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And They Didn't Live Happily Ever After

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Chapter Twenty-Three
“A Conclave on Cassoulet"

 

WARNING: References to rape (implied as a past event), but not detailed or depicted.

 

Disclaimer: Rowling owns it all. I don't anything in this story… well, except the plot. (Sigh) Oh well.

 

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Severus awoke in a decent mood. He now had three nights a week to himself. For the time being, he would keep his schedule filled four nights a week, so that if one client decided to take a week off, he could still meet his contractual minimum of three without Miss Brown bringing in anyone new or one of his spare clients into rotation.

 

Upon entering his study, he mood turned somewhat sour. All his correspondences under his nom de guerre were in his new office at Lovely Lavender's headquarters. Realizing it was Saturday, he pulled out a scrap of parchment, some ink and quill to begin drawing up a shopping list for Marf, as today was the weekly Farmer's Market in Diagon Alley.

 

As he sipped his tea and nibbled on toast slathered with his own strawberry preserves, Severus began planning his meals for the week. Severus remembered a note that Draco had sent him last night that required him to alter some of the quantities on the list. He just hoped Marf could get to the Farmer's Market before all the good duck had been snapped up and he would have to send the creature to Abattoir and Haunches. He was hoping to begin preparing the duck confit for the cassoulet tomorrow.

 

Once the list was completed, he handed it to Marf. Severus sighed. He would be a little sad to leave behind a house-elf that he had trained to all his peculiarities, but figured there would be other house-elves that could quickly learn all his idiosyncrasies as Marf had done.

 

The Potions master dressed for work, as Miss Brown requested that he put a few half days in on the weekend to make up for valuable lost work time during the past few weeks. Both she and Severus knew his time with her was limited and she wanted to make the most it by getting as much help from him as possible for the new line of sex potions before he left for parts unknown to her. As Miss Brown had stated it, this new line would become the cash cow of the Lovely Lavender portfolio of products.

 

Fortunately, Severus' walk between his residence and the Lovely Lavender Company headquarters was off the beaten track, especially for weekend visitors to Diagon Alley. The tall form of the ex-Death Eater, concealed in his usual hooded black cloak, glided down the narrow alleys still untouched by the morning sun and dressed with summer dew.

 

No house-elf was there to greet him at the front desk, most probably making use of itself in the manufacturing portion of the warehouse. Reaching for the doorknob to Miss Brown's office, he heard her shriek, followed closely by the sound of a loud crash.

 

Severus pulled his wand out of his sleeve, prepared for the worst. Throwing open the door and running in, he stopped to see Lavender heave a large, heavy jar of pickled bat ears above her head before launching them at the wall with a scream that would make a Valkyrie proud.

 

"BASTARD!" she screeched. "Fucking bloody bastard!"

 

The glass jar shattered and shards flew everywhere. Severus pulled up his cloak to shield himself from the tiny projectiles. When he put his sleeve down, he saw Miss Brown collapsed on the floor sobbing hysterically, curled up in a ball, a letter tightly fisted in her hand. A few pieces of glass had cut her face and arms. Tiny rivulets of blood were trickling down her cheek and forearms.

 

Confusion over Miss Brown's sudden loss of cool demeanor, the irritation of another hysterical female laying at his feet, and a twinge of sympathy all stirred and mixed within him at the moment. Deciding that he got faster satisfactory results by acting as the compassionate confidant, he crouched down and placed a gentle hand upon her shoulder.

 

"Are you all right, Miss Brown?" he asked with concern. Severus was truly concerned. Nothing seemed to shake the unshakable Miss Brown.

 

Lavender lifted her head off the floor before venomously growling, "Always a Death Eater to royally fuck things up." She paused a beat before softly adding apologetically, "Not you, Severus… Dolohov. Dolohov and Macnair. I have nothing against you. Just those two."

 

She was about to wipe her snotty nose with the back of her hand and arm when Severus grasped her wrist forcefully, yet carefully. "I think you want to remove some of that glass from your arms before doing that, Miss Brown."

 

The dark haired wizard led the blood-streaked witch to her chair behind her desk. After removing all of the tiny shards that were embedded in Lavender’s arms, Severus cleaned her wounds and applied a dermal healing paste followed by a scar minimizing ointment he had developed himself for her company. He called Lavender's office-elf, Wonkle, to fetch some tea.

 

By the time tea arrived, Lavender seemed quite a bit more composed.

 

"Care to tell me what that was all about?" Severus asked softly.

 

"There's no need for you to pretend to be the patient and attentive man I know you're not, Severus," she bit out. "So you might as well drop the façade and go back to your usual bastard, misanthropic self and ask me."

