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And They Didn't Live Happily Ever After

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Chapter Twenty-Five
“My Dinner with Calleo"

 

Disclaimer: Rowling owns it, she owns it all. I don't make a single Sickle for writing any of this.

 

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Severus had been dressed for the past half-hour. The bread had been sliced and the table for two was set in the middle of his parlor-boudoir. All that was left was Hermione Weasley’s arrival.

 

That wasn't entirely true. He paced in front of his armoire debating on which mask to wear and if he should keep a scarf over his head to hide his hair. Severus vacillated between the Bauta he had worn during their previous meetings and his Pipistrello half mask. If he abandoned the scarf and wore the half mask, it might be too much and Hermione might flee with the realization that she had almost thrown herself at her old Potions professor. So far however, she had not deduced who he was. Or if she had, Hermione had not yet acknowledged or confronted him about his identity. The wizard decided that either the scarf would go or he would change to a smaller mask.

 

The decision was taken from his hands as the hands on the clock struck seven and Hermione knocked on the door. In haste, Severus decided to forgo the scarf and just wear his black Casanova mask that would go nicely with his green shirt and dark gray pants. If anything, he was hoping the color combination of his vestments might help Hermione bridge the connection between the gigolo she visited and the Potions master she might still be wondering about. A glance at his bed curtains told him she was tense and angry. After one last check to make sure his mask was firmly secured and the bed curtains were charmed off, Severus opened the door.

 

Both Hermione and Severus let out a slow and silent breath of relief.

 

Bowing in his customary courtly manner, he bid her welcome. "Good evening, Hermione. I'm so pleased to see you again."

 

He was genuinely pleased, for her presence gave him hope that she would continue to see him the next week and the week after that despite the Death Eater attack, the return of her husband, and embarrassment from her lapse of propriety between them.

 

Hermione beamed a heartfelt smile at him. Seeing Calleo waiting for her and then welcoming her with such sincere warmth made her feel happy for the first time in a week. The hollowness inside her chest didn’t seem quite so oppressive and the iron band around her ribs lifted for the time being. Now that she was at Calleo's, she would not have to think of Ron, not unless she wanted to. She was in her own sanctuary, free of burdens and obligations for a few hours.

 

Walking inside, the woman inhaled deeply. "Oh," she sighed dreamily. She closed her eyes before inhaling once more. "That smells delicious."

 

Hermione had been having daydreams of cassoulet with Calleo all week long. It was the one happy thought that had kept her from screaming in frustration at work or literally strangling Ron in his sleep. And now that she was here, the witch placed all her worries in a little box inside her head and set them aside for the evening. At some point, she knew Calleo would ask her how her week had been, but for now she wanted to bask in the illusion that she didn't have a care in the world except for wondering which side of the table to sit on.

 

"May I take your cloak?" he asked. His voice was rich and inviting in its tone.

 

"Yes, thank you," she said quietly, ducking down her head. She felt flustered and reluctantly aroused by his gentlemanly manners.

 

As Hermione's cloak slipped down her shoulders and arms, she felt the light brushing of Calleo's fingers along the fabric of her sleeve. A small chill raced up her spine while she stifled a sudden intake of breath.

 

'I am not going to do anything foolish tonight. I am not going to ruin this by letting a little physical contact turn me into some hormonal fool,' Hermione silently chided herself. While she collected her thoughts, Severus discretely gave Hermione's cloak to Marf, who was in the kitchen.

 

"Would you like to start dinner now or would you like a chance to sit for a while?" Severus studied her from behind and noticed her hair was still wet. A few tendrils along her hairline were beginning to dry and curl naturally in gentle spirals, framing the nape of her neck. Hermione glanced over her shoulder at him, which made her look quite demure.

 

"Actually, I would love the chance to just sit and relax for a bit before dinner," she replied, sounding more relaxed by the suggestion alone.

 

Severus watched her walk to his settee, hypnotized by the way her hips moved, the sway of her skirt, the shape of her ankles just below the hem of her skirt, the way her back tapered to her waist before flaring out to her hips. He swallowed hard once to collect himself, desperately trying to remain focused on the moment and not on Hermione's body. It was clear she had not lost any weight since last week. She was being kept fed from the lunches Potter had been bringing Hermione when she wasn't meeting Ginny for lunch.

 

"Oh!" Hermione said suddenly. "I brought back your copy of Eccentric Elixirs. It's in my cloak pocket."

 

"I'll have my house-elf fetch it later," Severus replied.

 

"You have a house-elf? I thought you said you were making the cassoulet?" Hermione queried, a little confused.

 

"No, I do all my own cooking, but he does help with general housekeeping, shopping and the sort."

 

"Oh," she said before a small smile graced her face. 'He cooked for me, not the house-elf,' she realized. 'Ron's never cooked for me.'

 

Thinking it would be better to talk of pleasant things now and discuss her near miss at the Ministry with Dolohov after dinner, Severus asked, "So what articles did you read?"

 

Hermione's face lit up. "I read all of them, but the one that caught my interest was the one on developing new potions from scratch."

 

Severus sat on the opposite end of the settee. "I found that article to be a bit pretentious. Why ignore all the work other Potion masters have done only to reinvent the wheel every time you want to create a new potion?"

 

"I agree, but I think what the author was trying to point out was the fact that if we continue to take the same methods and apply them over and over and over, where will the new breakthroughs come from?" she countered. "Granted, yes, we should not ignore the previous work of others, but there are only so many ways of brewing and mixing ingredients in the same combination. For there to be new potions and cures, one must step back and take a new approach. If that means starting from scratch, then why not?" Hermione asked rhetorically.

