Severus was pleased to see that the Slytherin network was still up: one of his former pupils and owner of a property agency in Knockturn Alley helped him to quickly swap his house in Spinner's End for an old cottage in Hogsmeade. As incredible as it might seem, there weren't any apothecaries in Hogsmeade; Severus decided to remedy that. The apothecary would occupy half of the ground floor of his cottage, and he would live in the remaining space. With the little money there was left in his Gringotts account, Severus paid for the transport of his furniture and books from Spinner's End, and bought some basic Potions ingredients at Slug & Jiggers in Diagon Alley.
The cottage was infested with bundimuns and doxies, and Severus had to clean it all by himself. A make over was also necessary; Severus changed the room divisions and installed screens to separate the apothecary from the rest of the cottage, so that the front door would give access only to the apothecary. The private area of the ground floor could be accessed by a disguised door at the back of the apothecary and also from outside, by a back door that opened to a tiny hall. The hall gave access to a small sitting-room and a kitchen, and also a staircase leading to the upper floor, where Severus had a bedroom, an office and a bathroom. In the cellar, Severus had put his cauldron, worktable and cupboard of ingredients. The attic would serve, for the time being, as a storehouse for items he had brought from Spinner's End and whose location or usefulness had not been decided yet.
Severus worked hard to pull everything together in just a week. The fact that he wouldn't have enough money to survive the rest of the month if he didn't open the apothecary soon was a powerful incentive.
He intended to work mostly on demand, but he prepared a few potions to have in stock - those whose demand he expected to be higher.
Severus engraved the name of his apothecary in a wooden signboard: "The Simmering Cauldron." It sounded like a restaurant name, but all the other names he had come up with were either too obnoxious, or too pretentious.
On Monday, at nine o'clock in the morning, he hung the signboard over the front door of the apothecary and opened it to the public. The morning went by without incidents or customers. Severus wasn't surprised. After all, who would want to buy potions from a former Death Eater? He started to think it was foolish of him to even attempt this business venture.
It was all Ginevra's fault. That bloody promise he had made her tormented him. He had never expected to outlive the war and, even worse, to be released. Now that foolish hope that what had happened between them had some kind of significance haunted his days and especially his nights.
It was too painful to think of Ginevra. Severus had fulfilled his promise - he had survived. But the last battle had been terrible for everyone, and resulted in the deaths of Ginevra's twin brothers. Although Severus wasn't to blame for their deaths, he couldn't help feeling guilty somehow. He didn't even know why. Perhaps because he hadn't been able to protect them, or perhaps just because he had survived while they had not. And although Ginevra had testified in his favour at the trial, thus saving him from Azkaban, Severus didn't believe she would want to see him again.
An old women entered the apothecary, awakening Severus from his daydreams.
"May I help you?" he asked, as politely as he could.
"Oh, I have a terrible cold. Have you got anything for that?"
Severus had. He had prepared several bottles of Pepper Up Potion. His experience as provider of potions to the Hogwarts hospital wing had shown him that Pepper Up was one of the most useful potions. The old women paid him and Severus pocketed his first galleon and a few sickles and knuts. He felt surprised. Could it be that the woman didn't know who he was? Perhaps she hadn't recognised him. Or perhaps she didn't read the papers.
At midday, Severus ate a ham and cheese sandwich. He couldn't afford anything better, and didn't want to close the apothecary for lunch.
By the end of the day, an old man whom Severus had already seen in the neighbourhood requested a Memory Potion. Severus wrote down the request on a piece of parchment along with the customer's address, lest the old man would forget the request, and told him to come back the next morning to get the potion.
It seemed a waste of time to spend the entire day behind a counter to sell just one potion and receive a request, but he told himself that it was just his first day and he shouldn't be discouraged.
It was about closing time when he glimpsed someone entering the shop. Severus had to assure himself that he wasn't just daydreaming when he recognised her. She was pale and haggard, but when their eyes met a smile lit up her face. That smile and her flaming red hair made him dizzy.
