“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.
Meet me at the same pub, same time today.
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."
"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."
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.
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…
"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.
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.
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.
"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?"
"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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
"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.