 

"But to start from scratch would mean a waste of one's time and resources when there are so many texts and tomes to use as a starting point for creating new potions," Severus observed.

 

"I'm not saying that old potions, ones that are tried and true, are not to be discounted, but perhaps if you were to try something different, such as grating dandelion root instead of slicing it for the Poison Purging Potion, it might yield new results," the young witch suggested. "Perhaps a new potion to treat gout for those who are allergic or cannot tolerate prickly ash bark or sassafras."

 

Her simple theory intrigued him, but over the years he had dismissed the idea of cutting up ingredients differently, as his time was very limited. Severus often took the work of others as a starting point, as he never had the luxury of time for trial and experiment. The one time he did set aside a few weeks of one summer at Hogwarts, his effort was met with one failed experiment after another. His other chance to experiment from scratch with Miss Brown was discouraged, as she wanted to develop new potions as soon as possible to get them to market and not spend the months or possibly years required to start a potion from scratch, resulting in many failures before reaching success. Severus had once held the idea of trying the same exact thing that Hermione had suggested, but hadn’t seen any evidence to support the hypothesis.

 

'Perhaps if I get out of England and have all the time in the world, I can pursue such a course of research.' Severus placed that thought in the back of his mind to mull over in the future.

 

Severus kept his arms folded across his chest defensively. He felt as if his craft was under attack, despite the thought that she was might be on to something he had previously thought of as well. "Don't you think that in the art of Potions, which is thousands of years old, someone would have experimented to see if there was some merit to that idea?"

 

Giving a light chuckle, Hermione answered him boldly. "From a Muggle-born's perspective… no." Severus sat there in stunned silence. "In a world that continues to do the same thing the same way over and over and over because it's been thought to be the best without anyone being interested in trying and find a better way, I'm not sure if there has been a new way of preparing ingredients for Potions in a long time."

 

"So you think we should just start cutting up ingredients in different ways for tried and proven potions?" Severus was doing his best not to use his usual lecturing voice, especially since his ire was raised. "Just start chopping and slicing randomly and see what we get?" He tried his best to remain pleasant and conversational instead of combative and argumentative.

 

"Of course not! I mean, what would happen if you used diced banana slugs instead of shredded ones in a potion using lobalug?" Before Severus spoke, she answered her own question. "You'd have an exploding cauldron!" Hermione used an example that she clearly remembered from when she was partnered with Neville in her school days. It had resulted in some second-degree burns on her arms and one leg.

 

"Or powdered tail bone of the Japanese double-tailed fox instead of coarsely ground in a fast boiling potion? You will have a vapor cloud that could burn out your lungs if inhaled," Severus said, remembering his own short stint in the infirmary from Longbottom's misjudgment on the difference between the two textures.

 

"Or using whole fairybells instead of minced for the Endurance of the Heart potion," Hermione said, her voice rising.

 

Severus visibly winced from the implications of that potential damage it would cause, as even Longbottom had never got around to doing something so dangerously disastrous as that. If he had, Voldemort would have thanked Mr. Longbottom posthumously, as he would have succeeded where the Dark Lord had not by eradicating half of Hogwarts along with Potter.

 

"From our previous discussions, I’ve received the impression that you know something about Potions beyond the average wizard," Hermione said.

 

Of course Severus knew something about Potions, but during their discussions, he had to downplay just how much he knew, not wanting to tip his hand too heavily lest Hermione realize too quickly who he was. There were only so many Potions masters in England; Hermione was probably aware of most of them. At least during their talks she didn’t act like the know-it-all he once remembered. She talked with him and not at him.

 

"My point is that we should not ignore what we have learned, but to perhaps take some ingredients that we have used the same way, century after century and use them differently. Or at least approach their preparation differently." Hermione rose from her seat and began pacing, her hands gesticulating as she talked. "I mean, look at Ashwinder eggs. For three years I have been testing them the same way and in each case, I wind up having to go through about twenty percent of the batch before I get a test sample that isn't cracked or ruined."

 

The Potions master had been looking at Ashwinder eggs with an increasing frequency. Not only had he been looking at them for the past few weeks, as he and Miss Brown had been working on variations of sex potions, he had also tested them while working at the Department of Standards and Regulations as a young wizard during his apprenticeship days. One had to bring a cauldron of water mixed with lye to a low boil and then place an Ashwinder egg into the simmering solution. If the egg did not crack while landing on the bottom, it might crack during the boiling process, as the sudden temperature change from being frozen to boiled often split the shell open, ruining the sample that was used as an indicator to see if the batch was usable or rotten. In most cases, twenty percent of a batch of eggs was used before a good sample would go through the boiling phase and remain intact. The Ashwinder egg could then be cut in half and examined to see if it had the concentric circles of alternating purple and green. Even Severus, despite his talents, usually went through fifteen percent of a batch before getting a viable sample for testing during his days at the Department.

 

"So last year I did a little experiment," Hermione confessed. "When a batch of Ashwinder eggs came in, I ran two tests side by side. One was the traditional way where I wait till the lye solution comes to a slow boil before dropping the egg in, the other method I tried was to put the egg in the bottom of the cauldron, fill the cauldron with the solution, then bring it to a low boil."

 

Severus leaned forward in his seat, resting his arm on his knees while cocking his head to the side. "And what makes you think your 'new' method of testing will work?" He was skeptical that her alternate method would even work, but he had no reason why it shouldn't.

