"I thought… you said…" Hermione had been hoping he would hold good on his promise to stay out the night so she could have some privacy to mull over the day she’d had.

 

Ron quickly rose to his feet. He looked like he wanted to sweep Hermione up in his arms, but stood a few paces a way from her and fidgeted.

 

"I was wondering where you were. I'm glad you're okay," he said anxiously.

 

"I… I…" Her mind drew a blank.

 

What could she tell her husband? 'I've just come back from a brothel where I paid a man to listen to me, since I can’t talk to you.' Instead she came up with a half-truth.

 

"I needed some time to think. I had a few drinks."

 

Ron gave a small sigh of relief. "Hermione, you were right. I've been a complete prat. I've been a terrible husband. I haven’t been keeping up my end of the housework and I've been taking you for granted. You do everything and I'm just a complete berk for not helping out as much as I should."

 

A leaden lump of guilt began burning in Hermione's gut.

 

Ron went on with his speech. "And you're right. I should have taken the offers as Keeper for other teams. It was selfish not to consider how it would affect you. We could have had a larger flat by now… or a house even. Just like the ones in the wizarding quarter of Oxford. You would have nice new robes and you could tell the boss to shove off and go look for another job. One that makes you happy."

 

Hermione wanted the ground to open up and swallow her whole. Here she was, having spent seven galleons they could barely spare to have some strange man listen to her bawl about her insignificant life, while Ron was waiting at home to apologize to her after she behaved like a complete harpy toward him.

 

Her cheeks burned with shame and she could feel her heart crumple up upon itself in her chest.

 

"I'm the one who should apologize," she confessed. "I've been a complete and utter shrew, nagging you like a fishwife. You have two jobs; it's only fair I should do more. I've just been really stressed lately and I'm just really, really tired today. I snapped, and it wasn't very nice of me to do it out in public and embarrass you, and…"

 

Ron grabbed her and kissed her deeply. This was the part where they made up. Granted, she would have welcomed the affection most times after they had been fighting, but now that she had been with the man in the mask, she felt soiled.

 

More than anything, she wanted to shower and scrub the scent and the memory of him from her mind and body.

 

"Ron, I–"

 

He kissed her soundly to silence her reservations and mouth.

 

"Shhh. We're both sorry. We just need to work a little harder together, that's all. We'll talk about this later."

 

He kissed her again and Hermione's mind drifted. She recalled how the gigolo's kiss on her hand sent sparks up her arm… 'Just like Ginny described earlier with Malfoy.' Panicked, Hermione kissed Ron back harder, attempting to expunge the terrible idea forming in her mind.

 

She would not entertain thoughts of this mystery man making love to her, bringing her to orgasm after orgasm. Hermione loved Ron, and even if he didn’t turn her on to the point of insanity where she would beg him to slide his cock into her, she would not let herself fantasize about being with another man while she was kissing her husband. It felt like she was cheating on Ron in her heart. It made her feel… dirty.

 

Instead, she concentrated on the good things Ron made her feel. He was an adequate kisser, and granted they didn’t kiss fervently like they did before they’d started having sex, she could find the act pleasant, though a bit boring after a while.

 

In their haste to consummate the make-up-and-kiss portion of the evening, they didn’t even make it to the bedroom.

 

During their coupling, Hermione forced her mind to concentrate on her husband and the way his body felt when joined with hers. She tried to enjoy the feel of his skin on hers and the friction of him entering and withdrawing from her as he ground his body against her.

 

The more she pushed herself to enjoy the moment, the less satisfaction she got. Images of her gigolo flashed briefly in her mind before she banished them once more. She could tell Ron would orgasm soon, and to make him feel that he had brought her some pleasure out of this bout of make-up sex, she faked an orgasm.

 

Since she had never really experienced an orgasm with Ron inside of her, she had learned a fairly convincing repertoire of faces and noises to make. Even his fumbling with his hands at attempts to bring her off before, during or after intercourse did not result in the tingling glow she desperately wanted to experience.

 

Ron collapsed on top of her, panting and sweating. For the fact she did not receive that much pleasure from it at all, she considered it her penance for her actions and thoughts.

 

He pressed light kisses at her temple. His hot sticky breath was too much for her to bear.

 

"That was fantastic, 'Mione," he panted into her hair. "Have I told you what an amazing lover you are?"

 

Hermione shut her eyes, hoping Ron wouldn’t lift his head off her shoulder, and squeezed back the tears.

 

'I'm an awful woman.'

 

Ron could get pleasure from the sex they had, why couldn’t she?

 

'Maybe I'm frigid. I'm too controlling to let myself just enjoy what Ron and I have. So what if he's not the best. He's my husband and I love him. What's wrong with me?'

 

They went to the bedroom quietly, hand-in-hand. Slipping under the covers, Ron spooned behind her, his heavy arm pinning her down around her waist.

 

Once she was sure he had slipped into a deep slumber, Hermione began to cry silently.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine
"Morning Has Broken"

 

Disclaimer: Rowling owns it all.

============

Severus woke shortly after sunrise. Friday was the one day of the week he needed to rise so early. After a languid stretch, he rose and donned a summer silk dressing robe and headed into his study.

The house-elf had his tea ready and waiting for him on his desk as he sat down to go over a few correspondences.

Letters addressed to Sebastian Delgado laid waiting for his response. Since Severus Snape was a Death Eater, his nom de guerre gave him liberty to pursue research and books otherwise forbidden to him. It was a simple combination of his middle name and his mother's maiden name. It was one hidden clue to his identity that he doubted even Moody would put together, as his father had brought Severus’ mother back from Spain already wedded to her. After penning his replies, he sent them off with an owl.

Dressing quickly, he noted the time. It would not do him good to keep his parole officer waiting for him. Once his outer robe had been clasped and the hood pulled up to conceal his face, he headed out.

Draco was ready when Severus rapped on his door, the younger wizard covered in a similar cloak. While the older man preferred the color of bottomless black, his companion preferred the subtleties of a dark flecked gray for his cloak.

Severus preferred the winter for his weekly errand, as the right ascension and declination of the sun in this northern climate allowed him to walk to the Ministry under the cover of pre-dawn darkness.

As the disgraced pair walked through the bright, clear morning in Diagon Alley, their booted feet made light noises against the dew-covered cobblestones. Neither of them spoke; it was routine. Not until they stopped by the baker for a roll before going to the Ministry would they exchange a solitary word.

Once Draco has his habitual croissant and Severus his brioche, they were on their way. (Lavender had a weekly bill sent to her from the Twenty-Four Blackbird Bakery.)

Draco was the first to speak this week. "Did you enjoy having a free evening? Or were you lonely?"

Severus always thought Draco's sense of humor needed a bit more refinement. At least his jibes were better than his father's, however.

"Unfortunately no. Our dear employer saw fit to saddle me with a new client last night," he said, not bothering to hide his irritation.

"Anyone I know?"

Severus wasn't eating his roll. He picked at it and tossed the crumbs away for the morning bird population to eat, as he had suddenly lost his appetite.

Draco leaned forward a bit and peered into Severus' hood to gauge his mood.

"Hermione Weasley," he bit out.

Draco stopped walking and started laughing. He had the pure gall to laugh out loud. The sounds echoed down the deserted thoroughfare. Even the street sweeper, a fellow Death Eater whose name they couldn't recall, wasn't up yet to bear witness to Draco bent over, one arm clutched to his side, his free arm braced against a wall.

"So," he asked between gasping chortles, "does she have a lovely pair of coconuts?"

Had Hermione been the same unbearably annoying witch he knew four years ago, he would have joined Draco with a snicker of his own. Instead, he frowned and walked faster.

The gray-cloaked wizard ran to catch up and peered into Severus' hood again.

"Don't tell me you're upset with my little joke over that Gryffindor pain-in-the-arse!"

"I wouldn't be laughing if I were you. She knows about you and Mrs. Potter."

He was amazed at the speed in which Draco's complexion went from pink to gray.

"It seems," Severus over enunciated, "that Potter has been suspicious of his wife and enlisted the help of Hermione and his Invisibility Cloak to follow Ginny. She traced your paramour to our building and saw you two together. While she didn’t give details or names during her confession last night, she knows enough to tell Potter the truth."

"Hermione? On a first name basis now are we?" Draco said with raised eyebrows.

"There are six other women I could be referring to with that last name," he answered shortly. "No, all she did was soil a clean handkerchief and confide in me her dilemma. Tell Potter everything and have your death on her noble conscience, or tell him nothing and try to play counselor to fix their marriage."

"What's there to fix? It's broken beyond repair. She doesn't love him, she loves me!" Draco pouted angrily.

"Perhaps if you had at least let her know you were still alive instead of playing the heartbroken fool who lost everything except his woman, she wouldn’t have married him. Instead, your pride demanded that you have something to give her besides yourself," Severus lectured him through clenched teeth. "It took you losing everything – including her – to realize she loved you regardless of your money. So stop playing the petulant lovesick boy and pray that my 'guidance' and consoling last night was enough to convince her not to tell Potter anything. I just hope she's become a better liar since leaving school or I will be looking at florist shops for graveside arrangements for your funeral."

Their usual Friday morning banter was overshadowed by Severus' revelation of Draco's predicament. Both men were lost in their own thoughts as they glided through the streets on the way to the Ministry.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Severus knocked on the door and was invited to enter.

"Severus. Draco," Kingsley Shacklebolt greeted them perfunctorily. The Auror hated to do this, but at least as their parole officer, he could word questions carefully and not pry into any activities they may be up to in order to leave the country. It was the least he could do for his fellow Order members.

The two ex-Death Eaters sat down in the straight-back wooden chairs, Draco attempting to slouch down and hook a leg over the arm of the chair. He quickly gave up that position, as the government issued chairs were designed to be as uncomfortable as possible. In fact, they were charmed so that the more comfortable you tried to become while sitting in them, they became even more uncomfy.

Shacklebolt pulled out a sheaf of parchment and a Quick-Quotes Quill, setting the quill to take dictation.

"Let the record show that it is six-thirty in the morning, Friday, June twenty-seventh, two thousand and three. Death Eaters Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape are here for their weekly parole meeting with me, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Auror First Class," he recited in a monotonous fashion, having done it every week for almost four years.

The quill scribbled down every word, attributing the words to the black wizard.

"Have you, Severus Snape, brewed any potions, hexed or cursed anyone, or performed any prohibited charms, spells, or transfigurations under the law, according to the Death Eater decree?"

"No." Severus sat there, sullenly answering in a monotonous voice.

There was a pause while the quill caught up to the proceedings, its scratching noise filling the silence of the room.

"Are you still employed as a prostitute under the supervision of a Miss Lavender Brown?"

This was the part he hated most. As part of his weekly probation meeting, he had to admit that he made a living by rendering sexual services. To do the act was one thing, but to admit it on record battered his dignity. At least the sex he had was consensual, unlike what Lucius had done over the years, especially during the war.

"Yes." After all this time, he still couldn’t look Kingsley in the eye when he admitted it. He always averted his gaze when answering.

Shacklebolt did not want to know about Severus or Draco's other jobs with Miss Brown in her cosmetic business. The Auror had explained that he didn’t want to know what they did beyond the required information. Even he did not want to have Moody slip him a dose of Veritaserum, asking him questions to see if he was hiding knowledge about the activities of two certain Death Eaters.

Kingsley made it known when the law came out that Moody had gone too far. And with the threat of losing his job and being labeled a Death Eater sympathizer, he kept his mouth shut and did what he could do for his war comrades. As he was their parole officer, he never checked up on them like he did his other charges, or used a Prior Incantato on their wands, and never interrogated them under the influence of the truth elixir. But voicing his opposition to Moody had made him a man under surveillance where Draco and Severus were concerned. Thusly, he was extremely careful how he conducted himself during these meetings, keeping everything above the board, dotting every "i" and crossing every "t."

The Auror, satisfied with conducting the bare minimum required, nodded his head.

"Have you, Draco Malfoy, brewed any potions, hexed or cursed anyone, or performed any prohibited charms, spells or transfigurations under the law, according to the Death Eater decree?"

"No," Draco answered with bored irritation.

"Are you still employed as a prostitute under the supervision of a Miss Lavender Brown?"

Draco lifted his head defiantly and replied, "Yes." He wanted to add, 'But not for very much longer, if the Fates see it that way,’ but held his tongue.

"Very well," concluded their parole officer. "Let the record show that Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy are in good standing with the law. End of meeting."

The quill finished its transcription and set itself down. The bass voiced wizard picked up the quill and parchment and put them away. After a sweep with his wand for extendable ears, eyes, hidden Quick-Quote Quills or any other methods in which someone may eavesdrop, he cast a sound sealing spell on the door and ventilation grate to prevent anyone from listening in on their conversation.

Letting out a sigh, now that it was over, Kingsley asked rhetorically, "Am I correct to assume that both of you will not be gracing us with your presence at the fountain dedication ceremony on Monday?"

Severus glared at the man's jest while Draco rolled his eyes.

Kingsley nodded his head. "I know, I know. But I've been talking with my boss, Amelia. I think I've convinced her to run for Minister in the election next year. She's open to the idea of a fully accounted exoneration and public apology to you both. I haven’t talked to her directly about it, but she would do it based on my recommendation alone."

Severus shook his head. "And wait another year? What happens if she doesn’t get elected? We're back to square one. If it weren't for the Dementors, the things I would do to Moody and Fudge would make the Dark Lord look like a first year Hufflepuff," he growled.

"Well, don’t tell me any particulars. I don’t want a 'surprise' visit from Moody again. The last time he showed up with tea, I had to spill it on my lap in order to get out of the room. He's getting suspicious that I'm not making your life hellish enough and he keeps asking what you two do for food and lodging. Fortunately, I can keep your files from him under privacy protection laws that he can’t overturn without the Wizengamot ruling of at least eighty percent. He wanted me to change our weekly appointment to noon so you two would have to walk in here for the whole Ministry to see as they were leaving for lunch. I told him to go shove a Blast-Ended Skrewt up his arse."

Severus gave him a lopsided grin. He would have to ask Kingsley to put that one in a pensive for his personal viewing.

Running a large hand over his bald pate, he said, "There's less of them out there. Last night we found young Goyle in the back corner of Knockturn Alley." He glanced at Draco with a look of sympathy. "I'm sorry. I know you were classmates."

"How?" asked Draco in an emotionally detached manner.

"Far as we could tell, poison. There was a vial in his hand, but it was completely drained of its contents."

Severus turned his head to watch the blond wizard. He could see the younger man’s mind working, wondering if Potter would make it look like an accident or just kill him in the street where he stood. It was distressing to him as well. All his old classmates and students from his house who had followed the Dark Lord were dying off one by one or giving up and asking for a soulless sentence in Azkaban.

"If there is anything I can do for you, legally, just ask. You both seem to be doing well. If your employment with Miss Brown ends, let me know. You're more than welcome to stay in my home until we can find a way to ensure that this law no longer applies to you both."

The two men nodded in thanks to the Auror's offer.

The friends they had were few and far between. They had cut off all contact with everyone in the Weasley clan except Ginny and beyond her, Miss Brown, and Kingsley, there was no one else they socialized with. They were persona non grata in the eyes of the wizarding world. Severus, as a service to Arthur Weasley, had not talked nor owled him, as the man could not afford to lose his good standing in the Ministry. It was the least he could do for the patriarch who always had faith in him, though they rarely talked beyond business concerning the Order.

Their meeting was over and it was time to leave before Ministry employees began arriving for work.

As they walked through the main lobby, Severus glanced over at the tented sculpture and wondered what it looked like under the yards of canvas charmed with a Repelling Spell to prevent prying eyes from spoiling the surprise.

Their boots heels clacked on the granite floor as they strode through the atrium, a companionable silence settled between them. Neither of them spoke until they arrived at the Lovely Lavender headquarters located on Dorian Loop in the manufacturing sector of Diagon Alley.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hermione woke with the sun glaring in her eyes. After prying her tear-crusted eyelids apart, she glanced around. She couldn't comprehend why she was on the couch instead of in her warm, soft bed. Then her memory returned and the events of yesterday came slamming back into her mind like the Hogwarts Express. Shutting her eyes again, she threw her arms up over her face to shield her eyes from the overly bright sun and her guilty conscience from further recollection.

After Ron had fallen asleep, she’d cried as quietly as she could without alerting her husband to her distress, refraining from making any sounds and controlling her breathing so her body would not shake. Once again, she sought the isolation of a shower. Instead of feeling the usual post-coital bitterness and dissatisfaction, she had felt filthy and unfaithful.

Not content with the shower, she then filled the bath in order to scrub every square inch of her skin raw as a form of self-flagellation. She sat in the unbearably hot water sweating, feeling the sting of her abraded skin protesting the water's temperature.

Now that her skin felt slightly less contaminated, she began to ponder her own actions of that night. Why did she feel so guilty over talking with some random person? Granted she had paid for the time, but she had struck up conversations with strangers before, engaging in lengthy discussions before bidding farewell, never to see them again. What was different about her masked man that made her feel as if she betrayed Ron?

It was the same quality Ginny described when she was with Malfoy. That kiss on her hand had felt like fire and velvet. One simple act aroused her more than Ron ever had in their entire courtship.

Hermione and Ron had fallen into their romance through a simple kiss. He had aimed for her cheek, but she turned her head unexpectedly and their lips met. Out of curiosity, she kissed back and he took it as a sign that she was interested. They both viewed that kiss as a sign to take their friendship beyond the platonic stage. Though Hermione never fell madly in love with Ron, like her other schoolmates did when they finally started dating someone they knew for a while, her rational mind dismissed the absence of this phase as a sign she was too mature to get all silly and sentimental. She had always wondered why girls got all moony-eyed over their boyfriends, gushing and walking about as if under a Levitation Charm. She thought she was too sensible to engage in that sort of behavior.

It seemed that perhaps she had missed out on a part of life others took for granted. Still, she and Ron had a strong friendship and that was more than some other married couples had, marrying out of love with no friendship to strengthen their bond. Now she wondered if friendship was enough to keep them together for the rest of their lives. She felt no passion with Ron. It wasn't a loveless marriage, but it lacked certain quality when a witch and wizard look adoringly at each other after being together for a century or more, still seeing the beautiful young person they fell in love with decades ago.

When Hermione looked at Ron, she never saw a man she wanted to lounge in bed all day with, talking about nothing and everything. She saw her old school friend who she shared an amicable companionship with. She never felt the yearning hunger for his body when they were apart. She’d never really wanted him as a lover, but had let the tide carry her into that relationship without ever examining it, to see if it was what she really wanted.

Her mother had told her many times it would be best if she found a husband while still in school, as dating and relationships, once out in the real world, were much harder to come by. By Hermione’s seventh year, no other boys had come into her life after Viktor. She’d contained a certain amount of dread that she would grow old and never marry like Professor McGonagall, so she was relieved when she discovered Ron's romantic interest in her. The pressure to find a future husband had been lifted and it was one item on her list of life goals that she could check off as completed.

She wondered what she would be doing right now if she hadn’t married Ron. The choices seemed limitless, yet nonexistent at the same time. What could she do, get a Time-Turner and relive her life without Ron? And do what? She found the door to apprenticeship closed to her, discovering that even with the war won, unspoken prejudices against Muggle-borns still prevailed. Her career options would have been the same, a job as a library apprentice to Madam Pince or a job at the Ministry. And the infamous photo of her in the Daily Prophet didn't help either, but nor did it hurt her career.

It seemed a tradition that at least one student would do something interesting enough in an act of post N.E.W.T. stress relief that it made the paper most every year. Even Harry's father and godfather were among the long list of headline grabbing 'victims.' Interestingly enough, streaking was not only a popular fad for Muggles in the seventies, it was for wizards, as well. Professor McGonagall still had the news clipping to prove it, which made Hermione blush. It seemed that Harry had grown up to look exactly like his father, but she never saw as much of Harry as she did in the photo of James and Sirius running down the high road of Hogsmeade with only their shoes on. The same black censoring bars covering their bobbing bits. What she later found out was that her Head of House had neglected to mention she had her own alcohol induced post N.E.W.T.s stress buster, involving the transfiguration of armor throughout the castle into rather randy nude life-sized chess pieces. It gave new meaning to the term 'jump the queen.'

Hermione missed her old Transfiguration professor. If McGonagall were still alive, she would have given her an apprenticeship. She would have continued to be her mentor and provide Hermione with the strength that she now seemed to lack in life.

Her mind wandered back to the gigolo. The whole experience was refreshing, to say the least. She wanted someone to discuss and debate with. She wondered if he was of at least average intelligence, and could engage in a profound or enlightened conversation.

Unfortunately, Ginny, though bright, was not the sort of friend she could have the sort of intellectual discussion that the redheaded witch could have with Malfoy. For some reason, their talks could never be like that. To try would be to force the flow of their friendship.

In some twisted form of logic, Hermione tried her best to convince herself that she really hadn’t done anything wrong that evening. And if she were in need of a sympathetic ear, she would go to him again, but only if she was really desperate. When or if she ever did see him again, she would inquire to his ability to discuss things of an academic and theoretical nature. Perhaps if she found an outlet for her pent up intellectual frustration from her marriage, she would appreciate Ron more and resent him less.

Glancing in the bedroom, she saw that Ron was still asleep, and hoped he didn’t notice her gone from the bed last night. Her late-night ablutions had removed the need for a morning shower. She dressed herself quietly, hoping to not wake Ron. A peek at the clock told her she'd get into work by seven if she left soon.

She normally didn’t get to work so early, as she preferred to arrive when everyone else did during the morning hours, and stay late instead.

Diagon Alley had a different feel about it at that time of the morning. Owls began swooping about carrying today's Daily Prophet and delivering post while a few shopkeepers were sweeping the thresholds of their establishments preparing them for the morning flux of witches and wizards on their way to work to buy a quick breakfast with a cup of tea or coffee.

The smell reached her nose before she even came around the curve of the street. Fresh bread and rolls were ready for purchase and the heady, homey scent drew her into the bakery. The Twenty-Four Blackbird Bakery was known to have the best baked goods in Diagon Alley and Hermione was glad to not have to wait in a long line for her usual scone. She hoped they still hadn’t sold out of the ones with sultanas this early.

Stepping up to the empty counter, she spied the tray of scones fresh from the oven. After paying and heading over to the service counter to dab some strawberry jam on it before continuing her morning stroll to work, she caught the flash of two dark cloaked figures out of the corner of her eye. They walked in tandem, their long legs carrying them forward with purposeful strides.

With a dab of strawberry jam still stuck at the corner of her mouth, Hermione ran out the door to watch the two wizards walk away. She wasn't sure if she was imagining things or if it was the mentioning of Snape's name yesterday, but she swore she recognized that walk. The wizard on the right walked with a stalking grace, as if he did not want to be seen. Before she could get a good look, they had rounded the curve in the street and she could only remember the shape of his cloak and the sound of his boots.

Hermione's tongue swiped away the offending bit of jam away while she continued to stare at the empty expanse of narrow street in front of her.

"No. Couldn’t be," she muttered to her self.

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten
“Dead Men Walking”

 

Disclaimer: Rowling owns it all. You know it, I know it, her lawyers know it (I hope). Most of all, a big thanks to her turning a blind eye to what we do with…or should I say to her characters.

 

============

 

Hermione had been working for a few hours before Marge showed up at the stroke of nine to begin work. The old crone walked in and took one look at Hermione.

 

"Gell, you get yourself home. You look unfit for work today."

 

Hermione looked up at her co-worker with her mouth agape. If her antique co-worker were feeling chatty, she would greet her with a "Morning." This was the first full sentence she ever heard uttered from the old witch's lips in the almost four years they worked together.

 

Marge's wrinkled, droopy eyes narrowed, reminding Hermione of a vexed basset hound.

 

"I will not have you blowing us both up," she croaked. "In all the time we've worked together, you've never taken a single sick day. One look at you and I know you're in no condition to be testing anything. Go home; you deserve it. I'll vouch that you are unwell, for you look it. Very much so."

 

Hermione didn’t think she looked that horrible when she headed out the door earlier that morning. Sure, her eyes were puffy to the point that the eye crème did little to hide it. Her hair had refused to be tamed into a braid, as she’d fallen asleep on it wet, and the circles under her eyes had a distinct violet cast to them. But she didn’t think her appearance warranted a day off from work.

 

Before she could protest, Marge added, "What you have cannot be cured with Pepperup Potion, but with an extra day of rest. Go home, make it a four-day holiday and I'll see you Tuesday. Happy Victory Day."

 

Hermione was feeling quite bone weary, due to a few hours restless sleep last night. Nodding in reluctant agreement, she wished Marge the same celebratory salutations and went back to her office.

 

Stepping into her office, she saw a memo waiting for her. Snatching the flapping pale purple colored airplane from the air as it circled her small office, she shook it open. Hermione had a sinking feeling it was from Harry, and she was correct.

 

-------

 

Dear Hermione,

 

Meet me at the same pub, same time today.

 

Harry

 

-------

 

Hermione didn’t think she was able to feel more tired than she actually was, but reading Harry's letter drained the last of her energies.

 

Now she had to make up her mind. She was leaning towards lying to Harry, but the thought of deceiving him tore at her heart. One thing she did know for certain, if Draco went to Azkaban or died, her friendship with Ginny would be forever changed. Perhaps this one lie could be the turning point where she could help her two friends salvage their marriage. With resignation, she put her own robes back on and left.

 

As she walked through the lobby, she changed course. Instead of heading home to grab a few hours sleep before meeting with Harry, she went over to a fireplace.

 

Grabbing a handful of Floo Powder, she clearly announced, "Number Twelve Grimmauld Place."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Severus and Draco were in Lavender's office going over the end of fiscal year numbers.

 

"You made a nice tidy little sum this year, Mr. Snape," his employer commented.

 

He made a noncommittal noise as his eyes scanned the figures on the scroll. The men's line of toiletries he developed, Valiant Wizard, experienced thirty percent growth during the year, in no small part due to Draco's marketing campaign.

 

Draco had his own profit sharing arrangement with Lavender based on reaching target sales numbers. If he ever got out of Great Britain, it wasn't like he needed the money, but it gave him a purpose until they both could find a way out of the country or get full pardons. His day job did help pay for the custom tailored clothes he was used to.

 

If the launch of the Lovely Lavender and Valiant Wizard brands in the Americas went well in the fall, they would soon expand into the Asian market where those sorts of products sold very well.

 

"So." Lavender had that tone in her voice Severus knew too well. "How was your new client last night?"

 

Severus gave her a sardonic smile. "Well, I would suggest that if you have any marketing plans in the works, you get Draco to finish them up by noon today. It seems Mrs. Weasley knows about Mrs. Potter and Lover Boy," he said coolly with a head tilt towards Draco. "Mr. Potter asked her to go spy on his wife and caught them flagrante delicto. I did my best to convince her to not tell Potter anything, but knowing the woman's nature, I'd count on a visit from some Aurors today before finding a nice set of black dress robes for Draco's funeral."

 

It gave him pleasure to see Miss Brown blanche at his words. Her eyes were wide with shock and he could see the gears furiously grinding away in her mind.

 

He gave a deep chuckle amused at her reaction. "Its not that bad. Well, maybe it is. But I doubt Mrs. Weasley will tell Potter about them. As long as she can lie convincingly enough, Draco should be safe… for now."

 

Lavender and Draco exchanged looks in a way that Severus could not read at the moment, but they must have had some sort of agreement in place if something like this happened.

 

"We'll wait and see," was Lavender's final word. Draco refused to speak on the matter. "Back to business."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Hermione?"

 

Ginny was surprised by her friend's sudden appearance in her living room.

 

The older witch dusted herself off and removed the last of the soot with a swish of her wand. She hated traveling by Floo. It was so sooty.

 

"Hello, Ginny," she greeted her wearily.

 

Hermione walked over to the couch and collapsed on it, tired beyond her twenty-three years.

 

"What are you doing here? I thought you'd be at work," Ginny asked, perplexed by Hermione's visit.

 

"Marge sent me home, essentially saying I looked like I’d been to hell and back on a broom… in so many words."

 

She saw the look of guilt wash over Ginny's face.

 

"It's okay, Ginny. Well, no it’s not okay. Ron and I had a fight last night over money and housework. And coupled with yesterday afternoon, I just didn’t get any sleep last night."

 

Hermione sat there pondering the idea of telling Ginny about her visit to a gigolo, but crossed it out of her mind. By admitting to the act alone, it would give validity to Ginny's reasons for her infidelity. She decided to keep her own counsel on the matter.

 

"Harry wants me to see him today at one."

 

The words hung heavy in the air and Ginny sat quietly in reflection.

 

"Are you going to tell him?" she whispered.

 

Hermione supposed she would have to make up her mind eventually and yesterday she already knew what she would have to do.

 

"No."

 

Ginny began sobbing in relief with her head in her hands. "Thank you," she quietly wailed through her hands. Lifting her hands up, she began rambling, "I'll make this up to you, I swear. Anything, just ask."

 

Hermione snarled, "I don’t want anything out of this. I just don't want him to die. As much as I hate him, I'm not that… cruel."

 

As Ginny's tears subsided, Hermione thought back to a lingering question in her mind. "Do you or Malfoy know what happened to Snape?"

 

Had Hermione been looking at her friend, she would have seen that same facial tic from Wednesday.

 

"No, he just seemed to disappear into the woodwork."

 

No, the man she met last night couldn't be Snape. The gigolo had been charming, attentive, and patient. Snape was anything but those particular traits. Besides, Snape was taller and thinner, at least she remembered him that way. And that voice, it was like a salve on her nerves. It relaxed and calmed her. Snape's voice in the dungeon brought dread and fear, not delicious thoughts of that voice in her ear as he would slide his cock in and out of her with slow movements, creating a wonderful friction of…

 

'STOP IT!'

 

"How does it work. Do you owl Lavender? How do you pay her?" Mrs. Weasley just wanted to know out of curiosity, nothing else, she reminded herself.

 

The redheaded witch cast a sideways glance at her. "I owl to meet with her, usually at the Leaky Cauldron. She owls me back a time to meet. I pay her the money, and give her a brief description of what I want. She makes sure everything is arranged. Most of the time, I just say, 'have him surprise me,' which is what he surely did yesterday." She gave a brief laugh.

 

"What sort of things does she… he… whatever. What sort of 'arrangements?'"

 

Ginny sat back on the couch and smiled secretly. "One time, I had been complaining that Harry wouldn’t take a holiday and had mentioned several times I've wanted to go to Japan. One day when I showed up, he’d turned the whole flat into a Japanese tea garden."

 

Hermione's mouth fell open. It seemed so… romantic.

 

"There was a moss covered path with stepping stones, a running stream, stone lanterns, a couple of beautiful bonsai trees and a cherry tree in full bloom." Ginny got a far away look in her eye. "We sat there in the tea house where his bed usually sits and we wore kimonos. He studied how to do a tea ceremony, just for me. We sipped tea and talked while watching the cherry blossom petals fall and drift down the stream." She swallowed hard, as tears formed in her eyes. "It was wonderful. It's the most romantic thing he's ever done. Anyone’s ever done, for that matter. I never wanted the afternoon to end. I would have given my soul for a Time-Turner to relive that moment over again."

 

Mrs. Potter continued. "We make love, have cream tea, laugh, talk about all the places we'd love to travel to, sometimes we give each other a massage." A wicked smile played on her lips. "Sometimes I get to play the dark wizard and he plays Auror."

 

Despite her aversion to the memory of what they did yesterday, a mental picture of Malfoy chained spread-eagle and naked popped into her mind. She could envision every muscle and plane of his body. It disgusted her to think she could somehow lust after Malfoy's body. However, in the effort to expunge the image, she replaced Malfoy with that of her gigolo. Mask and scarf in place, while the rest of his body was nude. Her mind created a picture of what his body should look like from the way his clothes fit him, his body straining against his bonds.

 

She could see herself sauntering up to her captured prey. In her mind, her hand was reaching for the mask to reveal his face, grasping the edge of the mask when Hermione finally realized she was fantasizing. Her attention snapped back to the present and their conversation.

 

Remembering Ginny mentioning a massage, she thought about how perfect one sounded at the moment. She hadn't had one since Ginny gave her a day at the spa for her birthday last year. The tension in her neck and shoulders was on the verge of giving her another headache.

 

"Got any headache potion?" Hermione asked.

 

"Sure, let me get you some. Would you care for some tea, as well?"

 

Hermione nodded her head and both of them rose from their seat. Ginny headed upstairs and the worn out witch went to the kitchen to put the kettle on.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hermione took the tube to the Tower Hill stop. As she strolled across the Tower Bridge, feeling the warm summer air on her face, she could understand why Harry would want to meet at a pub away from where any witch or wizard on lunch break from the Ministry would go.

 

Ginny had given her some Pepperup Potion to combat the look of fatigue that plagued Hermione. She needed it to have the strength to lie to Harry.

 

Arriving before Harry, Hermione sat in the same booth to wait for him.

 

She really didn’t like the pickle Ginny had put her in. Reflecting upon the situation, she wondered if she would have done the same. Hermione tended to think she would have just left Ron, telling him that it was a youthful mistake, a grand leap of faith that as friends they could have a successful marriage. But what would that action have resulted in? Being socially shunned with a gigolo boyfriend. And Hermione did not have the family that Ginny had, with all the familial pressures and expectations heaped upon her. She supposed considering all the options, maybe she would have done the same, but hoped she wouldn't.

 

Still, the fact was she would have to lie to Harry, and convincingly at that. If she didn't, then Harry would suspect she was covering for Ginny and then where would she be? In trouble with Harry, which would only lead to trouble with Ron and the whole Weasley clan. No wonder Ginny did her best to keep things a secret. The thought of Molly Weasley leading the charge in criticizing Hermione's participation in Ginny's ruse made her head spin, as the headache relief potion was still working to keep it from throbbing.

 

Just as she was considering ducking out and claiming to have never received the memo to join him for lunch, Harry showed up.

 

"Hello," Harry quietly spoke.

 

"Hello, Harry."

 

He slid into the booth across from her, his hands fidgeting and tearing at a piece of loose skin at the corner of his thumb. Hermione noted the freshly bitten look of his nails.

 

"So?" he prompted her.

 

'You can do this,' she convinced herself, hoping she was right.

 

"She never showed up. I waited as long as I could, but I never saw her."

 

There. She did it and if she didn’t say much else on the matter, it would be fewer falsehoods she would have to remember. Somehow she felt as if she had just set a great stone wheel into motion with this action, as if her lie had pulled the lynchpin on a chain of events that she might later regret.

 

Harry's shoulders relaxed in a manner she could only interpret as relief.

 

"Maybe…" He paused to collect himself with a shuddering sigh. "Maybe it's just work. I mean, I'm always hunting down dark wizards and looking for suspicious activity. Maybe I'm just imaging things that aren't there."

 

Hermione took this as an opportunity to start playing marriage counselor. Perhaps if she helped their marriage, Ginny could love Harry as much as she did Malfoy. If things got better, perhaps she'd stop seeing Malfoy all together.

 

"Speaking of work," Hermione said, hoping to bring the conversation around to a different tangent, "Ginny had been wanting a holiday for quite a while. A holiday might be just what you two need. A chance to reconnect and have some quiet time together. No work, committees or family obligations. A chance to talk and catch up."

 

Harry smiled a bit. "Yeah, maybe. It's just that I get this feeling when we're... doing… you know." Hermione understood his implied suggestion about sex. "I get this feeling she's off somewhere else, like she's fantasizing about someone else."

 

"Well, it's common for people to fantasize during sex, Harry."

 

'Where had that come from… oh yes.' Hermione suddenly remembered reading some sex article in one of her mother's women's magazines at home. No doubt her mother left it out as part of her 'education,' as she and her mother never had a formal bird and bees conversation.

 

"Really?" He seemed to perk up at this news. "So, I'm not imagining… I could have sworn." Harry shook his head in embarrassment.

 

Hermione felt for her friend. From what she knew, it was now painfully obvious that Ginny was fantasizing about Malfoy while having sex with her husband. It wouldn’t have been such a bad notion, if it weren't for the fact that Ginny actually was sleeping with the Slytherin prat. Suddenly, Hermione’s own fantasies about her gigolo while having sex with Ron didn’t seem quite so bad. If men fantasize all the time during sex, why couldn’t she? In the back of her mind, she knew why she was reluctant to latch onto that one fantasy.

 

More questions that had been nagging at Hermione over the past few days surfaced. She wanted to cross-reference her information for validity.

 

"Harry," she said delicately, "you mentioned there were things Ginny asked… in bed. What sort of things?"

 

"Well, she asked me to spank her," he whispered hurriedly.

 

"So?"

 

"That's hitting a woman. I can’t hit a woman," he professed in scandalized tones.

 

Hermione wanted to roll her eyes at Harry's naiveté, but refrained.

 

Harry's face began to turn into a dark frown. "You know during the final battle. You know how I touched Voldemort while I cast the last spell before he died?"

 

She nodded.

 

"Well, while I touched him, our minds joined. I saw everything in his mind. All the things he'd done and ordered his Death Eaters to do. I saw wizards killed in a way that would leave you with nightmares, women raped while their throats are slit. Impaled on pikes, blinded and tortured. I know Ginny thinks I'm boring in bed, and maybe that's why she fantasizes, but the things she asks me to do only bring back the memories I can’t get out of my head. So sex toys and blindfolds and tying her down are just out the question. I just want to throw up because I can’t help but think of those things I saw. I just don't want to see Ginny like that, because I won’t be aroused, I'll be sick."

 

Hermione just put her head in her hands. Now it all made sense and she felt pity for them both. Harry could never provide Ginny with the sexual stimulation she craved and Ginny could never love Harry in the way he thought she did.

 

"Have you ever told Ginny why you won't don’t the things she asks?" Hermione pressed.

 

He shook his head. "No. After what she went through during her first year, I don’t want to have her drag up her own memories with Tom Riddle. And to have a husband with Voldemort's memories, I think it would be too much for her."

 

"Have you asked her?" The complete breakdown of communication between her two friends was now more than she could stand. "Have you ever actually spoken to Ginny and found out she needs to talk about what happened in the Chamber of Secrets? And you! You keep this all bottled up. You should be seeing a psychiatrist or something. Someone to talk to and help you resolve these things. This is not healthy, Harry. You just assume Ginny doesn’t want to hear, when actually, she does need to hear this from you. What she doesn’t need is you keeping secrets from her. You both have been twisted around at the hands of Voldemort. Maybe if you both just started talking about it, you’d feel better." She was ranting, but she didn’t care at this point. "You know how many times I've listened to Ginny tell me about what Tom Riddle did to her? Enough times to know she doesn’t think you want to hear about it. Well, Harry. Do you want to hear about it or just pretend it didn’t happen to her and go on like nothing happened and you're both just fine and dandy, WHEN YOU'RE NOT!"

 

Not knowing why, she felt disgusted with the whole situation. Ginny and Harry had obviously never talked about something that they both shared. Granted, it was a disturbing thing to bond over, but it was something they shared in common.

 

Tired and irritated beyond measure, Hermione stood.

 

"I suggest you and Ginny have a long talk. And if I were you, I'd schedule some time for a holiday if you want to save this marriage."

 

Storming out the door, she didn’t see the flummoxed look on Harry's face as she left him sitting there, contemplating her ranting advice.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

After slamming the door to her flat, Hermione realized that she never got around to eating lunch. The point was moot however, as she had no appetite. She did need a drink though.

 

Alcohol on an empty stomach was never a good idea, especially for someone with a low tolerance for it; however, Hermione was in no mood to dawdle on about it.

 

She polished off the last two cans of Ruddles in the cupboard, making note that she would have to stop by the Muggle market this weekend for more. Once they were gone, she then scrounged around and found a half full bottle of Voodoo Rum, while ignoring the city imps – the magical equivalent of cockroaches – that had infested the pile of dirty dishes Ron had still not cleaned.

 

The zombie on the bottle's label kept falling over the same gravestone as Hermione kept on drinking, one large swallow at a time.

 

Tired of watching the foul little creatures romp in a water filled pan that had begun, over the past few days, to grow a sickly layer of white scum on it, she went out to the living room, rum bottle still clutched in her hand.

 

Hermione needed someone to talk to. Ron, Harry and Ginny would not do for what she needed. Ron, well, Ron was Ron. Ginny had her own set of issues, and Harry was probably the most repressed, screwed up one of the bunch. Suddenly, the idea of seeing her gigolo again sounded very appealing, while in her drunken haze.

 

Stumbling back into the kitchen, she grabbed some parchment, her quill and some ink.

 

-------

 

Dear Lavender,

 

Had a lovely time Thursday night. How refreshing it is to have someone to talk to with an open mind, and without fear of judgment too. I would like to take you up on your offer of seeing the same gentleman again. He's the one with the incredibly sexy voice. Thursday evenings work well for me. Is he available then? Does your offer of ten Galleons a visit still stand?

 

Please owl me privately and let me know when we can meet and make arrangements for payment.

 

My most sincere gratitude,

 

Hermione Weasley

 

-------

 

In her state of intoxication, Hermione’s handwriting seemed passable.

 

Pigwidgeon complained with a rather loud, harassed squawk when Hermione accidentally tied the note around both of the small bird's feet, her numb fingers difficult to control. The bird took off with haste to escape its none-too-gentle mistress, her note dangling precariously from one leg.

 

Satisfied that she finally had the Gryffindor courage to do something really outrageous and for herself, she tipped her chair back.

 

Somehow, the floor had decided to fly up and hit her in the face.

 

Laying on the floor, stunned with the dull ache that slowly bloomed on her right temple and cheekbone, she finally realized she was no longer upright. While staring at the walls, amazed at the speed in which the room could speed around her, she started to feel nauseous. That phrase that she so often heard Harry and Ron chant their seventh year came back to haunt her.

 

'Liquor then beer, never fear. Beer then liquor, never sicker.'

 

Oh God. She couldn’t even get properly drunk. She had to mess that up and ruin a perfectly good afternoon of mindless stupor.

 

Lifting her head from the tile floor, she quickly turned so she was on her knees and began retching up the contents of her stomach. Thankful that her hair was still braided to keep it out of her face and the puddle of vomit in front of her, she remained in that position for a while. It took a few more contractions of her stomach to finally be rid of the poison.

 

Rising from the floor, her knees shaky and unsteady, Hermione leaned against the table.

 

The city imps, tired of playing in the dirty dishes, had begun leaping from the counter to frolic in the dark brown puddle of ale and rum mixed with stomach acid. They danced a mad ballet of delight, greedily drinking up the putrescent liquid with their tiny black hands while splashing their hairy, bare feet about.

 

Repulsed by the whole scene, Hermione whipped out her wand.

 

"Scourgify!"

 

The vomit and city imps that had made it to the floor were gone. The remaining imps on the counter scattered when Hermione turned to face them, no doubt to crawl back into the wall space where they lived.

 

A few swishes of her wand and the dishes were on their way to cleaning and stacking themselves away in the cupboard. Why Ron couldn't get around to doing a few spells himself, she couldn't understand.

 

Satisfied that the kitchen didn't look quite so disgusting, she headed off to the bathroom to finish riding out the remaining buzz of her binge in a hot bath.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Severus, Draco and Lavender had spent the better part of the day going over numbers and ideas for new product lines, and projected figures for the 2003/2004 fiscal year. It was one of the few times they all sat together and discussed business, as Severus spent most of his time in the research and development lab and Draco had his own work corresponding with graphic artists, sales teams and advertising directors at publications.

 

"What do you mean a variation on the Swelling Solution won't work?" she queried.

 

"Despite the leap in logic that one might think that sort of potion might work, let me remind you that I am a Potions Master. As such, I know which potions can not be used in such a capacity." Before she could ask why it wouldn’t work, Severus continued. "The reproductive organs are too delicate and can be irreparably damaged if used incorrectly, which considering how many students of mine actually went on to N.E.W.T. level potions, would be a large percentage of your consumers. We need a potion that can be used in small or liberal amounts without the threat of a lawsuit for burst breasts or," he paused looking very uncomfortable all of a sudden, crossing his legs, "other… exploded things."

 

Draco winced noticeably and shifted in his chair before reaching for his cup of tea.

 

"All right," Lavender conceded. "We'll take a different approach. That's why you're the Potions Master and I pay you. Still, we need to work on a natural lubrication solution, something to stimulate the production of cervical mucus. I was thinking that maybe a base of Evening Primrose oil and…"

 

The landing of a small owl on her desk distracted Lavender's attention.

 

Reaching out for the small bird, she smiled. "Well, I wasn't expecting you today. Got something for me?"

 

Pigwidgeon held out his little leg with the note still attached. After untying it, she read the letter.

 

Severus hated it when she smiled like that.

 

"Seems I was right, Mr. Snape." Lavender was positively glowing with delight.

 

"About what?" he gritted from between his teeth, knowing he was not going to be pleased with her answer.

 

"Mrs. Weasley would like a repeat performance. She wants to meet, quote, 'the one with the incredibly sexy voice,'… again." She emphasized the last word with a waggle of her eyebrows, knowing it would irk him to no end.

 

Severus glared at Draco, warning him not to laugh lest he be Severus' guinea pig for an alternative to the Swelling Solution.

 

"Seems I was right," she crowed. "You do have a way with women despite your public demeanor."

 

"You think you're always right," he muttered, glowering at the small owl for being the bearer of this news.

 

Unfortunately for Severus, Lavender almost always was right where people were concerned. It was times like this that she reminded him of some of the more annoying aspects of Dumbledore.

 

"With one exception, yes." The witch smirked.

 

"And what, pray tell, was that one time. Someone didn't agree to one of your little plans?"

 

"No, I'd thought you'd loosen up once you started getting shagged on a regular basis."

 

Severus wasn't sure what was more insulting. The fact that she’d made the impertinent assumption, or Draco snorting his tea through his nose in response to her comment.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven
"Happy Victory Day"

 

Disclaimer: Yeah, yeah. We know, but I still should say it. I don't own any of it; Rowling owns it all. No money is being made from my mediocre writings.

 

============

 

Hermione didn’t like what she saw when she looked in the mirror.

 

"You look about as chipper as a turkey on Thanksgiving Day, honey," the mirror quipped. The relevance of the American holiday celebrating the mass consumption of the large poultry was rather lost on Hermione. "What's wrong? Someone done run off wit' cho' man?"

 

Hermione had bought the charmed glass at a steep discount, as it had an American Southern accent with a cheeky attitude and brutally honest opinion. It was times like these that she thought plain Muggle mirrors were far superior to their magical counterparts. To her dismay however, she knew the mirror was right.

 

She forced a smile on her face that didn't quite reach her eyes.

 

Her reflection winked back at her. "That's right. You keep telling yourself you're all right. Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, honey,” the mirror drawled with a twang.

 

"Quiet," she hissed, glad that Ron was still in the shower. "Anymore talk like that and you'll be floating at the bottom of the Thames… face down."

 

Hermione wanted to rub her face in frustration, but she restrained her impatience. She didn’t want to smear her freshly applied make-up. Normally, she found the candor of the mirror appealing when compared to the sycophantic ones that hung in the places she and Ginny shopped, but those types of remarks around Ron today would certainly not be welcome.

 

The mirror quietly muttered under its glassy breath, "Just 'cuz I read your beads, missy… ungrateful limey…"

 

Looking at herself one last time, Hermione decided that her best robes were most certainly out of fashion. She had three sets of robes to wear: maroon, navy blue and black. She had her navy robes on and they were looking a bit worn. Hermione was never a slave to fashion, but she did appreciate well-made clothes with classic lines.

 

Kicking off her brown shoes, she decided the black ones went better with her outfit and slipped them on. She would have liked a pair to match each of her robes, but she just didn't quite have the money. Besides, with robes that old, she might as well wait until she bought new robes and the shoes to match.

 

Thinking of money, Hermione was wondering how she was going to afford ten Galleons for her next visit to the gigolo. The part of her mind that excelled in Arithmancy took charge of the little math problem.

 

'Hmm, if I break it into five, that's two Galleons a day. Where can I save two Galleons a day?'

 

There was only one answer: lunch.

 

It wasn't as though she ate much to begin with. Even Molly had been complaining she was too thin. Unfortunately, chicken was inexpensive, so she made a habit of buying it most of the time. Fortunately for Ron, the team always provided a good hot lunch for those hungry Quidditch players.

 

One of the few guilty pleasures she had was going out for lunch. She knew it would be cheaper if she brought her own, but going out to lunch with Harry, Ginny or a few other co-workers from the Ministry was her chance to socialize. Harry always insisted that he pay for her lunch, but Hermione refused on principle. Her two close friends were rich, but that did not make it right that they should pay.

 

Lately though, Harry wasn't available for lunch. During the past several months he’d been unable to join her. She had found a bunch of girls from the Department of International Magical Cooperation, in which the Department of S&R was a subset, with whom to eat. They weren't intellectual giants, nor did they engage in scintillating conversation on a wide variety of topics. She hung around the fringes of their discussion, occasionally commenting on Ministry policy and some of the historical precedents in which decisions set said policy, when the topic didn’t center on who was dating whom, or fashion.

 

Hermione performed a quick mental calculation of how much it would cost to make her own lunch – a sandwich, fruit, a beverage and a bag of crisps – versus what she would spend at an establishment. She realized that she could save a little more than two and a half galleons a day. Perhaps she could talk Ginny into joining her for a brown-bagged lunch instead of eating at one of the many luncheon joints located in Diagon Alley.

 

Maybe after she had grown bored of her gigolo, if his intellect was equally as paltry as that of her contemporaries, she could save enough money in a few months for some very nice day robes and shoes to match.

 

Pleased that she had found a new goal to strive for, her attitude improved. It was just in time as Ron had just stepped out of the shower.

 

"You look nice," he commented while running a towel through his hair.

 

Hermione wasn't sure if he was trying to make her feel better, or if he was sincere. Her light blue top and dark blue skirt did go well with her robes, even if the shades of blue made her look a bit pasty.

 

Glancing back at Ron as he finished drying off, she looked at his body with a critical eye. With the addition of his face and neck, his arms, legs and shoulders were positively covered in freckles of varying size and color. Even his back and chest held testament to the many summer he spent at the Burrow growing up, days spent shirtless while playing a quick game of Quidditch or de-Gnoming the garden. Some freckles were light coffee colored, some orange and some the color of dark chocolate. Many of them blended into one another. His chest was flat and completely hairless with the exception of a faint trail of red hair that trailed from his navel to his pubic region. He was strong, but his body did not show it. His body was the same as when he was sixteen and finished his last major growth spurt. Long gangly legs, caved-in chest, narrow shoulders and all. It was the perfect body for a Keeper, where a long arm reach was critical, but it still had a very boyish quality about it that didn't make her hormones churn and bubble with vigor.

 

Ron caught his wife staring at him and he turned his backside to her, shaking his arse in a playful manner.

 

"Want some of this now, don't we?" he teased.

 

Hermione laughed at his jocular antics, shielding her eyes as his naughty bits wiggled about. He could usually make her laugh, but he had never really turned her on.

 

"Come on now. We'll be late if you don't hurry," she reminded him.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Victory Day always filled Hermione with a bittersweet feeling. The day celebrated the ending of terror filled years, but it reminded her of the sacrifices wrought along the way. Her two dearest mentors, Dumbledore and McGonagall, were dead. So were Remus Lupin and Hagrid. To be amongst all the other members of the Order only served to remind her of their absence.

 

Neville and Luna were talking in a corner of the atrium of the Ministry when Hermione and Ron arrived. They walked over to their old schoolmates and exchanged greetings and hugs.

 

"Neville, you old dog. How's life been treating you?" The redhead greeted his old Gryffindor roommate with enthusiasm.

 

Hermione and Luna exchanged idle chitchat for a bit. The two men were still talking when Hermione excused herself to circulate within the crowd, searching for other Order members.

 

Arabella Figg, with a mewling kitten in her pocket, was talking excitedly with Podmore, who nodded with a glazed expression on his face as Mrs. Figg went on about her latest litter of cats.

 

Some of the Weasleys had already arrived. The twins were wrangling their twin sets of toddlers, Henkles & Ignacio, and Hortensia & Ingrid, while their wives held their infants, Jasmine and Jasper. It seemed that not only did the twins do everything together, their wives got pregnant at the same time, both with twins the first time and with single children the second time around.

 

Giving the twins and their wives a nod of recognition and a smile, Hermione went in search of people she hadn't seen in a while. As she passed near the loo, she spotted Tonks chatting with Dedalus Diggle.

 

"Hermione! Cor blimey! I haven't seen you in a wizard's age," the fuchsia haired Auror called to her.

 

"Tonks! So good to see you," she warmly returned the greeting. "Dedalus! How have you been?"

 

"Not bad. I was just telling Tonks here about some work I was doing for the Ministry in France," he said excitedly.

 

"Really? What sort of work?" Hermione asked. She figured if she was going to start inquiring about Snape, today would be a good day, as many of the other members of the Order might know something of his whereabouts. It would be easier to bring up the topic while discussing the lives of other Order members.

 

"Remember Hestia Jones?" Hermione nodded to his question. "Well, she left the Auror division after the war and went into diplomatic circles. She got a post in France, sort of like an ambassadorship, and she asked for me to come help with some security matters. I just got back from a month in Paris, as I was telling Tonks here." He was practically bouncing on the balls of his toes. The chartreuse tassel at the tip of his puce hat was doing a dance that distracted Hermione.

 

"Oh, that sounds like it's fun. Speaking of old members," Hermione said in quieter tones, "do either of you know what happened to Snape and Malfoy?"

 

Both of her compatriots' mouths fell open and Diggle stopped fidgeting.

 

Before Hermione could speak further, Tonks grabbed Hermione forcefully by her upper arms and led her into a secluded corner behind a parlor palm and cast a sound buffering charm. Tonks looked Hermione in the eye and the brunette witch never saw the youthful Auror look more serious.

 

"If you know what's good for you, I suggest you never ask such a question in this building again. You're too nice and honest to be crucified by others with an agenda."

 

Hermione's eyes went wide with apprehension over the gravity of Tonks was reaction. It told her that there was something very wrong and unsettling going on.

 

"I'll tell you what I do know." Tonks scanned the crowd to make sure no one was watching her with Hermione. If the ex-Head Girl decided to make a crusade out of the situation, she did not want her name associated with the younger witch. The Auror wanted to keep her job and name out of the papers. "The day the decree came out, Moody called us all into his office and had a talk with us. I can’t reveal anything that was said, because he made us sign a piece of paper, but what I can tell you is, talk to Harry. He would probably know more than I do, and he wasn't at that meeting. I doubt Moody made Harry sign anything when he became an Auror."

 

Without another word, Tonks walked away from Hermione, casually exiting the spot behind the palms. She was soon talking with Shacklebolt in a friendly manner while Hermione continued standing behind the foliage, drinking in Tonk's revelations.

 

Stepping out from behind the potted palm, Hermione continued her circuit of the room. When she was close to coming back to where Ron, Neville and Luna were still standing she heard a familiar voice.

 

"Well, well. I haven't seen you in a while," the man's craggy voice came from behind her.

 

Hermione spun around and found herself face-to-face with Alastor Moody.

 

"Alastor," Hermione replied, a little stunned to have come across him.

 

She fought to clear her mind of the growing dislike for a man she once admired. His magical eye was somewhat disquieting to Hermione. She always felt as if she was making an obvious point of not staring at his aberrant eye.

 

"Yes, it's been a while." She hoped she didn't seem too standoffish. The man was highly suspicious and any change in her behavior from their previous encounters would produce paranoid speculation.

 

Smiling as warmly as she could without being over enthusiastic, Hermione looked over her shoulder and spotted Ron. "Would you excuse me? I must speak with my husband."

 

She hoped her excuse to leave his company quickly was believable, for she really did want to get away from him. With her stubborn and righteous nature, it was too tempting to get into a moral debate with the man over Snape and Malfoy's treatment under the decree.

 

When Hermione got back to Ron's side, the rest of the Weasleys had congregated in the same area.

 

Ginny was holding Charlie and Angelina's youngest, Kayleigh. She was cooing to the babe in her arms, looking quite content to hold the child for a while.

 

"Don't let your mother see you like this. It'll only be fodder for her nagging," Hermione said out of the corner of her mouth.

 

Sighing, Ginny whispered, "It just makes me wonder sometimes." She gazed back down to the infant, grabbing one chubby fist and kissing it repeatedly as her niece giggled. Kayleigh had Angelina's curly locks and Charlie's blue eyes.

 

"You don’t mean with…"

 

Her eyes shot up and looked at Hermione, pleading with her not to say his name.

 

"We'll talk later, at the Burrow," she replied to Hermione, ending the discussion till later.

 

"Where's Harry?"

 

Ginny nudged her head in the direction of the dais erected behind the canvas-curtained fountain. "Up there with Fudge, McPeebles and Dennis."

 

Hermione stood on her toes to peer over the crowd and spotted Harry looking quite ill at ease on the stage. It was times like this she truly felt sorry for him, as she knew how much he hated the spotlight and how the wizarding world expected him to make his public appearances every year.

 

Fudge and McPeebles were strutting about the platform, puffing their chests out and bending down to shake the hands of admiring constituents. It was only a few minutes later that Fudge placed his wand to his throat and cast the Sonorus spell.

 

"Ahem. Welcome witches and wizards," Fudge began, his voice echoing through the grand foyer. "It is with great pleasure that I welcome you all to the dedication of the new fountain on the fourth anniversary of Victory Day."

 

A round of applause circulated through the room with a few hoots and hollers from the twins.

 

"If it were not for this very brave man here," Fudge said as he extended his arm towards Harry, "we would not be here today for this joyous occasion."

 

Harry looked like he wanted to crawl away and avoid the eyes of the whole room on him. McPeebles sidled up and nudged him none too gently, making Harry stumble forward a few steps. He regained his footing and meekly bowed his head a few times before going to stand at the back of the stage, shooting daggers at McPeebles with his eyes as the crowd gave a huge cheer for man who killed Voldemort.

 

"And on this momentous day, we will now unveil the new fountain commemorating Victory Day."

 

There was an excited murmur in the crowd as that gave them an idea for the theme of the fountain, which would be shortly revealed.

 

"First I must thank the Creevey brothers. Colin Creevey for the concept and Dennis Creevey for creating the new masterpiece that we will hope will grace our Ministry atrium for many generations to come."

 

Dennis came towards the front of the stage and bowed to polite applause.

 

"And now I reveal to you…" The crowd held it's breath as Fudge swished his wand and the canvas coverings disappeared. "THE FOUNTAIN OF WITCHES AND WIZARDS!"

 

The water began to spring forth from several spots in graceful arcs. The fountain featured the statues of several prominent wizards and witches on a steeply angled mound that led to a cliff, their wands in the air spouting water over one another. Merlin, the Four Founders of Hogwarts, Ignatia Wildsmith, Barberus Bragge, Mungo Bonham, and Gunhilda of Gorsemoor all stood looking towards two other wizards at the front of the group. There stood the figures of Albus Dumbledore and a nineteen-year-old Harry Potter at the apex near the cliff edge, Harry's wand the highest of the group.

 

There was a loud cheer from the crowd, but not from Hermione or any of the Weasley clan. Every one of Harry's in-laws knew this was the last thing he would ever want.

 

Hermione didn’t notice her mouth hanging open at first, as she stood in shock. She knew Harry would not only be upset over this, but apoplectic. He had stated many times in the past that he did not want statues of himself erected.

 

There was a rush of people towards the fountain to get a better look. Hermione could now see the stage better and caught sight of Harry storming off.

 

Glancing at Ginny, she saw the look of trepidation fill the young witch's face.

 

"Harry's going to be furious," Ginny whispered apprehensively.

 

"I'll go find him," Hermione offered and pushed her way through the throng of people jostling for a better view of the fountain.

 

She found Harry in a corner with Colin Creevey, fistfuls of the younger wizard's robes clutched in Auror's hands as he shook the younger man. Colin's head bobbed about, fear mounting in his eyes.

 

"How could you DO THIS TO ME?!?" Harry bellowed, slamming Colin's body up against a wall, his eyes rolling momentarily as his head made contact with the dark wood paneling. "You've made me into some… some fucking legend."

 

Collin stammered, "I, I, I thought you'd be pleased."

 

Harry had him pinned tightly against the wall with his forearm under Colin's chin. The trapped man's feet were barely touching the ground. His wide eyes were looking down at Harry like an animal brought to the slaughter.

 

"Dennis seemed to think it was a good idea."

 

"Yeah, cause you put the fucking thought into his head. I'm not a hero, you sodding, witless pillock! I don’t deserve to be up there. You talked him into this, you talk him into removing me from that fountain now, before I hex you so you shit barbwire for the rest of your short life!"

 

Harry tossed him in the direction of Dennis, who was busy talking to reporters. Colin stumbled away towards his brother, shooting nervous glances at his hero and Hermione while rubbing his sore throat.

 

Hermione approached her distraught friend cautiously.

 

"Harry?" she spoke gently.

 

He hadn't heard her, as the blood was still pounding in his ears and the adrenaline rushing through his system blotted out the sounds of the world around him.

 

"Harry?" she said again, gently placing her hand on his shoulder.

 

He startled at her touch. "Hermione." He looked about, realizing he had just lost his temper and wondered who had witnessed the altercation.

 

Everyone seemed to be busy looking at the fountain or congratulating Fudge or the younger Creevey brother for his craftsmanship to bother with Harry. For that one small concession, he seemed grateful.

 

"You were right, Hermione."

 

Taken aback by his non sequitur, she replied, "About what?"

 

"I'm not right in the head." At this admission, he slumped against Hermione and began to sob.

 

Looking about furtively, Hermione pulled Harry into a broom closet and closed the door, casting a silencing charm on the small enclosure.

 

She held her friend in her arms and let him cry for a while. When the wailing and tears abated, he pulled back and smiled weakly.

 

"Thanks," he muttered thickly.

 

"What are friends for?"

 

He glanced up at her briefly from his lowered head. "Ginny and I talked over the weekend," he confessed, his voice still shaking with emotion.

 

Hermione swallowed hard and hoped she didn't look nervous. She remained silent in hope that Harry would continue.

 

"We talked quite a bit, actually. She was pretty understanding when I told her about… Voldemort… in my head, his memories and all. She told me all about Tom Riddle. Things he said to her, did to her."

 

Her mind flooded with Ginny's confessions, remembering all the things mentioned in previous conversations.

 

"She said she understood why I can’t do the things she wants in bed and she seemed willing to accept it."

 

Hermione bit the inside of her cheek. She knew the real reason why Ginny would never ask Harry again for those particular sexual favors.

 

"I'm just afraid that if I tap into that part of me, I'll never turn it off ever again. I'll be tainted by the dark if I start accessing that part of me," he confessed hoarsely.

 

Hermione watched him as his eyes darted from side to side as he collected his thoughts.

 

"Do you know why Ron dropped out of Auror training, Hermione?"

 

She had never really confronted Ron on that issue, as he always seemed to duck answering her in any satisfactory manner.

 

"He doesn't have it in his nature to do what needs to be done at times. What you just saw, with Colin, that was just a taste of what I have to do at times. I have to use the anger, the rage and darkness inside of me to do what's right. That's the only way I stay sane, convincing myself that what I do is for good and that I haven’t been spoiled from the inside out by Voldemort's memories. Ron is too nice and good-natured to do what needs to be done as an Auror. That's why he dropped out. I talked him out of it so he wouldn't lose his soul… like me."

 

If she hadn't been holding onto Harry, she would have dropped to the floor out of shock. Her knees buckled and she leaned against Harry in light of his revelations. She had always sensed that he was a changed person after the war, but she hadn’t known how bad the damage was. A wave of guilt crashed over her with the news that Harry had talked her husband out of becoming an Auror. All the resentment she held over his career change now seemed too much for her to bear. He did it, on Harry's recommendation, to stay innocent in a way that Harry could no longer be.

 

They both stood silently for a while.

 

When Harry finally pulled away, Hermione cleared her throat. "Maybe," she began tentatively, "tomorrow you can swing by the Muggle Alliance Network and see if there is a psychiatrist you could see. They're bound to patient confidentiality, so there's no worry about anything you say getting into the papers."

 

The Muggle Alliance Network was a new department within the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes, as a sub-department of the Muggle-Worthy Excuse Committee. During the war, Dumbledore began arranging a list of all the parents and siblings of Muggle-borns, so that if the need arose, if the war turned badly, many witches and wizards could go underground in the Muggle world while the Order regrouped. Soon, the list expanded to include the jobs of those on the list. It had proved quite useful for witches and wizards who needed the odd service or good that could not be procured through the wizarding world. Hermione's parents had a twenty-percent increase in business once they joined the Muggle Alliance.

 

Harry sniffed, wiping his nose on the sleeve of his robe, strongly reminding Hermione of his boyhood days at Hogwarts. If it wasn't for the world-weary look in his eyes, she could have sworn he was still only seventeen years old.

 

"Yes, that sounds like a good idea. I guess I finally realized that I do need to talk about some things," he admitted.

 

'Yes, especially about your horrid Aunt and Uncle for one,' she thought bitterly.

 

Hermione was amazed at the resiliency of Harry's spirit, especially after meeting his family.

 

She glanced at the door then back to Harry. "You ready to go back out there?"

 

He nodded as he stared at a spot on the wall just over Hermione's shoulder.

 

After ending the silencing spell, Hermione cracked the door open to see if the coast was clear. She saw a sea of red hair in front of her. Evidently, the Weasley clan had seen her haul Harry off to the closet and was providing a protective barrier. If anyone did see Hermione guide Harry away, they couldn’t get to him through the wall of Weasleys.

 

"It's all right, Harry," she whispered.

 

They both exited the ambry unnoticed.

 

Ron spoke over his shoulder as he nonchalantly looked about the atrium, "Ready to go, mate?"

 

"Thanks, Ron," Harry replied. "Let's go back to the Burrow."

 

The Weasley clan, who had been milling about, dispersed and began walking towards the fireplaces to Floo back to the Burrow. Children, unaware of the scene their uncle created, ran about as their parents began to corral them.

 

Ginny walked up to Harry and slipped her arm into his as they strode away.

 

Hermione watched this simple endearing gesture. It was evident from the look on Ginny's face that she did love Harry, but in a way that only could be described as platonic. Hermione wondered if she looked the same way when she looked at Ron.

 

Glancing over her shoulder, she spied Colin frantically trying to convince Dennis to remove the statue of Harry from the bronze formation.

 

Colin's eyes briefly caught sight of Hermione, who was scowling at him. He averted his eyes quickly, not forgetting the slew of hexes Hermione cast upon him after that rather revealing picture of her was published in the Daily Prophet after her N.E.W.T.s.

 

The vindictive and vengeful part of her that she frequently denied existence too bubbled to the surface. If Harry ever needed help with some additional hexes to place on Colin, she knew of an especially painful one that resulted in pissing fire.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve
"The Loud Family"

 

Disclaimer: The characters and places depicted belong to Rowling, I'm just using them to satisfy some sick little story in my mind. No money is being made, unless you count reviews to feed my ego as payment.

 

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Hermione and Ginny had wandered off to their usual corner of the garden, away from Molly and Dobby.

Harry and Ginny had lent the house-elf to other members of the Weasley family, as there was very little for him to do in the regard of cleaning and cooking for the younger couple. Over the past few months, Dobby had been spending most of his time at Fred and Grace's or George and Florence's home, helping them with housework and cooking while the witches took care of their new infants.

Dobby was helping Molly in the kitchen today, and between the house-elf's insistence that he do everything and Molly's territorial instincts when it came to her kitchen, it was best if the two young witches were not present. Molly was more than pleased to have a house-elf help her, but that didn't stop her from wanting to figuratively kick Dobby out of her domain periodically. It was when Molly shouted, "Out! Out! Out of my kitchen," that Hermione and Ginny knew that if Dobby weren’t there to help, they would get drafted.

Hermione glanced over her shoulder and saw the men buzzing around on their brooms while their wives sat under the shade of the spreading oak tree, heavy with children in their arms or wombs. The toddlers were running about under their fathers, shouting directions at them to fly this way and that in order to score.

Ginny was watching her husband fly about, her brow slightly furrowed, as Hermione sat with her in a companionable silence.

"So what happened in the closet?" Ginny asked.

The older witch heaved a sigh. "He mentioned you both talked."

There was a long pause before Ginny spoke again. "I always wondered if that was the reason for his lack of sexual creativity. He confirmed my suspicions."

Glancing at Ginny out of the corner of her eye, Hermione realized that no matter how hard she scrutinized, she could not see beyond the face that Ginny presented to the world.

Ginny gave her own troubled sigh. "I should have ignored my mother's – and brothers' – insistence that I remain a virgin till I married Harry. There is certainly something to the 'try before you buy' philosophy."

Hermione gave a light chuckle to the analogy. Funny thing was, she did try and didn't know if it could be any different than adequate. There seemed to be no way to win.

"Harry mentioned you talked, as well. How did he react?"

Ginny turned her red head to the side and shrugged slightly. "He was pretty understanding." She glanced over her shoulder at her husband once more. "But I got the sense that he was uncomfortable with it. That somehow he was at fault for letting it happen in the first place. I told him it was Lucius Malfoy and Tom Riddle's fault, but you know how Harry is. He still has trouble dealing with the idea that he can't fix everything and save everyone, that some things just slip through the cracks and we have to live with it and move on with life."

Reflecting on her friend's words, Hermione wondered if she was the same. She knew she was. But there was something about the wrongs of the world she wanted to set right, as if they were equations and her sole purpose was so solve them and find the correct answers. The thought of Snape and Malfoy came back to the forefront of her mind.

"I told Harry to go to the Muggle Alliance and see if there is a psychiatrist he could see. He really needs help, especially after that outburst with Colin."

Ginny stared at her feet. "I know." She glanced about to make sure they were alone without anyone eavesdropping. "You see why I think he would kill him? Or lie?"

Suddenly feeling tired, Hermione dropped her head. Her face was hidden behind a curtain of hair, as she reluctantly answered, "Yes."

She closed her eyes and mourned for the boy she once knew. Adulthood and the war had brought about changes that no longer made people appear in black or white, but varying shades of gray. Life was simpler when she was younger.

"At least he's willing to get help. Maybe you could see one too. It couldn't hurt," Hermione added for good measure.

Her friend shook her head. "I doubt even a professional, even a Muggle who knows about our world, could understand what it was like to be manipulated by the likes of Tom. You understand, but he understands better. He took the Dark Mark, he’d been used, too."

"Maybe for marriage counseling then?"

Hermione hoped she could get Ginny to reconsider and try to patch up her marriage instead of casting it aside.

Ginny looked about once more. "You know why I love him, really love him?"

She shook her head.

"He loves me for who I am. Not for the big family that comes part and parcel with marriage and not because his brother-in-law is also his best friend. And not because it's convenient to be with me, because you and Ron are around. I am his friend, not because of you and Ron, but despite it. He was willing to look past the fact I'm related to Ron and I hang around you and Harry to see me for Ginny, not some hanger-on like he always used to tease me in school."

"So he was willing to turn a blind eye to people you associate with that disgust him," Hermione sneered. "How very fucking noble of him."

"At least he can look past it. You still see him as a copy of his father and reigning prat of Slytherin."

Hermione turned her face away. When phrased like that, she sounded just as bigoted and close-minded as the people she hoped would be enlightened after the war to the fact that Muggle-borns could be just as powerful as pure-bloods.

"So what, am I supposed to embrace and welcome him with open arms?" Hermione asked sardonically.

"No, but you can at least be open to the idea that he's changed. Be civil. You're not exactly about to cross social paths with him, but be aware that he can be kind when treated with respect."

"Respect?" the brunette hissed between gritted teeth. "After…" She dropped her voice to a whisper, looking about. "After he called me a Mudblood countless times? You've got to be joking!"

"He's already admitted that he was wrong to believe all that pure-blood bullshit. He's grown up and moved on. Why don’t you?" Ginny said, glaring at her friend.

A shout behind them drew their attention away from the conversation. Harry was circling the grassy area holding the Snitch in his right hand. The children were shouting with joy, asking their uncle to show it to them, each of them wanting a chance to hold it.

The tension between the two witches abated slightly with the distraction.

"You want to know another reason why I love him?"

Hermione didn’t really want to know, but knew her friend would tell her regardless.

"When Harry wants to apologize, or a birthday or Christmas comes up, he owls you and has you take him shopping. He buys me lingerie or jewelry–"

"We should all be cursed with a rich husband who wants to buy us nice things," Hermione interrupted with a snort.

"What I was going to say – before I was interrupted," Ginny ground out, "was that Harry doesn’t bother to know me. He never asks what I want. He goes to you to find out what I want."

"Don't you want to be surprised?"

Ginny shook her head, frustrated with how to phrase what she was trying to say. "When we were dating, he would ask Ron where he should take me to dinner. He never asked me. It's like he's taken all he knows about me from talking to you and Ron and he doesn't try to get to know me better. I thought once we were married, he would open up and talk more, but he's just as secretive now with certain aspects of his life. He won't share. Getting him to open up and talk is like pulling blood from a stone. And he doesn't seem to be interested in knowing the real me. I feel like some damn trophy wife and I'm sick of it."

"Harry is a very private person."

"I'm his wife," the younger witch growled. "If he can't talk to me, then who can he talk to? But I guess I know the answer already. You and Ron. At least he knows me. Far better than Harry."

Hermione thought of a snide retort, making reference to what she saw through the keyhole about how much better Malfoy knew her, but held her tongue. In some ways, she did know Harry better than his own wife knew him.

"He listens, he asks me questions, he pays attention," Ginny remarked. "He knows I would prefer a nice bunch of peonies or tulips to some lingerie. He knows that I like milk in my tea and my opinion on a number of things. He can finish my sentences as easily as I can finish his jokes."

"I still think you should both go in for marriage counseling."

Hermione heard the rustle of the tall grass behind them. Turning around, she saw Fleur slowly waddling her way over to where they were sitting against the stone wall. Bill's wife was too far away to have caught any other their conversation, but Hermione hoped their terse tones did not carry as far as the oak where the other wives had been sitting.

Ginny and Hermione both plastered believable smiles on their faces as their sister-in-law, heavy with child, approached with her hands laced under her belly to ease the strain on her back.

"Hello, Fleur" Ginny greeted. "What brings you over to this part of the garden?"

"Can't I jus' stop by to zay 'ello? What is zee matter? Molly nagging you both about children again?"

"No," Ginny sighed. "Not yet. The day is still young."

The brunette witch didn't know whether to laugh or groan.

Fleur looked about conspiratorially. "You know, you should both do what Bill and I did."

Now the part-Veela had caught their attention, both regarding her with interest.

"When Bill and I got back from our 'oneymoon, Molly was already azking if I was pregnant."

At this news, both younger witches rolled their eyes in empathetic disgust.