 

Miss Brown rose and stomped over to the fireplace where she threw the crumpled letter still clutched in her uninjured hand into the fire. She watched it burn for a while before turning around and facing Severus.

 

"Fine," Severus growled, irritated that one of his few sincere attempts at common courtesy was met with such disdain and cynicism. 'That'll teach me to ever consider being compassionate ever again.' "Tell me what in the blazes possessed you to destroy a perfectly good vat of pickled bat ears and…" His eyes scanned the room for the contents of the other jar of ingredients he heard destroyed before entering. "And a very expensive jar of preserved dragon's tongue? If we were still at Hogwarts, I'd subtract two hundred points from Gryffindor for destruction of school property, waste, and unseemly behavior."

 

Lavender shot him a withering look that had no effect on the master of glares. "Like I said, it's all Dolohov's and Macnair's fault!" she whinged. "Just when things were going along nicely, some Death Eater has to come along and fuck things up!" Lavender glanced at Severus momentarily. "I never considered you a Death Eater, so my hate in no way applies to you," she added. She wanted to make sure that he understood that none of her anger was directed towards him.

 

"Well, if it's any consolation, the Aurors led Macnair away yesterday," Severus said, his face cool and impassive. "There's talk that he's going to Azkaban for a Dementor's Kiss after making trouble yesterday during his interrogation. Though, I speculate, that is idyll gossip."

 

"No, he's going to Azkaban," the witch corrected him. "I decided to terminate his contract. He no longer works for me and he has no desire to live on the streets or adhere to the Ministry's guidelines for acceptable work. He has only one choice left. Macnair is going to Azkaban and get the Dementor's kiss."

 

Severus wasn’t sure whether to be upset at the casualness of her attitude or relieved that Macnair would no longer be at risk of doing something rash, like Dolohov did.

 

Suddenly angry and unsettled, he asked, "And if you get upset with me, Miss Brown, will you terminate my contract and have me hauled away to that damned island to have my soul sucked out as well?" He rose from his seat to loom over her, doing his best to invoke old fears and respect hinged on his days as her professor.

 

"My reason for terminating Macnair’s contract is personal. It's none of your business," Lavender retorted defiantly.

 

"Oh, but I think it is my business," Severus insisted. "What's to stop you from calling the Aurors to have them come haul me away? Once my brain has been picked and your new line of sex potions is completed, if I haven’t finished getting what I need to escape England, what stops you from turning me in once I've served my usefulness to you?" he hissed menacingly.

 

He had been betrayed before, by those closest to him on both sides. The first time cost Severus him his soul; the second time his freedom. He needed to know if Miss Brown would throw him to the mercy of the Ministry and if he should arrange new plans shortly.

 

"Because I don't hate you. I hate Macnair with a passion," Lavender ground out as the tears began to fall.

 

"And what has Macnair done to you that I could not do to you as well?" Severus asked, demanding an answer.

 

"You weren't there, so you wouldn't know." Her voice was thick and quivering.

 

"Wouldn't know what, Miss Brown?"

 

"WHEN HE RAPED PARVATI!" Lavender broke down and sobbed. "The bastard raped her as he Crucio'ed her. She's a permanent resident of St. Mungo's and will never be the same. Every Sunday I go visit her and she just sits there huddled up in a ball, rocking back and forth while mumbling something about the snakes on the ceiling."

 

Severus’ stomach clenched. There was only one room he knew of where there were snakes painted on the ceiling. He remembered that the dungeons of the Rookwood estate had a very intricate ceiling mural depicting the scene of Salazar Slytherin calling the snakes to him during the building of Hogwarts. Augustus was very proud of the mural as legend of the estate said it was painted by one of Salazar's great grandnephews from the story told to him as a child by Salazar himself.

 

Lavender continued to explain, "I didn't learn till afterwards that you were a spy for Dumbledore. But when Parvati was kidnapped, you were in the infirmary recovering for reasons I didn't know at the time."

 

Severus recalled the slew of curses and hexes Lucius Malfoy cast that put him in the infirmary for two weeks. It wasn't until after he regained consciousness that he learned of Miss Patil's kidnapping and subsequent torture. He had never known who was responsible for the young witch's demise until now.

 

"I know that if you were around, you would have tried to save her from that fate worse than death," Lavender quietly choked out.

 

Something in the back of Severus mind clicked. "How do you know Macnair was the one to do it?"

 

Shortly after Severus awoke in the infirmary, he learned about Parvati Patil's kidnapping from Hogsmeade and her subsequent torture. He was given only the briefest of details. He had not pressed for more as the war was at its height of carnage and chaos. And if he did not know who tortured her and if Miss Patil was in no state to name her torturer, he wondered how Miss Brown was so certain it was Macnair.