 

"Because it has," Hermione said proudly. She waited for Calleo to challenge her. "I tested every single batch with the double test for six months straight and in the end my new method was better. Now when a batch comes in, I only need to test one egg instead of twenty-eight or twenty-nine out of a 12-dozen shipment. I did have to use that double testing time to find out what the time difference was between the old way and my way though."

 

"And? The time difference?" Severus asked, licking his lips and curious as hell about her results. The implications of her actions meant that the supply of Ashwinder eggs on the market had increased without a hike in the number of creatures required to produce them or in labor costs to collect and ship them.

 

"Instead of boiling the egg for eighteen minutes, you time it for twelve minutes once the water starts on a low boil and the egg starts to dance on the bottom of the cauldron. But not that my efforts are of any importance," Hermione said dismissively. "I told my superior about my findings and she shot them down. She said I was to test ingredients and the Ministry was not in the business of financing any costly and unsanctioned experiments on ingredients that I'm only supposed to test the usual way. Even though I found a way to increase the percentage of Ashwinder eggs that make it to market, reducing costs overall throughout the industry, she finds it's of no relevance." Hermione gave an indignant snort of disgust and she started pacing faster, becoming angrier. "I still test them my new way though. I mean, hasn’t anyone noticed that the price of Ashwinder eggs on the open market has dropped astronomically? It was right after I started testing one egg only that the prices started to drop. Has no one noticed or made mention of this? No! And if anyone is making mention of it, I'm sure my boss, Madam Dushka, is taking all the credit for it!"

 

Hermione's statement made Severus' mind whir and turn even faster. Was Hermione the reason why Miss Brown only recently expressed an interest in developing a line of sex potions? Was Hermione the cause for Severus' calculated future wealth that he counted on from the development of such a profitable line? It would be beyond ironic that Hermione was the reason for a new line of potions, resulting in Severus taking her on as a client due to said potions. He would have to question Miss Brown in such a way as not to arise suspicions about her sudden interest in sex potions.

 

Giving a great huff, Hermione sat back down on the settee next to Severus rubbing her temples.

 

"Do you have a headache? Shall I get a vial of headache relief potion?" Severus offered.

 

"Yes, my head is throbbing," Hermione groaned, "but I've already taken two vials of that stuff today. I'm just so tense. I wound up interviewing this… child today to take my old co-worker's place. He was this incredibly annoying, arrogant, vain, vapid… DUNDERHEAD!"

 

Severus laughed lightly, then quickly apologized, knowing that Hermione was in no mood to be laughed at, having been in similar moods frequently. "I'm sorry, it's just the way you said 'dunderhead,' that I found so amusing." It was humorous to him to see a former student use a term he frequently bandied in a similarly frustrated and derogatory manner. "Please go on."

 

"After I deemed him not worthy of going on to the next level of interview, he propositioned me for dinner and other things, just so he could get the job," Hermione said, still indignant over the whole incident. "Well, I informed him in so many words that I was married and my husband could pound him to pulp. The next thing I know, my boss invites him into her office to offer him the job. I swear, he must be banging her to get the job, because that is the only way I can see this idiot getting it. I never thought I'd see the day that wizards slept their way to the top. He only wants this position to bide his time until his Potions apprenticeship starts next spring. An apprenticeship that should have gone to me, if it was rightly based on merit, but it seems this imbecile's father bought him the position."

 

This was news to Severus. He had no idea that Hermione wanted to study Potions beyond her N.E.W.T.s. "You wanted to become a Potions mistress?"

 

The rankled witch sighed heavily. "Originally, I wanted to study Transfiguration or Charms, but when the two professors I know who would have taken me as an apprentice died during the war, I owled every other Transfiguration and Charms master and mistress throughout Europe. It seems no one wanted to take me, all claiming to have no openings, but I've learned otherwise. I think it's because I'm Muggle-born."

 

Severus was silently seething on the inside. He knew the real reason why Hermione could not get an apprenticeship and it was all due to the machinations of Calpurnia Fudge. He would have liked to enlighten Hermione about the real reason why she was stuck with no opportunities to master a field of study and was saddled with the drudgery of testing ingredients, but now was not the time. Perhaps once he had revealed himself or Hermione had realized who he really was would he tell her about the outside forces affecting her destiny, perhaps using it as a bargaining chip if she was reluctant to help him. But for now, Severus was not going to reveal anything on that matter, especially since such information might encourage her to leave a job that was key to his escape.

 

"So once all those options were closed, I would have looked at Arithmancy, but the only person I would have bothered to apprentice under died during the war as well; she was also a professor of mine. I then turned to Potions." Giving a small sigh of exasperation, Hermione closed her eyes and began massaging her temples, as her headache was returning full force, despite the potions she had taken to counter it earlier. "I tried all the Potion masters throughout Europe, but it seemed that none of them would take me either."

 

Noting her tension and wanting to distract her with the next line of questions, hopefully keeping her too preoccupied to pay too much attention to the nature of his questions other than answer them, Severus remarked, "You look quite tense. If you will allow me, I can ease some of the tension in your neck and shoulders so that your headache is lessened."

 

Hermione opened her eyes and he saw her mentally debate the possibilities of his offer. "I really don't want to be a bother," Hermione pleaded without much conviction.

 

"Nonsense, you have a headache and it seems that no potion is going to help this constant state of tension. Besides, how can you enjoy dinner if you are suffering from a headache?" Severus insisted, trying to think of this as another chance to keep up his hand strength and not a chance to touch Hermione's skin for an extended period of time.

 

A look of grateful relief graced Hermione's features. "That's very kind of you. Actually, that sounds very good right now." She wished she wasn't feeling the constant throb of her head, as it was going to distract from the sensation of Calleo touching her.