"Zo, after a few infuriating months of her een'cesant pester'ing, I told her zat I 'ad gone off contracept'eeve potions and we were going to let nature take ‘er course."

Hermione and Ginny's eyes both lit up with the same realization. Bill and Fleur didn't announce the arrival of the first Weasley grandchild until shortly after their first anniversary.

"So when did you start trying?"

"On our ann'eeversar'ee."

"On the first try?" asked Ginny.

Fleur nodded. "And to make sure Molly stayed off my back that first year, I told ‘er zat nagging would only induce stress, which could interfere with fertility."

The two friends started laughing at this revelation. It was so simple it was brilliant.

"Why do you think it took a couple years for Charlie and Angelina to 'get down to business and start making babies?'" Fleur added with a wink, giving her best impersonation of her mother-in-law. Her French accent threw off the effect, but she hit the correct shrill pitch to get the point across.

It seemed Hermione and Ginny had been left out of the information loop when it came to dealing with Molly where the other Weasley women were concerned.

Placing her hands upon her back and giving a good stretch, Fleur concluded by saying, "I suggest that only one of you make that lee'ttle announcement at the time, and the other wait a few months. We don't want to have her suspee'cious now, no?"

They looked at each other and nodded.

"One, two, three," they jointly said.

Hermione won. Paper covers rock.

"Damn," Ginny exclaimed. "I knew I should have used scissors."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Draco was in the kitchen fetching another bottle of some fermented and distilled beverage while Severus was setting up the chessboard again.

"So who do you still have left on your schedule?" the dark haired wizard asked.

"Pardon?" Draco popped his head back into the parlor.

"I said, who do you have left for clients?"

Draco went back into the kitchen, looking for Severus' forty-year-old scotch. "Just three. Ginny and two others." The clinking of bottles being moved about punctuated his response. "Lavender was understanding enough to let me get rid of the one who wanted sex months ago and keep the ones who just wanted to talk instead."

He emerged from the kitchen holding the elusive scotch and two fresh glasses. He plopped himself back into the chair, as some of his grace had left him around the fifth round of Firewhisky.

"I hate lying to Ginny, but if certain powers that be go poking around, which it seems just might happen, then at least if Ginny gets interrogated, Lavender won't be in a bind. Another lovely clause to cover her own arse in case Moody takes an interest in our evening jobs. I think that was to cover your arse as well."

Severus grunted in acknowledgment as the last of the pieces had settled back onto their respective squares, ready for his black pieces to trounce Draco's white ones once more. He was brought back to the present by the sound of another round of libation being poured.

"Speaking of clients, when are you due to meet with Mrs. Weasley again?" Draco asked, knowing the question would nettle his mentor.

Victory Day was the one day a year Severus and Draco got together, talked about their clients, their wish for freedom, the most imaginative poisons and curses to hurl at Moody and Fudge, while drinking themselves blind. There was their weekly dinner in which they talked of other things, usually business, but the holiday was a bittersweet day for them. It reminded both men of the promise of a hopeful future taken away from them. Most of all, it represented the exchange of enslavement and servitude for imprisonment and ostracism.

Drinking his measure of scotch quickly, Severus grimaced and gingerly placed the glass down, still sober enough to feel the alcohol burn its way to his stomach.

"Thursday."

"So what does she do?"

One of the unspoken rules between Ginny and Draco was that they never discussed the Golden Trio. It was a verboten subject. However, he didn't mind discussing Mrs. Weasley with Severus, as his old Head of House had held the trio with as much contempt as him.

"I don't know," Severus replied in a low, gravelly voice. "I spent most of the time trying to save your hide and listen to her bemoan about her lousy husband, Mr. Weasley. I do know she is rather disillusioned with her marriage. It seems that she finally realized just what a dull boy she married. What is most interesting is the fact she had no idea about the binding property of bearing children." He directed his king's bishop pawn to advance.

"What?" Draco laughed. "You mean the know-it-all doesn't know everything?" He directed his queen's knight to charge, ignoring the weary looks his pieces were giving him, questioning his moves.

"Yes, rather amusing in a perverse sort of way. I suppose everyone had figured that since she researched everything before doing anything, she would be aware of the magic of children born in wedlock. Though knowing Molly, she probably withheld that information, hoping to trap the woman into an everlasting hell with her vapid son." Severus’ queen's rook advanced.

If Draco didn't know better, he would have guessed his friend felt sorry for the witch. But that would mean he actually cared about the bossy brunette. That would mean Fudge had lifted the Death Eater Decree, it was snowing in Hades, and pigs would replace owls for the postal system.

"So how much did she pay?" he blithely asked, while instructing his king's pawn to move forward.

Severus didn’t answer, choosing instead to study the board before making his next move.

"Well?" Draco prodded him, as a smirk played on his lips.

"(Mumble, mumble) Galleons," Severus muttered distractedly.

"I'm sorry. Didn't quite catch that," Draco said, leaning forward with his hand to his ear.

"Seven Galleons."

The loud thump was the sound of Draco hitting the floor as he slid out of his chair, laughing too hard to make any sound. It was becoming a rather annoying habit of the younger wizard to laugh at his old professor. When the cackling began to ring out, Severus gave him a swift boot to the thigh, letting his displeasure over the mockery be known.

Wiping away the tears, Draco climbed back into his chair, ignoring the deathly glares from his opponent, and the dull ache in his leg where the well polished footwear made contact.

"That's too rich," he gasped between breaths, then started laughing again at his own pun, "or should I say, not very." Stretching his legs out, the cocky wizard didn't notice Severus' queen advance. "Wait till I tell Ginny," he crooned with glee. The only thing missing from his mannerisms were the fly-like villainous rubbing of the hands.

His mentor fixed him with a steely glare. "You'll do no such thing," he sternly commanded.

"And why not?" the blond countered.

"Because if Ginny confronts Hermione about her visit to my abode, without Hermione being the one to confess her actions, then she may feel a need to spite you and end your miserable existence by telling Potter everything. Knowing the temper your lady friend has, it would be best if she were kept in the dark about this. We wouldn't want her to slip in a fit of rage, morally cornering Hermione. And that would lead her to correctly believe I was the one who had told you, thus through association, you and Ginny."

Draco sulked, as if he had been told Christmas was rescheduled to a much later date.

"Besides," Severus continued, "if my intuition serves me, then Hermione may be of use to us and our escape."

The Potions Master did not elaborate on his hunch. His suspicions based on the purple taint on Hermione's fingers led him to believe she was involved with potions or their ingredients in one way or another. If that were the case, her confidence in him should not be marred by the emotional outbursts of a certain redheaded witch. Granted Ginny was very good at lying and being deceptive, courtesy of her tutelage under Tom Riddle, but her temper was not just part of her nature, rather, it was nurtured by her family. If Hermione was the opportunity he and Draco had been seeking, he would have to gain her trust. Only if the plan came to fruition would Ginny be made aware of Hermione's visits.

Draco nudged another pawn forward, seemingly with no interest in the game now.

"You really must work on your subtlety, Draco. It's one of the few things your father was remiss in teaching you. Check and mate," Severus finished, with a coolly superior air about him.

Draco's pieces had had enough, and promptly walked off the board, boycotting any further games until the burning indignation they felt from their repeated losses faded.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hermione sat between Harry and Ron at the table, though she knew in a short while, she and Harry would trade places so her husband and their friend could continue their discussion about the latest Puddlemere United game without talking around her. She and Ginny had been talking to each other around Harry's back, while the two men talked over her plate of food.

Charlie had his daughter Kayleigh in his lap, trying to feed her some mashed potatoes. She was reluctant to open her mouth as he kept saying, "Here comes the Quaffle, through the hoop." He was encouraging his little 'Sweet Pea' to eat, while he swooped the laden spoon about her face like a Chaser approaching the goal hoops. Angelina was busy making sure their other two children were sitting in their seats, instead of joining their cousins under the table.

The twins' youngest children, Jasper and Jasmine, were both asleep in one of the upstairs bedrooms in their playpen, while their older siblings were crawling on all fours under the table playing a game of 'troll under the bridge,' with everyone's shoes. Florence and Grace were trying to coax them out and sit in their seats like proper children, as their husbands made no move to help. Fred and George seemed to delight whenever havoc was wrought at these family gathering.

Bill and Fleur were monopolizing one end of the table with their bickering brood. Fleur had born four children within five years, with her fifth on the way. Hermione secretly wondered how women like her sister-in-law and mother-in-law could have so many children without their uterus falling out. She supposed that women like Fleur and Molly were part rabbit. The mental image of Fleur with long, droopy ears, and Molly with a fluffy, wriggling rabbit tail almost made her choke on her butterbeer.

Percy and Penelope were sitting in the middle of the table with their two children, who behaved so well, Hermione had pondered the idea that Percy had spiked their milks with laudanum. Penelope, despite her ripening midsection, kept her children looking immaculately clean and well pressed.

Molly, and especially Arthur, was sitting at the other end of the table, basking in the joys of an overly full house of children and grandchildren. Arthur had always fancied himself to be some grand patriarch, and found no greater pleasure than letting his grandchildren run roughshod over him in their version of exuberant horseplay.

It was times like this that Hermione was overwhelmed. Growing up as an only child, she had spent many a holiday with just her parents. On a rare occasion, they were joined by the odd Aunt and Uncle and her cousins she saw but every few years. It was times like these that she mentally referred to her in-laws as "The Loud Family." She knew at the end of the day her ears would be ringing from the constant level of noise that assaulted her during her visit to the Burrow. Ron seemed to thrive in this particular environment, but Hermione found it sometimes made her wither under the constant stream of stimuli that barraged all her senses.

Hermione was still talking with Ginny about a mutual acquaintance that worked in the Department of International Magical Cooperation when the brunette witch heard Molly mention in slightly louder than loud tones for the whole table to hear, "I wonder when Ginny and Hermione will have children of their own."

The noise level was immediately cut in half as many were wondering if another row would occur.

With a quick glance to Fleur first, Hermione cleared her throat and casually replied, "Actually, I'm going off potions this month and we'll see what happens."

Fleur's sly wink to Hermione went unnoticed by the rest of the table as the Weasley men began clapping Ron on the back in a manly display of testosterone and solidarity that he might soon join the club of fatherhood. Somehow, the idea of Hermione being the one who would have to bear the brunt of morning sickness, leg cramps, round ligament pain, stretch marks, shortness of breath, emotional outbursts, sleepless nights, heartburn, sore hips and back, Braxton-Hick contractions, swollen feet, and severe impairment to her short term memory for nine months seemed to have escaped the men's attentions. All the other Weasley wives gave Hermione a wistful look, as if to say, "Enjoy your time before the children while you can."

After everyone sat back down, Ron turned to his wife and whispered in her ear, "Really? We can start a family?"

He sounded so hopeful, that Hermione immediately regretted saying anything. She realized she should have warned Ron of her ruse to get his mother off her back.

In an effort to temper his rising hopes, Hermione whispered back in a quiet serious tone, "We'll talk about this at home."

Ron seemed to have caught part of Hermione's meaning, as the brightness of his smile faded a bit. She could see that he was now forcing his smile a little, as his eye no longer crinkled around the edges.

Feeling guilty for her lack of forethought and Ron's reaction to her pronouncement, she reached under the table and gave his hand a light squeeze. He squeezed back and his eyes didn’t look quite so disappointed.

Looking to her right, Hermione saw Harry and her stomach dropped. The hero of the day was trying to hide a scowl behind a glass of wine, sipping and continuing to hold it in front of his mouth, as if he were contemplating something. She recognized that troubled look and quickly glanced at Ginny, who returned a slightly worried look.

Harry drained his glass in one large swallow and reached for the bottle of Merlot, filling his glass not to the proper and genteel halfway point, but near the lip of the glass.

Hermione wondered if maybe she should have just let Ginny make the announcement instead. It was when she looked at Harry that she saw the jealousy bubbling underneath the surface.

She could almost hear him sulk in her mind, "Everyone else is starting a family, why not me?"

Contemplating if it would help to say anything, she decided Ginny might want to talk to Harry alone and inform him of their plan to get Molly to stop nagging. Maybe then he wouldn't feel so left out.

Just as Harry finished draining his second glass of wine in record time, Ron stood. "Well, I've got to get going to the pub. This is a big day for tips." He made his way around the table, giving everyone hugs and kisses, before heading off.

Hermione walked him to the fireplace in the kitchen.

"So," he paused, contemplating his next words within the relative privacy of the kitchen, "you're not really ready yet, are you?"

Hermione hung her head and shook it. "I'm sorry. Ginny and I should have told you and Harry first. Fleur told us this is what Bill and her did to get your mother to back off until they were ready." She raised her eyes seeking forgiveness.

He pulled her into a great bear hug and kissed the top of her head. "You're right, we're still young. There's plenty of time. Maybe we'll have a house by the time we start trying."

Hermione's heart leapt. It wasn't so much excitement as apprehension; the image of herself standing out in front of a house with a big, fat mortgage payment, a couple of redheaded urchins running around the yard playing with Ron, her body stretched to the limit due to being heavy with child filled her mind. This vision, for some reason she couldn’t comprehend at the moment, frightened her. Somehow, instead of finding it a pleasant thought, an ideal to strive for, she wanted to run away. From what, she did not know. All she was certain of was that she was not ready to have children with Ron.

When Ron stepped away from her side, Hermione felt no urge to reach out and give him one last parting kiss. And after he would Floo away to The Listing Broom, she would not yearn for his physical presence.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen
"The Fun In Dysfunctional"

 

Disclaimer: Rowling owns it and them, I don't. 'Nuff said.

 

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The silence in Hermione and Ron's flat was golden. It was such a drastic change from the Burrow; the absence of noise was almost ringing in her ears.

 

Hermione was quite glad to be back home.

 

Over the years, the twins had abandoned their adolescent methods of physical anarchy, preferring instead the subtler pleasures of emotional and mental chaos. This was often accomplished by bringing up things their other brothers had done over the years that upset Molly. Fortunately for Ron, he had to go to work before they could bring up the flying Ford Anglia event in his and Harry's second year. That always got Molly to beat her dead horse, recalling the whole event with fervent clarity, as if she was living it again.

 

Someone usually got in the grand matron's hot seat, when the twins decided the party was getting boring. Though the mentioned incident had happened many years ago, that person – be it Bill, Charlie, Ron, or Ginny – was roundly lectured once more for their lack of forethought, insensitivity or brashness. Molly would sometimes go into her usual histrionics about she could never imagine a child of her would do something so foolish before sighing, then saying how it was now ancient history, as if her final word had laid the issue to rest. Hermione was amazed at how that woman could go from hot to cool and calm in the blink of an eye.

 

Percy, as usual, sat in the holier-than-thou arrogance that he never did anything with such a careless and irresponsible behavior. Sometimes the twins would bring up the rift that occurred in the year just before the Battle at the Department of Mysteries. It was when Percy would say how he got a big promotion after working for only a year at the Ministry, that he would pointedly ask Hermione why she hadn't been promoted yet, that she felt that Percy deserved to have the twins unleashed on him. Molly's rant at him would usually put him in his proper place.

 

Purging the less pleasant aspects of the evening out of her mind, she remembered the photographs she browsed through after dinner. She had gone to the study to peruse some of the family photo albums. Two particular things she wanted to do were compare photos of Ginny at her own wedding to Ron, to that of Ginny at the redhead's wedding to Harry. The other was to look at photos of the Order.

 

Looking at the snapshot of the whole Weasley clan on one side and her own, much smaller family on the other, Hermione was brought back to her own wedding day. She remembered battling what her mother called, “a case of cold feet”. Hermione was told that it was normal to experience feelings of uncertainty when one was about to make a major change in one's life. The odd thing was, she had made many major decisions before, and yet she had never felt so uncertain as when she was about to marry Ron. During the honeymoon and ensuing weeks, her nerves subsided as she and Ron settled into the routine of married life. The pressures of work and the real word quickly ended the honeymoon phase, or so she thought. Reflecting upon it further, Hermione pondered if it was never a honeymoon period, but just a denied case of nerves that she was making a mistake. All the jittery excitement was perhaps her way of panicking, while she tried convincing herself this was what she wanted.

 

The image of Ginny dressed in her best robes, standing beside her as her bridesmaid, haunted Hermione. In the photo, Ginny looked more excited that Hermione did, as if the world was about to open its doors to her and give her free access to its delights. She remembered Ginny mentioning the previous week that she and Draco were going to tell her family about their relationship the day after the wedding. The Ginny captured in the moment on that August afternoon showed her practically bouncing on the balls of her feet with exuberance, as if she could not contain some great and wonderful secret.

 

Mentally flipping to another image from a photo she had imprinted in her mind, she recalled the look on Ginny's face from her wedding day to Harry the following spring. There was a resigned quality to Ginny's smile, like the reluctant acceptance of an unwanted outcome. Knowing what she knew now, Hermione could read all the emotions on the redhead's face; the bride's smile in the photograph was devoid of any exuberance and elation. Ginny looked less than thrilled at her own wedding. Hermione's image seemed to be overjoyed at the occasion, as her own image waved wildly. Harry looked overjoyed, as if there was some desperate wish that came true with his marriage to Ginny. He rarely smiled like that anymore.

 

During her search for photos of the Order, she became frustrated. It seemed that Malfoy and Snape had never had a single picture of them taken by anyone in the Order, or at least none in Arthur's possession. Hermione guessed that if Death Eaters ever raided the Burrow, such a photo would have been life threatening to them both, raising suspicion of their loyalty to Voldemort. There was one much older picture Arthur had of Snape, but the frame was empty and had been for years. Even the image of Snape did not want to hang around longer than it deemed necessary. She remembered he was the exact same way at Number Twelve Grimmauld Place, just before her fifth year.

 

Hermione did her best to recall what Snape looked like. She had spent seven years in his classroom and seeing him at the Hogwarts Head table, but for some reason, she could only remember a caricature of her old Potions professor. The only traits she could recall were greasy hair, big nose, pale waxy skin and a mean disposition. She could not remember what his eyes looked like; yes, she could remember they looked black, but she couldn't remember their shape. He had fixed her with many stares, as if he was trying to penetrate her mind without Legilimency, somehow knowing she and friends were up to mischief, but still her mind could not remember what they looked like.

 

Even for the year of working for the Order after graduating Hogwarts, her memories of him were faded, much like the memories of her grandmother that had passed away some years ago. There were fleeting recollections, but the only strong memory of Snape was the color black. His hair, his eyes, his robes and disposition all had the same quality, all light absorbing and nothing reflective. She vaguely wondered if his soul and heart were the same color, as well.

 

The perplexed witch was lost in thought when she heard the telltale pop of someone Apparating into her living room.

 

Before she could turn around to see who it was, the brunette witch could hear Ginny give a great huff as she began frantically pacing around the tiny parlor. Hermione furrowed her brow while regarding her friend.

 

"Wha–"

 

"That bloody wanker!" Ginny fumed. "He can go shove that broom of his up his arse and fly to the North Pole and back that way!"

 

Rising from her seat, Hermione asked in slightly exasperated tones, "All right, what's Harry done this time?"

 

It was a rarity that Ginny came over in a snit like this. Usually she saved her occasional ranting for their weekly luncheons, but it seemed that Mount Saint Genevra was due to blow tonight. It surprised Hermione actually. With a row this big – Hermione guessed it was really big for redhead to come over in this state – Harry would owl her the next day, requesting her input to buy Ginny a present as part of reparations for his transgressions. Now that she thought about it, perhaps spending money was Harry's way asking forgiveness instead of opening himself up to his wife instead. She wouldn't be surprised that a shrink – should Harry go and seen one – would come to the conclusion that Dudley getting a plethora of presents, and Harry receiving neither love nor material goods, resulted in a complex of Harry expressing love through his pocketbook. Having been emotionally repressed for years as a child, growing up in a household where he could never share a single thought without reprimand, it was easier for him to spend than open himself up to his wife.

 

But before Ginny could answer, the fireplace roared to life. Out of the green flames step Ginny's husband.

 

"You didn't answer me!" he roared.

 

Folding her arms in front of her chest defiantly, Ginny glared back. "I'm not talking to you like this."

 

Hermione, taken aback by Harry's out of character demeanor, looked at him, then at Ginny, then back to Harry. She noticed the black haired wizard place a slightly uncoordinated hand on the mantle to steady himself as he swayed a little.

 

"Harry," Hermione asked with great consternation, "are you drunk?!"

 

"You bet he is!" Ginny replied acidly.

 

This was not the jovially drunk Harry that Hermione remembered from seventh year, or from post Victory Day celebrations. This was mean-drunk Harry, the one Ginny described encountering once before, but Hermione never believed until this moment.

 

His eyes blazed as he glowered at his wife with dark regard. Harry's anger towards her smoldered just beneath the surface, ready to rupture just like Ginny, at any given moment. He no longer looked handsome and gentle, but cruel, by the way his mouth was set with a contemptible snarl and his brow furrowed with rage.

 

"Don't fucking lie to me anymore! Go ahead, she's here! Say it! Say it so I know you're lying!" he screamed.

 

"What the…" Hermione muttered to no one in particular. Looking at Harry, she addressed him, "What is this all about?" After she spoke the words, she then began to hope this whole row wasn't in regards to the errand she ran for Harry the previous week, but about something else entirely.

 

"Go ahead! Say it again!" he sneered. "I dare you," he hissed in a low voice.

 

Hermione turned her head to look at Ginny. The other witch let a malicious grin spread slowly across her face, her features changing from wary anger to snide triumph.

 

"Fine!" Ginny retorted. "Let me say it again for all to hear. Hermione is NOT going off potions. This is merely a stalling tactic to get my mother off our backs."

 

A loud silence settled upon the room as Hermione waited for the rest of some startling revelation to come, but Ginny said nothing more.

 

Turning to look at Harry, the older witch raised her brows as if to say, 'Yes, and…'

 

Harry's face turned red and he shouted, "Well, she's lying, right?!?"

 

"Lying about what, Harry?" Hermione replied, feeling eerily calm despite her two seething friends.

 

"About… you... going off potions!" he sputtered, as his arms gesticulated wildly to explain what he could not articulate.

 

Hermione's stomach dropped through the floor. Now she wished she didn't say anything at the family gathering until she and Ginny both spoke to their husbands before hand. But something in the back of Hermione's mind knew that this fight would have taken place regardless, but hopefully while Harry wasn't drunk.

 

Looking at her oldest friend, Hermione sighed. "She's not lying. I merely said what I did to get Molly to stop pestering us. I'm not ready for children, yet."

 

She sat in a chair with the heaviness of the situation pressing down on her. 'I may never be ready for kids with Ron,' she mentally added.

 

Taking a deep steadying breath, she continued, "Fleur said this is what both she and Angelina did to get Molly to stop nagging about grandchildren." Lifting her face up to look Harry squarely in the eye, she further drove home the point. "You don't get the constant pressure from her, we're the one's who are made the villains for not popping babies out. Do you know what's involved with having children, Harry? Do you?"

 

Hermione rose from her seat as Harry dropped his head and looked away.

 

"I want a family of my own," he said sadly.

 

There was something very pitiful in his dejected manner that made Hermione feel for him.

 

"Well, I can tell you this," Hermione gently lectured, "children add strain to a marriage, they don't strengthen it. And by what I've seen and heard lately from both of you, this marriage is hanging by a thread. It's not just a matter of you inseminating Ginny and reaping the rewards of baby nine months later; it's a lifestyle change. You have to be there for Ginny, and not just financially, but emotionally and physically too. You two don't talk now. My God! What would happen when a child came along?"

 

'Not to mention a question of the child's paternity if your wife keeps shagging her gigolo boyfriend, who happens to be Malfoy,' Hermione thought to herself, with the sudden cold realization of another reason why Ginny wasn't ready for children.

 

She walked towards Harry slowly, hoping her words were sinking in.

 

"And Ginny's the one who has to carry the child." Recalling all the complaints her sister-in-laws have had over the years she began ticking them off. "There’s the emotional roller coaster, from all the hormones running through you, morning sickness, fatigue, back and hip pain, stretch marks, shortness of breath, poor sleep, and not to mention you can't ride a broom or Apparate, and no Portkeys last trimester. It's walking or Floo, that's it. No alcohol, no potions. And then after the baby comes a year of nursing, sore nipples, mastitis, leaking at the most inappropriate moments, aching breasts, and baby blues, then add on top of that constantly changing nappies until they're toilet trained at about two or three. It's not just children at your convenience, but they're constantly demanding your attention. You both have to be ready. It's a lot of responsibility and if you're at work most of the time, that leaves Ginny to raise them. If she's not ready, she's just not. Ron and I both work, but I know I'm the one who'll have to do most of the work. I'm not ready yet. My mum was almost thirty by the time she had me… and she's a Muggle. I won't hit menopause until I'm about seventy. There is plenty of time for children, Harry."

 

If anything, her little speech convinced herself she definitely wouldn't be ready for children for some years.

 

She placed a hand on his shoulder, as she noticed her speech made his body slump with the realization that she was right.

 

"I know you want children, but…" she trailed off, wanting to say more, but not with Ginny present.

 

Hermione wanted to say how his lack of trust for his wife was an anchor sinking his marriage, however, she could not bring that up as it might lead her to tell Harry more lies about Ginny. Harry had good reason not to trust his wife, but she promised herself and Ginny she would not tell him. To tell him would shatter what chance they could have to repair the large cracks in their marriage. Harry would make Draco disappear from Ginny's life if he knew, which would lead to Ginny definitely leaving Harry. If she could just get Ginny to love Harry the way Harry loved her. But who was she to think of love? Ron loved Hermione wholeheartedly, and only recently did she, herself, come to realize that her love for her husband was only halfhearted at best.

 

She wished she’d never known about Ginny's affair, and all that revelation entailed. More than that, Hermione wished she was ignorant of the facts and could continue to be blissfully unaware of Mrs. Potter's activities, therefore never questioning her own life and lack of passion and communication in her own contractual union. Granted, her life had been plodding along at a slow, mind-numbing pace with no stimulation, but at least she’d lived in a deluded state, convinced that it was what she wanted, regardless of her regrets. Now she saw what a wreck Harry and Ginny's marriage was, how unsatisfied she was with her own marriage and life, and the injustice of the Death Eater Decree. Her eyes were wide open, and to look upon the truth hurt her with its harsh glare.

 

A slow fury was building in Hermione, mostly upon frustration from the situation. Knowledge was not just a powerful tool, but it could make you feel powerless at times. To know that there was no incantation or potion to set everything right, and yet still unable to accept the facts, proved to be a test of her resolve at times. She was crowned the 'Brightest Witch in a Century' at school and yet she could not think of how to fix what lay before her.

 

"I tried telling him this," Ginny petulantly began, but was cut off by Hermione's harsh glare.

 

"You," the brunette barked at the younger witch, "be quiet!"

 

Shocked, Ginny snapped her mouth shut, partly from Hermione’s threatening look and partly from her tone, which had changed from soft and logical moments before, to suddenly agitated and terse.

 

"Harry. Go home and sober up. If you don’t make an appointment with a psychiatrist and a marriage counselor with the Muggle Alliance tomorrow first thing, I'll make it for you and drag you to it myself."

 

The remorseful wizard lifted his head and looked at his wife. "I'm sorry," he started to say, but stopped there. He could not find the words in his still inebriated state.

 

Before he threw a handful of Floo Powder into the grate to go home, Hermione grabbed Harry’s hand to stop him.

 

"And no presents," Hermione amended. "No lingerie, no jewelry," she gave Ginny a meaningful look that Harry missed, "and no flowers."

 

Harry nodded.

 

"You both need to talk. You both need counseling. No more talk of children until this relationship is on steadier ground and you are both ready."

 

Harry nodded again and sighed with a whisper, "You're right."

 

He limply threw the powder, which had been slowly sifting through his hands during Hermione's parting speech, into the fireplace and went home.

 

Staring at the dying green flames, the pit of older witch's being began burning with an all too familiar sense of indefinable unsettledness. Part of it was guilt, but part was from frustration heaped upon the state of her life.

 

"Thank you so much–" Ginny began, but was cut off.

 

"Shut up!" Hermione growled, rounding on her. "You aren’t to see Malfoy ever again! You are to get your arse to counseling and fix this marriage!"

 

She knew it was a bit hypocritical to try and force Ginny to love her husband in a way she was not capable of, no more than Hermione could love her own husband, but Ginny was not aware of Hermione's disillusion with her own marriage. Hermione would try her damnedest to keep that fact from her now. If Hermione had to live the lie, then so would Ginny. She would be especially careful to keep the fact of her own appointment with her gigolo secret from Ginny. The whole hypocrisy of it all stung and bit at Mrs. Weasley's conscience, like a large welting mosquito bite that bled from too much scratching, but still begged to be itched, only to make it bleed and scar some more. It nettled and vexed her, but she tamped down the wave of guilt by mentally noting that she at least didn’t shag her gigolo. And for the reason that she had not done anything in the physical realm of infidelity, she was able to make a self-deluded jump to the morally superior position.

 

"I will not make any such promise!" Ginny protested adamantly.

 

"You can and you will!" Hermione threw back at her. "I so much as catch a whiff you're seeing him, even to talk, and I'll spill all to Harry." It was a bluff, but Hermione was feeling short of any generous platitudes. Ginny had ruined her little fantasy world and Hermione felt as if the broken pieces had been left at her feet to repair, but without wand or glue to put it back together again.

 

Instead of argue or plead, Ginny hung her head and reluctantly agreed.

 

Unsure if the younger witch was just placating her by false promise or if she was sincere, Hermione decided that she didn't want to know if Ginny would hold good on her word and not see Malfoy again. She discovered that night that sometimes denial was a fine and dandy way of living at times. It was no longer important to know everything in the world. Ignorance at times could be bliss. And she had been lacking bliss in her life for quite some time.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

There were two types of wizards in the world. Those that could hold their liquor and those that couldn't. Severus and Draco both fell into the former category.

 

Severus could always tell if someone was a cheap drunk by the ruddy complexion that bloomed across a person's face. It was if the inebriated would turn pale that it would require enough alcohol to be consumed to constitute alcohol poisoning before speech would begin to slur and vision double.

 

Draco and Severus, both pale to begin with, were as white as freshly bleached, boiled and pressed sheets by the time they killed the fifth and last bottle for the night. They had already gone through five rounds of chess, four games of backgammon, two hours of wizard's poker, three games of arrows, and now both lay sprawled across various pieces of furniture in Severus' room.

 

The blond wizard, who was draped across the length of the settee, had initiated the latest verbal game of 'can-you-top-that.' The topic was sexual positions.

 

The elder wizard sat on the floor with his back propped up against his bed, his legs akimbo, arms limp at his sides, head lolling back onto his coverlet, while he stared blankly at his black bed curtains – charmed to be that color when there were no clients. He spoke slowly to avoid sounding drunk, "You know that position…" He lost his train of thought for a moment before he regained it. "The one where they bring their legs up… roll their back so they bring their knees to either side of their head?"

 

If Severus knew yoga, he would have named it as the Sasangasana Posture.

 

"Yeah," Draco said, half-listening as the room spun about him like a carnival ride he read about in Muggle Studies years ago.

 

"Well, take the legs and wrap them about your waist."

 

Draco was sure he had a much more interesting position than that to beat the other wizard's answer, but could not recall it in his drunken haze. Surely it would come to him in the morning, most probably with a vivid recollection of it involving Ginny screaming out his name, but he decided to let Severus have this round.

 

"You win this time," he said, his eyes randomly fixed on the prominent Adam's apple the protruded from Severus' neck, his head bent back. "New topic." He had an idea of one he could surely win, though in some ways, it was nothing to brag about. "Fastest a woman made you come."

 

Severus noted how Draco left out the word 'client' and used the generic term 'woman' instead. He remembered, with unease, his own clumsy loss of his virginity. Thinking back to his youth, he recalled Lucius' impromptu stag party for him, held behind the Three Broomsticks during the last Hogsmeade weekend in his seventh year. She was a witch, probably under the Imperius Curse, but he cared not at the time. She was there for his pleasure, for his "amusement and education," as Draco's father called it at the time. It was more like a guarantee he would not go to his wedding night a virgin.

 

"Three strokes."

 

There were times he remembered the warm spring air still holding onto the chill of winter in the cool shadows, the air making the skin on his legs and arse goose-pimple, as his trousers lay rumpled about his ankles. The witch glassy eyed and moaning with mechanical grunts from his few thrusts, her back up against the mossy bricks of the old building, as she had one leg wrapped about his waist. He’d hoped that Lucius had paid for her services, but instinctively knew an Obliviate was cast upon her shortly after he walked away from her.

 

Tamping down the memory, he would not let his mind eventually wander, in his drunken state, to thoughts of his wife. She was dead and could never be brought back, no matter how much he thought of her, so he avoid all thought of her as much as possible.

 

Draco did not answer, nor laugh or make any derisive remarks.

 

"Well?" Severus prompted.

 

Draco took a deep breath and exhaled. "One kiss."

 

"What?" The dark haired wizard pulled his head up from the bed and fixed his companion with one eye, keeping the other one closed, as it was easier to see one Draco rather than two sitting on his two couches that periodically blurred back into one before splitting into two again.

 

"I said, one kiss."

 

Snorting a half laugh, Severus drawled, "You're joking."

 

Draco would have shook his head, but that would mean the carny controlling the ride his head was on would had sped up the spinning contraption, resulting in a swift production of pavement pizza on Severus' prized silk and wool Tabriz rug.

 

"No," he said rather solemnly.

 

"Explain. You must have been a virgin," Severus surmised.

 

"No. I had had half the girls in Slytherin already before that happened," Draco replied. "It was three days before that fucking decree."

 

Severus knew who the girl was from that statement.

 

Draco continued, "We’d kissed for the first time in that silly Muggle cinema the week prior. It was the last time we saw each other before the decree. I still remember the dress she wore."

 

He hoped Draco wasn't going to get maudlin, but he should have guessed he would have, considering the turn of events over the past week.

 

"It was this little sundress with straps instead of sleeves and I teased her about getting freckles in patterns that made dirty pictures on her back. I even offered to charm them to move when she spun around and socked me in the stomach… hard. She caught me off guard and I almost bent over double. She caught my face and kissed me hard. In three days time we would tell her family. And that kiss she gave me held so much promise…"

 

Had he been sober, Severus would have stalked off at the forlorn, romantic ramblings of his friend, instead he was too drunk to move and was forced to listen. Somewhere in a corner of his heart, he felt the slight sting of jealousy that this young man had experienced love on a level he was unable to discover for himself. Long ago he had written off love as a luxury he could not afford. Instead of acknowledging his envy, he subconsciously identified it as irritation and boredom. He could have asked or demanded Draco to stop his sentimental reminiscences, but held his tongue instead. For some reason he could not, nor would not identify, he let him continue.

 

"In that kiss, I could feel the passion in her for me. In my mind, I could feel her legs wrapping around me, begging me. Not a stitch of clothing came off, no hand up the shirt or down her knickers, just a simple kiss that let me know just how much she wanted me. Arms twined around each other, hair mussed, total and complete loss of time and space. We were breathless and never wanted the kiss to end. I wanted her so badly right there and then. And I just…"

 

Draco trailed off and never finished his sentence.

 

Still staring at Draco, he blinked his one open eye to make sure that he was correct in seeing the younger man had not fallen asleep, but was still awake staring off into space. Turning his head, Severus glanced at the clock and noted that it was now midnight. It was time to call an end to their celebrations as Victory Day was now officially over.

 

"Rise," the darker wizard gently commanded. "Go back to your rooms and sleep. We have much work ahead of us tomorrow and I doubt Miss Brown will give you a reprieve from your day job when she has seen fit to stock our bathrooms with hangover relief potions. It's time for bed."

 

Draco rose with the last bit of grace he had left, despite his wobbly legs, propelling himself forward towards the egress of Severus' flat.

 

The younger wizard placed his hand upon the doorknob. Before he turned it, he swiveled his head and considered his mentor. "So, is Mrs. Weasley still going to pay seven Galleons?" There was the faint hint of a smirk playing at the corner of his mouth as he asked his pointedly taunting question.

 

Severus wasn't sure about Draco's non sequitur, but answered it. "Actually, it's ten Galleons a visit from now on." He let the smug smile spread across Draco's face before delivering the final blow. "But with the forty percent profit sharing from the sex potions we are going to develop – my royalties based on the condition of taking her as a client – it may work out to about… oh… say… fifty-thousand Galleons a visit… or more."

 

He relished the stunned look that quickly washed over Draco's face. Out of a rare moment of pity, he amended his statement by adding, "The cut rate was probably out of some obligation Miss Brown feels for Hermione. If it weren't for Hermione's efforts, Miss Brown would not have the cheap labor force she now has today. Thus we would not be able to undercut the competition with our prices, nor dominate the market like we do." He finished he statement with a grandiose sweep of his arms.

 

During the summer after the Golden Trio graduated from Hogwarts, a strategy of creating chaos on the home front of the Death Eaters was hatched. Hermione came up with a plan for fellow member of the Order to discretely slip clothing that had been transfigured into food items, into the shopping baskets of Death Eater's wives. Once the items brought back from market were handed off to the house-elves, the transfigured items would turn back into clothes, thus freeing many house-elves in the employment of Death Eater families. It had gained the Order quite a bit of time to recoup, as many of the Death Eaters had to spend a great deal of time doing tasks they took for granted with their servants, who were now free.

 

'And all thanks to a know-it-all Gryffindor with an over abundance of righteousness. Perhaps I can make use of that abominable streak and put it to use to get myself out of this deity-forsaken country,' he thought bitterly to himself before he flopped on his bed and passed out.

 

Draco exited the room without a backward glance at his softly snoring friend, hoping he could make it to his rooms before he resorted to crawling on his hands and knees.

 

At least the house-elves would come in and tuck Severus into bed, charming him out of his clothes and into his pyjamas after he was properly under the covers, making sure his necessary vial of hangover relief potion was within arms reach, and the heavy drapes were drawn against any offending morning light.

 

Most of all, the Potions master would not be awake to ponder the twinge of envy in his heart. Of how he had been denied the chance to see if he and his wife could develop a relationship that included love. If only she had not died, if only she had learned to hold her tongue might she still be alive today.

 

By morning time he would probably forget about it and immerse himself in his daily grind of Potions by day and women at night, leaving him little time to reflect upon the younger wizard's words.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen
"Pondero of Verum" (Reflection of Truth)

 

Disclaimer: J.K. Rowling owns the characters, the places, the magical concepts, etc., etc., etc.

 

============

 

Standing in front of the mirror, she smoothed out her blouse and skirt with slightly shaky hands. The twisting nervousness in Hermione's stomach made it almost impossible for her to eat anything during dinner with Ron earlier.

 

Her husband was blandly unaware of the fact that she barely managed to swallow three bites of food during the whole meal. He had gulped his food down with enthusiastic gusto, then chugged a glass of juice before rising from the table, placing a chaste kiss on the top of his wife's head and charging out the door for his evening shift at the pub. Thursday was a rare night off from the pub for him. She should have enjoyed his company while he was there, as it was a rarity that they ate dinner together on weeknights, but instead found relief that he was finally gone. Now she could prepare for her evening without him there to become suspicious.

 

"Got a hot date tonight?" the mirror cheekily queried.

 

Hermione shot the enchanted glass a scathing scowl. "Don't be ridiculous! I'm married," she retorted.

 

Her own reflection gave her a sly smile. "You liiiiiiiiie, like a ruuuuuuuug," it knowingly drawled in a rising and falling cadence

 

Becoming irritated with her mirror, Hermione began wondering how much it would cost to replace it with a more obedient one. "Shut it! Remember, the River Thames?"

 

Hermione wore the same outfit from Victory Day, the same blue outfit that made her look even more pasty, as the color was slowly draining from her face from increasing nervousness.

 

"Right," she said to herself, giving herself one last look in the sullenly silent mirror. Her hair was brushed and neatly pulled back into a large hair clip at the nape of her neck, but that didn’t stop the stray tendrils near her hairline from framing her face. Peering closer, she used her little finger to wipe away a small smudge of eyeliner. She really didn't like wearing make-up, as it was highly impractical to wear to work with one's head constantly over steaming cauldrons all day long, but a little kohl around the eyes and a light dab of lipstick always did wonders.

 

Glancing at the clock, she saw that it was quarter to seven. Hermione took one last steadying breath before picking up her navy blue cloak.

 

"Right," she said once more to convince herself to head out the door and into the night. "Conversation and that's it," repeating the phrase exactly as she had said it to Lavender a few day prior during the exchange of Galleons.

 

Walking out the door, she repressed all thoughts of what her gigolo might be wearing tonight.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Everything was being prepared for her visit. Severus had showered, rinsing off the lingering scent of pheromones and thawed Ashwinder eggs from the day's work at the lab. The first few batches of arousal sex potions turned out mixed results. At least Lavender never melted a cauldron or did anything stupid enough to cause an explosion, like what he’d met with on a daily basis while working at Hogwarts, especially during what he mentally referred to as 'The Longbottom Years.'

 

Standing in his kitchen, he arranged a tray for an after-dinner repast. He could have let the house-elves do it, but cooking for himself was one of the few ways he could legally hone his fading skills with a knife.

 

Savoring the feel of the knife in his hand, the Potions Master carefully sliced the crusty baguette in even slices to be fanned out decoratively next to the small mountain of hulled strawberries he had placed on the tray. It would have been nice if apples and pears were in season, but he made do with what was seasonably available. A quick check and the Brie was coming to room temperature nicely. Before he could make sure the Sauterne was chilled to the proper temperature, his house-elf, Marf, popped along side him.

 

"Mister Snape, sir, should let Marf do this, sir," squeaked the diminutive creature.

 

A long time ago Severus had explained once and only once that cooking for himself was the only way he could still legally wield a knife, grater or sieve. Marf still asked to help, but Severus had learned to ignore the creature when it suited him. It had taken the house-elves at Hogwarts about ten years before they learned not to go into his private quarters to clean. He figured it would be another five or six until Marf learned the same lesson. Perhaps a few missing fingers from a toppled Potions experiment would not be the final lesson to drive home the point this time.

 

"I will allow you to serve," he instructed Marf. This would result in the tray containing food, wine and glasses to appear at his command, just like the tea service the week before. "You may fetch me the dates, nuts and dried figs."

 

Marf squeaked for joy at the rare opportunity to help, then returned to Severus’ side quickly with the requested items. With the addition of some fine linen napkins, a nutcracker and two small plates, he was ready to entertain Mrs. Weasley for the evening.

 

He rarely went through this much bother, with the exception of a few very well paying, high placed clients; women who could prove eventually useful to his ultimate goal of freedom. Perhaps the sight of the slightly emaciated woman the week before had inspired him to provide her with some food in hopes of putting a little weight on the young woman's bones before she left at the end of the night. Hermione was not a high placed client within society, but she could prove to be well placed for his purposes.

 

If he remembered her personal habits from seven years at Hogwarts correctly, Severus counted on Hermione showing up at least a few minutes early.

 

Moving to his parlor cum boudoir, he opened his armoire to view his selections of masks. He noted his plumed volto mask was missing. He could only assume Draco had borrowed it for a client. Draco had taken to wearing masks to remain anonymous for similar reasons.

 

Severus grabbed his plain black Casanova mask, the Bauta matching his hair, but it seemed somewhat pointless, as he would be covering his hair again. However, it did match his black shirt and trousers.

 

Just as he finished adjusting his accessories, he saw his bed curtains begin to change color. It would be interesting to see what sort of mood Hermione was in this evening.

 

It was when the bed curtains changed to a dark blue he knew he would have his work cut out for him. Fear was the strongest emotion she was feeling tonight. Fear of him, the situation, the future with her husband, he did not know, but would soon find out.

 

As expected, Hermione rapped on his door before the stroke of seven.

 

Knock-knock. Knock-knock.

 

Glancing at himself one last time in the mirror before moving towards the door, he smoothed over his shirt and trousers.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Had Hermione read more Muggle articles on biology and psychology, she would have recognized that she was preening herself. Despite humankind's higher brain functions, ten thousand years of evolution was hard to resist when preparing to interact with a potential mating partner, despite what her conscious mind said otherwise in regards to her mental promise of 'conversation only.'

 

Her hands stilled themselves when she heard the hardware of the door handle turn and squeak.

 

"Good evening," her gigolo greeted her graciously with another courtly bow, his voice low and soothing. He swept his arm out to invite her into his rooms. "Please come in and make yourself comfortable."

 

As Hermione moved past him and into his flat, his eyes swept over her form, taking in all the small details that escaped most men's attentions. The most obvious observation was that she was not an emotional wreck like the week before, and her hair was as-neatly-as-could-be pulled back, but still lacked luster. Her clothes still looked on the slighter side of shabby, but neatly pressed and clean. Mrs. Weasley held herself with greater poise than during their previous meeting, but he could still sense the uncertainty in her movements.

 

Discreetly inhaling, he could tell that she had bathed before coming, as he could still smell the scent of her soap wafting from her body. It was a variation on the same soap he used to remove the odor of potions from his days in the lab; a combination of sodium bicarbonate, the oil and juice of some citrus fruit, and French clay added to a simple glycerin soap base. He thought that fact was an interesting coincidence.

 

Sitting down upon the settee in the same spot as before, Hermione smiled nervously at the man who was closing the door and turning the lock.

 

"Have you eaten dinner?" he inquired.

 

"Yes," she replied with less confidence than she hoped, "but not much." She began rubbing her palms along the tops of her thighs out of sheer nervousness. "I was a bit too… preoccupied to have much of an appetite tonight. I have to admit, I didn't think I'd be coming back here after last week."

 

He stood there looking at her, his mask hiding all expressions from her. After years of being a spy, Severus still schooled his features despite his leather veil. The way she kept rubbing her hands nervously unnerved him for reasons he would not identify. This singular habit stirred memories long suppressed, memories he thought he had purged from his mind years ago.

 

After a pause longer than he intended, he said, "If you are interested, I have a lovely dessert wine, along with fruit and cheese that we could have."

 

Severus hoped she would accept his offer of food. From the way her clothes hung on her, she definitely needed a good ten pounds on her to bring back her feminine curves. He never could understand why the youth of today was so insistent on idealizing a female form that encouraged bony hips. For all the women he had had sex with over the recent years, he could attest to the fact that bony hips made him consider requiring combat pay when he was shagging them.

 

"That…" Hermione cleared her throat, which had all of a sudden constricted and become coated with phlegm. "That would be lovely, Mister…" She averted her eyes momentarily before returning them to his covered face. "I'm sorry. I don't even know your name. I feel I must apologize. All last week you heard me ramble on and I never even bothered to ask your name. Especially after you were so kind to listen to me."

 

Hermione felt a bit awkward about the apology. She had, after all, paid him to listen to her. Still, that didn't excuse rudeness in her mind.

 

Severus was slightly taken aback. Only a small handful of his clients ever bothered to ask for his name. Most viewed him as a nameless man in which to fulfill their needs without any consideration towards him. She had even begun addressing him with a name of respect, "Mister."

 

"You may call me whatever you like," he answered with a playful lilt in his voice, hoping his tone would help her relax.

 

It was a simple answer. The clients that did like to have a name to associate with a face, even though it was masked, picked a name of their own choosing, in some small way fulfilling some fantasy of theirs. Lavender would catalog the name in her book, so when his clients requested 'Tristan,' 'Walter,' 'Adrian,' 'Marcus,' 'Julian,' 'Bob,' or 'Devon,' Lavender would know of whom they were referring to.

 

"But what would you like me to call you? Surely you are a person with a name. Granted you wear that mask, but you get to choose your mask. Would you not like to choose what I shall call you during this evening?"

 

He let a smirk spread wide across his face. Only a Gryffindor, only Hermione Weasley would treat a common gigolo with respect. In his biased memory, she was affording him more respect now than when she was a student of his. Of course she always treated him with the utmost respect at Hogwarts, but his skewed point of view did not see it as such. To him, the irony was almost humorous.

 

Remembering a story his mother once told him long ago, before she died, Severus remembered how she wanted to name him something other than Severus.

 

"Calleo, you may call me Calleo."

 

"Calleo. It means 'knowing,' does it not?" she asked.

 

"It does indeed." He gave her a slight tilt of his head. "And what shall I call you?"

 

"Hermione," she blurted out, and then momentarily froze, considering her haste. She wondered if it was wise for Calleo to know her true name.

 

Watching her self-chastisement, he chuckled lightly. "Do not worry. If we were to cross paths in public, you would not know who I was without my mask. Nor would I approach you in public. What is said and occurs within these walls stays here. Beyond these walls, we are but strangers to one another."

 

It was a small lie. If Hermione Weasley were pertinent towards a means of escape, he would be telling Draco the necessary information required to reach their end goal.

 

Ducking her head out of embarrassment of her naiveté, Hermione laughed a little in response.

 

"Please, relax. Drinks are served," he announced.

 

That was Marf's cue in the kitchens to magic the tray onto the low table in front of the settee.

 

Hermione gave a slight gasp at the spread before her. It was a simple tray, but elegant and mouthwatering in its selections. The smell of the strawberries made her mouth salivate instantly.

 

Noting the restrained look of hunger on her face, he said, "Please, help yourself."

 

Reaching forward, Hermione unfolded the heavy Irish linen napkin and laid it daintily across her lap, then grabbed a small plate with which to laden some of the ripe, red fruit upon.

 

As Severus poured a measure of a lovely French Sauterne into dessert wine glass, he noticed her bite into a strawberry with an expression that bordered on ecstasy.

 

"Mmmmmmmm," she moaned quietly to herself, her eyes closed. "It's been ages since I've had fresh strawberries." Her tongue flicked out to capture a drop of juice that escaped and was hanging precariously from the edge of her lower lip.

 

His eyes were transfixed on her lips, now stained slightly redder than normal, and the way her closed mouth moved as she chewed the pulpy flesh.

 

When she opened her eyes to finish the other half of her berry still held between her index finger and thumb, Severus caught himself in his act of acute staring. Hermione, unaware of his scrutiny, gave him a brief warm smile of thanks.

 

After mentally berating himself for his momentary lapse of control, he remembered her drink was still in his hand.

 

"Thank you," Hermione said, taking the glass by the stem.

 

Her fingers brushed against his lightly in the exchange. In an instant, Hermione felt uncomfortably warm. That small bit of contact left an electric tingle on her skin and she did her best to ignore it, despite how she could feel her pulse race.

 

Severus poured himself a glass of the golden nectar before sitting down on the other end of the settee, giving her the same personal space as he had the previous week.

 

Remembering Lavender's words in regards to Hermione's request for his services, he said, "So I understand you would enjoy some conversation. What would you like to talk about?" He paused briefly before adding, "And I am curious as to what your course of action was in regards to your… friends that you were so concerned over last week."

 

Swallowing the last of her second strawberry, Hermione blotted her lips with her napkin before answering. Out of the corner of her eye, she noted all of the lipstick she wore was now smeared all over her napkin and folded her napkin in such a way as to hide it.

 

"Oh… that… well… um." Hermione still felt anger, resentment and confusion over the whole situation. "I told my male friend that I never saw his wife that afternoon. He still doesn’t know about his wife cheating on him." Spurred on by Calleo's statement that whatever was said would stay within his confidence, she added, "Though I have suggested they both go to marriage counseling. Especially after what happened on Victory Day."

 

Intrigued, only for the reason that it might concern Draco, and in turn, himself, Severus leaned forward with mild interest. "Oh really, what happened?"

 

"Well," she paused, wondering how to word it all without blurting it all out at once, before she eventually gave him the condensed version: The exchange between her and Fleur, her announcement at the Weasleys, the resulting fight between her friends in her parlor, and her ultimatum to her female friend to cease seeing her lover.

 

"I see," he said thoughtfully, nodding his head. "They are very lucky to have such a good friend."

 

She had taken the right precautions to keep the situation at a low simmer for the time being. His praise of her would hopefully encourage her on her course of action. Severus knew a slightly different version of the events, as told by Draco, who repeated what Ginny had said in her owl, but the facts were the same. Severus knew Ginny was still seeing Draco, but was now aware of Hermione's bluff to spill everything to Potter.

 

The topic of Hermione's friends was now exhausted. Taking the initiative, Severus asked, "What else would you like to discuss?"

 

Hermione shifted in her seat, feeling a tad guilty. She was doing this in part to save her marriage. She was seeing this gigolo to stem the lack of intellectual satisfaction she got from her husband.

 

"Well, I love my husband. I mean, we've been friends for years before we became romantically involved with one another, and I supposed I knew, in some way, what I was getting myself into when I married him." She played with the nap of the fabric on her skirt, noting the texture of the fabric from the way the warp and weft wove over and under each other as a way of distracting her conscience. "He's brilliant at chess, but he's not exactly my intellectual equal."

 

She looked up, looking slightly ashamed for voicing what she had only repeated to herself in her head and never aloud.

 

"I got the best grades in school and he barely got by. He's into Quidditch, Quidditch, chess, and oh yes, Quidditch," she said with slight sarcasm. "I suppose the fact that he's on a Quidditch team does have something to do with it, but there's more to life than sports. He never wants to talk about my work, or politics, or Ancient Runes, or Charms, or Transfiguration. I'm just tired of Quidditch talk. My husband is very sweet. He's not dumb–"

 

Severus bit the inside of his cheek to stop the quick rebuttal from escaping his mouth.

 

"–And I've met some pretty thick wizards at school. But he's not exactly the brightest wizard either." Hermione furrowed her brow and bent her head. "He's just not an intellectual, bookish type. And with my brainless, vapid coworkers, whose only concerns are fashions, or who is shagging whom, it feels as if my brain is atrophying. I need some interesting conversation, some stimulation of the mind before I go mad with mental boredom."

 

Hermione lifted her head and looked at him with reluctance, remembering a rather nasty name Ron had called her during one fight. "That doesn't make me an 'intellectual snob,' does it?"

 

One of the few things Severus was grateful for, during his years of being a professor at Hogwarts, was his co-workers. During meals he could avoid small talk with them and engage in equally deep and broad conversations regarding their recent research results or new developments in their particular field. Though he loathed Professor Vector on a personal level, he could talk with her at length on Arithmancy equations. Even Professor Flitwick was someone who he would engage in a lively debate with now and then, despite the impish man's overly cheerful presence that irritated Severus like boiling acid on an open wound.

 

Had he been in a similar situation as she had just described, he would most probably have poisoned the whole lot of them, rationalizing that they all deserved it, as their existence was a waste of valuable space in the universe.

 

With his nom de guerre, he was still afforded the chance to correspond with others in an exchange of ideas. Even Draco was a bright young man who he could engage in conversation without having to drop his vocabulary so that even a second year Gryffindor could understand him.

 

He shook his head, sincerely sympathetic to her situation. "No, it does not. It's not your fault if you seek to expand your horizons and broaden your mind. It's admirable."

 

Severus was pumping her ego a bit. He did still think she was a bit of a know-it-all and was sure that she would revert back to her old endless-talking-in-superior-tones mode that he was so familiar with from her school days. What she did mention previously did bring back something he was intensely curious about, and now found a way to broach the subject.

 

"Are all your coworkers that uninteresting?" he asked, trying to avoid words that would give him away, like 'insipid,' 'dunderheads,' and 'idiots.' "What do you do for a living?"

 

Hermione took a sip of the Sauterne before answering, enjoying the sweet flavors on her palate. "I work for the Ministry in the Department of Standards & Regulations."

 

Severus could feel his heart hammering against his chest and his ears begin to ring from the rushing sound of blood in his ears. Warmth spread itself over his body, starting at his chest and creeping down to his very fingertips and toes. He hadn’t been this excited about anything in years.

 

"And what exactly do you do?" 'Please let it be, please let it be,' he silently pleaded, for there were a few sections within the department that didn’t deal with potions ingredients, but the stain on her fingers the week before gave evidence of her job.

 

"I test all the potions ingredients that come into the country before they are distributed to apothecaries throughout Great Britain."

 

'EUREKA!'

 

Severus felt almost giddy and had to stifle a rare spontaneous laugh. Granted, the laugh would have come out bordering on hysterical, but he suppressed it, as it would not do to scare the source of his salvation. The fates had finally allowed him a chance at happiness. Here, sitting across from him was the answer to his and Draco's problems.

 

To calm his nerves that had become spontaneously jittery from the adrenaline coursing through his body at breakneck speed, he took a long sip of wine, hoping the alcohol coupled with the high sugar content would steady his nerves and stop him from shaking from the heady rush he felt.

 

Not noticing the slight increase in her companion's breathing, she added, "It's not a very interesting job at all. All I do is test one batch of ingredients after another. It's rather mindless and mechanical."

 

Severus knew exactly how boring her job must be, as he was required to do a two-month internship during the first year of his Potions apprenticeship. He idly wondered if Marge was still there. She had been working at that job since before Albus Dumbledore was born and he wouldn't be surprised if the old crone were still there.

 

"It sounds like a very important job," he said with some admiration in his voice.

 

It was a very important job. Important, like a sprocket in a mechanism. Without ingredients being tested, the flow of goods to apothecaries would stop, resulting in a shortage of potions. The job required someone who was honest, as there always was an unscrupulous supplier seeking to get in materials watered down or mixed with filler, like sawdust or sand, with the promise a payoff if they just passed the shipment on through with the Ministry stamp of approval. It was as important and prestigious for the wizarding world, as a dustbin man was to the Muggle world.

 

"How long have you been working in that position?" he asked, wondering if she recently took the position and why one so lowly.

 

"Almost four years," Hermione replied casually.

 

Severus wished he were not in the process of swallowing a piece of baguette with Brie on it when she answered, as he started to choke out of surprise.

 

A large glass of water instantly appeared on the table, which he quickly picked up and began drinking to help dislodge the small piece of offending food from his throat.

 

'Four years?!' he thought incredulously.

 

This was a position that rotated new people in every six months before being promoted to other jobs, or before starting an apprenticeship. This was not a job one stayed in for any length of time, as it was very entry level, especially for a witch of her caliber and N.E.W.T. scores. Why she was not done with an apprenticeship and on to better things baffled him. Here was one of the most academically achieving students he had in years and she was stuck testing potion ingredients in some dinky lab in the basement of the Ministry. If anything, it infuriated him that all his efforts to teach her all those years, all those questions she asked, all that extra credit work, seemed to have gone to waste. And for what?

 

Evidently, the woman knew nothing about the hierarchy in the Potions world, for this was the lowest position on the totem pole in his world, short of the job title 'cauldron scrubber.' If she did know, she would have demanded to be transferred out of that department ages ago. He knew Marge's reason for staying on all those years was out of some familial tragedy regarding an aunt and some black market ingredients smuggled into the country, due to a naval blockade during the Napoleonic Wars.

 

However, fate had delivered her into his hands with her working in the one position that could provide him the necessary ingredients to his freedom. And with her years of experience on the job, she would have the trust of her coworkers and superiors.

 

Severus firmly believed in free will, but with the tableau set before him, he wondered just how much of his life had been colored by destiny.

 

Hermione, noticing ‘Calleo’ choking, leaned over and gently patted him on the back. "Are you alright?" she asked, as he began drinking some water.

 

"Yes," he managed to say in between his coughs. "Just swallowed wrong."

 

Though Severus had become accustomed to touch over the past few years, rarely had that had not been of a sexual nature. Of the clients who engaged in conversation only, the physical contact was that of the comforting kind initiated by him alone. Hermione had reached out and placed her hand on his back. He was acutely aware of the shape and pressure of it on his back, and the small circle it made on his shoulder blade before retreating back to her lap. Though he would try and push it out of his mind, he could feel the lingering phantom feeling of her touch.

 

Regaining his composure, he continued the conversation. "Four years you say." He needed to know how soon he would need to act. "Are you looking to move up or is there a promotion in the works?"

 

Heaving a great sigh, she said, "Unfortunately no. It seems that very few positions open up for me to advance to." She looked rather glum and dejected as she dropped her head once more, staring at the glass of wine cradled in her hands and the way the evening sun glinted off the glass. "And when they have opened up, they usually interview new people who come in from the outside. I did want to do an apprenticeship once the war was over, but…" she trailed off, wondering if Calleo was a Death Eater or just some wizard down on his luck, perhaps both. Taking a chance, she finished her thought. "… But, it seems that Muggle-borns, like myself, aren't given many opportunities for apprenticeship. There were a few who would have given me an apprenticeship, but they died during the war or shortly afterwards."

 

Hermione glanced up to gauge his reaction now that she admitted to being a Muggle-born.

 

Severus tilted his head in what he hoped was perceived to be a sympathetic manner. Why Hermione had been passed over promotion and denied an apprenticeship was an enraging thought he'd have to ponder later. Regardless of her superiors recognizing an extremely apt witch, it was his boon that she had been overlooked and passed over.

 

Hoping to stem any ideas that may want to make her actively look for a different job, he added, "I'm sure the right thing will come along if you are patient."

 

Only the gods knew how patient this brooding man had been for so long. Between his long-lasting desire to teach the Dark Arts while stuck in the dungeons teaching Potions, years playing the double spy for Albus, and now the long wait for his deliverance from the Ministry's confining law, Severus Snape was a quintessential example of patience.

 

Lifting her head, Hermione smiled shyly and nodded.

 

Some small voice in her told her to trust Calleo. It was a given that he would be a good listener, as she had paid him to do so, but there was something more. Perhaps it was the wine or his hospitality, but she found herself relaxing just a little bit in his presence.

 

"Do you enjoy the subject of Arithmancy?" Hermione asked, hoping his answer would be yes.

 

"Quite a bit," he replied.

 

It had been a while since he had engaged in conversation that didn’t center on business or his client's personal lives. Perhaps Hermione would provide a small amount of intellectual stimulation for himself, as well. Maybe she wasn't quite the same know-it-all he remembered.

 

"Have you read about the theory recently published that covers aspects of unknowable numbers?" Hermione hoped she hadn't started with a question that was too out of his depth.

 

"The one that goes into chaos theory and random number selection?" Severus answered, his eyes smiling from behind his mask.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hermione smiled broadly and lazily. As she walked up the three flights of steps to her flat, she swung her arms out wide as if she was gliding, her head tilting to one side then the other, as her walking pattern along the steps and landings mimicked a wavy line, like the pattern of sea swells. Walking to one side of the passageway, then to the other side and back, her eyes closing in momentary dreaminess, she reflected back on the evening. She hummed a nameless tune.

 

'So this is what it's like to feel happy?' she silently mused. It had been so long since she felt this good; the sensation was euphoric.

 

This was what she hoped being an adult would be like. Interesting conversation, warm hospitality, and respect. Hermione had gone directly from years of schooling into a war environment. Once the war was over, she felt thrust into the drudgery of adult life without much chance to explore herself, recalling conversations she had with her mother about her university years. There were times she wished there were wizarding universities, and wondered if apprenticeships allowed the sort of self-discovery her mother experienced.

 

Her brain buzzed and tingled with the pleasant feeling of being taxed. Ron would refer to the feeling as being "brain fried," but she likened it to a runner's high for the mind. Hermione knew the mind was a muscle that would lose strength and agility if not used, and she could tell from her current state that she was mentally out of shape. If she were going to make a weekly habit of this, she would go back to intensive browsing at Flourish and Blotts, as the wizarding world still hadn't grasped the concept of a public lending library.

 

Hermione's current mood was far different from earlier that evening. Originally, she was nervous, partially out of fear that she was betraying Ron. Another part of her feared someone she knew might see her enter the building where her gigolo resided. Now she felt no guilt over her visit. She had not done anything untoward with Calleo and he had been a gracious host. Their evening had been spent in discussion about Arithmancy, which led to a debate regarding Ancient Runes. They had promised to pick up the conversation next week where they had left it on the topic of Saxon influence on post Roman Britain.

 

Opening the door to her flat, she peered into the kitchen at the clock and saw that Ron was still at work. He was fairly regular in coming home at night at a predictable time and would not be home for another hour.

 

In the bedroom, she quickly stripped down to her underclothes. Looking in the mirror, she appraised herself. Looking at her breasts covered in the beige satin, she noticed her nipples rising to attention from the cool summer air drifting in through an open window. They pressed against the fabric causing a noticeable shadow to fall across her breasts.

 

In the kitchen, the hand indicating Ron on the clock moved from "At Work" to "Traveling."

 

Hermione wondered if her gigolo would think she was pretty. Ron said it enough times, but she was curious of another man's opinion, one not so emotionally tied to her.

 

Closing her eyes, she imagined Calleo in the room with her. In her mind, she saw him in the mirror slip up behind her, bringing his hands slowly around her ribs to splay them flat on her stomach. As her mind filled in the picture, she brought her own hands to her sides and mimicked the movements her fantasy was providing. She tried to imagine what his clothes might feel like brushing up against her, black linen and equally dark summer-weight wool rubbing along her skin. His mask was in her fantasy too, covering all emotions on his face. She dreamily thought he was equally cool and warm at the same time, confident in his movements and certain of her response to him.

 

'Do you want me?' she heard Calleo say in his deep, velvety voice inside her head.

 

"Yes," she breathed.

 

She tilted her head back against her imaginary lover's shoulder as his hands crept up her stomach to cup the undersides of her breasts. Letting a small sigh escape, she could imagine his hands slowly creeping up and lightly grazing each nipple.

 

The whole idea of imagining Calleo play with her while watching his seduction of her in a mirror utterly turned her on. Not even Ron had done anything sensuously erotic to her. Her fantasy continued with her gigolo slipping the straps of her bra off her shoulder, his thumbs making lazy circles from the tops of her shoulders down the slopes of her breasts.

 

Hermione could feel the beginning tingles of arousal in her belly.

 

Her own hands gently pulled away the satin. Grazing each nipple with the pads of her thumbs, she noticed how the light attentions she was giving herself was much more stimulating than the rough manhandling Ron usually gave them. Her fantasy provided the picture of Calleo's eyes glittering behind the mask as she gasped from his light touch.

 

She wanted to reach up a hand and entwine it in his hair. Earlier that evening, she had caught a glimpse of the black hair on Calleo's wrist, so in her mind, she filled in a vision of him and gave him raven locks that trailed down his shoulders.

 

As her left hand continued its feather-touch ministrations on her left nipple, her right hand began trailing back down her belly, slipping stealthily into her knickers, which had become quite damp within the few minutes she had been playing with herself.

 

"Oh please," she moaned quietly to herself. "Touch me… lower, I need to feel you."

 

Imagining those long, pale, elegant hands that held her hand while he placed a kiss upon it during their parting, she gasped as her own fingers started to slowly slide along her slippery folds.

 

Lost within her fantasy, she didn't notice the quiet return of her husband.

 

Ron slipped inside their flat hoping not to awake Hermione, as she was usually in bed by this time. The whole flat was dark, except for the light coming from underneath the bedroom door. Tentatively, he stopped at the door and heard his wife breathing hard. Confused, as Ron was originally expecting Hermione to be sitting up in bed with a book, he opened the door and gave a light gasp of surprise.

 

His wife was in the midst of fingering herself in front of the mirror clad only in her silky pink knickers.

 

Hermione heard Ron's startled response to the sight of her masturbating and quickly turned around. Her state of arousal had colored her cheeks, but her embarrassment only served to further redden her complexion.

 

In the past, Hermione had questioned Ron's reasons as to why he still masturbated, thinking the act alone was proof that she was not enough for him and she was not satisfying him enough. He had taken great lengths to explain that even if they had sex twice a day, he would still masturbate, as it was a stress reliever, not a result from lack of sexual fulfillment.

 

Caught in an act that she never performed in front of her husband, she decided to make the most of the situation.

 

Grabbing her wand, she called out, "Nox."

 

Advancing on her husband, she felt emboldened in the dark. Hermione was rarely the initiator of sex, but tonight she didn't want to go to bed unsatisfied and frustrated. Before Ron could comment on her activities, she reached up and kissed him passionately. All the desire she felt for her gigolo she projected onto her husband.

 

If other people fantasized during sex, as she had told Harry, why couldn't she?

 

Ron was taller than Calleo, so she raised herself up on the balls of her feet to make reality and the fantasy in her mind closer in actuality. She kept her eyes closed so that her mind could imagine it was Calleo kissing her and not her husband.

 

When she trailed her mouth along Ron's neck, imparting alternating kisses and bites, Ron groaned out, "Oh 'Mione. You are such a turn on."

 

This would not do. His voice grated on her nerves and was ruining the moment, destroying the illusion. She was tempted to cast a Silencing Charm on her husband, so she could continue seducing Calleo in her mind.

 

"Shhhh," she gently shushed him, trying to think of a reason why she would want him quiet before she latched onto an idea. "Let's pretend there's someone else in the next room and we have to be as quiet as church mice."

 

Ron nodded his head and she went back to her activities of kissing his body, imagining it was Calleo's body under her touch, never looking at her husband's face. Once she stripped him of his clothes, Hermione pointed to the bed.

 

Once he was laying down face up, Hermione quickly mounted him facing his feet. If she didn't have to look at his face, she could imagine she was riding her gigolo's cock. She wondered if he was bigger than Ron and thought of all the moans and screams she would make from something filling her so completely.

 

He was obedient in her request to be quiet, the only sound was him panting as he thrust up into her from underneath. Before she could reach completion, Ron let out a strangled groan. Hermione could feel his cock pulse inside her with each spurt. To clamp down the building bitterness in her that he couldn’t have waited until she was done, Hermione angrily rode his cock hoping to climax before he went soft. Of the few times she felt she would have climaxed during sex, it seemed Ron was too quick for her once again. Slowing her movements, Hermione knew it was pointless as Ron was already limp.

 

Ron took her frantic movements over him as a sign that she had reached orgasm.

 

Sitting up with his wife still straddling him, he reached for her breasts and grabbed at them, tweaking the nipples with too much pressure for her liking.

 

"Bloody fantastic!" Ron growled into his wife's back.

 

The whole fantasy was ruined for her now. Not only was she left on the precarious edge of an orgasm, frustrated with wide-eyed agitation and lack of release, Ron had opened his mouth. Ron's tenor voice was abrasive to her ears, not soothing like Calleo's low and melodious voice.

 

"I'm going to take a shower and clean up," Hermione said, gently easing herself from her husband's grasp. It would not do to snap at him after what Ron surely thought was great sex for them both.

 

Once inside the sanctuary of the bathroom, Hermione wished she hadn't thrown away all those 'adult novelty' items the twins had sent her and Ron over the years. They had asked Hermione and Ron to 'test' some of the items they had developed for the adult line of Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes, to which she had sent them a rather nasty Howler about how she felt insulted by their 'gifts.' Most of them consisted of enchanted dildos, vibrators and "magical fannies." Surely one of those contraptions would have done the job in the shower that Ron had failed to do in bed that night, and many previous nights before; mainly, bring her to orgasm. Now she regretted her prudish notions.

 

Hermione was so sexually frustrated, feeling like a violin string tightened with one too many turns, that even the doorknob was starting to look good to her. At least that wouldn’t go soft at the wrong moment. Perhaps Ron was already passed out in bed and she could sneak into the kitchen and see if there was a carrot or cucumber that would suit her needs.

 

Suddenly appalled at the idea of resorting to vegetables for sexual gratification, Hermione jumped into the shower and quickly brought herself to climax before she finally slumped onto the floor, the shower head continuing to spray water over her head.

 

Contemplating the evening, her gigolo had helped. This was the first time she had been truly aroused in what seemed a long time. Perhaps if she could just get Ron to engage in more foreplay, while she fantasized about her gigolo, she just might be able to reach orgasm before Ron. And all desire to converse with Ron had been satisfied by Calleo.

 

Yes, this just might be the thing she needed to improve her marriage after all.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Severus waited a while before strolling down to Draco's flat on the third floor. He needed to think on the evening's revelations before approaching the younger wizard.

 

One thing he wanted to ponder was why Hermione was still in such a lowly position. He wondered why she had not been promoted before now. She was always over-achieving at school, and the fact that she was still testing ingredients contradicted her ambitious nature. He knew that Hermione had made some very powerful enemies when she hatched the plan to free house-elves from Death Eater families, but all the Death Eaters in the Ministry had been rooted out. There were other things afoot here that must explain why she was doing a low-level job for four years. He had suspicions, which he could confirm when he met with a particular client he had next week.

 

The other thing he needed to contemplate was how to approach Hermione about getting the ingredients he and Draco needed for their escape. Since the end of the war, Moody had seen fit to strictly regulate certain ingredients, namely, certain ingredients in the Polyjuice Potion. Powdered bicorn horn, boomslang skin and fluxweed picked at full moon were strictly controlled, requiring a potions license to use such ingredients now. These were items that were not frequently used in most potion making. And when said ingredients were purchased, the buyer's name was written down in a registry recording the purchase. It left a paper trail for the Ministry to follow if Polyjuice was illegally used, like in the escape of two Death Eaters from Great Britain.

 

Lavender could have bought the ingredients for Severus, but when he would have escaped, she would have been under the Ministry's scrutiny for just cause, as she was listed as his employer in his parole records. And ingredients brought in from out of the country were confiscated through magic, so it would not have been possible for her to make a quick trip to France to bring the items to him. They would have wound up in a customs locker and Lavender would have had a nice long talk with an Auror over smuggling ingredients.

 

Hermione's position was perfect. She had access to all the ingredients as they came into the county. And as her job required testing of ingredients, she could sneak away just enough of those elusive ingredients so that he could brew the potion. Technically, he couldn’t brew it himself, but Lavender could.

 

This would mean he would eventually have to reveal himself to Hermione, hoping her Gryffindor righteousness would prod her into helping him in reaching his goals. Severus would need to speak with Ginny about Hermione's feelings, which would lead to revealing Mrs. Weasley's visits to him. He and Draco would have to proceed very carefully from here on out if they were to succeed.

 

Severus rapped on Draco's door with his own special knock.

 

Knock-knock-knock. Knock-knock. Knock.

 

Half dressed in a dressing gown and trousers, Draco opened the door and smirked. "Come to escape the know-it-all?"

 

Feeling slightly irked at the statement, Severus swept into Draco's rooms. Despite what he’d thought earlier, Hermione actually proved to be delightful company, even though he would vehemently deny it in his own conscious mind.

 

He sat himself in one of Draco wing-back chairs by the fire before quirking one brow in mock surprise of Draco's statement.

 

"Why, Mr. Malfoy. Do you not care for Mrs. Weasley?" he said in false syrupy tones.

 

The blond wizard snorted at Severus' attempt at sarcasm.

 

"You should. She's our ticket out of here," Severus said in dead seriousness.

 

Severus watched as the implications of his statement sink into Draco's mind.

 

Draco all but fell into the other matching chair, in a state of mild shock. "Bloody hell!"