 

"Because... the Death Eaters kidnapped me too," she confessed, sobbing into her hands.

 

"Oh dear God, child," he said in a whisper, pulling her into his arms to rock her. He could only imagine the horrors she might have experienced, having witnessed some of them himself. "I had no idea."

 

"I begged Dumbledore not to tell anyone. I didn’t want anyone to pity me," she cried into his shoulder. "Blaise was the one who helped me escape." She gave a loud sniff and Severus gave her a handkerchief to use. "He saw me there in the dungeon and I begged him to let me go, to get me out of there. Parvati had already been hauled away by Macnair and I could hear her crying, begging him to kill her. I could hear what he was doing to her even though I couldn’t see it. All that Gryffindor bravery gone, I just wanted to get out of there and save my own skin. I got away with just a few scrapes before anyone could do anything to me and I just left Parvati there alone and screaming." Lavender wailed, "I left her there and I was a coward. I could have saved her if I was just brave enough."

 

"No!" Severus said fiercely. He shook her. "You were no match for a Death Eater like Macnair. And Zabini was not exactly about to show himself as a traitor to save your skin in front of the others. You're lucky he found some pity for you and helped you escape with no one the wiser. There was nothing you could have done to save Miss Patil," he told her firmly. "You were lucky you got out of there alive and in one piece."

 

"We were going to start this business together. We were partners and I just left her there to die," she sobbed, utterly grief stricken from her guilt.

 

Eyeing her, a thought came to Severus, but he needed to ask to confirm his suspicions. "So why did you place Macnair under contract to work for you?" Severus suspected his employer's weekly visits to Macnair's flat Sunday afternoons were to beat and whip him, but now he could have her confirm his suspicions.

 

"So I could cause him the same pain, humiliation and violation that he caused Parvati," Lavender answered harshly, her face set in grim determination. "His contract was that I kept his pathetic, sadistic arse out of Azkaban in exchange for dealing with my need to avenge Parvati. And with the addition of some Confusion Concoction and some Obliviates, he agreed. He's a coward too. He'd rather deal with me than face the Dementors. Well, it's been over three years and Parvati is not coming back no matter how many times I make him scream. And no matter how many times I've beaten him till his bones break, it doesn’t make my pain or memories go away. And now I know I'm not better nor worse than them. We all have reasons for the dark things we do."

 

Severus stood up and looked at her, stunned at the potential for coldness in Lavender that he hadn’t thought possible. It chilled his soul to see a woman who he thought he knew, and remembered once as a child, take such a casual attitude about the vengeance she had designed and wrought by her own hand. But if Severus had the opportunity, he would have done the same thing and worse to the others after the death of his wife. Instead of taking a few years to come to the same conclusion Miss Brown had, it took him until the fall of the Dark Lord to come to terms with all his inner demons and cast aside some of the burdens of his soul.

 

"You're right, Miss Brown. No matter what you did or didn't do, you couldn't have brought her back," Severus said with sudden bland indifference.

 

He sat back in his chair and sipped his tea while lost in thought. Lavender also sat in silence with her own cup.

 

They both stared at the fire burning merrily in the grate until Severus broke the uneasy silence. "Yesterday you seemed unperturbed by Dolohov's actions. Why the sudden change this morning? Surely, nothing is different, nor are there any new revelations today regarding Dolohov that would cause your sudden outburst."

 

Lavender continued staring at the fire for a moment longer before answering. She inhaled deeply and paused a while to consider her choice of words. "I think you should be worried about Dolohov's actions. It might interfere with your plans to go on your extended holiday. Hermione Weasley just missed getting caught in the fight. No doubt she was hurrying home to get ready for her visit with you when she left work just before all hell broke loose. Now she has a dead co-worker that she probably thinks she could have saved if she had stayed a while longer. Then after her little visit to you she comes home to find her husband has returned home, worried sick about her welfare. Let's just hope her guilt over all this doesn't prevent her from seeing you in the future, Severus."

 

"Weasley's back?" he asked, stunned at this information. "Wait. How do you know all this?" Severus eyed her with a keen, piercing look.

 

"I have my sources," Lavender said in an angry trance before throwing her teacup and saucer at the fireplace with furious aplomb.

 

"Ginny?"

 

"Among many others," she replied in slow, carefully measured tones.

 

There was more to Dolohov's timing and subsequent actions behind Miss Brown's sudden turn of good nature, but considering her previous reluctance to divulge her plans regarding Hermione, Severus decided that the questions he had could wait until the time was right.

 

Vexed and disconcerted over Miss Brown's revelations regarding herself and Hermione, the agitated wizard decided to shove all thoughts that did not on potions to the back of his mind.