 

Rising from his seat, Severus walked behind the settee and gently placed his hands on Hermione's shoulders. Once his hands gripped the taut piano strings masquerading as tendon and muscle underneath her skin, Hermione let out an appreciative sigh of relief as her head sagged forward slightly. From where Severus was standing above and behind her, he had a very nice view of Hermione's cleavage down the front of her shirt. The way her shirt buckled and bunched as his hands moved and grasped her shoulders made the fabric gape, giving him a beautiful view of the swell of her breasts and a tiny peek at the top of her lacy bra, her chest rising as she sighed once more.

 

After he caught himself transfixed on the sight of Hermione’s breasts, Severus quickly got back to the matter at hand. "You mentioned that your Transfiguration, Charms and Arithmancy professors died during the war. What about your Potions professor?"

 

There were many reasons why he wanted to ask this particular question since she’d brought it up. One was to see if there was another opportunity to drop hints at his identity; another was to discern her feelings towards her old professor and Order colleague.

 

Caught in euphoric bliss, Hermione began to answer as if drugged by Veritaserum. The pleasurable tingles of Calleo's hands easing her tension were spreading through her body, quickly putting her into a trance-like state. The delicious rush of endorphins spread throughout her body with a thrill, and coupled with the sensation of Calleo's warm and strong hands, she felt her skin goose-pimple along her neck, arms and chest.

 

She was so preoccupied by the warmth of Calleo's strong hands upon her skin kneading away at her muscles, and the scent of his cologne that had possessed her mind, that she began to speak honestly after letting out one more grateful and encouraging groan. "My old Potions professor disappeared right after the war. I never had a chance to ask him. By the time I had exhausted all avenues in Transfiguration and Charms, he was already gone. Not that I wouldn't have minded an apprenticeship in Potions, as I love it, but it wasn’t my first choice. Besides, if he was still around, I doubt he would have allowed me to apprentice under him."

 

"Why not?" he asked in a low and softly coaxing voice.

 

He was having a hard time concentrating on Hermione's answer, as she started rolling her head around, stretching out the relaxing muscles. Her actions presented a nice view of her long and slender pale neck. If leaned down just a bit, Severus could have nuzzled her neck before sinking his teeth into her skin. The fact that he was wearing a mask still didn’t tamp down the urge to attach his mouth to the side of her neck after she gave another long appreciative sigh of his ministrations.

 

"I got the distinct impression over the years that he didn't like me one bit," she answered truthfully.

 

Her answer was like a bucket of cold water being poured on his head, bringing him back to the moment. Severus' hands stilled for a moment before they continued going back to the knots in Hermione's shoulders and neck. Careful to modulate his voice so it was pleasant and not accusatory, though he knew her perceptions were correct, Severus asked, "Why would you think that?"

 

"Because he loathed the people I associated with. In addition, there were a few incidences that did not endear me to him. Like stealing some boomslang skin from him, which he initially blamed upon my friend, but later realized it was me who had done it."

 

'Ha! She finally admits it,' the ex-professor thought triumphantly.

 

"Then my friends and I cast an Expelliarmus on him in my third year during a misunderstanding," Hermione continued as she was lulled into a compliant state from Calleo's attentions.

 

'Misunderstanding my arse,' Severus thought bitterly, but kept massaging. 'You attacked a professor!'

 

"I set his robes on fire when I thought he was trying to curse my friend by hexing his broom during a Quidditch game," she said, half-mumbling.

 

"Hmmm, quite a few reasons for you not to be endeared into his bosom," Severus said with more austerity than he intended.

 

"And that doesn't take into account the whole house rivalry thing as well," she added lazily.

 

Hermione paused, wondering if Calleo would piece together the information and figure out whom she was referring to. She then momentarily wondered if Calleo was a Death Eater, thus knowing about Severus, but then thought Lavender would not have someone in her employ she did not trust. Lavender was a member of Dumbledore's Army and her best friend was a permanent resident at St. Mungo's due to the actions of Death Eaters. Then again, she had Draco in her employ, but he was an ex-Death Eater, just like Snape was.

 

Not really caring at the moment, Hermione added, "I was a Gryffindor."

 

"I see. So he must have been a Slytherin," Severus answered, more to prompt her to keep talking than to confirm anything that was obvious.

 

"Right in one. He had a rather strong dislike for Gryffindors. Or at least it seemed that way from all the disparaging remarks he made about me and my House all the time." Hermione let a low rumble settle in her throat as Calleo's hands moved up her neck and into her hairline, digging his thumbs into pressure points along the base of her skull.

 

Severus meditated on her words as he worked on her neck. She was right; he would have not accepted her request for an apprenticeship with him right after the war, but to hear what he knew in his heart was exactly as she stated made something inside of him unsettled. It wasn't guilt over the truth of the matter, but he wasn't exactly proud of his actions. Still, there was nothing to feel guilty over, as it was all in the past and he hadn’t even been around to turn her down if she had ever got around to asking. There was no point in mulling over spilt potion asking unanswerable questions of what-if and what might have been.

 

Making a noncommittal noise, Severus stepped out on a limb and said, "Maybe if he got to know you as something other than a student, perhaps with a few years apart, he might have reconsidered."

 

It was true; he did see Hermione in a new light since she’d come back into his life. She was no longer a student and child, but a young woman and a client with whom he actually enjoyed discussing ideas. Many of the traits that had annoyed him earlier in life didn’t nettle him so much, or maybe it was that she had matured and those qualities that irritated him had mellowed over time. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Whatever the case, she was a means to an end. Perhaps a little truth would further solidify her trust in him when the time came and she knew who he was.