 

She had been there all along, meeting with Ginny for lunch every week. His own disdain towards Hermione Weasley, nee Granger, had kept him from inquiring about her. Had he and Ginny talked about her friend, he would have gleaned this information sooner. It was no fault of Ginny, as she had not been included in their plan to use Polyjuice Potion to leave the country. Ginny was probably not aware of the regulation of the key potions ingredients. He fought down the urge to thump his forehead with the heel of his hand. Now was not the time to ponder regrets for avoiding the subject of Hermione Granger during his secret rendezvous with Ginny; it was the time to put plans into action. Draco wondered what sort of job Mrs. Weasley had that would facilitate their escape.

 

In anticipation to the question he saw forming in Draco’s mind, Severus said, "She works in the Department of Standards and Regulations."

 

"So it's really going to happen?" Draco asked in almost disbelief, as if this was some perverse dream and he would wake soon.

 

Severus smiled as he replied, "Sic erat in fatis."

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen
“Knowledge Is Power”

 

Disclaimer: Harry Potter belongs to J.K. Rowling, Scholastic Books, Bloomsbury, Warner Bros. and anyone else who has a huge team of lawyers with a rightful financial stake in this franchise. So don't think I would even insinuate that I own any concepts written in this story, except those inspired by a dirty imagination spurred on my hormones.

 

============

 

Draco began to laugh. It sounded as if it were half way between relief and hysteria, much like Severus had felt earlier upon learning about Hermione's job.

 

"All that time, and it was right in front of my face," the fairer man muttered to himself distractedly.

 

"Now is not the time for regrets. Had I been in your position, I would have avoided knowing anything about her as well," Severus reproved. "When is your next meeting with Ginny?"

 

Draco gathered himself. "Next Tuesday morning. I haven't seen her since Thursday last week, when Mrs. Weasley discovered us. We've decided to mix up our meeting times to throw Potter off the scent if he gets suspicious again."

 

Severus nodded; that was a prudent action indeed. "We both need to talk with her. Since she has confessed seeing you to Hermione, perhaps she can tell us more of Hermione's opinion regarding the decree and its enforcement on us, as she mentioned it in her owl to you. If we play our cards correctly, I can use the indignation Hermione feels over injustice to our advantage."

 

"You're going to reveal yourself to her?"

 

The dark-haired wizard nodded. "It's the only way."

 

"You know this means we have to tell Ginny about Hermione's visits with you," Draco said with a mirthful predatory smile. "If Mrs. Weasley balks, we can always blackmail her."

 

"That is a last resort. I would have to take our dealings to a point that would be worthy of blackmail before I can play that hand," Severus said in such a way to insinuate sexual relations. "The woman has a habit of bending – and sometimes breaking – rules to suit her needs when she feels the end justifies the means. No doubt, if she can steal boomslang skin to find out if you are the heir of Slytherin, she will be easily convinced to engage in the theft of a little more."

 

There was a long pause of silence before Draco spoke. "You know we'll have to tell Ginny and Lavender about our plans now."

 

Severus snapped his head up, drawn away from his whirring thoughts. "I'm aware of our need to inform Lavender. She has delicately intoned that she would help when the time comes, without implicating herself if interrogated by the Ministry, but we need to keep Ginny in the dark as much as possible."

 

Standing quickly, Draco strode over to the fireplace and placed one forearm on the mantle. His fists clutched and relaxed as he kept his back towards his mentor. "No, you don’t understand, Severus. She must be made fully aware of what we are doing."

 

"Do you really think that we are actually going to be taking her with us when we go?" Severus asked rhetorically.

 

Severus knew this would be foolish; Potter would not let his wife go easily without following after her. He figured that the risk of bringing Ginny along would foil their plans. If anything, if Draco loved her, he would let her go. Besides, didn’t Draco want to be free as much as he did?

 

Spinning around quickly, Draco's eyes flared. "No, you don't understand." Scowling, he continued, "Remember the agreement we made? That if we found a way out you would finally tell me about your wife and I would tell you the deal I made with Lavender when I signed her contract?"

 

A heavy weight was pressing against Severus' chest. He would have to think about her, remember her. The only thing Draco knew about Severus' wife was the fact a witch had married him and she was dead now. There was no one alive who knew about her or her name. Albus, Minerva, even Lucius, were all dead now. And with their death was gone the reminder of her when they looked at him. He had caught the rare glimpse of pity from the headmaster and Minerva over the years. When Lucius had looked at him at times, it was with smug satisfaction of the knowledge that he was behind her death in some small way. Perhaps Severus' turning of Draco against his father and the Dark Lord was some small extraction of vengeance against the fellow Death Eater and deceased patriarch of the Malfoy family. Still, it was not enough.

 

"Yes, I remember," he answered stonily.

 

"I will tell you now. When the Polyjuice Potion is almost done brewing, you can tell me your story."

 

Nodding in agreement of the terms, Severus watched Draco begin to pace the floor.

 

"I never told Ginny of our plan of escape, as a measure of protection for her and us, especially if Potter decided to go diving into her mind. I had every intention of bringing her with us when the time came. When Lavender found me in that alley, I had already bartered away everything except the clothes on my back. I knew that Ginny was married, as I had read about their wedding in a discarded copy of the Daily Prophet a few months earlier. So the promise of money, shelter, food and a job was not enough to convince me to work for her. I wanted to die, because I knew Potter had Ginny in his bed every night." Gracefully flopping back into the chair opposite Severus, Draco explained further. "I told Lavender she had nothing of value to me, so she just might as well bugger off and let me die. And then she looked at me that way, the way she does when she knows things."

 

Severus was all too familiar with Lavender's sense of intuition.

 

"So," Draco continued, "she says, 'Oh, but I think I can offer you something you do want. I can get you Ginny and a way out of the country.'"

 

"Wait!" Severus interrupted. "Ginny didn’t start seeing you again until December 2001. And you started working for her in July 2000. How did she know…"

 

Severus trailed off. Either Lavender was clairvoyant, or she had hedged some big bets on certain events falling into place just so. Either way, it baffled him that Lavender had known this would happen… or had arranged it so it would happen. Even Dumbledore hadn’t had this sort of foresight, despite his age and power during Severus' tenure at Hogwarts. He had learned during his last years teaching at Hogwarts that Albus' appearance of omnipotence was created by his very own network of spies, namely the portraits and house-elves, who reported to him the gossip and goings on around the castle. It also helped that his image on all those Chocolate Frog trading cards provided a bit of reconnaissance during the war, as well.

 

"Women's intuition." Draco shrugged. "That and the fact she put the pieces into place. I grilled her on how she knew about Ginny and me. It seems that she remembered when I ordered some custom made soaps for Ginny for Christmas during Lavender's first year in business before the house-elves were freed. She was still taking custom orders at the time. I’d ordered them to be delivered to Ginny directly. Lavender remembered that. She also saw Ginny and me out in Muggle London one time after the end of the war."

 

Shifting in his seat, Draco ran his hands through his hair. He seemed to sense that Severus, under other circumstances, would have taken him to task for being so careless with his personal activities with rogue Death Eaters still on the lose during that period, but now was not the time.

 

"So when I told her that Ginny was married and her efforts were pointless, she said in that knowing voice of hers, 'Oh, I don’t think Ginny is too happy being married to Harry.' I asked her how she would know and she told me she that just knew. Then she whipped out the clipping from the Daily Prophet with a picture of Ginny's wedding. She says, 'Does this look like a happy bride?' " Draco gave a great shuddering sigh and swallowed hard. "I was so… upset when I read about it originally, I never bothered to really look at the picture. When Lavender showed it to me, I really looked at it and knew Ginny was unhappy. That gave me hope, enough hope to accept Lavender's offer to work for her… in both capacities."

 

Black hair hung in a curtain over Severus' face. He felt many emotions at once and nothing at all. Lavender had helped them towards their goal of freedom and, at the same time, used them for her own purposes. She had manipulated people and yet had done nothing much in changing the course of events. The former Head of Slytherin House wasn't sure if she was more cunning than he gave her credit for, or was extremely lucky and noble.

 

Draco had held up his end of the bargain. He had finally told Severus the terms in which Lavender had gotten him to work for her. One thing still didn't sit well with the older man.

 

"How did she know that one day Hermione, or someone in her position, would come along?"

 

Shaking his head, the blond replied, "I don't know. She either was privy to information, had a good hunch or both. It will be interesting to ask her. I’ll let you do the honors of getting that little tidbit out of her."

 

Severus wanted to know what other information Lavender had been holding out on. It would be something to ask her when the time was right. Perhaps ‘interrogate’ would be a more appropriate term. However, he could not argue that Lavender had made this opportunity possible through well timed words and suggestions to Ginny and Hermione. Perhaps a nice talk, with some charm thrown in, would loosen her tongue. In all fairness, Lavender was a very equitable employer, and had found a way for him to continue working in Potions – bending the law without breaking it, per se. No, he could not find Lavender with fault, as the plan he and Draco had talked about for years could now come to fruition. Though, it would have been nice if it had happened sooner.

 

'Perhaps if Miss Brown was sorted today, she would have been placed in Slytherin,' Severus thought to himself as he stared at the fire.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Blinking at the morning light streaming through the curtains, Hermione awoke feeling more rested than she had in ages. After carefully rising from the bed so as not to wake Ron, she padded into the kitchen to make a quick cup of tea.

 

Standing in front of the cooker, while lost in thought as the water was brought to a boil, she began humming to herself. Despite Ron's typical less-than-stellar performance in the bedroom, she had a decent enough orgasm in the shower to compensate, due, in no small part, to the fantasy she was having when to her husband arrived home early. Mostly though, it was from the mental euphoria she was still riding.

 

She remembered during her walk home, from the building that she now mentally referred to as The Red Ginseng, her usual evening urge to engage Ron in conversation when he got home later that night had been sated. It seemed as if Calleo was just what Hermione needed to make her happy with this marriage. Calleo would satisfy her mind in a way Ron could not, while stimulating her physically through her fantasies, enough to make sex with Ron more enjoyable.

 

The thought of marriage counseling had popped into her mind before, but she knew Ron's stance on the idea. His motto was, ‘if it wasn't broke, don’t fix it’. And in Ron's opinion, their marriage wasn't broke at all. A little tense at times, but nothing a good shag and a job with better money couldn’t solve, he surmised.

 

Hermione smiled secretly. As long as Ron was unaware of her new Thursday evening activities, everything would work out just fine. And if he did become enlightened about her visits with Calleo, she would justify it by honestly stating that nothing happened. They just talked about things in which he had no interest in at all, so what harm was done? Knowing Ron's temper and his fragile ego, it was best if she did her damnedest to keep it from him though.

 

"You're in a good mood this morning," Ron said from the doorjamb to the kitchen. "Flourish and Blotts start handing out free books?"

 

For some reason, instead of finding humor in his jibe, it irritated her. There was no way Ron was going to ruin her good mood with an insensitive remark. Instead she gave him a tight smile and jabbed him in the ribs.

 

"Oi! Watch it there. You and your talon fingers just about took a chunk out of me!" he complained loudly.

 

Turning back to the now-whistling kettle, she poured water into two mugs.

 

Before she could pick up the mugs and bring them to the kitchen table, Ron grabbed her arse, giving her a good goose as he passed by. "Maybe there's another reason why you're so happy this morning," he said with a twinkling leer.

 

'Yes, and you're not the reason,' she mused, her bitter thoughts making her mouth tighten at the corners once more. Hermione hoped he would not bring up the situation in which he had found her last night.

 

"Do you always do that while I'm away at work?" Ron asked with a nudge and a wink.

 

Doing her best not to let the exasperation sour her face, she plastered on a shy smile. "No. I just… well," she professed in believable tones, "I just needed to, you know… relax." She hoped he would drop the matter.

 

Despite Hermione's experience with sex – even if it was limited to one partner – she found the idea of masturbating with Ron watching her embarrassing. She had performed fellatio on him and he had reluctantly performed cunnilingus on her a few times, they had sex in a few interesting positions and rarely did anything adventurous in the bedroom. Once or twice, he had tied her down, yet despite Ron's intimate knowledge of his wife's body, Hermione couldn't bring herself to masturbate while Ron watched. It seemed like a very private and personal thing to do, away from prying eyes. Actually, it was more that the idea of masturbating while Ron watched did not arouse her instead.

 

"Well, if you ever want to relax again, please… let me know. I'll be more than happy to witness that."

 

Hermione wanted to fold her arms over her chest and petulantly tell him no, but instead kept sipping at her tea instead and fought the urge to roll her eyes. Maybe if he would just be quiet and not say a word, she might let him watch sometime. She just hoped she would never call out Calleo's name in the heat of her own self-induced passion.

 

After finishing her tea, Hermione made breakfast for them both. It seemed that not only lunch out with the girls would have to go, but her morning scone habit as well. Some egg and toast was much cheaper to prepare. She had lunch with Harry today and needed to find other ways to save every Knut she could for what she would come to think of as her 'weekly habit.'

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Severus was in a better mood than his usual Friday post parole meeting black mood. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, and for once it was not the Hogwarts Express coming his way.

 

Lavender could tell that Severus' mien was different, but decided to keep her observations to herself. Knowing Severus' private nature, it was best that he brought it up if he wanted to discuss something. There was nothing that irked a Slytherin more than to out-Slytherin him.

 

It was during lunch that Severus finally talked of something other than Potions. "I had the most interesting conversation with Mrs. Weasley last night."

 

Lavender lifted her gaze from the plate of poached salmon with cucumber-dill sauce before her. "Hmm? Do tell."

 

He prodded at a small pile of greens dressed with a light vinaigrette, before spearing it. "Yes, she works at the Department of Standards and Regulations."

 

"Hmm. Yes, that is interesting." Lavender was not going to take the bait.

 

Severus threw down his napkin in disgust. "No more subtlety, Miss Brown. Now is the time to come clean with what you know. If you are going to help, then Draco and I need to know what other information you have been withholding if we are going to be successful in our goals. I must know all that you can tell me, as you seem to know much more than you have alluded to. How did you know you could get Draco and Ginny away from here when you didn't even know about Hermione? How is it you promised Draco such a thing?"

 

Under the Potions master's glare, she set her fork down and dabbed at the corner of her mouth with her napkin before meeting his penetrating gaze. "All right. I'll tell you what I know and when I knew it. When Ginny wed Harry, I knew she was unhappy and figured she was pining for Draco. Before I came across Draco that fateful day in the alley, I already knew that Hermione worked for that particular department. So when I promised Draco a way out, I figured some method of escape would come to light, though I didn’t make the connection to Hermione till later.

 

"If you had made the same plans that I would have in your situation, I would guess Polyjuice Potion as a means to your goal. Consider your inclusion to Draco's escape a fringe benefit, as our original contract did not include this clause. You have helped my business beyond measure, so if or when a way became possible, I considered it a given that you would go as well."

 

"So it was a guess? The luck of the draw that the situation presented itself?" he asked.

 

"Partially. However, I have my own plans afoot. I have certain goals where Hermione is concerned. It was as time went by that I thought of how to use her to help you, Draco, and Ginny."

 

Severus stared at her for a long moment wondering if he should violate parole and use Legilimency to see if there was anything else she was hiding. "And what are your plans for Hermione?" Perhaps Miss Brown's plans for her would give light to more information.

 

"That is of a very personal nature," she calmly answered.

 

"Damn it!" he snarled, leaning over the table set for two. "Considering the personal nature of my night job, I would think a Gryffindor such as yourself would find the exchange of information a way to make things a bit more equitable. You women always love to talk. Tell me!"

 

Lavender found it quite amusing that Severus would want to know what she had in store for Hermione. A week ago he was reluctant to have anything to do with her, and now he seemed concerned. Then again, if Hermione was his means for escape, she was sure that he wanted to know that her plans would not interfere with his own.

 

"I assure you, Mr. Snape, what plans I have concerning Hermione will not stop you three from fleeing. As a matter of fact, your flight from the country just may serve my ultimate purpose," she said with a smug smile. "If that answer still does not meet with your satisfaction, then I will eventually tell you what you want to know. Until then, I prefer to keep my own counsel on the matter."

 

Severus was not wholly satisfied with Miss Brown's answers, but it would suffice for now. It was a combination of luck and insight that directed them all to this point in time. He would have to make use of her natural talents, as he did not want any mishaps in the execution of his plans.

 

One last question needed to be asked. "Do you know why Hermione is still doing the same job after four years?" He watched her closely, looking for any signs she might be hiding more information.

 

"Why don’t you ask your Tuesday afternoon client?"

 

He had already thought to ask Calpurnia, but Miss Brown's statement merely confirmed his suspicions that she was the right person to ask.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Glancing at her surroundings, Hermione figured that Harry didn’t want to talk about marriage counseling in any wizarding establishment, and that was why she was meeting him in another Muggle restaurant. Any witch or wizard who had an incentive to eavesdrop, namely a reporter from any number of publications, would find the news of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Potter in counseling too good to pass up.

 

The crisp linens and small vase filled with a couple stems of miniature carnations decorated the table. It seemed a bit posh for Hermione's budget, but if she were going to go out to lunch only when Harry invited her, then she supposed a place like this once in a great while wouldn't stress her budget too much.

 

Harry strode into the restaurant in Muggle attire and raised a hand in greeting from across the dining area.

 

"Hi," Harry greeted his friend enthusiastically with a smile.

 

She returned the smile with one of her own that was equally warm. "Hello, Harry. I take it that all went well last night?"

 

Giving her a shy smile, he nodded. "I'm sorry that we had to get to this point for us to get into counseling, but at least we're both talking to one another. I guess I haven’t been very fair to Ginny in that I haven’t bothered to get to know her as much as I should have and I’ve taken her for granted in some ways. We also addressed my problems with trust. I'm seeing the same psychiatrist for my personal counseling for Monday night sessions starting next week. He's dealt with a lot of Vietnam, Falklands, and Gulf War veterans. The circumstances are different, but a lot of the symptoms are the same."

 

"I'm sorry about having to yell at you like that," Hermione apologized, "but considering the circumstances, if it wound up helping you and Ginny get on the road to patching things up… well, then…" She shrugged, her gesture finishing her unspoken sentiments.

 

Harry wore a repentant frown. "I guess I was a complete berk the other night, being drunk and all. But after the session last night, I have hope that things will get better. I feel better than I have in a while. We both got quite a lot off our chests last night." His face became more serious, as his voice became slightly choked with emotion. "Some of it stung, but…" He closed his eyes and shook his head, as he gave another weak smile. "Anyway, how have you been this week?"

 

"Me?" she squeaked.

 

The only thought that came to mind was the exhilaration she felt after talking with her gigolo, but that would not be proper conversation. Especially since she had told Harry's wife to stop seeing her own gigolo-slash-boyfriend earlier that week. She doubted Harry would understand anymore than her own husband. Ginny would empathize with her reasoning, but considering Hermione’s threat to the redheaded witch if she continued seeing Malfoy, it would most likely never come to light that she herself was frequenting a brothel, no matter how innocent her purpose.

 

"Um," she stammered for a moment, "better. I'm so glad to hear you and Ginny are doing better."

 

"Yeah, so am I. And it's all thanks to you. You finally got us both into counseling where we need it. Let me buy you lunch today as a sign of my gratitude."

 

Feeling rather guilty for her own hypocrisy, she shoved the feeling aside and beamed back at him. "You don’t have to, Harry."

 

"Oh please, Hermione. Just this once," he pleaded with a smile, batting his green eyes at her like he used to when they were at school and he needed a favor.

 

"Oh… all right," she huffed. "But just this once," she scolded him lightly with a waggle of her finger.

 

Hermione felt much better indeed. Not only was her resentment towards Ron lessened, but Harry and Ginny's marriage seemed to be getting back on track.

 

Since this was the first relaxed conversation they’d had since Harry's request for Hermione to spy on his wife, she decided this was the best time to bring up a certain topic and see if she could get any satisfactory answers.

 

"Harry," Hermione said casually, "I was just remembering about all the other Order members. It was nice to see so many of them on Victory Day." She saw Harry's face darken and quickly went on with her tangent. "I saw Tonks. She was looking quite well, and Dedalus Diggle too. You know he's been doing some security work for Hestia Jones in France."

 

"Really? I'll have to owl Hestia sometime and catch up. It's been too long."

 

"Ron and I had a chance to chat with Neville and Luna. They seem to be back on speaking terms with one another, I'm glad that at least they were able to remain friends, especially after she returned his ring."

 

"I heard Neville was seeing Sprout's niece, some Hufflepuff that graduated a few years ago." Harry looked up at the ceiling as he tried recalling the girl. "Can’t remember her name right now, but I think you'd remember her if you saw her."

 

"Did you get a chance to talk with any of the other Order members on Monday?" she asked, hoping the transition to what she really wanted to ask him would seem smooth.

 

Harry grimaced slightly. "Unfortunately no. I think next year I'm going to skip the official Ministry function – and avoid the spotlight – and have a party with all the old Order members at the house."

 

Now was her chance. "Speaking of old Order members, you wouldn't know what happened to Snape and Malfoy, would you?" Hermione hoped it didn’t seem to forced and appeared to be spontaneous.

 

He jerked upright in his seat slightly and blinked at her owlishly before a scowl began creeping across his face. "No I don’t," he said rather coldly. "And I don’t care. I hope they're miserable suffering under that Death Eater Decree."

 

Hermione gasped in shock. "Harry! How could you! They were on our side. You can’t mean that!"

"Are you so sure they were on our side? They are both Slytherins," he growled through clenched teeth. "And everyone knows a Slytherin only looks out for himself and no one else. Didn't it ever make you wonder why Albus and Minerva died just before the end of the war? I bet those two had something to do with it. Probably trying to save their own skins by killing off both of them in case I didn't hold up my end of the prophecy. Wouldn’t be surprised if that hooked nose bat poisoned the headmaster; he was a Potions master after all. Could make it look like a nice little accident or maybe just natural causes."

 

"Harry James Potter! Where did you learn such rubbish? Snape risked his life for you countless times to make sure you lived to defeat Voldemort, and you accuse him of killing Albus! What nonsense," she proclaimed with umbrage. "Albus died of natural causes at the ripe old age of one hundred and fifty-nine. Considering the average life span of a witch or wizard is one hundred and forty, though a few have been known to live until one hundred ninety, Albus lived a rather full life."

 

"And what about Minerva," he questioned her. "Don't tell me it was coincidence that she died shortly after Albus. And she was only seventy-three. In her prime!"

 

Memories of her favorite teacher flooded her memories. There were times she had missed her mentor and friend. As her eyes filled with tears, her voice quavered, "You don’t think I miss her? I do! So much! If I could have taken some of those hexes in her stead, I would have. But Snape and Malfoy had nothing to do with that."

 

"Don't be so sure. Come on Hermione, don’t kid yourself. How else could Death Eaters gotten into the castle unless Snape and Malfoy helped them," he shot back. "How else would Voldemort know about the passage from Honeydukes? Think Hermione! You know they had to be playing both sides so that they could save their own skins no matter which side won."

 

She was flustered and outraged. "And just who told you this load of tripe? How do you know it was Snape and Malfoy for certain?"

 

"Moody," Harry bit back. "He told me that Snape and Malfoy were probably the ones who killed the headmaster and Minerva. There was no one else who could have lead the Death Eaters into Hogwarts or get close enough to the headmaster to poison him."

 

Sitting very still while her mind whirred, Hermione knew Malfoy and Snape had nothing to do with the attack. They had helped defend the castle, while trying to avoid showing their true loyalties to the Order. A few well placed hexes and Obliviates on a group of Death Eaters near Gryffindor Tower had helped them cover their tracks so that no one suspected them as spies. At the time, no one knew the final battle would be but a few days away. Everyone figured that the war might drag on for a few more years. They did what they could to remain useful in their capacity as spies for the future.

 

However, something did not sit right with Hermione. She knew she was overlooking a bit of information, something important. Still, she could not sit idylly by and let Harry think the two Slytherins betrayed them all.

 

"Probably? Probably? So he doesn’t know. He's guessing," she said disdainfully.

 

"He's an Auror and a damn good one. I trust his hunches. I think he's right on this one," Harry asserted.

 

"So what you're saying is on the presumption of a man who could give conspiracy theorists a run for their money in the paranoia department, you trust what he says? The man won’t even shake my hand!" she fumed. "And I'm a Muggle-born, best friend's with the Boy-Who-Lived, and fellow Order member. It's paranoid delusions!"

 

"The man got locked in a trunk by a Death Eater for almost a whole year!"

 

"And don’t you think that did something to him in the long run? He probably needs to get himself into counseling too! As sure as I am about anything, I just know in my heart and my gut that Snape and Malfoy are innocent and had nothing to do with Albus and Minerva’s deaths. I think it's a travesty that they should have this law applied to them. After all they sacrificed, and now this," she declared with a fierce glare.

 

Harry leaned forward, concerned that his friend was going to get herself into trouble. He lowered his voice, "Hermione, I know what you are thinking. But even if you are right – and I doubt you are this once – don’t go and try and fix this. You'll be labeled a Death Eater sympathizer."

 

Hermione snorted in disgust. "I highly doubt that. I'm a Muggle-born! You and I are the last people to ever sympathize with the Death Eaters. I think that what they did to them was positively a slap on the wrist. Fudge should have stuck them all in Azkaban; all except Snape and Malfoy."

 

Shaking his head, Harry said, "How can you feel any sympathy for those two? Snape was horrid to you all those years and Malfoy was even worse. How can you feel the need to clear their names?"

 

"Because it's the right thing to do, Harry. You know it. If I can prove they are innocent, I want you to make the public declaration. Nobody would dispute you. You’re the Man-Who-Killed-Voldemort. Promise me you will," she begged, her brow furrowed with determination.

 

Exhaling slowly, knowing Hermione's stubborn streak, he relented. "All right. But it has to be really good and solid. Otherwise, Moody will not budge an inch." Someplace, deep down inside, he worried that she just might be right.

 

"Moody is not the law, just an enforcer of it," she said solemnly. "If Snape and Malfoy are innocent, then they should be released from the decree. If I do find that Moody is right in his assumptions, then I will have no problem with the idea of those two being penalized to the full extent of the law."

 

The waiter, waiting for their argument to abate, came over to their table. "Good afternoon. Would you like to hear our specials today?" His cheery tone was like a bucket of ice water being poured on both their heads, drastically altering the mood.

 

Hermione hadn’t even looked at the menu and any appetite she’d had was long since gone.

 

"I'm sorry, Harry. I can’t eat. We'll have lunch another time. I'm just…" She rose from her seat, wiping away a few errant tears and licking her lips which had gone dry during their argument. "I need to go back to work, I'll owl you later, bye."

 

All but fleeing from the restaurant, she didn’t stop until she reached a spot a few blocks away at the edge of a park. Slumping onto a bench, oblivious to the Muggle children playing in the warm afternoon sunshine, Hermione began to weep.

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen

“In the Heat of the Night”

 

Disclaimer: (Sung to the song, "We Love You, Conrad" from Bye Bye Birdie)

 

We love you J.K.
Oh, yes we do
When we write fanfics
We think of you
We know you own this
Don’t sue!
Oh J.K., we love you!

 

============

 

Sitting in the VIP box with Harry and Ginny, Hermione still felt a little awkward around both her friends. Ron had sent the Potters tickets for the weekend game against the Falmouth Falcons, and had not informed his wife of his actions till that morning.

 

The last time Hermione had spoken with either Harry or Ginny, it was a rather tense situation in both instances. She had ordered Ginny to stop seeing Malfoy, then later that week confronted Harry over assumed facts of Snape and Malfoy's participation in the death of Albus and Minerva.

 

They all smiled uneasily at one another.

 

The VIP box was located right next to the spouse's box. It was usually referred to as the wives' box, as there hadn't been a female player on the team in five years. Though Hermione would have preferred to have some more time apart from her two friends until tempers and feelings cooled, she would rather sit with them than in the wives' box having to listen to Christie Kidd and Nicole Stewart prattle on about their husbands' latest endorsement contracts and the money involved, the latest society gossip, and their thinly veiled insults directed at her. They would give Hermione patronizing looks of pity, as she never wore the latest fashion and had to work for a living while her husband sat out most games on the sidelines.

 

Hermione was in the midst of asking Ginny about Fleur's condition, as she had been put on bed rest a few days prior, when Mrs. Kidd sauntered over to the VIP section with Mrs. Stewart in tow.

 

"Hello, Hermione," Christie greeted her in a sweet singsong voice that belied the disdain she held for Mrs. Hermione Weasley.

 

Because Hermione's back was towards the pair as they approached, she had no idea they were behind her until the one spoke. Her back went rigidly straight and her eyes narrowed to discretely tell Ginny and Harry that the two visitors were not welcome.

 

Hitching a none-too-convincing smile on her face, Hermione turned around. "Oh! Christie, Nicole. I didn’t notice you," she replied with false sincerity worthy of Lucius Malfoy, while letting her actions speak louder than her words.

 

"Aren't you going to introduce us to your friends?" Nicole asked, while an ungracious, arrogant smirk played across her face.

 

Hermione felt like she was back at Hogwarts with Pansy Parkinson and Draco Malfoy, the superiority complexes, vain arrogance and derisive attitudes included.

 

Even though she was involved in the final battle with Voldemort, helping Harry when the time came for the last spell, the press only mentioned Hermione in passing and she was never interested in fame because she saw what the press had done to Harry. So the fact that the two witches had never heard of her before Ron joined the team didn’t surprise Hermione. However, she was irritated enough to put these two harpies in their place, and she decided to make the most of the situation, hoping that Harry would play along.

 

"Christie, Nicole, this is my oldest and dearest friend Harry." She paused for dramatic effect. "Harry Potter."

 

The effect was priceless, as Christie's and Nicole's faces fell. Both witches' mouths were agape as they looked from Hermione to Harry. It was clearly written across their faces that they didn’t think Hermione had neither the clout nor prestige to be associated with someone as famous as Harry Potter.

 

Harry, picking up on the situation from Hermione's attitude, and sensing the same elitist arrogance exuding from Christie and Nicole as he had from Malfoy on the train his first year, quickly chimed in. "You know Hermione doesn't like to brag, but if it wasn't for her and Ron's help during the final battle, I don’t think I would have lived to see today. You'd all be kissing Voldemort's robes if it weren't for them."

 

He hated playing the fame card as well, but having heard before how the two witches had treated Hermione, Harry wanted to put them in their place for good. No one treated his friends like that. Ever.

 

Christie began to stutter; Harry had said You-Know-Who’s name out loud. "Oh He-Hermione, um, erm, did I mention that we're having a garden party tomorrow. You, Ron and Harry are more than welcome to join us." She beamed an all too brilliant smile at the famous wizard.

 

At this point Ginny cleared her throat, itching to jump into the fray.

 

Turing towards her other friend, Hermione said, "And this is another dear friend, Ginny."

 

Ginny extended her hand out to the twin bints and gave a convincing smile. "Christie, Nicole. I've heard so much about you."

 

"Ginny," Christie and Nicole replied in unison, the former witch shaking her hand.

 

"Oh please," Ginny charmingly pleaded, "call me Mrs. Potter."

 

Words could not describe the looks on Christie’s and Nicole's faces. If a picture were worth a thousand words, then the look on both their faces would have rivaled Agnes Hortensia Bladderpus' semi-autobiographical eighteenth century epic opus, "My Life As A Courtesan Hag: Volumes I through VIII," in terms of length to describe it.

 

Their eyes darted to the ring on Ginny's finger, then to Harry's left hand for confirmation. They both grinned broadly at Ginny, through their smiles never reached their eyes.

 

"Yes, so nice to meet you both," Nicole said in disbelief.

 

"Yes, we must go. Hope to see you all at our party tomorrow? Ta!" Christie bid the group farewell, noting the chilly reception at what she hoped was an opportunity to further climb the social ladder through association of the famous couple.

 

Once the two biddies were gone, the three friends burst into gales of laughter not caring if they were heard or seen.

 

"Oh, Harry! I can’t tell you how long I've wanted to do something like that. Thank you so much. You made my year," Hermione said, as she regained her breath.

 

"Anything for you," Harry replied with a smile, his hand waving dismissively as if it were nothing. "Your previous descriptions didn't do them justice. They're worse!"

 

Hermione turned to Ginny. "And you were perfect. I have never seen a blow dealt so deftly. They both looked like you hit them upside the head with a haddock."

 

"No problem, Hermione. Can't let two stupid cows like that insult our friend now, can we?" the redhead added.

 

The tension between them had dissipated when faced with a common enemy. Before they could talk further, the announcer's voice boomed throughout the stadium.

 

"Good afternoon witches, wizards, and children of all ages. Welcome to the Chudley Cannons home game against the Falmouth Falcons!"

 

A cheer mixed with a few boos rose though the crowd. Hermione, Harry and Ginny sat back down in their seats to watch the players as they flew out onto the pitch.

 

"It's another lovely afternoon here at Chudley Stadium, so let's introduce the players! Number 13, Chaser for five years, William Kidd!" Another cheer swept through the stadium. "Number 86, Chaser for the Cannons for six years, Frickard Stewart! Number 99, Chaser on the Chudley team for six years, Richard Bent! Number 36, Beater for four seasons here, Chip Dentille! Number 76, Beater for two seasons, Harry Schtump! Number 9, Seeker for the Cannons for seven years straight, Wally Bristol! And filling in for Randall Bagger, welcome Number 42, Keeper for four years, Ronald Weasley!"

 

With the announcement of each team member there was a loud cheer, but when Ron's name was called out, the three in the VIP box looked at each other in brief shock before clapping, whistling, and shouting at the top of their lungs as Ron flew a lap around the stadium before taking his place before the goal posts. Ginny placed two fingers to her mouth and let out a shrill whistle that could be heard halfway across the pitch.

 

'I never could figure out how to whistle like that,' Hermione thought as she stuck a finger in her ear to preserve her eardrum.

 

When they stopped cheering, Harry turned to Hermione. "Why didn't you tell us Ron got the starting slot for this game?"

 

"I didn't know till just now," Hermione confessed. 'Guess that explains the smile he was wearing last night and this morning.'

 

"This is fantastic!" Ginny squealed with delight.

 

Hermione hugged Ginny back and turned to give one to Harry as well. She wondered if Randall was all right and looked about the wives' box over Harry's shoulder as she hugged him to see if Wendy, Randall’s wife, was around. Wendy was one of the few players' wives who was sincerely amicable towards Hermione. As much as she liked the idea of her husband having a chance to prove himself on the field more often, Hermione hoped it was not as a result of the misfortune of others and more on the basis of the team's coach finally seeing Ron's talent.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The Weasleys accepted The Potters' post game invitation to dinner at their house. Hermione spent most of her time in the kitchen with Ginny, fixing dinner. Since the heat wave that had descended upon London the day before made using the cooker in the kitchen a rather unpleasant prospect, they fixed cold items to eat.

 

As Hermione leaned against the counter with a glass of Sangria in her hand, Ginny was de-seeding the cucumbers and chopping them finely for gazpacho. Since Ginny had never been able to convince Harry to take vacation time off, she’d taken to learning the native food of places she wanted to visit. Her latest culinary obsession was Spanish cuisine.

 

The men were in the living room reliving the whole match in enthusiastic tones, especially when both of them were talking about the Cannons’ score of 450 to the Falcons’ 290. The volume was kicked up a notch with the addition of a few glasses of the fruity chilled wine.

 

Hermione listened a moment, making sure the men were still in the other room talking before she spoke to her friend. "Harry says counseling Thursday night went well." She picked up a slice of orange that had been floating in her drink and began nibbling at the wine soaked slice of fruit.

 

Ginny nodded, not saying a word, instead fixing all her attention on the dicing of various vegetables for the cold summer soup she was preparing.

 

Turning her ear towards the door that was closed between the kitchen and the living room, Hermione did a final confirmation of Harry and Ron's location to ensure privacy before she spoke once more. "So, have you owled him it's over?"

 

The steady rhythm of the knife rocking and chopping on the block of wood ceased. Except for the bleeding of Harry and Ron's voices through the closed door, the kitchen became eerily quiet. Hermione held her breath sensing the tension in Ginny's posture and the loud measured breathing through the redhead's nostrils. The younger witch’s gaze remained fixed on the cutting board in front of her.

 

Swallowing hard, Ginny answered, "Not yet."

 

"Oh."

 

The metronomic sound continued once more as Ginny said flatly, "I would appreciate it if you wouldn't bring this subject up in my house when certain people are in the next room." Those people being Harry and the most temperamental of her six brothers.

 

"Oh. Sorry," Hermione muttered contritely.

 

Shrugging, Ginny continued chopping away.

 

Hermione went back to nibbling on her slice of orange, trying to find a delicate way of asking questions she wasn't sure her friend would answer. She wasn't sure if she could wait until next Wednesday to ask the one burning question in her mind.

 

"Harry mentioned yesterday that during counseling, there were some things brought up… and he said they stung a bit," she nudged gently, while trying to sound nonchalant.

 

Ginny sniffed loudly and brought her right arm up so she could wipe away a few tears on her upper arm. Finally stopping, she laid down the knife and looked at Hermione.

 

"You want to know if I told him about us?" Ginny asked in a whisper, one eye fixed on the door in case her brother and husband suddenly came bounding into the room.

 

Feeling foolish for not having waited, Hermione gave her a sheepish look and nodded.

 

"No." It was a definitive answer that told Hermione she never would tell Harry. "Can we drop this topic… please?" She gave another large sniff and used her left arm to wipe away the tears from the left side of her face.

 

'Why can't I just leave well enough alone,' Hermione chastised herself.

 

There were times she had wondered if Minerva had lived, if she could have trained her to become an Animagus. In all likelihood, the young witch would have probably been a cat, as her curiosity was by far one of her strongest traits. It was partly her curiosity that had brought her this far. If she had just watched Ginny and reported back to Harry instead of asking Ginny's explanation for her actions, she would not be here watching Ginny mincing green pepper with restrained sorrow and resignation. Then again, Ginny might have just left Harry, holding good on her promise if Draco died by her husband's hand, wand, or word. If Hermione had done things differently, she and Ron might be coaxing Harry out of the bottom of a bottle over the fact his wife left him, and not listening to him excitedly comparing Quidditch techniques Ron used during the game with those used by Keeper on the Puddlemere United team. Maybe it was better that her curiosity drove her to confront Ginny instead. Still, Hermione had told herself before that she wished she were ignorant of certain facts.

 

At that moment she made a small vow to herself to start minding her own business and not seek answers to questions that did not want to be answered. Hermione would not wonder or try to piece together information revealing who her gigolo might be. He wore a mask for his own reasons, probably to remain anonymous. To try and discover who he was might ruin the precious secret she had with herself and the image she had of this mysterious man. Nor would she ask Ginny any further questions about Malfoy. The one exception to this vow would be to learn why Moody was so bent on persecuting Snape and Malfoy, and if the things Harry said they had done were true. She was curious about this problem, but more importantly, what was being done to the ex-Death Eaters was wrong, and she wanted to correct the situation.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

There were times Severus missed Hogwarts. Despite having to deal with students who constantly threatened to do bodily harm to him and others with ill-prepared potions during class, there were definite benefits to the job.

 

Besides the extensive library at his disposal, there was the scenery. Though he lived in the dungeons and was viewed as a secluded man who abhorred all things living and bright, that was far from the truth. Well, except for the secluded part.

 

On March evenings after curfew, he would wander to the semi-tropical greenhouses on the south side of the school to inhale the heady scent of orange blossoms. Their pungently fragrant scent invaded his whole being, reminding him of many things. Their fruit, which was equally sweet and tart, showed how nature must find balance between two opposites. The leaves, glossy and green, reflected the vigor and health of the living things that grew in an ideal environment. Severus wondered at times if he would have been healthier and more vigorous as a lad if his family and school life had been more ideal. Their flowers, which bloomed while fruit hung ripe on the tree, showed abundance and the fertility of life itself. Their flowers, which made a crown for his bride once, reminded him why he did what he must at times and why he would never be a coward again.

 

The long passageways of Hogwarts provided him his daily exercise, allowing him to stretch his legs after standing in one spot for long periods of time, lecturing to the class or peering into cauldrons. The fresh air helped dissipate the fumes that clung to his clothes and allowed him to regain his sense of smell, which became dull during the day, being constantly exposed to the same odors for hours at a time.

 

The beauty of the surrounding countryside changed with the season, which gave him a perspective on the passing of time. The living colors of summer would change to the fiery and fleeting hues of autumn, signaling the approach of winter's sleep to come. The snow and bare branches hid the promise renewed each spring when life returned to the world. There were times he wished the students went home for a week during the middle of spring so that he could go out among the new green grass, bluebells and sun-bright daffodils, and let his bare feet feel the warm living earth without spotty youths laughing at the bitter old man quietly reveling in the simple joys of spring in the afternoon sun. Instead, he would take his nature walks in the early morning hours before the population of the castle would stir and ignore his simple desire to shed his footwear. Severus Snape may have been a cynical and unsentimental man, but that did not mean he still did not hold a sense of wonder for what nature gave each and every year without fail.

 

He was perceived as a man who had a vacuum where his heart should be, and if there were some small piece of flesh residing where his heart should be, it would be black to match his hair, his eyes and his robes.

 

Severus usually wore black robes, giving himself an air of intimidation in the classroom, a tactic to reign control in a room with dangerously toxic substances around, but it hid all manner of stains from ingredients and potions constantly dripping and splashing on him during the school year. After so many years of wearing black, he had continued dressing in a similar fashion. Even with the summer heat, Severus wore black, but not the frock coat he donned to keep warm in the chilly dungeons in Scotland; instead, he wore a light-weight linen shirt under a cool cotton cloak that hid his features as he ventured out into Diagon Alley for a rare jaunt. If the nomadic tribesmen of the Sahara could wear black in the blistering sun, surely he could wear it during a muggy, yet bearable heat wave now that the sun had set.

 

He had been feeling rather cooped up during the day. Perhaps it was the fact that he could taste freedom. What amazed him even more was how an idea, something abstract, could have such a palpable quality to it. Hope was something he had little to spare of over the years, but now it was a growing seed inside of him, aching to grow and bloom.

 

His Saturday night client had come and gone quickly, seeking only a quick shag, as she had other plans to meet up with friends later that evening, which meant that Severus was free to take care of some personal and business matters. However, he quickly found he could not concentrate on his correspondences that lay scattered about his desk in his study, and decided a trip to Flourish and Blotts would be in order. A little distraction to clear his mind of Hermione Weasley and her uses was needed before he could go back to his papers.

 

Business hours in Diagon Alley always ran a little longer during the summer, as people tended to stroll well into the evening, stopping here and there to browse and shop. It was after sunset when Severus ventured outside, as he preferred the cover of night and his cloak to conceal him from passersby. As there were fewer people there than during most times of the day, he found it easy to make his habitual long strides along the cobblestones. His boots were too warm, especially in the balmy evening, and he appreciated the feel of the heels of his summer shoes make contact with the worn stone under his feet, sensing the muscles in his thighs and calves stretch and grow more limber with each step.

 

There were times he cursed the Ministry for revoking his Apparition license, and this was one of them. Travel via Floo was still available to him, and he could have gone to Hogsmeade instead for a good stretch of his legs, but that would mean jostling through a crowded pub where he was more likely to be seen, resulting in people whispering, pointing, and staring at the known Death Eater. As he was not allowed to have a Floo connection in his own home, that meant he would have to deal with the evening crowds at The Leaky Cauldron and The Three Broomsticks. If he couldn't have a nice long walk, at least he could add a few more books to add to his purchase list for Miss Brown to procure.

 

Sweeping into the bookstore, he noted the time on the door. He would have almost two hours in which to lose himself before making the short jaunt back to his flat.

 

The store had a few bibliophiles scattered about the many rows of bookcases, but those few people were so entrenched in the books they were browsing that no one noticed him slip off to the unoccupied aisle where the latest Potions books were shelved.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hermione and Ron Apparated back to their flat from Number 12 Grimmauld Place and were immediately assaulted by the overbearing heat within their home. Since they had the windows shut during the day, the temperature had risen and remained trapped even though the sun had gone down.

 

Striding over to the windows, they threw open all the sashes and could immediately feel the cool air beginning to seep into their flat. Being up on the third floor of a walk up had its low point at times, but on evenings like this, they were able to have a steady flow of fresh air unhindered by the neighboring building their window looked out upon, which was only two stories high.

 

A quick swish of Hermione’s wand and some cooling charms began spreading their effect through the room, aiding the evening breeze. It was still warm outside, but at least it was cooler than the interior of their home by at least ten degrees Fahrenheit. Sitting on the couch, Hermione could feel the heat that had permeated into the very frame and stuffing of the couch. It was too hot to sit or lie anywhere, as many objects, despite the charm, retained the heat of the day.

 

Sweat began beading on her brow. Looking at the fireplace screen, she contemplated striping down to her bra and knickers… or less while sitting on the couch, as the bedroom had a smaller window with a less direct breeze and would be one of the last rooms to cool down. The fireplace screen could at least give her some momentary privacy and a chance to run and put something on in case someone decided to Floo over unexpectedly.

 

Needless to say, if she stripped, Ron would take that as a free license to get frisky with her. A bout of slap and tickle with her husband was not exactly what she had on her mind that night, as the mere thought of Ron's sweaty body on top of her in conjunction with the oppressive swelter of their flat made her feel physically overwhelmed from the heat.

 

Walking about their parlor, Hermione started fanning herself with her own sleeveless blouse, pulling it to and fro like a bellow.

 

"It's too damn hot," she complained to no one in particular.

 

"I could run a cold bath?" Ron offered.

 

As much as she detested cold baths, it was beginning to sound appealing.

 

The silence in the room seemed almost as oppressive as the heat. Saturday and Sunday were his nights home from his second job at the pub, as sometimes Quidditch games could go on until the wee hours of the morning until the Snitch was caught. So they both stood there with nothing to say to one another as the room cooled too slowly for either of their liking. Hermione cast another round of cooling charms and headed off to the kitchen to see what they had for beverages she could cool for the both of them.

 

"Care for some juice?" she called out from the kitchen.

 

"Got any lager? Hear the Yanks take theirs ice cold. Sound right good to me about now," he answered from a spot on the floor in front of the window.

 

Rummaging around, she saw that they were out. "No, but I've got tonic water and some limes."

 

"Nah, just some ice water."

 

A few minutes later she emerged from the kitchen with two beverages, one glass of ice water, the other was chilled tonic water with a whole lime reamed and juiced into her beverage.

 

Sitting on the floor next to Ron, hoping the breeze would pick up some more, silence descended upon them once more. They both drank and continue to stare out the window.

 

Earlier in the day, Hermione and Ron had talked with ease while in the company of Harry and Ginny. The conversation between the four had the relaxed quality of when they were back in school, but now that they were alone, it seemed as if they had nothing to say to one another.

 

Growing uneasy from the quiet, Hermione said, "So how long do you think Randall will be gone?"

 

Ron had mentioned during their dinner at the Potters’ how had he gotten to play that day instead of sitting on the sidelines.

 

"Don't know," he answered. "The owl from his mum was rather vague, but he did feel the need to be with his father in case he doesn't make it through. Rotten luck, that poor fellow. It's not his fault he went hiking into an unmarked dragon reserve while on holiday in China."

 

Hermione shook her head in sympathy. It seemed not every wizarding government held to the same standards, especially when it came to marking the boundaries of a dangerous magical beast habitat.

 

"What type of Chinese dragon was it?" She was curious and hoping that Ron's interest in dragons could lead to a discussion on the matter.

 

"I think Wendy mentioned they think it was an Earth dragon, though the details are rather sketchy."

 

She was hoping he would go on, but he just sat there staring out the window once more.

 

"So they're not sure." Ron just shook his head and continued staring out into the night. "What are some of the differences in the symptoms between a run in with an Earth dragon and a Treasure dragon?" she asked, hoping to lure Ron into a conversation. Perhaps if they could discuss a subject that he was once interested in, it would ease the growing fear in her mind.

 

"Don't know really." Ron shrugged. "Charlie's the dragon expert. Maybe you could owl him and he could tell you."

 

Suppressing the urge to huff in building exasperation, Hermione seized upon another topic. "The new Red Sprite 3000 model is out. Do you know what type of charms they used on the broom?" She had hoped to talk about something in which their interests crossed paths.

 

"I just fly the bloody things, I don't make them," he said glibly.

 

Suddenly the heat of their flat wasn't the only thing she wanted to escape. Despite her sincere efforts to start a friendly conversation, it seemed Ron would rather not talk at all. Any exuberance he used to have regarding topics he used to talk about when he was younger had been replaced by a sort of boredom and disenchantment with the world as he aged. Whereas Hermione still held a curiosity about her surroundings, Ron seemed to not care, as long as the world kept on working and wasn't broken or out of order. He had not inherited his father's sense of inquisitiveness.

 

She knew she was being petulant, but it angered her that he was willing to talk at length at Harry and Ginny's, but now that he was at home, he didn't want to talk with his own wife. Maybe it was the heat that made him feel too lethargic to want to have a discussion, but Hermione felt slighted and, as a wife, taken for granted.

 

'I cook, I clean, I do the laundry, I do every bloody thing it takes to run this house, and I work too. I put up with his halfhearted attempts at shagging me. And all I ask for is a little conversation!' She could have come out and confronted her husband about what she was feeling, but the resentment inside of her that sprung back to life wanted to hoard itself inside of her, so that it would grow and fester.

 

"Fine." And icy chill pervaded her tone. "If you don't want to talk, I understand." Hermione felt hurt, overlooked and under appreciated.

 

"Not now, 'Mione," Ron whinged, "it's too hot to talk. Maybe another night. Besides, I'm in the mood to do something else with our mouths other than talk," he said, setting his drink down.

 

He grabbed an ice cube and ran it up along the back of her arm, then along the top of her shoulder near her neck. Leaning over, he licked the melted water off her skin.

 

She sat there rigidly, letting him trail the ice over her skin. She hated the feel of the ice on her body; never caring for the shocking cold sensations it left on her epidermis. When he began licking the water left behind, she knew she should have felt a little more appreciative of his gestures, as this was promising to lead to some foreplay, a rarity in the Weasleys' sex life, but instead it irritated her. His hot tongue made it to her pulse point on her neck, and coupled with his leaning into her, made the room seem even more stifling.

 

"Did you ever think for once that maybe a little conversation would actually put me in the mood?" she said peevishly. Hermione knew saying this just might sabotage a chance for some foreplay before sex, but she was too vexed to care at this point.

 

Sitting back up and looking at his wife with a frown, Ron said, "What do you mean for once?"

 

"You always assume I'm in the mood. Didn't you ever think I might need a little coaxing to get me in the mood?" she retorted.

 

"I thought you enjoyed sex, but I guess I was severely mistaken!" he said, a little indignantly.

 

"It's not that I mind sex at all, I just like to be put into the mood once in a while before you pounce on me, stick your willy in and out of me a few times and then come, and leave me unsatisfied," she tartly answered back. "It's different for women. We're not always in the mood to just jump in the sack and fuck at a moment's notice."

 

Ron's mouth hung open and he looked at her as if he didn't recognize the woman beside him. "Well…"

 

He was searching for words and Hermione knew then that what she had said hit him below the belt. She could have phrased it more delicately and with sweeter, pleading tones, but the bitterness inside of her demanded she make him feel as hurt as she was.

 

"Well, a couple nights ago, you seemed to like it. In fact, you were right hot for me. You were in the mood then when I came home and found you finger fucking yourself!"

 

Hermione blushed hotly at the memory of it, recalling the thoughts of Calleo that had aroused her, and it embarrassed her that Ron would bring it up again. She wanted to strike at the heart of Ron's ego, where his prowess in the bedroom was concerned.

 

"Yeah, I fucked you and then you had to orgasm just before I could. Thanks a whole lot! You always do this," she ranted, glaring at him. "When you do actually get me in the mood with a little foreplay, once in a great while, you stick it in me and come, not bothering to wait until I get a little satisfaction out of it, leaving me frustrated as hell. For once, for once I'd like to actually have an orgasm while you're pounding your sweaty body into me. Just cause you explode as fast of one of your brothers' Wildfire Whiz-Bang fireworks doesn't mean I can."

 

Realization of her statement hit home, making him go red. She had just accused him of being a lousy lover, never giving her an orgasm and less.

 

"So you faked it… all of them!" She nodded defiantly, daring him to refute her statement. "Well, maybe if you weren't so fucking frigid, you'd actually enjoy a good fuck. But I guess that's too much to ask from such a controlling bitch like you!"

 

She gasped as if he had actually struck her. Sorely tempted, Hermione was on the verge of commenting on his size, but decided if she did say what she was thinking, there would be irreparable damage between them. Eventually they could work out their differences after cooling off, but attacking the size of his manhood would leave a permanent scar. Not that what he said was any less damaging.

 

Closing her eyes and biting the inside corner of her mouth to stop herself from speaking, she heard him continue to say, "Maybe if I had a wife who could appreciate me instead of finding constant fault with me, maybe that would inspire me to put in the considerable effort it would take to melt an ice queen like you."

 

Her eyes snapped open and she gave him a look worthy of vengeful Valkyrie. Knowing this argument was spiraling out of control and her restraint was a hair's breadth from snapping, she stood up and threw her drink in his face before storming out of their flat. The only thing she took with her was her wand.

 

As Ron shouted and complained loudly that the acid from the lime was stinging his eyes, she didn’t bother turning back to see if he was all right.

 

'Go fucking blind, for all I care right now!'

 

Staggering out into the hall and slamming the door shut, she made her way down the steps with decreasing speed. By the time she hit the last step at the bottom of the stairs, she slumped down on the tread and began sobbing.

 

'How is it that my life has become so miserable?' she wondered. The only joy she seemed to have found in a great long while was the company of a gigolo, someone she had paid to be kind to her. 'Bloody terrific,' she thought defeatedly. 'The only happiness in life and I have to pay for it.'

 

Hermione was a pragmatist who knew you got out of life what you made of it, but it seemed that no matter how hard she tried, there was little satisfaction derived from her efforts.

 

'Fine! I'll make my own happiness,' she fumed.

 

If Ron couldn't give her the level of companionship she craved nor the intellectual stimulation she desired, she would find it other ways, namely with her weekly visits to Calleo. But as much as she wanted sexual fulfillment, she swore to herself that she would not seek the sexual services of her gigolo. Being a woman of strong principle, she would not commit the physical act of adultery with Calleo or any other man. She had taken Ginny to task for carrying on an affair with a man whom she loved. It would be beyond hypocritical of her to shag a man she didn't even love, though she was beginning to wonder if what Ron said was right. Perhaps she was too uptight to enjoy sex with another man, too controlling to let herself go and enjoy the moment.

 

'No, don’t even go there. Not even to prove him wrong,' she scolded herself, shoving thoughts of bedding Calleo from her mind. Hermione hoped it was just the fact that Ron was an inconsiderate lover and she was not frigid.

 

After giving a haphazard swipe at the tears that had finally ceased, she noticed that she’d left her cloak back in their flat. Hermione wasn't about to go back upstairs and face her husband, only to grab her cloak and leave once more, so she set off into the night.

 

It was still warm, but she felt naked without her cloak at least draping over her arm. Once Hermione thought about it, her cloaks were all-purpose, neither light for summer or very warm for winter. They would have felt heavy and too warm, even carried on her arm. Looking about, she noticed a few others had left their cloaks at home. As she headed down to Diagon Alley proper, she figured that as long as she didn’t Floo anyplace, she would be fine without her habitual garment.

 

Gaining distance between herself and Ron, she felt her heart slow down and her breathing calm. She was still furious at her husband, but at least she didn't look like she was ready to hex the next person who would cross her path.

 

As she passed by Flourish and Blotts, she remembered her thoughts from Thursday night. Hermione was thinking of doing some intensive browsing and now was a good a time as any. Besides, when she was upset, Hermione found the company of a good book always took her mind off of her problems for a while. It was escapism, but what a wonderful way to whittle away some time before having to deal with one's problems once more.

 

Turning back around and heading for her most favorite shop in the whole world, she squared her shoulders and opened the door. Her nostrils were filled with the familiar scent of paper, ink, leather and paste. She inhaled deeply and closed her eyes. It had been far too long since she had been in the establishment.

 

Hermione had taken to avoiding the bookstore, as she could not afford to buy the books she browsed lovingly and longed for. To avoid temptation, she made a point of not stopping in and looking at the latest arrivals. To glance through them was equivalent to a hungry child with no pocket money being set free inside of Honeydukes.

 

Tonight though, she was set to get back into the habit of extensive browsing, mainly reading what she could within an allotted time, gleaning bits of knowledge and information when she could. If the book was interesting enough, she would mentally bookmark it so she could come back another time to read some more.

 

'So many books, so little time,' she silently lamented.

 

Her eye caught the section sign reading, "Family/Home," and she meandered over to the shelves she never bothered looking at until now. It was not as if she didn't believe Ginny's revelation about marriage, children and divorce in the wizarding world, it's just that she would like to know more about the subject instead of relying on the information second hand, where key details might be left out. Now was her chance to read up on the binding properties of children and divorce between witches and wizards.

 

The section was towards the back of the shop, and as she passed the Potions section, she caught the faintest traces of a familiar fragrance. Stopping, she inhaled deeply and remembered where she had smelled that cologne before.

 

The sense of smell was an amazing thing to Hermione, for when she identified the scent, she was taken back to her first night with Calleo. He was wearing some cologne that had haunted her ever since. It was so intoxicating, she wished she had a swatch of cloth with the cologne on it so she could inhaled deeply and privately revel in its heady perfume when Ron wasn't home.

 

What Could Have Been by perselus

Wondering who smelled so wonderful and thinking about asking the man what the name of his cologne was, she walked back and peered down the aisle; she saw a cloaked figure in black.

 

Hermione’s eyes fixed on the tall, lean figure, and studied his form in profile. His hood was up obscuring his hair and features, but she saw his hands turn the page of the book he held. They were the same hands she recalled from Thursday night.

 

'If we were to cross paths in public, you would not know who I was without my mask. Nor would I approach you in public. Beyond these walls, we are but strangers to one another,' she recalled his words in her head.

 

Remembering how her curiosity had made a mess out of things earlier that day, she tempered her impulse to go up to him and turned around to walk away. She would not ruin the one good thing she had in her life right now by approaching a man who was most probably her Calleo.

 

If she wanted to know the name of that fragrance, she could damn well wait until next Thursday and ask Calleo himself during their appointed time.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The bookshop was a pleasant distraction for him. Severus had quickly found a few tomes he would like to add to his library, and given the fact that it was late, it was unlikely anyone would come in and buy them before he could get Lavender to send one of the house-elves first thing in the morning.

 

When he had been bartering away his goods one by one before he started working for Lavender, he would come into Flourish and Blotts and look about the shelves longingly, knowing he could not buy anything there, as the store had hung a sign saying "No Trading, Money Only." It seemed that several other Death Eaters had approached the proprietor about bartering, but those first few exchanges had made the owner change the store policy to accept Galleons only and not goods.

 

Now he had enough money to buy whatever he wanted. Granted he could not pay for them himself directly, but he could make a list and Lavender would make the monetary arrangements so that he had his heart's desire where the printed page was concerned. Severus had promised himself years ago that if he found a way to make decent money under the Death Eater Decree, with its limited job prospects, he would never deny himself any book he wanted.

 

He was about to close and put back an updated edition of an advanced medical potions book he had in his personal library when he heard light footsteps pass by his aisle. Ever in spy mode when out in public, he pretended to still be reading the book and heard the person stop, then take a few steps back.

 

The edge of his hood cut down his peripheral vision so he could not see who was standing just at the edge of the aisle, but he could feel their eyes upon him. Before the former spy could turn his head to try and glance who it was, while keeping his face concealed with his hood, the person walked away.

 

Curious as to who would scrutinize him, he walked to the end of the aisle and peered out. Most of the patrons were towards the front of the store, but there was one woman walking towards the back.

 

Surmising that it was her who had passed by, he slipped towards the back of the store to an advantage point where he could view her without being seen. Severus peered between the tops of some books on the raising of toads for fun and profit and the bottom of the shelf above. He recognized her hair and thin frame.

 

'What are you reading Mrs. Weasley?' he asked, watching her pull three books from the bookcase in front of her. He was standing in place where he could not read the sign identifying the section she was in. Despite having spent many an hour in the establishment, he could not recall what type of books were housed in the corner where she was standing.

 

Hermione scanned the first book quickly and he could tell she did not find the information she was looking for, reshelving it in its proper spot. The second book appeared to have some key information, as he saw her fingers quickly scan the page, going over the same spot two or three times before flipping to another chapter.

 

As she read, he watched her. Her hair was piled up on top of her head exposing her neck. She was wearing a sleeveless blouse and a simple, flowing, long skirt. He glanced about and noticed she didn't have her cloak with her. Without her cloak on, she looked positively half dressed. He could see the white outline of her bra straps through the thin cotton material and the way her blouse tapered. He could also see the slope of her torso as her shirt dipped towards her waist before flaring out at the hips.

 

However pleasant her silhouette was from the rear, his eyes kept traveling back to the nape of her neck. A stray tendril had escaped from the bun on top of her head and was tickling her neck. One hand swiped at the errant lock grazing her skin as Hermione continued to read the book held in her other hand.

 

By the time she swept her hand over the back of her head in order to pull the tendril off her neck a third time, Severus was tempted to tuck the misbehaving lock up in her chignon himself and fasten his lips to the portion of neck the hair kept caressing.

 

Once he realized where his mind had wandered, Severus physically shook his head to stop where his thoughts were treading.

 

'This is no time to get attached,' he chided himself. 'You remember what happened the last time that occurred.'

 

Taking a deep breath, he turned to look to see what time it was. A quick glance towards the front of the store said they would be closing in fifteen minutes. Turning his attentions back to Hermione, he caught her just in time as she was putting the second book back. Mentally making note which book it was on the shelf, he saw her delve into the third book frantically looking for some piece of information. When she seemed to have found it, she gave a great troubled sigh. She read for five minutes more before the chimes sounded that the store would be closing soon.

 

Watching her put the third book back, Severus saw her make her way to the front of the store and out the door.

 

Now that she was gone, he strode back there quickly and examined the spines of the books she seemed intent of gleaming some information from.

 

'Interesting indeed, Hermione.'

 

His finger ran over the spines of "Marriage and Divorce in the Modern Wizarding Age," and "The Magical Contracts of Marriage and Children."

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen
"Alone At Midnight"

 

Disclaimer: We all know Rowling owns it all, but let me reiterate once more. J.K. Rowling is a literary goddess and I am unworthy. She owns the whole Harry Potter world and I don't. Oh well, maybe in my next life I'll hit the literary creativity jackpot.

 

============

 

Before she became fully conscious or opened her eyes, Hermione reached across the bed.

 

'He's still gone,' she thought, as her mind came into focus in the morning light.

 

Cracking open both eyes to make sure Ron wasn't simply farther away than her reach, Mrs. Weasley visually confirmed that her husband had not returned home in the middle of the night. A growing sense of uneasiness settled in her stomach. Tuesday morning had arrived and she had not seen nor heard from Ron since she stormed out of their flat Saturday night.

 

After her trip to Flourish and Blotts, then a stop by The Leaky Cauldron for a glass of sherry to kill time before going back home Saturday night, Hermione wasn't surprised to find that Ron had left. There was no note. The only evidence of his departure was the absence of a large duffel bag, some haphazardly strewn clothes – a result of hasty packing – and his missing toothbrush.

 

'At least he's brushing,' she thought idly.

 

In the past, neither of them asked where the other went for the night. The typical duration of separation was only one night. Ron was the one who usually left, but on a couple of occasions, Hermione had decided to be gone for the night. On such occasions, Ginny and Harry put her up for the night in their guest room; her friends never questioning her reasons for showing up or prying into the details of why she and Ron were fighting. Hermione thanked the fates Ginny and Harry never brought up the issue in conversation, keeping it an unspoken topic between the three of them.

 

Ron had never mentioned where he went when he disappeared for the night and Hermione never asked. In the past, she always figured he crashed at the Potters or at the house of one of his teammates.

 

Now he had been gone for three nights in a row. The last time he was gone that long was after a spectacularly horrific fight about a month after Harry and Ginny were married. It took a few months for things to thaw between them after he returned home that time.

 

Since Ron had not owled his wife since he left, and Hermione had been too upset and full of pride to owl him first, she began to worry that he was all right.

 

Quickly rising from bed, Hermione padded to the kitchen and pulled out some parchment, ink and a quill.

 

-------

 

Ron,

 

I am concerned. Please let me know you are all right.

 

Hermione

 

-------

 

It was short and to the point. There were neither sentimental salutations nor a loving close to the note. She wasn't begging him to come back, but it did let him know she still cared.

 

Pigwidgeon, nestled on his perch, ruffled his feathers and preened himself a bit, knowing he would have a letter to deliver. The tiny owl had remained at the flat, waiting for his owner. It was this fact that Pig was still there that she knew he would come back, but his prolonged absence still made her worry for her husband.

 

"Pig, you probably know where he is. Take this to him for me, please. Wait to see if he'll respond. If it's in the middle of the day, you can come to work to deliver his reply to me."

 

Hooting, Pig took the letter with an admonishing nip at Hermione's fingers. The bird knew when his master was gone, and no doubt blamed his mistress for Ron’s lack of presence.

 

Once the owl had taken wing, Hermione sunk into a kitchen chair, pressing the heels of her hands into her eyes before scrubbing her face with her hands, a habit born of exhaustion and weariness.

 

Glancing at the cooker, the sleep-deprived witch debated whether or not to bother making breakfast. Last night she hadn’t really gotten around to cooking anything, preferring instead to head off to the bookstore and while away the hours. She could use a strong cup of tea to kick start her heart and brain, but she wondered if she had the fortitude to fix something with substance for her stomach.

 

Hermione had been slowly sliding into a mild depression since Sunday, and one of the side effects was a complete loss of appetite. Just the thought of fixing toast seemed too much of a bother and the idea of preparing a bag lunch to take with her felt like an insurmountable task. At work she would find the energy and drive to analyze everything that needed testing, but preparing a bit of food for herself seemed too much.

 

As she quickly rose from her chair, she noticed her peripheral vision started to fade to gray and the world became myopically distorted. Grabbing onto the chair for support, as her knees had gone weak and her balance failed, Hermione stood still and waited for her blood pressure and vision to return to normal.

 

"Sod it all. Just spend the money and buy yourself a scone on the way to work," she convinced herself, before heading off to the shower.

 

Low blood sugar was definitely not something to trifle with, especially when one needed to be alert when testing ingredients. Passing out, face first, into a cauldron of bubotuber pus would not exactly be the most pleasant way to catch forty winks, not to mention the embarrassment involved with waking up in St. Mungo's after such an accident.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Calpurnia Fudge could have given Lady Macbeth lessons in manipulation and ambition. Cornelius' wife was the quintessential example of "power behind the throne." If she ever read "The Scottish Play" written by Shakespeare, Calpurnia would have called the murderous, conniving character a weak-willed Hufflepuff burdened with a conscience. Why else would she go mad at the end, if not for the fact that she lost her nerve?

 

It was through her tessellation of friends and interconnections that Calpurnia Fudge got her husband elected Minister of Magic, and through some very deft maneuvering, kept him in office after the Department of Mysteries Battle fiasco. Her husband was convinced Voldemort was not on the rise again and had denied his return for a full year until that fateful June day in 1996. The Slytherin alumni did not share her husband's opinion on that particular matter regarding You-Know-Who, instead waiting to see if claims by the Boy-Who-Lived were true or not before taking any definitive action on the matter. When Voldemort reappeared and the story ran in the Daily Prophet of his return, Mrs. Fudge took immediate steps to ensure that no matter which side won, Cornelius would still be Minister. It was no small coincidence that Calpurnia was friends with the wives of many known Death Eaters, though she did not advertise that little fact.

 

And with her aggressive networking and many connections, it was no surprise that Calpurnia was introduced to Lavender Brown, which eventually led to a once a month appointment for the Minister's wife to meet with Severus for an afternoon of chess and conversation.

 

Lavender's knack of knowing the unknowable had lead to an arrangement of Mrs. Fudge showing up on the second Tuesday of each month at one o'clock with a masked gentleman, who was the best chess player she had ever had the pleasure of playing against. It was her skill and cunning in chess and life that made Severus respect the woman as a formidable opponent, and hoped never to cross her. If Calpurnia had bought into the pure-blood propaganda Voldemort spewed and backed the megalomaniac, the wizarding world would have been a far different and darker place.

 

With the knowledge that he would be spending the afternoon with the woman, Severus spent most of Monday night sifting through a Pensieve full of memories and contemplating how he could deftly ask Mrs. Fudge about Hermione Weasley without seeming too curious about the younger witch. But first, he had to prepare for a meeting with Draco and Ginny.

 

Once Severus had eaten breakfast, went through his morning correspondences and dressed, he walked to Draco's flat located one floor below his. Arriving at a quarter to ten, he had a few minutes to talk with young Malfoy before his lover showed up.

 

The dark haired wizard sat in the wing back that faced away from the door, purposefully choosing the seat so he would not be seen when Ginny came through the door.

 

"Shall I break the news that her best friend is seeing you as a gigolo, Severus, or shall I leave the honors to you?" Draco asked, one brow arched and a sardonic smile forming on his face, as he exuded hubris.

 

"That depends. Is she the sort of person who shoots the messenger?"

 

Draco didn't answer, instead turning to walk to the window looking out onto the rooftops and neighboring buildings, his mood suddenly subdued. "We tell her everything," he simply stated. "I reviewed my contract with Lavender. Now that there is a way out, I can tell her about the other women I'm not sleeping with anymore."

 

"I wouldn't be too hasty," Severus interrupted.

 

"Hasty? Hasty? I know you are just as anxious as I am to leave this country, turn your back on it and never return. Do you or do you not know if you can get Mrs. Weasley to get us those damn ingredients or not?"

 

"These things take time," Severus assured the younger man, his fingers steepled in front of him. "A plan poorly executed will only make things worse. I have already begun my plans with Hermione in terms of bringing her around. All we need to do now is ask Ginny a few questions and then I will know how to proceed," he concluded.

 

No sooner had he mentioned the witch's name than they heard her knock. Draco opened the door only to have Ginny fling herself at him.

 

"Oh Draco! I wish I could have seen you last week, but I couldn't get away. I've missed you so much. Kiss me," she entreated.

 

Draco dipped his head, but did not let his passions take him where they desired. Pulling back from her mouth, he smiled.

 

Ginny sensed that something was amiss; Draco hadn’t kissed her with his usual passion. She noted the odd look on his face and asked, "What's wrong?"

 

Severus took this as his cue to clear his throat and peer around the wing of his chair to spy the two lovers still caught in an embrace.

 

"Severus!" she exclaimed. Leaving Draco's arms, she walked over to her friend, as he rose from his chair. "It's been too long. How have you been?" She gave him a warm smile before leaning forward to give him a dry kiss upon his cheek.

 

Though he usually abhorred the way Death Eaters' wives greeted him with the same gesture from years before, he did not mind Ginny's warm greeting for he knew the genuine sincerity of her words and gesture. In many ways it was better than Molly's rib cracking hugs he would receive on a rare occasion, as her daughter was less effusive with her emotions, as well.

 

Once they all sat, Severus in his chair and Ginny and Draco on the settee, the red head asked, "To what do we owe the pleasure of your company this morning?"

 

Severus and Draco exchanged looks before the elder wizard spoke. "It has come to our attention that your friend, Mrs. Hermione Weasley, works in the Department of Standards and Regulations testing potion ingredients."

 

Her brow furrowed, Ginny replied hesitantly, "Yes?"

 

"Draco and I have come upon a plan to get us out of Britain. And according to Draco, 'us' refers to the three of us," Severus delivered slowly with a stony face.

 

Ginny's face brightened, and her eyes filled with tears, as she turned her face to Draco. "Is it true? Can we really be together?" she whispered, not daring to believe it was true.

 

"We think so," Draco answered before Ginny hugged him fiercely, burying her face in his shoulder, sobbing with relief.

 

After a few moments, Ginny righted herself, pulling away from her lover's embrace, but still clasping his hand in hers. "I'm sorry, it's just been a very rough couple of weeks. How does Hermione fit into this?" She wiped at her eyes before Draco produced a handkerchief for her to use and blot away the offending tears.

 

Draco spoke this time. "We can make a Polyjuice potion to enable us to leave the country. Your friend can get us the ingredients; you’ll brew it under Severus' supervision and we leave the country."

 

Ginny beamed a huge smile at the both of them before her face fell. "Polyjuice Potion… I never would have thought of that." She buried her head in her hands and started to cry once more. "I'm such a ninny. All this time in front of me and I never thought…" Pulling her tear streaked face from her hands. "I'm so sorry, I should have told you about Hermione or thought of it… I just… I always hoped of finding some way of getting your names cleared so you wouldn't have to flee like common criminals."

 

"It's not your fault, Ginny," Severus reproved her. "Draco and I have had this plan for a few years at least. We’ve kept the information from you as a measure to protect yourself and us in the event of your husband or others discovering your association with Draco. No doubt, you might have been slipped Veritaserum or had your thoughts probed in some farce of an investigation. And then our efforts would never come to fruition. All that matters now is that we know about Mrs. Weasley's position within the Ministry."

 

"Since I never told you, how did you discover this?" she queried.

 

Draco gave a quick snort, trying to reign in his laughter.

 

Giving his young friend a pointed glare, Severus said, "Since you find this so amusing, I'll let you inform Ginny of her sister-in-law's extracurricular activities."

 

Confusion written on her face, Mrs. Potter looked at each wizard searching for some clue about what they were alluding to.

 

Draco swallowed, trying to regain his composure, but failed. He snickered as he said, "Well, it seems your friend had been getting her intellectual urges satisfied in other pastures." Glaring at Draco for his use of an unusual metaphor, comprehension began dawning on Ginny’s face. "It seems Mrs. Weasley is seeing Severus on the side."

 

There was a pause before the silence of the room was pierced by a shrill, "WHAT?!?"

 

Draco’s gales of laughter didn't help the matter and Severus shook his head at the laughing man, regretting his decision to let Draco break the news less-than-delicately to Ginny that Hermione was seeking the company of another man.

 

"It's not funny, Draco!" Ginny's head snapped and fixed Severus with a glare that bordered on murderous.

 

Before she would begin her tirade on him, Severus calmly explained, "I'm not sleeping with her, I'm just providing a sympathetic ear to her and some scintillating conversation. It would seem Miss Brown came upon Hermione in a bar the night she found you and Draco together. Faced with the decision of confessing everything to your husband, and thus forcing you to leave Mr. Potter if such an action resulted in Draco's untimely demise, or playing the good friend and hoping to get you and your husband to patch things up, I was able to encourage her to take the latter action. She came to me in tears, distraught over the moral conundrum of what to do."

 

Ginny's face softened considerably and a look of guilty remorse replaced her anger. Looking away, Ginny said, "She caught me right after I left here that Thursday afternoon. She forced me to confess everything or she would go to Harry and tell him all she saw. Evidently, Harry has been suspecting me and so he loaned Hermione his Invisibility Cloak. Seems she spied us through a key hole and has enough graphic evidence for a Pensieve to damn Draco and me."