 

"Come," Severus commanded, "I do not feel like wasting a perfectly good day for work when I bothered to come here in the first place."

 

Lavender rose and smoothed down her robes and her hair before leading the way to the laboratory, looking a little more tired than usual.

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

"Hermione?"

 

Some gentle voice was calling her from her fog of sleep, but the pillow felt so warm and comfortable under her head and the blankets so heavy that she wanted to ignore whatever was intruding upon her happy place. She vaguely remembered some dream involving an extremely large cauldron that doubled as a hot tub while she in her school robes and some unknown wizard whose face she couldn't recall sat in the hot water relaxing. There was some tickling of the feet involved and a purple troll's club, but it all seemed so unimportant and slightly silly that it slipped from her mind as easily as vapor in her grasp.

 

"Hermione?"

 

There was someone rubbing her shoulder and patting her back. The dream was gone, and with it, all the relaxed feelings that had accompanied the dream.

 

"Hmmm?" the tousled-hair witch mumbled.

 

"Hermione? Are you all right?"

 

"Hmmm?" Hermione groaned once more, rolling over to see her sister-in-law sitting on the edge of the bed with a rather large and inviting cup of coffee in her hand.

 

Gathering her wits about her, Hermione surveyed her environs and suddenly remembered Ginny tucking her in last night. Looking out the window, she saw that the sun was high and she had slept away most of the morning.

 

"What time is it?" the brunette asked, gratefully taking the coffee from Ginny's hands.

 

"Eleven-thirty."

 

"What?" she said with confusion.

 

"I figure you got about at least sixteen hours of good, uninterrupted sleep. You looked like you needed it," Ginny said smugly.

 

A sarcastic glare was cast the redhead's way. "Gee, thanks."

 

"Well, you do look a damn sight better than last night. Now you don't look like the walking dead." Noticing Hermione's sudden frown at the phrase, Ginny amended, "Sorry, poor choice of words."

 

Hermione shook her head slightly, forgiving Ginny's faux pas. Sighing deeply, feeling her joints settle and her muscles pull after lying in bed for so long, the brunette set her coffee down to stretch, grimacing when something low in her spine popped. A quick rub of the eyes to remove the last grains of sleep and she was ready to rise.

 

"Are you all right now?" Ginny asked, scanning Hermione face for some elusive symptom.

 

Nodding her head, the older witch was surprised when a large bed tray with legs laden with heaping piles of sausages, toast, scrambled eggs, broiled tomato, and sautéed mushroom with a tall glass of orange juice was suddenly straddling her lap.

 

"What's this?" Hermione asked, amazed at the copious amounts of food set before her.

 

"Considering the fact you've missed quite a few meals recently, I think you need to make up for it with a good breakfast," Ginny informed her.

 

"There's more food here than even Ron could eat in one sitting." Hermione looked at the tray of food with disinterest, not hungry in the least.

 

"Well, you'd better get started, as I'm not leaving till you've eaten enough so that I'm sure you won't be admitted to St. Mungo's for malnutrition in the near future," Ginny lectured her, crossing her arms as a signal that she wasn't going anywhere till Hermione started eating.

 

"Breakfast in bed. You're really twisting my arm," Hermione joked lightly before forcing herself to eat.

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

Hermione thanked Ginny and walked her into the living room.

 

"Are you sure you don't want to go with me today?" Hermione asked.

 

"I have errands to run and lots of little things to do," Ginny explained. "But how about we go and do a little shopping before we go to the spa next week? That way we're in no rush to leave before the stores close."

 

"That sounds like a plan."

 

"Good. I guess I'll see you tomorrow then, since I'm going with Harry," the redhead said on a sadder note.

 

The mood between them became somber.

 

"Yes, I'll see you tomorrow. Harry said it will be at eleven at the Llangogerygoch cemetery." Hermione ended her sentence as a question.

 

Ginny nodded. "You take care now. And if Ron starts acting like a prat again, just threaten to go for a visit at Mum's and he'll come around," the youngest Weasley said with a knowing wink. "Having you go and seek sanctuary at The Burrow will make him think twice before treating you badly again. Imagine the look on his face when you say, 'I'm going to go to YOUR mother's.' You'll find he's suddenly quite a bit more accommodating."

 

Hermione laughed at this little bit of insight from her sister-in-law. "Thanks." She gave the younger witch a hug before Ginny Apparated away.

 

Once dressed, she headed out hoping to reach the Farmer's Market before it closed at two o'clock. Ron was back for only a day and had already cleaned out everything edible in the cupboard.