 

"It doesn't matter anymore," Hermione said with resignation. "No one wants an apprentice who's been out of school as long as I have. I'll have to do the best I can with my situation."

 

He remained quiet, making no comment on her last statement. Severus was doing the best he could in his present situation, as much as he loathed it.

 

"How's that?" he asked regarding her headache, letting his hands rest upon her shoulders while his thumbs rubbed in lazy circles.

 

"Mmmmmm, much better," she whispered dreamily before inhaling deeply. The scent of Calleo reminded her of something she had wanted to ask for the past few weeks. "Oh, Calleo? What is the name of that cologne you're wearing?"

 

Surprised by her question, and at a loss with a direct answer as Draco had not picked out a name for the new cologne that was going into production soon, the dark haired wizard replied, "You are aware that my… employer, Miss Brown, owns a cosmetic company?" Hermione nodded. "Well, at times I am given the chance to sample products that have not been introduced into the marketplace yet. This scent I'm wearing is new and has not been given a name."

 

Hermione craned her neck up to look at him with a contented smile. "It smells very nice. I remember you wearing it the first night I came here. Since then that scent has..." 'Consumed me? Made me obsessed with thoughts of you?' "… haunted me." Since the cologne was not readily available to the public, then maybe it really was Calleo she had spotted that night in Flourish and Blotts.

 

If he had not been wearing his mask, he would have cocked a speculative brow at her, but since such simple non-verbal gestures were lost with his facial accessory on, instead he cooed, "Really?"

 

"Yes," she smiled back at him more. "It's very… masculine. It's almost… hedonistic."

 

Severus was very proud of this cologne he had developed, as it would smell different on each wizard. It would accentuate a wizard's natural body scents while also smelling like odors that were complimentary to the wizard's personality. This would be something to discuss with Draco on Saturday, as Draco had been using it himself around Ginny.

 

"And what does it smell like to you? What scents do you pick up from it?" he asked, clearly curious as she had proven to have such a keen and well-trained nose. It amused him that she thought he smelled hedonistic. Was he a hedonist? Doubtful, he preferred to think of himself as a sensualist, but the young witch seemed to revel in it regardless.

 

Inhaling, she closed her eyes. "Most notably: patchouli, sandalwood and musk. There are some leather, woodsy and herbal notes, but it's hard to discern the herbal scents with the patchouli being dominant and the cassoulet drifting in from the kitchen, but they are definitely there."

 

He was pleased. Many of the clients he had worn the cologne for had all complimented him on it, but none had asked for the name nor named the scents that enhanced his own natural body chemistry. Miss Brown had noticed the same scents Hermione had listed, so it seemed that the cologne did not smell different to each witch. His fear that the potion had failed would have been confirmed if Hermione had said that she smelled anything but the scents she listed. The potion added to the cologne appeared to be successful and he could add another product to the long list of items he received royalties on.

 

"Well, when Miss Brown does settle on a name, I shall inform you," Severus told her. "Are you ready for dinner, Madame?" He extended his arm to usher her the few feet between his settee and the table in the middle of the room.

 

A slight blush crept upon Hermione's cheek. Calleo's gallant gesture made her feel self-conscious and at the same time utterly feminine. Straightening her spine to improve her posture, she rose and slipped her hand into the crook of his arm to walk the few steps to the table.

 

Severus guided her to the side farthest from the kitchen and pulled her chair out for her, helping her sit down. Once she was seated, he excused himself to the kitchen. He reemerged a moment later with salad and bread that he set down on the table before disappearing into the kitchen once more.

 

While Calleo was in the kitchen fetching what Hermione could only assume was the cassoulet that she smelled upon entering and dreamt about all week, she studied the table set before her. It was a square table with enough room to seat four, covered in a plain white linen tablecloth. The china was plain white with a slightly raised pattern reminding her of the simple dinnerware that bistros used during her trip to France. Hermione draped her linen napkin across her lap and wondered how many other clients Calleo had cooked for. She remembered that he mentioned dining alone, so she could only guess that she was one of a few who had dined with him or possibly the first. She heard what sounded like the oven door closing and continued her observations. A bottle of red wine that was already opened and a pitcher of water graced the table.

 

The door swung open as Calleo exited the kitchen, dragon hide gloves on his hands while carrying the cassoulet that had seductive tendrils of steam curling and rising up from the surface. As he set it on a trivet, the edacious witch saw the crusty top bubble.

 

Severus sat down and regarded Hermione for the briefest moment, his stomach fluttering with a slight case of nerves, for which he was annoyed at himself. 'Is this what it's like to have a real date?' The witch seated across from him smiled at him openly with her hands placed in her lap. 'This is not a date, she is a client and you are trying to gain her trust, stay focused!' Severus ignored the sense of anticipation he was having over the moment.

 

After clearing his throat, Severus said, "I hope you don't mind. I've taken the liberty of opening the wine before you came to give it a chance to breathe. Would you care for some this evening or would you prefer something else to drink?"

 

'No, not the wine, don't drink the wine,' her mind chanted, but found the tableau set before her so enticing and intoxicating, that she agreed to a glass as it would complete the whole scenario she had played in her mind over and over during the week.

 

"This is a nice gentle red I think you'll like. It's an Amarone, rather heavy on the fruity flavors and a bit rich," he informed her as he poured a small measure into her glass for a taste.

 

Hermione was feeling very sophisticated because of everything Calleo was doing for her this evening. He had the air of a gentleman, escorting her to the table, helping her with her seat, offering her a taste of the wine and seeking her approval before pouring her a glass, then one for himself.