 

"What?" Draco interrupted. "You never told me in your owl she watched us!"

 

"What was I supposed to say in a letter. 'Oh, by the way, besides catching us, she got quite an eyeful of us fucking our brains out?' I figured the details were better left for when I could see you in person," Ginny hotly replied.

 

Severus waved his hands dismissively. "Enough. We get the point of that she caught you two, despite your attempts not to get caught. We need to know what you told her during your 'confession.'"

 

Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, Ginny tried to recall everything she said. "First of all, she wanted to know why I was with Draco. So I told her about us during the war and then after Victory Day, before the decree. I explained how Draco and I were going to tell my family about us right after the wedding; how you both disappeared and that… stupid law." She spat out the last few words venomously. "Apparently Hermione was not versed on the finer points of the decree, so I enlightened her."

 

Leaning forward with interest and resting his arms on his knees, Severus asked evenly, "And what was her reaction?"

 

"She seemed upset that Moody would betray you. Hermione seems to share my opinion that it's an injustice. We've talked a few times about it and she's even asked about you, Severus."

 

His brow quirked. "Really?" he drawled.

 

"Yes," Ginny answered tersely. "I told her I didn't know where you were, because I knew she would go after you, question you about this whole decree and everything. I know you don’t want to be found, especially by her. But it seems that she’s found you regardless. Does she know it's you?"

 

Severus shook his head. "No, when Miss Brown first approached me about taking her as client I was… reluctant. But it seems she had a very strong incentive for me to take your friend on as a new customer. I wore a full-face mask and covered my hair. But… now that we know she is sympathetic to our situation, I shall begin to reveal myself to her slowly. If I remember her sense of curiosity correctly, the question of who I am and what happened to Severus Snape will drive her mad. I don't suppose it will take long for her to realize we are one and the same. Hopefully, she will be more than willing to help us get the necessary ingredients."

 

"But some of the key ingredients are highly regulated, aren't they?" she asked.

 

Draco spoke this time, "Yes, but as a tester of said ingredients, she can slip a little extra away for 'testing' purposes."

 

"Hermione is one for sticking to the rules," Ginny said, worry creeping into her voice that their hope for escape was empty. "She's not about to go breaking the law–"

 

"That woman broke into my personal stores and stole boomslang skin, set my robes on fire, abused the use of a Time Turner to aid a known criminal to escape, and abandoned Umbridge to the whims of an angry herd of Centaurs. Shall I go on?" the older wizard snarled.

 

Ginny sat back and frowned a little before the corners of her mouth began to curl into a small smile. "You do have a point, Severus." Her face turned serious once more. "But if Hermione has already talked to you once regarding what to do about telling Harry about Draco and me, what makes you think she'll continue to see you?"

 

Flashing a rare smile, Severus coolly replied, "I know this may not be news to you and that you will find it unpleasant to hear, but it seems your brother, Ronald, is not the best conversationalist in the world. Hermione has come back to me for a second visit already seeking someone to have long talks with. Your brother seems fixated on talking about two subjects, Quidditch and chess, neither which appeal to her very much and she wants a companion with whom to discuss a wide variety of subjects. The other evening we had a rather nice discussion about Arithmancy, which to my dismay, I actually enjoyed."

 

Ginny and Draco exchanged subtle odd looks with each other at Severus' reluctant confession.

 

Continuing, he said, "It seems your brother called her a rather nasty name once. What was it? Ah yes, an intellectual snob." He articulated the slur. "So she's seeing me as a means of saving her marriage from intellectual boredom. If she can satisfy herself on a mental level with me, then perhaps she can convince herself that her marriage to your brother isn't such an empty future of mindlessness."

 

"Ron isn't stupid," Ginny grumbled.

 

"She never said that he was. She merely stated that her husband – your brother – holds no interest in anything she wishes to discuss, be it her work, her interests, politics or anything not pertaining to Quidditch or chess." He watched Ginny slump against Draco defeatedly. "Hermione is trying to save her marriage."

 

Ginny placed her face in one hand and muttered, "I had a feeling that something like this might happen. And the friendship that we have is such that we don't talk of intellectual pursuits. I'm sorry that she had to go to you to find what she needs. Hermione is a very bright girl and I guess Ron isn't giving her what she needs in that capacity."

 

"Well, her desire to alleviate her boredom and frustration has led her to us, where she can serve a means to our ends," Draco added, "so there is no need to chastise yourself for something that you have no control over."

 

Rising from her seat, Ginny began pacing angrily. "I still can’t believe she forced Harry and me into counseling when she's seeing you –" she growled, sweeping an arm at Severus, "who she thinks is a gigolo – on the side. Of all the hypocritical things!" She folded her arms in front of her chest before giving a great huff.

 

It amazed Severus how much Ginny looked exactly like her mother at that moment, a thinner and younger version, but the facial mannerisms and posture was an exact copy of Molly. "Speaking of which, we need to know what is happening in the counseling session with your husband," Severus interjected. "Since you do intend to leave with us, we should try to bring your husband's line of thinking to heel so that when you do leave him, he will not go after you, but accept it that the marriage is dead."

 

Ginny nodded. "We have sessions once a week on Thursday nights. Last week was our first appointment. Basically I told him that I loved him, but I'm not in love with him."

 

Severus was strongly reminded of Hermione's similar confession to him during her first visit with him.

 

"He was pretty shocked and upset. I told him that I only went out with him because my family was hounding and pressuring me to do so. I couldn't tell him my reluctance was because I was still in love with Draco, pining away for him because he disappeared without a trace." She turned and gave Draco a meaningful look. Still looking into Draco's eyes, she said, "I told him I really never wanted to marry him in the first place." Ginny dabbed at the few tears that were forming once again in her eyes before going to sit back down next to the blond wizard.

 

Turning his face away from the two lovers, Severus felt his heart lurch in remembrance. Gabrielle once said that to him, that she never wanted to marry him in the first place, but only did so out of an obligation to family and duty. It was during their first real fight as husband and wife. But the major difference was that he shouted the same thing back to her; it was mutual, not like Potter's unrequited love for his wife.

 

Clearing his head of those memories, he focused once more on the moment at hand. "Good. Never tell your husband about your relationship with Draco prior to yours with your husband, even if you omitted his name; it would only serve to feed his suspicions. Instead, slowly make him realize this marriage is over, so that when you leave, he won't try to win you back. If you feel you must tell him, then do it in a letter after we have safely left the country."

 

Ginny nodded.

 

"When will you see Hermione again?" the Potions master asked.

 

"We have lunch planned tomorrow," the witch answered. "She said she wants to bring her own lunch and that we could eat in the park. I can now only assume, now that I know, that it is her way of saving money for your fees. She and Ron don't have much money at all. I hope you aren't charging her very much," Ginny admonished him.

 

"Miss Brown set the fee, based on a sliding scale. I can assure you it is well within her budget."

 

Draco started laughing again. "I'll say it is."

 

Severus and Ginny both glared at Draco, but the younger wizard ignored their reproving stares and had a good laugh.

 

Ignoring Draco's chortles, Severus instructed, "Tomorrow when you meet with Hermione, if she asks about the decree or anything to do with Draco or me, divulge nothing. Feign ignorance regarding any additional details. When the time comes for me to divulge my identity to her, I will answer all her questions. We have to lead her to believe that the only moral high ground is to help us. And when you do see her for lunch," he appended, "please see that she eats something. She's positively skin and bones." He turned his face away to scowl at the fire, ignoring the quirk in Draco's brow at his last statement.

 

"Oh, one more thing," Ginny amended, ignoring the urge to question Severus' sudden concern about her friend's eating habits, "on Victory Day, at the Ministry, I saw Hermione making the rounds talking to old Order members. At one point I saw her speaking with Tonks, which lead to Tonks hauling her off behind a potted palm. I can only assume she is already asking people about you and Draco. I should also mention, when I 'confessed' to Hermione the other day, I told her that I love Draco, but that I just can't bear to leave Harry. I think that's what may have fueled her speculation that she could fix my marriage."

 

Draco pulled his hand away from hers sharply and turned away from her. "Draco, I didn't mean it," Ginny chided him. "I'd leave him in a heart-beat without a second thought. You're the one who said to wait until the time is right. I said that to keep Hermione from spilling everything to Harry. If she knew there was nothing left, what's to stop her from just telling him to spite you, thinking you broke up my marriage? But she knows that if you leave, I'm going with you."

 

Draco moved back to her side with the look of a scolded schoolboy. "I'm sorry. It's just that I get so jealous knowing you're with him every night," he petulantly bemoaned with a frown.

 

"You two can hash out your lover's quarrel later," Severus said snappishly. "Right now we must discuss other things. Ginny, you did well. When the time comes, your departure will not be a surprise, as she has been apprised of your intention to go. The question is, will she make the non-inclusion of you a part of her agreement to help us?"

 

Ginny smirked, in her best imitation of Draco. "Just make her see reason. If Draco leaves without me, I'll be leaving shortly anyway to join him, so it doesn't matter. What's the point in saving a marriage that’s in shambles that I want out of anyway? And to what end? Deny justice for two wronged individuals just to save a failing marriage? I already told her that I'm miserable with Harry and even without Draco, it was only a matter of time before I left him. She still has this silly notion I'm going to tell Draco it's over now that Harry and I are in counseling."

 

Absorbing Ginny’s words, Severus told her, "If she asks anymore about calling it off with Draco, evade the question for as long as you can. Neither confirm nor deny it. Once we get her to agree, then she will feel some prerogative to complete the task of getting us free. If she asks about counseling, tell her only the negative, none of the perceived positive progress you are making. Paint a picture for her that it really is getting worse."

 

"Have you or Draco thought about how we’re all to get out of Britain together?" Ginny asked.

 

"We have some ideas," Draco volunteered, "but nothing solid. Just contingencies for what the situation calls for. Probably something with a Portkey, but everyone has to pick up and use those at the Ministry now. Even international Flooing is done through the Ministry."

 

"If you two do use Polyjuice potion, I've just thought of a very plausible and easy way out of the country," Ginny offered.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Standing with her head bent over the cauldron, Hermione peered in at the portion of Roc feather floating in the acidic solution base. Just as the liquid started to come to a boil, she knew the batch of Roc quills sitting in the crate next to her were fakes, as the feather started to disintegrate instead of becoming hard as a diamond.

 

The brunette witch groaned with frustration. 'Damn! The paperwork involved is going to be hell,' she silently grumbled.

 

Before starting to fill out form 27b/6, Hermione would have to figure out what the offending items were made out of first. A cursory look at the rest of the quill still laying on the chopping block gave her an idea. Quickly returning from the supply cabinet, she poured a few drops of Shrinking Solution on the so-called Roc feather and watched as it returned to its normal size.

 

"Eagle feathers. Just bloody wonderful," Hermione cursed at no one in particular.

 

Striding to her office in a huff to get the proper forms, plus one to revoke the importation license of the offending company that sent it, as it was their third offense within a year of sending falsified ingredients, she stopped dead at the doorway to her office.

 

Pigwidgeon was sitting atop of her desk with a letter attached to his leg. The bird, in a fit of boredom and spitefulness, had begun shredding a Ministry manual that was sitting atop her desk, and the owl had purposefully left droppings on her chair as a final insult.

 

Resisting the urge to swat at the bird, as it would not do to make her personal postal delivery apparatus upset with her even more, she removed the letter and reluctantly thanked the bird for its delivery.

 

Hermione sat at her desk and found a half-eaten biscuit in her top drawer to give the owl. With slightly shaky hands, she unfolded the scrap of parchment.

 

-------

 

Hermione,

 

I'm fine. I'll come back home when I'm ready and wanted.

 

Ron

 

-------

 

Her heart sank. In some way, she was relieved he was all right and not dead in some dark alley as her worried mind had randomly imagined the previous night while she lay alone in their bed, but the tone of his letter told her that he wasn't ready to come home yet. Hermione vaguely wondered how long it would take for things to thaw between them, if ever, once he did return home.

 

Tearing her eyes away from the letter, she said, "Thanks, Pig."

 

The owl took that as his cue and took flight, winging its way through the corridors and somehow out of the Ministry building.

 

As she looked through her drawers for the infamous 27b/6 form, she heard someone clearing their throat from the doorway to her office. "Receiving personal owls while at work is not within Ministry guidelines," Madam Dushka sniffed.

 

'Aw, hell.' Hermione pasted on her best apologetic face. "I'm sorry, but it was a family emergency," she lied in what she hoped was a rather convincing manner. "It's the first and hopefully last one."

 

"See that it is," her superior snipped at her. Changing the topic, Madam Dushka dictated, "You need to come down to the customs locker. Another smuggled batch of Golden Fleece just arrived. When will these people get it in their heads that Flooing or Apparating into the country with goods not cleared through customs will wind up in our hands?" the sour witch asked rhetorically.

 

"I'll be there in a few moments after I find a 27b/6," Hermione said.

 

"Not another batch from the Damocles Brothers?"

 

Hermione nodded.

 

"Fine. Be quick about it. The fleece has ticks and it’s starting to make the guard at the locker itch," Madam Dushka dictated before she turned and minced back towards her own office, nose stuck high up in the air as if her head really was up her own arse.

 

"Ruddy bitch," Hermione quietly muttered under her breath, silently amazed at how Ron's colorful language had crept into her own vocabulary.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Everything was set for Calpurnia's arrival. Full tea was prepared and Severus had pulled out his best set of casual summer robes, custom tailored with an elegant bias cut that flowed with the slightest movement, in addition to his standard black trousers and tailored shirt. He would be removing his outer robe soon after she arrived, but it gave the appearance of genteel propriety that he greeted her wearing them. Cooling charms had been placed around the flat, as some of the summer heat wave still lingered. Quickly glancing in his wardrobe, he pulled out a half mask that matched the dark green piping on his trousers and cuffs.

 

Standing in front of a full-length mirror he scrutinized his appearance. He flashed a brief smile at his reflection in the non-enchanted glass. The tooth whitening solution he developed for Lavender a few year prior didn't make his teeth perfectly white, but at least they didn't have the noticeably yellow, heavily coffee and tea-stained hue they had before. Now they had a more natural color, unlike the blinding neon whiteness of Lockhart's. His teeth were still crooked, but most of the offending dental alignment was on his lower set and at least his upper incisors and canines were somewhat straight or at least passable. One more pass of a comb through his hair and he was ready to accept this guest.

 

Calpurnia knocked on the door at one o'clock exactly with her usual punctuality.

 

Opening the door, he gave her a close lipped smile. "Good afternoon, Calpurnia," he greeted her with a bow. "As always, it's a pleasure to see you again. You are looking well."

 

"Thank you, Richard," she greeted him, gliding into his flat like royalty. She quickly pulled off her white gloves and handed them to him and allowed him to help her remove her cloak. "I can't tell you how I've been looking forward to my visit with you. Cornelius can be such a trial at times," she said haughtily with the air of boredom.

 

Severus kept his mouth shut and nodded, walking over to the kitchen to allow Marf to take Calpurnia's gloves and cloak, along with his robes as well. Her affectations were a bit nerve grating at times. Granted, she married an easily manipulated fool, but she knew the benefits to such a marriage, such as helping him ascend to the post of Minister and reaping the many benefits that came long with it. At least Calpurnia's monthly visits kept some of the Ministry spotlight on his job away from him and Draco.

 

"Would you care for some tea now or would you like to start with a game of chess," he asked cordially with a grin.

 

To watch the two interact with one another, one would think it was a pleasant visit between two friends; however, with both being Slytherin alumni, it was a different matter all together. Each always measured the choice of words and tone involved with each sentence, comment or question. Both were astute enough to realize that each remark would be mentally recorded for use at a future point in time, be it for conversation or their own personal gain. Granted, Calpurnia was seeing a gigolo, but only ever talked and played chess with him. If questioned in the future about the business arrangement of their meetings, she could always claim she knew nothing about his occupation and merely knew him as a friend. Severus would never mention his meetings with her to anyone other than Lavender and Draco, as Calpurnia had enough connections with the right people to cause a great deal of trouble for Severus and Miss Brown, should word of her monthly visits get out.

 

So it was that they were in a mutual standoff and meted each word with careful consideration while having a seemingly easy volley of conversation.

 

"A game of chess would be lovely, thank you." She walked toward the chessboard set up for a match.

 

Being a proper gentleman, he held her chair for her as she set herself in one of the twin wing backs flanking the chessboard. Mrs. Fudge always played black, as white always moves first. She made sure to see the first move of her opponent before making her own, in chess and in life.

 

They played their first game in silence, enjoying the skill and concentration required to win against the other. The only three people Severus ever lost a game to were Albus, Calpurnia Fudge and Ronald Weasley. Though he had only ever played two games with the youngest male Weasley during a long summer afternoon while stuck at the Order's headquarters, he was still smarting years later over the fact that a seemingly dim wizard thoroughly trounced him at chess, then gloated over it for months afterwards.

 

Sensing Calpurnia becoming vexed, as he was getting close to winning, Severus decided to let her have the game; consequently, she would be more companionable during tea. It wouldn't do to have the witch upset over a lost game when he wanted to glean some information from her. When the opportunity came up where he could either move his bishop or his knight, as both were valid moves, he decided to move his knight. If he had calculated correctly it would allow his opponent to win in ten moves.

 

"Check and mate," Calpurnia announced smugly in nine moves.

 

"An excellent game," he complimented her. She really didn't play well at all, as Severus could tell her concentration was not exactly on the game, but he was not about to make mention of it. "Would you care for tea now before we have another game?"

 

"Yes, that would be lovely," she said, her knees creaking as she rose from her seat before walking over to the settee.

 

Service for two appeared on the low table in front of her, as Severus rose and walked over to a chair opposite her.

 

Grabbing a few savories for his plate after pouring his guest a cup of tea, Severus sat back and casually asked, "So how has your month been?"

 

Usually Calpurnia went into a lengthy discussion of some of the backroom political maneuverings that went on, none of which she was involved with, she assured Severus. Other times she would go on about some of the societal gatherings she had attended or charity balls she had gone to recently.

 

"Actually, many of the cotillions this past month have been rather trying," she started.

 

'Yes, manipulation and deceit can be so exhausting while enjoying oneself at a garden party,' Severus thought dryly, though he nodded in a very sympathetic manner, and hummed in agreement as he took a sip of tea.

 

"Just last week, I was at a party being held by Judith and William Weebles. We were all having a lovely time, and many guests had brought their children to the event as well, holding a small party for them in the west garden so they would stay out from under foot. Well, my friend Dolores Umbridge was there and doing quite well, considering her condition," Calpurnia mentioned.

 

"Oh really? What is her condition? You mentioned she was not well, but never specified exactly what her malady was," Severus politely interrupted her. He had spent most of the previous night going through a Pensieve full of memories to make sure that his client had never mentioned in the past the cause of her friend's condition, as he had his suspicions. After surveying many hours of memories later, he was sure Calpurnia had evaded telling him the specific cause of Umbridge's illness.

 

"Quite tragic really," she started to explain. "About seven years ago, Dolores was working at Hogwarts as an administrator and while investigating some student mischief, she was led into a herd of angry Centaurs by a malicious student and abandoned to their whims."

 

'That is definitely not the way it happened and you know it,' he thought bitterly. Upon hearing how Miss Granger had lured the toady witch out into the Forbidden Forest under the guise of revealing a "secret weapon," he thought the young Gryffindor had showed amazing amounts of equal parts cunning and stupidity. In his mind, it was only sheer luck that both she and Potter didn't wind up killed by Grawp, the Centaurs, or anything else that lurked out in the Forbidden Forest.

 

"So what happened to this student?" he asked, hoping he didn't seemed too interested.

 

"Well, she had her comeuppance. Some uppity Muggle-born witch. I made sure that no one would give her an apprenticeship under the threat of revoking Ministry grants and funding. There were a few who might have disregarded my requests, but they died in the war anyway, so it doesn't matter. Currently she is languishing in a dead-end job in the Ministry testing ingredients or something like that. Poor Muggle-born has no idea what a lowly position she has. I have a few friends working within her department to make sure she never gets advanced within the Ministry. Hopefully she'll get a clue and quit, and be burdened with a gaggle of children sired by one of those Weasley boys she's married to, Roland, Robert, something like that. But stay or go, that impertinent girl will never amount to anything the way everyone was crowing about, supposedly the smartest witch in a century.” Calpurnia snorted. “If she was so smart, she'd get the idea she'll never get anywhere, go home and be a good little breeder of more Weasley urchins like the rest of the Weasley wives."

 

Severus wished he had a full mask on, as it took considerable effort to stop from clenching his teeth out of anger. Calpurnia Fudge was taking out an unfounded grudge on Hermione Weasley, all on the pretense that Dolores Umbridge was the wronged party. Had Severus been able to have a hand in the demise of the phlegmatic harpy, he would have staked her to the ground spread eagle and send out personal invitations to every dark creature lurking within the Forbidden Forest to do their worst upon her, if he didn't poison her first.

 

Knowing a response was required after her little speech, Severus replied, "Quite right," while making sure his did not clench his fists nor the muscles on the side of his jaw, which were itching to twitch and flex with agitation. "So what happened at the garden party, you were saying?"

 

"Well it seems the Weebles were not privy to the reason behind Dolores' condition regarding her Equinophobia and had hired a pony ride company for the children's party. When she heard one of the ponies whinny, she took off like she was strapped to a Firebolt. It was quite horrific, screaming about, ripping all those bows from her hair, the poor dear," she said, emoting sympathy from every pore.

 

Severus wasn't sure if Calpurnia truly felt anything for her so called friend or was rather put out when an ally within the Wizengamot and Ministry had been taken out of commission. Either way, he felt a cold fury course through his veins upon the revelation of Calpurnia's influence on Hermione Weasley's career. This knowledge burned a hole in the pit of his being. He had known what it was like to be overlooked and denied requests to advance in his career at Hogwarts year after year after year.

 

Each year the position of Defense Against the Dark Arts professor was dangled in front of him like some golden carrot if he just taught Potions one more year. "But Severus, there is no one as qualified as you to teach our students the subtle art of Potions. However, I will keep you in mind for the position if a worthy candidate comes along to replace you," Albus had told him each year.

 

Severus knew the only thing he could teach better than Potions was Defense Against the Dark Arts, as he had been there on the other side and knew just what underhanded bastards like himself could do with a well placed hex or curse. Yet, the Headmaster continued to put fools, werewolves, bureaucratic toads, and Voldemort's host into the position, which should have been rightfully his. And now Mrs. Fudge was controlling the career of a promising young witch, someone who had as much potential as he once had before he took the Dark Mark and ruined his future. As much as he would have laughed sardonically at the irony of it, Severus Snape suddenly felt a great deal of empathy for Hermione.

 

"That poor woman," Severus chimed in. "I do hope she's all right," he lied.

 

"Unfortunately, orderlies from St. Mungo's were required to subdue and sedate her before taking her there. The sight of her wading out into the duck pond with her robes hitched up over her head as she thrashed about screaming will haunt me forever." Calpurnia shook her head. "And she had made such good progress over the years; all that therapy gone to waste. They even had to replace one of the healers on rounds in her ward, as his last name was Cheval. Just the mention of his name by the other healers when addressing him sent her into twitching fits."

 

He shook his head and clucked his tongue in sympathy, resisting the urge to throttle and then hex the woman across from him. "Hopefully she'll make a complete recovery with time," Severus added. "Care for a scone?"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hermione slowly ambled through Diagon Alley, stopping at the produce shop, the bakery and the butcher before heading home.

 

Looking at a display case full of meat, Hermione thought about how much to buy. Since Ron wasn't home, nor did she know when he would come home, the grocery bill would be much smaller than usual. Normally a whole chicken would last for two dinners in the Weasley household, but with just Hermione, it could last for five or six dinners, especially if she bought a nice roaster.

 

"Just one chicken," she said to the butcher behind the counter at Abattoir and Haunchs.

 

Walking into her flat, Hermione noticed how Ron's smell was starting to fade from the place. Each additional day she spent in their flat alone made it seem like he might never come back. At first, the prospect of being alone had begun to frighten Hermione, but last night after analyzing the last few years, she realized that she was living a life in partial solitude already.

 

Between her long hours at work, Ron's evening job at the pub, and trips away with the Cannons, it wasn't like they spent all that much time together anyway, except for the weekends. It was just the absence of dirty dishes and laundry piling up, along with the lack of his facial hairs from his morning shave left all over the bathroom vanity counter that drove home the reality he wasn't there. Otherwise, it would have been hard to notice he was gone. There were the late night couplings and a warm body in the bed to wake up next to, but they seemed to be small consolations for the hassle of living with a man who was a better friend than lover or husband. The fights seemed to be happening more frequently, with less and less provocation each time. Granted, the last couple of fights she had instigated, but Ron had his fair share of bickering bouts he had initiated.

 

After shoving the chicken into the cooker to roast with a few sprigs of rosemary, Hermione went back to the parlor to sink into the couch and rest for a while before making the rest of her dinner.

 

The witch looked about her flat. "Could I do it?" she asked herself.

 

It was a question with multiple meanings. Could she afford to live here alone if Ron left her or she him, on her salary alone? Could she stand to live alone? Could she leave Ron? Could she divorce Ron?

 

Hermione had made multiple trips back to Flourish and Blotts reviewing the book on divorce carefully, making mental notes which she later wrote down once she got home.

 

Since she and Ron were married in a wedding, as opposed to a hand fasting trial marriage, which lasted only a year and a day unless children were conceived, it was still relatively simple to divorce in the wizarding world; much more simple than in the Muggle world.

 

A simple incantation done to the marriage certificate, a letter of intent to divorce sent to the Ministry for their records, the return of the wedding band, and the divorce was complete. It only required the desire of one of the party for the marriage to end, no doubt to protect witches who wished to leave abusive husbands or wizards to leave women who plundered their vaults or cheated on their husbands, or the vise versa of each scenario.

 

She wondered if she could really go through with it. If she did, would Harry and Ginny still speak to her? Would they understand? How would she explain it to her parents?

 

Her mother once said that marriage was a ninety-ten arrangement. You gave ninety percent of yourself and could only expect ten percent back. But what was implied was that both sides would give of themselves and not expect much in return. The accountant in Hermione's heart calculated that she gave almost one hundred percent and received close to nothing in return, and felt that Ron did not even put up even half of his share towards their relationship.

 

"It was so much easier when we were friends," Hermione sighed aloud to the empty room.

 

If or when Ron did come back, did she want him back? A small part of her mind said it was better to be alone for the right reasons than to be together with someone for the wrong reasons. Was she with Ron for the wrong reasons? When he first kissed her years ago, it seemed like the problem threat of spinsterhood, and the entire stigma attached to it, had evaporated. But did agreeing to marry Ron create more problems than dealing with the pitying looks all of her married friends would have given her, knowing that she was still alone with no one significant in her life?

 

Still, in some small way she missed him, or at least the knowledge that he would come home eventually and crawl into bed next to her.

 

Hermione pressed her palms together and rested her forehead against her thumbs. She could tell she was spiraling into another fit of depression, and if she didn't get her pathetic arse up off the couch and finish dinner, she'd be going two nights in a row without a proper evening meal.

 

After a simple dinner of chicken, a roll and a small salad, Hermione stood looking at the bed from the doorway to their room. Too tired to do any house cleaning to take her mind off of the fact Ron would probably not be coming home that night, but not tired enough to crawl into bed, only to spend hours tossing and turning, she grabbed her cloak and headed out the door.

 

She spent a few hours, until closing time, huddled on a stool in the back of Flourish and Blotts reading a Potions book that she had been lusting over the past few years. When the chime rang out announcing the store was closing, Mrs. Weasley rose and headed out into the night.

 

The thought of going back to an empty flat didn't quite appeal to her and she resisted the urge to swing by The Listing Broom to just take a quick peek at her husband. Instead she meandered down one of the side streets of Diagon Alley and found a pub called the Blue Raven.

 

Wandering in, she found the bar and ordered a glass of sherry to slowly nurse for a while before eventually wandering back home to grab a few hours of restless sleep. While sitting in a booth towards the back, she noticed a man sitting at the bar with a glass and a half-filled bottle of Firewhisky.

 

Half way through her sherry, she noticed the same man later was standing beside her table. A voice broke through her mental ramblings when he said, "Mind if I join you?"

 

Hermione gave him a half nod of acceptance of his company and motioned with her hand for him to sit down. Looking at him, she could tell he was at least ten years older than her with sandy blond hair and dark eyes, husky build and a heavy mustache.

 

They sat in silence for a while, both sipping at their drinks before the he spoke. "So, do you come here often?"

 

She gave him a weak smile, too tired to not wince at the weak pick up line or the idea that this man seemed interested in her. Shaking her head slightly, she said, "No, it's my first time here." Mrs. Weasley began spinning her wedding band around and round on her finger.

 

"Does your husband know you're here?" he asked.

 

Giving another shake of her head, she answered, "No, and I don't know where he is either. We had a fight and he's been gone a few days."

 

"Oh." The wizard sitting across from her paused before stating, "I guess you're not interested in coming back with me to my room at the Leaky Cauldron then."

 

Blinking at him in mild shock, Hermione never realized the rapidity in which some men picked up women. To say his proposition was blatant was putting it mildly, but she supposed that when people got older, their hang ups and the formality of getting to know someone before sleeping with them started to slacken with age and experience. Still, she knew a few women at Hogwarts who would meet a boy, and after a few hours of conversation in the library or in a deserted classroom, would shag and move on as if nothing happened. Somehow, Hermione knew even when she was older, she could never go to some stranger's room and shag. There had to be some emotional intimacy between her and the other person. The only two men she had ever shared that sort of closeness to were her husband and Harry. And for some reason, the sexual connection between her and Ron still seemed lacking.

 

Yet thinking back, she had willingly gone to meet with Calleo that first night after running into Lavender, but at least she knew she controlled the situation and that it would not be a sexual encounter, but one of emotional comfort.

 

"I'm flattered… really… but," she stammered, trying not to blush, "I'm still very married. Thank you, but… I can't." Downing the last few sips of her drink in one gulp she rose. "Good evening," she whispered before heading out the door.

 

Walking back home, Hermione reflected on what just happened. It was flattering that another man had wanted to sleep with her, but looking at him, he seemed lonely and most likely would have hit on her regardless of her looks.

 

'Wonder if Lavender has any witches working for her,' Hermione mused, imagining the blond witch introducing herself to the wizard, whose name she never got.

 

Once back inside her home, and noticing Pig had still not returned, she looked at the bed once more. A brief image of the wizard who propositioned her, hovering over her naked as he humped her on the bed flashed into her mind. Hermione shuddered at the thought, slightly repulsed at the vision her mind had produced. Disgusted and disturbed, she sought to replace the image with a much more pleasant one.

 

It wasn't that the wizard in the pub was unappealing, it was just there was a certain vibe of desperation and total lack of attraction that turned her off.

 

To fill her mind with the first pleasant thoughts in three days, she undressed and reclined on the bed. Images of Calleo lying next to her, slowly stroking her skin filled her mind as she touched herself. She let out small mewling whimpers thinking of his hands on her breasts, touching them gently instead of twisting them like wireless knobs, as Ron was prone to do.

 

Too exhausted to bother to finish masturbating, Hermione pulled up the covers and went to sleep, wondering if she could get used to sleeping all alone in a bed once more.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eighteen
“The Inner Hunger"

 

Disclaimer: Supplicates before the shine of J.K. Rowling. "Oh, great author. Inspire me so that I may create something based solely on your characters, which you own. So that I may continue to glorify that which you have created in your fertile imagination. Amen." Lights burning incense, places chewing gum and baby toys on the altar, then bows repeatedly while retreating from shrine.

 

============

 

Ginny was already waiting in the park when Hermione arrived. The grounds near St. James' were filled with children enjoying the summer sun and tourists walking back from Buckingham Palace, with cameras slung around their necks, having watched the changing of the guard.

 

The red headed witch was dressed in appropriate Muggle wear and sat upon a plaid blanket spread out with a large picnic hamper next to her. Hermione, who had left her cloak back at the office, looked at the small brown paper bag she clutched in her hand containing a meager cold chicken sandwich and a drink.

 

"Hermione," Ginny called out to her friend, waving her over.

 

Once Hermione was seated on the blanket next to her, Ginny said, "I hope you don't mind. I brought some extra food. I guess I picked up Mum's habit of cooking for an army."

 

"Not at all." Hermione shrugged.

 

Once the hamper was open, Hermione peeked inside and saw it filled with a cupboard’s worth of food. Sandwiches, bags of crisps, piles of strawberries, desserts and beverages were crammed into every nook and cranny of the space-enlargement charmed hamper.

 

Pulling out a large tray, Hermione was tempted to chuck her own bagged-lunch. The tray was laden with sandwiches: Black Forest ham and brie on raisin pumpernickel rye bread, lamb and chutney on thin slices of rustic Italian bread, pear and Stilton on Challah, and salmon and cream cheese. For the first time in days, Hermione had an appetite and she suddenly felt ravenously hungry just looking at the food.

 

"May I?" Hermione asked meekly.

 

"Please tuck in," Ginny offered. "Otherwise I'll have to haul it all back home." Her eyes took in the sight of Hermione, though made no mention that the brunette was looking even thinner.

 

"Thanks, Ginny," Hermione said before devouring a lamb and mango chutney sandwich in record time, beating Ron's old record.

 

While Hermione began making up for lost meals, she didn't notice Ginny's hard scrutiny of her, instead focusing on having one of each sandwich that her friend had brought, as there seemed to be a dozen of each type on the tray. The older witch pulled out her drink from her bag lunch, but decided to leave it for later when Ginny offered chilled lemonade, a drink the redhead had recently discovered.

 

"Ron must be so thrilled about playing starting Keeper. He probably doesn't stop talking about it at home," Ginny said, breaking the silence that was due to Hermione stuffing her face while trying to retain some lady-like table manners.

 

The brunette stopped chewing her food and frowned momentarily before swallowing the mouthful of Stilton and pear. "I wouldn't know. You'd have to ask him," she commented offhandedly, not meeting Ginny's eyes.

 

"What do you mean?"

 

Taking a long sip of the sweet-tart beverage in order to delay having to respond, Hermione's eyes darted guiltily to Ginny before looking away. It seemed Ron had not gone to stay with Harry and Ginny, otherwise her friend would have not phrased her questions as such.

 

"We had a big fight Saturday night. I stormed out of our flat and when I got back an hour later he was gone. I haven't seen him since." She took another sip to busy her hands, mouth and mind while allowing her statement to sink into Ginny's mind.

 

There was a long pause while Ginny studied Hermione further. "Care to tell me what the fight was about?" she asked icily.

 

Hermione put down her sandwich, her appetite gone as quickly as it appeared. Staring at the colors of the plaid blanket beneath her, she contemplated how to phrase what she was about to say.

 

After inhaling deeply and exhaling, she explained, "It was right after we got back from your place. The flat was hot and so we cast some charms to cool the place off. While we were sitting in front of a window, I tried talking with him. It's been so long since we had a decent conversation. He didn't want to talk at all. No matter what I did he just kept ending the conversation. He started getting all lovey-dovey with me and I snapped. I told him that I needed some conversation to get me into the mood for once." Ginny kept staring at Hermione silently, waiting for her to continue. "Well, it escalated from there and I told him basically how lousy he was in bed, and he had never given me an orgasm. He called me a frigid, controlling bitch. That's when I threw my drink in his face and I left. When I got back, he was gone."

 

The silence stretched on until Ginny leaned over and gave Hermione a one-armed hug. "I'm so sorry," she said empathetically.

 

Nodding halfheartedly, Hermione said listlessly, "I owled him yesterday to see if he was all right. He owled back saying he was fine, and would come back when he was ready and wanted." Tears welled in her eyes. "Pig wasn't home when I got back last night," Hermione choked out.

 

Ginny rubbed her friend's back in a gesture of comfort. "Do you guys fight a lot?" she asked.

 

Giving a half shrug, Hermione answered, "With more frequency lately. But we haven't had a fight this bad since… since…” She trailed off in thought remembering that horrible fight. "Since a month after your wedding."

 

Hermione remembered the fight all too clearly. Ron wanted her to quit work and go off potions so they could start a family, just like his mum. Lots of insults were exchanged, including several she had made about Molly. Some of them included words such as "brood mare," "domineering maternal figure," and comparisons to poor Irish-Catholic families who had never heard of birth control. Ron had his own litany of insults referring to her own family's lack of other children, insinuations to an asexual personality and lack of sex drive, a rather derogatory wizarding term for working witches, and even borrowed the phrase "Know-it-all" from Professor Snape.

 

The red head sucked air in, quickly remembering how bad that particular fight was, as it was Ginny who’d consoled Hermione afterwards. "Oh, Hermione," was all that she said, continuing to rub her friend's back in a soothing manner.

 

Looking at the half-eaten sandwich still resting in her hand, the solemn witch realized the lingering taste of the sandwich was gone, and anything else she ate would taste bland and devoid of any flavor. Taking one last sip of lemonade, Hermione contemplated telling Ginny about Calleo. It was just for conversation, but quickly decided against it, as she didn't think her sister-in-law would take too kindly to the news of her seeing a gigolo, even if it was strictly for conversation.

 

Mrs. Weasley rose from her spot and brushed off her skirt. "I'd better get back to work. Thanks for bringing lunch, it was delicious." Her voice was thick with emotion and subdued.

 

"Sure, no problem, Hermione. Say, do you want to come over for dinner tonight?" Ginny offered.

 

Shaking her head, Hermione replied, "No, I think I'd better be home in case Ron comes back tonight." It was a lie. Ron wouldn't be home until well after dinner and she was planning on going out to Flourish and Blotts anyway, instead of sitting around in a lonely, empty flat.

 

"Aw, come on. I'm fixing Hawaiian pork with a mango-pineapple salsa," Ginny encouraged her friend to accept.

 

"Given up on Spanish cuisine now?" Hermione ribbed her.

 

"Harry said if I made Paella one more time, he'd never touch another grain of rice or piece of shellfish ever again," Ginny related with a guilty smile.

 

Hermione shook her head once more. "No, I think I'll pass this one time. Maybe next time."

 

"How about tomorrow night?" Ginny asked, a mischievous smirk playing on her lips.

 

Hermione was about to accept when she remembered that she had her weekly appointment with Calleo. "Uh, tomorrow night doesn't look good," Hermione explained, trying not to stammer. "There are some errands I have to run after work."

 

"Oh," Ginny said with some finality in her tone and gave Hermione a last scrutinizing glance. "Well, owl me when Ron does come back and we'll meet up and tell me all the gory details. Everything except the sex part. He is my brother after all."

 

Laughing at Ginny's joke, Hermione felt a tad better. Ginny's invitation reminded her that she had to meet Lavender that night after work anyway, though it would have taken only a few minutes to hand over the money.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Rushing out of the lab, Hermione grabbed her cloak and decided the stairs were a quicker way to reach the main atrium, rather than waiting for the rickety elevator operated by a paroled Death Eater. If she didn't hurry, she would be late for her appointment with Lavender at the Leaky Cauldron.

 

As she stepped out of the fireplace, Hermione charmed the soot off her cloak before scanning the darker corners of the establishment, searching for her old schoolmate.

 

The top of a well-coifed blond head beyond a divider could be spotted in the back corner near the stairs. Approaching the cosmetic empress, she saw Lavender rise and walk up the back stairs to the second floor where the rooms were. Hermione followed and saw her walk into room number nine, leaving the door ajar.

 

Stepping into the room, the brunette witch saw the space appointed with dark Jacobean furniture that was probably original, including the finish.

 

'If they only knew how much money some of this furniture would fetch in the Muggle antiques market,' Hermione thought.

 

"Please, have a seat," Lavender offered with an outstretched arm, not yet turning around to face her customer, as she walked to the window.

 

Settling into a straight-backed chair with ornate turnings and a worn needlepoint seat, Hermione glanced at the dark wood paneling and noticed how Lavender stood out like some pink and blond apparition against the brown-black hues of the room.

 

"Here," Mrs. Weasley said, setting a small bag of Galleons on the side table next to her chair. The velvet pouch muffled the clink of the gold coins.

 

Out of the corner of her eye, Lavender glanced at the woman and bag of money sitting across the room . "Keep it." She turned to look back out the window to watch the clouds pass over the waxing gibbous moon still rising in the sky, washed out and pale against the dusky evening light.

 

"What?"

 

Lavender kept her back to Hermione. "Keep it."

 

Perplexed and confused, Hermione asked, "Why? What about Calleo's fee?"

 

"Don't worry about his fees, he's being more than compensated. Besides, with what I owe to you and more…” Lavender turned to face Hermione. "You know, the reason I'm successful is because of what you did with the house-elves from Death Eater families during the war. Without their cheap labor, I would not have been able to undercut the price on my competitors or gain a foothold in the marketplace. In part, I owe my success to you. So please don't worry about paying Calleo's fees, I'll take care of that."

 

Glaring at Lavender, Hermione fumed, "I'm not poor. I can afford to pay it."

 

"Please don't take my gesture as one of pity for your finances. I'm sorry if you construed it that way, but I feel that I am in your debt in many ways," Miss Brown explained.

 

Hermione watched Lavender slowly pace along the width of the room, noting the less than confident and amicable air that the blond usually radiated.

 

"You look like you could use a friend this time," Hermione observed. "Man trouble?"

 

Lavender fixed her with an appraising stare before giving her a tired smile. "Something like that."

 

"You want to talk about it?" Hermione offered.

 

Sitting down in the chair near Hermione's, she began to laugh lightly. Giving another glance towards Hermione, Lavender replied, "No, not now. It's a rather sticky situation at the moment. One day I'll tell you if you still want to know, but for now, let's just say it's rather complicated. Time will tell how everything will sort itself out."

 

Staring at her lap, Hermione felt the same way about herself and Ron. It was a rather sticky situation they were in, avoiding each other after their fight, not knowing when Ron would return home. "I know what you mean," Hermione added.

 

Rising from her seat with a bit of heaviness removed from her person, Lavender said, "Have you had dinner yet?"

 

Hermione shook her head. "No, I came here from work."

 

"Please stay and I'll have some dinner sent in."

 

"Oh, you don't have to–"

 

"Please," she pleaded with a wave of her hand towards the table. "It's no bother at all, my treat." She moved to the door.

 

"Aren't you staying?" Hermione asked.

 

"No. I would love to stay and talk a while longer, but… I'm expecting company at home. Perhaps another time," Lavender excused herself. "May I suggest the pork loin roast; Tom really out did himself this time."

 

Before Hermione could protest, Lavender had slipped out the door and a barmaid appeared to ask Hermione what she would like for dinner.

 

"Um, I hear the pork loin roast is very good?" she said with uncertainty.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The boneless body laid out on the table in front of Severus groaned as he dug the heel of his hand into the rhomboid major knotted beneath his hands.

 

Nude, with only a sheet draped over her bottom and legs, she mumbled, "Ooooh, a little deeper please."

 

"You've been slouching at your desk again, Katherine," Severus admonished her.

 

She growled at the back of her throat as the muscle on her back began to release under the ministrations of his hands. "You know, Muggles have this fantastic invention called electric lights that fully illuminate everything so well. You don't have to bend over your parchments to read in those offices that are way too small for a proper brazier and must suffer with candles alone."

 

"Hmmmm," Severus replied, neither agreeing nor contradicting her assessment of Muggle illumination. He found electric lights too bright and glaring, but he had excellent vision to begin with. Katherine, however, did not fair well with low lighting due to poor night vision, even at her young age of fifty.

 

"Ooh, too deep" she gritted with a wince as Severus put his body weight behind the rock-hard lump that was once her levator scapulae.

 

Since the Death Eater Decree and his ban from brewing potions, Severus noticed many things about him had physically changed. His hair was not as limp and weighted down with volatile oils as it once was from working in a room full of simmering cauldrons all day in the Hogwarts dungeons. Nor did his skin have quite the same translucent pallid color now that he had living quarters with natural sunlight and worked in a room with large windows. He was still pale, but his skin did not have the blue cast it once did. The calluses that once adorned his hands, marking him as a man that worked them heavily, were gone, and along with them went his tolerance for handling objects at high temperatures, especially cauldrons that were still cooling or flasks that had recently been filled with boiling potions. The most notable, however, was his waning hand strength.

 

It was when he was trying to open a jar of gherkins one day that he realized he had to really put some effort in to it. Normally, he would have opened it with minimal effort, but when it took until the third try, he realized he was losing something he had taken for granted. All those years working as a Potions master had given him hand strength rivaled only by some of the best Quidditch players.

 

So it was that Severus complained rather loudly, as he worked on a batch of pimple purging potion with Lavender a few years ago. She recommended he start offering massages as a way of regaining some of his hand strength. At first he was reluctant, but soon found Miss Brown's idea had some merit. Not only did his clients remain mostly quiet during their visits, giving his sympathetic ear a rest, but he was also able to mentally list the different muscles of the body as he worked on them. As a Potions master, he was once required to learn each and every muscle and the effects of each potion ingredient on each group and type of muscle.

 

Most people had no idea how hard it was to become a Potions master or mistress. In addition to a firm grasp of Potions, one must be well versed in Herbology, anatomy, the pharmacological effects of each ingredient and combination of ingredients on different parts of the body, and knowing how potions will react in a wizard's body versus a witch's body, in addition to which phase a woman's body was in during her fruitful years. Add the requirement to learn at least five languages, as many of the ancient Potions texts had anti-translations spells, making the task of becoming a master or mistress of the complex and subtle art that much more difficult. It was because of this required large body of knowledge to be learned and memorized that the number of qualified people in the field of Potions was shrinking. Which was why it was such a crime that a man as talented as Severus Snape was forced to work under a pseudonym, yet still not be able to actually practice his art.

 

"Better?" he asked, as he eased off the pressure of his hands on her upper shoulder.

 

"Mmmmm, much. Oh," she sighed, "you have the hands of an angel. You have the touch."

 

"Thank you," he replied.

 

"I just wish next week wasn't my last visit," she sighed.

 

"Last visit?"

 

"Yes," she groaned with resignation. "I'm moving the business to Spain. England just isn't as commerce friendly as it once was. With all this paranoia and precautions over Death Eaters, one just can't get any proper work done with the Ministry regulations and restrictions on trade, tariffs, Portkeys, Flooing, and such."

 

Severus grumbled in sympathy.

 

Katherine lifted her head off the table and looked at Severus out of the corner of her eye. "I can't tell you what a port in the storm for me you've been these past few years." She rested her head back down on the table. "If it wasn't for your strength, I would have let my husband's business flounder and fade. You were right. I can't let the death of a loved one stop me from living."

 

Severus reflected on his own words spoken back to him. They were words he did not exactly follow, but merely words that Albus once told him after the death of his own wife. Severus scoffed at those words years before, but found they gave Katherine comfort and courage to go one when she first came to him.

 

Katherine Bigelow was the wife of a prominent businessman in the wizarding community, being one of the main importers of rare botanical species from around the world. Bigelow Botanicals was one of the largest wizarding nurseries in Great Britain and Katherine was a personal friend of Professor Sprout, though Severus never mentioned he knew the professor personally as well, keeping his identity secret from all his clients.

 

When Mrs. Bigelow first met Severus, she was in the midst of a deep depression, as all her children were grown and had moved on to their own lives. She was left to grieve the death of her husband alone with no support. Severus, being a widower himself, was able to say the right things to help her move on with her life, eventually discussing her business with her and talking about the many plants she imported. He gave her a few vague, but helpful pointers regarding the Herbology and Potions trade and she paid Severus very well for her visits with a friendly masked face to talk to, with a bit of business advice thrown in. They had a very companionable relationship and were close enough in age that they could relate to each other well. Though Katherine was an attractive woman, their relationship never became sexual. The woman was still grieving for her husband and would likely do so for the rest of her life.

 

Severus rubbed his hands over her shoulder one more time and patted her back gently. "How does that feel?"

 

She inhaled deeply. "Ah, I can breathe again. I no longer have that 'knife stabbing me in the back' muscle spasm pain anymore. Oh, you are a dear."

 

"I'll retire to the kitchen so you can dress," Severus excused himself.

 

While he was in the kitchen preparing a pot of genmai cha tea, Katherine dressed and shouted through the door, "I owled that Potions master you told me about the other week, Sebastian Delgado. I can’t thank you enough. He's willing to do some consulting work for me."

 

Severus smirked to himself, as he poured the boiling water over the tea. "It's my pleasure that I could help you," he called back through the door.

 

He figured if Lavender could deal with this woman as a buyer and in the capacity of a madam, then he could act as gigolo and consultant in a dual capacity as well. Money was money, and Katherine was willing to pay handsomely for advice from the perspective of someone in the Potions trade on the potency of certain sub-varietal species of plants from different regions of the world. He would have told her some of the information she wanted without having her deal with his nom de guerre, but that would have meant revealing too much of himself, as she was probably aware of the Death Eater Potions master Severus Snape through Pomona and by reputation.

 

"I'm done," she announced.

 

Severus walked through the door to find her sitting on his settee in her usual attire. "Tea?" he offered.

 

"Yes, please."

 

They sat for a moment, both sipping the pale green brew before she spoke once more. "I must say I will miss the friendship we've developed over the past few years."

 

"As will I," he replied.

 

"Albert was a good man. I think he would have liked your no nonsense approach."

 

Severus nodded. He contemplated divulging that he would be making an exit from his current profession as a means of closure to his business relationship with Katherine. Considering the fact that in time he would be illegally fleeing the country, and Aurors might go snooping about, he supposed it was best the he would make no mention of his plans. In an investigation, Katherine's name could possibly come up and it would be best if she were kept out of the loop regarding his future plans. She was loosely tied to the Potions and ingredient trade and might be a person of interest once the Aurors had found that Severus and Draco used Polyjuice Potion to escape.

 

"I think he would be proud of what you've done with the company since his death," Severus said.

 

Katherine downed the rest of her cup and stood. As Severus escorted her to the door, she stopped and grasped his hand in a motherly type fashion. Looking at him with unshed tears in her eyes, she said, "Next week may be a bit crazy with moving the business and all, so I may not be able to see you. In case I don't see you, let me say good bye."

 

Severus made to speak, but she placed a finger in the air between them to stop his protestations.

 

"Please," she said. Taking a deep breath, she began, "When Albert died, I wished I’d died with him. I don't think I'll ever get over him being gone, but at least you've helped me so that I can cope and get on with my life. You are a good person. Though I've never learned your name, I've always considered you a friend. I hope someday you can leave this profession behind and pursue your dreams, though you've never told me what they are. I hope you can find the happiness in your life that I had when Albert was in mine, be it with another person or by your reaching your goals. Please take care of yourself."

 

As a final gesture, Katherine leaned over and gave Severus a chaste kiss on the small lower portion of his cheek that wasn’t covered by his mask.

 

"Thank you," she whispered, squeezing his hand one last time as a few tears fell before she walked out the door.

 

The lock on the door clicked shut and Severus grimaced, trying not to let maudlin thoughts of farewells overwhelm him. Though never a man of sentimentality, Severus was touched by her sincere words of farewell for him and his well-being. Of all the clients he’d had over the years, she would be one of only a few that he would miss.

 

He imagined a large sniff coming from one of the chairs next to the chess table. 'That was just so lovely,' he could hear Minerva sobbing with her distinct Scottish brogue.

 

"Oh shut up," he snarled at the imaginary phantom, the moment ruined by his conscience popping up at the most inopportune time. "Don't you have a tree to go strand yourself in somewhere? Why can't I even have a moment's peace for reflection without you two taking up residence in my mind?"

 

The mental ghost of Albus gave him a knowing look over those damned half-moon spectacles Severus wanted to snap in half. 'My dear boy,' the barmy old fart croaked, 'we share her sentiments exactly. We would have wanted you to find your happiness as well. Perhaps if Hermione wasn't married to Ronald Weasley, you would have–'

 

Severus spun and glared at the empty chair. He knew no ghost was there, as ghosts could not read minds, but his own mind filled in the details of his old headmaster in his chair so perfectly, he could see the threads of his robe and each individual hair of his long white beard.

 

"Don't go there," Severus snapped.

 

'But we know you care for the young woman,' the imaginary Headmaster insisted. 'We are manifestations from within your own mind, Severus. There is nothing you can hide from us.'

 

"You go ahead and think what you like. My interest in Hermione is nothing more than to fulfill my obligation to get my percentage from Miss Brown, and to get those damned ingredients to get out of this forsaken place," Severus ranted at the empty space before him, his black eyes focusing on the twinkling blue ones he envisioned before him.

 

'You can't tell us you feel nothing for the girl,' Minerva protested.

 

"What do you think," Severus defiantly challenged, folding his arms in front of him. He really hated the fact that after all these years, he could still clearly hear their voices reproving, chastising, coaxing and encouraging him in his mind. At least his mind refused to allow the image of Albus to offer him a lemon drop.

 

'Pardon the inappropriate gender usage, but 'me thinks the lady doth protest too much',' Minerva quipped.

 

Severus snorted and turned his back on the two empty wing back chairs. "If you two will excuse me, I think I'm going to take a bath. I would appreciate it if you both would have the courtesy of staying out of my bathroom and mind while I have a long soak."

 

As the large tub filled with hot water, Severus stripped, throwing his clothes in a pile for Marf to launder and press. Slipping into the steaming water, he let the heat relax him as his mind drifted.

 

"Let the attrition begin," he sighed, his voice echoing against the tiles of bathroom.

 

Katherine was the first client to leave his service since knowledge of Hermione Weasley's job came to his attention. Now all he had to do was either guide the ones who were married back to their husbands or encourage his single clients to move on and find a nice wizard and teach their man to do with their bodies as he had done. Monday and Wednesday nights were now both open and Miss Brown had been made aware of his refusal to take on any more clients. There were a few monthly clients, but they only came to see him if an opening in his regular schedule opened up when one of his weekly clients couldn't make it.

 

The only client he could count on for the long term, until he was free, was Hermione Weasley.

 

Just before Katherine Bigelow arrived earlier that evening, Severus had received an owl from Ginny. He could only surmise that Ginny was filling him in on her lunch with Hermione earlier that day. As he did not have time to read it before Katherine's arrival, he placed it in his study to read first thing in the morning.

 

Severus was curious at to what Ginny had written in the letter, but figured it would be best to read it fresh in the morning after a good night's sleep.

 

The image of Hermione Weasley drifted into his mind as he closed his eyes, his arms draped over the side of the tub and his head lolled back. She was wearing that damn dingy blouse with the frayed collar.

 

'Take it off,' he gently commanded her, tired of remembering that over-washed shirt in his mind.

 

He could see her peering at him with wide brown eyes, clutching the shirt to the front of her chest before she relented and started unbuttoning her blouse slowly, looking up at him through lowered lashes shyly, trying to keep some semblance of modesty.

 

In his mind, he could envision the pale skin of her shoulders being bared as she pulled the blouse off, still clutching the shirt to her front.

 

Severus let a small groan escape from the back of his throat as he wrapped on hand around his stiffening cock.

 

"Yes," he whispered, as his hand started to move up and down his hard length.

 

Visions of a bra with tattered lace flashed in his mind. 'This will simply not do,' he imagined himself saying, as his hands slipped the offending brassiere off her shoulders and unclasped it so she could remove it as well.

 

He hissed as his cock grew even stiffer in his hands, wondering what the shape and lines of her back must look like. In his mind, she was too skinny, as he remembered her from her two visits, but he didn’t seem to mind, at the moment.

 

Severus enjoyed looking at women, be they tall or short, lithe or voluptuous, blond, brunette, red or raven-haired, he liked the feminine softness about them. The way their hair felt in his hands and the shape of their thighs, be they thin or plump. The only thing he enjoyed more than looking at women was touching them. And to be buried inside of them was heaven on earth. Granted, there was no emotional satisfaction from his many liaisons with his clients, he still reveled in the physical sensuality that came with his job. The sigh of a woman's voice from his touch, the look in her eyes as she glowed in post-orgasmic bliss. The feel of their breasts, large or small, pert or pendulous, areolas that were large or small, colored brown, rose or pink in his hands as he stroked, licked and caressed them. And for those seeking physical pleasure with him, he brought them all joy and satisfaction. Granted it did feed his ego that he could please them thoroughly, but he also took his own pleasure while with them, be it for some cuddling and simple kisses or wild sex.

 

Until that moment, Severus had avoided thinking of Hermione in a sexual manner, but with the knowledge of his meeting with her tomorrow night looming in his mind, he began wondering what sort of sexual creature she was. Was she timid and reluctant or bold and confident between the sheets?

 

Knowing that a larger percentage of his married clients he was physically intimate with tended to have Gryffindor or Hufflepuff husbands, he could only assume that Hermione was a woman left unsatisfied by her husband. From the sexual tension emanating off of her in waves from their previous meetings and the arousal he evoked in her from that simple chaste kiss upon her hand, he could only assume she was an untapped geyser of passion waiting to be released.

 

As he stroked himself faster, he imagined pulling her close to his body before roughly shoving her up against a wall and plunging into her with no preamble. He wondered if she would shriek if taken so roughly or would she moan loudly. Visions of her legs wrapped around his waist as he propped her up against a wall and shoved his length into her over and over, her head tilted back, his head buried at the base of her exposed neck, grunting with each thrust.

 

His brow furrowed and he growled as he released his seed across his stomach, his hips thrusting up from the water, the tiny waves lapped at the side of the tub before his hand movements slowed. Severus eventually collapsed back into the hot water.

 

"Like that's ever going to happen," he gasped, tranquil and momentarily drowsy, as his heart hammered against his rib cage.

 

Severus was not interested in being physically intimate with Hermione. Eventually, he would have to reveal himself to her, and to have physical interaction with a woman who knew him as the greasy dungeon bat of Hogwarts would drive her off, once she learned his identity. He would have to make sure that he would never reciprocate any physical advances she made while she knew him as Calleo. Severus could imagine the humiliation she might feel if she had sex with him, only to learn later it was her old Potions professor. Though from any other woman he would welcome the change from emotional comfort to physical intimacy, he would have to make the exception with her. She was a means to his and Draco's escape and there was no point in ruining it by letting her attraction or repulsion to Severus Snape get in the way.

 

Thoroughly relaxed, the raven-haired man rose from the tub and dried off, before slipping into bed.

 

As he lay in the dark, his mind began ticking off things to do in order to set Hermione's mind on the right track. Little things that would begin to hint at his identity without giving the whole game away at once.

 

Severus smiled, wondering what the look on her face might be when she finally discovered it was he, her old Potions professor and fellow Order member, whom she had been secretly seeing and confessing her heart out to.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nineteen
"Melt Down"

 

Disclaimer: Rowling owns it all, I don't. Oh well, wish I did.

 

============

 

The Thursday workday seemed to crawl by for Hermione. Where she would normally lose track of time while mindlessly carrying out each test, she found herself watching the clock intently throughout the day.

 

'A watched cauldron never boils,' she reminded herself.

 

Still, despite her anxiousness to finish for the day, she was almost reluctant to go home. Sitting in her office, her face in her hands, Hermione muttered, "Oh God, what if Ron's home when I get there?"

 

Knowing her recent spate of luck, the one night of the week Hermione had made plans for herself, Ron would most probably show up, which would result in her having to stay at home and talk with her husband, rehashing the more unpleasant aspects of their fight. If or when Ron would come back home, she prayed of all nights, tonight would not be it. She could deal with him returning the previous night or tomorrow night, but not tonight, as this was her evening with Calleo.

 

"Just let me have this one thing," she pleaded to God.

 

Hermione was not a religious person by nature. She associated herself as a member of the Church of England by name alone. Neither she, nor her parents had been to church in years, but she still sent a little prayer that she could at least continue to have this one little bit of happiness in her life. Her years at Hogwarts made her question the existence of God and the possibility of there being more than one God, but she had neither seen nor read enough proof about any other deity to usurp the beliefs she was ingrained with as a child.

 

A little past five o'clock, Hermione gathered her strength before grabbing her cloak and heading home. Though lost in thought as she stepped into the lift, she did notice Dolohov shifting agitatedly from one foot to another. As she held her wand discretely, Hermione hoped he only needed to use the toilet, but something about his demeanor made her alert and on edge.

 

As the lift reached the main floor, Hermione bid him a good evening while noticing the small tic in the Death Eater's left eye and his silence. She contemplated going to Level Two to Auror Headquarters to mention Dolohov's slightly odd behavior, then dismissed it.

 

Sitting alone in her kitchen, Hermione looked about and noticed that it had remained clean. It still seemed odd that she didn't have any of Ron's breakfast dishes to clean up or fix a plate for him to eat before his shift at the pub.

 

Once dinner was finished and the dishes were washed and put away, she looked about the flat. Was this what life was like for the single witch? An empty flat? Granted, there was the possibility of reading to her hearts content without Ron bugging her for the fourth time in a row to put down her book to listen to him retell a play he had been working on during practice. Perhaps the fact that she was expecting him home at some point in time made the flat seem that much more vacant. If she thought of herself as living alone already instead of waiting for someone to return, would the place seem less desolate? Shoving maudlin thoughts aside, Hermione wandered to the bedroom so she could prepare for her evening with Calleo.

 

Her clothes for the day sat in a pile by the foot of the bed, reeking of burnt Golden Fleece and other boiled and simmered ingredients from the day's work. Standing in front of the mirror naked, Hermione scrutinized her form in the mirror.

 

"I hate my breasts," she grumbled out loud.

 

There were several things Hermione disliked about her appearance. She did not possess the shapely curves that Ginny did. Where Ginny could gain a few pounds and they would pleasantly add to her voluptuous form, Hermione already felt fat. She had the thinner and narrower frame that Ginny had complained once or twice that she wished she had instead.

 

While Hermione was able to correct her teeth in her fourth year, her hair was still an ongoing battle. Ginny had often suggested she let it grow out to one length and not to get her usual layered cut to just below the shoulder. The redhead had recommended that some length on Hermione's hair might weigh it down and reduce the bushiness on the crown, eventually growing out to a cascade of curves and waves instead of the bushy mass she had suffered with for years.

 

Still, she hated her breasts. It wasn't the size that bothered her so much as the shape and look of them. During her seventh year when Hermione finally became physically closer to Ron and allowed him to remove her bra the first time, he made a less than complimentary remark her breasts.

 

"Cor blimey! Those nipples are bigger than a Galleon!" She could remember Ron exclaiming.

 

She did have large areolas, but Ron’s remark had made her rather self-conscious of her breasts from then on. When she immediately covered herself, after blushing a rather embarrassing red, Ron tried to make amends, but wound up making some rather left-handed compliments about her breasts. Even to this day, she preferred that the lights were out and Ron didn't view her body fully illuminated by candles or daylight.

 

Hermione had thought of having some permanent alteration charms done to her breasts, to give them that gravity defying look Ginny had, as they tended to hang, but was rather wary of the procedure and put off by the high cost.

 

Turning sideways in the mirror, she did at least like the fact she had a flat stomach and Ron could no longer gently tease her about the baby fat she didn't finish shedding till after she was married.

 

Giving her hair one last look, she contemplated dying it to give it some other color than the dark chestnut she was sick of. "Why can't I have at least an interesting hair color to make up for this mess," she complained, while studying a lock of hair. Since reaching adulthood, her hair had turned from the golden brown of her youth to a darker brown.

 

Silently, she wondered what Ron would say if he came home one day to find that his wife had become a redhead like himself. Hermione always envied Ginny's hair, despite her friend's frequent complaints about its garish color. Perhaps black hair, though she knew that would make her look even paler. Maybe a blond? When it came right down to it, Hermione was not adventuresome enough to do a complete change of color, but did begin seriously thinking of changing her hair to a lighter brown, similar to the shade she had when she was a child.

 

"Maybe next week," she said to her reflection, as she made a mental note to stop by the apothecary to check out hair lightening potions over the weekend.

 

Her reflection said nothing, but kept its silence, having noted the odd ritual its master had started going through each Thursday evening recently. The mirror's owner seemed to be nervous and tense as of late, especially on this particular day of the week. Two weeks ago, its master had been crying and full of despair, and the previous week she had been a fit of nerves. However, today, she still seemed anxious, but in a somewhat excited way. It wondered it if had anything to do with the tall redheaded man, whom it had not seen in some time. To keep from winding up at the bottom of the Thames, the enchanted glass decided to keep its opinions to itself.

 

As Hermione dried herself off from her shower, she wondered what to wear tonight. Mentally going thorough her wardrobe, she dismissed several items of clothing.

 

'No, too warm… no, too dowdy… nuh-uh, absolutely not,' she thought, each top and bottom combination passing through her mind.

 

Frustrated, she opened her wardrobe and stared at its contents. "I need some new clothes," she sighed.

 

Remembering Lavender's refusal of her money, she thought of the growing pile of Galleons she had accumulated from making her own breakfast and lunches. Hermione wondered if Ginny would be free the following weekend to accompany her for a little shopping. A new dress, one that would be appropriate for work and outings, would be nice.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Severus would have preferred to be back at his flat preparing a nice tray of assorted fruits and crudités for Hermione, but as he spent all of Tuesday talking with Ginny and Draco or in the company of Calpurnia Fudge, there was much work to make up.

 

He would have liked to at least supervise and make sure things were to his specifications. As he and Lavender were in the middle of a new batch of lubrication enhancement potions, meant to counter the vaginal drying side effect caused by contraceptive potions while not negating their potency, he trusted Marf to make sure everything was ready for his client. If this batch he was working on did not have any more complications, then he would have just enough time to rush home, shower, change and be ready to greet Hermione at the stroke of seven that night.

 

As he hurriedly stalked along Diagon Alley at 6:45, taking long strides like he used to during his days at Hogwarts, he prayed he could get the smell from the lab off his person in the short shower he would have before Mrs. Weasley arrived. He glided in between the witches and wizards who ambled along the narrow street, his hooded cloak flaring with his movements, and barely missed plowing into a young man who stepped outside of Madam Malkin's with a stack of dress boxes so high, the boy could not see over the top of it.

 

Once inside his flat, he stripped quickly and scrubbed fastidiously with the simple glycerin-citrus soap he habitually used. Once he did a quick toweling of his head, his hair was almost dry. Since the weather cooled down, he could go back to slightly heavier clothes and wear his summer woolen trousers.

 

Severus caught Hermione's eyes gliding over him that first night and the way she stared at his legs after her trip to the toilet. He put another pair on with a similar cut and threw on his boots. Once his dark wine colored shirt was on, he went over to his armoire. Glancing at his array of masks, he knew it was too soon to wear one of his volto masks, so he picked up his black Casanova mask.

 

He had debated whether to cover his hair or not and decided to still place the scarf on his head, but to allow a few tendrils of hair to 'escape' out the back to give her a hint. There was enough he was going to do to let his identity slip without being Gryffindor about it and having no subtlety.

 

After checking to make sure a few of his Potions periodicals were sitting out and that Marf had prepared everything to his liking, he was set. Just as Severus had calmed his breath he heard her familiar knock.

 

Severus glanced at the bed curtains and saw them shift to a muddied green mixed with swirls of dark red and a few tendrils of purple and pale yellow. He could tell she was insecure, because of the telltale green, and there was some anger foretold by the red, as well. The pale yellow signaled that she was ready for another evening of in-depth conversation; a willingness to new ideas.

 

Knock-knock. Knock-knock.

 

His stomach tightened for a moment as he wondered how thin she had become. Ginny's letter that morning did not give the best of news, suggesting that Hermione was more vulnerable than before. An absent husband could soon be a forgotten husband during the evening, leaving him an opportunity to worm his way into her heart and conscience even more. Ginny did warn him to be gentle with Hermione and to not cuckold her brother lest he discover first-hand a hex that made the Bat-Bogey one look like a Cheering Charm by comparison.

 

After patting his head down once more to make sure the few locks of hair were sticking out ever so slightly from the scarf, Severus opened the door.

 

"Hermione, so good to see you again. Please come in," he said, bowing.

 

Her face brightened momentarily. "Thank you. I can't tell you how much I've been looking forward to tonight."

 

"Please, let me take your cloak and have a seat." He offered, while stepping behind her, helping her take off her outer garment.

 

"Thank you," she whispered over her shoulder.

 

Severus caught sight of her neck; her hair was swept up into a loose chignon on top of her head, with the same damn tendril trailing down the back of her neck that he’d seen Saturday night. He wondered if she would be sweeping her hand repeatedly over the back of her neck like she had last weekend in the bookstore, trying to cage the untamable lock.

 

Taking her cloak to the kitchen so Marf put it away, Severus could feel Hermione's eyes travel along his body though he was facing away from her. As he quickly spun around to go back to her, and she sat on the settee, he noticed her eyes quickly dart from his posterior back up to his face.

 

She gave a quirky smile that barely hid her embarrassment at being caught appraising him like a piece of meat. He wasn't offended, but rather flattered that he’d caught a client appreciating his form.

 

His eyes glided over her body, noticing she had indeed lost some weight since the previous week, he said, "Have you eaten dinner?"

 

"Yes, I have."

 

He wondered just how much she had eaten since he’d read Ginny's letter about how the brunette had inhaled that lamb sandwich, yet barely touched the second one once talk of the fight with her husband came up.

 

"I've taken the liberty of preparing another small after dinner repast. Perhaps later on you would care for some?" he proposed.

 

"Oh yes. That sounds wonderful, though I must pass on the wine this week," she countered.

 

Hermione knew she didn't eat much dinner at all and lunch was another skimpy chicken sandwich. If she drank any alcohol tonight, she wasn't sure she could be held accountable for her actions, because she knew that any alcohol would affect her strongly.

 

Severus bowed his head to her simple teetotaler request, hoping Marf caught her comment and would have some chilled juice ready for her instead.

 

"Would you care for some tea now?" he asked politely.

 

"Yes, please."

 

He could tell she was beginning to relax a little and scan the flat with her eyes. Once her vision locked on the latest copy of Eccentric Elixirs lying innocently on one of his wing back chairs that was within view of the settee, he knew the bait was hooked. Could he reel her in and catch her?

 

As the tea tray materialized on the low table in front of them, Severus saw her crane her head to get a better look at the cover from the other side of the room.

 

"I have a new brew I thought you might like to try," he mentioned. In the back of his mind, he remembered that Miss Brown had decided, without consulting him first, to waive Hermione's fee for him.

 

He was a little more than irked, but slightly less than furious at Miss Brown's dismissal of his fee. It was upon Miss Brown's explanation of Hermione's precarious financial status, and her reason that Hermione would feel less guilty about visiting him if the sordid issue of coin was cast aside, that he knew she was right. Still, it upset him that Miss Brown had taken the initiative without consulting him first, even though she hadn’t decided to waive the fee until she saw Hermione at the Leaky Cauldron last night.

 

Why he chose, at that moment, to remember that particular item, he wasn't able to explain. But it kept him grounded to the moment, instead of fixating on the fact that Hermione's neck looked particularly long and edible, especially with all her hair swept up off of it and that ungovernable tendril of hair was tickling the back of her neck.

 

"Hmm? I'm sorry, I was distracted," she confessed guiltily.

 

"Something of interest catch your attention?" he asked, trying not to sound smug or playful, but as innocent as a Slytherin could.

 

"No, I… um, well yes." Hermione felt like she was prying when she had been trying to curb her curiosity, but the cover of the Potions magazine had really caught her eye. "Is that the latest copy of Eccentric Elixirs over there?"

 

"Yes it is," he replied, waiting for her to make the next move.

 

"Oh," she replied, licking her lips anxiously.

 

He knew she was itching to read it and it wasn't on the standard Ministry list of periodical her department subscribed to. The magazine tended to be a little more vanguard in their approach to Potions, which would no doubt not be in line with Ministry standards.

 

"Would you care to browse through it? Perhaps I could lend it to you and you could bring it back next week and we could discuss some of the articles in it?" Severus asked casually. "I've finished with it." The phrasing of his offer guaranteed that she would come back to him, even if just to return it.

 

Her eyes darted up and she looked at him. In an instant, her eyes went from wonder and awe for the offer, to delight with the possibility of having something interesting to read, to gratitude for his kind offer, then excitement over the looking forward to more interesting conversation next week.

 

"Oh yes, please," Hermione answered a little more enthusiastically than she intended. "You mentioned you have a new brew of tea?"

 

He smiled under his mask. "Yes, a pleasant blend that I find rather relaxing." He poured the pale brew into a cup and offered it to Hermione.

 

She inhaled deeply, and then exhaled through her nose and mouth. It surprised him that she knew to exhale in that particular fashion, as only someone taught under a Potions apprenticeship had learned that secret of analyzing a potion by scent alone, tasting it as the vapor washed over the tongue as it left the body.

 

"Lavender, raspberry leaf, green tea," she began to list, her eyes closed as the rising steam from the cup bathed her face, "lovage… valerian… and…" She inhaled deeply once more and exhaled in the same way as before. "… And…"

 

Severus watched the way her lips remained parted and saw the way the tip of her tongue curled up inside her mouth to taste more of the vapor.

 

Hermione's eyes snapped open and her brow furrowed. She placed the cup right under her nose and inhaled deeply once more. Still unable to identify the last ingredient, she took a sip, letting it swirl around on her tongue before swallowing and inhaling once more.

 

Her brow still knitted in confusion, Hermione asked, "Popcorn?"

 

A low, throaty chuckle rumbled up and filled the space between them. "No," he said a little triumphantly, "but close."

 

Two weeks ago, Hermione was able to correctly identify the uva-ursi in his special calming brew, so Severus made a new brew, using different herbs in combination with the genmai cha tea that Draco had introduced to him earlier that year. He was hoping to stump her with the elusive ingredient she almost correctly identified.

 

"Close only counts in Divination and Dementor's Kisses," Hermione shot back, the phrase escaping her lips before her mind even registered it.

 

Severus did an imperceptible double take, surprised by the use of his own phrase. "That's an odd turn of a phrase," he said, trying not to drawl and sound like his old self when grilling students.

 

Hermione looked at him and Severus thought for a moment that she could see right through him as well. Her brief penetrating stare left him feeling unmasked before he saw her mentally dismiss the notion in her head, then gave him a small smile in return.

 

"It's something that was said by someone I knew once… a long time ago," she finished, looking a little wistful and melancholy. Hermione shook her head slightly, snapping herself out of her reverie, and pressed, "So what is it?"

 

He regarded her for a moment before answering, "Toasted and popped rice."

 

"Really?" she asked, before leaning forward to lift the lid off the pot and indeed see what looked like tiny kernels of popcorn floating in the pot. "Interesting," she said to herself. Taking one more sip, Hermione added, "I like it. It adds a nice toasted, nutty flavor."

 

The Potions master suppressed a smile, realizing the fact that he had thought the exact same thing. He was also simultaneously irritated with himself for some indefinable reason he could not name at the moment.

