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And They Didn't Live Happily Ever After

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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.