 

"Please, help yourself," Severus said with a tilt of his head. This was a dinner between two people, not an opportunity to court her, though he was tempted to serve dinner to her, remembering the lessons his mother had taught him on behaving properly for a lady.

 

Once they had laden their plates with food, Hermione gave a great troubled sigh.

 

"Something bothering you?" Severus asked, wondering if now was the time when she would finally breakdown over the events of the past week.

 

Looking up from her plate to Calleo sitting across from her, the glass of red wine near her right hand, the table before her, she felt the pricking of tears at the corners of her eyes. This was perfect. This was what it should be like with her and Ron and it wasn’t and most probably never would be. It also reminded her of her summer in France with her parents and the happy memories from that time when the world opened up just a little bit more for her and became a little more wondrous. That was the summer when French boys whistled at her, raking their eyes along her body and smiling at her in a way that was not innocent in the least, while her father placed a protective arm around her and her mother and she laughed at it all. This dinner reminded her of those little bistros she went to every night with her parents, when they allowed her to take a sip of their wine and made her feel so mature and grown up.

 

Hermione sniffed and dabbed the corner of her eye with her napkin. "I'm sorry," she apologized, "it's just all so…" 'Romantic.' "Perfect." She turned her head to look out the window. "I almost expect to see the Eiffel Tower looming in the distance, it's wonderful. This reminds me of happier times." She almost said that no man had ever cooked for her before, but that would sound flirtatious and she was definitely not going to flirt with a man she was already once tempted to be unfaithful with.

 

Severus found himself struck by her words, suddenly remembering the last time he’d dined with a woman alone. Was his wife the last woman who dined with him like that? His felt his throat become dry and he forcefully shoved those thoughts away, instead focusing on Hermione sitting across from him and not the regrets and remorseful thoughts that might plague his mind if he let himself think on them.

 

Keeping his thoughts to the present, he asked, "You've been to France?"

 

"Yes, my parents took me when I was thirteen." Hermione lifted her fork and began eating.

 

"Where did you go while you were there?" Severus began eating as well.

 

"Paris, Normandy coast, Bourgogne, the Loire Valley, mostly staying in the north," she replied after swallowing. "Have you been there?"

 

"A few times," Severus answered vaguely.

 

"Ooh, I noticed you didn't use breadcrumbs in your cassoulet," Hermione said brightly.

 

"I think breadcrumbs are unnecessary if made properly," Severus said, hoping she would not insist that they were needed.

 

"I think I've had cassoulet made every different possible way. While in France I practically lived on it. I ordered it every time it was on a menu. With breadcrumbs, without, made with duck or chicken, tomatoes or no tomatoes, it all tastes so wonderful when made well. And your cassoulet is simply heavenly," she praised him sincerely before eating another forkful.

 

"Thank you," he said in a deep and contented voice. Severus smiled to himself.

 

Hermione thought of asking him for the recipe, since he did mention it was a simple cassoulet, but from the tenderness of the duck and complex mingling of flavors, she knew this dish belied his description. Besides, some people were very protective of their recipes and Calleo just might be one of those people who guarded their recipes like state secrets. She did wonder again if Calleo had cooked for other women before or if she was the only one. As she silently warred with herself to curb her curiosity and not open her mouth to ask and ruin the illusion, Calleo spoke.

 

"Hermione, you look preoccupied. Care to share?" Severus asked, knowing she had some questions she was stopping herself from asking. This might be the prompting she needed to renew her sense of curiosity that seemed oppressively restrained.

 

She grabbed her wineglass and took a sip while trying to think how to phrase the question. "Do you frequently cook for other women?" Hermione avoided the word "client", as the mere mention of the word would cheapen her experience, not that her question was any more tactful with or without the word.

 

Regarding the woman across the table, he realized that Ginny was right. Hermione was the sort of woman who could easily become attached to him. Severus knew it wasn't jealousy, but she was possibly seeking some sort of validation that she was somehow more special than the other witches who visited him.

 

"I have a few personal friends who I cook for once in a while, but regarding those who do not know me without my mask, no. You are the first I have cooked for," he answered.

 

His reply prompted another question from Hermione. "I noticed you did not wear your head scarf tonight. Do you always cover your hair or only sometimes?"

 

"Some of the times. It depends on whether I feel I can trust my company or not," Severus said, his voice dropping lower so it was almost a rumbling purr.

 

Hermione closed her eyes and swallowed. Calleo's voice was doing funny things with her head and some rather pleasant things to her body as well. Before her mind could stop her mouth, she asked, "Do you trust me?" Resting her hands on the table, she leaned slightly forward as she watched his non-verbal body language. She looked at him with cautious yet hopeful eyes.

 

Did Severus trust anyone? Yes, some people to a certain degree. But did he trust anyone completely? Not anymore. The last person he trusted blindly was Albus and the old wizard had failed him in death. Without Albus to speak up for him and defend him, he was incarcerated under the Death Eater Decree. Albus had broken his trust by not providing some plan for clearing Severus' name in the event of his death. But did he trust Hermione? He trusted her to do the right thing where he was concerned and help him gain his freedom. She had tried to help the house-elves despite their reluctance. He was no house-elf and he desperately wanted his freedom and was unjustly denied it. Of course he trusted her to not abandon him and to help him escape.

 

Regarding her, he leaned forward while reaching for her hand. Severus allowed his index finger to lightly trail down along the seam between her index and middle finger, caressing her skin. It was a simple gesture that could be interpreted many ways, but if anything, he did it to reinforce his reply. "Implicitly."