 

In order to get the more unpleasant aspect of the evening out of the way so that his client would have an appetite later, he decided to steer the conversation in a particular direction and get the probable tears done and over with.

 

"So, how has your week been?" he queried, his voice not quite as cheerful as it would be with most of his other clients, hoping to draw out the emotions she was currently suppressing.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his bed curtains flare a rather muddied gray from the warring red and green colors mixing.

 

'I'm really going to have to turn the bed curtains off when she's here for a visit,' he absently thought, hoping she would not notice the charmed textile.

 

Hermione's attentions were anywhere but the bed curtains at the moment, as her head dropped to her chest for a moment before her body began to silently shake and the torrent of tears began.

 

Before the first of many big sniffs happened, he had another pressed square of fine Irish linen available for her use to dab, blot and generally mop up the various portions of her face that became moist.

 

"Here," he kindly offered his handkerchief.

 

"Thank you," she quietly choked out.

 

"Care to tell me about it? That's what I'm here for," Severus sat down on the settee and gently encouraged Hermione while stroking one hand on her shoulder blade as a measure of comfort.

 

"Oh Calleo!" she wailed, before collapsing against him in racking sobs.

 

Severus was momentarily frozen from her sudden physical contact, remembering her more as a student than as a woman at that moment, but quickly cast that memory aside. His arms encircled her and he drew her closer to his body, cradling her head against his shoulder as her hands clutched desperately at the sleeves and front of his shirt.

 

"Shh," he soothed her, rocking her slightly. "Come, tell me what has made you so upset. You can trust me," he said in a deep and caressing voice, hoping his own words would not come back to haunt him in the near future.

 

As a spy during the war, Severus frequently had to think of what to say to neither confirm nor refute what Voldemort or the other Death Eaters said or asked about Dumbledore and the Order. But in this capacity of knowing that one day he would reveal himself to this young woman in his arms, he had to say the right things to maintain the facade of 'Calleo,' while saying nothing that was too damning or contradictory to his true nature as Severus Snape, sour-tempered bastard of Hogwarts.

 

As her hysterical sobs subsided and she could begin talking in between the involuntary hitching breaths and the wiping of her snotty nose, Hermione pitifully confessed, "My husband and I had a fight last Saturday night. I stormed out and when I got back later he was gone," she sobbed once more, the last word becoming a drawn out wail. "I," she paused to hiccup, "I haven't seen him since."

 

"Shhhh," Severus lulled her once more, his voice a balm on her soul.

 

He thought back to Saturday night, remembering her in the back of Flourish and Blotts looking at books regarding divorce. Evidently, she wasn't just researching to see how easily Ginny could leave her husband, but perhaps doing a bit of personal research after her fight. It certainly would explain the great troubled sigh she gave before returning the books to their proper place on the shelves.

 

Hermione had turned her body and now had her face buried in Severus' chest, her head snugly settled under his chin, still clutching at his shirt, which was now slightly damp from the tears she hadn't blotted away in time.

 

"Tell me what happened," he softly coaxed her.

 

Thinking about it, Hermione realized she had never really ever talked about her sex life with anyone. Not in any way that was more than a quick gloss over. Harry was Ron's friend and not interested in a woman's perspective of his friend's bedroom tactics and Ginny was Ron's sister and definitely not interested in hearing about her brother that way. And she was not exactly close to her mother anymore and felt that her sex life was something not to be discussed with her anyway. Who better to discuss her problem with than a semi-stranger who did not know her husband and could give her some advice from a man's perspective?

 

Taking a deep breath to bolster her courage, she began, "We don't talk anymore. When we were in school and during the war, we had plenty to talk about even though he didn't seem to follow much of what I was saying at times."

 

Severus bit the inside of his mouth to keep the slew of cutting remarks he could make about Ronald Weasley from escaping.

 

"It seems we've lost some of the connection we once had," she went on. "Whenever we have sex, he just pounces on me with no foreplay, no talking. It's like he's ready and I'm supposed to flop on my back and automatically get aroused. I don't know. I guess it's always been that way. He was my first and only lover, so for a long time, I thought that was how it was done and that's all there was to it. I wondered if there was something wrong with me because I didn't crow about mind-blowing sex. But after hearing a few other women I know talk, I guess I've become aware of what is lacking... in the bedroom."

 

As he continued to cradle Hermione in his arms, Severus let his eyes roll in disgust over confirmation of Ron Weasley's lack of sexual skills while restraining the urge to sigh in exasperation.

 

Hermione's tone changed from despondent to bitter. "So last Saturday night we were in the flat, trying to cool it down as we had been away all day long with the windows shut, and I tried talking to him. I mean I really tried, " she emphasized plaintively. "But no matter what I did, he just kept ending the conversation. So I told him I'd like to talk for once and he says it's too hot to talk, but there's other things he'd like to do with his mouth. So I flat out told him a little conversation might get me in the mood… for once and he got all riled up. I told him that a little talk might help ME get in the mood and he accuses me of hating sex," she huffed.

 

Sitting up, pulling herself away from Severus, she angrily wiped at her face with his handkerchief. Severus felt the cool air rush against his skin where she had been pressed against him, ignoring the damp sensation her tears left on his shirt.

 

Her face twisted into an angry scowl as she continued her tale. "I told him I didn't mind sex, but his methods of seduction left much to be desired, especially since he’s never satisfied me… ever. I told him he has never given me an orgasm… which was a revelation to him, since I've always faked it with him," Hermione admitted with an embarrassed blush, realizing she was telling another man of her sexual woes. "And that he has the stamina of a Whiz-bang," she added with a mutter, averting her eyes.

 

That last statement really tested Severus' control from letting a sharp hiss escape. That sort of comment could truly damage a man's ego.

 

Regarding her at arms' length, he saw her face crumple once more as she started sobbing, "Then he said if I wasn't so frigid I might enjoy sex, but that I was a controlling bitch and probably couldn't." It wasn't Ron's exact words, but it felt like he meant it that way. "He then said I was an ice queen and I didn't inspire him to make the… 'considerable effort' to melt me."

 

She collapsed against Severus with a fresh wave of tears, her body shaking with racking sobs.

 

Severus mentally shook his head. For those words to be exchanged, a Slytherin would have considered it a challenge to prove they was great in bed, not right away however, but only a Gryffindor would try to refute it with words and not by trying to make the witch or wizard take it back while screaming out his or her name in ecstasy.

 

He shushed her and started rocking her once more. This sort of action usually brought some sort of calm quickly to the many women he had comforted over the years. Crying women still unhinged him, but he had become accustomed to it so it didn't bother him nearly as much. However, the sight of this once defiantly proud and strong woman reduced to tears from a boy who had no grasp of the feminine mind or appreciation of the woman whom he married angered him somewhat. Severus was convinced it was because he still had little tolerance for dunderheads, which was what this Weasley boy remained after all these years.

 

Needing some levity and wisdom to diffuse the situation, he pulled her away from his body and looked at her. Slowly, Hermione raised her puffy, red, tear-streaked face, her lips trembling and looked at him with some sort of hope in her eyes that somehow he might make it all better.

 

Looking her in the eye, he slowly said with a lilt in his voice, "Never fake an orgasm, it only ensures he'll never give you a real one."

 

A huge grin split across her face and Hermione chuckled lightly, the remaining tears welled in her eyes leaking out of the corners. The forlorn witch then buried her face in her hands, not sure whether to continue laughing or start crying again.

 

Hermione pulled her face out of her hands and looked guiltily at Calleo. "Well, after that last bit he said, I threw my drink in his face. I imagine tonic and lime is not very pleasant in the eyes. Then I stormed out and he's been gone since."

 

Severus avoided the obvious question about where her husband had been since usually, in these sorts of instances, the wife knew, or didn’t know. If she didn’t, it would lead to more worrying and postulating of the husband's whereabouts.

 

"Good girl," he praised her on her dramatic display with her beverage. "He deserved it."

 

He had no way of knowing if she was frigid and Ronald Weasley was right, but it was better to gain her confidence by agreeing with her wholeheartedly. Secretly, he wished he could have witnessed the scene; images of a furious Hermione throwing the drink in Weasley’s face, quickly followed by the glass itself at the redheaded wizard flashed in his mind. He allowed himself a sly smirk while imagining it, knowing the boy most probably deserved it.

 

She leaned sideways against him, seeking comfort in her Calleo's arms once more. "I don't know what to do," Hermione whispered shakily. "I'm not sure if I'm glad he's gone or not. I miss him," she admitted, sounding distant, "but with him gone, I'm… I'm not reminded how unhappy I've been with him recently. If he's not around, we can't fight." She breathed in and out evenly for a moment before she added, "I'm really afraid that he might be right, that there is no passion in me."

 

Severus didn’t dare say a word. To do so might lead her down the path to where anything he would say would lead her to his bed or hurt her even more with rejection of her advances. He was walking the fine line between a source of comfort and a source to refute her husband's claims in his arms. If she were any other witch, the night would most probably end with her in his bed. Hermione would forget about her husband for a while, as he slid his body between her thighs and drove his length into her, making her pain go away for a short while, both lost in the bliss and pleasure of desperate passion. But she was not just any witch; she was Mrs. Hermione Weasley, a means to his long sought-after goal of freedom. In time, she would know his true identity and she would no longer seek his company for comfort, but out of obligation to correct an injustice of the world, perhaps giving her some purpose in life in which to focus and forget her miserable marriage. Either way, as a gigolo or a cause to fight for, he could be a distraction in her disappointing life.

 

So it was that Severus was thinking about changing the subject back to Potions to cheer her up and help restore her appetite, as he wiped away one of her tears away with his thumb, that he was caught by surprise when she captured his hand in hers, moving her mouth to kiss the palm of his hand.

 

A small gasp of surprise mixed with pleasure escaped before Severus could stop it. Frozen, he wanted to stop her, but couldn't bring himself to do it. He could not make his body obey the command his mind sent to gently pull his hand away from her grasp, but curiosity kept his mind and body warring for a while longer.

 

Hermione's eyes closed when Calleo's thumb tenderly wiped away a tear that remained on her cheek. His body had felt so good to lean against for shelter of her fragile soul. Even though he had not been wearing the same cologne that had haunted her olfactory memory for the past two weeks, he still smelled wonderful, warm and masculine. It felt wondrous and heady to lie in his arms. For a brief moment, Hermione no longer felt the need to be the strong, unflappable, and sensible witch she always felt she had to portray to the world. Calleo was her vessel in which to pour her grief so she could at least no longer be the sole bearer of her heart's burden.

 

In a moment of weakness, she kissed his hand. It was a simple gesture of affection for the comfort and strength he provided her in her hour of need, but the way his hand felt against her cheek had made her head deliriously drunk from the slurry of emotions roiling inside of her: grief and regret regarding Ron, and the growing affection she had for Calleo.

 

Letting her mouth graze the skin was the first chink in Hermione's resolve not to become physical with her gigolo. It was just a simple kiss on the palm of his hand, but she soon found she could not remove her lips from his warm and inviting skin. And so the tempted witch let her mouth guide its way by touch alone along the length of his hand, dragging her lips lightly across the skin, noting the smooth texture of Calleo's hands, inhaling the scent of his skin. As her mouth reach the tip of his index finger, she parted her lips.

 

As her tongue tentatively tasted the pad of his finger, a part of Hermione's mind screamed that she was taking things too far and was heading down a slippery slope, leading to things she might regret. She was married and this could lead to betrayal of Ron, her marriage vows and everything she held sacred, threatening to tear apart the moral fiber of her conscience. But another part of her mind that was desperate and drunk off the hormones coursing through her body was insistent on continuing her actions.

 

'Ron has never given you the pleasure you deserve. Take this so that you can have something to remember, and to make your soul remember why you are alive and not just existing. Nothing has ever felt so good as this. Why deny what your body craves, just this once?' some foreign and unfamiliar part of her mind demanded.

 

Hearing no protest from Calleo and taking his silence for acquiescence, Hermione wrapped her mouth around the tip of his finger and slowly drew it into her mouth. Nothing felt quite so sensuous and forbidden as what she was doing at that very moment. She swept her tongue around his finger before beginning to suck lightly on the tip.

 

Severus' eyes were wide with panic, but her simple suckling of his finger made him shut his eyes tight and grit his teeth, praying… seeking control of his baser instincts. Still immobilized, as if held in a full body bind, he looked once more to see Hermione give his finger all her attention, her brow slightly furrowed from her concentration, eyes still closed. He could feel his chest begin to rise and fall rapidly, his breaths becoming labored and shallow. The feeling of her mouth was unbelievably erotic, hot, wet, and suggestive.

 

Lost in the moment, Hermione took his finger deeper into her mouth and began laving it with more arduous attention than she had ever given any part of Ron's body. Never in all her couplings with her husband, before or after they were married, had she ever been so turned on as at this very moment. A small whimper came from the back of her throat while Calleo's finger was still inside her mouth. Her sucking and licking of his finger became more intense, and she grasped his hand harder, stroking the back of it, playing with the skin along his knuckles and back of it. Never in the few times she had performed fellatio on Ron has she been this intent of devouring flesh as she was with Calleo's digit.

 

Hermione's mouth was beginning to slide up and down, performing the slow act of fellatio on Calleo's finger, sucking, licking and nipping at the flesh with her lips.

 

She had never been enthusiastic about fellatio, as Ron had a rather annoying habit of shoving her head around in the act, but Hermione thought it might be different with Calleo. He might be gentle and allow her control of her actions instead of placing his hand on the back of her head as Ron did, making her gag in the process. The brunette witch actually liked the act of fellatio, but Ron's lack of control regarding his hand and his less than gentle thrusts into her mouth hampered her desire in that respect. The additional factor of Ron's complaint when it came time to reciprocate, complaining he didn't care for the taste of her, made her reluctant to give him head. Why should she feel obliged to give him pleasure when he would not do the same for her? However, the thought of sliding Calleo's cock into her mouth was beginning to take root in her mind.

 

'This is no ice queen,' Severus randomly thought.

 

In all his years as a gigolo, no woman ever remotely did anything as to try and seduce him. It was always understood he was paid to be ready for them and he was to seduce them. However, this woman was doing things to make him want to throw her down on the settee and ravish her, tearing off his mask and latch his mouth at the base of her neck while ripping off her clothes as quickly as possible in order to bury himself in her immediately. An image of her mouth wrapped around his cock with his fingers buried in her chestnut mane burned itself in his mind. If this witch could do the things she was doing to his fingers on other parts of his body, with the same agonizingly languid pace, he would be screaming out her name when he came.

 

Severus knew now that Hermione Weasley was not frigid. If anything, she was a woman who had never been properly seduced and fucked till boneless with satisfaction. He could only imagine the lame, half-arsed attempts the boy had done to arouse his wife, if he even tried at all. The witch had confessed her husband never really bothered with foreplay, so he could only assume that she had never really had her pump primed for making love before.

 

Hermione's tongue reached out and ensnared Calleo's middle finger in her ministrations to his hand, running and swirling her soft flesh between the two appendages.

 

It was the thought of Calleo's nude body laid out on his bed, Hermione settled between his thighs taking his cock deep into her mouth, moaning and licking the rigid purple flesh while stroking the base of his shaft with one hand, cupping his sac with her other hand and wondering if he tasted more sweet than salty that made her pull her head back and release his hand and fingers.

 

"I'm sorry," she gasped with embarrassment, turning her head away in shame. "I shouldn't have done that."

 

His mind and body finally unstuck from their paralysis, he tried to regain control of his breathing while responding, "It's not your fault… it was a… natural thing to want to do." Severus frantically scrambled to think of something to say to make sure she would return and not stop seeing him due to humiliation over a moment of weakness while simultaneously relieved it was Hermione who stopped herself. "You are not the first woman to… make such a gesture in a moment of emotional distress. I take no offense."

 

"No," the mortified woman choked out, "I said I wanted to see you for conversation only, and here I am throwing myself at you."

 

'Think fast, Severus,' he urged himself trying not to panic. "If it's any consolation, I think your husband was quite mistaken in thinking you are cold and dispassionate," he said carefully, swallowing hard while trying to regain control of his body. "And that's my professional opinion."

 

Severus wanted to hex himself over the fact that he had let something so corny and cliché escape his lips, but when she turned to him with bright eyes and a hopeful smile, he knew he had said exactly what she wanted to hear.

 

"Thank you for understanding. I've been under a great deal of stress lately and… it won't happen ever again," Hermione promised, sitting herself at the other end of the settee, her hands folded in her lap in a prim and proper manner to keep them from fidgeting. She gave him one more smile, hoping her face still wasn't flushed with embarrassment.

 

As she reached for her cup of tea, Severus noticed the slight shaking in her hand and hope the hormones in his body had settled enough so that his did not shake as well.

 

"So you have an interest in Potions," Severus began, hoping to get the evening back on the track he had planned.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the bed curtains slowly change to yellow. Severus realized he never noticed the bed curtains during Hermione’s erotic attentions on his hand and wondered just how brilliantly purple they were.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was getting late and the tray in front of them had been cleared of the last of the vegetables over an hour ago. A large pile of strawberry stems sat in the middle of the silver platter next to an empty bowl smeared with the dregs of the artichoke-goat cheese dip Hermione had devoured single-handedly.

 

Hermione still sat on the other end of the settee, but had relaxed considerably, having been invited to take off her shoes. Her feet were tucked up underneath her legs.

 

Severus had taken up residence on the other corner, facing her during their discussion of Potions and methods of collecting herbs during different phases of the moon and time of day.

 

"Yes," Hermione said reluctantly, "I agree that picking them in the morning before the dew has had time to evaporate is the best time to pick them, that is if you want to use them fresh."

 

"Well, it also works for dried ingredients as well," Severus replied.

 

"Yes, but what if you want a lower moisture content to begin with when harvesting to prepare them for drying?" she asked.

 

"I've read somewhere that when you want plants with a higher sugar content, which I've heard is the case in most potions, then morning is best." Severus didn't read that information from anywhere, but learned it from the mouth of his Potions master who had taught him.

 

"Really? Where did you read that?" the curious witch queried.

 

"I can't quite recall at the moment," Severus lied sweetly. "But if I come across it again in my reading, I'll be sure to inform you."

 

Such information was not contained in a book, but passed down orally from master to apprentice, keeping certain secrets within the private and individual education process.

 

"And which Potions would you want a lower sugar content in the ingredients?"

 

Severus was enjoying the debate he was having with Hermione, having been pleasantly surprised by some of her own observations of testing ingredients over the years. During the evening he had to restrain himself from going into further detail about some aspects of Potions brewing, as he didn't want her to identify him as a Potions master, or rather, a particular Potions master yet.

 

He was somewhat relieved he could evade answering Hermione when she suddenly exclaimed, "Oh my word! Is that the time?"

 

As she studied her wristwatch, Severus glanced at the clock on his mantle over her shoulder.

 

"It seems the evening has slipped by," he confessed. "And in such captivating company too. This has been most enjoyable."

 

Manipulation was always best practiced when infused with the truth, especially liberal amounts of it. He did enjoy the evening, having taken some delight when he challenged Hermione to name every ingredient in the dip she ate. As much as Severus would have been irritated otherwise by her triumphant smile when she succeeded, it did make him smile as well.

 

"I've enjoyed myself as well, Calleo." She pulled her feet off the couch and slipped her feet into her shoes before giving a small stretch. "This is the happiest I've been in… well, since I was here last week," Hermione admitted, ducking her head and avoiding Calleo's gaze. "Thank you for not taking offense earlier. I was… upset."

 

"Please, let us not speak of it anymore," Severus replied.

 

He rose from the couch and offered his hand to help Hermione up from the couch.

 

Severus had not let go of Hermione's hand as she stood there for a moment before nervously saying, "This is becoming a weekly habit… coming to see you. I guess I'll be back next week to see you again at the same time?"

 

"You are the only client I have for Thursday evenings, so I look forward to next week at the same time," he said, his voice low and hypnotic.

 

He retrieved Hermione's cloak and helped her into it, both remaining silent.

 

The use of the word "client" snapped Hermione back to the reality that Calleo was a gigolo paid to spend his time with her. Granted, Lavender had waived Calleo's fees, but stated that he was still being more than compensated to have Hermione come and visit him. During the evening, Hermione began to see him more as a friend than as a man she had foisted a few Galleons over to, to see. Now as the evening had ended, she was brought back to the harsh reality that there was another world beyond this simple charming flat and the company of a man whom she was beginning to become strongly attracted to.

 

"Yes, until next week. Seven o'clock then," she said.

 

Recalling his thoughts earlier in the evening and how Hermione had answered that she had already eaten dinner, while still inhaling most of what was served earlier that evening, Severus said, "If you would care to join me, I can prepare dinner for the both of us. A simple supper, so you would not have to bother with fixing dinner for yourself before you come."

 

Hermione was unaware that her mouth was hanging open until she blinked. Snapping her mouth shut and feeling slightly flustered, she hastily replied, "You want to cook dinner for me?"

 

It was precisely what Severus wanted to do, though in his mind, he did not think of it exactly in those terms. The way she phrased it, it almost sounded like… like… like a date. If anything, it was to ensure the young woman ate, which she evidently hadn't been doing lately. Why he was suddenly inspired to invite her to dinner when he had never done so with any other client, the ex-Death Eater automatically dismissed it as another tactic to draw Hermione closer to him in order to gain her confidence.

 

"Well, if I remember correctly, your husband has already come home and left for his evening job by the time you get home from work. So why not join me and we could both have some company during dinner. Doesn't that sound more pleasant than dining alone?" he persuaded her.

 

She was rather sick of eating alone for most of her meals and Calleo would certainly provide interesting table conversation, more so than Ron's usual Quidditch talk. "Of course, I would like that very much, Calleo." Giving him a mischievous smile, Hermione added, "May I inquire as to what's on the menu next week?"

 

"Just a simple cassoulet," he casually replied.

 

"Cassoulet?" she squeaked.

 

Hermione had fallen in love with cassoulet ever since her trip to France with her parents one summer when she was younger. She rarely had the time to fix it, as it was time consuming to prepare and Ron usually stuffed it down his gullet without any appreciation of the work it took to make it. If Calleo's recipe were as simple as he intoned, she would have to get a copy of it.

 

"Nothing fancy, just a dinner between two… people." Severus stopped himself from saying "friends", as they were definitely not.

 

Mrs. Weasley was a client and an eventual source for Potion ingredients, not a friend. Granted, they did have a pleasant evening, but it was merely to bide his time, dropping small hints until he felt she was ready to discover who he really was.

 

"Then until next week," Hermione said a little nervously.

 

"Wait," Severus said before handing her his copy of Eccentric Elixirs.

 

"Oh! Thank you, I almost forgot. I definitely want to read this, and I promise to bring it back next week."

 

As he handed the periodical over he grasped Hermione's hand once more, then bent over and kissed it while watching her intently through his mask. "Until next week, Hermione," Severus purred.

 

She gave him one last unsteady smile before slipping out the door.

 

When the door clicked shut, Severus dropped into his chair, lost in thought over the evening's events. Of the many things that transpired, Hermione's restrained curiosity over his copy of Eccentric Elixirs disturbed him the most.

 

'What happened to the girl who would practically bound out of her seat to read it? Where were the questions about why I would have such a magazine?' he pondered.

 

At one point during the evening, he was sure she had figured out who he was by the way that she looked at him, but saw her dismissing the notion immediately. What could have happened to the curious Gryffindor to curb her inquisitiveness so much that he would have to offer the magazine to her? Whatever the answers were, he would have to be a bit more blatant or continue his game of subtle hints for longer than he expected.

 

Glancing at the clock once more, he noted it was half past eleven. 'Where did the time go?' Severus thought, but didn't bother to answer the question. Instead he got undressed and went to bed, trying to banish the memory of Hermione sucking his fingers wantonly. If he let his mind fixate on such memories, he'd have to manually relieve himself before getting to sleep, and he was in no mood for such activities when he had his parole meeting early in the morning.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hermione rarely ever walked Diagon Alley this late on a weeknight. The only places open were a few pubs and taverns. Lazily strolling along and regarding the dark storefronts, she considered swinging by The Listing Broom to peek in and see if Ron was still there. She really didn't want to talk to Ron, but at least see him in person without him seeing her, just to make sure he really was all right. Instead, she decided to go straight home and go to bed.

 

Climbing the stairs, she felt better than she did on her way out to see Calleo earlier that evening. Her gigolo had taken some of the weight off her shoulders with her personal confessions. It felt good to tell someone else of her troubles and know that she wasn't crazy for wondering if she was frigid.

 

"Welcome home," she mumbled to herself as she unlocked the door.

 

As she swung the door open, she immediately noticed the sconces and candles were lit. Looking about, she saw his familiar silhouette standing by the kitchen doorway.

 

"Hermione!" Ron shouted, rushing towards her. He swept her up into his arms and crushed her in a hug.

 

Immediately pulling herself out of his embrace, stunned that he had shown up after being gone for almost a week, Hermione looked at her husband. "What are you doing here?"

 

Hermione didn't mean it to come out sounding that way, but she was flustered by the Ron’s sudden return. She realized that he’d been standing near the kitchen for God knows how long. Hermione didn't think until that moment what the clock in the kitchen might say during her time at Calleo's. She hoped it just said "visiting."

 

Ron didn't seem insulted or phased by Hermione standoffish demeanor. Instead, he breathed out in relief, "Thank Merlin you're safe! I came home as soon as I found out. And when you weren't here, I assumed the worst. I saw the clock in the wall never pointed to 'mortal danger,' but I was still worried as hell."

 

Taken aback by Ron's voice and expression of relief, Hermione asked, "What's going on? What are you talking about?"

 

"You mean you don't know? I thought you were still stuck at the Ministry for questioning. There was an attack there, Hermione. Dolohov decided to go out in a blaze of glory and started killing anyone in his line of sight. It took three Aurors to subdue him."

 

Hermione's knees suddenly went weak and she collapsed on the floor right next to Ron.

 

"Hermione!" He bent down and picked her up, carrying her to the bedroom.

 

After laying her down on the bed and stroking her hair away from her face, Ron said, "About 5:30, Dolohov pulled out his wand in the atrium and went absolutely mad, casting curses and hexes every which way. I don't know the details, but all I could think of was you there, staying late at work," he explained before pulling her to him in a crushing embrace. "I almost went to St. Mungo's to look for you."

 

The reality of the situation sunk in. She had been in the elevator with Dolohov at a quarter after five. His behavior struck her as odd and she was thinking about going up to Level Two to Auror Headquarters to say something about it, but decided against it. Now there were people injured, or worse, dead, because she decided to do nothing about it. Only by the luck of the Fates was she not there at the Ministry when Dolohov snapped.

 

"Oh God," Hermione cried into Ron's chest, too shocked and guilt ridden to do more than break down in her husband's arms.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty
“So Weary, Yet Miles to Go"

 

Disclaimer:
Rowling, you’re the goddess of our favorite books, it true
You own each character, concept and idea; we'll profess it till we're blue,
You're patient with our mangling of your characters' motives and drive
Our creativity is spurred by yours, under which we thrive,
Your ownership of these ideas, we do not dispute nor usurp your claim,
We just hope you don't think that our loving of Severus Snape is lame.

 

============

 

Severus wondered what the Twenty-Four Blackbird Bakery had done differently, as his usual brioche seemed extra yeasty and superbly soft and chewy that morning. Silently musing how many more of these parole meetings he would have left until he was free, the ex-Death Eater walked the cobblestone street with the blond wizard keeping pace along side him.

 

"Knut for your thoughts, Severus," Draco drawled, as he began tearing off bits of his croissant before popping them into his mouth.

 

Instead of answering Draco immediately, Severus continued walking towards the Leaky Cauldron trying to think of something to say other than what was really on his mind. The younger wizard had already given him a strange look when the topic of Hermione Weasley had come up in conversation earlier that week with Ginny. It would only fuel the younger man's speculations if Severus told him about Hermione's moment of weakness the night before.

 

Draco needed to be informed of his progress, but details about such things would only find their way back to Ginny's ears, despite Severus' request for Draco not say anything. He knew that the two lovers did not keep secrets from one another, as Ginny was already living a life full of lies and deceit with her husband, friends and family.

 

"Ingredients Miss Brown will have to prepare immediately once we arrive at work this morning," Severus replied testily.

 

"Meeting went that well last night?" Draco needled him.

 

Glancing at Draco from around the corner of his hood, Severus scowled and ignored the younger wizard's vague though accurate perceptions. He instead countered with his own question. "And how did Ginny's counseling session with her husband go last night?"

 

"You're no fun sometimes," Draco growled back.

 

"I cannot afford to be 'fun' right now. Perhaps later when the world is done trying to control my life, I shall become a bit more jovial. Until then, I have no inspiration for such jocular antics, Mr. Malfoy," the Potions master rebuked.

 

"I saw Pansy last night," Draco said solemnly, changing tangents of the conversation.

 

"Is she still working at Padparadsha?"

 

"No, she left after one patron ripped off one of her gloves and exposed the Dark Mark. She's working at The Cerise Cucurbite now. I'd say it's one of the less savory places she could be working, but at least it's not The Wicked Witch," the younger wizard admitted with a half shrug. "I left her a hundred Galleons."

 

"Does she know it's you coming and leaving large anonymous tips each month?"

 

"No. And I'd prefer it to remain that way. The worst part is, besides every wizard walking in and seeing her strip down to nothing but her gloves while wiggling her fanny in their faces, I think she's doing a bit of trade on the side… in the back of the place." They walked a little bit more before Draco added, "I know Lavender has her reasons why she won't take Pansy in, but I wish there was something I could do so she wouldn't have to work as a stripper."

 

"I think if Uther Parkinson was still alive, he'd be thankful you are looking out for his daughter," Severus praised him.

 

"Granted, one of the side benefits of the Dark Lord falling was the opportunity to get out of my marriage contract to her, as self-immolation was preferable to being married to Pansy, but I am still concerned about her well-being," Draco confessed. "Perhaps Lavender will help arrange some monthly stipend to be allotted to her from my funds, dropped off in the usual manner once our plans are complete."

 

The "usual manner" consisted of Draco anonymously leaving a small purse of Galleons for Pansy at the strip club she was working at.

 

"Perhaps," Severus said.

 

As they entered the Leaky Cauldron, they noticed the usual two or three patrons that frequented the place that early on a Friday morning were absent as an eerie calm hung in the air.

 

Tom was behind the bar sipping his tea while engrossed in that morning's copy of the Daily Prophet. Normally, he quietly watched the two dark-cloaked wizards enter his place of business like clockwork every Friday morning. Without fail, the men threw a few Sickles into the tin before grabbing a handful of Floo powder and calling out their destination. But this morning's headlines had gripped the barman's attention such that he did not notice their arrival and subsequent departure.

 

"Ministry of Magic," they both called out.

 

Severus and Draco both stepped out of the fireplaces in the main atrium of the Ministry of Magic and stood dumbstruck amidst the mayhem of Aurors working over every inch of the place.

 

As the two cloaked figures emerged, a cadet Auror-in-training with a case of late-adolescent acne stepped up to them and said, "State your business!"

 

"What is going on here?" Severus asked, using his usual tone of authority.

 

"You must not have gotten your morning copy of the Daily Prophet yet. There was an attack here last night," the young wizard volunteered. "Now, state your business. Only essential Ministry personnel are required to report to work today and everyone else is asked to stay home until Monday. So unless you have business with someone who is indeed coming to work today, I must ask that you leave and come back on Monday."

 

Speaking for the both of them, Severus answered, "We have a seven o'clock appointment with Kingsley Shacklebolt, Auror First Class." He emphasized Shacklebolt's title to let the whelp assume it was extremely important business.

 

"Oh! Well, just a moment. Please wait here, and I'll see if he's around," the spotty youth politely remarked. "He's been rather busy this morning. May I have your names please?"

 

"He will know who we are. Just tell him his seven o'clock Friday morning appointment is here to see him." Severus did his best not to snap at the boy, as it seemed several pairs of eyes were watching him and Draco with suspicion while the Aurors continued swarming around, flitting from one spot then another.

 

Draco raised his hand and adjusted the hood of his cloak, making sure his features were still concealed in shadow.

 

Severus glanced around, peering out from the sheltered hood of his cloak, and saw that scorch marks left by some very powerful curses were marring the gleaming marble. One blast had taken a chunk out of the statue of Dumbledore, who was at the pinnacle of the fountain sculpture. All remains of Potter had been removed from the statue a few weeks prior.

 

A few moments later, Shacklebolt arrived looking like he hadn't slept at all. "Gentlemen." He greeted the pair.

 

"Kingsley," Severus returned the salutation then glared at the young Auror-in-training who stood beside his superior.

 

Kingsley dismissed him. "That will be all, Williams."

 

The Auror led the two wizards aside before speaking. "You shouldn't have come in this morning," Kingsley said in hushed tones.

 

"We did not know about what happened here, though we probably would have come anyway just so we would not be in violation of our parole for not showing up, regardless of the circumstances," Severus hissed back.

 

"Dolohov lost it last night." Kingsley looked Severus in the eye to gauge his reaction.

 

Severus kept an impassive face while replying, "I'm not surprised. What I am surprised about is that he lasted this long."

 

"It wasn't pretty," Shacklebolt recounted. "Two were killed last night and four are at St. Mungo's recovering from some rather unpleasant curses. From what we can tell from those we interviewed after the attacks, at about 5:30 last night Dolohov started attacking everyone in the atrium just when people were heading home. Nobody knows if it was planned or if it was spontaneous. We haven't had a chance to interrogate him yet, but Moody is getting some Veritaserum for questioning him this afternoon."

 

Severus shuddered at the memory of Moody's use of Veritaserum on him after the first time the Dark Lord fell.

 

"Speaking of which," the hulking Auror added, "be prepared for a visit today at your place of business, which I can only assume is also your residence." Shacklebolt took their silence for confirmation of his assumption. "Moody intends on personally accompanying Braggins and me while we visit every Death Eater. So keep your noses and wands clean and make sure there is nothing incriminating around or would give Alastor cause to investigate you further.

 

"There was a special emergency session of the Wizengamot last night, so Moody was given access to all the Death Eater files. Whatever Alastor says, don't let him taunt either of you into doing something for which he can haul you off to Azkaban," Kingsley warned them both.

 

"Lovely," Draco grumbled.

 

"Just go home and wait. I wish Alastor wasn't going to be there, but count on it. And be prepared for him to insist on using Veritaserum."

 

There was the muted sound of Severus grinding his teeth as his demeanor turned blacker.

 

"I'm sorry, but after last night people want some sort of action, even though it would be pointless," the Auror said. "If I can try and reduce the dosage without Alastor being the wiser, I'll try, but he is already suspicious of my treatment of you two as being preferential, so I'll do what I can to help you without hanging myself in the process."

 

"Thank you for your… warning," Severus replied. Draco nodded in concurrence of the older man’s sentiments.

 

"Go home for now. I'll see you both later."

 

Severus and Draco lightly bowed their heads in farewell before going back to the fireplace to return to the Leaky Cauldron.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hermione stared at the bottom of her cup wishing there were more coffee in it with which to revive herself. Pulling her wand from the sloppily knotted bun atop of her head, she summoned the coffeepot and refilled her mug. After a splash of cream, she began working on her third cup of the morning. The haggard and exhausted witch heard the familiar whoosh of the fireplace coming to life once more.

 

Ron was in the other room. He’d been answering Floo calls from family members all night long as the news of last night's events trickled from one Weasley household to the next, each one Flooing to check up on Hermione.

 

After the third Floo call, Hermione had asked Ron to field the repetition of questions posed from all her brother-in-laws and their wives. Penelope was one of the first to Floo with news that Percy was all right and to check to see if Hermione was as well.

 

Hermione eventually retired to the bedroom with the door shut in order to get some sleep, but was kept awake from the constant chatter that seeped in from the parlor. Sometime around quarter to five, shortly before sunrise, Hermione gave up on the hope of some sleep and stumbled off to the kitchen in order to brew something strong enough to kick-start her heart and brain.

 

'At least no one has bothered to ask why I didn't come home until late last night,' she thought, wondering how many times the other Weasleys tried Flooing her earlier that evening only to find no one home to answer the call. She hoped Ron wouldn’t ask her where she was either.

 

Around seven o'clock, instead of hearing the familiar sound of her in-laws with the latest Floo call, Hermione was startled when she heard her mother's voice.

 

"Hang on a second, I'll see–” Ron stopped talking when he turned around and saw his wife emerge from the kitchen, looking anxiously at the green flames that surrounded her mother's head like a halo.

 

"Mum?" Hermione croaked, rubbing her right eye with the tips of her fingers. By the fifth sweep of her hand over her eye, she had sat down next to the fireplace to talk.

 

"Hermione, you look awful," Wendy Granger declared. "Did you get any sleep last night?"

 

"Not really," Hermione confessed while stifling a huge yawn. "Everyone has been Flooing in at all hours of the night to make sure I'm alright."

 

"We saw this morning's copy of the Daily Prophet and were worried you might have been caught in the fight," Mrs. Granger said.

 

Hermione let a huge yawn overtake her, distending her features, before replying, "I didn't know you still got the paper."

 

"How else are we going to keep up with your world, sweetheart," her mother gently chided her.

 

"I'm sorry, Mum. It's been a bit busy as of late and all."

 

"I understand," Wendy said knowingly. "You're all grown up, married with a life of your own. You have things to do, with your job and all. Your father and I were the same way, so no need to apologize."

 

The young witch felt rather guilty that she had not been to see her parents since Christmas, as most of her free time was absorbed with familial obligations to Ron's rather large side of the family.

 

"Ron and I should swing by some Sunday," Hermione suggested.

 

"Yes, that would be lovely," her mother said. Hermione yawned once more and her mother smiled wearily at her. "You look absolutely knackered. Owl us when you'd like to come over. Maybe you could even stay for dinner. I'll let you go now. Ta, dear."

 

"Bye, Mum."

 

Wendy Granger's head disappeared from the flames as the fire died out.

 

Hermione glanced around to see if the paper arrived and found it still neatly folded up on the floor by the open window. Crawling over the few feet on hands and knees, she flopped back down before reading the Daily Prophet.

 

"DEATH EATER GOES OUT IN A GORY BLAZE OF CARNAGE," screamed the headline next to a picture of several Aurors running in and out of the picture. Hermione caught a glimpse of Harry, Moody, Shacklebolt and a few other Aurors she recognized in the picture among the several dozen Aurors and Ministry officials that came and left the photograph.

 

"Last night at 5:30 p.m., Antonin Dolohov, a Death Eater parolee, attacked several people in the atrium of the Ministry of Magic with a slew of curses and hexes, killing one witch and one wizard, and injuring four others before being subdued by three Aurors: Nymphadora Tonks, Malphie Waterman, and the famous Harry Potter.

 

The wizard killed was Mr. Sergei Ipton, an investigator in the Department of Magical Catastrophes. The witch killed during the attack was Madam Marge Mallowton, a Potions ingredients tester in the Department of Standards and Regulation."

 

Hermione dropped the paper as if it burnt her fingers. A long, slow mournful wail pierced the air before she began sobbing hysterically.

 

Ron, who had been in the kitchen to give Hermione some privacy to speak with her mother, came bounding into the room and saw his wife crumpled on the floor, her face twisted and grimaced in agonizing sorrow.

 

"Wha–? What is it?" he asked, folding her up into his arms, consoling her.

 

"Ma–, Ma–, Marge is d–, de–, dead," Hermione screamed, her breath hiccuping and hitching.

 

She collapsed against Ron, wailing once more, her puffy eyes hurting from crying too much during the night already. Her head began to pound from a splitting headache, but she didn't care. Hermione let her spirits sink into a quagmire of self-pity and depression from grief, regrets and bitterness that overwhelmed her life at that moment. She wasn't sure how much the human spirit could take, but it seemed she was at the breaking point and her life was being spun and shredded like a leaf in a hurricane.

 

"Marge?" Ron asked gently.

 

"M–, m–, m–, my co-, co-worker," she sputtered in between her hitching breaths.

 

"Oh," Ron said in a small voice, feeling a fool for not remembering Hermione's co-worker's name. "Oh, Hermione, I'm so sorry." He began rocking her back and forth as she lay crumpled against him, curled up in a ball within his long arms and he shushed he with a calming, "Shhhhhhh."

 

A strong sense of déjà vu washed over Hermione, remembering how Calleo had comforted her the night before. The situation was too surreal and she felt like laughing at the irony of her life at the moment, but she refused. The night before, she was crying over her husband being gone and here he was comforting her in the same manner, soothing shushes and rocking motion as her gigolo. If she allowed herself to laugh, it would come out sounding hysterical and make Ron think she had really gone nutters. Overwhelmed, exhausted and distraught, Hermione did the only thing she could do to cope.

 

Forcing part of her mind to shut down, Hermione felt a cold, numb sensation sweep through her body. It was hard to feel hurt when one decided to no longer feel emotions.

 

'I'm so tired,' she thought. 'I'm tired of knowing the things I know, I'm tired of crying, as I've cried myself to sleep far too many nights now. I don't want to feel. If I don't feel, then I can't sense the pain. I've got to survive and I'm just too tired to fight this now,' she silently rationalized.

 

Her body suddenly felt lighter, though the heaviness in her chest kept pressing in on her as her body continued to expunge the grief within itself.

 

In time, Hermione's sobs subsided and Ron guided her to the couch to rest. The redhead picked up the paper and glanced through the article detailing the attack his wife nearly missed.

 

"I suppose I should get ready to go into work," Hermione muttered mechanically.

 

"Wait," Ron said before scanning the paper once more. "It says," he said, running a finger down the length of paper, "that only essential Ministry personnel and Aurors are to report into work today."

 

"Well, I'm essential," she asserted with no conviction.

 

"'Mione, don't. Stay home," Ron urged her. "It's been a long night and most everyone else is not going in today."

 

"No, I really should go in," she reiterated listlessly, her eyes glassy and vacant.

 

"Why don't you owl your boss. If she still wants you to go in, fine. But why bother if you're just going to wind up coming back home?"

 

Hermione sat there contemplating her next course of action. She was too tired to make any defining decision of whether to go to bed and sleep for a week or keep her mind preoccupied from the nightmares she were sure to come with news of Marge's death and just go into work anyway. The decision was wrest from her when the Floo flared to life once more.

 

"Who the bloody fuck is it this time?" Ron cursed at the ceiling.

 

"Hey, Ron," Harry said through the green flames, looking very somber.

 

"Sorry mate," Ron apologized. "It's been a long night and neither 'Mione or I got any sleep. She just found out about Marge," he said quietly with a nod of his head towards Hermione, who still sat on the couch, looking semi-catatonic.

 

"I'm the one who should be apologizing," Harry replied. "I need to ask Hermione to come in this morning."

 

"What?" Hermione said, roused from her stupor.

 

"I'm sorry, Hermione, but since you were Marge's co-worker, and witnesses report seeing you come out of the elevator shortly before the attack, we need you to come in and answer a few questions," Harry explained.

 

Hermione's stomach plummeted through the floor. Now everyone, including her husband and Harry, would know she was suspicious about Dolohov and she did nothing. She vaguely wondered if they sent people off to Azkaban for being inadvertent murder accomplices.

 

"All right," she replied reluctantly. "Let me shower and I'll be right in."

 

"You take as long as you need," Harry said before the flames died out.

 

Thankful that she had not gotten around to eating anything that morning yet, as she probably would be running to the bathroom to retch up her breakfast if she had, Hermione stumbled off to the bathroom to shower. She would need the time to gather her courage before having to face her fellow Order members with the knowledge that she could have saved Marge and poor Mr. Ipton from death.

 

Standing under the scalding spray of water, Hermione felt hollow inside. She wished she could continue to feel this dead inside for as long as she needed until life returned to normal, but what was normal before her life started collapsing in upon itself was not exactly a bed of roses either. Maybe if she couldn't feel and kept her emotions suffocated and repressed, resentment, pain and anger would not have such control over her life. Since she seemed to have no control over her life anyway, maybe shutting off her emotions was the one thing she could have some sort of control over.

 

It was ironic. During the war, she had never felt more alive, being aware of her own mortality as friends, teachers, classmates and fellow Order members were dying all around her, but at the time, she had felt a purpose for surviving all of the tribulations they had all suffered. Now that such trivial personal tragedies were being thrust upon her, compared to the grave danger and horrors of war, Hermione didn't think she had the strength to go on. That something as simple as a collapsing marriage was testing her mettle, she found herself breaking like a dead, dried twig instead of bending like the supple willow.

 

As she headed out the door to go to the Ministry, Ron gave her a brief kiss upon her cheek as a show of support and comfort. Hermione could feel no joy over this simple act of affection or guilt from the fact she had almost thrown herself at another man the night before. The single emotion she could feel at the moment was apathy. It was this indifference that kept her feet moving, her heart beating and her eyes dry.

 

Hermione had frequently wondered how Harry mastered and controlled his emotions after the death of Sirius in order to master Occlumency. Perhaps he had done what she was doing at the moment, denying herself the ability to feel. It would be a simple solution in order to achieve the clearing of the mind to prevent Voldemort from entering it. She knew her problems were small in comparison to what Harry went through during his teenage years with a madman trying to kill him during a time of war, but still, Hermione felt as though she could not bear one more thing upon her narrow shoulders.

 

A sudden empathy and understanding for Harry's restrained emotions when dealing with Ginny and the world emerged. Now she could understand why Harry avoided conflict and kept his emotions in check. Hermione hoped she would not become permanently cold and distant, but at some point could let herself feel once more.

 

Though Harry was not cold, he was a changed man after the war. He did not have the same unrestrained spark of life he once had as a boy. She wondered when she had lost her own exuberant flame of youth. Was it slowly extinguished over the years by being married to Ron? Or had the events of the past few weeks suddenly snuffed out the last glimmer of that ephemeral essence that could let her remember what it was like to be a child?

 

She didn't know.

 

As a child, Hermione had wondered why some adults looked tired and older beyond their years. She wondered if she looked that way now.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-One
“Twenty Questions”

 

Disclaimer: "Double-Bubble Bubblegum, Wonkle, Ipso-facto, Wagga-Wagga, Fork-Tongued Four-Eyes, Fehzelbarm, Hey-Nonny-Nonny and a Ha-Cha-Cha!" Translated from Dumbledore speak, "J.K. Rowling is the owner of Harry Potter and all concepts. No profit is being made from this piece of fiction."

 

============

 

"You look awful."

 

"Thanks, Harry," Hermione replied monotonously without sarcasm.

 

Mrs. Weasley had stepped out of the fireplace in the atrium of the Ministry of Magic and was escorted by Harry, who had been waiting for her, to Auror Headquarters on Level Two.

 

There was a hastily scrawled sign posted on the lift that said, "Out of Order."

 

The smell of charred flesh still hung in the air and it made Hermione's throat close up. That particular smell triggered memories of the war that seemed as fresh and vivid as if the war had ended yesterday.

 

Even to this day, Hermione could not stand the smell of meat charred or overcooked in a pan, in the oven or on the grill. She had taken up a preference for her steak to be bloody rare.

 

"Can't somebody open a window," she mumbled distractedly to herself.

 

"I know what you mean," Harry added empathetically, having a similar reaction to the lingering smell.

 

"Here," Harry said, as he guided Hermione into an office that was not his. "Kingsley and Alastor wanted to ask you a few things themselves. I'll be joining them, as I offered myself for your moral support."

 

"Thanks," she whispered.

 

They sat in silence for a while before Harry said, "Ginny mentioned you and Ron had a fight, and he took off." Hermione didn't answer him, but continued looking out of the office window that had been charmed with a view of the River Thames. "I saw that he was there when I Flooed you earlier."

 

Hermione sat there in the Ministry issued chair, her shoulders slumped and her eyes downcast.

 

"You look like hell," he said with concern.

 

"You already said that."

 

"Well, you do," Harry stated matter-of-factly. "Do you want me to talk to Ron?" She shook her head. "Do you want to talk with me about it?"

 

'Oh yes, Harry. Do you want to hear about my pitiful sex life and how Gryffindor men, based on a poll of two, are lousy in bed? Do you want to hear how eerily similar my disintegrating marriage is to yours? Do you want to know how Ron and I have nothing in common anymore and I'm seeing a gigolo on the side for conversation and companionship? How I almost ripped my clothes off and begged him to fuck me last night so at least I know what a good fuck is instead of being left unsatisfied by an inconsiderate lover with a little prick?'

 

She didn't think Harry would want to know or hear about such things. A half-shrug and a shake of her head were her answer. As much as it disgusted her, she wanted pity and Ginny would say the right things to make her feel as if she weren't the only one to suffer such tribulation. The hollow feeling nestled in her chest and the now ever-present weight upon it was sucking out all the energy she had, reducing her to sit as still as a statue as they waited for Harry's superiors to arrive.

 

It wasn't long before the two senior Aurors strode into the room.

 

"Hermione," Kingsley greeted Mrs. Weasley with a weary and sympathetic smile.

 

She nodded in greeting to Shacklebolt and Moody. The top Auror merely nodded to her in return, sitting himself in a chair next to the desk on the other side of the room.

 

"I'm so sorry to have called you in, but we have a few questions," the black Auror apologized.

 

A small rush of nervous adrenaline raced through her veins, fueled with apprehension and guilt over her inaction the night before.

 

"Just answer them the best of your ability. It appears you didn't get much sleep last night, so if there are any details you remember later that you think are important, please be sure to contact us any time," Kingsley said.

 

Hermione nodded once more, her head feeling like one of those stupid Muggle bobble-head dolls her parents bought as a souvenir on one of their many trips abroad.

 

Shacklebolt set the Auto-Quotes Quill in motion before he asked, "At what time did you leave last night, Mrs. Weasley?"

 

As her eyes fixed on a particular pattern in the parquet floor in front of her, Hermione's visual memory flashed to the night before, remembering the clock on the wall as she headed out the door of her office. "It was about a quarter after five, maybe a few minutes earlier than that at most."

 

"Were you originally in your office?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Where did you go when you left your office?"

 

"The lift." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, realizing once more that she had stood in close proximity with a Death Eater that moments later had gone on a murdering rampage. Her body shuddered.

 

Harry rubbed his hand on her back noting her physical discomfort.

 

"What happened next?" Shacklebolt inquired.

 

Hermione opened her eyes while remembering the exchange. "I got into the lift and… and I recall Dolohov was shifting from one foot to the other."

 

"Did you think it was strange?" Shacklebolt prompted.

 

"Yes. But I thought maybe he had to use the loo."

 

Moody let out a derisive snort.

 

All three pairs of eyes turned to him. "Well, I think that's pretty telling, don't you?" Moody said defensively.

 

"Please, Hermione, go on," Kingsley encouraged her, ignoring Alastor's comment.

 

"I noticed his eye twitched a bit."

 

"Twitched?" Kingsley asked.

 

"Yes, like a nervous tic or something."

 

Shacklebolt and Moody exchanged meaningful glances while Harry grip on her shoulder tightened.

 

"Go on. Anything else you noticed?"

 

"Yes, normally he asks me if I want the main floor, as I only really go between that floor and mine in the basement. He didn't say anything. Not even his usual 'have a good evening,'" Hermione stated.

 

"'Have a good evening'?" Moody growled incredulously.

 

"Yes," she snapped at him. "Normally he would ask, 'main floor?' and I would say, 'yes, please.' Then when we got to my floor he would say 'have a good evening.' It's been that way for as long as he worked here… until last night."

 

"So you felt some sort of affection for him?" Moody asked suspiciously.

 

"WHAT?" Hermione and Harry both yelled at him.

 

"You must have felt something for him if you said 'please' to Death Eater scum like him," Moody accused her.

 

"HA! That is the biggest load of tripe I've heard since… since…" Hermione's mind flashed back to Harry's recounting of Moody's accusations of Snape and young Malfoy's part in Albus and Minerva's death. However, being accused of such a thing, now was not the time to bring that little bit up. Instead she finished by saying, "… since my second year when Gilderoy Lockhart bragged about all the things he'd done."

 

Harry and Kingsley chuckled at the memory of the hot-winded braggart of a buffoon.

 

"Really now, Alastor," Kingsley chided his superior with a chuckle, hoping to diffuse the situation.

 

"Yes, really!" Hermione jumped in. "Do you really think a witch like me, a Muggle-born, would hold any affection for a Death Eater? One that tried to kill me not once, but twice? Do you not remember that I was in the Order as well? Did you ever think that I was merely exercising common courtesy?"

 

"It was just a thought, not an accusation," Moody amended with a grumble.

 

Hermione snorted at his half-arsed apology.

 

"Please, go on," Kingsley kindly urged her to continue. "You were saying Dolohov said nothing."

 

"Yes. I thought maybe he was acting strange, but…"

 

"But what, Mrs. Weasley?" Shacklebolt asked with great interest noting her hesitation, leaning forward in his chair.

 

Hermione hung her head in shame and quietly confessed, "But I dismissed it."

 

An oppressive blanket of silence weighted down the room. Finally lifting her head and expecting to see looks of disgust and anger, she saw Harry and Kingsley look at her with sympathetic understanding. She wasn't sure what was worse, the accusations she was expecting or the concerned looks she was getting.

 

A few tears welled in her eyes as she whispered hoarsely, "Because I did nothing, two people are dead and more are in St. Mungo's."

 

Harry kneeled next to her and pulled her into a hug. "It's okay," he assured her.

 

Though Hermione was an only child, if she had a brother, she was sure she would want him to be just like Harry in many ways. The fact that he could comfort her as if he was family made him seem like the brother she never had.

 

"No, it's not," she protested weakly.

 

Harry pulled back and looked her in the face, ignoring his two superiors behind him. "There were many other people who rode in the elevator after you did. And after questioning most of them, some of them said similar things too, but decided to dismiss it as well. Some of them were Aurors too. You have nothing to be ashamed of, Hermione. You did not cause the death of those two people; Dolohov did."

 

"Yes, but I thought about coming up here and mentioning it to someone, but in my selfish act of wanting to go home, I ignored my instincts and went on my merry way. I'm just as much to blame through my inaction as if I had condoned it," Hermione insisted.

 

"NO! I will not let you start blaming yourself for things that should or could have been done differently!" Harry shouted. "I went through years of blaming myself for Sirius' death from the single action of insisting on coming to the Ministry to save him based on false images fed to me. It was a great many small actions that lead to his death, including his insistence to come here to help me, and my own fool-hardy actions that lead to it, but in the end it was Bellatrix Lestrange that killed him."

 

Hermione knew Harry was right, as she had spent time trying to convince him that Sirius' death wasn't his fault, but that didn't quell the guilt that burned like hot acid in her gut.

 

Turning to his superiors, Harry asked, "Are there any more questions for her?"

 

"No, I believe that's all we wanted to know. Alastor? Did you have any other questions?" Shacklebolt asked, glancing at the battle-scarred wizard.

 

"No," Moody answered gruffly. "But I would like to add that you should keep constant vigilance, young lady."

 

Closing her eyes, she silently counted to ten. That damned phrase had not done a damn bit of good to keep her co-worker alive and was the backing philosophy behind the conspiracy to convict Snape and the younger Malfoy.

 

Her mind suddenly remembered Snape and Malfoy. 'Shit.' How long had it been since Hermione learned of the reasoning behind their false convictions? And she had done no research into freeing them yet? 'I have my own problems to deal with before tackling others' right now,' she reasoned. When the dust settled from the latest tragedy in her life, she would preoccupy her time with freeing them. Now, however, she had to deal with her own crumbling marriage and the death of someone she knew.

 

"Has Marge's family decided on when to hold her funeral?" Hermione asked, hoping the subject would cool the sudden disdain she felt towards Moody.

 

"Sunday," Kingsley said.

 

Hermione nodded.

 

Harry helped his friend up from her chair and walked with her to the atrium.

 

As Hermione's heels clicked on the floor echoing down the hall, Harry said, "Since you'll be back to work on Monday, how about I take you out to lunch that day?"

 

"Won't you be busy will all… this?" she said, gesturing vaguely at the atrium they just entered.

 

"I'll be working the weekend probably, getting the paperwork done and all. I should be free on Monday for lunch. We never did get to have our lunch last week."

 

Hermione decided to ignore the subject of their fight, considering how tired she felt. She was in no mood to fight with Harry over semantics of the term Death Eater versus ex-Death Eater. "That would be nice, Harry."

 

"Meet me here in the atrium at noon?"

 

"Sure," Hermione replied listlessly.

 

"Go home," Harry gently ordered her as he walked her to the fireplace. "Sleep."

 

For a moment, Hermione contemplated the pros and cons of Apparating versus Flooing home. One was instant and did not involve soot, but it ran the risk of splinching if the person Apparating was not fully alert, which Hermione definitely wasn't.

 

'Sod it all,' Hermione thought. 'I'll take a shower before I go to sleep.'

 

Once back in the familiar surrounding of her abode, she looked for Ron. There was no sign of him except for a large duffel bag stuffed with his clothes by the wardrobe and a note left on the table next to the bed.

 

-------

 

Hermione,

 

I had to leave for practice, but I'll be home before I have to leave again for the pub. We'll talk later today.

 

Love,

 

Ron

 

-------

 

"Aw… bloody hell," Hermione muttered to herself.

 

Some small part of her was hoping they could avoid the inevitable talk that was to come. She had silently hoped that he would just come back and they could go on as if the fight never happened, but that was the easy out, the coward's way.

 

'Some Gryffindor you are.'

 

She ignored the need to bathe and stripped her clothes of and crawled into bed. Hermione was asleep before her mind could start imagining the things her husband would say to her upon his return.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Severus paced the length of his Tabriz rug, disconcerted with his uncertain future.

 

'At least a condemned man knows that the ax will fall,' he thought darkly.

 

It had been an hour since he’d returned home. His house-elf, Marf, had cleaned his study of any incriminating evidence that might give Moody cause to haul his cursed arse off to Azkaban. All Potions journals and books purchased since the beginning of his semi-incarceration and any evidence of Sebastian Delgado had been spirited away to a location that even he was not aware of. It was a preventative measure to keep the location secret, lest Moody use too much Veritaserum and Severus wound up "volunteering" too much information when questioned. Once that task was complete, he sent Marf off with a note to Miss Brown outlining the reason for his delay that morning.

 

Hoping Shacklebolt and Moody would show up soon, so that he could get over fretting like a nervous virgin witch on her wedding night who didn’t know what to expect, he began the mental task of the going through the ingredients and steps required to brew the Beam of the Red Oak Potion. It was an old potion he had found in one of his more arcane Potions tomes that he had accrued over the years. The potion would serve as a starting point for the male "performance enhancing" potion Miss Brown suggested they start working on this week, since the natural lubrication potions seemed complete and was now entering the testing phase.

 

'Cactus fruit for endurance, cayenne and raw crimini mushroom for opening up the capillaries, increasing energy and enhancing blood flow, saw palmetto, Peruvian grown maca, julienned dragon spleen…'

 

Miss Brown wanted to add Tilia for conjugal affection, but Severus reminded her that many wizards wanted to enhance their performance in the bedroom, and not suffer the side effects of an ingredient commonly used in love potions.

 

Reflecting upon Hermione's complaints about her husband's lack of stamina in the bedroom, he considered adding an infusion of cornel tree bark for duration. Of course he wouldn’t add it to the first test batch, but it would be an ingredient worth looking into for a variation of the performance potion. Perhaps if he could create an odorless, tasteless version, it might increase the marketability to witches who secretly wished their husbands or lovers would last longer before climaxing. That singular addition of cornel tree bark, based on his own personal knowledge of percentage of witches who complained about their husbands and lovers climaxing long before they could reach one themselves, would guarantee a huge customer base.

 

A few hours later, Severus was still waiting. He wondered if the whole day would be a waste of waiting patiently like some silly first year left out in the hall and forgotten about when showing up for detention.

 

'A perfectly good day of work shot to hell while waiting for my judge, jury and possible executioner to arrive,' he thought with a sour disposition.

 

His ears picked up the far off echoing sound of heavy footsteps tromping up the stone steps of the inner atrium just outside his door. As Severus was normally at work in the lab at this hour on a weekday, he wondered if it was one of Blaise’s clients that had come for a visit.

 

That notion was dispelled when he heard a fist banging on Macnair's door downstairs. "Open up Macnair. It's Shacklebolt."

 

Severus cracked his door open a bit to listen better and to peek to see if the whole Auror division had descended upon the building or if it was just Shacklebolt and Moody, as his parole officer had told him that morning.

 

The ex-Death Eater couldn't see Macnair's door, as it was directly beneath his, two floors down, but he could see a small contingent of Aurors waiting just outside the entrance to the building, hanging about the alley. Moody had probably brought them convinced there would be trouble and of a possible need for back up.

 

"Constant vigilance," Severus quietly sneered to himself.

 

He could hear the squealing hinges of Macnair's door when he opened it. "What do you want? I already had my weekly parole meeting and my monthly work place check," Macnair yelled, his voice reverberating along the stone, tile and metal interior of the atrium as it rose up to Severus' ears.

 

Of the other inhabitants in the building, Severus only dealt with Draco, choosing not to have anything to do with Mr. Zabini or Mr. Macnair. The two loyal Death Eaters had kept to themselves and rarely ventured out into public. When crossing paths in the building's atrium or on the stairs, Macnair and Zabini merely nodded to Severus and said nothing, each wizard silent in the awkward shame of the knowledge that the others would know why they were there.

 

"This is a surprise inspection, Macnair. Step aside, we have a few questions for you." Moody's voice took on a sinister tone as it echoed.

 

There was a sharp crack of a door being slammed shut followed by a few spells being cast to open the door. A few shouts of voices later and silence descended upon the building once more. It was only a matter of time before Aurors would be knocking on his door seeking entrance to "ask a few questions."

 

Half an hour later, Macnair's door opened and Severus pressed his ear against his own door to listen. The only sound he could make out was Shacklebolt and Moody talking as they ascended another floor.

 

Once certain that they were on the landing of the third floor and could no longer see his door, Severus quietly opened it once more. Peering through the crack between the door and the jamb, he saw Macnair quietly being led away by some junior Aurors. His pondering on why and where the Death Eater was going ceased abruptly when he heard one of the two Aurors knock on Draco's door.

 

"Good morning gentlemen. To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?" Severus heard Draco's voice drift up. His voice sounded carefully neutral, neither bitter nor amused.

 

"Mr. Malfoy, we need to come in and ask you a few questions," Shacklebolt replied.

 

"Fine," Draco said with resignation.

 

Draco's door shut and Severus was left to wait once more to learn of his and Draco's fate. An hour passed by before Draco's door opened again.

 

"Now, that wasn't so bad now, was it?" Moody said lightly.

 

Severus hoped Draco's house-elf, Dheef, got every last scrap of parchment that might otherwise indicate that Draco was doing something other than entertaining ladies for work. If the Ministry ever got wind of Draco's work in marketing and advertising for Miss Brown, that would prove to be most inconvenient to all parties involved, especially him and Draco.

 

"Thank you for being cooperative, Mr. Malfoy. It shall reflect on your record," Kingsley offered as small compensation.

 

"Good day," Draco said through clenched teeth before closing the door.

 

Severus ran from the door into the kitchen. "Marf! They are coming. Remember your cue."

 

"Yes, Mr. Snape, sir. I knows just what's to do as you told me, sir," the house elf added while bobbing on the balls of his feet, wringing the corner of his pillowcase draped over his knobby body.

 

Severus gave a nod to the slight creature as the knock at the door came.

 

Bang-bang-bang.

 

Straightening his shoulders, Severus walked to the door and opened it quickly.

 

"Yes?" Severus asked sharply.

 

"Mr. Snape. We are here to ask you a few questions," Shacklebolt announced.

 

"Well then, come in. Pardon me if I don't invite you to make yourselves at home," Severus countered.

 

"Ever the snide bastard," Moody growled as the two Aurors entered the ex-Death Eater's flat.

 

Severus retorted, "If I wasn't, that would probably make you even more suspicious than you are now."

 

The senior Auror grumbled while sitting himself down in a wing back chair, his eyes gliding over his surroundings, looking for anything amiss or dubious.

 

"Quite a nice little place you have here," Moody said nonchalantly. "Especially for someone who is, let's see," he paused, while producing a folder Severus recognized as his parole file, "ah, yes, a 'male escort.'" A low chuckle rose up in the gnarled wizard's throat. "My! How the proud and not-so-mighty have fallen. And not very far at that," he derisively ridiculed Severus.

 

Severus continued to glare at Moody, forewarned by Shacklebolt not to react to his possible taunting.

 

"Sit down," Moody ordered, "so that we can get out of this den of iniquity as soon as possible."

 

"I would prefer to stand during this… interrogation, if you don’t mind" Severus hissed with challenging contempt.

 

Shacklebolt stood behind Moody, giving no expression to tip his hat to either party, as he knew his superior's magical eye could see him at any moment.

 

"Fine. Either way, we'll find out what we want to know. Now go fetch a cup of tea or whatever the libation of your choosing is in order to take your Veritaserum," Moody ordered.

 

When Severus clapped twice, a tea service set for three appeared on the table in front of them.

 

"Tea, gentlemen?" the suspect offered with no sincerity.

 

"I'll pour," the black Auror said.

 

"No sugar or cream, if you don't mind," Severus requested. "I would prefer to see if the Veritaserum has expired before I set my lips upon it. If it has, it will have a definite smell and color instead of being odorless and colorless."

 

As the clear, dark brown liquid poured gracefully from the teapot's spout, Severus watched the patterns and waves in the stream move and dance. Shacklebolt produced the clear vial and showed it at arms length to Severus before uncorking the vial.

 

'Gods above and below, please don't fail me now,' Severus silently prayed. If things didn't go as planned, he would be forced to drink his tea with the full three drops of Veritaserum, leaving him to the complete mercy of Moody's questions with little hope of keeping his plan to escape secret, if the right questions were asked. He wondered how much Draco divulged under his interrogation and if Shacklebolt was able to get away with pretending to put three drops of the potion in the younger wizard's tea.

 

Shacklebolt held the vial delicately above Severus' cup and began to count. "One." The surface rippled from the single drop.

 

CRASH!

 

Moody's head spun quickly to the kitchen door.

 

"Two," Kingsley continued his count, watching a distracted Moody from the corner of his eye, while not dispensing the second drop.

 

Marf burst through the door wailing and sobbing, "MARF IS A BAD HOUSE ELF! MARF MUST BE PUNISHED!" The pitiful creature cried loudly.

 

Moody, startled, pulled out his wand while jumping to his feet.

 

"Three," the junior Auror finished his count, quickly corking the vial and stashing it in his cloak pocket while lightly touching the tea with his little finger to give the effect of having added the last drop.

 

Once realizing he was no longer in mortal danger, Moody turned back to see Kingsley putting away the Veritaserum and the subtle ripples on the surface of the tea subside.

 

"What have you done this time?" Severus barked.

 

"Mister Snape, sir. Marf is most deeply sorry, sir. Marf was putting away the breakfast dishes when–"

 

"I didn't ask for every last detail, just what happened!" he snapped.

 

"Marf broke your favorite tea jar," Marf sobbed. "Bad elf!" He began hitting himself in the head repeatedly.

 

"Go back to the kitchen, fix it, and then punish yourself." Severus sneered down his long nose at Marf. "I'm busy and I can't be bothered with such trivialities right now."

 

"Yes, Mister Snape," the house-elf said in between hiccups, bowing as he left.

 

Inwardly, Severus gave a great sigh of relief as he saw that Kingsley was able to get away with only one drop. He wished that he would have to ingest none of the potion, but Moody would know better from Severus’ voice and the dilation of his eyes. As a Potions master, Severus knew how different dosages affected the drinker. At one drop, the recipient would be compelled to tell the truth, but could be done with simple yes or no answers. Two drops and the person would feel their tongue loosen and their resolve not to volunteer further information slip. Three drops and every last deep dark secret would come spilling out without even being asked for the details.

 

He would have to ask Miss Brown to double Marf’s weekly ration of butterbeer for playing his part so well.

 

"Well," Snape said, turning on the spot to face the two Aurors, "let's get this done and over with."

 

Severus took the proffered cup and saucer from Kingsley. Holding it by its delicate handle, he looked into the cup then sniffed at it. "It seems to be good, though if I keel over and purple boils begin erupting all over my body, you'll know that your batch was tainted. Get me to St. Mungo's immediately and tell whoever is running the Potion and Plant ward to give me the antidote for tainted Veritaserum, NOT an antidote to an overdose of Veritaserum–"

 

"All right! We get the point, stop delaying," Moody grumbled.

 

"Seems your concern not to kill your prisoners during interrogations has waned a bit." Severus took a tentative sip.

 

"All of it," Moody warned.

 

"Patience," Severus coolly replied, then downed the rest of the cup in three large gulps.

 

He felt the effects immediately, like a numb fuzzy sensation in the brain while feeling completely relaxed. Knowing he had to play the part, he pasted on a vacant stare and let his mouth hang slack. Fortunately, even with just one drop, his eyes would dilate enough to make Alastor think he had taken the full dosage.

 

Plopping down in the wing back opposite, Severus prayed he could keep his wits about him and not divulge too much information, while still seeming believable.

 

Moody rose and inspected Severus pupils for dilation. As Severus' eyes were black to begin with, he would have already looked the part without the potion.

 

"That's a good boy," Moody said. "Now let's begin." He sat back down into his chair while Shacklebolt had an Auto-Quotes Quill ready.

 

"Let the record show that on July 11th, 2003, Aurors First Class Kingsley Shacklebolt and Alastor Moody are here to question Severus Snape at," he paused while glancing at the clock, "11:24 a.m." The quill began scratching notes across the parchment set on the table next to the tea.

 

"State your name for the record," Shacklebolt commanded.

 

"Severus Sebastian Snape."

 

"Have you, Severus Snape, brewed any potions, hexed or cursed anyone, or performed any prohibited charms, spells, or transfigurations under the law, according to the Death Eater Decree?"

 

"No–"

 

"All right, all right," Moody interrupted testily. "He thinks he's been a good little Death Eater, so let me get down to the right questions."

 

The weather-beaten wizard asked, "Did you consort or socialize with Antonin Dolohov?"

 

Severus did his best to not snap at Moody, but kept his features slack and hoped his eyes looked glassy enough. He felt the compulsion to tell the truth and decided it was best to let himself elaborate on the details. "No, not since I rejected Voldemort as my master when I was 20 years old."

 

Moody growled, seemingly unsatisfied with his answer. "Did you have any foreknowledge that Dolohov was going to kill or harm anyone last night or any night since the end of the war?"

 

"No, no idea at all," Severus answered in a trance-like state.

 

"Do you know of any other Death Eaters who want to kill or harm anyone now or in the future?"

 

"Yes," Severus answered, unable to stop himself. "I'd like to hex you and Fudge to oblivion for my false incarceration."

 

Moody actually began to chuckle. "Yes, I'm quite sure someone such as you feels the need to hurt people, even though the law forbids it and the threat of a Dementor's Kiss is the only thing stopping you. Figures that only cowardice is the only thing that keeps you lot in line." He rephrased the question. "Are you aware of any Death Eaters who are planning on harming or killing anyone?"

 

"No, though if I was I'd inform Shacklebolt of the threat immediately," Severus answered truthfully.

 

Each answer Severus gave only seem to irritate Moody further, as if each answer was stalemating his attempt to catch Severus in the act of doing something evil and illegal.

 

"Tell me, Snape, what sort of client comes to 'visit' a thing such as yourself," Moody asked, taunting the raven-haired wizard. "You certainly aren't anything to look at. I can understand women coming to fuck that pretty young abomination Lucius Malfoy produced, if they were unaware of his past and family history, but what would make a woman even want to be in the same room as you?"

 

Severus did his best to think of women who came to him for things other than sexual relations, in order to delay admitting the inevitable truth. "They come to me to play chess, to have someone listen to the woes of their miserable marriages and bleak lives, to have a sympathetic ear to talk to. I give them pleasure when their husbands can not or haven’t bothered to for years, to teach them the art of seduction to later practice on their incompetent lovers, to–"

 

"Enough! Tell me who some of your clients are," Moody demanded.

 

"No! You don’t have to answer that Severus. I order you not to answer that." Kingsley intervened. His command was the only thing stopping from Severus to begin naming his clients.

 

Moody gave a mirthless smile. "What? Why stop when this is becoming so interesting? The thought of this bastard actually forced into bedding women, degrading him to be nothing more than a chancred whore is most amusing. What would drive a woman to fuck a man who looks like that, I'm most interested in knowing."

 

"No!" The black Auror insisted. "No names. To give names would not only betray his client confidentiality, but could prove to be very embarrassing to many well-heeled people in society, including family of those on the Wizengamot and in the Ministry."

 

Severus had never given names nor hinted at the sort of clientele who frequented him, so he could only assume Kingsley was improvising or knew that many respectable witches made visits to people such as himself.

 

"We will have to give a full report to the Wizengamot, and I don’t think they would look too kindly upon you, Alastor, for revealing it if some of them, their wives, daughters, or other family members frequented a place such as this," Shacklebolt rationalized, emphasizing the need to keep this above the board, yet discreet.

 

"Point taken," Moody acquiesced. "Fine, the questions are done with, but we still need to look around and make sure you aren't hiding anything around here."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Half an hour later, Moody was still not satisfied, but he had not turned up anything incriminating against Severus. The grizzled Auror did discover Severus' collection of masks. Upon grilling Severus on their purpose, he found more fodder in which to taunt the former spy for the Order, remarking that no woman would want to shag a man with a face like Severus'. The senior Auror went on to question the Potions master while he was still under the influence of Veritaserum about every pot, knife, utensil and the worn cutting board he used to prepare his own meals with. Once Severus had blabbered in detail about the variety of vegetables, fruits, breads, culinary herbs, and hunks of meats he had cut, sliced, diced, minced and julienned, Moody went on to other parts of the flat, seeming irritated he had not caught Severus in a confession about brewing Potions on the sly. A thorough examination of the study for damning evidence that Severus was still a practicing dark wizard turned up nothing. The rest of the flat yielded nothing of interest either. Finally, Moody performed a Priori Incantatem on Severus' wand only to find the usual limited litany of spells and charms that were allowed to a wizard of his standing.

 

"Fine!" Moody shouted. "But don't think I won’t be keeping a close eye on you. You should feel lucky you're not in Azkaban with the rest of your twisted kind, like you truly deserve."

 

"Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage, nor Dementors needed to rob one's soul," Severus retorted, feeling the effect of the truth serum waning. Though he lived in a light and spacious flat and not in a dank cell, it was still his own prison of the Ministry's making.

 

Shacklebolt interrupted the conversation. "Thank you for being cooperative, Severus. This will reflect well on your record. So will the fact that everything here was in order."

 

Severus gave a brief nod of acknowledgment to the younger Auror. "Please don't be offended if I don't walk you out."

