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And They Didn't Live Happily Ever After

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Chapter Fourteen
"Pondero of Verum" (Reflection of Truth)

 

Disclaimer: J.K. Rowling owns the characters, the places, the magical concepts, etc., etc., etc.

 

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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."