 

There was no question that she had missed out on the new crop of cherries that usually arrive in mid-July and there would only be a tiny pile of bruised fruits and discarded bent stems. The raspberries were all gone as well. After buying a few imported oranges and a couple trays of blackberries, she headed off to the florist's stall.

 

This was the part she hated most. During the war she had made so many bundles of flowers to pass on her sentiments to the dead, she begged Ron to never buy her flowers. Hermione could still remember every twig and stem she had tied together and placed on Minerva's funeral pyre.

 

'Achillea for war, since you died in battle. Oak leaves for bravery. Harebell for grief. A dark crimson rose for mourning. Yew for sorrow. Zinnia for thoughts of friends, as you were my mentor and friend. Rosemary for remembrance. And a sprig of lavender heather for admiration, as I've always admired you and so a bit of Scotland is always with you.'

 

Hermione also remembered the one she made for Albus. Sage. She remembered using lots of sage in Albus' bundle.

 

As she looked over the flower seller's selection, the saddened witch began pulling stems for a flower bundle to place on Marge's funeral pyre.

 

'Asphodel, for my regrets follow you to the grave. Peony, for shame of my inaction. Harebell for grief. Yew for sorrow. And Star of Bethlehem for atonement, as I hope there is some way I can atone for my sin.'

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

Feeling rather pleased that he was able to get a good half-day of work done with Miss Brown, Severus hummed to himself as he prepared the cherry glaze for the roasted duck. Since he was going to be making duck confit the next day, he had Marf pick up a whole duck as well for his weekly dinner with Draco.

 

'If he so much as makes another comparison of my cooking to those of the house-elves at Malfoy Manor, I'll shove this bloody bird down his throat and make him choke on it,' Severus thought in agitated anticipation of the blond wizard's periodic poking at his culinary pride.

 

As he pulled the evenly browned bird from the oven to add the last of the glaze before roasting for fifteen more minutes, he checked on the wild rice pilaf slowly simmering on the cooker. He put the water on so when the duck came out of the oven to rest, he could blanch the tender summer peas.

 

Severus loved cooking, as he found it could be more challenging than Potions work at times. While Potions would require one's attention on one cauldron the entire time, to stir the correct number of times clockwise or anti-clockwise while adding the right ingredients in the correct order at the proper time, cooking had its own challenges. To prepare a multi-course meal so that everything came out at the same time, equally hot, was a feat that many took for granted, especially those who did not cook for themselves.

 

When the clock struck four o'clock and the duck had rested, the peas were hot, and the rice cooked to perfection, Severus sat in his flat and waited… and waited and waited. At five after, Severus began tapping his foot with impatience. By the time it was ten after four, he began pacing.

 

"I go through the bother to cook a decent hot meal and they aren't here on time!" Severus fumed, not realizing how much he sounded just like Molly Weasley.

 

At quarter past, Severus stormed out of his flat and flew down the one flight to Draco's door.

 

BANG-BANG-BANG! BANG-BANG! BANG!

 

There was no answer.

 

"I'm coming in, and I don't care if you two are shagging like rabid minks right now!" Severus yelled through the door.

 

Unwarding and unlocking the door, Severus strode into Draco's flat. He looked about, but only saw a large picnic blanket with the leftovers of a picnic lunch placed under a spreading shade tree that Draco had transfigured from the room's furniture.

 

There was a squeal followed by a shriek coming from the kitchen before the door banged open and a rather nude Draco bolted across the room quickly followed by an equally nude Ginny on his heels. The redhead was brandishing a large squirt bottle of Florean Fortescue's Scrumptious Chocolate Syrup.

 

"I'll get you for that!" Ginny yelled with playful exuberance, unaware of the presence of the Potions master.

 

Severus cleared his throat.

 

Ginny shrieked again and dove for the picnic blanket. She yanked it up with such force that the picnic hamper, dishes, food and beverages flew everywhere, splattering the walls and Severus' boots with the leftovers of their lunch.

 

"Severus!" Ginny said, quickly maneuvering the food-stained cloth about her person in a vain attempt at modesty before she burst into giggles.

 

Draco snorted at the situation before grabbing a pillow from his couch to place over his privates.

 

Looking over the two lovers, Severus saw the dredges of some cherry pie sliding off Draco's chest, a trail of smeared mustard going all the way up the blond’s thigh beneath the pillow, and what the older man guessed was the remnants of chutney caught on his partner’s cheek and in his hair. Ginny seemed to be equally covered in a variety of foods, including what appeared to be a slice of ham stuck to her shoulder, cream dripping from her arms, and honey smeared all over the tops of her breasts. He would not bother to guess what other food was smeared across the parts of her body covered by the picnic blanket.