 

Moody harrumphed and left quickly, followed by Shacklebolt, who gave Severus a knowing look that this would be discussed at his next parole meeting.

 

Once the two Aurors were gone, Severus collapsed into a chair feeling so entirely exhausted that he was tempted to take a nap before heading off to work, but was so offended and indignant over what he had gone through for the past hour that he knew he would not sleep.

 

A quick sweep of his wand over his flat to make sure Moody had not left any spying devices behind and Severus was finally able to relax.

 

"Work is the best thing to keep my mind busy," he said out loud to himself before heading out the door.

 

As he passed by a cluster of junior Aurors hanging out in front of his building, he noticed how their eyes followed him, though he had the hood of his cloak raised, obscuring his face in shadows of the midday sun. With some amusement, he could tell he was being trailed by one of the young Aurors, no doubt instructed to follow him, as his clopping, clumsy feet gave him away, echoing down the narrow alleyways as Severus made his way towards work.

 

Deciding he had enough of this little game of cat and mouse, he headed into the Twenty-Four Blackbird Bakery and went right up to one of the witches behind the counter.

 

"Excuse me, but it's a bit of an emergency. May I use your Floo? You can add the cost of your troubles to Miss Lavender Brown's weekly tab." Before the witch could agree or protest, Severus made his way behind the counter. He noted the little Auror was still waiting outside, thinking that he could continue following Severus once the cloaked man had made his purchase.

 

"Lovely Lavender's Headquarters," Severus announced quietly so the witch who still stood in shock at Severus' brazen imposition couldn't hear.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

A tapping noise woke Hermione from her restless sleep. Shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun streaming in through the windows, she saw Hedwig perched on the windowsill outside her bedroom.

 

Flopping back down on the bed, she reached over for her wand and spelled the window open. The snowy owl walked across the window threshold before taking short wing to Hermione's bedside table.

 

Still bleary-eyed, it took a few tries before she successfully removed the letter from the bird's leg then croaked, "Thanks, Hedwig."

 

The bird didn't bother sticking around for a treat and took wing straight from the table, out the window and into the hazy summer sky. The bedside table rattled and wobbled a bit before settling, a few knickknacks and items being knocked over from the bird's effort to take flight.

 

Hermione rubbed her eyes so they could focus before reading the note.

 

-------

 

Dear Hermione,

 

I can't tell you how relieved Harry and I were to know that you are all right. From Harry's owl during lunch, it sounds like you could use some company.

 

We are not taking no for an answer. Harry and I will be over tonight at about six o'clock. Don't bother cooking, I'll take care of that.

 

See you tonight.

 

Ginny

 

-------

 

Groaning from exhaustion and the insistence of her friends, the weary witch rolled over and went back to sleep.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Two
"Catch Me If I Fall" or "In Vino Veritas"

 

Disclaimer: See Jo K. Rowling write about Harry Potter. Write Jo, write. See the bevy of lawyers protect Jo's intellectual property. Protect lawyers, protect. See Betz write Harry Potter fan fiction based on Jo's characters and concepts. Write Betz, write. See Betz disclaim any ownership over Jo's intellectual property. Disclaim Betz, disclaim. See Betz hope the lawyers are satisfied by her disclaimers. Hope Betz, hope.

 

============

 

Severus stepped into the lobby of Lovely Lavender's headquarters, robes billowing. With a sneer set firmly upon his face and seething hot rage bubbling beneath his icy exterior, he strode through the building.

 

The few house-elves that served as receptionists at the front desk squeaked and ducked for cover upon seeing the Potions master in an exceptionally foul mood.

 

Instead of taking the lift up the four flights to Miss Brown's office, he took the stairs, two and three steps at a time with his long legs; the exercise giving him the chance to consume a small amount of the adrenaline fueled anger that coursed through his body. By the time Severus entered her office without so much as a knock, he did feel a bit more collected.

 

Draco was already there, having just finished his recounting of his forced interrogation.

 

"Did they find anything out?" Severus asked Draco with no preamble.

 

The younger wizard shook his head; his mouth was set in a thin line.

 

"Good," Severus said sharply. "They didn't find anything of interest with me, though I did have to lose some snot nosed Auror who tailed me on the way out of the building."

 

Draco growled. "Same here."

 

"I think, gentlemen, that it would be best if you kept all your business work here from now on. I don't need to get dragged into a Ministry inquiry as to why I have two ex-Death Eaters working for me in a non-sanctioned capacity," Lavender warned them with apparent irritation.

 

"Severus," Lavender continued, "all your work and materials that Marf brought here from your study are in a new room I had the house-elves set up for you. I ask that all owls for Sebastian Delgado are sent here from now on as well."

 

The older wizard nodded in agreement. "Well, let's get to work," Severus barked.

 

"I think you'll want to see the Daily Prophet first," Draco said carefully, edging a copy of the newspaper along Lavender's desk towards his colleague.

 

Severus scanned the newspaper reading the account of the attack, he face growing grimmer with each paragraph. "Oh, bloody fucking hell!" he exclaimed.

 

"Tell me," Lavender said through gritted teeth.

 

"Is there going to be a problem with Mrs. Weasley?" Draco asked, keeping his question as vague as possible.

 

His face scrunched up in aggravation, Severus pinched the bridge of his nose. With the death of Hermione's co-worker, on top of the fact she was in such fragile shape over the state of her miserable marriage, he wondered what sort of condition she could be in at the moment.

 

Severus bit down on the inside corner of mouth. It was a nervous habit that no one could notice. "Well, it's not like I can just pop up on her doorstep and say, 'Hey, it's your gigolo, mind if I come in and make you a spot of tea for your troubles?' I think not!"

 

"No… but you could send her an owl," Lavender sing-songed sweetly, her mood suddenly lifted.

 

She began smiling for the first time that morning before tipping back in her chair, setting it to spin round and round, her arms waving in the air as if conducting an invisible orchestra. "Dear Hermione… I am so very sorry to hear about the loss of your co-worker. I read the paper this morning and thought of you, remembering you telling me about your work. I do hope you are all right, even though your name was not mentioned in the Daily Prophet as one of the many injured. I do hope this letter finds you well. I look forward with anticipation to our next meeting… No, scratch that… Next Thursday evening. Kindest regards…” Lavender stopped her chair to look at older wizard. "What was the name she gave you again?"

 

"She let me pick the name," Severus replied with his arms folded in front of his chest looking petulant, but slightly relieved by Miss Brown's idea.

 

"And?"

 

"Calleo."

 

Draco snorted.

 

"Think that name's funny, do you?" Severus bristled at Draco's reaction. "My mother almost named me that." He frowned, daring the blond wizard to laugh at his mother.

 

"Sorry," Draco said with no remorse, "You'll always be Severus to me. Anything else would just not be… you."

 

Ignoring Draco's non-apology, Severus thought out loud. "Yes, the idea does have some merit. It will make her think I actually care for her and will help gain her trust."

 

He silently realized that it would be another way of dropping a subtle hint about his identity. The young witch would probably remember the handwriting of her old Potions teacher.

 

"Good. I think it's time we get to work now," Lavender said firmly. "Severus, I'll show you were your new office is."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The first thing Hermione saw when her eyes suddenly snapped open was a bright ray of sunshine streaming into the bedroom. It lit up the dust motes as they lazily swirled in the air, finding convection currents in which to ride and dance their random paths across her field of vision. Hypnotized by the inanimate ballet performed for her alone, she didn't notice the far off sounds of someone in the kitchen.

 

The sound of a glass shattering on the tile floor in said kitchen rousted the witch from her trance.

 

"Bloody hell." She could hear Ron swear in the distance.

 

Hermione closed her eyes and winced. 'Just get it done and over with,' she tried to convince herself.

 

Summoning some of that famous Gryffindor courage that she was beginning to think she was no longer in possession of, Mrs. Weasley rose from the bed. A quick glance in the mirror reminded her that she had fallen asleep in her clothes and she looked quite pitifully rumpled and bedraggled. A major case of bed-head added to her woeful look.

 

A trip to the loo confirmed that her monthly cycle had begun while she was asleep. Hermione gave a quick and silent prayer of thanks that she was not pregnant, as contraceptive potions had a very small margin of failure, slightly less than women who used The Pill correctly. Grabbing one of her weekly Potion vials, she downed it like all good witches did on the first day of their cycle and did so once a week, every week. Looking at her bathroom cabinet supplies, she added contraceptive potions to her mental list of things to pick up at the apothecary that weekend.

 

Reaching for her jar of Lovely Lavender's Puffy Poof Eye Crème, she noted there was only enough left for one more application. Once the jar was empty, she placed it in the glass-recycling basket. The basket was beginning to look quite full and would need to be brought in to the apothecary for recycling.

 

It amazed Hermione when she thought about it, but most of the jar and vials used for potions were routinely recycled as the prospect of having new glass containers blown and manufactured would eventually make the price of potions fairly costly. The wizarding world also tended to frown on waste. Wizarding glass manufacturers kept making new vials, jars and bottles, but most everyone reused the containers for other things or their own homemade potions and concoctions. There were standard sizes, colors and shapes, but for the most part, people looked at the label more than the container itself when making purchases.

 

'Aunt Christina would have a cow if she had to live in my world,' she thought briefly. Hermione's aunt was a vice president of a large international advertising and marketing agency. During Christmas dinners the woman would go on at length about some big launch of a product she was in charge of and how much work was done in the product design and customer research phase.

 

Hermione flushed the toilet knowing the sound would alert her husband that she was awake.

 

Walking through the flat, she found Ron in the kitchen casting a Reparo on the glass she heard shatter earlier. She studied his profile for a moment and noticed the slightly grim set of his mouth and the way his clothes hung on his frame.

 

'At least he looks like he's been eating.' Leaning against the door jam, she finally said, "Hi."

 

Ron's head snapped to look at her once he realized she was there. His expression turned from surprise to uncomfortable acknowledgment. "Hi."

 

Both of them looked at each other awkwardly before averting their gazes to other parts of the kitchen. Neither could look at the other at the moment. Hermione studied the crown molding, finally noticing it was in need of a good cleaning, as a thick layer of grime had begun to form, giving the glossy painted strip of wood a dull and yellowish cast.

 

After shifting from one foot to the other, Hermione finally walked into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of juice to quench her parched throat that had begun to constrict once she had laid eyes on Ron.

 

She seated herself at the table, silently waiting for Ron to make the first move. In chess Ron always preferred to play black so he could see which move his opponent made first. The nervous witch wondered if he was using the same tactic, waiting to see what she said first before opening his mouth for once.

 

The silence stretched between them like a thread of spider's silk. At some point the tension would be too great and it would break.

 

Despite how much she had dreaded this moment for the past week, Hermione felt rather calm. She wondered if it was just the fact she had decided that morning to no longer feel anything and this numbness allowed her to approach the situation with an eerie remoteness she didn’t think possible. No matter the reason and however much she felt emotionally disconnected, Hermione blinked first.

 

"Are you still playing first string Keeper?" It was a safe question to break the ice that spanned between them.

 

"Yeah," Ron answered, his voice tight and stilted.

 

Out of the corner of her eye Hermione saw him stand stiffly with his back to her, his hands braced against the edge of the chipped tile counter. She sat with her back to him as she sipped her juice once more, staring out the kitchen window.

 

Curious as to how long Ron would be first string, Hermione asked, "How much longer will Randall be on leave?"

 

"Dunno."

 

She could tell Ron was still really upset, now that the harrowing events of last night had faded and he was certain his wife was safe. The memories of last Saturday night rose between them and choked the air they breathed. Hermione was still upset too, but no longer seemed to care. Her newfound dispassionate nature forged ahead, apathetic and indifferent to the consequences of whatever might be said.

 

'Alright, let's get this over with.' She inhaled before speaking. "Well?"

 

"Well what?" Ron shot back tersely.

 

"Well, you still sound upset." Hermione glanced over her shoulder and saw Pigwidgeon back on his perch. "Have you come back to apologize, expect me to apologize, or are we going to talk about this and try and decide who's at fault for this argument? Or we could do what we always do and say we're both at fault, then kiss and make-up while pretending that we can fuck away the problem and try to forget the real reason why we fight so much."

 

If Hermione had not been so devoid of emotion at that moment, she would have been stunned by her own words. Even to herself, she sounded cold and callous, almost calculating.

 

Hermione turned her head to look at her husband. Ron stood there, his mouth agape, ogling at her like some bizarre and grotesque creature. For some strange reason, it gave her peace to not feel any shame from her words.

 

Tired of tiptoeing around the growing discord between them and pretending it didn't exist, Hermione blithely stated, "I can see our marriage going one of two ways, Ron. Either we can get a divorce or we can go into counseling. Which is it going to be?"

 

"Wait! What? Divorce? You must be in shock to even suggest a thing like that, 'Mione!" Ron could be right, she could be in shock, which was why she couldn't feel a thing, either emotionally or physically. "I think you're tired and you're talking nonsense. Sure we have a few rocky spots, but nothing that we couldn't work out ourselves."

 

"So you think this marriage is salvageable?" Normally by this point she would be screaming at Ron, but she just couldn't find the energy to get upset.

 

Ron sputtered, "Wh–, well YES! Don't you?"

 

Hermione wasn't sure. Yes, the idea of being alone earlier in the week frightened her, but now she could not think of any reason why she should be scared. There were lots of divorced young women in the Muggle world making it on their own with crappy dead-end jobs all the time. Why couldn't she? She was a Muggle-born after all. It didn’t seem like such an adverse idea, really. But one thought came back to her time and time again. Did she really want to divorce Ron? Maybe their relationship just had to come to a point like this before both parties were willing to change in order to make it work.

 

The part of Hermione that was raised to never quit or give up demanded she earnestly try and make her marriage work. The voice of her mother reminding her that marriage is not all roses came to the forefront of her mind along with a myriad of other issues. Divorce was a final step to take when all avenues had been exhausted and so far neither of them had really tried to work things out.

 

As she contemplated silently, Ron began to get nervous. He worried that his wife might disagree and refute him claiming there was nothing left between them worth saving. Kneeling next to Hermione, Ron took her hands in his and looked up into her eyes while searching for some glimmer of emotion on her stoically blank face, studying her face for an answer before she gave it.

 

Hermione sat there, looking into his eyes. She could feel no passion for him. But didn't most marriages after a while lose that elusive and fleeting sizzle and spark between two people before settling into a warm glow of contentment? Could she be content with Ron? She wasn't sure any more, but was willing at that moment to try and learn if she could be satisfied with the well-worn friendship she had developed with her husband, despite its periodic disappointments.

 

"I guess so, Ron."

 

Gathering his wife into his arms, Ron hugged her fiercely. "Oh 'Mione. I shouldn't have been away for so long. I should never have made you doubt us," Ron began rambling into her hair.

 

She could only sit there limply, feeling his arms crushing her to his chest. She did nothing but surrender to the suffocating feeling that came with resignation and acceptance.

 

After a while, Ron released Hermione from his embrace.

 

Checking the clock, Hermione casually mentioned that Harry and Ginny were coming over at six and his sister offered to cook.

 

Ron's face instantly brightened. "That'll be great. Just the four of us for dinner. Why don't you go take a shower and I'll get everything ready."

 

Hermione was grateful for his sweet and thoughtful gesture. Then she thought about how long it would be before they both slipped into old habits and he took her for granted once more while she became even more bitter and cynical about their relationship.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The conversation she had with Ron before Harry and Ginny showed up played over and over in her mind.

 

'We don’t need counseling, 'Mione. That's for nutters and hopeless cases.' His voice droned in her head like a broken record. 'I will not go and have my private thoughts analyzed for faults by someone who doesn’t even know us.' Hermione poked at her steak with her fork while his voice kept coming unbidden in her mind. 'Counselors are for Muggles, not for people like us. Besides, what would my family say if they found out? I don't want my mother going on about how she has failed as a parent if her son has to go see some Muggle mind healer to fix his marriage. You know how most other wizards think about things like that.'

 

Finally sick of stewing over the argument they’d had earlier, Hermione lifted her head and announced to Harry and Ginny, "I want to go into marriage counseling, but Ron seems to think it's not a good idea. What do you two think about it?" Lifting her glass up to her lips, Hermione took a long sip and imagined the critique Calleo would give towards this light and fruity red wine Ginny had brought over.

 

The air was thick with tension and uncertainty. Hermione had never made mention to Ron or anyone else that Harry and Ginny were both going to a Muggle marriage counselor. The Potters knew she would keep their confidence, as all three were aware of what the wizarding world thought of psychiatrists, especially Muggle ones, on a whole. It was this attitude that had prevented Ginny from getting the proper help she needed after the Chamber of Secrets and caused her deep emotional scar years later.

 

Harry spoke first. "If you two are having problems, then I think it's a great idea."

 

"But–" Ron protested.

 

"Yes," Ginny agreed, interrupting her brother. "If you both are having problems, then it can definitely help to have an objective third person to look at what's wrong and help you both solve your issues."

 

Ron was turning a deep red from embarrassment that Hermione mentioned the seemingly taboo subject in front of Harry and his sister, and from indignation that they would agree with Hermione so quickly.

 

"But, but, but...” Ron stammered trying to find a cohesive thought. "It's no one's business what happens between us, but 'Mione and me! Besides, what do these Muggle counselors know about marriage? Hermione and I are doing just fine! We don't need counseling."

 

"Which is why she's been sitting alone in this apartment for most the week after you took off after that fight!" Harry thundered at his friend. He stood suddenly, throwing down his napkin in disgust. "What's so wrong with seeing a Muggle over something like this?"

 

"You just don't know if they know what they are doing or not!" Ron bellowed back.

 

"What? Like being a wizard makes you an instant expert? Case and point, Gilderoy Lockhart," Harry shot back. "Muggles do have some clue as to what they are doing, even though you may not understand the process."

 

"Has Hermione told you about her idea to go to a marriage counselor so you could talk me into it?" the redheaded wizard asked in accusatory tones.

 

"No! Harry and I are in marriage counseling," Ginny replied hotly.

 

There. It was out there now, and Hermione had kept her mouth shut about it leaving it to Harry and Ginny to divulge that little bit of information.

 

"What?!?" Ron shrieked. "What's so wrong between you two that you need someone else to tell you how to run your marriage?"

 

"Harry and I have been having problems for a while," the younger witch admitted reluctantly. "We didn’t want to tell you because you would either accuse Harry of being a bad husband to your little sister and threaten him with bodily harm, then go on and tell all of our brothers, who would then take turns hexing him. Not to mention the lecture Mum would give Harry and me, as she and the rest of them seem to share your opinion on Muggle mental health treatment. Or you would have blamed me for being a bad wife to your best friend and then I'd still get the lecture from Mum. No thank you! So now that you know, I want you to promise not to tell."

 

"So you go off and have some, some, some stranger tell you that Harry is a bad husband and you’re a bad wife?"

 

"No, it's not like that, Ron. You don’t even know how it works, so why are you inventing things? Ginny and I go once a week," the raven-haired wizard explained. "We meet with a very nice Muggle marriage counselor who has had proper training in this field, years of training in fact. He's been helping us deal with some… things. It's not an instant cure, but he is helping us."

 

"What sort of things," Ron asked menacingly, thinking Harry was treating his little sister poorly, just as Ginny had suspected he would.

 

"Harry and I have our own set of problems and it's none of your business, anymore than us knowing why you left Hermione last Saturday night and have been gone until… well, I know as of Wednesday you still weren't back!" Ginny matched her brother’s tone.

 

Ron turned an angry eye on his wife. "So you have been painting me as the villain to Harry and Ginny, have you?"

 

Hermione sat there with the now familiar hollow feeling inside of her giving her a perception of a protective shell over her. Her husband's angry looks or words could not wound her as he slung them at her, nor could his worsening mood perturb her. It was almost like one of those out of body experiences one has during a dream, watching it unfold like a play and just sitting back and observing it all from a distance. Hermione drained her glass of wine and poured herself another.

 

"No," Ginny answered for the brunette witch. "I met her for lunch Wednesday. I asked her a question about you and if you were just thrilled at playing first string and she said she didn't know. She mentioned that you had a fight last Saturday and that you took off and she hadn't seen you up to that point. She didn't say you were the one to blame or if it was anyone's fault, just that you fought."

 

"Well, she's the one who started the fight," Ron pouted, pointing a recriminating finger at his wife.

 

Normally Hermione would have jumped into the fray, if anything but to defend herself, but at the moment, she couldn't care less if Ron had accused her of a orgiastic gang-bang featuring every Quidditch player on the Falmouth Falcons’ team, including the coach and mascot. She sat there silently and waited to see what would happen next while sipping her wine. As long as everyone was jumping up and shouting, why should she bother to join in? There was more than enough yelling going on for four people.

 

"I don’t care who started it or how it ended. Look at her! LOOK AT HER!" Harry’s voice hardened as he swept his hand in Hermione's direction. "She looks like hell, Ron. Haven't you noticed how thin she is? Obviously she's not eating! Don't you notice these things? She has dark circles under her eyes, and that was before some Death Eater decided to go on a rampage and kill her co-worker. You're lucky she's not dead too! She's sitting here, obviously still in some state of shock, as she hasn't said hardly one word since you started screaming and accusing her. That's not the Hermione I know. And all you care about is who gets the proper blame on whose fault it was for the fight that caused you to up and leave your wife for… how long? When did you come back? Wednesday night? Last night?" Harry asked, noticing how Ron was now averting his eyes. "Last night?!?"

 

Ron looked guiltily at Harry and then to Hermione, who continued to sit there glassy eyed while drinking her wine.

 

"Last night?" Harry asked incredulously. "It took until you found out your wife barely missed getting hexed by some Death Eater madman for you to haul your arse home? And just where were you the whole time you were gone?"

 

That was the one question Hermione had made a point not to ask, and would not ask it now.

 

Ron's eyes darted nervously from Harry to Ginny while not looking at his wife. "I was at a friend's."

 

"It doesn't matter," Hermione drawled lazily with a slight slur. She was feeling even more numb than at the beginning of the fight, due in no small part to the fact that she had skipped breakfast, slept through lunch and had barely touched her dinner, and was finishing her third glass of wine. "We're going into counseling, the matter is closed."

 

She didn't want to know where Ron had been for the past week. Hermione had promised herself that she would curb her curiosity, as it had brought her much despair recently, and forcing the truth from Ron as to where he had been might wind up shattering even more illusions, illusions that possibly propped up her whole life.

 

Ron threw her an equally surprised and furious look, tossing his hands into the air. "What?!? I never agreed–"

 

Hermione fixed him with a quelling glare of her own, finding some of her courage from the wine. "It's either counseling or divorce."

 

Ginny gasped and Harry fell back into his chair, flummoxed by the casual attitude of Hermione's ultimatum.

 

"Pick, Ron," his wife challenged him. "What shall it be? Keeping it a secret that we go to counseling from the rest of your family, or your whole family learning that we're getting a divorce because you don't want to make an effort to work things out?"

 

It was the biggest bluff of Hermione's life, but she was largely counting on the looming threat of Molly Weasley making her husband's life hell that made her throw such a choice on the table. Earlier, Ron had displayed such an aversion to the idea of divorce she was certain he would pick counseling over ending their marriage in a heartbeat.

 

Before Ron answered, Hermione tipped up her glass to finish off the last bit of her wine. As the last of the liquid slid down her throat, she felt even more lightheaded and dizzy.

 

The next sound she heard was the sound of shattering glass as Hermione felt her body floating with no direction of up or down.

 

"Hermione!"

 

She couldn't tell who called out her name, as it sounded very fuzzy and distant. When she finally cracked open one eye, she saw the world had suddenly turned sideways and Ron was kneeling in front of her, regarding her with great concern while Harry kneeled behind him. A flash of long red hair that must have belonged to Ginny flitted about as Hermione tried to focus on her husband's face.

 

'Oh, I must have passed out,' Hermione calmly surmised, not feeling her legs entangled with the chair's. 'Well, this will certainly make Ron feel so guilty he'll agree to anything that I ask. Harry and Ginny will certainly be in my corner now that they've seen how Ron has been neglecting his wife.'

 

Just before she blacked out, Hermione amusedly realized: 'My, that was an awfully Slytherin thing of me to think.'

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Friday nights were rather predictable, and in that regard, it made them a bit tiresome for Severus. Mrs. Nettleton would show up at eight o'clock sharp. The witch would wear a floor length cloak of some dark, rich color and her hood pulled up with nothing on underneath except for some frilly scraps of satiny fabric. Just as she stepped into his flat, Severus would throw her up against the wall and rip off the very expensive silk lingerie her husband paid for, but never saw.

 

Mrs. Nettleton would pretend to fight him, but would seemingly succumb to his manly forcefulness before hitching her leg up around his waist as he shoved his cock into her. The more he knocked her head against the wall as he savagely thrust into her, the more she liked it.

 

A few forceful tweaks of her nipples and deep guttural growls from him and she would come, shrilly squeaking and sounding like a rabbit being slaughtered. The sound was so bothersome, Severus once shoved his hand over her mouth to quiet the woman, and it wound up arousing her even more, making her screech louder. There were times he contemplated buying a ball-gag just for her and wondered if he could get it in place with one hand while fumbling with his trousers with the other as he freed himself. She always liked the spontaneous illusion of him wearing trousers as it made her feel like a woman being properly ravished in the heat of the moment. If the Potions master had known of a fabulous Muggle invention called duct tape, he might have bought a roll just for her mouth.

 

As he grunted and finished spilling the last of his semen into his client, Mrs. Nettleton gave one last high-pitched whinging shriek. Severus was sorely tempted to just drop her right there and let her land arse first.

 

Severus put himself back together and straightened his mask for a final adjustment. He saw the witch pick up her torn bit of silk, shoving them in a pocket of her cloak. From another pocket, she pulled out a simple dress and trotted off nude to his bathroom to rinse off and get dressed.

 

By the time she emerged from Severus' bathroom looking well groomed and composed, he had wine, a vial of the usual combination post coitus contraceptive-venereal disease eradicating potion, and a deaf ear ready for her weekly rant.

 

"You'll never believe the little tart my husband is shagging this week!" the middle aged witch began, her voice filled with umbrage.

 

Half-listening, Severus replied, "Who?" He was already bored to tears.

 

"My son's old girlfriend! And she's two years younger than my son to boot. Can you believe that?" she asked, not even bothering to wait for his response before she continued railing. "They were spotted in Le Maison Chaud having a little candlelit dinner while they played footsies under the table. When he came home I asked him about it, as my friend Maude had owled me earlier in the evening that she spotted them there. Well, he claimed he was giving the girl career guidance and that she approached him for dinner so she could ask him for some wisdom on the matter. Wisdom, my arse! More like he banged some advice into her empty little head and between her legs. Honestly!"

 

Mrs. Nettleton continued on for quite a while as Severus pretended to listen. The woman's problems were of nothing of great importance or great tragedy. Mr. Nettleton was a very rich and powerful wizard who owned a broom manufacturing company that was a major competitor against the company that built the Firebolt. In addition, Mr. Nettleton owned the Biggonville Bombers in Luxembourg and frequently traveled to that country. Being a rich and powerful wizard, plus owning a Quidditch team, made him a very popular man, especially with many society witches, whom he took to his bed in droves.

 

After years of suffering the humiliating and not-so-private dalliances of her husband, Mrs. Nettleton began seeing Severus over a year ago as a way of seeking revenge against her husband. The only reason Severus continued to keep her as a client was the fact that she paid him very, very well. She had told him from the beginning that she was going to compile a Pensieve of their interludes and present it to her husband as a gift for his sixtieth birthday, which would be in another year. Mr. Nettleton had been raised under the old-fashioned upper society morals of the husband playing in greener pastures with younger witches, while the wife stayed dutifully and faithfully at home. Mrs. Nettleton was going to destroy that image with her gift to him for all the pain he had caused her over the years.

 

Remembering that he needed to continue the attrition of his client list, and furtively thinking upon how he could get this woman off his Friday night schedule, Severus came upon an idea that would serve both him and Mrs. Nettleton.

 

As she paused mid-rant, Severus interrupted her. "This young chit your husband is seeing. How old is she?"

 

"About twenty."

 

"Is she pretty?" Severus asked suggestively.

 

"Of course she's pretty. My husband wouldn't be shagging her if she wasn't!" Mrs. Nettleton replied brusquely.

 

Severus let a devious smile spread slowly across the lower part of his face that was showing. "Yes, but do you think she is pretty?"

 

"Just what are you getting at?" Her curiosity was obviously peaked.

 

"Are you up for a threesome? Something to add to your Pensieve, perhaps. You, the young girl and another young man in a very… intimate situation." He let the dawning realization of his statement sink in before he added. "I think it's time you began varying you experiences. Your dallying around with just one paramour is nothing to a man like your husband. But if you were to have several dozen or more men to add to your Pensieve for your husband to witness, possibly two or more at a time, that would be something quite memorable. And if you include the fact that you bedded a girl that he himself has had, possibly enjoying herself more in your arms and another younger man's arms, that would be a great injury to his ego."

 

"Are you the younger man in this little scenario?" she asked coyly.

 

"No, I have someone else in mind," Severus said, thinking Blaise Zabini one floor up would fit the bill.

 

Zabini was handsome, in his mid-twenties, and the peak of manly physical perfection. Visions of Mrs. Nettleton banging a wizard like that would surely unsettle her husband. Though Severus was not adverse to a ménage en trois involving a second witch, he was adverse to the idea of having to fuck Mrs. Nettleton for any longer than was necessary, regardless of the hundreds of Galleons he received from each of her visits.

 

"I will speak with Miss Brown regarding my recommendation for you to see another wizard under her employ to fulfill your needs. He is open to many avenues of pleasure that I am not." 'Namely, being submissive or having a threesome with another wizard.' "I think you will be most pleased."

 

Mrs. Nettleton's eyes danced with delight at the possibilities at hand. Though she was a rather sheltered creature when Severus first started meeting with her, she soon came out of her sexually repressed shell, though she had seemed reluctant to try new things. She preferred the routine they had been in for the past several months.

 

"Then I guess I won't be seeing you after this week. If I'm going to give my husband the heart attack that I hope my Pensieve will give him, I suppose I should add a little variety starting as soon as possible." Mrs. Nettleton looked rather smug, and then gave Severus a playful sideways glance. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you were a Slytherin."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hermione woke up in bed with Ginny pressing a cool face flannel to her forehead.

 

"You gave us quite a scare," the redhead said with great motherly concern.

 

"Sorry," Hermione hoarsely whispered.

 

A glass of water found it's way to Hermione's lips and she drank it.

 

"Slowly," Ginny warned her.

 

Hermione sputtered, choking on the water that wetted her parched throat.

 

"I suppose that wasn't very wise of me to drink when I skipped breakfast and lunch," the prone witch admitted with embarrassment as the room continued to spin.

 

Ginny sighed deeply. She looked at Hermione with a penetrating stare. "Is there anything else besides problems with Ron you want to tell me about? I promise not to say a word to Ron," the younger witch said with serious intent.

 

For a moment, Hermione wondered if Ginny somehow knew about her visits with Calleo. Hoping her cheeks were not flushed, she schooled her features as best she could, considering her inebriated state. Looking Ginny directly in the eye, she said vaguely and believably, "Nothing you don't already know about." Then she added, "Lousy marriage, Marge's death, and a shitty job."

 

Pursing her lips momentarily, Ginny nodded, accepting her answer. "Listen," Ginny said, her tone a little lighter, "a week from tomorrow, I have a reservation for a day at the spa. Want to join me? My treat. You look like you could use a bit of spoiling and pampering."

 

"I suppose I could. I'll ask Ron if it's okay if I skip–"

 

Ginny interrupted her with a wave of her hand. "I've already mentioned it to him. He seems to think a day at the spa might put some pink back in your cheeks. It's not like you skip his games all the time. It's just one game."

 

Hermione nodded, still feeling a tad guilty for missing one of Ron's games, though if Ron agreed with Ginny, it must have meant something. Every time Ron played within the United Kingdom, Hermione always attended the match just like all the other Quidditch wives.

 

"Here, drink these," Ginny ordered, putting two vials in Hermione's hand.

 

"What are they?" Hermione's brow furrowed.

 

"One is a nutrient rich restorative potion, as it looks like you haven't been eating properly. The other is a combination analgesic, muscle relaxant and very mild sleep sedative. Ron says you didn't sleep last night and I can't imagine you slept much during the day." The look of maternal worry returned to Ginny's face.

 

Hermione was briefly reminded of Madam Pomfrey hovering over her during her many trips to the Hogwarts infirmary. A long forgotten question came to the forefront of Hermione's mind.

 

"Ginny?"

 

"Hmmm?"

 

"Why did you stop your studies to become a healer?" Hermione instantly regretted asking the question, though she’d always longed to hear Ginny's answer.

 

The younger witch's mouth was set in a tight frown. Turning her face away from Hermione, she replied, "Do you really want to know?"

 

There was a long pause before Hermione whispered, "Yes."

 

"I lost interest in a lot of things right after your wedding," Ginny said, her voice filled with melancholy. "I guess you could say I was too depressed to focus on schooling and I decided to take a term out before I started my formal studies. When I was going to start back up in the spring, all that wedding nonsense with Harry just got in the way. And by the next fall term, I guess I sort of gave up on a lot of dreams."

 

"I think I understand." The older witch did know what it was like to make reluctant compromises, especially after Professors McGonagall, Flitwick, and Vector died during the war and no one else was willing to take her as an apprentice. "I'm sorry." Hermione placed her hand on Ginny's, seeing the edge of the younger woman's cheek glistening with tears.

 

"So am I," Ginny replied before sniffing and wiping away her tears.

 

"Please take these and sleep," Ginny urged her. "Ron said he has to leave early tomorrow to catch the Portkey to a game in Italy, so I'll swing by late in the morning after he’s left to check up on you. All right?" Ginny seemed to be back into her nurturing protective mode once more.

 

Hermione nodded her head and downed the two potions before settling back under the covers for a long, well-deserved rest.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Three
“A Conclave on Cassoulet"

 

WARNING: References to rape (implied as a past event), but not detailed or depicted.

 

Disclaimer: Rowling owns it all. I don't anything in this story… well, except the plot. (Sigh) Oh well.

 

============

 

Severus awoke in a decent mood. He now had three nights a week to himself. For the time being, he would keep his schedule filled four nights a week, so that if one client decided to take a week off, he could still meet his contractual minimum of three without Miss Brown bringing in anyone new or one of his spare clients into rotation.

 

Upon entering his study, he mood turned somewhat sour. All his correspondences under his nom de guerre were in his new office at Lovely Lavender's headquarters. Realizing it was Saturday, he pulled out a scrap of parchment, some ink and quill to begin drawing up a shopping list for Marf, as today was the weekly Farmer's Market in Diagon Alley.

 

As he sipped his tea and nibbled on toast slathered with his own strawberry preserves, Severus began planning his meals for the week. Severus remembered a note that Draco had sent him last night that required him to alter some of the quantities on the list. He just hoped Marf could get to the Farmer's Market before all the good duck had been snapped up and he would have to send the creature to Abattoir and Haunches. He was hoping to begin preparing the duck confit for the cassoulet tomorrow.

 

Once the list was completed, he handed it to Marf. Severus sighed. He would be a little sad to leave behind a house-elf that he had trained to all his peculiarities, but figured there would be other house-elves that could quickly learn all his idiosyncrasies as Marf had done.

 

The Potions master dressed for work, as Miss Brown requested that he put a few half days in on the weekend to make up for valuable lost work time during the past few weeks. Both she and Severus knew his time with her was limited and she wanted to make the most it by getting as much help from him as possible for the new line of sex potions before he left for parts unknown to her. As Miss Brown had stated it, this new line would become the cash cow of the Lovely Lavender portfolio of products.

 

Fortunately, Severus' walk between his residence and the Lovely Lavender Company headquarters was off the beaten track, especially for weekend visitors to Diagon Alley. The tall form of the ex-Death Eater, concealed in his usual hooded black cloak, glided down the narrow alleys still untouched by the morning sun and dressed with summer dew.

 

No house-elf was there to greet him at the front desk, most probably making use of itself in the manufacturing portion of the warehouse. Reaching for the doorknob to Miss Brown's office, he heard her shriek, followed closely by the sound of a loud crash.

 

Severus pulled his wand out of his sleeve, prepared for the worst. Throwing open the door and running in, he stopped to see Lavender heave a large, heavy jar of pickled bat ears above her head before launching them at the wall with a scream that would make a Valkyrie proud.

 

"BASTARD!" she screeched. "Fucking bloody bastard!"

 

The glass jar shattered and shards flew everywhere. Severus pulled up his cloak to shield himself from the tiny projectiles. When he put his sleeve down, he saw Miss Brown collapsed on the floor sobbing hysterically, curled up in a ball, a letter tightly fisted in her hand. A few pieces of glass had cut her face and arms. Tiny rivulets of blood were trickling down her cheek and forearms.

 

Confusion over Miss Brown's sudden loss of cool demeanor, the irritation of another hysterical female laying at his feet, and a twinge of sympathy all stirred and mixed within him at the moment. Deciding that he got faster satisfactory results by acting as the compassionate confidant, he crouched down and placed a gentle hand upon her shoulder.

 

"Are you all right, Miss Brown?" he asked with concern. Severus was truly concerned. Nothing seemed to shake the unshakable Miss Brown.

 

Lavender lifted her head off the floor before venomously growling, "Always a Death Eater to royally fuck things up." She paused a beat before softly adding apologetically, "Not you, Severus… Dolohov. Dolohov and Macnair. I have nothing against you. Just those two."

 

She was about to wipe her snotty nose with the back of her hand and arm when Severus grasped her wrist forcefully, yet carefully. "I think you want to remove some of that glass from your arms before doing that, Miss Brown."

 

The dark haired wizard led the blood-streaked witch to her chair behind her desk. After removing all of the tiny shards that were embedded in Lavender’s arms, Severus cleaned her wounds and applied a dermal healing paste followed by a scar minimizing ointment he had developed himself for her company. He called Lavender's office-elf, Wonkle, to fetch some tea.

 

By the time tea arrived, Lavender seemed quite a bit more composed.

 

"Care to tell me what that was all about?" Severus asked softly.

 

"There's no need for you to pretend to be the patient and attentive man I know you're not, Severus," she bit out. "So you might as well drop the façade and go back to your usual bastard, misanthropic self and ask me."

 

Miss Brown rose and stomped over to the fireplace where she threw the crumpled letter still clutched in her uninjured hand into the fire. She watched it burn for a while before turning around and facing Severus.

 

"Fine," Severus growled, irritated that one of his few sincere attempts at common courtesy was met with such disdain and cynicism. 'That'll teach me to ever consider being compassionate ever again.' "Tell me what in the blazes possessed you to destroy a perfectly good vat of pickled bat ears and…" His eyes scanned the room for the contents of the other jar of ingredients he heard destroyed before entering. "And a very expensive jar of preserved dragon's tongue? If we were still at Hogwarts, I'd subtract two hundred points from Gryffindor for destruction of school property, waste, and unseemly behavior."

 

Lavender shot him a withering look that had no effect on the master of glares. "Like I said, it's all Dolohov's and Macnair's fault!" she whinged. "Just when things were going along nicely, some Death Eater has to come along and fuck things up!" Lavender glanced at Severus momentarily. "I never considered you a Death Eater, so my hate in no way applies to you," she added. She wanted to make sure that he understood that none of her anger was directed towards him.

 

"Well, if it's any consolation, the Aurors led Macnair away yesterday," Severus said, his face cool and impassive. "There's talk that he's going to Azkaban for a Dementor's Kiss after making trouble yesterday during his interrogation. Though, I speculate, that is idyll gossip."

 

"No, he's going to Azkaban," the witch corrected him. "I decided to terminate his contract. He no longer works for me and he has no desire to live on the streets or adhere to the Ministry's guidelines for acceptable work. He has only one choice left. Macnair is going to Azkaban and get the Dementor's kiss."

 

Severus wasn’t sure whether to be upset at the casualness of her attitude or relieved that Macnair would no longer be at risk of doing something rash, like Dolohov did.

 

Suddenly angry and unsettled, he asked, "And if you get upset with me, Miss Brown, will you terminate my contract and have me hauled away to that damned island to have my soul sucked out as well?" He rose from his seat to loom over her, doing his best to invoke old fears and respect hinged on his days as her professor.

 

"My reason for terminating Macnair’s contract is personal. It's none of your business," Lavender retorted defiantly.

 

"Oh, but I think it is my business," Severus insisted. "What's to stop you from calling the Aurors to have them come haul me away? Once my brain has been picked and your new line of sex potions is completed, if I haven’t finished getting what I need to escape England, what stops you from turning me in once I've served my usefulness to you?" he hissed menacingly.

 

He had been betrayed before, by those closest to him on both sides. The first time cost Severus him his soul; the second time his freedom. He needed to know if Miss Brown would throw him to the mercy of the Ministry and if he should arrange new plans shortly.

 

"Because I don't hate you. I hate Macnair with a passion," Lavender ground out as the tears began to fall.

 

"And what has Macnair done to you that I could not do to you as well?" Severus asked, demanding an answer.

 

"You weren't there, so you wouldn't know." Her voice was thick and quivering.

 

"Wouldn't know what, Miss Brown?"

 

"WHEN HE RAPED PARVATI!" Lavender broke down and sobbed. "The bastard raped her as he Crucio'ed her. She's a permanent resident of St. Mungo's and will never be the same. Every Sunday I go visit her and she just sits there huddled up in a ball, rocking back and forth while mumbling something about the snakes on the ceiling."

 

Severus’ stomach clenched. There was only one room he knew of where there were snakes painted on the ceiling. He remembered that the dungeons of the Rookwood estate had a very intricate ceiling mural depicting the scene of Salazar Slytherin calling the snakes to him during the building of Hogwarts. Augustus was very proud of the mural as legend of the estate said it was painted by one of Salazar's great grandnephews from the story told to him as a child by Salazar himself.

 

Lavender continued to explain, "I didn't learn till afterwards that you were a spy for Dumbledore. But when Parvati was kidnapped, you were in the infirmary recovering for reasons I didn't know at the time."

 

Severus recalled the slew of curses and hexes Lucius Malfoy cast that put him in the infirmary for two weeks. It wasn't until after he regained consciousness that he learned of Miss Patil's kidnapping and subsequent torture. He had never known who was responsible for the young witch's demise until now.

 

"I know that if you were around, you would have tried to save her from that fate worse than death," Lavender quietly choked out.

 

Something in the back of Severus mind clicked. "How do you know Macnair was the one to do it?"

 

Shortly after Severus awoke in the infirmary, he learned about Parvati Patil's kidnapping from Hogsmeade and her subsequent torture. He was given only the briefest of details. He had not pressed for more as the war was at its height of carnage and chaos. And if he did not know who tortured her and if Miss Patil was in no state to name her torturer, he wondered how Miss Brown was so certain it was Macnair.

 

"Because... the Death Eaters kidnapped me too," she confessed, sobbing into her hands.

 

"Oh dear God, child," he said in a whisper, pulling her into his arms to rock her. He could only imagine the horrors she might have experienced, having witnessed some of them himself. "I had no idea."

 

"I begged Dumbledore not to tell anyone. I didn’t want anyone to pity me," she cried into his shoulder. "Blaise was the one who helped me escape." She gave a loud sniff and Severus gave her a handkerchief to use. "He saw me there in the dungeon and I begged him to let me go, to get me out of there. Parvati had already been hauled away by Macnair and I could hear her crying, begging him to kill her. I could hear what he was doing to her even though I couldn’t see it. All that Gryffindor bravery gone, I just wanted to get out of there and save my own skin. I got away with just a few scrapes before anyone could do anything to me and I just left Parvati there alone and screaming." Lavender wailed, "I left her there and I was a coward. I could have saved her if I was just brave enough."

 

"No!" Severus said fiercely. He shook her. "You were no match for a Death Eater like Macnair. And Zabini was not exactly about to show himself as a traitor to save your skin in front of the others. You're lucky he found some pity for you and helped you escape with no one the wiser. There was nothing you could have done to save Miss Patil," he told her firmly. "You were lucky you got out of there alive and in one piece."

 

"We were going to start this business together. We were partners and I just left her there to die," she sobbed, utterly grief stricken from her guilt.

 

Eyeing her, a thought came to Severus, but he needed to ask to confirm his suspicions. "So why did you place Macnair under contract to work for you?" Severus suspected his employer's weekly visits to Macnair's flat Sunday afternoons were to beat and whip him, but now he could have her confirm his suspicions.

 

"So I could cause him the same pain, humiliation and violation that he caused Parvati," Lavender answered harshly, her face set in grim determination. "His contract was that I kept his pathetic, sadistic arse out of Azkaban in exchange for dealing with my need to avenge Parvati. And with the addition of some Confusion Concoction and some Obliviates, he agreed. He's a coward too. He'd rather deal with me than face the Dementors. Well, it's been over three years and Parvati is not coming back no matter how many times I make him scream. And no matter how many times I've beaten him till his bones break, it doesn’t make my pain or memories go away. And now I know I'm not better nor worse than them. We all have reasons for the dark things we do."

 

Severus stood up and looked at her, stunned at the potential for coldness in Lavender that he hadn’t thought possible. It chilled his soul to see a woman who he thought he knew, and remembered once as a child, take such a casual attitude about the vengeance she had designed and wrought by her own hand. But if Severus had the opportunity, he would have done the same thing and worse to the others after the death of his wife. Instead of taking a few years to come to the same conclusion Miss Brown had, it took him until the fall of the Dark Lord to come to terms with all his inner demons and cast aside some of the burdens of his soul.

 

"You're right, Miss Brown. No matter what you did or didn't do, you couldn't have brought her back," Severus said with sudden bland indifference.

 

He sat back in his chair and sipped his tea while lost in thought. Lavender also sat in silence with her own cup.

 

They both stared at the fire burning merrily in the grate until Severus broke the uneasy silence. "Yesterday you seemed unperturbed by Dolohov's actions. Why the sudden change this morning? Surely, nothing is different, nor are there any new revelations today regarding Dolohov that would cause your sudden outburst."

 

Lavender continued staring at the fire for a moment longer before answering. She inhaled deeply and paused a while to consider her choice of words. "I think you should be worried about Dolohov's actions. It might interfere with your plans to go on your extended holiday. Hermione Weasley just missed getting caught in the fight. No doubt she was hurrying home to get ready for her visit with you when she left work just before all hell broke loose. Now she has a dead co-worker that she probably thinks she could have saved if she had stayed a while longer. Then after her little visit to you she comes home to find her husband has returned home, worried sick about her welfare. Let's just hope her guilt over all this doesn't prevent her from seeing you in the future, Severus."

 

"Weasley's back?" he asked, stunned at this information. "Wait. How do you know all this?" Severus eyed her with a keen, piercing look.

 

"I have my sources," Lavender said in an angry trance before throwing her teacup and saucer at the fireplace with furious aplomb.

 

"Ginny?"

 

"Among many others," she replied in slow, carefully measured tones.

 

There was more to Dolohov's timing and subsequent actions behind Miss Brown's sudden turn of good nature, but considering her previous reluctance to divulge her plans regarding Hermione, Severus decided that the questions he had could wait until the time was right.

 

Vexed and disconcerted over Miss Brown's revelations regarding herself and Hermione, the agitated wizard decided to shove all thoughts that did not on potions to the back of his mind.

 

"Come," Severus commanded, "I do not feel like wasting a perfectly good day for work when I bothered to come here in the first place."

 

Lavender rose and smoothed down her robes and her hair before leading the way to the laboratory, looking a little more tired than usual.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Hermione?"

 

Some gentle voice was calling her from her fog of sleep, but the pillow felt so warm and comfortable under her head and the blankets so heavy that she wanted to ignore whatever was intruding upon her happy place. She vaguely remembered some dream involving an extremely large cauldron that doubled as a hot tub while she in her school robes and some unknown wizard whose face she couldn't recall sat in the hot water relaxing. There was some tickling of the feet involved and a purple troll's club, but it all seemed so unimportant and slightly silly that it slipped from her mind as easily as vapor in her grasp.

 

"Hermione?"

 

There was someone rubbing her shoulder and patting her back. The dream was gone, and with it, all the relaxed feelings that had accompanied the dream.

 

"Hmmm?" the tousled-hair witch mumbled.

 

"Hermione? Are you all right?"

 

"Hmmm?" Hermione groaned once more, rolling over to see her sister-in-law sitting on the edge of the bed with a rather large and inviting cup of coffee in her hand.

 

Gathering her wits about her, Hermione surveyed her environs and suddenly remembered Ginny tucking her in last night. Looking out the window, she saw that the sun was high and she had slept away most of the morning.

 

"What time is it?" the brunette asked, gratefully taking the coffee from Ginny's hands.

 

"Eleven-thirty."

 

"What?" she said with confusion.

 

"I figure you got about at least sixteen hours of good, uninterrupted sleep. You looked like you needed it," Ginny said smugly.

 

A sarcastic glare was cast the redhead's way. "Gee, thanks."

 

"Well, you do look a damn sight better than last night. Now you don't look like the walking dead." Noticing Hermione's sudden frown at the phrase, Ginny amended, "Sorry, poor choice of words."

 

Hermione shook her head slightly, forgiving Ginny's faux pas. Sighing deeply, feeling her joints settle and her muscles pull after lying in bed for so long, the brunette set her coffee down to stretch, grimacing when something low in her spine popped. A quick rub of the eyes to remove the last grains of sleep and she was ready to rise.

 

"Are you all right now?" Ginny asked, scanning Hermione face for some elusive symptom.

 

Nodding her head, the older witch was surprised when a large bed tray with legs laden with heaping piles of sausages, toast, scrambled eggs, broiled tomato, and sautéed mushroom with a tall glass of orange juice was suddenly straddling her lap.

 

"What's this?" Hermione asked, amazed at the copious amounts of food set before her.

 

"Considering the fact you've missed quite a few meals recently, I think you need to make up for it with a good breakfast," Ginny informed her.

 

"There's more food here than even Ron could eat in one sitting." Hermione looked at the tray of food with disinterest, not hungry in the least.

 

"Well, you'd better get started, as I'm not leaving till you've eaten enough so that I'm sure you won't be admitted to St. Mungo's for malnutrition in the near future," Ginny lectured her, crossing her arms as a signal that she wasn't going anywhere till Hermione started eating.

 

"Breakfast in bed. You're really twisting my arm," Hermione joked lightly before forcing herself to eat.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hermione thanked Ginny and walked her into the living room.

 

"Are you sure you don't want to go with me today?" Hermione asked.

 

"I have errands to run and lots of little things to do," Ginny explained. "But how about we go and do a little shopping before we go to the spa next week? That way we're in no rush to leave before the stores close."

 

"That sounds like a plan."

 

"Good. I guess I'll see you tomorrow then, since I'm going with Harry," the redhead said on a sadder note.

 

The mood between them became somber.

 

"Yes, I'll see you tomorrow. Harry said it will be at eleven at the Llangogerygoch cemetery." Hermione ended her sentence as a question.

 

Ginny nodded. "You take care now. And if Ron starts acting like a prat again, just threaten to go for a visit at Mum's and he'll come around," the youngest Weasley said with a knowing wink. "Having you go and seek sanctuary at The Burrow will make him think twice before treating you badly again. Imagine the look on his face when you say, 'I'm going to go to YOUR mother's.' You'll find he's suddenly quite a bit more accommodating."

 

Hermione laughed at this little bit of insight from her sister-in-law. "Thanks." She gave the younger witch a hug before Ginny Apparated away.

 

Once dressed, she headed out hoping to reach the Farmer's Market before it closed at two o'clock. Ron was back for only a day and had already cleaned out everything edible in the cupboard.

 

There was no question that she had missed out on the new crop of cherries that usually arrive in mid-July and there would only be a tiny pile of bruised fruits and discarded bent stems. The raspberries were all gone as well. After buying a few imported oranges and a couple trays of blackberries, she headed off to the florist's stall.

 

This was the part she hated most. During the war she had made so many bundles of flowers to pass on her sentiments to the dead, she begged Ron to never buy her flowers. Hermione could still remember every twig and stem she had tied together and placed on Minerva's funeral pyre.

 

'Achillea for war, since you died in battle. Oak leaves for bravery. Harebell for grief. A dark crimson rose for mourning. Yew for sorrow. Zinnia for thoughts of friends, as you were my mentor and friend. Rosemary for remembrance. And a sprig of lavender heather for admiration, as I've always admired you and so a bit of Scotland is always with you.'

 

Hermione also remembered the one she made for Albus. Sage. She remembered using lots of sage in Albus' bundle.

 

As she looked over the flower seller's selection, the saddened witch began pulling stems for a flower bundle to place on Marge's funeral pyre.

 

'Asphodel, for my regrets follow you to the grave. Peony, for shame of my inaction. Harebell for grief. Yew for sorrow. And Star of Bethlehem for atonement, as I hope there is some way I can atone for my sin.'

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Feeling rather pleased that he was able to get a good half-day of work done with Miss Brown, Severus hummed to himself as he prepared the cherry glaze for the roasted duck. Since he was going to be making duck confit the next day, he had Marf pick up a whole duck as well for his weekly dinner with Draco.

 

'If he so much as makes another comparison of my cooking to those of the house-elves at Malfoy Manor, I'll shove this bloody bird down his throat and make him choke on it,' Severus thought in agitated anticipation of the blond wizard's periodic poking at his culinary pride.

 

As he pulled the evenly browned bird from the oven to add the last of the glaze before roasting for fifteen more minutes, he checked on the wild rice pilaf slowly simmering on the cooker. He put the water on so when the duck came out of the oven to rest, he could blanch the tender summer peas.

 

Severus loved cooking, as he found it could be more challenging than Potions work at times. While Potions would require one's attention on one cauldron the entire time, to stir the correct number of times clockwise or anti-clockwise while adding the right ingredients in the correct order at the proper time, cooking had its own challenges. To prepare a multi-course meal so that everything came out at the same time, equally hot, was a feat that many took for granted, especially those who did not cook for themselves.

 

When the clock struck four o'clock and the duck had rested, the peas were hot, and the rice cooked to perfection, Severus sat in his flat and waited… and waited and waited. At five after, Severus began tapping his foot with impatience. By the time it was ten after four, he began pacing.

 

"I go through the bother to cook a decent hot meal and they aren't here on time!" Severus fumed, not realizing how much he sounded just like Molly Weasley.

 

At quarter past, Severus stormed out of his flat and flew down the one flight to Draco's door.

 

BANG-BANG-BANG! BANG-BANG! BANG!

 

There was no answer.

 

"I'm coming in, and I don't care if you two are shagging like rabid minks right now!" Severus yelled through the door.

 

Unwarding and unlocking the door, Severus strode into Draco's flat. He looked about, but only saw a large picnic blanket with the leftovers of a picnic lunch placed under a spreading shade tree that Draco had transfigured from the room's furniture.

 

There was a squeal followed by a shriek coming from the kitchen before the door banged open and a rather nude Draco bolted across the room quickly followed by an equally nude Ginny on his heels. The redhead was brandishing a large squirt bottle of Florean Fortescue's Scrumptious Chocolate Syrup.

 

"I'll get you for that!" Ginny yelled with playful exuberance, unaware of the presence of the Potions master.

 

Severus cleared his throat.

 

Ginny shrieked again and dove for the picnic blanket. She yanked it up with such force that the picnic hamper, dishes, food and beverages flew everywhere, splattering the walls and Severus' boots with the leftovers of their lunch.

 

"Severus!" Ginny said, quickly maneuvering the food-stained cloth about her person in a vain attempt at modesty before she burst into giggles.

 

Draco snorted at the situation before grabbing a pillow from his couch to place over his privates.

 

Looking over the two lovers, Severus saw the dredges of some cherry pie sliding off Draco's chest, a trail of smeared mustard going all the way up the blond’s thigh beneath the pillow, and what the older man guessed was the remnants of chutney caught on his partner’s cheek and in his hair. Ginny seemed to be equally covered in a variety of foods, including what appeared to be a slice of ham stuck to her shoulder, cream dripping from her arms, and honey smeared all over the tops of her breasts. He would not bother to guess what other food was smeared across the parts of her body covered by the picnic blanket.

 

"Children," Severus said in a low and warning voice that only one who had governed urchins for years could elicit. "I suggest you get yourselves cleaned up. Dinner is ready and you are late."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Draco and Ginny sat at the table with Severus, eating their dinner. Their hair was still dripping wet, and they cast guilty, yet mischievously unrepentant, glances at one another before bursting into giggles and chuckles.

 

Severus ignored their childish behavior, cutting a piece of duck with restrained annoyance. "If you two are quite done!" the older wizard huffed.

 

"We told you that we are truly sorry, Severus. Honestly, we lost track of time," Ginny apologized with earnest sincerity. "It's been so long since we've felt this happy and carefree in a while. We really needed it."

 

Severus' face softened a bit. It had been a while since Draco had looked this happy. Whatever it was that caused him this spiritual respite from the recent travails of the past few weeks, Severus could not fault him.

 

"The duck is still delicious, Severus, even if it did have to wait for a few minutes. As always, you've done another culinary masterpiece," the witch praised him, knowing from practice how to soothe a Slytherin's soul with just the right words.

 

Restraining an arrogant smirk, for he did cook a perfect meal despite having it sit and cool on the table while company was busy with a hasty shower, Severus felt a little placated by her compliment and let his irritation fade, all the while aware of her little ploy to flatter him.

 

"I just wish I could join you both for dinner like this more often," Ginny added. "But if all goes as planned, then we could be doing this every week." Draco grabbed her hand and squeezed it, smiling warmly at her. "Speaking of plans, I suppose I should update you on Hermione."

 

Severus thought to cut her off and tell her that Miss Brown had filled him in on the larger details, but he held his tongue, curious to compare what Miss Brown knew to Ginny's account. It always served him well during his years as a spy to use more than one source for information to cross check and verify information.

 

"As you know, my brother walked out on her last Saturday night after a fight, but returned Thursday night once he learned of the attack."

 

Severus nodded while quirking one brow, pretending to be surprised by the news and encouraging Ginny to continue, keeping scathing remarks about Ronald Weasley to himself.

 

"Well, the poor woman didn’t get any sleep Thursday night, as I guess everyone in my family kept Flooing all night long. From what Harry told me of her questioning with Shacklebolt and Moody, she noticed Dolohov’s behavior just before he snapped and thought to swing by Auror headquarters to mention it, but dismissed it. Now she feels especially guilty, because her co-worker is dead."

 

Severus sucked his breath in. He had suspected that Hermione would feel some sort of guilt over the fact that she suspected the Death Eater's behavior was odd and did nothing about it. He furtively wondered what sort of questions Moody had lobbed at her. Miss Brown's voice rang out in Severus' mind. "No doubt she was hurrying home to get ready for her visit with you when she left work just before all hell broke loose. Now she has a dead co-worker that she probably thinks she could have saved if she stayed a while longer." Burying his face in his hands, Severus wondered if it could get any worse.

 

"Draco told me that you both got questioned as well. Are you all right, Severus?" Ginny frowned, feeling a bit worried for the older wizard.

 

"I'm fine," Severus dismissed her concern, sipping his wine to remove the unpleasant memory from his mind. "Interrogated would be a more appropriate term. Kingsley was able to get away with only one drop of the Veritaserum."

 

"He was able to do the same for me," Draco said, a grimace set upon his face. "It still didn't stop my tongue when Moody said he wished he had the pleasure of turning me into a ferret himself instead of Crouch."

 

Ginny leaned over and placed her head upon her lover's shoulder while wrapping one arm about him, rubbing and patting his back. They all sat there in silence, each contemplating a life free of their current circumstances.

 

Clearing her throat, Ginny continued on the previous thread. "Anyway, as I was saying, I owled Hermione yesterday and told her that Harry and I would come over and that I would cook for her and Ron; I remember how thin she was on Wednesday and how she didn't eat."

 

Severus asked, "And did she eat?"

 

"No. She also skipped breakfast and lunch yesterday as well."

 

Severus shook his head, remembering how had eaten most of the food he’d prepared for her last visit. It was as if she hadn't eaten in a week.

 

"In fact, she hardly touched her dinner and instead drank enough wine that she passed out, but not before she told Ron that either they go into counseling or she'll seek a divorce," Ginny said with a twinge of anger.

 

"What?" Draco said, jumping into the conversation.

 

Severus put his face back in his hands and shook his head.

 

"Right before Harry and I showed up, they had their talk about the big fight and she tried talking my brother into going into counseling. Well, you know how our society feels about that sort of thing, especially Muggle marriage counselors."

 

Both wizards rolled their eyes in disgust, feeling about the same as Ron's initial reaction to the request.

 

"Harry, Ron and I had quite a fight about counseling while Hermione sat there looking like she was in shock. And considering that dead glassy look in her eye, I'd say she was in emotional shock and was still so this morning when I went to check in on her before coming over to see Draco. On a high point, I did make sure she ate a breakfast large enough to choke a Hippogriff."

 

"Care to go over the finer points of the argument?" Severus asked, knowing it would give him something to use to further control Hermione, manipulating her for his needs. He did not acknowledge the part of himself that was truly concerned over this new development.

 

"Basically, Ron implied marriage counselors are incompetent, especially Muggle ones, which got Harry's back up. He came short of calling my brother a pure-blood bigot," Ginny summarized. "Seeing that it was getting ugly, I supported Hermione's decision. I know if backed against the wall, she'd walk out on Ron and then the first thing she would do is stop seeing you, Severus. She wouldn't be able to afford seeing you and living alone on her salary."

 

"You don't have to worry about that. Miss Brown has waived Hermione of all my fees from now on," Severus mumbled around a mouth full of wine.

 

"WHAT?" Draco and Ginny shouted in unison.

 

"It seems that when Miss Brown met with her last Wednesday night for the exchange of coin, my employer decided to waive my fees and thought that it was in my best long term interest to allow it." Severus did not volunteer the information to Ginny that the only reason he initially took on Mrs. Weasley was for a forty-percent royalty on the new sex potions he was working on.

 

"So you're taking her on… for free?" Ginny asked, stunned.

 

"Not exactly. As Draco has recently informed you, we do have day jobs."

 

"Yes, Draco mentioned you consult on Potions, though you don't brew them. I might have known someone like you was behind the Valiant Wizard line," she complimented him.

 

Severus bowed his head in acceptance of her remark. "So instead of my usual cut, Miss Brown is upping my percentage on a new line of potions I'm working on."

 

"Would this new line include the natural lubrication one Draco gave me today?"

 

The older wizard nodded his head.

 

"I see." Ginny was lost in contemplative thought for the moment.

 

"And your feedback on the potion?" the Potions master prompted her, curious to see how well it worked.

 

Ginny closed her eyes and sighed while Draco smirked. Cracking open her eyes, she leered at Draco while answering, "Absolutely fantastic. My only concern is that it might counteract any contraceptive potions I'm on."

 

"I've already taken that into consideration," Severus assured her.

 

"You’d better," she warned him. "I don't want to get pregnant!"

 

"Really, Gin. Do you think I would let you have a potion if it would let you get pregnant with his child?" Draco asked, his brow furrowed.

 

"I am a Potions Master. Did you not think that I took that into consideration?" Severus replied, slightly offended.

 

"Well, my mother took contraceptive potions and look what happened to her!" Ginny exclaimed.

 

Draco chuckled heartily, finally realizing the cause for the size of Ginny's family.

 

"No doubt she made them herself, as any respectable manufacturing outfit would brew something that would work," Severus asserted.

 

The witch blushed momentarily. "Those potions weren't cheap back then. I'm sorry to have doubted your competency, Severus. It's just that I absolutely do not want to get stuck in this marriage to Harry by accidentally getting myself pregnant because of an experimental potion. You can see my point of view with regard to the caution I'm taking."

 

"Yes, I do. I apologize for snapping at you. It's been a rather trying few days," Severus said formally. It was prudent of Ginny to be cautious, as he could understand her point completely. "Based on how well you know Hermione, do you think she will stop with her Thursday night appointments?"

 

Ginny sat back in her chair deep in thought. "Well, there is the guilt aspect, but after seeing Hermione last night and this morning, I'm not certain. She has that same emotionally detached quality about her that Harry has. I know it from personal experience. The way she threw her ultimatum on the table last night was scary. I've never seen her so… calm. There's probably more going on right now than I can guess at. Next Saturday I'm taking her with me to the spa. I'll see if I can get some more information out of her then and either owl you what I find out or brief you in person. Perhaps the situation between Hermione and Ron will flesh itself out over the next week and I'll be able to tell more, but right now, it's a toss up. Is she seeing you regularly on Thursdays now?"

 

"Yes. As a matter of fact, I loaned her my latest copy of Eccentric Elixirs on the hope that will ensure she'll return to me, if only to bring it back. I also invited her to join me for dinner as well, so I can make sure she will eat something of substance, since she obviously isn’t taking care of herself now." Severus cast his eyes down to his plate, fixated on mopping up a bit of glaze with his duck, so he would not see Draco and Ginny giving him the same look they had the last time he’d mentioned Hermione's health.

 

"You're cooking for her?" Draco asked slowly in insinuating tones.

 

"I'm making cassoulet," the older wizard replied casually.

 

"You're making cassoulet? You haven’t made cassoulet in ages. If you won't cook it for me, why her?" Draco asked, feeling slighted.

 

"Because she won't make comments about how the Malfoy Manor elves do it better than me," Severus ground out, letting Draco know his past criticisms and comparisons of his cooking to that of a house-elf were not appreciated.

 

"But you left out the breadcrumbs!" Draco whinged.

 

"A properly made cassoulet does not need breadcrumbs. It forms its own crust when made right. And your insistence that it should have lamb and tomato goes without even bothering to tell you just how positively wrong it is," Severus sniffed arrogantly.

 

"All right, all right. I will not have this discussion get bogged down in the great cassoulet debate," Ginny said, stepping into the conversation to steer it back to a more pleasant topic that did not involve a conclave over the true provincial origins of the dish and which variation is the truer recipe. "I've heard Draco complain about this enough to me and I will not have you two go at it again. So, Severus, you are cooking for Hermione?" Ginny asked, directing the conversation back to more civil tones.

 

"Yes. As I was saying, since she doesn't seem to feed herself, I can make sure she has at least one decent meal a week." Severus sighed, now that Draco's diplomatic paramour had averted another culinary row between the two.

 

"Do you plan on making it a weekly habit?" Ginny asked with keener interest, leaning forward while resting her arms on the table.

 

"If dinner is pleasant, which I assume it will be, then yes. That is, if it does not arouse the suspicions of her husband as to why she isn't eating on Thursdays," Severus answered detachedly.

 

"Don't worry about that," Ginny reassured Severus with a wave of her hand before grabbing her wineglass to take a long sip. "Ron has been rather oblivious where Hermione is concerned. He hadn’t even noticed the state she was in until Harry screamed at him about how thin and tired she was looking last night."

 

Secretly, Severus was reluctantly pleased that Potter was actually looking out for Hermione, since her husband was doing such a poor job of it. Ginny would keep an eye on her as well.

 

"Severus?" Ginny's voice had a note of warning to it, snapping him out of his thoughts. "Hermione is not like other witches who might come to see you. She's not going to delineate between the friendly conversation that she originally paid for and emotional attachment. I want you to be very careful. Please, as a friend. She's very fragile right now and I don’t want her to get too attached to you. She's married and Muggle-borns have a slightly different attitude on fidelity in marriage than some witches and wizards do."

 

Remembering last Thursday night and Hermione's moment of weakness and how she laved her passionate attentions on his hand, and how he had to fight temptation himself, Severus sat up straighter in his chair and told Ginny, "I assure you. Before it gets to that point, she will be learning my identity. Speaking of which, she has changed considerably since the days of the war. What has happened to her that she is no longer the same insufferably curious girl I once knew? I causally left my copy of Eccentric Elixirs out for her to notice and had to practically thrust it into her hands, and offer to let her borrow it. The Hermione I remember would have leapt out of her seat and picked it up, prattling on about the articles inside and other things. I was counting on her insatiable sense of curiosity as a tool to make her realize who I am, but it seems she's not taking the bait."

 

"I've noticed that too," Ginny noted. "Right after Hermione discovered Draco and me, she kept asking me questions, and then all of the sudden the questions stopped. Not one question about Draco for the past week. It's positively unnerving, as I expected her to keep asking me questions, but… I don’t know. It's like she's resigned to accept the situation, which just worries me even more. And now with this emotional deadness I see, I'm really worried about her. I just don't want her to glom onto you as some sort of emotional raft in a storm and ruin her marriage in the process."

 

"You think being married to your brother is something worth salvaging for her?" asked the older wizard with disbelief.

 

"I know you don’t like Ron, or most of my other brothers, Severus," Ginny scolded him, "but Hermione really wants to make this work. Besides, you know what a pariah she would be if she divorced him. There are more Muggle-borns in the community who don’t have the same view on divorce we do, but still. Life would be difficult for her. The similarities between her marriage and mine are beginning to look frighteningly similar though. Hermione is not the type of witch to easily cheat on her husband, especially Ron, so please, don't do anything that will lead to something she’ll regret."

 

Severus leveled his gaze at her, making his intent clear. "I have no intention of seducing her. To do so would only ruin my chance of our eventual escape to freedom. Once she learns it's me, she will most definitely have no attraction towards me whatsoever. She will feel compelled to help us escape though."

 

"Oh, I don't know Severus. You can still be quite charming when you're not being a completely sarcastic bastard. If I was into the tall, dark and tragically mysterious brooding type, I'd probably still want to shag you," Ginny said with a bit of cheek while Draco choked on his wine.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Four
“When Ingredient-Testing Witches Get the Blues”

 

Disclaimer: Rowling owns it all. You don't really think I could come up with anything as original as what she did, do you? If I could, I wouldn't be writing fan fiction, I'd be off at my publisher counting my heaping piles of money from my latest best seller.

 

============

The knitting-needle-through-the-eyeball migraine returned in full force. Now that Hermione had only herself to test all the crates, boxes, jars, sacks and bags of Potions ingredients that came through her lab, she also had to participate in the interviewing of candidates for the position now left vacant with Marge's death.

 

The week had been a blur for Hermione Weasley. She had attended Marge's funeral with Ron by her side, lending her a steady shoulder to lean on, but once home the gaping chasm between them returned and they occupied opposite ends of the flat, avoiding each others company the rest of the day.

 

Ron reluctantly agreed to Hermione's demand for marriage counseling, but it was her job to find a counselor and make the appointment. Ron said he would speak to Rufus, the owner of the Listing Broom, about getting a regular weeknight off for sessions. It was decided that she would try to find a Monday or Tuesday night, as those were the slowest nights Ron worked at the Pub. So far, Hermione was so busy, she barely had time to go to the loo, much less swing by the Muggle Alliance Network to get the name of a recommended counselor. It struck her later to ask Ginny the name of the one she and Harry met with, but so far she had not gotten around to owling Mrs. Potter and kept forgetting to ask Harry each time she saw him when he brought her lunch most days that week.

 

Hermione was sitting in the cramped conference room that was located a few doors down from Madam Dushka's office. As she looked at the latest candidate's Curriculum Vitae, she wondered if using correct spelling had become optional since she had graduated Hogwarts. There were at least four misspelling on the wizard's CV. The candidate, Mr. Trevor Spawn, had recently graduated from Hogwarts, and barely passed his N.E.W.T. level Potions exam with an "Acceptable." Hermione now had the unpleasant task of interviewing him.

 

Of the eight candidates Hermione interviewed so far, only one was capable enough for Hermione to barely recommend coming back to interview with her superior. Madam Dushka, however, was not satisfied with that one suitable candidate. Hermione was forced to interview a ninth.

 

Glaring at the clock, Hermione noted that Mr. Spawn was late. Just as she was about to leave and tell Madam Dushka's secretary to cancel the appointment, the young wizard sauntered into the room with an air of easy calm.

 

"Hi, I'm Trevor Spawn," the young wizard casually introduced himself, extending his hand out in greeting.

 

Mr. Spawn had an arrogant air of superiority about him the rankled every frayed nerve in Hermione's body. He was tall, and handsome, with short honey golden hair, a dazzling smile and a set of very expensive robes that were smartly cut. If Gilderoy Lockhart and a younger and much more arrogant version of Draco Malfoy had mated, they would have produced Trevor Spawn.

 

Hermione took the young man’s hand and shook it perfunctorily. "Mr. Spawn, you're late," she said sternly, her lips set in a thin line.

 

The dashing wizard began explaining his situation with a careless demeanor. "I'm terribly sorry, but it couldn't be helped. You see, I was on my way here when–"

 

"I don’t care for your excuses, Mr. Spawn," Hermione snapped. "If you get the position to work here, you are expected to arrive at work on time."

 

"Sure, sweetcakes, whatever you say," he said with a lazy drawl, seating himself without being invited to do so.

 

Had Hermione been a Hippogriff, the young man would have been rendered into tiny unidentifiable pieces no larger than a matchbox. "You will address me as Madam Weasley," she clearly enunciated before sitting down herself. Her head was on the verge of splitting like a ripe melon; her migraine kicked up another notch.

 

Even though she was expected in put in the effort of interviewing each candidate, Hermione was tempted to excuse him that very moment and go on to interview a tenth candidate. However, as each interview took away precious time from her lab duties, which had doubled with Marge's death, she allowed the interview to continue.

 

"I see you only received an 'Acceptable' on your N.E.W.T.s for Potions. Why should the Ministry hire someone who appears to have only put in the minimal effort required to pass a subject?" she said with a sniff and clear dislike for the fellow.

 

"Well, this job is only a stepping stone onto bigger and better things," he replied nonchalantly, examining his nails as he spoke. "You see, my father has been able to arrange an apprenticeship for me with a Potions master and I need to get in some experience doing something low-level for a while till my apprenticeship begins in the spring."

 

Now Hermione was furious. She had received the highest N.E.W.T. grades in a generation and she couldn't get an apprenticeship with anyone. All the Potion masters and mistresses she had written to had sent her a form letter stating that they had no openings. Nor would they be taking any new apprentices for quite some time. And here sat some mediocre brat whose father had bought him a position that should have rightly gone to her.

 

"You may think this job is low-level, but it is an extremely important one, Mr. Spawn. Tell me, how many Potions did you use this morning when getting ready?" she asked carefully.

 

"Oh, I don’t know. About four or five?" he answered flippantly.

 

"And do you know what would happen if one of those Potions was manufactured using imitation or faulty ingredients, Mr. Spawn?" the vexed witch queried.

 

"No clue. Don’t care really, just so they work," the young wizard blurted out casually.

 

"It seems, Mr. Spawn, that you do not fully appreciate the responsibility we have to the public with this job. I suggest you find some other position to preoccupy your time until your apprenticeship begins. I wish you all the best, Mr. Spawn," Hermione said crisply with no sincerity. "Good day." Hermione rose and offered her hand in farewell out of obligation.