 

Holding her breath, Hermione gazed back at him. Her head swirled with emotions she couldn't name and was too frightened to consider. She felt like she was treading in waters too deep for her to handle and she would drown. The next question would have been to ask if he had ever removed his mask for any other woman, but she thought that might lead to answers and more questions she might truly regret.

 

The aroused witch sat back up in her seat and began vigorously spearing her salad with her fork, realizing her curiosity was getting the better of her again. Flustered and desperate to change the topic, Hermione said, "I really enjoyed the historical article on Chinese Potions during the Tang dynasty."

 

Severus was relieved she had quickly changed the subject. Right after his answer, Hermione had a fleeting look of adoration in her face that he recognized instantly. Through his work as a gigolo over the years, he periodically had to end business relationships with some clients as they became too emotionally attached to him. But this was the first woman he had not bedded who had looked at him in such a way. What he did not like was the sudden feeling that he welcomed such a look from her.

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

Once the topic of Potions and articles from Eccentric Elixirs was brought up again, Hermione and Severus spent the next couple hours in the safe territory of all things academic. During dessert, which consisted of strawberries lightly marinated in an orange Muscat with crème fraîche, the talk turned from Potions to Alchemy. Afterwards, they adjourned to the settee.

 

As Hermione sat sipping her Turkish coffee that Calleo had brewed in an Ibrik over a flame on the low table in front of them, she smiled to herself.

 

"You look happy," Severus noted.

 

"It seems this is the only place now where I feel happy," she said with a touch of melancholy.

 

"Knut for your thoughts."

 

The smile left Mrs. Weasley's face. "I wish I didn't have to leave here at the end of the night. When I'm here, I don't feel so… when I'm here, the disappointments and regrets of my life don't seem so oppressive. For a while, I get to forget my troubles and pretend that maybe life could be a little different. And when I talk about my troubles, you aren't judging me, knowing me as I am to the other people in my life. You don't have expectations of me to be perfect or smart or always being the reasonable one."

 

There was silence as Severus let Hermione think to herself. He watched her run her finger along the rim of her demitasse as she meditated. It was a comfortable silence that held no desire to be filled with idyll talk. It felt good. The soundless tranquility was comforting as they both sat in contemplative quiet.

 

Severus supposed it was time to let Hermione get her latest troubles off her chest. With a gentle and concerned voice, he asked, "Would you like to talk about what happened at the Ministry last week?"

 

"No," she whispered. "Thank you for the letter, though. It was very sweet of you. I needed all the support I could get this past week, but I'm done crying now. I'm tired of crying."

 

Severus watched the veil of indifference settle over her features and her demeanor became infused with a blank coolness.

 

"Would you like to talk about anything else?" he asked intoning subjects of a personal nature.

 

"My husband?" She said it with such dispassion it was almost mechanical.

 

"Do you want to talk about him?"

 

"Not really. He came back last Thursday night right after…" She swallowed hard. "I gave him an ultimatum: divorce or counseling," Hermione said stoically.

 

"And?"

 

"He reluctantly agreed to counseling," she replied coldly. Hermione felt suddenly very tired and the hollowness inside of her returned. "I'd rather not talk about him. Something, anything else but death and my marriage."

 

"Of course, Hermione," he spoke in comforting tones.

 

Hermione’s sudden emotional detachment unsettled Severus. Over the years, he’d wished many of his clients would stop crying and turn off their emotions when complaining about their husbands, but to witness a woman who came to his doorstep and had already lost some of her vibrancy, lose her passion and spark so quickly made Severus feel empathy for her. He once used to be a passionate young man filled with not only hate, but hope and ambition. When his wife had died, the only thing left in him was hate and remorse. It was this deadness inside of him that allowed him to finally master Occlumency, as almost all emotions inside of him had withered into nothingness, so there was nothing to cloud his mind from the cold logic that kept him alive as a spy.

 

Now Hermione was sitting next to him with that same vacant stare that he recognized from years ago. As much as he didn't care to see her cry, he would rather see her wail mournfully, beating her hands upon his chest than to sit here like a statue with a dying spirit trapped inside.

 

"Tell me," Severus began, hoping that going back to Potions talk would cheer her up, "what other experiments other than the Ashwinder eggs have you done?"

 

Hermione gave him a weak, but grateful smile. "Unfortunately, I haven't had the chance to do any other experimentation. I barely have time to keep up with all the ingredients coming into the country. Do you experiment with Potions?"

 

Now was Severus’ chance to drop more hints. Modulating his voice to mix in the hint of regret and slight anger while a little wistful, Severus said, "I used to, up until about four years ago." The statement was technically accurate. Severus did not experiment with Potions, he consulted on the experimentation of them. He gave a restrained sigh, hoping to draw Hermione into more questions about himself.

 

"And now?" she asked tentatively.

 

"I…" The Potions master paused for the effect that he was hiding something. "I don't anymore."

 

Hermione weighed the options of asking more questions or giving Calleo his privacy and not digging into details any further. But the way he hesitated piqued her curiosity. She tamped down that damned bothersome notion to ask more questions and let it be. 'If he wanted to tell you more, he would have said something. He obviously doesn't want to elaborate on it anymore than you do regarding Ron. Just drop it. It he wants to tell you, he will, don't ruin this with your curiosity.'

 

However, since he used to experiment before, that didn't mean he wasn't willing to talk about the work he did years before. "So tell me about the experiments you used to do."

 

Severus smiled. No one had ever asked him about himself, understanding his need for anonymity, but this question allowed Severus to talk about himself without giving away anything too personal. "Gladly. What sort of experiments are you interested in? I did a great many."