 

"Children," Severus said in a low and warning voice that only one who had governed urchins for years could elicit. "I suggest you get yourselves cleaned up. Dinner is ready and you are late."

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

Draco and Ginny sat at the table with Severus, eating their dinner. Their hair was still dripping wet, and they cast guilty, yet mischievously unrepentant, glances at one another before bursting into giggles and chuckles.

 

Severus ignored their childish behavior, cutting a piece of duck with restrained annoyance. "If you two are quite done!" the older wizard huffed.

 

"We told you that we are truly sorry, Severus. Honestly, we lost track of time," Ginny apologized with earnest sincerity. "It's been so long since we've felt this happy and carefree in a while. We really needed it."

 

Severus' face softened a bit. It had been a while since Draco had looked this happy. Whatever it was that caused him this spiritual respite from the recent travails of the past few weeks, Severus could not fault him.

 

"The duck is still delicious, Severus, even if it did have to wait for a few minutes. As always, you've done another culinary masterpiece," the witch praised him, knowing from practice how to soothe a Slytherin's soul with just the right words.

 

Restraining an arrogant smirk, for he did cook a perfect meal despite having it sit and cool on the table while company was busy with a hasty shower, Severus felt a little placated by her compliment and let his irritation fade, all the while aware of her little ploy to flatter him.

 

"I just wish I could join you both for dinner like this more often," Ginny added. "But if all goes as planned, then we could be doing this every week." Draco grabbed her hand and squeezed it, smiling warmly at her. "Speaking of plans, I suppose I should update you on Hermione."

 

Severus thought to cut her off and tell her that Miss Brown had filled him in on the larger details, but he held his tongue, curious to compare what Miss Brown knew to Ginny's account. It always served him well during his years as a spy to use more than one source for information to cross check and verify information.

 

"As you know, my brother walked out on her last Saturday night after a fight, but returned Thursday night once he learned of the attack."

 

Severus nodded while quirking one brow, pretending to be surprised by the news and encouraging Ginny to continue, keeping scathing remarks about Ronald Weasley to himself.

 

"Well, the poor woman didn’t get any sleep Thursday night, as I guess everyone in my family kept Flooing all night long. From what Harry told me of her questioning with Shacklebolt and Moody, she noticed Dolohov’s behavior just before he snapped and thought to swing by Auror headquarters to mention it, but dismissed it. Now she feels especially guilty, because her co-worker is dead."

 

Severus sucked his breath in. He had suspected that Hermione would feel some sort of guilt over the fact that she suspected the Death Eater's behavior was odd and did nothing about it. He furtively wondered what sort of questions Moody had lobbed at her. Miss Brown's voice rang out in Severus' mind. "No doubt she was hurrying home to get ready for her visit with you when she left work just before all hell broke loose. Now she has a dead co-worker that she probably thinks she could have saved if she stayed a while longer." Burying his face in his hands, Severus wondered if it could get any worse.

 

"Draco told me that you both got questioned as well. Are you all right, Severus?" Ginny frowned, feeling a bit worried for the older wizard.

 

"I'm fine," Severus dismissed her concern, sipping his wine to remove the unpleasant memory from his mind. "Interrogated would be a more appropriate term. Kingsley was able to get away with only one drop of the Veritaserum."

 

"He was able to do the same for me," Draco said, a grimace set upon his face. "It still didn't stop my tongue when Moody said he wished he had the pleasure of turning me into a ferret himself instead of Crouch."

 

Ginny leaned over and placed her head upon her lover's shoulder while wrapping one arm about him, rubbing and patting his back. They all sat there in silence, each contemplating a life free of their current circumstances.

 

Clearing her throat, Ginny continued on the previous thread. "Anyway, as I was saying, I owled Hermione yesterday and told her that Harry and I would come over and that I would cook for her and Ron; I remember how thin she was on Wednesday and how she didn't eat."

 

Severus asked, "And did she eat?"

 

"No. She also skipped breakfast and lunch yesterday as well."

 

Severus shook his head, remembering how had eaten most of the food he’d prepared for her last visit. It was as if she hadn't eaten in a week.

 

"In fact, she hardly touched her dinner and instead drank enough wine that she passed out, but not before she told Ron that either they go into counseling or she'll seek a divorce," Ginny said with a twinge of anger.

 

"What?" Draco said, jumping into the conversation.

 

Severus put his face back in his hands and shook his head.

 

"Right before Harry and I showed up, they had their talk about the big fight and she tried talking my brother into going into counseling. Well, you know how our society feels about that sort of thing, especially Muggle marriage counselors."

 

Both wizards rolled their eyes in disgust, feeling about the same as Ron's initial reaction to the request.