 

The overly charming young wizard rose from his seat and took Hermione's hand, holding it for far too long. While still grasping her hand, he leaned forward and whispered suggestively, "I'm sure there's some sort of arrangement we can come to, to make you reconsider? How does dinner tonight sound? I can get us a table at Le Masion Chaud, as I know the maître d'." His one raised brow said more than a thousand sexually explicit descriptions.

 

Hermione snatched her hand from his and stormed to the doorway of the conference room. Spinning on her heel, with a fierce glare, she said, "I don’t think my husband, a professional Quidditch player who could pound you into a pulp, would take kindly to some boy making advances on his wife. I said good day!"

 

Mr. Spawn smiled broadly and slowly sauntered out of the room with a tip of his head in her direction.

 

Hermione slowly let out the breath she didn’t realize she was holding. Just as she was about to walk back down to her lab, she saw Madam Dushka step out of her office.

 

"Oh Trevor, are you done with Madam Weasley?" Hermione's supervisor said with a friendly smile. "Good, you can come into my office now. I'd like to talk to you about your new job." The older witch slipped her arm into the crook of the young wizard's and guided him into her office while sashaying her hips.

 

Trevor shot Hermione a sly smile that said 'C'est la vie' before walking into Madam Dushka's office.

 

Thoroughly fed up, Hermione stormed back down to her lab and remained there until five o'clock, silently seething. It was Thursday and it would be the first day that week that she did not stay past nine o'clock at night. If Madam Dushka had a snit over her leaving at the end of the proper work day, she would tell the witch to go shove a broom up her arse, if Trevor's broomstick wasn't stuck up there already.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Just a simple cassoulet, my arse," Severus mumbled darkly to himself. It was a simple dish, but it required a lot of preparation.

 

Why he had offered to make cassoulet was beyond his comprehension, but then he recalled how cassoulet wound up being a dish so large that he had a large amount of leftovers. And he would be damned before inviting Draco to eat his cassoulet in the foreseeable future. Perhaps he would even send some home with the witch, ensuring she would have two good meals for the week.

 

Since he had Monday and Wednesday nights free, and Katherine Bigelow was too busy moving her business to Spain to see him for one last visit, Severus had time to cook the beans and meats, and assemble it so that all he had to so was pop it in the oven when he came home from work on Thursday. Sunday and Monday were spent preparing the duck confit, which required him to render the fat from the duck and marinate the legs for twenty-four hours before slowly roasting in a low temperature oven for almost six hours.

 

Still, the Potions master did not mind having someone new to cook for. Draco was jaded, having grown up on extravagant dishes prepared by house-elves, and Ginny dined with him and Draco so infrequently that Severus rarely had a chance to flex his culinary skills for her. And as cooking was the only thing that was even remotely similar to Potions he could still legally do, he took great care and pride in his work. There was one added benefit cooking had that Potions did not give him. After using a Potion, no one ever complimented him with fervor or praised him, comparing it to the nectar of the gods, like a well-prepared dish did.

 

Severus checked on the cassoulet bubbling in the oven, making sure the crust was forming nicely. Once satisfied, he began making the raspberry-hazelnut vinaigrette for the salad. Whisking the ingredients together so they could marry over the next few hours, he frowned; he hoped Hermione would still come. She had not sent him or Miss Brown any owl that she would not come, but that didn’t stop the thread of doubt that slipped into his mind.

 

Now that the wizard had nothing to do but wait until shortly before Hermione arrived to do a few last minute preparations, he decided to have a nice, hot soak in the bath to help himself relax. For some reason Severus could not fathom, he felt a slight nervousness in his stomach. At first he attributed it to a bout of summer flu making the rounds, but a dose of Pepperup Potion and a touch of Quinine did nothing to relieve the tight feeling of anticipation in his stomach.

 

As he paced his bathroom wondering if he should wear the new cologne he had recently developed and pondering the decision of making a bath salts version of it, Albus materialized in his blue robes.

 

Sitting on the commode with his hands on his knees, Albus beamed brightly at him. 'Getting ready for your big date?'

 

Severus whirled on the man with a murderous glare. "IT'S NOT A DATE!" he bellowed, his voice echoing against the glossy tiles. "She's a client and a tool, nothing more. I don't know why you keep insisting otherwise."

 

Looking about, the living wizard asked snappishly, "Where's Minerva?"

 

'Oh, she thought you'd be undressed by now, so she'll be here after you've dressed. She wants to talk with you,' the vision replied with an impish smile that brightened his aged face.

 

"Talk with me?" Severus questioned with a circumspect look, his eyes narrowing.

 

'Well, you know after last week when Hermione almost… well, we know what happened, my boy.'

 

Severus shut his eyes closed tightly, his hands grabbing the edge of the tile corner tightly as he chanted, "It's all in my head, it's all in my head, I've gone mad and it's all in my head."

 

Albus sighed before peering at the younger wizard over the tops of his imaginary glasses. 'Yes, we are all just “in your head”, Severus, but that doesn’t stop you from conjuring up my image at a time when you wish you had my guidance or some soul in which to confide in. I'm just a familiar image–'

 

"Yes, yes, we've been over this before," Severus interrupted his imaginary mentor. "This is merely some very complicated way for me to argue with myself over some issue or dilemma I'm having a moral crisis about."

 

'The question,' Albus said, drawing out the words, 'is what are you having a moral crisis about?'

 

"I am not going to discuss this now… or ever!" Severus hissed, staring at his own reflection in the mirror instead of the blue ghostly blob with a long white beard occupying the corner of the bathroom.

 

"Fine, you don’t have to talk if you don’t want to," Severus' reflection said.

 

"Shut up, not you." Severus glowered at the mirror.

 

His own reflection met his stare. "Fine, you can slit your throat when shaving tonight. See if I care." Severus' bathroom reflection stormed off.

 

Propping his face in his hand, Severus growled with defeat, "Fine, Albus. What am I having a crisis about?"

 

'Come, come, Severus. You're the Slytherin. Doesn't your House pride itself on being so cunning?'

 

"Now you're taunting me." He slid to the floor and saw Albus looking down at him.

 

'If I was taunting you, I would have made a remark over the fact that you were pacing this bathroom like a nervous fifth year getting ready for Valentine's Day in Hogsmeade,' the apparition of the Headmaster teased him.

 

Severus shot him a withering look, which had no affect on his mind's projection of Albus.

 

"Fine. I'll admit that I'm a bit nervous about tonight," the raven-haired man reluctantly groaned.

 

'See, that wasn't so bad.' Albus beamed at him with a patronizing smile. Well, to Severus it looked patronizing.

 

"I'm afraid that she won't show up and then my chance to get out of England will be gone, and for the rest of my life I'll be stuck shagging insipid, empty-headed witches and listening to vapid, bitter ones ramble on about their lothario husbands," he began ranting. "Meantime, I’ll be creating Potions I am forbidden to make myself, much less stir. And when I die, the devil shall kick me out of hell, as there is no punishment he could devise that is worse than this. Oh wait, just one… teach Potions to children all day long. But I've already finished that circuit of torture and I even got kicked out of that level of hell. So I guess I'm stuck here until my angel arrives and delivers me from damnation. Now, if you don’t mind, I'd like to bathe in peace… alone."

 

The vision of Albus gave Severus a look that told him that he would be talking with the older man again on this matter and the subject was not closed. He just hoped the Albus now hidden and lurking in the back of his mind would keep Minerva away until another day.

 

After drawing his bath, Severus slipped into the water. Remembering the previous week, he closed his eyes and began sucking lightly on the same finger Hermione laved her attentions on while his other hand grasped his cock. Pictures of Hermione hot wet mouth wrapped around his finger, her eyes closed, her pink tongue swirling around and around, then stroking his digit filled his mind, fueling his self-pleasuring indulgence.

 

How was it that after all the women he had had over the past three years that he had not felt such a momentary loss of control as when Hermione was lost in the bliss of sucking his finger? Never had he been so incapacitated by temptation as that night. Was it the fact that this was the one woman whom he couldn't seduce? Was forbidden fruit such a delicacy that to taste a mere drop of its intoxicating juice could render most mortal men incapable of coherent thought and restraint? But he had shown restraint. He had done nothing to encourage her to go on, but then he had done nothing to stop her either.

 

Forbidden fruit or not, he latched on to the memory of Hermione succumbing to her own temptation and used it to bring himself to orgasm quickly. If he took care of his own physical needs before Hermione showed up, Severus would be less tempted to let his mind wander to thoughts of last week. He could push out thoughts of Hermione's body pressed against his, her hand clasping his while her lips wrapped around the tip of his finger before sucking it entirely into her mouth. It took only a few minutes until he was gasping harshly and white pearls of cum were splattering across his stomach.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Glancing at the clock in the kitchen, Hermione asked, "Don't you have to get to work soon?"

 

Ron was eating the last morsel of his pork chop. He chewed it for a while before answering, remembering how often his wife nagged him about talking with his mouth full. "You'll get rid of me soon enough," the redhead said acridly.

 

Hermione sighed in exasperation. "That's not what I meant." 'That's exactly what you meant.' She paused while getting her mind cleared of any possible slips of the tongue. "What I meant to say was…" Trying desperately to think of how to finish a sentence she had no idea of how to complete while sounding convincing, she said, "I don't want you to be late to work. What time does your shift start tonight?"

 

"Usual time," Ron replied with slight contempt. "You know everything, I'm surprised you don’t know that. You happen to know how lousy I am in bed, I'm surprised you don’t the exact minute I'll be walking through the door at the pub." Now he was being snide.

 

The familiar hollow feeling inside of her numbed her to his barbs. This was the first time she had seen him awake since Sunday, as they had gone back to the more familiar and safe routine of passing ships in the night, where one would be awake while the other slept in the evening and the morning. During the evenings, Hermione had come home after Ron had left for the pub, eating, reading and going to sleep before he came home from work. Though they had lain in the same bed, they didn’t touch each other; both huddled on opposite sides as they slept.

 

"Fine, Ron. Whatever," she blandly replied.

 

Hermione left the kitchen to take her shower, not caring if Ron wondered why she was taking one now instead of in the morning as usual.

 

Ron shouted truculently to her retreating back, "Oy! Aren’t you going to eat your pork chop? I don't want Harry accusing me of starving you again! Don't make me shove this thing down your throat so you can't play the starving martyr! Poor Hermione! Stuck with a lousy husband who doesn’t feed her!"

 

Ignoring his shouts that she could hear all the way into the bathroom, she sighed as the noise from the spray drowned out her husband's ravings. Hermione just hoped he would be gone by the time she was done with her shower.

 

By the time she emerged, freshly scrubbed and no longer smelling like her lab, Ron was gone. A quick check in the kitchen and the clock confirmed that he was at the pub already.

 

Noticing her untouched pork chop, she wrapped it up and put it away, hoping she would remember to bring it as a snack with her to work the next day. One more check of the clock told her she had all of fifteen minutes to finish getting dressed and out the door if she was to make it to Calleo's on time. She did not want to make him wait. The anxious witch had been looking forward to this night all week long. Hermione did not want to waste one minute of her evening by being late.

 

A touch of Sleekeasy's in her hair, a little brushing, a hair clip and most of the work to get ready was done. It only took a few minutes to add some kohl around her eyes her eyes and a dab of lipstick. As Hermione had spent part of last night fretting over what to wear, she picked out her clothes quickly. Though she picked out a modest skirt and top set, she allowed herself the luxury of her nicest lingerie. It made her feel just a touch more feminine.

 

'Like he's ever going to see my knickers,' she mused while rushing to get dressed.

 

Just before she bolted for the door, Hermione suddenly remembered the one thing she promised to bring. Opening the bedside table drawer, she pulled out Calleo's copy of Eccentric Elixirs. Inside the front cover was Calleo's letter to her. She had received it Saturday afternoon via an owl from Lavender.

 

She read over it one last time.

 

-------

 

Dear Hermione,

 

I hope this letter finds you well. After I read article in the Daily Prophet, I remembered the mentioning of your job. I was sad to learn of your co-worker's death, you have my deepest sympathies. I am glad that you are safe, as I would hate to think of any harm coming to you. If you need to talk about what happened, as always, you have my ear and my shoulder.

 

I look forward to seeing you again next Thursday for dinner as I am anticipating the discussion we will have over the articles you will have read this week.

 

Sincerest regards,

 

Calleo

 

-------

 

Hermione gave a long sigh as she ran her fingertips over the neat and spiky angular penmanship. It surprised her that Calleo had written to her, even remembering what she did for a living. Folding it back up, she placed it in a tiny chest she mentally called her "escape box" where she hid all her little secrets from Ron and her friends.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Five
“My Dinner with Calleo"

 

Disclaimer: Rowling owns it, she owns it all. I don't make a single Sickle for writing any of this.

 

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Severus had been dressed for the past half-hour. The bread had been sliced and the table for two was set in the middle of his parlor-boudoir. All that was left was Hermione Weasley’s arrival.

 

That wasn't entirely true. He paced in front of his armoire debating on which mask to wear and if he should keep a scarf over his head to hide his hair. Severus vacillated between the Bauta he had worn during their previous meetings and his Pipistrello half mask. If he abandoned the scarf and wore the half mask, it might be too much and Hermione might flee with the realization that she had almost thrown herself at her old Potions professor. So far however, she had not deduced who he was. Or if she had, Hermione had not yet acknowledged or confronted him about his identity. The wizard decided that either the scarf would go or he would change to a smaller mask.

 

The decision was taken from his hands as the hands on the clock struck seven and Hermione knocked on the door. In haste, Severus decided to forgo the scarf and just wear his black Casanova mask that would go nicely with his green shirt and dark gray pants. If anything, he was hoping the color combination of his vestments might help Hermione bridge the connection between the gigolo she visited and the Potions master she might still be wondering about. A glance at his bed curtains told him she was tense and angry. After one last check to make sure his mask was firmly secured and the bed curtains were charmed off, Severus opened the door.

 

Both Hermione and Severus let out a slow and silent breath of relief.

 

Bowing in his customary courtly manner, he bid her welcome. "Good evening, Hermione. I'm so pleased to see you again."

 

He was genuinely pleased, for her presence gave him hope that she would continue to see him the next week and the week after that despite the Death Eater attack, the return of her husband, and embarrassment from her lapse of propriety between them.

 

Hermione beamed a heartfelt smile at him. Seeing Calleo waiting for her and then welcoming her with such sincere warmth made her feel happy for the first time in a week. The hollowness inside her chest didn’t seem quite so oppressive and the iron band around her ribs lifted for the time being. Now that she was at Calleo's, she would not have to think of Ron, not unless she wanted to. She was in her own sanctuary, free of burdens and obligations for a few hours.

 

Walking inside, the woman inhaled deeply. "Oh," she sighed dreamily. She closed her eyes before inhaling once more. "That smells delicious."

 

Hermione had been having daydreams of cassoulet with Calleo all week long. It was the one happy thought that had kept her from screaming in frustration at work or literally strangling Ron in his sleep. And now that she was here, the witch placed all her worries in a little box inside her head and set them aside for the evening. At some point, she knew Calleo would ask her how her week had been, but for now she wanted to bask in the illusion that she didn't have a care in the world except for wondering which side of the table to sit on.

 

"May I take your cloak?" he asked. His voice was rich and inviting in its tone.

 

"Yes, thank you," she said quietly, ducking down her head. She felt flustered and reluctantly aroused by his gentlemanly manners.

 

As Hermione's cloak slipped down her shoulders and arms, she felt the light brushing of Calleo's fingers along the fabric of her sleeve. A small chill raced up her spine while she stifled a sudden intake of breath.

 

'I am not going to do anything foolish tonight. I am not going to ruin this by letting a little physical contact turn me into some hormonal fool,' Hermione silently chided herself. While she collected her thoughts, Severus discretely gave Hermione's cloak to Marf, who was in the kitchen.

 

"Would you like to start dinner now or would you like a chance to sit for a while?" Severus studied her from behind and noticed her hair was still wet. A few tendrils along her hairline were beginning to dry and curl naturally in gentle spirals, framing the nape of her neck. Hermione glanced over her shoulder at him, which made her look quite demure.

 

"Actually, I would love the chance to just sit and relax for a bit before dinner," she replied, sounding more relaxed by the suggestion alone.

 

Severus watched her walk to his settee, hypnotized by the way her hips moved, the sway of her skirt, the shape of her ankles just below the hem of her skirt, the way her back tapered to her waist before flaring out to her hips. He swallowed hard once to collect himself, desperately trying to remain focused on the moment and not on Hermione's body. It was clear she had not lost any weight since last week. She was being kept fed from the lunches Potter had been bringing Hermione when she wasn't meeting Ginny for lunch.

 

"Oh!" Hermione said suddenly. "I brought back your copy of Eccentric Elixirs. It's in my cloak pocket."

 

"I'll have my house-elf fetch it later," Severus replied.

 

"You have a house-elf? I thought you said you were making the cassoulet?" Hermione queried, a little confused.

 

"No, I do all my own cooking, but he does help with general housekeeping, shopping and the sort."

 

"Oh," she said before a small smile graced her face. 'He cooked for me, not the house-elf,' she realized. 'Ron's never cooked for me.'

 

Thinking it would be better to talk of pleasant things now and discuss her near miss at the Ministry with Dolohov after dinner, Severus asked, "So what articles did you read?"

 

Hermione's face lit up. "I read all of them, but the one that caught my interest was the one on developing new potions from scratch."

 

Severus sat on the opposite end of the settee. "I found that article to be a bit pretentious. Why ignore all the work other Potion masters have done only to reinvent the wheel every time you want to create a new potion?"

 

"I agree, but I think what the author was trying to point out was the fact that if we continue to take the same methods and apply them over and over and over, where will the new breakthroughs come from?" she countered. "Granted, yes, we should not ignore the previous work of others, but there are only so many ways of brewing and mixing ingredients in the same combination. For there to be new potions and cures, one must step back and take a new approach. If that means starting from scratch, then why not?" Hermione asked rhetorically.

 

"But to start from scratch would mean a waste of one's time and resources when there are so many texts and tomes to use as a starting point for creating new potions," Severus observed.

 

"I'm not saying that old potions, ones that are tried and true, are not to be discounted, but perhaps if you were to try something different, such as grating dandelion root instead of slicing it for the Poison Purging Potion, it might yield new results," the young witch suggested. "Perhaps a new potion to treat gout for those who are allergic or cannot tolerate prickly ash bark or sassafras."

 

Her simple theory intrigued him, but over the years he had dismissed the idea of cutting up ingredients differently, as his time was very limited. Severus often took the work of others as a starting point, as he never had the luxury of time for trial and experiment. The one time he did set aside a few weeks of one summer at Hogwarts, his effort was met with one failed experiment after another. His other chance to experiment from scratch with Miss Brown was discouraged, as she wanted to develop new potions as soon as possible to get them to market and not spend the months or possibly years required to start a potion from scratch, resulting in many failures before reaching success. Severus had once held the idea of trying the same exact thing that Hermione had suggested, but hadn’t seen any evidence to support the hypothesis.

 

'Perhaps if I get out of England and have all the time in the world, I can pursue such a course of research.' Severus placed that thought in the back of his mind to mull over in the future.

 

Severus kept his arms folded across his chest defensively. He felt as if his craft was under attack, despite the thought that she was might be on to something he had previously thought of as well. "Don't you think that in the art of Potions, which is thousands of years old, someone would have experimented to see if there was some merit to that idea?"

 

Giving a light chuckle, Hermione answered him boldly. "From a Muggle-born's perspective… no." Severus sat there in stunned silence. "In a world that continues to do the same thing the same way over and over and over because it's been thought to be the best without anyone being interested in trying and find a better way, I'm not sure if there has been a new way of preparing ingredients for Potions in a long time."

 

"So you think we should just start cutting up ingredients in different ways for tried and proven potions?" Severus was doing his best not to use his usual lecturing voice, especially since his ire was raised. "Just start chopping and slicing randomly and see what we get?" He tried his best to remain pleasant and conversational instead of combative and argumentative.

 

"Of course not! I mean, what would happen if you used diced banana slugs instead of shredded ones in a potion using lobalug?" Before Severus spoke, she answered her own question. "You'd have an exploding cauldron!" Hermione used an example that she clearly remembered from when she was partnered with Neville in her school days. It had resulted in some second-degree burns on her arms and one leg.

 

"Or powdered tail bone of the Japanese double-tailed fox instead of coarsely ground in a fast boiling potion? You will have a vapor cloud that could burn out your lungs if inhaled," Severus said, remembering his own short stint in the infirmary from Longbottom's misjudgment on the difference between the two textures.

 

"Or using whole fairybells instead of minced for the Endurance of the Heart potion," Hermione said, her voice rising.

 

Severus visibly winced from the implications of that potential damage it would cause, as even Longbottom had never got around to doing something so dangerously disastrous as that. If he had, Voldemort would have thanked Mr. Longbottom posthumously, as he would have succeeded where the Dark Lord had not by eradicating half of Hogwarts along with Potter.

 

"From our previous discussions, I’ve received the impression that you know something about Potions beyond the average wizard," Hermione said.

 

Of course Severus knew something about Potions, but during their discussions, he had to downplay just how much he knew, not wanting to tip his hand too heavily lest Hermione realize too quickly who he was. There were only so many Potions masters in England; Hermione was probably aware of most of them. At least during their talks she didn’t act like the know-it-all he once remembered. She talked with him and not at him.

 

"My point is that we should not ignore what we have learned, but to perhaps take some ingredients that we have used the same way, century after century and use them differently. Or at least approach their preparation differently." Hermione rose from her seat and began pacing, her hands gesticulating as she talked. "I mean, look at Ashwinder eggs. For three years I have been testing them the same way and in each case, I wind up having to go through about twenty percent of the batch before I get a test sample that isn't cracked or ruined."

 

The Potions master had been looking at Ashwinder eggs with an increasing frequency. Not only had he been looking at them for the past few weeks, as he and Miss Brown had been working on variations of sex potions, he had also tested them while working at the Department of Standards and Regulations as a young wizard during his apprenticeship days. One had to bring a cauldron of water mixed with lye to a low boil and then place an Ashwinder egg into the simmering solution. If the egg did not crack while landing on the bottom, it might crack during the boiling process, as the sudden temperature change from being frozen to boiled often split the shell open, ruining the sample that was used as an indicator to see if the batch was usable or rotten. In most cases, twenty percent of a batch of eggs was used before a good sample would go through the boiling phase and remain intact. The Ashwinder egg could then be cut in half and examined to see if it had the concentric circles of alternating purple and green. Even Severus, despite his talents, usually went through fifteen percent of a batch before getting a viable sample for testing during his days at the Department.

 

"So last year I did a little experiment," Hermione confessed. "When a batch of Ashwinder eggs came in, I ran two tests side by side. One was the traditional way where I wait till the lye solution comes to a slow boil before dropping the egg in, the other method I tried was to put the egg in the bottom of the cauldron, fill the cauldron with the solution, then bring it to a low boil."

 

Severus leaned forward in his seat, resting his arm on his knees while cocking his head to the side. "And what makes you think your 'new' method of testing will work?" He was skeptical that her alternate method would even work, but he had no reason why it shouldn't.

 

"Because it has," Hermione said proudly. She waited for Calleo to challenge her. "I tested every single batch with the double test for six months straight and in the end my new method was better. Now when a batch comes in, I only need to test one egg instead of twenty-eight or twenty-nine out of a 12-dozen shipment. I did have to use that double testing time to find out what the time difference was between the old way and my way though."

 

"And? The time difference?" Severus asked, licking his lips and curious as hell about her results. The implications of her actions meant that the supply of Ashwinder eggs on the market had increased without a hike in the number of creatures required to produce them or in labor costs to collect and ship them.

 

"Instead of boiling the egg for eighteen minutes, you time it for twelve minutes once the water starts on a low boil and the egg starts to dance on the bottom of the cauldron. But not that my efforts are of any importance," Hermione said dismissively. "I told my superior about my findings and she shot them down. She said I was to test ingredients and the Ministry was not in the business of financing any costly and unsanctioned experiments on ingredients that I'm only supposed to test the usual way. Even though I found a way to increase the percentage of Ashwinder eggs that make it to market, reducing costs overall throughout the industry, she finds it's of no relevance." Hermione gave an indignant snort of disgust and she started pacing faster, becoming angrier. "I still test them my new way though. I mean, hasn’t anyone noticed that the price of Ashwinder eggs on the open market has dropped astronomically? It was right after I started testing one egg only that the prices started to drop. Has no one noticed or made mention of this? No! And if anyone is making mention of it, I'm sure my boss, Madam Dushka, is taking all the credit for it!"

 

Hermione's statement made Severus' mind whir and turn even faster. Was Hermione the reason why Miss Brown only recently expressed an interest in developing a line of sex potions? Was Hermione the cause for Severus' calculated future wealth that he counted on from the development of such a profitable line? It would be beyond ironic that Hermione was the reason for a new line of potions, resulting in Severus taking her on as a client due to said potions. He would have to question Miss Brown in such a way as not to arise suspicions about her sudden interest in sex potions.

 

Giving a great huff, Hermione sat back down on the settee next to Severus rubbing her temples.

 

"Do you have a headache? Shall I get a vial of headache relief potion?" Severus offered.

 

"Yes, my head is throbbing," Hermione groaned, "but I've already taken two vials of that stuff today. I'm just so tense. I wound up interviewing this… child today to take my old co-worker's place. He was this incredibly annoying, arrogant, vain, vapid… DUNDERHEAD!"

 

Severus laughed lightly, then quickly apologized, knowing that Hermione was in no mood to be laughed at, having been in similar moods frequently. "I'm sorry, it's just the way you said 'dunderhead,' that I found so amusing." It was humorous to him to see a former student use a term he frequently bandied in a similarly frustrated and derogatory manner. "Please go on."

 

"After I deemed him not worthy of going on to the next level of interview, he propositioned me for dinner and other things, just so he could get the job," Hermione said, still indignant over the whole incident. "Well, I informed him in so many words that I was married and my husband could pound him to pulp. The next thing I know, my boss invites him into her office to offer him the job. I swear, he must be banging her to get the job, because that is the only way I can see this idiot getting it. I never thought I'd see the day that wizards slept their way to the top. He only wants this position to bide his time until his Potions apprenticeship starts next spring. An apprenticeship that should have gone to me, if it was rightly based on merit, but it seems this imbecile's father bought him the position."

 

This was news to Severus. He had no idea that Hermione wanted to study Potions beyond her N.E.W.T.s. "You wanted to become a Potions mistress?"

 

The rankled witch sighed heavily. "Originally, I wanted to study Transfiguration or Charms, but when the two professors I know who would have taken me as an apprentice died during the war, I owled every other Transfiguration and Charms master and mistress throughout Europe. It seems no one wanted to take me, all claiming to have no openings, but I've learned otherwise. I think it's because I'm Muggle-born."

 

Severus was silently seething on the inside. He knew the real reason why Hermione could not get an apprenticeship and it was all due to the machinations of Calpurnia Fudge. He would have liked to enlighten Hermione about the real reason why she was stuck with no opportunities to master a field of study and was saddled with the drudgery of testing ingredients, but now was not the time. Perhaps once he had revealed himself or Hermione had realized who he really was would he tell her about the outside forces affecting her destiny, perhaps using it as a bargaining chip if she was reluctant to help him. But for now, Severus was not going to reveal anything on that matter, especially since such information might encourage her to leave a job that was key to his escape.

 

"So once all those options were closed, I would have looked at Arithmancy, but the only person I would have bothered to apprentice under died during the war as well; she was also a professor of mine. I then turned to Potions." Giving a small sigh of exasperation, Hermione closed her eyes and began massaging her temples, as her headache was returning full force, despite the potions she had taken to counter it earlier. "I tried all the Potion masters throughout Europe, but it seemed that none of them would take me either."

 

Noting her tension and wanting to distract her with the next line of questions, hopefully keeping her too preoccupied to pay too much attention to the nature of his questions other than answer them, Severus remarked, "You look quite tense. If you will allow me, I can ease some of the tension in your neck and shoulders so that your headache is lessened."

 

Hermione opened her eyes and he saw her mentally debate the possibilities of his offer. "I really don't want to be a bother," Hermione pleaded without much conviction.

 

"Nonsense, you have a headache and it seems that no potion is going to help this constant state of tension. Besides, how can you enjoy dinner if you are suffering from a headache?" Severus insisted, trying to think of this as another chance to keep up his hand strength and not a chance to touch Hermione's skin for an extended period of time.

 

A look of grateful relief graced Hermione's features. "That's very kind of you. Actually, that sounds very good right now." She wished she wasn't feeling the constant throb of her head, as it was going to distract from the sensation of Calleo touching her.

 

Rising from his seat, Severus walked behind the settee and gently placed his hands on Hermione's shoulders. Once his hands gripped the taut piano strings masquerading as tendon and muscle underneath her skin, Hermione let out an appreciative sigh of relief as her head sagged forward slightly. From where Severus was standing above and behind her, he had a very nice view of Hermione's cleavage down the front of her shirt. The way her shirt buckled and bunched as his hands moved and grasped her shoulders made the fabric gape, giving him a beautiful view of the swell of her breasts and a tiny peek at the top of her lacy bra, her chest rising as she sighed once more.

 

After he caught himself transfixed on the sight of Hermione’s breasts, Severus quickly got back to the matter at hand. "You mentioned that your Transfiguration, Charms and Arithmancy professors died during the war. What about your Potions professor?"

 

There were many reasons why he wanted to ask this particular question since she’d brought it up. One was to see if there was another opportunity to drop hints at his identity; another was to discern her feelings towards her old professor and Order colleague.

 

Caught in euphoric bliss, Hermione began to answer as if drugged by Veritaserum. The pleasurable tingles of Calleo's hands easing her tension were spreading through her body, quickly putting her into a trance-like state. The delicious rush of endorphins spread throughout her body with a thrill, and coupled with the sensation of Calleo's warm and strong hands, she felt her skin goose-pimple along her neck, arms and chest.

 

She was so preoccupied by the warmth of Calleo's strong hands upon her skin kneading away at her muscles, and the scent of his cologne that had possessed her mind, that she began to speak honestly after letting out one more grateful and encouraging groan. "My old Potions professor disappeared right after the war. I never had a chance to ask him. By the time I had exhausted all avenues in Transfiguration and Charms, he was already gone. Not that I wouldn't have minded an apprenticeship in Potions, as I love it, but it wasn’t my first choice. Besides, if he was still around, I doubt he would have allowed me to apprentice under him."

 

"Why not?" he asked in a low and softly coaxing voice.

 

He was having a hard time concentrating on Hermione's answer, as she started rolling her head around, stretching out the relaxing muscles. Her actions presented a nice view of her long and slender pale neck. If leaned down just a bit, Severus could have nuzzled her neck before sinking his teeth into her skin. The fact that he was wearing a mask still didn’t tamp down the urge to attach his mouth to the side of her neck after she gave another long appreciative sigh of his ministrations.

 

"I got the distinct impression over the years that he didn't like me one bit," she answered truthfully.

 

Her answer was like a bucket of cold water being poured on his head, bringing him back to the moment. Severus' hands stilled for a moment before they continued going back to the knots in Hermione's shoulders and neck. Careful to modulate his voice so it was pleasant and not accusatory, though he knew her perceptions were correct, Severus asked, "Why would you think that?"

 

"Because he loathed the people I associated with. In addition, there were a few incidences that did not endear me to him. Like stealing some boomslang skin from him, which he initially blamed upon my friend, but later realized it was me who had done it."

 

'Ha! She finally admits it,' the ex-professor thought triumphantly.

 

"Then my friends and I cast an Expelliarmus on him in my third year during a misunderstanding," Hermione continued as she was lulled into a compliant state from Calleo's attentions.

 

'Misunderstanding my arse,' Severus thought bitterly, but kept massaging. 'You attacked a professor!'

 

"I set his robes on fire when I thought he was trying to curse my friend by hexing his broom during a Quidditch game," she said, half-mumbling.

 

"Hmmm, quite a few reasons for you not to be endeared into his bosom," Severus said with more austerity than he intended.

 

"And that doesn't take into account the whole house rivalry thing as well," she added lazily.

 

Hermione paused, wondering if Calleo would piece together the information and figure out whom she was referring to. She then momentarily wondered if Calleo was a Death Eater, thus knowing about Severus, but then thought Lavender would not have someone in her employ she did not trust. Lavender was a member of Dumbledore's Army and her best friend was a permanent resident at St. Mungo's due to the actions of Death Eaters. Then again, she had Draco in her employ, but he was an ex-Death Eater, just like Snape was.

 

Not really caring at the moment, Hermione added, "I was a Gryffindor."

 

"I see. So he must have been a Slytherin," Severus answered, more to prompt her to keep talking than to confirm anything that was obvious.

 

"Right in one. He had a rather strong dislike for Gryffindors. Or at least it seemed that way from all the disparaging remarks he made about me and my House all the time." Hermione let a low rumble settle in her throat as Calleo's hands moved up her neck and into her hairline, digging his thumbs into pressure points along the base of her skull.

 

Severus meditated on her words as he worked on her neck. She was right; he would have not accepted her request for an apprenticeship with him right after the war, but to hear what he knew in his heart was exactly as she stated made something inside of him unsettled. It wasn't guilt over the truth of the matter, but he wasn't exactly proud of his actions. Still, there was nothing to feel guilty over, as it was all in the past and he hadn’t even been around to turn her down if she had ever got around to asking. There was no point in mulling over spilt potion asking unanswerable questions of what-if and what might have been.

 

Making a noncommittal noise, Severus stepped out on a limb and said, "Maybe if he got to know you as something other than a student, perhaps with a few years apart, he might have reconsidered."

 

It was true; he did see Hermione in a new light since she’d come back into his life. She was no longer a student and child, but a young woman and a client with whom he actually enjoyed discussing ideas. Many of the traits that had annoyed him earlier in life didn’t nettle him so much, or maybe it was that she had matured and those qualities that irritated him had mellowed over time. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Whatever the case, she was a means to an end. Perhaps a little truth would further solidify her trust in him when the time came and she knew who he was.

 

"It doesn't matter anymore," Hermione said with resignation. "No one wants an apprentice who's been out of school as long as I have. I'll have to do the best I can with my situation."

 

He remained quiet, making no comment on her last statement. Severus was doing the best he could in his present situation, as much as he loathed it.

 

"How's that?" he asked regarding her headache, letting his hands rest upon her shoulders while his thumbs rubbed in lazy circles.

 

"Mmmmmm, much better," she whispered dreamily before inhaling deeply. The scent of Calleo reminded her of something she had wanted to ask for the past few weeks. "Oh, Calleo? What is the name of that cologne you're wearing?"

 

Surprised by her question, and at a loss with a direct answer as Draco had not picked out a name for the new cologne that was going into production soon, the dark haired wizard replied, "You are aware that my… employer, Miss Brown, owns a cosmetic company?" Hermione nodded. "Well, at times I am given the chance to sample products that have not been introduced into the marketplace yet. This scent I'm wearing is new and has not been given a name."

 

Hermione craned her neck up to look at him with a contented smile. "It smells very nice. I remember you wearing it the first night I came here. Since then that scent has..." 'Consumed me? Made me obsessed with thoughts of you?' "… haunted me." Since the cologne was not readily available to the public, then maybe it really was Calleo she had spotted that night in Flourish and Blotts.

 

If he had not been wearing his mask, he would have cocked a speculative brow at her, but since such simple non-verbal gestures were lost with his facial accessory on, instead he cooed, "Really?"

 

"Yes," she smiled back at him more. "It's very… masculine. It's almost… hedonistic."

 

Severus was very proud of this cologne he had developed, as it would smell different on each wizard. It would accentuate a wizard's natural body scents while also smelling like odors that were complimentary to the wizard's personality. This would be something to discuss with Draco on Saturday, as Draco had been using it himself around Ginny.

 

"And what does it smell like to you? What scents do you pick up from it?" he asked, clearly curious as she had proven to have such a keen and well-trained nose. It amused him that she thought he smelled hedonistic. Was he a hedonist? Doubtful, he preferred to think of himself as a sensualist, but the young witch seemed to revel in it regardless.

 

Inhaling, she closed her eyes. "Most notably: patchouli, sandalwood and musk. There are some leather, woodsy and herbal notes, but it's hard to discern the herbal scents with the patchouli being dominant and the cassoulet drifting in from the kitchen, but they are definitely there."

 

He was pleased. Many of the clients he had worn the cologne for had all complimented him on it, but none had asked for the name nor named the scents that enhanced his own natural body chemistry. Miss Brown had noticed the same scents Hermione had listed, so it seemed that the cologne did not smell different to each witch. His fear that the potion had failed would have been confirmed if Hermione had said that she smelled anything but the scents she listed. The potion added to the cologne appeared to be successful and he could add another product to the long list of items he received royalties on.

 

"Well, when Miss Brown does settle on a name, I shall inform you," Severus told her. "Are you ready for dinner, Madame?" He extended his arm to usher her the few feet between his settee and the table in the middle of the room.

 

A slight blush crept upon Hermione's cheek. Calleo's gallant gesture made her feel self-conscious and at the same time utterly feminine. Straightening her spine to improve her posture, she rose and slipped her hand into the crook of his arm to walk the few steps to the table.

 

Severus guided her to the side farthest from the kitchen and pulled her chair out for her, helping her sit down. Once she was seated, he excused himself to the kitchen. He reemerged a moment later with salad and bread that he set down on the table before disappearing into the kitchen once more.

 

While Calleo was in the kitchen fetching what Hermione could only assume was the cassoulet that she smelled upon entering and dreamt about all week, she studied the table set before her. It was a square table with enough room to seat four, covered in a plain white linen tablecloth. The china was plain white with a slightly raised pattern reminding her of the simple dinnerware that bistros used during her trip to France. Hermione draped her linen napkin across her lap and wondered how many other clients Calleo had cooked for. She remembered that he mentioned dining alone, so she could only guess that she was one of a few who had dined with him or possibly the first. She heard what sounded like the oven door closing and continued her observations. A bottle of red wine that was already opened and a pitcher of water graced the table.

 

The door swung open as Calleo exited the kitchen, dragon hide gloves on his hands while carrying the cassoulet that had seductive tendrils of steam curling and rising up from the surface. As he set it on a trivet, the edacious witch saw the crusty top bubble.

 

Severus sat down and regarded Hermione for the briefest moment, his stomach fluttering with a slight case of nerves, for which he was annoyed at himself. 'Is this what it's like to have a real date?' The witch seated across from him smiled at him openly with her hands placed in her lap. 'This is not a date, she is a client and you are trying to gain her trust, stay focused!' Severus ignored the sense of anticipation he was having over the moment.

 

After clearing his throat, Severus said, "I hope you don't mind. I've taken the liberty of opening the wine before you came to give it a chance to breathe. Would you care for some this evening or would you prefer something else to drink?"

 

'No, not the wine, don't drink the wine,' her mind chanted, but found the tableau set before her so enticing and intoxicating, that she agreed to a glass as it would complete the whole scenario she had played in her mind over and over during the week.

 

"This is a nice gentle red I think you'll like. It's an Amarone, rather heavy on the fruity flavors and a bit rich," he informed her as he poured a small measure into her glass for a taste.

 

Hermione was feeling very sophisticated because of everything Calleo was doing for her this evening. He had the air of a gentleman, escorting her to the table, helping her with her seat, offering her a taste of the wine and seeking her approval before pouring her a glass, then one for himself.

 

"Please, help yourself," Severus said with a tilt of his head. This was a dinner between two people, not an opportunity to court her, though he was tempted to serve dinner to her, remembering the lessons his mother had taught him on behaving properly for a lady.

 

Once they had laden their plates with food, Hermione gave a great troubled sigh.

 

"Something bothering you?" Severus asked, wondering if now was the time when she would finally breakdown over the events of the past week.

 

Looking up from her plate to Calleo sitting across from her, the glass of red wine near her right hand, the table before her, she felt the pricking of tears at the corners of her eyes. This was perfect. This was what it should be like with her and Ron and it wasn’t and most probably never would be. It also reminded her of her summer in France with her parents and the happy memories from that time when the world opened up just a little bit more for her and became a little more wondrous. That was the summer when French boys whistled at her, raking their eyes along her body and smiling at her in a way that was not innocent in the least, while her father placed a protective arm around her and her mother and she laughed at it all. This dinner reminded her of those little bistros she went to every night with her parents, when they allowed her to take a sip of their wine and made her feel so mature and grown up.

 

Hermione sniffed and dabbed the corner of her eye with her napkin. "I'm sorry," she apologized, "it's just all so…" 'Romantic.' "Perfect." She turned her head to look out the window. "I almost expect to see the Eiffel Tower looming in the distance, it's wonderful. This reminds me of happier times." She almost said that no man had ever cooked for her before, but that would sound flirtatious and she was definitely not going to flirt with a man she was already once tempted to be unfaithful with.

 

Severus found himself struck by her words, suddenly remembering the last time he’d dined with a woman alone. Was his wife the last woman who dined with him like that? His felt his throat become dry and he forcefully shoved those thoughts away, instead focusing on Hermione sitting across from him and not the regrets and remorseful thoughts that might plague his mind if he let himself think on them.

 

Keeping his thoughts to the present, he asked, "You've been to France?"

 

"Yes, my parents took me when I was thirteen." Hermione lifted her fork and began eating.

 

"Where did you go while you were there?" Severus began eating as well.

 

"Paris, Normandy coast, Bourgogne, the Loire Valley, mostly staying in the north," she replied after swallowing. "Have you been there?"

 

"A few times," Severus answered vaguely.

 

"Ooh, I noticed you didn't use breadcrumbs in your cassoulet," Hermione said brightly.

 

"I think breadcrumbs are unnecessary if made properly," Severus said, hoping she would not insist that they were needed.

 

"I think I've had cassoulet made every different possible way. While in France I practically lived on it. I ordered it every time it was on a menu. With breadcrumbs, without, made with duck or chicken, tomatoes or no tomatoes, it all tastes so wonderful when made well. And your cassoulet is simply heavenly," she praised him sincerely before eating another forkful.

 

"Thank you," he said in a deep and contented voice. Severus smiled to himself.

 

Hermione thought of asking him for the recipe, since he did mention it was a simple cassoulet, but from the tenderness of the duck and complex mingling of flavors, she knew this dish belied his description. Besides, some people were very protective of their recipes and Calleo just might be one of those people who guarded their recipes like state secrets. She did wonder again if Calleo had cooked for other women before or if she was the only one. As she silently warred with herself to curb her curiosity and not open her mouth to ask and ruin the illusion, Calleo spoke.

 

"Hermione, you look preoccupied. Care to share?" Severus asked, knowing she had some questions she was stopping herself from asking. This might be the prompting she needed to renew her sense of curiosity that seemed oppressively restrained.

 

She grabbed her wineglass and took a sip while trying to think how to phrase the question. "Do you frequently cook for other women?" Hermione avoided the word "client", as the mere mention of the word would cheapen her experience, not that her question was any more tactful with or without the word.

 

Regarding the woman across the table, he realized that Ginny was right. Hermione was the sort of woman who could easily become attached to him. Severus knew it wasn't jealousy, but she was possibly seeking some sort of validation that she was somehow more special than the other witches who visited him.

 

"I have a few personal friends who I cook for once in a while, but regarding those who do not know me without my mask, no. You are the first I have cooked for," he answered.

 

His reply prompted another question from Hermione. "I noticed you did not wear your head scarf tonight. Do you always cover your hair or only sometimes?"

 

"Some of the times. It depends on whether I feel I can trust my company or not," Severus said, his voice dropping lower so it was almost a rumbling purr.

 

Hermione closed her eyes and swallowed. Calleo's voice was doing funny things with her head and some rather pleasant things to her body as well. Before her mind could stop her mouth, she asked, "Do you trust me?" Resting her hands on the table, she leaned slightly forward as she watched his non-verbal body language. She looked at him with cautious yet hopeful eyes.

 

Did Severus trust anyone? Yes, some people to a certain degree. But did he trust anyone completely? Not anymore. The last person he trusted blindly was Albus and the old wizard had failed him in death. Without Albus to speak up for him and defend him, he was incarcerated under the Death Eater Decree. Albus had broken his trust by not providing some plan for clearing Severus' name in the event of his death. But did he trust Hermione? He trusted her to do the right thing where he was concerned and help him gain his freedom. She had tried to help the house-elves despite their reluctance. He was no house-elf and he desperately wanted his freedom and was unjustly denied it. Of course he trusted her to not abandon him and to help him escape.

 

Regarding her, he leaned forward while reaching for her hand. Severus allowed his index finger to lightly trail down along the seam between her index and middle finger, caressing her skin. It was a simple gesture that could be interpreted many ways, but if anything, he did it to reinforce his reply. "Implicitly."

 

Holding her breath, Hermione gazed back at him. Her head swirled with emotions she couldn't name and was too frightened to consider. She felt like she was treading in waters too deep for her to handle and she would drown. The next question would have been to ask if he had ever removed his mask for any other woman, but she thought that might lead to answers and more questions she might truly regret.

 

The aroused witch sat back up in her seat and began vigorously spearing her salad with her fork, realizing her curiosity was getting the better of her again. Flustered and desperate to change the topic, Hermione said, "I really enjoyed the historical article on Chinese Potions during the Tang dynasty."

 

Severus was relieved she had quickly changed the subject. Right after his answer, Hermione had a fleeting look of adoration in her face that he recognized instantly. Through his work as a gigolo over the years, he periodically had to end business relationships with some clients as they became too emotionally attached to him. But this was the first woman he had not bedded who had looked at him in such a way. What he did not like was the sudden feeling that he welcomed such a look from her.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Once the topic of Potions and articles from Eccentric Elixirs was brought up again, Hermione and Severus spent the next couple hours in the safe territory of all things academic. During dessert, which consisted of strawberries lightly marinated in an orange Muscat with crème fraîche, the talk turned from Potions to Alchemy. Afterwards, they adjourned to the settee.

 

As Hermione sat sipping her Turkish coffee that Calleo had brewed in an Ibrik over a flame on the low table in front of them, she smiled to herself.

 

"You look happy," Severus noted.

 

"It seems this is the only place now where I feel happy," she said with a touch of melancholy.

 

"Knut for your thoughts."

 

The smile left Mrs. Weasley's face. "I wish I didn't have to leave here at the end of the night. When I'm here, I don't feel so… when I'm here, the disappointments and regrets of my life don't seem so oppressive. For a while, I get to forget my troubles and pretend that maybe life could be a little different. And when I talk about my troubles, you aren't judging me, knowing me as I am to the other people in my life. You don't have expectations of me to be perfect or smart or always being the reasonable one."

 

There was silence as Severus let Hermione think to herself. He watched her run her finger along the rim of her demitasse as she meditated. It was a comfortable silence that held no desire to be filled with idyll talk. It felt good. The soundless tranquility was comforting as they both sat in contemplative quiet.

 

Severus supposed it was time to let Hermione get her latest troubles off her chest. With a gentle and concerned voice, he asked, "Would you like to talk about what happened at the Ministry last week?"

 

"No," she whispered. "Thank you for the letter, though. It was very sweet of you. I needed all the support I could get this past week, but I'm done crying now. I'm tired of crying."

 

Severus watched the veil of indifference settle over her features and her demeanor became infused with a blank coolness.

 

"Would you like to talk about anything else?" he asked intoning subjects of a personal nature.

 

"My husband?" She said it with such dispassion it was almost mechanical.

 

"Do you want to talk about him?"

 

"Not really. He came back last Thursday night right after…" She swallowed hard. "I gave him an ultimatum: divorce or counseling," Hermione said stoically.

 

"And?"

 

"He reluctantly agreed to counseling," she replied coldly. Hermione felt suddenly very tired and the hollowness inside of her returned. "I'd rather not talk about him. Something, anything else but death and my marriage."

 

"Of course, Hermione," he spoke in comforting tones.

 

Hermione’s sudden emotional detachment unsettled Severus. Over the years, he’d wished many of his clients would stop crying and turn off their emotions when complaining about their husbands, but to witness a woman who came to his doorstep and had already lost some of her vibrancy, lose her passion and spark so quickly made Severus feel empathy for her. He once used to be a passionate young man filled with not only hate, but hope and ambition. When his wife had died, the only thing left in him was hate and remorse. It was this deadness inside of him that allowed him to finally master Occlumency, as almost all emotions inside of him had withered into nothingness, so there was nothing to cloud his mind from the cold logic that kept him alive as a spy.

 

Now Hermione was sitting next to him with that same vacant stare that he recognized from years ago. As much as he didn't care to see her cry, he would rather see her wail mournfully, beating her hands upon his chest than to sit here like a statue with a dying spirit trapped inside.

 

"Tell me," Severus began, hoping that going back to Potions talk would cheer her up, "what other experiments other than the Ashwinder eggs have you done?"

 

Hermione gave him a weak, but grateful smile. "Unfortunately, I haven't had the chance to do any other experimentation. I barely have time to keep up with all the ingredients coming into the country. Do you experiment with Potions?"

 

Now was Severus’ chance to drop more hints. Modulating his voice to mix in the hint of regret and slight anger while a little wistful, Severus said, "I used to, up until about four years ago." The statement was technically accurate. Severus did not experiment with Potions, he consulted on the experimentation of them. He gave a restrained sigh, hoping to draw Hermione into more questions about himself.

 

"And now?" she asked tentatively.

 

"I…" The Potions master paused for the effect that he was hiding something. "I don't anymore."

 

Hermione weighed the options of asking more questions or giving Calleo his privacy and not digging into details any further. But the way he hesitated piqued her curiosity. She tamped down that damned bothersome notion to ask more questions and let it be. 'If he wanted to tell you more, he would have said something. He obviously doesn't want to elaborate on it anymore than you do regarding Ron. Just drop it. It he wants to tell you, he will, don't ruin this with your curiosity.'

 

However, since he used to experiment before, that didn't mean he wasn't willing to talk about the work he did years before. "So tell me about the experiments you used to do."

 

Severus smiled. No one had ever asked him about himself, understanding his need for anonymity, but this question allowed Severus to talk about himself without giving away anything too personal. "Gladly. What sort of experiments are you interested in? I did a great many."

 

A little of the fire returned to Hermione's eyes. The light in her eyes had faded over the previous week, but their intellectual conversations seemed to feed that little bit of radiance still left in her.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

They talked until it was late. As they conversed about favorite Charms, Hermione heartily laughed for the first time in a long time. Calleo laughed during the conversation as well, which made Hermione's insides tingle from the deep and resonating sound that vibrated through her body. His laughter made her smile stretch a little wider than before; her cheeks were aching, as she hadn’t smiled so much in quite a while.

 

Noting the time, Hermione set down her tea. "I'd better be getting home," she said sadly. "As always, it's been a wonderful evening and I've truly enjoyed myself."

 

"As have I," Severus commented. He still couldn't believe she identified the two rare herbs he put in the tea that week.

 

"It was a lovely dinner. The cassoulet was beyond delicious, it was absolutely superb!" Hermione exclaimed exuberantly.

 

"Would you like to have dinner again next week?" Severus asked hopefully. It was so much more pleasant to dine with charming company who could discuss things other than one's lousy marriage, the way most of his clients did. Though Hermione had complained about her marriage in the past, he could understand and sympathize, as he personally knew the husband she bemoaned. Besides, most of the time was spent talking about subjects that interested them both.

 

She gave him her answer with a smile. "Same time next week?"

 

"Yes, that would be fine. Any requests?" the wizard asked, wondering what other dishes they might both enjoy.

 

"Surprise me," Hermione answered him. 'Oh shit.' That phrase came unbidden from the back of her mind. It was the same phrase Ginny used when telling Lavender what she wanted Draco to do to her. 'This isn't sex, it's just dinner. Stop panicking.' The thought of it still made her heart thump loudly in her chest.

 

"That I will." Severus went to fetch her cloak

 

Hermione glanced around Calleo's flat once more and noticed the bed curtains. 'Didn't they used to be a different color? Something other than black?' She quickly dismissed the notion when Calleo returned with her cloak.

 

Fanart by Fleab

Standing behind her as he helped her with her cloak, Severus said casually, "If ever you need to talk other than on our usual Thursday nights, or if there is an emergency, you're always welcome to stop by most evenings. I have Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights free. Use your knock and I'll know it’s you."

 

Glancing over her shoulder, Hermione noticed how close Calleo was to her. She inhaled his essence one last time, trying to memorize that scent of his that made her head swim and her mind reel. Looking up at him through her lashes, she could almost peer into his mask and see his eyes staring at her, penetrating her with his gaze. His hands on her shoulders felt so good that she didn't want to move yet. Any movement might cause him to remove their welcomed warmth and gentle pressure.

 

The tempted witch swallowed nervously, as she restrained herself from reaching up to touch him. "Thank you for your offer. That's very kind." Hermione closed her eyes and tried to gather her willpower. Her heart began beating in her rib cage like a bird stuck in a cage trying to take flight.

 

"Anything for you, Hermione," he whispered, memorizing the way her face looked in profile so close to him. The ex-Death Eater would do anything to gain her trust and ensure that Hermione would help him. Severus had to stop his hand from reaching out to stroke the side of her neck; it was so close. He could feel the heat from her skin radiating onto his hand.

 

If Hermione was not married and Severus was not a gigolo, this would have been the part when one or both parties would reach for the other for a spontaneous kiss. But the fact that Severus never kissed his clients and Hermione was a married woman with principles made the air thick with sexual tension that could find no release.

 

They both stood there, basking in the aura of the other, neither one wanting to be the first one to move away. In the quiet, they could hear each other's breathing and almost feel the air pulse with each other's heartbeats. Their breaths sounded ragged to their own ears, hypersensitive to their own bodies and to each other.

 

Hermione could feel his breath pooling on her shoulder, its warmth reaching her neck and making her shiver slightly with anticipation of what might happen.

 

Severus could smell her skin, that elusive sweetness of a woman's skin that no perfume or potion could ever capture. He was tempted to remove his mask and let Hermione know who he was, but prudence dictated that he be patient. The former spy forced himself to focus on the fact that if he wasn't careful, he would botch everything up by doing something rash, urged on by hormones that seemed to spring up from nowhere.

 

"Until next week," he whispered. He did not dare to kiss her hand tonight for fear he would not stop with one kiss.

 

"Yes. Until then," she said with a breathy response. "Good night, Calleo."

 

"Good night." Severus made the first move and opened the door so that Hermione could leave.

 

Just before he closed the door, Hermione turned and gave him one last look from the hallway. Her face bespoke pages of conflict within herself.

 

As the door clicked shut, Severus rested up against it, sliding down to the floor with his hair fisted in his hands. "Oh, that was close," he said to himself. Breathing deeply, he tried to regain his composure.

 

Never before had Severus been tempted to do anything based on pure instinct; such was the desire to kiss Hermione tonight. Never had passion dictated that he do something other than what his logical mind instructed.

 

Was it foolish to offer her a chance to come and visit him more than their once a week scheduled meeting? Perhaps, but increasing the number of visits Hermione had within a period of time would speed up the process of his escape from Britain. It would be something to discuss on Saturday when he and Draco had their once a month product testing session.

 

For now, Severus needed to get drunk… very drunk, or he might let his mind wander to the reason why he had almost kissed Hermione and why it had troubled him to see her so emotionally dead earlier.

 

He just hoped Marf would have a vial of hangover relief potion available when he woke the next morning. The ex-Death Eater needed to be sharp when discussing last week's events with Shacklebolt and Draco.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Six
“Beauty Is Only Potions Deep"

 

Disclaimer: Let's all thank Miss Rowling for allowing us all to play with her characters and not suing our pants off for engaging in our little fanfic writing habits… so long as we make the proper disclaimers that she owns it all and we don't make any money off of it.

 

============

 

Saturday couldn't come soon enough for Hermione. Friday had been filled with one unpleasant situation after another.

 

Madam Dushka was waiting for Hermione in her office to notify her that her yearly performance review was coming up, and a large part of that depended on how quickly the junior witch could train Trevor Spawn in his new position as Potions Ingredient Tester. Friday morning was one rush job after another, ordered personally by Madam Dushka for certain apothecaries that had connections within the Ministry, as there had only been one Potions tester alive and working during the week. Friday day turned into Friday night, with Hermione still at work finishing up some last-minute jobs for Madam Dushka. By the time the weary witch stumbled home and out of her fireplace, exhausted and reeking like the dragon dung she tested just before heading home, she did not have the strength to bother eating dinner, much less cook dinner. Hermione forced herself to take a shower before collapsing into bed.

 

Sleep that night was also a nightmare in and of itself. Twice she woke up to find the bed squeaking and gently rocking, only to realize it was Ron wanking in the middle of the night. Hermione laid there in the dark pretending to be asleep, listening as Ron breathed as quietly as possible while his hand stroked his own flesh and thumped against his loins.

 

The second time she woke up to his masturbating again a few hours later, she opened her eyes and surreptitiously watched him in the dark. The moon, in its last quarter, shone through the window, faintly illuminating her husband’s profile. His flat, pale, hairless chest looked ghostly blue as it rose and fell quickly with each restrained gasping breath; while one of his long arms moved quickly, his free hand cupped his sac. Ron's eyes were shut tight, as his mouth hung slightly open from panting. When he came, his body tensed for a moment as he hissed, his mouth forming soundless words Hermione could not make out.

 

Ron went to the bathroom to clean up, giving Hermione a chance to roll over while not alerting him to her wakeful state. When he climbed back into bed, she felt the bed dip and heard the springs creak. As much as Hermione did not want to have sex with her husband, still being angry with him, she did miss the casual contact that they once had. Since Marge’s funeral, Ron hadn't touched her once. She missed the physical contact of her friend and husband: a small hug here, a stroke of the back there, a playful pat on the arse. From the cold disposition he now directed towards his wife when they were both awake and in each other's company, she wasn't about to make the first move and touch him, as she felt it would not be welcome.

 

When Saturday morning came, Hermione woke to find Ron had already left early for the Quidditch game. The witch was guilty with relief that she wouldn't have to face him that morning, and she could just get ready without having to deal with another outburst or his hostile glare.

 

Once she had eaten a simple breakfast of toast and tea, Hermione dressed and Apparated over to Harry and Ginny's home. Harry gave his wife a quick buss on the lips before the two witches Flooed over to Diagon Alley. They wanted to do some shopping before going to Madam Hope's Eternal Springs and Day Spa.

 

The witches went to their own vaults at Gringotts separately instead of joining the other, keeping the stomach churning cart rides down to a minimum.

 

As Hermione stepped into her and Ron's vault, she noticed the pile of coins was quite a bit larger than she expected. Instead of the twenty-five odd extra Galleons she was expecting from her frugal breakfasts and lunches – and the forfeit of Calleo's fees – there were a couple hundred extra Galleons she could not account for. Mrs. Weasley had always been very good in accounting for every Galleon she and Ron spent, keeping the household budget in check with their meager salaries, but there was quite a bit more than she expected. Wondering if some of it was due to Ron's new temporary position as starting Keeper for the Chudley Cannons, the thrifty witch took only what she calculated she had saved herself, plus expected expenses for the next month and rent.

 

Strolling along Diagon Alley, Hermione’s eyes began catching items displayed in the windows that she had never before noticed. Now that she had a little money to spare, purchases that she had denied herself or put off came to the forefront of her mind. Flourish and Blotts had the latest selection of Charms and Alchemy books in the window. Ginny had to bodily drag Hermione away from the front window, joking that the older witch left slobber marks and nose prints on the glass. The stationery shop next door was still yet another temptation to browse and possibly spend her steadfastly scrimped pile of money. Another yank of Hermione's arm from her redheaded friend, and the two were finally ambling along the crowded thoroughfare for some clothes shopping.

 

Hermione was ready to pass by Madam Malkin's and head to the second-hand robe shop, but Ginny cajoled Hermione into the slightly pricier establishment. She hadn't been into Madam Malkin's to buy new robes since just before the beginning of her seventh year at Hogwarts. Mrs. Weasley immediately started looking at the clearance rack for deeply discounted clothes. The only thing that inhabited that dark corner toward the back were robes and cloaks in the most horrendous colors, including neon chartreuse, a rather sickly muted-pastel blue, an ungodly violent fuchsia, baby shit green, and dirty mustard.

 

Picking up the mustard-colored robe, Hermione held it to her face, wincing at how the color made her skin look green in the mirror.

 

"That is definitely not your color, young lady," lectured the enchanted glass, her own reflection chucking the offending garment over her shoulder.

 

"Put that back," came Ginny's voice drifting over the rack. "You will not buy that. Come here, I've picked something out for you."

 

Hermione reluctantly emerged from the clearance section empty-handed to see Ginny holding up a simple yet elegantly cut robe in royal sapphire blue, and another one cut with a slightly higher waistline in royal purple.

 

"Ginny, I can't buy those!" Hermione protested.

 

"Why not?" Mrs. Potter countered.

 

"Well… well… those colors are just so… strong," Hermione explained.

 

"Hermione… dear… if you buy another outfit in one of those safe, dingy colors that make your skin look pasty, I swear I'll Incendio the thing before we even get out of the store," Hermione's friend threatened with a sincere smile that said she would indeed do such a thing. "These are your colors. You should be wearing jewel tones: emerald green, ruby red, sapphire blue, and royal purple. With your coloring, these will look fabulous on you. Trust me."

 

"I don't know. I don't think these will go with anything I own," Hermione said, trying to talk her friend out of making her try them on. If anything, she was afraid if she tried them on, Ginny would be right and Hermione would be tempted to buy them both.

 

"Just try them on. No one is twisting your arm to buy them. Just to see if the color does look good on you," Ginny pleaded with a hopeful expression. "If the color looks good on you, you can always buy a few tops and skirts later on to go with them. Besides, black, white and dark grays will always go with it, and you have a few of those colors in your wardrobe."

 

The older witch frowned, knowing that once they were on her back, she would most definitely be leaving the store with at least one of them. She was too afraid to look at the price tag for fear she couldn't afford even one.

 

Ginny cocked her head and said, "Listen, I'll make a bargain with you. Try them on and if you like both, you buy one, I'll buy you the other."

 

"No, Ginny. I couldn't." The brunette shook her head.

 

The younger witch made a counter offer. "How about if we make it an early birthday present? Hmmm?"

 

Thinking for a moment, Hermione reluctantly agreed. "All right."

 

As the royal purple robe slipped over her shoulders, Ginny let out a small gasp of glee as her eyes lit up.

 

"Oh, that is definitely a good color on you. Your skin looks great with that on," Ginny enthusiastically declared.

 

Hermione turned around and looked at herself in the mirror, trying to find something of fault with the color, but couldn't. It was a fabulous color on her, just as Ginny professed; however, it was one size too large. Just as she was about to tell Ginny about it being too big, Madam Malkin came up to the pair of shoppers.

 

"Is there anything I can help you two ladies with?" Madam Malkin said, looking at Ginny and not Hermione, as Mrs. Potter’s clothes showed she was the one with money to spend.

 

Mrs. Potter stuck her nose up in the air haughtily. "Yes, my friend here needs this on a smaller size. The color is perfect. Go fetch it, please." Ginny was doing a rather good imitation of Narcissa Malfoy, from what Hermione could remember of meeting the woman, including the little dismissive wave of the hand.

 

"Right away, Mrs. Potter," the store owner simpered before scurrying away to get the right size.

 

"That was rather snobbish of you, Ginny," Hermione stated, dumbstruck by her friend’s sudden attitude. "I'm surprised you would behave that way."

 

Ginny stepped forward conspiratorially. "Let me tell you a little something Draco taught me,” she whispered. “In certain shops, when you act like a rich bitch with piles of money to spend, the sales staff will help you and even go out of their way to make a sale. If you act like a decent human being, they don’t think you have the Galleons to spend and you will not get what you really want, because they won't fetch it for you out of the back, and so you wind up buying something you don't want instead."

 

Mrs. Weasley frowned at this arrogant attitude towards sales staff, but secretly wondered if there was some merit to this idea, as she had the hardest time getting the sales staff of some stores to help her.

 

Leaning forward even further, Ginny whispered, "I hate acting like a snob, but even when I married Harry and finally had the money to buy nice clothes, I couldn't get the sales staff to get me what I wanted. Once Draco taught me that little trick, I've never had a problem finding exactly what I want here."

 

Hermione raised her eyebrows in shock over that particular revelation, surprised that behaving normally towards a salesperson would result in getting snubbed and ignored. She highly doubted she could ever act that way to another person, even if it was to get the right-sized robes in the right color.

 

Madam Malkin came bursting out of the back room with an armful of robes in different styles, all in the same royal purple. "While I was back there, I saw these other styles in the same color. Would you care to try these on?"

 

Stunned, Hermione began trying on the dozen or so different robes before picking one that flattered her figure to the fullest.

 

"Good!" Mrs. Potter said with some finality. "Now go find us what you can in this color," Ginny's evil twin ordered Madam Malkin while holding up the royal sapphire blue robe.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Saturday couldn't come soon enough for Severus. Friday had been filled with one unpleasant situation after another.

 

His weekly parole meeting consisted of the usual question followed by a new mandatory procedure that required Shacklebolt to perform a Prior Incantato, to determine which spells Severus and Draco had cast during the past week. The Auror regretfully informed them that he would have to do that every week as part of a new measure in the aftermath of Dolohov's attack.

 

Dolohov's violent behavior resulted from a lingering frustration and growing resentment over having such limited powers, including his restrictive and demeaning job prospects, the inability to have a Floo connection at his place of residence, and the revoking of his Apparating license, among many other things. Severus had warned Shacklebolt that this sort of thing might happen when the Death Eater Decree first came out. However, this was the first incident where a rogue Death Eater was captured and questioned before being sent off to Azkaban; previously caught Death Eaters had been subdued and hexed by Aurors to the point where they could not answer questions coherently enough.

 

Miss Brown was in a perpetually foul mood all day Friday, snapping at Severus, to which he snapped back with equal irritation. He was so vexed that he didn’t get around to asking Miss Brown about her reason for starting this new line of sex Potions, and if it had anything to do with the price of Ashwinder eggs.

 

Friday night was spent late at the office dealing with a slew of owls addressed to Sebastian Delgado. One was from the British Potions Hobbyist League, a rather selective and elitist group of pretentious, thieving, sycophantic imbeciles he ever had the pleasure of refusing to join. The only reason they met and invited new members was to try to ensnare some unsuspecting Potions master or mistress into the group in order to get the person to talk about some new and experimental potion he or she was working on; they would then steal it and claim it for their own before the duped victim had time to publish the new potion as their own.

 

Severus was tempted to send a very pointed, but polite, refusal of their “kind offer” using a parchment infused with a rather nasty itching powder; he had developed this parchment during his apprenticeship years ago with hopes of sending letters to James Potter and Sirius Black. The Potions master never had the chance to test it on anyone, but he calculated the end result would be the affected person clawing the top layer of skin off most of their body before the potion wore off. Of course, he had also developed an antidote, but only did so in case of some unusual accident where he himself was exposed to it.

 

As Severus' research notes on the itching powder were buried somewhere among his many notebooks, he set fire to the invitation with an Incendio instead. The other letters he received were offers for Mr. Delgado to come work for other Potion manufacturing firms, as Miss Brown always gave Severus' nom de guerre as her firm’s consulting Potions master. Each letter was cast into the rubbish bin after being torn in half. What galled him more was the fact that with the name Severus Snape, he couldn't get himself a job with Potions with the legal restrictions; but with some made-up name and a few vague and unreliable references, and with word of mouth, he could command more respect and money than under his own name. He told himself it didn't matter, as he hoped that in less than a year he would be somewhere else, where his past – his one colossal mistake as a youth – would not be a hindrance to him anymore.

 

Saturday morning dawned. Severus set Marf out for the weekly shopping run, including a few particular items for next Thursday night's dinner with Hermione. After the elf was on his way, Severus grabbed his cloak and went to knock up Draco before heading off to the Lovely Lavender's headquarters.

 

Once inside the building, they picked up the latest test batch of potions, creams, lotions and assorted bottled beauty products they would be testing that day before Flooing over to the spa. There were a few new items Severus and Lavender believed they had finally perfected within the past month, but many of them were new and improved versions of existing products already on the market.

 

As much as Severus hating testing beauty products, he knew that part and parcel of being a Potions master was to test them on oneself before distributing to others. It was part of a Potions masters' equivalent to the Hippocratic oath. Draco, as part of the job of marketing, sales and advertising, tested the products with Severus once a month at a spa in which Miss Brown was a silent but substantial partner. The public was told that the men's side of the spa was closed down for monthly maintenance, while Draco and Severus would have the whole "men only" part of the spa to themselves in which to try products and relax all day long. Mr. Malfoy didn't mind having first crack at the new beauty products, and using them gave him insight into how to market and promote them.

 

They both realized the irony that Severus, who had been called many derogatory names regarding his unique and striking looks, was the creator behind forty percent of the beauty potions on the market.

 

As Severus and Draco exited the fireplace into the men’s lobby of Madam Hope's Eternal Spring and Day Spa, the only one to greet them was a house-elf. Only the house-elves were aware of the two ex-Death Eaters frequenting the spa once a month. As a large and silent partner, Miss Brown demanded that no one except the house-elves were to be on the men's side during the once-a-month closure, claiming that she needed to have her specialists test products without being disturbed by anyone. And as Miss Brown was in part the house-elves’ employer, they were sworn to secrecy regarding the two notorious wizards who came to the spa. Lavender claimed to her spa partners, who did not know the identity of these specialists, that it was to keep company trade secrets and guarantee products were not copied and brought to market before being launched by The Lovely Lavender Company. They agreed to her terms on the condition that she sell her products to the spa at slightly below wholesale costs.

 

The two wizards strode past the reception desk, down the hall and to the dressing room area.

 

As they undressed in their own private dressing rooms – large cubicles separated by Byzantine tapestries with chaise lounges and floor-length mirrors – they talked over the cloth dividers.

 

"Have you decided on a name for the latest cologne I developed?" Severus asked while unbuttoning his trousers.

 

Draco, in his own dressing room next door, answered, "Not yet. I want to get some feedback from you as to what your clients have said about it before I narrow down my list of possible names." The clink of his cuff links into a small vanity bowl rang like a bell, filling the momentary silence.

 

"Most of my clients haven't said much but to compliment me on my cologne. 'Oh, that smells nice,' but nothing beyond that." Severus hung his clothes on the enchanted valet station that would present him with clean pressed clothes at the end of his visit. "However, one client did say that the cologne on me smelled a bit hedonistic. She even commented that the scent of it had haunted her memory from the first time she smelled it on me."

 

Draco wrapped a towel around his waist and threw another exquisitely plush white one over his shoulder. "Oh! That gives me ideas! I like that." Pushing the curtain aside, he stepped out onto the cool tile floor.

 

Severus emerged a few seconds later covered in the same manner.

 

With a dramatic sweep of his hand in the air, Draco said in his best wireless announcer's voice, "'Haunt, the scent of you will haunt her.' I like that very much, a lot of potential there. Which client of yours said that?"

 

Averting his eyes and the question, Severus looked at the basket containing the several products that needed testing. "I suggest we start with the facial products, as using them after the sauna and steam room will affect the results."

 

"Fair enough," Draco agreed. "You still didn't answer my question. Who said that your cologne haunted her?"

 

"Hermione Weasley," Severus answered, trying not to grit his teeth in expectation of the slew of comments Draco could throw his way. When no snide quip came his way, Severus looked at Draco to see him looking at him oddly and with one brow cocked. "Don't. Just don't," Severus added tersely with narrowed eyes.

 

"I wasn't going to say anything," Draco replied coolly, his hands up in a gesture of surrender.

 

"She's the reason why I knew the cologne was a success. She was able to correctly identify the exact same scents Miss Brown identified when I wore it." In order to deflect more irksome questions about Hermione, Severus redirected the conversation. "You never did tell me what scents Ginny and Lavender detected when you wore it."

 

"A mixture of spice and cedar with amber, musk and Chypre, with hints of citrus, cumin and basil."

 

"Musk?" Severus asked to confirm.

 

"Yes."

 

"Interesting," Severus mused aloud. "Hermione mentioned smelling musk as well. I suppose since it is a natural male scent, it would only be amplified by the cologne."

 

"Well, Ginny technically did not say she smelled those particular scents, but I did have a sample of the individual scents for her to smell to decide if they were indeed the scents she identified," Draco elaborated.

 

"Hermione was able to name every single scent that Miss Brown identified on me. The witch really has a remarkable nose. Those years testing Potion ingredients have honed her talent. She has been able to identify every single ingredient in the tea I've brewed during her visits," the dark-haired wizard remarked, restraining anything resembling a smile, remembering Hermione naming a few rare herbs in her tea a few nights ago.

 

Severus almost mentioned it was becoming a game between Hermione and him, but held his tongue, as Draco was giving him even more pointed looks.

 

"So she's not quite as annoying as you thought she might be?" Draco asked a little too innocently.

 

Severus picked up the basket of test potions and did his best not to stomp off to the treatment rooms.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hermione walked into the women's lobby of Madam Hope's Eternal Springs and Day Spa and let out a huge relaxed sigh. She loved it here, and just the atmosphere itself made her feel serenely calm and tranquil.

 

The spa décor was a mixture of many styles, based mostly on cultures with strong communal bathing traditions. Between the Turkish, Russian, Finnish, Roman, and Japanese styles, the décor was a mish-mash that, though discordant to one another aesthetically, seemed to work together in the way the place was decorated. Styles ranged from the minimal slate and teak shower stalls, to the ornate mosaic swimming pools flanked with marble Corinthian columns, to the gingerbread-detailed Finnish saunas.

 

Ginny and Hermione both handed over their wands for safekeeping, and to prevent the wood from warping under the extremely warm and damp conditions of the facility. They were then led to the dressing room area by a clinically dressed, yet beautiful witch. Hermione suspected her French accent was fake.

 

As they undressed, they continued chatting about Harry's upcoming birthday party at the end of the month.

 

"You know I don't mind throwing Harry a birthday party every year," Ginny said, her voice carrying through the shoji divider between her and Hermione's dressing cubicles. "It's just that I would like to have a birthday party for myself one of these years too. I just feel that throwing another party for myself a couple weeks after Harry's is a bit much," the redhead admitted.

 

"Well, you could always roll them together," Hermione suggested.

 

"I mentioned that once. Though Harry agreed to the idea, I could tell he was a bit crushed. I think in his adulthood he's making up for all the horrible birthdays he had growing up with those awful relatives of his. I mean, can you imagine getting a pair of used socks for your birthday, or a piece of tissue, or a wire coat-hanger?!? Just the thought of it makes me want to cry, then go hex the wankers for being such utter rat bastards to him." Ginny gave a short huff. "I really think some of the issues Harry is dealing with are due to those wretched people. Maybe part of the reason why he is so emotionally distant at times is because he was never properly loved as a child."