 

A little of the fire returned to Hermione's eyes. The light in her eyes had faded over the previous week, but their intellectual conversations seemed to feed that little bit of radiance still left in her.

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

They talked until it was late. As they conversed about favorite Charms, Hermione heartily laughed for the first time in a long time. Calleo laughed during the conversation as well, which made Hermione's insides tingle from the deep and resonating sound that vibrated through her body. His laughter made her smile stretch a little wider than before; her cheeks were aching, as she hadn’t smiled so much in quite a while.

 

Noting the time, Hermione set down her tea. "I'd better be getting home," she said sadly. "As always, it's been a wonderful evening and I've truly enjoyed myself."

 

"As have I," Severus commented. He still couldn't believe she identified the two rare herbs he put in the tea that week.

 

"It was a lovely dinner. The cassoulet was beyond delicious, it was absolutely superb!" Hermione exclaimed exuberantly.

 

"Would you like to have dinner again next week?" Severus asked hopefully. It was so much more pleasant to dine with charming company who could discuss things other than one's lousy marriage, the way most of his clients did. Though Hermione had complained about her marriage in the past, he could understand and sympathize, as he personally knew the husband she bemoaned. Besides, most of the time was spent talking about subjects that interested them both.

 

She gave him her answer with a smile. "Same time next week?"

 

"Yes, that would be fine. Any requests?" the wizard asked, wondering what other dishes they might both enjoy.

 

"Surprise me," Hermione answered him. 'Oh shit.' That phrase came unbidden from the back of her mind. It was the same phrase Ginny used when telling Lavender what she wanted Draco to do to her. 'This isn't sex, it's just dinner. Stop panicking.' The thought of it still made her heart thump loudly in her chest.

 

"That I will." Severus went to fetch her cloak

 

Hermione glanced around Calleo's flat once more and noticed the bed curtains. 'Didn't they used to be a different color? Something other than black?' She quickly dismissed the notion when Calleo returned with her cloak.

 

Fanart by Fleab

Standing behind her as he helped her with her cloak, Severus said casually, "If ever you need to talk other than on our usual Thursday nights, or if there is an emergency, you're always welcome to stop by most evenings. I have Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights free. Use your knock and I'll know it’s you."

 

Glancing over her shoulder, Hermione noticed how close Calleo was to her. She inhaled his essence one last time, trying to memorize that scent of his that made her head swim and her mind reel. Looking up at him through her lashes, she could almost peer into his mask and see his eyes staring at her, penetrating her with his gaze. His hands on her shoulders felt so good that she didn't want to move yet. Any movement might cause him to remove their welcomed warmth and gentle pressure.

 

The tempted witch swallowed nervously, as she restrained herself from reaching up to touch him. "Thank you for your offer. That's very kind." Hermione closed her eyes and tried to gather her willpower. Her heart began beating in her rib cage like a bird stuck in a cage trying to take flight.

 

"Anything for you, Hermione," he whispered, memorizing the way her face looked in profile so close to him. The ex-Death Eater would do anything to gain her trust and ensure that Hermione would help him. Severus had to stop his hand from reaching out to stroke the side of her neck; it was so close. He could feel the heat from her skin radiating onto his hand.

 

If Hermione was not married and Severus was not a gigolo, this would have been the part when one or both parties would reach for the other for a spontaneous kiss. But the fact that Severus never kissed his clients and Hermione was a married woman with principles made the air thick with sexual tension that could find no release.

 

They both stood there, basking in the aura of the other, neither one wanting to be the first one to move away. In the quiet, they could hear each other's breathing and almost feel the air pulse with each other's heartbeats. Their breaths sounded ragged to their own ears, hypersensitive to their own bodies and to each other.

 

Hermione could feel his breath pooling on her shoulder, its warmth reaching her neck and making her shiver slightly with anticipation of what might happen.

 

Severus could smell her skin, that elusive sweetness of a woman's skin that no perfume or potion could ever capture. He was tempted to remove his mask and let Hermione know who he was, but prudence dictated that he be patient. The former spy forced himself to focus on the fact that if he wasn't careful, he would botch everything up by doing something rash, urged on by hormones that seemed to spring up from nowhere.

 

"Until next week," he whispered. He did not dare to kiss her hand tonight for fear he would not stop with one kiss.

 

"Yes. Until then," she said with a breathy response. "Good night, Calleo."

 

"Good night." Severus made the first move and opened the door so that Hermione could leave.

 

Just before he closed the door, Hermione turned and gave him one last look from the hallway. Her face bespoke pages of conflict within herself.

 

As the door clicked shut, Severus rested up against it, sliding down to the floor with his hair fisted in his hands. "Oh, that was close," he said to himself. Breathing deeply, he tried to regain his composure.

 

Never before had Severus been tempted to do anything based on pure instinct; such was the desire to kiss Hermione tonight. Never had passion dictated that he do something other than what his logical mind instructed.

 

Was it foolish to offer her a chance to come and visit him more than their once a week scheduled meeting? Perhaps, but increasing the number of visits Hermione had within a period of time would speed up the process of his escape from Britain. It would be something to discuss on Saturday when he and Draco had their once a month product testing session.

 

For now, Severus needed to get drunk… very drunk, or he might let his mind wander to the reason why he had almost kissed Hermione and why it had troubled him to see her so emotionally dead earlier.

 

He just hoped Marf would have a vial of hangover relief potion available when he woke the next morning. The ex-Death Eater needed to be sharp when discussing last week's events with Shacklebolt and Draco.