 

"Harry, Ron and I had quite a fight about counseling while Hermione sat there looking like she was in shock. And considering that dead glassy look in her eye, I'd say she was in emotional shock and was still so this morning when I went to check in on her before coming over to see Draco. On a high point, I did make sure she ate a breakfast large enough to choke a Hippogriff."

 

"Care to go over the finer points of the argument?" Severus asked, knowing it would give him something to use to further control Hermione, manipulating her for his needs. He did not acknowledge the part of himself that was truly concerned over this new development.

 

"Basically, Ron implied marriage counselors are incompetent, especially Muggle ones, which got Harry's back up. He came short of calling my brother a pure-blood bigot," Ginny summarized. "Seeing that it was getting ugly, I supported Hermione's decision. I know if backed against the wall, she'd walk out on Ron and then the first thing she would do is stop seeing you, Severus. She wouldn't be able to afford seeing you and living alone on her salary."

 

"You don't have to worry about that. Miss Brown has waived Hermione of all my fees from now on," Severus mumbled around a mouth full of wine.

 

"WHAT?" Draco and Ginny shouted in unison.

 

"It seems that when Miss Brown met with her last Wednesday night for the exchange of coin, my employer decided to waive my fees and thought that it was in my best long term interest to allow it." Severus did not volunteer the information to Ginny that the only reason he initially took on Mrs. Weasley was for a forty-percent royalty on the new sex potions he was working on.

 

"So you're taking her on… for free?" Ginny asked, stunned.

 

"Not exactly. As Draco has recently informed you, we do have day jobs."

 

"Yes, Draco mentioned you consult on Potions, though you don't brew them. I might have known someone like you was behind the Valiant Wizard line," she complimented him.

 

Severus bowed his head in acceptance of her remark. "So instead of my usual cut, Miss Brown is upping my percentage on a new line of potions I'm working on."

 

"Would this new line include the natural lubrication one Draco gave me today?"

 

The older wizard nodded his head.

 

"I see." Ginny was lost in contemplative thought for the moment.

 

"And your feedback on the potion?" the Potions master prompted her, curious to see how well it worked.

 

Ginny closed her eyes and sighed while Draco smirked. Cracking open her eyes, she leered at Draco while answering, "Absolutely fantastic. My only concern is that it might counteract any contraceptive potions I'm on."

 

"I've already taken that into consideration," Severus assured her.

 

"You’d better," she warned him. "I don't want to get pregnant!"

 

"Really, Gin. Do you think I would let you have a potion if it would let you get pregnant with his child?" Draco asked, his brow furrowed.

 

"I am a Potions Master. Did you not think that I took that into consideration?" Severus replied, slightly offended.

 

"Well, my mother took contraceptive potions and look what happened to her!" Ginny exclaimed.

 

Draco chuckled heartily, finally realizing the cause for the size of Ginny's family.

 

"No doubt she made them herself, as any respectable manufacturing outfit would brew something that would work," Severus asserted.

 

The witch blushed momentarily. "Those potions weren't cheap back then. I'm sorry to have doubted your competency, Severus. It's just that I absolutely do not want to get stuck in this marriage to Harry by accidentally getting myself pregnant because of an experimental potion. You can see my point of view with regard to the caution I'm taking."

 

"Yes, I do. I apologize for snapping at you. It's been a rather trying few days," Severus said formally. It was prudent of Ginny to be cautious, as he could understand her point completely. "Based on how well you know Hermione, do you think she will stop with her Thursday night appointments?"

 

Ginny sat back in her chair deep in thought. "Well, there is the guilt aspect, but after seeing Hermione last night and this morning, I'm not certain. She has that same emotionally detached quality about her that Harry has. I know it from personal experience. The way she threw her ultimatum on the table last night was scary. I've never seen her so… calm. There's probably more going on right now than I can guess at. Next Saturday I'm taking her with me to the spa. I'll see if I can get some more information out of her then and either owl you what I find out or brief you in person. Perhaps the situation between Hermione and Ron will flesh itself out over the next week and I'll be able to tell more, but right now, it's a toss up. Is she seeing you regularly on Thursdays now?"

 

"Yes. As a matter of fact, I loaned her my latest copy of Eccentric Elixirs on the hope that will ensure she'll return to me, if only to bring it back. I also invited her to join me for dinner as well, so I can make sure she will eat something of substance, since she obviously isn’t taking care of herself now." Severus cast his eyes down to his plate, fixated on mopping up a bit of glaze with his duck, so he would not see Draco and Ginny giving him the same look they had the last time he’d mentioned Hermione's health.

 

"You're cooking for her?" Draco asked slowly in insinuating tones.