 

"It could be that the only way Harry could cope during the war and be successful at Occlumency was to turn his emotions off," the older witch rationalized with some of her own recent personal insight. "Maybe he has to just relearn to relax and let himself feel once more. Speaking of which, how's counseling going?" Hermione inquired, changing the subject to keep her mind off her own emotional numbness that seemed to constantly pervade her state of mind.

 

Ginny emerged from her cubicle with a towel wrapped around her waist and a second towel draped over her shoulder, her upper torso and breasts exposed. Hermione joined her a second later with her towel securely wrapped around her torso, her modest nature not feeling comfortable walking around half-naked despite using communal showers at Hogwarts for seven years. She wished she had the self-confidence Ginny had with her own body.

 

"Well," Ginny began, after she looked about and noticed that there were no other patrons around within earshot, "his personal counseling on Monday nights is coming along nicely. There's a lot of survivor's guilt from the war, abandonment issues he's dealing with from not growing up with parents and Sirius dying, then there are his issues with trust. It's a long road, but he's getting there. Thanks you for not mentioning to Ron about Harry's personal counseling and letting us tell him about marriage counseling."

 

"That wasn't for me to tell Ron, it was for you and Harry to tell him," Hermione said, as she opened the door to the sauna, feeling the wall of heat envelop her. "Thanks for sticking up for me."

 

The redhead shrugged as if it was no big deal, joining Hermione in the cedar-lined room. "So, marriage counseling is not quite so smooth. A lot of the time Harry and I yell at each other or list off complaints. He mostly complains that I try and fight too much with him and nag him. I tell him if he just actually talked with me, instead of sitting in his study shut up like a clam, I wouldn't be nagging him. It gets rather cyclical in nature, each blaming the other for our own reactions." Ginny sighed deeply as she took the towel from around her waist and placed it on the bench to sit on, and wrapped the other towel around her head to keep her hair up and off of her face and neck.

 

Hermione finally took off her towel and mirrored Ginny's actions, realizing that she had nothing Ginny hadn’t seen before. "I'm sorry to hear that. It'll get better. It just takes time. So have you picked a theme for Harry's party?" the brunette asked.

 

"I was thinking of making it like a Muggle camping trip or like a pool party, as Harry bitterly remembers being left out of those trips as a child," Ginny said. "The marriage counselor says it might bring some closure to some of Harry's unfulfilled childhood longings."

 

"Speaking of which, I keep forgetting to ask you and Harry. Can you give me the name of your marriage counselor? I haven't had the chance to get to the Muggle Alliance for a recommendation." Hermione felt the oppressive heat seep into her bones and her pores open up. A layer of sweat covered her whole body, and it felt wonderful to bask in the heat, even though it was summertime.

 

"Sure. His name is James Hoover. He has his practice located near Redding. He recently put a Floo connection in a back room and knows how to deal with owl post. He's the uncle of a Ravenclaw who graduated same year as Charlie." Ginny wiped the beads of sweat from her brow so they wouldn't trickle into her eyes. "He charges on a sliding scale."

 

"Don't a lot of people," Hermione mumbled absentmindedly.

 

"What?" Ginny asked, pretending not to catch her friend's comment.

 

"Nothing." Hermione dismissed her own ramblings.

 

"Did you want to see a counselor regarding Dolohov's attack and Marge's death?" Ginny asked delicately.

 

"No, not really. I'm dealing with it myself." Hermione's voice brooked no argument that the situation was not up for debate.

 

"Well, you've always listened to me when I needed to talk about Tom, so if you ever need an ear, just Floo or Apparate over anytime," Ginny kindly offered, having read Severus' owl on Hermione's refusal to discuss the traumatic event. "Speaking of which," Ginny added, "Ron mentioned you weren't home that Thursday night of the attack when he came back."

 

"He did? When?" Hermione rebuffed, hoping to stall while she thought up a convenient and believable lie, since Ron never asked where she had been.

 

"Since Harry said you weren't at work during the attack. Where were you?"

 

Hermione wondered if someone kicked up the heat in the sauna another twenty degrees, as it suddenly felt unbearably hot. "I was just out," Hermione remarked offhandedly. "I think it's time for me to get out." She rose and grabbed her towel, quickly dashing off to the cool plunge pool.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Severus laid on his back with his hair wrapped up in a towel while a house-elf finished applying an even layer of the All Skin-Type Cleansing, Exfoliating, Purifying, and Toning Mask to his face. He could feel the gentle tingle of the cleansing bubotuber pus and the cool sensation from the tea tree oil. The avocado mixed with the strawberry seeds, in combination with the special seaweed tended by the Bretagne coast merpeople, felt quite pleasant on his skin as it began the exfoliating cycle of the mask.

 

This batch felt and smelled much more pleasant that the previous batch they tested last month, which had the smell of low tide and made his skin feel filmy after rinsing. A few adjustments, and the mask might be ready to produce and market. The Potions master and Miss Brown had been working on a facial mask that could be used on all skin types for almost a year, and it seemed that they were close to perfection.

 

"How does this batch feel, Draco?" Severus asked with some concern, as an earlier batch had made Draco break out in an itchy rash that was easily rectified once the yucca extract was removed.

 

"Much better. No burning sensation… this time," Draco announced from the table next to Severus'.

 

"How was I to know that you would have an allergic reaction to yucca?" Severus defended himself.

 

"Considering that I am distantly blood-related to about a fifth of the wizarding population in England alone, it was wise of you to remove that ingredient. The essence of murtlap feels quite nice. Since I do tend to have dry skin, it's quite soothing in fact," Draco observed, his hair wrapped up in a towel to keep it from getting into his face, which was coated with the green goop they were presently testing.

 

Between Severus' naturally oily skin, Draco's delicate dry skin, and Lavender's combination skin which was prone to hormonal monthly breakouts, the three of them were a sufficient base to see if this latest batch of the mask would indeed work on all skin types.

 

"So how was dinner with Mrs. Hermione Weasley?" the blond wizard asked as he propped himself up on one elbow, his lower-mid section covered by his towel. He was careful to not smirk, so his mask wouldn't crack during the cleansing phase.

 

Severus sat up and positioned himself towards the edge of the table he was lying on. "It was acceptable," he replied knowing Draco would be asking his usual questions.

 

"Acceptable? Why, coming from you, that sounds like a compliment. Next thing you know, you'll be saying she was even charming," Draco ribbed his mentor.

 

Severus grimaced slightly then stopped himself, as he could feel his mask crack and start to flake away around the corners of his mouth before the mask had even had time to start the purifying phase. "Just what are you getting at?" he asked impatiently.

 

"Nothing, nothing at all. It just seems that recently on Friday mornings you are in such a good mood… well, better than normal while we are on our way to see Kingsley," Draco commented, ignoring the house-elf who was applying the first coat of a pastel fuchsia to his nails.

 

"Could it be that each meeting I have with Hermione brings us closer to our freedom?" Severus replied, refuting what Draco was implying.

 

"Even if she was the Second Coming of Merlin himself, that alone wouldn't make you any more pleasant, or should I say less acerbic in your attitude."

 

"Just what are you saying?" Severus asked, knowing what his young friend was going to say anyway.

 

"I think you like meeting with her. You've said yourself that you actually enjoy conversations with her. Coming from you, that's means you are practically smitten with her," Draco proclaimed.

 

"Nonsense!" the older wizard exclaimed, while keeping his foot still as a house-elf was applying a coat of muted coral polish to his toes.

 

"Let's see," Draco began as he started listing examples. "You've cooked for her and made comments regarding the state of her health as if you are concerned for her. You even recommended to Ginny that when she mentioned taking Mrs. Weasley shopping, she should encourage her to buy jewel-toned robes, as they would be better colors than the drab darker colors she currently wears. Shall I go on?"

 

'He's almost as bad as Albus,' Severus silently fumed. 'Possibly worse.' "Firstly and secondly, she hasn't been eating properly, and if you have seen her recently, you could see how positively malnourished she is. What good would it do to have her help us if she winds up in St. Mungo's for starvation? At least if I can feed her once a week, I know she's eating and won't pass out, unlike what Ginny said she did last week. And as for her state of dress, if I see one more dingy worn-out robe on the witch, I shall burn it myself. The only thing missing from her robes to separate them from Lupin's are the patches. At least if she's going to buy something new, it should be something flattering versus the current selection she wears that makes her look anemic and sallow. If I have to look at her all evening, the sight of her should not make me wince." It was a far harsher statement than what Severus truly felt, but he was compelled to overstate facts in order to purge certain ideas out of Draco's head that he didn't want to admit to himself.

 

Fanart by Melanie AKA usagitsu on DeviantArt

"Speaking of making someone wince, that color on you is quite hideous," Draco noted, looking at Severus' toes. "If you are going to test the drying and smudge-proof ability of a nail polish, go with a darker tone like a wine red, not coral."

 

Severus lifted one foot to examine it and recoiled from the garish color, relieved that no other wizard other than Draco was around to see him wearing nail polish on his toes. He would wear it for a few hours to see if the setting solution with additional Jacaranda dew made it quicker to set and even harder to smudge and chip, thankful it would be coming off during his pedicure later that day.

 

"Better be careful, Draco, or I'll mention to Miss Brown what a complimentary color that frosted pastel fuchsia is on you. Needless to say, when it comes time to test new temporary hair colors, I will suggest we develop one to match your polish and insist you try some on your precious platinum locks. You just better hope that I consult Miss Brown on the right ratio of vinegar to gelatin, or the color could wind up being permanent. I wonder what Ginny would say if her lover had pink hair. You two would clash together so spectacularly," Severus added with a menacing chuckle that hinted that he would make good on his threat if Draco kept prodding him on the subject of his feelings, or lack thereof, towards Hermione Weasley.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Two witches sat listlessly in the steam room, listening to the water hiss and evaporate on the heat charmed rocks. Sweat trickled down Hermione's neck and chest, eventually running down between her breasts and over her stomach.

 

Glancing over, Hermione said, "I wish I had your body sometimes, Ginny. You've got the curves I always wished I could have. And your hair color is far better than this dark mop I have."

 

"What? Are you kidding me? You're the lucky one," Ginny whinged. "Everything I buy runs just a touch too long, because I have these big, fat hips that nothing will fit around. And my chest makes it so I have to buy a slightly larger size for tops or I look like some tart with her cleavage all shoved up front, like two ripe melons being presented on a platter. And you can have this color, you're welcome to it. I always wished I had your dark brown color. I've threatened to dye my hair once, and both Harry and Draco said no."

 

"But you've got these curves that wizards die for," Hermione insisted. "Everything looks so good on you. And besides, I'm tired of my dull, dull dark brown. I was thinking of lightening back to a more golden brown, like when I was a girl."

 

"Don't you dare dye your hair."

 

"Isn't that being a bit hypocritical coming from a witch who almost dyed hers?" Hermione said rhetorically.

 

"Yes," Ginny reluctantly admitted, "but with those new robes, if you lighten your hair, it will lose all the dramatic effect the color has with your hair and skin."

 

"Well," Hermione said slowly, thinking of the hair lightening kit she bought at the apothecary a week ago, but hadn't got around to using it. "What about just a few shades lighter?"

 

"No," Ginny said emphatically. "You need your dark chestnut locks to carry off those colors. Lighten your hair and the color will overpower you. Trust me on this."

 

"All right," the brunette witch reluctantly agreed. "I still wish I had your breasts instead of these sagging things. I don't have much at all, and they still sag. I'm twenty-three years old! They're not supposed to sag for decades!" Hermione complained plaintively.

 

"You think mine defy gravity on their own without a little help?" Ginny replied.

 

"You charm yours?" Hermione asked, aghast that witches did such a thing other than to teeth and hair.

 

"Of course. How else do you think I can wear those strapless dresses to functions without my breasts jiggling about like a blancmange in an earthquake?" the redhead explained. "I've got to control the girls. If you want, I'll teach you the charm. It's really nice to use on hot days when it's too unbearable to wear a bra."

 

Hermione nodded, enthusiastic over the prospect of learning a new charm, even if it was for vanity.

 

"I'm just about ready to get out and rinse off before I go for my massage and body scrub. So I'll see you in a few hours," Ginny said as she rose from her seat on the tiled bench.

 

As Mrs. Potter walked out of the steam room naked without covering herself, Hermione scrutinized Ginny's backside and wondered how the witch could complain about having voluptuous curves like that. At every Ministry function Hermione, Ron, Harry and Ginny attended together, the older witch saw the way wizards' eyes roved over Mrs. Potter's body as she passed through a room, and she knew no wizard ever ogled at her like that. Even Ron never looked at her with abandoned lust like some wizards did openly at Ginny when Harry was not by her side.

 

Hermione sat in the steam room for a few more minutes before leaving to rinse off for her own massage.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Severus was trying the second test batch of improved body polishing scrub on his left arm, comparing it to the first batch he tried on his right arm. Both scrubs seemed to do a good job of removing the dead skin and giving it a healthy glow, but the second batch seemed more abrasive due to the addition of the ground beetle carapaces. On the basis of ten strokes on each arm, the Potions master could tell his left arm was slightly raw, whereas his right arm felt clean without the sting of taking too much skin off. He made a quick mental note before trying a newly improved version of the Valiant Wizard Deep Cleansing Shampoo for Oily Hair. He thought it was fine as is, but Miss Brown wanted to see if she could change it so that it would add more body without drying his hair out. The last thing Severus needed was flyaway hair.

 

Draco called out over the shower stall divider, "What did you add to the fine hair shampoo formula? It tingles."

 

"Ah, Miss Brown mentioned that the latest customer survey you did found that wizards with dry hair tend to have dandruff, so this is a version of the Valiant Wizard Fine Hair Shampoo with a dandruff blocker potion I added," Severus shouted back.

 

"It's not going to do anything funny to my scalp, since Malfoys don't suffer from dandruff, is it?"

 

"No, but I thought it needed testing to see if you would have a reaction, since your skin is so sensitive to many potions," Severus explained. "What is that term you discovered when you were trolling the Muggle apothecaries once?"

 

"Hypoallergenic."

 

"Ah, yes. That's the one. Such a fancy term for potions designed for sensitive skin," Severus mused out loud.

 

Draco turned off his shower and began drying off as Severus rinsed and repeated. Just as the dark-haired wizard emerged from the shower dripping wet and looking a bit pink in patches all over his body from testing several new products on various body parts, the blond wizard had already dried off and was donning a long, white, plush terry dressing gown.

 

"Off to meet Ginny?" Severus asked.

 

"Yes. I love the fact that this spa was rebuilt during the Restoration period, so it was designed with certain… amenities," Draco replied.

 

"You mean secret doors to rendezvous chambers where nobility would come to have clandestine trysts with lovers and courtesans while their spouses were in other parts of the baths," Severus elaborated.

 

"Exactly," Draco said with a sly smirk.

 

"Give Ginny my regards," Severus said as he bid Draco adieu for a few hours.

 

He was glad the younger wizard would be gone for a few hours in order to give himself a bit of time to expel some of the niggling feelings Draco aroused during his questions regarding Hermione.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hermione laid on the massage table feeling completely boneless while the masseuse, who looked like she could be a professional Beater for England's Quidditch team, pummeled, ripped apart and reassembled Hermione's muscular structure like a jigsaw puzzle. The only thing Hermione had to tell the witch was that she stood over cauldrons all day long; this told her masseuse exactly where most of the tension was manifesting itself in her mid- and lower-back.

 

As she drifted in and out of sleep, Hermione wondered if Calleo knew how to give more than just neck and shoulder massages. He seemed to know exactly where to place his hands, with an innate knowledge of where her headache was residing, and knew the right pressure points to address in order to allow her to enjoy the rest of her evening with Calleo.

 

'Calleo,' she inwardly sighed. Hermione was surprised to see him open the door without his headscarf on, but was thrilled to finally see his locks so she could fill in another missing mental piece of him. 'Black, black hair like a raven's wing. Long enough to run my fingers through it.' She wondered how it would feel as it slipped through her fingers.

 

Hermione had been attracted to men with dark hair ever since she dated Viktor Krum. His dark thick hair, dark brown eyes and distinguished profile made him look handsome, as opposed to other boys his age who tended to look pretty or cute. There was that crush on Professor Lockhart in her second year, but in light of his ineptitude, she no longer felt drawn towards the blond hair, blue eyes set, preferring a wizard with darker features. Sirius Black, once he cleaned up and no longer looked like a ragged scarecrow, peaked her hormonal interest; but at the time he was so much older than her, and she found it difficult to be attracted to a man she knew was old enough to be her father.

 

Then there was Professor Snape. The man wore a perpetual scowl on his face, and his unpleasant personality colored her perceptions of him; even to this day she could not recall what he looked like without his sarcastic voice echoing in her head, laying insult upon scathing remark about her bookish behavior or appearance. There were times Hermione wondered if Professor Snape would have loathed her as much if she were a Ravenclaw, or if she weren't a friend of Harry's. She did know that she never knew the man beyond what little he showed of himself, beyond the façade of an unapproachable man. Professor Snape had the dark hair and dark eyes and prominent nose she usually found handsome, but his personality was so offensive to her, she could never find anything attractive about the man.

 

Now a new man had come into Hermione's life to fuel her sexual fantasies. Calleo had quickly replaced Viktor in her mind, as a sexual object to fixate upon in order to bring herself to orgasm. The memories of Viktor were so old, she could not recall them over the many years of Ron's touch. The memory of Calleo's touch burned brightly into her mind, each time he kissed her hand goodbye, rubbed her shoulders or brushed his hands against her as he helped her with her cloak.

 

Last Thursday night, as Calleo helped her with her cloak, Hermione had become so aroused that when she got home, she had found her folds slick with viscous desire. She had locked the door to the bedroom and cast a Silencing charm so she could finger-fuck herself into oblivion, imagining it was Calleo's fingers deep inside of her stroking that elusive spot Hermione had heard about, but had never reached; the one her old lunch mates talked about like some great carnal secret. Satisfied with a few small orgasms, she showered and crawled into bed only to hear Ron come home shortly afterwards.

 

Here she was on the massage table feeling the telltale signs of arousal seeping between her legs while lustful and prurient thoughts of Calleo fucking her with unrestrained passion flitted through her mind. Her heart raced as she visualized herself straddling him naked on the settee, his large, strong hands grabbing her hips and guiding her up and down as she slid up and down his shaft.

 

Fortunately, Hermione's massage was near the end. Once the masseuse left, Hermione jumped off the table and hurried back to her private dressing room, locking the door. Casting off her long white terry dressing gown, she straddled the chaise lounge and began masturbating herself, using her legs to impale herself repeatedly on her fingers while she rubbed her nipples against the brocade upholstery as she rose and fell. She imagined herself straddling Calleo's body, his chest hair and hands brushing against her breasts, his hands upon her hips guiding her up and down.

 

As she looked in the mirror placed behind the chaise, she saw herself flushed with desire, which heightened the tingling feeling coiling in her belly. Hermione wondered what it would look like to watch herself ride Calleo like a water nymph rides the swells of the sea. If Calleo had been really under her that moment – his cock filling her inside, alleviating this aching she had between her legs, satisfying this base desire that filled her with wanton hunger – then maybe, maybe she could forget all that was wrong and just live in the moment of lust and sweat and friction. The memory of his breath on her neck, the sounds of his breathing came to her, and she came with a great shudder, biting her lip to keep from crying out aloud.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Severus laid on the chaise lounge panting loudly, thankful Draco was busy with Ginny and not around to hear him masturbating in his dressing room. As his heart thumped painfully in his chest, he could still imagine Hermione straddling him, riding him, her feet planted on either side of the chaise lounge as her legs worked to raise and lower herself onto his cock, her wild hair a halo that swayed with each movement. Of all the masturbation fantasies Severus had had of Hermione, this one seemed almost real, as if she was there, her breasts bouncing in front of his face, her lean body arching and bucking as he thrust up from underneath.

 

And when Severus came, he swore he could hear Hermione whisper his alias, 'Calleo.'

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Feeling quite relaxed and a little dreamy from her little private interlude with herself, Hermione sauntered lazily to the champagne springs to soak for a bit while waiting for Ginny before her own body scrub. The tiny warm bubbles traveled up her body, creeping up her legs and between her slightly swollen lips.

 

After quick glance around to see if there was anyone else in the communal spring, Hermione laid her head back and let her legs spread slightly to allow more bubbles to gently stroke and tickle her labia and clitoris. It almost felt like vibrating hairs being dragged along her flesh. She gave a small hum of appreciation over the sensation that was prolonging her blissful state.

 

When the sound of a door opening echoed throughout the room, Hermione brought both legs together quickly and sat up straight, while trying hard not to look guilty over the fact she was getting turned on from the bubbles dancing on her skin below.

 

"Oh good, you're here," Ginny called out, looking positively glowing and relaxed.

 

"Good massage and body scrub?"

 

"Absolutely," her friend sighed with a contented smile, as she slipped into the champagne springs to join Hermione. "God, I love sitting in these springs. It feels positively…" Ginny looked about and waggled her brows. "Naughty."

 

Both witches burst into gales of giddy laughter, knowing the exact meaning of Ginny's words; their laughter and smiles were an admission of guilt.

 

The atmosphere felt so peaceful and quiet at the moment that Hermione's brain decided to ruin the moment by wondering if Ginny had stopped seeing Draco. But as she had made a promise to herself to curb her curiosity and adopt a "don't ask, don't tell" policy on the matter, the older witch held her tongue and banished all thoughts of that nature from the forefront of her mind. Today was a day to relax and rejuvenate, not fixate on problems that stressed her out so much that she would drink on an empty stomach or not sleep for most of a night.

 

Ginny cleared her throat and visibly swallowed. "Hermione? Can I tell you a secret? Will you promise not to tell Harry or Ron?"

 

The perfect moment was ruined. The tension that had inhabited Hermione's body for the past several months returned slowly; her muscles began tightening, and the warmth of the springs began to feel annoying and prickling to her skin. Not wanting to promise to anything she would regret, she replied in a very Slytherin fashion, "That depends on what it is."

 

Ginny looked a bit bashful as she said, "It's nothing bad. Even Mum knows about it."

 

"Oh," Hermione said, looking a bit stunned and simultaneously relieved. 'Is she pregnant?' Part of Hermione wanted it to be yes, but another part of her hoped it was no, wondering that if she was, would it be Harry's or Malfoy's child? If it were Malfoy's child, would Ginny still be magically bound to her husband? "Go ahead."

 

"Well," Ginny said hesitantly, leaning forward, "I've been taking belly dancing classes for ten years."

 

"What?" This was the last thing Hermione expected to hear Ginny admit. "What do you mean for the past ten years? How did – when – and what do you mean Harry and Ron don't know?" she said with a little exasperation.

 

"That's just it. I started taking lessons right after that trip to Egypt. Mum thought it would be kind of fun for me after I asked, and Dad was aware of the lessons, but we never told my brothers, as they would have gone off on some weird rant about lascivious dancing and their baby sister and such," Ginny explained. "Needless to say, when we did see belly dancers in Egypt, they were all too thrilled to sit there and stare with their mouths hanging open, drooling like a bunch of dogs. So I asked if I could learn to dance like that, and Mum arranged lessons in a Muggle town nearby."

 

"So Harry doesn't know? Why not?"

 

"Because if I tell him, then Ron will find out," Ginny said a little hotly.

 

"Well, maybe if you ask Harry not to tell—"

 

Hermione was cut short by Ginny emphatically saying, "No! I told Harry, in confidence, about how years ago Dean Thomas wanted to have sex during my fourth year, then Harry went off and told Ron. I told Harry not to tell Ron, and then he went off and spilled the beans anyway."

 

"Is this something you've talked about in counseling?" Hermione asked.

 

"Yes, but Harry rationalized it away by saying my brother had a right to know about how his dorm mate was trying to push me into sex when I wasn't ready – and this was something that happened years ago, mind you," Ginny growled. "So Ron blew up and went on another one of his emotional volcano outbursts and bugged me as to why I didn't tell him, and… it was just so unpleasant. The counselor did take Harry to task for betraying my confidence and trust, and told him that part of trust was not only trusting others, but allowing others to trust him as well."

 

"So why are you telling me? Why now?" Hermione asked, wondering if Ginny had an ulterior motive and if this was some sort of test of her confidence.

 

"Because I trust you won't tell Harry or Ron." Ginny looked away, focusing her attentions on the tendrils of steam floating up from the spring water.

 

Hermione sat there feeling pulled like a piece of taffy between three people. Ron, who was trying her patience and her tolerance; Ginny, who was testing her friendship with the slew of secrets she kept; and Harry, who she felt loyal to, yet lied to on behalf of Ginny in hopes of keeping the two together despite his emotional detachment to his own wife.

 

"Are you going to eventually tell them? You are an adult. There's not much they could do about it since you've been doing it for ten years," Hermione said logically. "It's not like they could take those lessons back."

 

"I could tell them, but then there's the whole, 'Oh why didn’t you tell us sooner, Gin?' Then they'd go into the rant about immoral dancing, keeping secrets and things. They don’t want to know, trust me."

 

She knew she was going to regret asking, but the older witch did anyway. "Does anyone else besides your Mum and Dad know?"

 

Ginny looked up at her with a little smirk, looking a little guilty. The older witch knew her answer before it left her mouth. "Draco."

 

"Why? Why him and not your husband?" Hermione's mouth was set in a stern frown.

 

The redhead cocked her head sideways and scrutinized Hermione, as if she was trying to peer into her soul. Finally she said, "Hasn't there ever been anyone in your life you could tell your deepest, darkest secrets to and not fear being judged?"

 

Hermione ducked her head in an attempt to hide the sudden blush upon her cheek. Her ears felt like they were burning. "No," she lied quietly, "but I guess I do see your point."

 

Groaning, Hermione got out of the water and grabbed her towel and dressing gown. "I think I'm going to cool down in my room for a while before I go for my body scrub."

 

Ginny informed her as she left that she was going to the sauna and the steam room for a bit, and would meet Hermione in the spa garden for tea later.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Seven
“Truss Me"

 

Disclaimer: If you honestly think that I own any part of Harry Potter, including concepts, characters, books, movies, franchise rights, monies, or copyright, you are either mad, incredibly obtuse, or Gilderoy Lockhart has hit you with one too many Obliviates. In the first or last case, go check yourself into St. Mungo's while chanting, "Betz doesn't own anything relating to Harry Potter." If it's the second case, you'll have to ask Severus Snape if there is a potion to cure stupidity.

 

============

 

Knock. Knock-knock-knock. Knock. Knock.

 

'You're tardy, Miss Anne.' Severus opened the door and bid his Saturday night client welcome, holding his tongue about her late arrival.

 

Miss Anne bounced into Severus' flat with her usual youthful enthusiasm; dressed smartly in her summer robes and her hair pulled up off her neck. There was no errant tendril escaping her immaculate coiffure to lure Severus to her neck, nor was there anything demure about this witch.

 

"Hello, Bob," the young and well-heeled witch chirped. "Sorry I'm late. Ran into friends on the way here, couldn't be helped." There seemed to be no contrition in Miss Anne's tone.

 

Severus surveyed the young woman in front of him. Sure, she was beautiful and rich, but she also tended to be a bit vain, inconsiderate and flighty. Hermione would never be late to an appointment with him, as he knew it was not in her nature to be tardy or thoughtless. The one saving grace to Miss Anne was her willingness to experiment in avenues of pleasures most witches did not think even existed.

 

"Undress," Severus ordered her curtly, "and do not speak until you are spoken to."

 

The witch gave him a submissive nod of her head, knowing what lay ahead. Severus sat down on the settee and watched her disrobe for his pleasure.

 

"Turn around," he commanded, and Miss Anne obeyed, spinning around slowly before Severus told her to stop facing away from him. "Continue."

 

Though her hair was strawberry blond, Severus did his best to ignore the color, imagining it a much darker shade, while concentrating on her backside and the curve of her bottom, the shape of her legs and how they had been wrapped around his waist many times. Miss Anne was one of they key benefits to his night job: shapely, willing, and had a tendency to avoid idle and meaningless chatter. She was every wizard's fantasy, and he had the privilege of being paid to fuck her till she couldn't walk straight.

 

From what little they talked and what Miss Brown had told him, Miss Anne had had a string of rather public and messy affairs with many eligible wizards whom she later would invariably find out had been bedding one of her friends or her Muggle sister, or had a preference for wizards instead. Tired of the dating scene and the press covering her every move, but not willing to shelve her active libido, Miss Anne, who was a casual friend of Miss Brown’s, was directed to the services of Severus. With Severus' confidential nature, she was sure her sexual tastes would not make it into the press. He would not give an exclusive expose to Witch Weekly, unlike an old boyfriend with an old grudge or empty pockets that needed lining with blackmail money to keep quiet.

 

She continued to stand there quietly and patiently once undressed, knowing it was expected of her from Bob's tone.

 

Wanting to try something novel this evening, Severus strode over to his armoire and pulled out one of his more ornate feathered masks. Walking up behind her, he secured the black and red feathered mask over her face. With his Bauta mask on and the full-face mask on Miss Anne, he could pretend for a night that Hermione was here at his sexual beck and call.

 

"Get on the bed on your hands and knees," Severus demanded. This would have been a convenient time to wear a half-mask, as he could enjoy the fantasy of probing Hermione's depths with his tongue, but the illusion of wearing his habitual Casanova was more arousing than any taste from the kneeling witch's cunt.

 

As she crawled onto the bed, Severus was tempted to drop his trousers right there and take her from behind, but instead waited until she was on the bed before slipping up behind her and stroking her damp sex with his long and dexterous fingers. As his fingers began to slide into her, first one, then two, three, then four fingers, Miss Anne began arching her back and meeting his thrusts, groaning and panting like some stray bitch in heat.

 

After she came, her muscles clenching around his hand, he ordered her to undress him and then stroke his cock. As he lay sprawled on the bed watching the witch prostrate herself at his knees while her hand pumped up and down his length, he tried to imagine Hermione's hands wrapped around him instead. He was not able to maintain the fantasy; it too much resembled Miss Anne and not his brunette fantasy, so he ordered her back on her knees and quickly plunged himself into her from behind. As she bucked against him, he drove himself into her with a fierce determination to bury himself in her so deeply she would split in half, and Severus closed his eyes trying to imagine it was Hermione instead. A semi-coherent groan escaped his lips as he came deep inside her just as Miss Anne reached her own peak.

 

As he pulled out of her unceremoniously, she finally spoke and asked, "What did you call me?"

 

'Oh shit.' Did her really say something he didn't mean to in the heat of passion? Severus would have to be much more careful in the future, but for now he had to drag out an answer until he could think of a believable one. "What do you think I called you?" he queried, unsure what he said himself.

 

"Something like 'my knee'? At least it sounded like that," she answered.

 

'Oh bloody fuck.' The raven-haired wizard really did call out her name. This simply would not do. Hermione was getting under his skin and he was getting too involved with her for his own good. He would have to speed up the process in which she discovered his true identity before other catastrophic mishaps occurred.

 

For now, he had to make up a quick and credible lie. "I called you, 'my peony,'" Severus said sweetly, as he reclined back, patting the bed next to him to invite her to lay next to him instead of getting up and dressing like she did on some nights, once they had both reached orgasm.

 

As she settled next to him, she asked, "Can I take this mask off now?"

 

"No, it's part of the illusion that we are whoever we want to be," he fibbed partly. Actually, he wanted to pretend she was someone else entirely.

 

"See, that's what I like about you. You're so creative. I can always count on a good time when I come see you," she praised him.

 

"I thought we would try something different tonight. Talk, perhaps," Severus suggested, desperately thinking that maybe if he could have an intelligent conversation with his most physically pleasurable clients, then thoughts of a particular brunette witch, which had been recently plaguing him with great intensity and frequency, would recede. If he could somehow talk with some of the clients he shagged with the same passionate intensity that Hermione drew out in him during their conversations, he might stop fantasizing about her and no longer think fondly of their evenings together.

 

"Sure, why not? I'm game," Miss Anne agreed flippantly. "What shall we talk about?"

 

"What interests you?" he asked, allowing her to lead the conversation, as he had no idea what captured her imagination.

 

"Well, I just read in Witch Weekly how this fall the bias cut robes will be all the rage," she began prattling on excitedly.

 

Severus suppressed an exasperated groan of despair, as the witch began rambling on all matter of things of no importance. He just hoped that if he fell asleep sitting up while she continued talking without pause, that his head would bob in his sleep during the right spots to make her think that he was awake and paying attention.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hermione came home just in time to fix dinner, only to find that Ron wasn't home. There was a note on the bedroom door attached with some Spellotape.

 

-------

 

Hermione,

 

The game ended a little earlier than expected, as Wally caught the Snitch in less than 30 minutes. Some of the other men on the team decided on an impromptu pub-crawl, so I won’t be home till late. If I drink quite a bit, I may not make it home, as I don't want to splinch myself or Floo to the wrong place.

 

Hope you read this note before making dinner for two.

 

Ron

 

-------

 

'Well, that kind of puts a damper on my plans,' Hermione bitterly thought.

 

She had spent most of the day at the spa and allowed herself to relax for the first time in ages. With plenty of time to herself, while Ginny was away getting her own treatments, Mrs. Weasley had time to reflect on her marriage and sex life from a more tranquil perspective.

 

Ginny did mention earlier that day that men were like dogs that needed to be trained, especially in the bedroom. Some men were more difficult to train than others, while others were just natural at learning tricks. 'Isn't that a rather bad pun – tricks – considering who she's shagging. Silly rabbit, tricks are for prostitutes.' Hermione groaned at her own forced pun and the free association images that sprung up in her mind: dogs; collars and leashes; men on all fours; men on street corners leaning up against lampposts; Ron in a dog collar on all fours being hit over the nose with a rolled-up newspaper for leaving the seat up on the toilet; Malfoy in a miniskirt, torn fishnet stockings and platform high heels, leaning over to talk to a trick cruising by in a car.

 

Forcing her mind back to her original train of thought, Hermione thought it might be nice to seduce Ron while trying to teach him how she liked to be touched. She had tried some years ago, but in his teenage hormonally overcharged exuberance, he just sprinted towards the finish line, ignoring foreplay and reaching orgasm quickly instead of learning to take a leisurely stroll along her body. Now that they were very accustomed to each other's bodies, perhaps now was a good time to instruct him to take things a little slower. Mrs. Weasley did wonder if her suggestions and requests would be misconstrued as complaints and bossy direction in the bedroom. Her husband did seem to be rather thrilled when she took the initiative before, which she rarely did, when he had found her fingering herself while fantasizing about Calleo. Maybe taking the initiative with sex and telling him what she liked would be the key to improving her sex life. Maybe if her sex life weren't so pitiful, Hermione wouldn't be tempted every time she masturbated with thoughts of Calleo's cock buried deep inside of her.

 

Since she had the whole evening to herself, Hermione wasn't sure what to do, so she began going through her mental list of things she had put off.

 

Once she had sent Pig off to her parents with a note suggesting Sunday dinner at her parents’ home next weekend on the twenty-seventh, Hermione cast a cleaning charm on the kitchen to take away the layer of grime she had recently noticed. A few more charms, and all the kitchen cupboards were reorganized.

 

Walking into the bedroom, Hermione was tempted to start laundry when she laid eyes upon the heaping pile of clothes which she was planning on washing the next day, but decided against it. She was feeling refreshingly clean from her day at the spa, and didn't want to feel dirty again from standing over a cauldron full of hot water and soiled clothes.

 

Sitting on the bed, Hermione summoned the snow globe her parents gave her when they came back after the war. During the last few months of the war, Wendy and Wallace Granger were encouraged by Albus Dumbledore to go on an extended holiday in another country, preferably on another continent for safety purposes. Wards and Fidelius charms were fine, but with the wrong person finding out certain information or unsuspecting spies within the Order, it was safer to just ship them off to points unknown to everyone other than the Headmaster and Hermione.

 

Her parents had rented a rather fancy caravan outfitted with the latest amenities and toured the United States, calling it a long overdue second honeymoon. There were many presents they had brought back for Hermione once Voldemort was dead. She had a rather nice pair of silver and turquoise earrings her parents brought her from a jewelry shop owned by Navajo Indians, and an alligator skin coin purse they picked up in Louisiana. There was another pair of earrings set in three-colored gold mined from the Black Hills of the Dakotas. Hermione didn't have the heart to tell her parents that Black Hills gold had been cursed by the Lakota shamans, and she doubted even Bill could break the curse cast on the gold. So long as she didn’t wear it, she felt the curse would not affect her. Her hand-woven Nantucket basket regularly accompanied her on trips to the market, and she enjoyed snuggling under her warm Amish quilt on winter nights in front of the fire, but it was this simple little snow globe that made her smile the most.

 

It was a large snow globe with a music box set into the base. Inside the little globe was a miniature characterization of San Francisco. Her parents pointed out all the highlights they saw represented in the tiny model, including the Golden Gate Bridge, the Transamerica Pyramid, Coit Tower and Chinatown. There was a hill with a pair of molded cable cars that Hermione charmed to run up and down the steep hillside when she turned on the music box. With a simple tap of her wand, the music began playing.

 

The tinny music played the first verse of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" over and over again, as the flakes of fake snow swirled and floated about the sphere. She smiled as the music played on. It was the least practical gift her parents brought back, and perhaps this keepsake was the most sentimental for that reason, reminding her that every now and again some frivolity in life is needed. She had never imagined her parents ever spending good money on something whose only purpose was to collect dust and take up space, so for that sake alone, it warmed her heart.

 

Was Ron something that collected dust and took up space in Hermione's heart? He wasn't a knickknack that she couldn't just throw away, he was a human being with feelings and a mind of his own. She had a history with him, and they had made a promise to love, cherish and respect each other with their wedding vows. Perhaps these were vows that she couldn't fulfill.

 

Hermione carefully put her snow globe back on her dresser in its place of prominence next to her wedding picture and jewelry box.

 

"What now?" the witch asked herself out loud.

 

She really didn't feel like doing any more cleaning, and a quick look at her bookshelves revealed no interest in reading books she had read at least three times over already.

 

"I need a new library," she grumbled, remembering she had not bought herself a new book since Christmas when Ron had taken her to Flourish and Blotts so he could buy her exactly what she wanted. Granted, all the fun and surprise had been taken out of their gift-giving years ago when they had both realized they were terrible at picking out gifts for each other without the recipient's help. So every birthday, Hermione could count on Ron bringing her to the bookstore every September, and Hermione would take Ron to the Quidditch supply store every March. There was the rare instance where Ron had help from Ginny or Harry to pick a present, but those times were few and far between.

 

"Do I really want to go to Flourish and Blotts?" she asked herself. The best student at Hogwarts in recent history did love going to the bookstore, but decided to not risk temptation, knowing there were a few extra unaccounted for Galleons in her and Ron's vault.

 

'When's the last time you went out by yourself? Just went out the door with no plans and had a good time?' There was the brief recollection of the older wizard propositioning her in a seedy dive to come back to the Leaky Cauldron with him, but she dismissed the memory. 'What am I going to do? What is there to do?'

 

"Accio Daily Prophet." The paper flew into her hands. Scanning the entertainment and cultural events calendar, Hermione settled on an amateur production of "Merlin and Morgana: The Lost Years" that was playing in Hogsmeade in the newly-built cellar amphitheater located under the Three Broomsticks.

 

Noticing the time, Hermione grabbed her new purple cloak and Apparated to Hogsmeade with only ten minutes to spare before the curtain rose.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Severus had no idea what possessed him to engage in conversation with Miss Anne. Perhaps it was some twisted thought that he did not have enough suffering and misery in his life, and he should get a healthy dose of it while in her 'enthralling' company. It could have been that he was letting the little head think for the big one, though even his own prick had more conversation skills than Miss Anne. At least when she had his cock in her mouth, she was quiet.

 

However, the fact remained that Miss Anne was still wearing the full-face mask and he could not shut her up by ordering her to perform fellatio. The benefit of having her remove the mask would be to quiet her prattling by doing something more constructive, like wrapping those lips of hers around his now flaccid length. But once the mask came off, the illusion would be gone. It was no use, the illusion could not be maintained with her constant inane chatter. Either way, there was no way he would feel aroused by her presence anymore that night.

 

Why did he encourage Miss Anne to talk? It could have been he found their session tonight less than satisfying. Granted, she was just as beautiful, enthusiastic, responsive, and wet as ever, but the act seemed hollow once completed. There was nothing of substance to the encounter. Yes, he had always promised himself when the war was over he would engage in as much meaningless, no-strings-attached sex as possible, eluding relationships and promises of fidelity, but suddenly all of it seemed tired and empty. When did this sudden ambivalence towards casual sex take root? Severus had a feeling it started when Hermione walked into his life almost four weeks prior, but he wasn't about to admit it to himself.

 

With the exception of Katherine Bigelow, he was starting to find the company of his other clients rather bothersome. They whinged constantly, and when they weren't complaining about bad husbands and thoughtless boyfriends, they would talk endlessly about themselves. He was only slightly more tolerant of those with true troubles and worries in their lives, due only to his belief that the universe held a balance sheet, and he still had not paid off his debt to Albus for all the years the old man had listened to him complain, whinge, bitch, piss, and moan about students, the Dark Lord and other things. Still, no other clients, with the exceptions being Katherine and Hermione, engaged in lively debates with him about all manner of subjects, and Katherine was no longer one of his clients.

 

Severus didn't miss Katherine, per se, but he was glad she was able to move on with her life in ways he still had not. The change of scenery with her move to Spain was just what Katherine needed to close that chapter of her life. Severus wondered when the page would turn for him and he could begin anew, finally putting the memories of his wife to rest and his dark and bedeviled past behind him.

 

Tired of inane gossip and the drone of Miss Anne's voice, Severus interrupted her. "Please, don't let me keep you from joining your friends. If you must leave, don't let me stop you. I know what a busy social calendar you have."

 

"I don't have anywhere to go tonight. I'm all yours, " she said, much to his chagrin. He could hear the smile in her voice. Her fingers were lightly trailing up his arm, drawling lazy patterns over his Dark Mark.

 

'Merlin, kill me now,' he silently pleaded in misery. "You have really exhausted me this evening. So I must request we pick this up next week at our usual time," he politely, yet sternly informed the eager witch.

 

"Well, I always could spend the night. I'm willing to pay a lot more," she purred.

 

"No." His answer was resolute.

 

"But you don't even know how much I'm willing to pay," Miss Anne parried.

 

"It doesn't matter. I don't wake up next to clients," Severus replied firmly, getting more irritated by her insistence with each passing minute.

 

"I could make it worth your while," she said suggestively. "Remember that little fantasy I had about getting a wine enema, then later letting you have your wicked way with me with every phallic vegetable conceivable while you fucked me up the arse? You certainly seemed open to the suggestion when I mentioned it a few weeks ago."

 

Severus' cock stirred at the thought of Miss Anne tied down to his bed, gag in place, legs and arms hoisted and bound so she that looked like a contorted and trussed-up turkey, a rather large courgette stuffed up her twat and her arse lubed within an inch of her life; it was a decadently depraved, double penetration fantasy come true. Then suddenly the thought of just leaving her there like that and walking away from her to see her squirm and fight, indignant over not getting fucked and just walked out on, amused him more than the idea of violating her eighty different ways until the crack of dawn.

 

"As much as that sounds quite appealing, I must plead exhaustion," Severus said, dismissing her. "Perhaps next week. I'll make sure my house-elf shops for a spectacularly large array of crudités to fill your… needs."

 

"Poor Bob," she cooed with sickeningly sweet tones. "I wore you out. Well, rest up next week, because you're going to need it." Miss Anne got up from Severus' bed and dressed quickly, not bothering to shower.

 

Once she was gone, he removed his mask and looked down at the one he made Miss Anne wear. He was tempted to burn it now. Why he kept the mask, he wasn't quite sure. Severus bought it for a client that preferred to see him in flamboyant masks that reminded her of her youth in South America. The feather arrangement around the face portion of the mask reminded the witch, whom Severus could no longer recall by name, of the local gods worshiped in her mountaintop village as a young girl. The witch lost her virginity at seventeen on an altar by some priest dressed up as one of the high gods, his identity hidden by a mask very similar to the one Severus now picked up and tossed into the fire.

 

It was foolish of him to think that a simple mask over Miss Anne's face would fool his mind, as well and his body, into thinking he was shagging Hermione. Hermione would never simply submit herself in such a fashion, at least he didn't think so. She did not seem the type to be so compliant to orders in the bedroom. Then again, he had no idea what the witch would be like between the sheets. The one instance where he got to see her passion unleashed on his one finger had left him with speculative thoughts of what she would be like uninhibited by the veil of self-consciousness that shrouded her potentially sensual nature. The only thing he did know was that Mrs. Weasley was unsatisfied by the sex life she currently had. Her husband obviously had no clue how to draw out the sexual goddess in the woman.

 

Realizing his thoughts were once more fixating on Hermione, Severus cleaned up, dressed quickly and went out the door to visit Draco one flight down. He was usually done with his Saturday night client by this time. Standing at the top of the stairs, Severus froze as Draco's door opened.

 

A slightly older than middle-aged witch emerged from Draco's flat. "Oh, I just wish my son would listen to me like you do," the witch sighed. "Absolutely no respect for his mother, that one. He's always too busy with his work to even come visit me once a month. Oh well, I still have you," the older witch said wistfully while patting Draco on his forearm like someone's grandmother would when handing out tidbits of sage advice.

 

"I'm just glad that I could be here for you," Draco replied with such an air of sincerity, even Severus was impressed with the young wizard's acting skills.

 

"Well, goodnight." The witch waved at her masked companion still standing in the doorway.

 

"Goodnight, Madam Agatha," Draco called back to her as she began descending the steps.

 

Once Severus was sure the witch was gone from the building, he went downstairs and knocked on Draco's door.

 

Draco answered the door sans mask. "Miss Anne is done for the night?"

 

Severus nodded.

 

"Come on in," he invited the older wizard.

 

Severus made himself at home, relaxing into a chair by the fire, his legs stretched out before him and crossed at the ankle.

 

"What brings you down to my abode on a night like this? And so early, too," Draco remarked with a cocked brow. "Young witches getting to be too much for an old man like you?" he ribbed the older wizard.

 

"I'm not that old," Severus bit back.

 

"That's what I've been telling you for years," Draco pointed out. "It's about time you finally admitted it."

 

'Damn.' Severus had been tricked by simple baiting of what little vanity he had, his weariness making him fall prey to a ploy he should have spotted a mile away. 'I must really be tired.'

 

"If you must know, I dismissed Miss Anne a little early. The witch is beginning to bore me," he said dryly while examining his nails.

 

"Now if I didn't have Ginny in my life, there would be one witch that I doubt I could tire of. However, being in love with a witch does tend to put a damper on one's desire to bed other witches, even with a healthy sex drive," Draco admitted.

 

Momentarily lost in thought, Severus only caught part of what Draco had said. "What did you say?" he asked offhandedly, now focusing on what Draco was saying.

 

"I said, once I realized I was still in love with Ginny, even after she came to me as Mrs. Potter, all the other women I was bedding no longer held the allure they once did. For some reason, being in love made all those other witches seem less than appealing. Every time I'd have to shag one, I'd have to close my eyes and pretend it was Ginny just to keep going," Draco confessed unabashedly. "You have no idea how disturbing it was to think I was losing my virility until I realized I was in love with Ginny and I didn’t want to make love to anyone else but her. I would have been utterly embarrassing in time if Lavender didn't phase out my shagging clients."

 

"What?" Severus said more to himself than to Draco's remarks, suddenly dumbstruck by the idea forming in his mind.

 

Draco's brow furrowed. "Severus? Are you all right? You look a little pale. Well, paler than usual."

 

The older wizard sat there desperate to expunge the horrible notion that was growing at an alarming rate, unable to answer his friend. He just shook his head in self-denial.

 

Draco quickly fetched Severus some Calvados. "Here, drink this."

 

Severus gulped down the apple brandy, not bothering to savor it.

 

"What's wrong?" Draco looked at him thoughtfully.

 

Sometimes it was hard for a Slytherin to fool another Slytherin, especially one who knew Severus as well as Draco did. The older wizard answered as vaguely as possible. "Moment of panic."

 

Scrutinizing the man sitting across from him, Draco finally deduced the reason. "Mrs. Weasley?"

 

"You could say that," Severus replied cryptically.

 

"Is there a problem?"

 

Severus feared if he looked Draco in the eye and told him a lie or a half-truth, the younger wizard would see right through him and know the real reason. Instead, he looked away and gave an answer that was unrelated to his moment of anxiety, but one that Draco would believe. "Just thinking about when I finally reveal myself to Hermione."

 

"Understandable. Speaking of which, how soon do you think it will be before you do reveal yourself?" Draco asked in earnest.

 

The blond man that was now sitting across from him was starting to remind Severus of a music box with a faltering charm, playing the same tune over and over again, "When? When?"

 

"I DON'T KNOW!" Severus roared with sudden fury. "Your nagging certainly isn't helping in the matter! This is a very delicate situation and you are not privy to all the nuances involved. You cannot rush subtle manipulation; there cannot be a timetable on the twisting of a person to one's will. It is a process that requires patience, something I am losing with you constantly pestering me."

 

The raven-haired wizard could not fault Draco for his question, but his anger gave him a convenient excuse not to examine the recent questions of why Miss Anne suddenly held little allure for him.

 

"Why, Severus," young Malfoy drawled with a composed air, the antithesis of the other wizard's agitated state. "I never said you should do it soon. I was just wondering how it was coming along. Ginny did mention a sudden lack of curiosity. You never did tell me how Thursday night went."

 

"Well enough," Severus snapped back. "She was reluctant to talk about Dolohov and the attack, as well as anything to do with her husband."

 

"Interesting. Very interesting. She suddenly chooses not to unburden herself to you like she has done during all her previous visits?" Draco mused.

 

"Perhaps she's tired of dealing with events that cause her much pain, choosing instead to shut off emotions that are a nuisance and interfere with functioning properly," he retorted.

 

Once the words escaped his lips, Severus realized he was speaking more about himself, but the same logic could easily apply to Hermione. In fact, he knew exactly what Hermione was doing when the subject of the attack and her husband came up. He had behaved in much the same way many times over the years when Albus had tried to get the emotionally distant Potions master to "open up" and talk about his feelings regarding Severus’ wife. Severus frequently asserted he had no feelings.

 

There were occasions when Albus was able to catch the brooding man at just the right time and in just the right mood, encouraging Severus to get things off his chest, but the only time the subject of Gabrielle was ever discussed without reservation was the night the young Death Eater came to the Headmaster, broken and full of remorse.

 

Draco was leading him towards thoughts of Gabrielle once more, and he wasn't prepared to deal with another set of unsettling memories heaped upon the emotions he was suppressing regarding Hermione. Instead, Severus did what he did best and frequently; he closed off his heart and let anger, disdain, and hate fill its place.

 

"I think I will bid you goodnight," Severus announced abruptly. "I have reports I will begin tonight instead of waiting for the morrow." The older man rose and dusted the invisible lint off his trousers. "Thank you for the drink."

 

Without further ado, Severus showed himself out.

 

Draco continued to sit by the fire, analyzing the recent conversation and sudden change in his mentor's attitude. Several hypotheses came to mind, but the most obvious one that made sense made Draco's eyes widen slightly at the implication.

 

He, of course, having gone through similar symptoms before, could see the signs. If it was true, then their plan for escape had two outcomes: either flawless success or complete catastrophic failure.

 

A talk with Ginny was in order to confirm or refute his theory. One thing Draco had learned over the years was to trust a woman's intuition in these matters.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

An evening out was exactly what Hermione needed. The only ticket available was in the back, so she was able to get it on the cheap. With a pair of Omnioculars, she felt like she was sitting within the first three rows.

 

The play ended with a standing ovation.

 

Hermione, feeling a bit more cultured for seeing a play she had longed to see and that was considered a classic in the wizarding world, moved with the rest of the crowd out of the underground amphitheater and into the cool night air just outside the Three Broomsticks. Like many of the attendees, Hermione moved inside the tavern for a nightcap before heading home. With her hair still freshly washed and coiffed from a day at the spa, her skin glowing and her new purple robes on, Mrs. Weasley glided into the bar feeling relaxed and carefree.

 

"Sherry, please," Hermione asked the barman.

 

As she waited for her drink, Madam Rosmerta breezed by with a tray full of drinks for a loud congregation of revelers in the corner, singing the Chudley Cannons fight song. Just as Hermione got her glass of sherry, the buxom barmaid passed by again and stopped dead in her tracks.

 

"Bless my soul! It's Hermione Granger! You look dressed for an Unforgivable," Madam Rosmerta exclaimed.

 

"Mrs. Hermione Weasley," Hermione pointed out, lifting her left hand up for the older witch to see her wedding band.

 

"Which one? Let me guess… Ron?" she asked with a knowing wink.

 

"Yes," Hermione answered with a sudden lack of enthusiasm.

 

Madam Rosmerta had seen the entire spectrum of the human soul pass through her pub to know each and every look, and recognized Hermione's face enough to understand completely. "Don't worry, love. It'll get better," she assured Hermione with a friendly nudge of her shoulder against Hermione's.

 

"How did you–" Hermione didn't bother to finish the question, as the older and much wiser witch just gave her one of those all-knowing looks.

 

"One doesn't run a pub without learning how a witch or wizard looks when they're feeling a certain way." Rosmerta took Hermione by the shoulder and turned her to view a secluded corner of pub. Pointing, she said, "See that couple there, the bloke with the green robes? This is probably their first date. See how he sits back a bit, unsure of how to touch her, not knowing if he should even reach out and grab her hand?"

 

Turning Hermione's attention to another couple near the first, Rosmerta continued, "See that couple there? They've dated a while and haven't gone to bed yet. See how eager the man is to touch her, how all his attention is on her and her alone as if she's his whole world?" Directing the younger witch's gaze to the end of the bar, Rosmerta observed, "And see that bloke there. Bet you five Galleons his wife just left him. Look at the way he sits like his whole world has been crushed, the way he plays with his wedding ring."

 

Hermione looked at the woman before her with a newfound respect, realizing there was more than one type of knowledge in the world.

 

"So where's your other half?" Madam Rosmerta asked.

 

"On a pub-crawl with his teammates tonight. He's Keeper for the Chudley Cannons," Hermione informed her.

 

"Oh," the other witch said with sudden nervousness. Hermione was too preoccupied looking at other couples to notice the older witch's agitation. "Well, I'd better get going. Busy and all. It was good seeing you, love." And as Hermione turned to wave goodbye, the witch disappeared amidst a new swarm of patrons rushing into the bar.

 

As Hermione sat sipping her sherry, thinking about how she wished Calleo was there with her so she could discuss the play with him, she felt a pair of eyes watching her. Looking down the length of the bar, she saw a handsome, slightly older wizard in his thirties smile and wink at her. She blinked, slightly startled by the sudden attention. Trying not to blush like some innocent schoolgirl, she kept her eyes fixed upon the drink in front of her.

 

Lifting her glass to her lips to take a sip, Hermione saw the handsome wizard slide up next to her out of the corner of her eye. As she turned to face him, Hermione saw him smile warmly at her.

 

"Hi, I'm Alan," he said in greeting, extending his hand.

 

"Hermione," she replied, shaking his hand carefully.

 

"That color on you is rather striking. In fact, it's quite lovely on you," he complimented her as his eyes traveled over her features.

 

Hoping her cheeks weren't flushing an even more obvious shade of pink, Hermione ducked her head down and replied. "Thank you."

 

It felt rather risqué to be talking with a man in a bar she didn't know, especially one that was appraising her with eyes that seemed to disrobe her where she stood. Yet at the same time, she didn't want to stop. It felt glorious to be admired for her looks for once. Was it so wrong to feel beautiful in the eyes of other men? Ron certainly hadn't looked at her with anything resembling the hungry predatory look in Alan's eyes for months, maybe years. Though she knew it was wrong to lead Alan on, and she vowed to herself that she would never wind up in bed with him, a small part of her wanted to tease him and make him act like a fool for her. Suddenly she realized that she was behaving just like the flirtatious girls she had looked down upon with disdain all those years at Hogwarts. All those witches batting their eyelashes and tossing their hair about, giggling like twittering birds at insipid jokes. But on the other hand, Hermione suddenly understood the power behind those simple gestures, to control men and bend them to their will.

 

Deciding to play it a little dangerously before ending the charade, whilst hoping no one she knew was at the bar, she licked her lips a little seductively before taking a small sip of sherry, looking up at Alan through lowered lashes.

 

The effect was instantaneous. Alan's eyes glazed over, his gaze fixated on her lips.

 

'Am I really that beautiful tonight or is Alan just so desperate he's willing to try any witch tonight?' The thought put a damper on her sudden bout of self-confidence. Guilt suddenly washed up on the shores of her mind, and she knew it was time to end the game.

 

'What would Calleo think if he saw me acting this way?' Suddenly, she realized she wouldn't care what Ron would think, but what would Calleo think? Shame filled her.

 

"Well, it was nice meeting you, Alan, but I'd better Floo home before my husband misses me." Hermione smiled a bit wanly at him, and saw the note of rejection and acceptance in his smile.

 

"Goodbye, Hermione," he bid her farewell with a smirk. Something in the way he looked at her said he was hoping to see her around again sometime soon.

 

Somehow being adored and seduced by a man as handsome as Alan didn't hold nearly the appeal of a nice evening with Calleo. At least with Calleo, she knew he was an intelligent man, a good conversationalist, funny, insightful, and well-mannered. Alan reminded Hermione of the men her old lunch mates at the Ministry talked about, where the man would fawn over them during the evening and not bother to wake them when he left their bed in the morning or to owl them afterwards. Still, it was nice to know that she could catch the eye of a man like Alan once in a rare while.

 

Hermione decided to Apparate home instead of Floo, avoiding soot on her brand new robes. Once home, she went straight to bed, not caring if Ron came home that night or not. On the chance he might not be back until morning, she situated herself in the middle of the bed and hogged all the covers. If Ron did come back that night, he could nudge her over and wrestle some of the covers away, but if he wasn't going to be home, why should she deny herself the luxury of sleeping where she damn well pleased?

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Irritated for no damn good reason, Severus made his way under cloak of night to work and took the lift up to his office. Just as he pulled his hood back and was about to take off his cloak as he walked towards his office, he heard the shrill shriek of Miss Lavender Brown behind her office door.

 

Wondering what in the hell she was doing there, he walked over to the door to make sure she was all right and not having another destructive temper tantrum. As he lifted his hand and was about to knock, he heard a distinctly male voice as well, grunting and panting. Miss Brown began moaning loudly in a rather encouraging fashion.

 

Tempted, Severus debated the pros and cons of bursting in on Miss Brown under the pretext of truly making sure she was all right. On the one hand, Severus would learn whom she was sleeping with, as she kept such private information to herself, never disclosing the fact she was even seeing anyone. Such information could be used as a bargaining chip against his employer if needed. On the other hand, suddenly bursting through the door when he had no idea who might be betwixt Miss Brown's legs might prove to be a bad move, as it could be anyone, possibly even Cornelius Fudge for all he knew. Then there would be the explanation as to why a Death Eater had access to Miss Brown's place of business, there would be Obliviates involved, and it could wind up being a rather messy ordeal. Instead, he crouched down by the door and listened for any telltale signs of Miss Brown's unknown lover.

 

After a few more moments, the lovers on the other side of the door made the obvious noises indicating they both reached orgasm. They spoke in such low tones, he could not make out any of the words. After a few more moments, he heard both parties leave by Floo.

 

Severus went to his office to start his report, noting the time, while wondering if Miss Brown was in the habit of bringing her lover or lovers to her office on a Saturday night for a quick shag. He would have to come back next Saturday night under the false notion of catching up on work.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Eight
“Bright Lights, Big Bookstore"

 

Disclaimer: No money is being made from this story, JK Rowling owns all concepts and characters.

 

============

 

Hermione woke to the sound of the Floo in the living room roaring to life at seven in the morning. Groaning, she rolled over and clung tighter to the blankets, burying her head deeper into the bedclothes in order to ignore the fact her husband had returned, like an ostrich with its head in the sand.

 

'The prodigal husband returns.'

 

Hoping she did a good job of pretending to be asleep, she listened to Ron creep into the bedroom, past the bed, and straight to the bathroom. When she heard the taps for the shower turn on, Mrs. Weasley figured since she was up, she might as well be in the kitchen when Ron emerged freshly showered, all evidence of last night's activities rinsed down the drain.

 

Pigwidgeon was waiting on his perch with a note for Hermione from her parents, inviting her and Ron over for Sunday dinner next week. The letter mentioned that they would be welcome to show up anytime after one o'clock, and dinner would be at about five.

 

Opening up the cupboard, Hermione remembered she hadn’t had time the day before to go shopping for food at the farmers’ market. Fortunately, there was enough to make some eggs and toast for breakfast. By the time the eggs were ready, Ron was ambling into the kitchen.

 

"Morning," he greeted his wife perfunctorily.

 

"Morning." The sound of the spatula scrapping the cast iron skillet filled the silence. "Eggs?"

 

"Sure, why not?"

 

Ron grabbed a plate and walked over to the cooker, and stood next to Hermione. She heaped a large pile of scrambled eggs onto his plate and added a few slices of toast, before dishing up her own breakfast. Just then the teakettle whistled.

 

"Tea?" Hermione asked blandly.

 

"Got any coffee?"

 

"No, I need to pick some up."

 

"None for me, then," he declined.

 

Hermione sat down next to her husband, and both began to eat in the same awkward silence that had pervaded their lives for the past week.

 

"I owled my parents about coming to dinner next Sunday. They said to come over at one, dinner at five," she informed Ron.

 

"Oh."

 

Ron ate his eggs without looking at his wife.

 

"Shall I owl them back that we'll be there?" Hermione asked, hoping she wouldn't have to explain to her parents why Ron couldn't come, but hoping he might decline.

 

"Sure."

 

They went back to not speaking; only the sounds of the masticating of food and the sipping of tea could be heard.

 

Once Ron was almost done eating, Hermione mentioned, "I went to Gringotts yesterday." She paused. "I saw quite a bit more money there than I expected. Did you get a pay increase or a bonus?"

 

Ron finally looked at his wife, his face placid and detached. "Yeah, been meaning to tell you that. Coach decided to give me the position of starting Keeper permanently. When the season ends in November, we're going to renegotiate my contract so that I'm paid full salary, plus perks. In the meantime, there is a bit of an increase, plus a bonus for every game we win." There was no enthusiasm with his statement, no joy in relaying the news that he had longed to be able to tell her for years.

 

Hermione smiled weakly at him, mustering as much happiness for him as she could, but found it faltering. "Congratulations, Ron. I guess you were right, you finally made starting Keeper. You just had to hold onto your dream long enough." It was as close to an apology for her years of nagging as it ever was going to get.

 

"Yeah. I guess I was right," he said with what sounded like defeat in his voice. "You can buy yourself some new clothes now. You deserve them," he said with no feeling.

 

"Ginny and I went shopping yesterday. I've been saving money with making my own lunches and scrimped enough for a new robe." She ended the sentence on an up note, trying to sound cheerful, but failing miserably. "Ginny wanted to buy me an early birthday present, so she bought me another one," Hermione finished, her tone more quiet and reserved.

 

"Oh." Ron looked neither pleased nor displeased.

 

Ron picked up his dish and took it to the sink. He almost placed it in the sink to be washed later, then stopped. Reaching for the dish soap, he washed his plate and set it on the drainboard to dry.

 

As he was walking out the kitchen, Hermione whispered, "Thanks."

 

He stopped dead in his tracks as she spoke her gratitude. Without looking at her, he nodded his head and then continued walking out of the kitchen.

 

Hermione wasn't sure why she thanked him. It could have been for the simple gesture of washing his plate; it could have been for agreeing to dinner at her parents. Maybe it was the fact that it was the most civil conversation they'd had in a while and Ron didn't start fighting with her again. Whatever the reason, it still took all of her strength to say it.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Severus dragged his arse out of bed sometime after lunch. He had spent most of the night writing out his report on the latest round of testing he and Draco had conducted from their day at the spa. He did not come home until the sky was lightening with delicate pre-dawn hues of periwinkle, cornflower blue and palest orchid. Draco still needed to get back to him on some things, and Severus always waited forty-eight hours before turning in his final report to Miss Brown, changing it when necessary if Mr. Malfoy had any delayed allergic reactions to the formulas. Mr. Malfoy would be turning in his own report to Severus to add to the final scroll on Monday morning.

 

As the Potions master stumbled into his bathroom, he stared at his reflection with bleary eyes. Dark stubble mottled his complexion. "You're not twenty-one years old, Severus," he said to himself before scrubbing his face and eyes with his hands in an attempt to clear the last of the sleep from his mind. "Hell, you're not even thirty-five years old anymore," Severus added more somberly.

 

During the second rise of the Dark Lord, Severus had been required to not only teach, but to spy for both his former master and the Headmaster. There were days that went on for more than twenty-four hours. The Hogwarts Potions master would teach classes all day long, correct papers, and supervise detentions, only to be called by his former dark master to some gathering of his "loyal" followers at night. By the time Crucios had been dished out, orders given, hems of robes kissed, and everyone had genuflected in reverence, it was time to go complete their missions of terror and thuggery. They would go all night, and Severus would drag himself back to Hogwarts before dawn with just enough time to clean up and make it to breakfast, only to start his day once again. There were some weeks where Severus lived on nothing but Pepperup Potion and Invigoration Draughts.

 

While wearing his Death Eater robes, Severus would do as little as possible yet still doing his best to appear as a faithful servant and enforcer of Voldemort's rule. Most of this was accomplished by doing nothing more than standing around while others did the dirty work, as he handed out a snide remark here and there. There were things he did do when his fellow Death Eaters were not watching, like placing a Portkey in the hands of an unseen cowering child, and placing a Disillusionment Charm on the unconscious form of an injured Muggle-born so they would be passed over and ignored until the attackers were gone and the Aurors arrived. They were little things that could never be traced back to him nor seen by the others.

 

Still, it had given him some self-satisfied warmth to know he saved some lives out there, even though they would never know it was Severus Snape. Those that were conscious would no doubt still be wondering why they had received a momentary bit of mercy from some tall dark figure in a black robe who had struck fear in their hearts. The Aurors never recorded any of this; while they did not know the identity of this softhearted Death Eater, they knew there could be Ministry informers reading their reports.

 

Splashing some cold water on his face helped revive Severus a little this morning. He just didn't have the stamina of staying up all night long anymore. He didn't need to do it anymore, and his body let him know just how displeased it was being denied a good night's rest in a soft warm bed, or at least taken off his comfortable schedule.

 

Still growling a little to himself as he tried to wake up, Severus shuffled into the kitchen for a cup of tea and some toast, his hand still rubbing his face and scratching at his facial growth. A lone hank of hair defied gravity and stood up at an odd angle.

 

As he plopped down into his chair at the table, he mumbled to himself, "Why did you have to spend all night working when it could have waited until today or tomorrow?"

 

The wizard knew exactly why he spent most of the night at Lovely Lavender’s, working industriously until the break of dawn. It kept his mind busy and away from thoughts that rattled him to the core.

 

"I am not falling for her," he grumbled into his tea. "I refuse to fall for my own lies."

 

At that moment, Severus' subconscious mind wondered what Albus and Minerva would have said, if they were still alive to visit him.

 

'My, my. Look who decided to join the land of the living,' Minerva castigated Severus crisply.

 

"You should talk, Minerva. Don't you have a ghost mouse to go chase or something? Don't choke on the tail," the bedraggled wizard muttered at the apparition of Minerva sitting across the table.

 

'Severus, my dear boy, we are just concerned. You look rather tired,' the transparent Headmaster observed.

 

"I should be, after staying up all night," Severus retorted.

 

'And just why were you up all night long?' Albus prodded him further.

 

Severus growled into his tea and glared at his old mentor sitting next to him. "You're in my head. You obviously know the reason why."

 

'Yes, yes. I tend to agree with young Malfoy on this one. I think you are becoming rather attached to Hermione.' Albus straightened himself in his chair and popped some unknown confection into his mouth.

 

"That's just conjecture. I think you are just believing the rather convincing front I am projecting."

 

'That may be, but even with the rather kind and flattering things you say to Hermione during her visits, are they not liberally infused with truth?' the white-haired vision pointed out. 'Truth that you trust her, that you are glad to see her and enjoy your talks?'

 

Severus put his head down on the table and wrapped his arms around his head in partial defeat.

 

'Hermione rather reminds me of Gabrielle,' Minerva noted.

 

Leaping up out of his chair with a sudden rush of adrenaline, Severus roared, "DON'T YOU DARE EVER SPEAK HER NAME!" The infuriated wizard grabbed his mug of tea and smashed it against the wall. The visions of Albus and Minerva winced ever so slightly. He placed his hands on either side of his head and shut his eyes, willing the visions of Albus and Minerva to disappear and the conversation to end. "HERMIONE IS NOT HER! HERMIONE COULD NEVER REPLACE HER!" he screamed. Overwrought, he slumped back into his chair and willed himself not to cry. "I will not cry, I will not cry, I am dead inside, I cannot allow another inside my heart ever again. Never, never…" he ground out, talking to himself, his eyes still shut tight.

 

'We are not saying Hermione ever could replace your wife,' Minerva amended, rising to place a gentle translucent hand upon Severus’ back as he gazed blankly at the wet tea stains dripping down the wall. 'What Albus and I are suggesting it that it is time for you to move on and accept the fact that you have atoned for her and your unborn child's death.'

 

Severus gritted his teeth, feeling the tears come against his will.

 

'Perhaps it is time for you to allow yourself to feel once more, Severus. There is nothing weak about feeling strongly for someone,' she added.

 

"No, I will not. There is no point," the raven-haired man said with resignation, blinking back the tears. "She is married to that Weasley boy. When I leave, she will remain here with her oaf of a husband while I seek out a new life, free of this tyranny that I am subjugated under. Maybe in several years’ time when I no longer feel the sting of their death and the guilt it brings, even after all these years, then maybe I will think about letting another witch into my life, but I will not love her. I cannot love again. It broke me once to have it taken from me in such a way, I don’t think I could stand losing another."

 

'Maybe Hermione is the one to let you feel again. It has been years, Severus,' Albus reminded the Slytherin wizard. 'There is no dark wizard anymore to take the ones we love away from us. Everyone is safe now, in no small part due to all the sacrifices you made. Perhaps you deserve the reward of someone in your life, even if it is for a short while. It may not be love, but I think she is willing to offer you friendship.'

 

"And where will the friendship end? It is often under the guise of friendship that we slip so easily and unnoticed into love," the weary younger wizard reflected aloud.

 

'Yes, but even you have admitted, Severus, that you were not in love with your wife. But you did love her,' the vision of Dumbledore remarked.

 

"I could have fallen in love with Gabrielle, given enough time." Severus sniffed and pretended not to notice the few tears that escaped.

 

'Don't deny what your heart wants, Severus. You may not have the luxury of time to enjoy it with Hermione, but you didn't have the luxury of time in the end with your wife either. Seize the chance, and let your heart do what it will. Remember that love is the most powerful thing in the universe. There is no regret in the experience of love, only when we deny ourselves the ability to love,' the wise memory of Albus sagely told him.

 

"And when love is used as a weapon against us? What then?" Severus asked, feeling the long forgotten physical pang of weighty regret in his chest. "We have a choice between two roads, both leading to hell. I've taken one path before. If Moody or Fudge discovers anything, it could be just like facing The Dark Lord and Lucius all over again, only this time Hermione would be caught in the middle."

 

The apparition of Minerva moved back to her seat across from Severus. 'You're quite a bit older now, Severus. You are very careful, and we have the greatest faith that it will all come out well in the end and no one will get hurt. Do you forget that Ginny and Lavender are there to help you and Draco as well? What of them? Are you not concerned that they will be used against you and Draco?'

 

"Ginny is coming with us, and Lavender is quite cunning herself. No doubt she will not get caught, and if she does, she has a way out," the living wizard rationalized.

 

'Severus, you have planned it so that Hermione will not be placed in harm's way, especially if the Ministry pieces together how you will get away. So don't let any unfounded fears and old scars stop you from allowing yourself to enjoy your friendship with Hermione,' the old Gryffindor witch assured Severus.

 

"Please," Severus pleaded. "Can we just drop the subject? I am not falling in love with Hermione. I never will," he insisted. But somehow a part of his heart was already falling for her against his will.

 

Hermione did remind him of his wife in some ways. It was Hermione's curious brown eyes on that first day in class during her first year that evoked old memories of his wife. They both had that same insatiable quest for knowledge, and that damned belief that all the answers to life could be found in a book. It was this certain air of righteous know-it-all common sense that had made his wife Gabrielle think she could start talking to the other Death Eater wives, trying to convince them to talk to their husbands about the fallacies of pure-blood propaganda. It was this attitude about proof and knowledge, with no regard to how the blindly zealous mind worked, that led to her death. Logic and fact did not always conquer socialized prejudice and ingrained hate.

 

There were no dark wizards now out there who would kill Hermione based on her beliefs, but forces were already affecting her life. Calpurnia Fudge was one. One witch held Hermione's present and future in her hands, and though she was not killing Hermione, she was, in a sense, destroying her spirit by keeping Hermione's hopes and aspirations squashed.

 

Severus was even more exhausted now than when he woke up. It was with greater frequency that his mind kept drifting back to Gabrielle. The last time he felt this strongly towards another witch, she had been his wife. Some selfish part of Severus wanted to allow himself the luxury of letting himself wallow in the warm and fuzzy feelings of a growing friendship with Hermione. But the logical part of Severus' mind wanted to allow it to go no further, knowing there would be pieces to pick up afterwards once he left England and she was finally gone from his life.

 

The selfish little boy inside of him that cried for affection demanded that the adult Severus let him have this one thing, if anything, to keep him happy with good memories of warmth and tenderness he had been denied for years. The adult part of Severus did not want to stop the friendship that was blooming between Hermione and him.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hermione had just put the clothes into the laundry cauldron in the kitchen and was letting them soak before going back to wash and spot-treat them. As she passed through the living room to the bedroom to fetch her lingerie for hand-washing in the sink, Ron cleared his throat.

 

"Um… I was thinking… that… maybe…" Ron began, trying to find the right words to break the awkwardness between them. He set his Quidditch magazine down and rose from the couch to walk over towards his wife. "Well, maybe we need a little romance in our lives. That with the war and all, we never… erm… had a chance to really date and such, like most girls want to be… you know… taken out to nice places… and..."

 

Ron let out a huge breath through puckered lips and ran his hand through his rangy red locks, his eyes darted about nervously, never fixing themselves on Hermione. "What I mean to say is, maybe we should try a little harder… the both of us. Maybe go on some dates and things, to… erm… God! I had