 

"I'm making cassoulet," the older wizard replied casually.

 

"You're making cassoulet? You haven’t made cassoulet in ages. If you won't cook it for me, why her?" Draco asked, feeling slighted.

 

"Because she won't make comments about how the Malfoy Manor elves do it better than me," Severus ground out, letting Draco know his past criticisms and comparisons of his cooking to that of a house-elf were not appreciated.

 

"But you left out the breadcrumbs!" Draco whinged.

 

"A properly made cassoulet does not need breadcrumbs. It forms its own crust when made right. And your insistence that it should have lamb and tomato goes without even bothering to tell you just how positively wrong it is," Severus sniffed arrogantly.

 

"All right, all right. I will not have this discussion get bogged down in the great cassoulet debate," Ginny said, stepping into the conversation to steer it back to a more pleasant topic that did not involve a conclave over the true provincial origins of the dish and which variation is the truer recipe. "I've heard Draco complain about this enough to me and I will not have you two go at it again. So, Severus, you are cooking for Hermione?" Ginny asked, directing the conversation back to more civil tones.

 

"Yes. As I was saying, since she doesn't seem to feed herself, I can make sure she has at least one decent meal a week." Severus sighed, now that Draco's diplomatic paramour had averted another culinary row between the two.

 

"Do you plan on making it a weekly habit?" Ginny asked with keener interest, leaning forward while resting her arms on the table.

 

"If dinner is pleasant, which I assume it will be, then yes. That is, if it does not arouse the suspicions of her husband as to why she isn't eating on Thursdays," Severus answered detachedly.

 

"Don't worry about that," Ginny reassured Severus with a wave of her hand before grabbing her wineglass to take a long sip. "Ron has been rather oblivious where Hermione is concerned. He hadn’t even noticed the state she was in until Harry screamed at him about how thin and tired she was looking last night."

 

Secretly, Severus was reluctantly pleased that Potter was actually looking out for Hermione, since her husband was doing such a poor job of it. Ginny would keep an eye on her as well.

 

"Severus?" Ginny's voice had a note of warning to it, snapping him out of his thoughts. "Hermione is not like other witches who might come to see you. She's not going to delineate between the friendly conversation that she originally paid for and emotional attachment. I want you to be very careful. Please, as a friend. She's very fragile right now and I don’t want her to get too attached to you. She's married and Muggle-borns have a slightly different attitude on fidelity in marriage than some witches and wizards do."

 

Remembering last Thursday night and Hermione's moment of weakness and how she laved her passionate attentions on his hand, and how he had to fight temptation himself, Severus sat up straighter in his chair and told Ginny, "I assure you. Before it gets to that point, she will be learning my identity. Speaking of which, she has changed considerably since the days of the war. What has happened to her that she is no longer the same insufferably curious girl I once knew? I causally left my copy of Eccentric Elixirs out for her to notice and had to practically thrust it into her hands, and offer to let her borrow it. The Hermione I remember would have leapt out of her seat and picked it up, prattling on about the articles inside and other things. I was counting on her insatiable sense of curiosity as a tool to make her realize who I am, but it seems she's not taking the bait."

 

"I've noticed that too," Ginny noted. "Right after Hermione discovered Draco and me, she kept asking me questions, and then all of the sudden the questions stopped. Not one question about Draco for the past week. It's positively unnerving, as I expected her to keep asking me questions, but… I don’t know. It's like she's resigned to accept the situation, which just worries me even more. And now with this emotional deadness I see, I'm really worried about her. I just don't want her to glom onto you as some sort of emotional raft in a storm and ruin her marriage in the process."

 

"You think being married to your brother is something worth salvaging for her?" asked the older wizard with disbelief.

 

"I know you don’t like Ron, or most of my other brothers, Severus," Ginny scolded him, "but Hermione really wants to make this work. Besides, you know what a pariah she would be if she divorced him. There are more Muggle-borns in the community who don’t have the same view on divorce we do, but still. Life would be difficult for her. The similarities between her marriage and mine are beginning to look frighteningly similar though. Hermione is not the type of witch to easily cheat on her husband, especially Ron, so please, don't do anything that will lead to something she’ll regret."

 

Severus leveled his gaze at her, making his intent clear. "I have no intention of seducing her. To do so would only ruin my chance of our eventual escape to freedom. Once she learns it's me, she will most definitely have no attraction towards me whatsoever. She will feel compelled to help us escape though."

 

"Oh, I don't know Severus. You can still be quite charming when you're not being a completely sarcastic bastard. If I was into the tall, dark and tragically mysterious brooding type, I'd probably still want to shag you," Ginny said with a bit of cheek while Draco choked on his wine.