For long seconds neither of them said anything. He had missed her so much. Not that he had the right to miss her. Except for that crazy moment when he had kissed her and promised to live for her, they had been just like two soldiers fighting side by side. The fact that that soldier was a beautiful young woman had made things more complicated. However, what had really made the difference was that, somehow, that apparently fragile young woman had been the only person strong enough to help him.
Severus lifted the counter flap and walked to her, not knowing exactly what he was going to do. He was still hesitating when she threw herself into his arms.
"Why didn't you look for me?" she whispered in his ear, in a hurt tone.
He didn't know how to answer. Once again, the words escaped his mouth as if by themselves. "I didn't have anything to offer you. I still don't have."
She pulled away from him a little and shook her head. "You're trying to rebuild you life," she said, gesturing around the apothecary. "I wish I could've been with you from the beginning."
"I thought you had returned to Hogwarts."
"I decided to stay with my mother. She's not feeling well. I expected you to contact me. I thought we had a... deal."
"It's just a week since I left Azkaban. A week I spent working hard to set up this place," he explained.
"You did a good job."
He walked away from her. "This is nothing but a mirage, a sand castle. Do you know what I managed today? I sold a Pepper Up and got a commission for a Memory Potion. What I earned today doesn't even pay for the ingredients I bought, let alone the stale sandwich that I had for lunch."
"It's your first day," she argued. "And you didn't even advertise your business."
"Of course. I could have published an advertisement in the Daily Prophet: 'Ex-Death Eater Opens Apothecary in Hogsmeade'," he said bitterly. "By the way, how did you find me?"
"Er... Tonks is keeping an eye on you for the Ministry. She told me where you were and what you were doing."
Severus arched an eyebrow. He knew the Ministry would be watching him, but the effectiveness of the women's grapevine surprised him. "It's closing time. I have to start preparing the Memory Potion now. It has to be ready in the morning, and..."
"... this potion needs to be done in two phases, with a maturing time of no less than twelve hours," she finished for him.
"Miss Weasley," said he, in professorial tone, "I didn't expect you to remember the preparation instructions after all this time!"
"I wouldn't dare forget: I had a very strict Potions master. Who was also the best," she added, flirting with him. "If you let me, I can help you with the potion."
He sneered at her, pretending to doubt her skills, but she tilted her chin up, determined.
Severus took out his wand and closed the door. "Come after me," he said, leading her behind the counter and down a narrow wooden staircase that creaked and squeaked with every step.
When they arrived at the bottom of the stairs, he cast Lumos. The candles slowly revealed a relatively spacious room. There was a pewter cauldron on the right side, and other cauldrons piled up behind it, in the right corner. A black marble worktable with bottles and jars and flasks occupied the left side of the cellar, and behind it, on the back wall, there was a cupboard.
"Wow! It's perfect," Ginevra commented. "And you have a good ventilation, with those little upper windows."
Severus opened the cupboard and started gathering the ingredients for the Memory Potion.
"Do you want me to make the pomegranate juice?" she asked.
"Yes. While you do that, I will clean the Jobberknoll feathers."
They worked in silence, focused on what they were doing. When he finished preparing the Jobberknoll feathers, he looked up at her and watched as she chopped the daisy roots. She had beautiful, dexterous hands. He couldn't help wondering how Ginevra could have become such a resourceful witch. How ironic that it had been the war that had honed most of her skills! That sad memory woke him from his thoughts. He realised he was staring at her, and resumed his work on the potion.
When all the ingredients had been added, in the right order, and the concoction turned into a thick hazel soup, Severus turned down the fire and looked at Ginevra. "Now we can let the potion mature. Would you like some tea?"
Ginevra flashed a dazzling smile. "Of course! I even brought you a jar of blackberry jam!"
Severus led her back upstairs and was happy to see that the kitchen was not a complete mess. As he had been eating nothing but sandwiches, he had not dirtied any dishes or pans. "Have a seat," he said, pulling out a chair at the table.
She sat down. He grabbed an old kettle that had belonged to his mother. Except for the potions utensils, everything in his house was old, Muggle and in bad condition.
"Severus, I had an idea for the apothecary and would like to discuss it with you."
"Yes?" he said, putting water in the kettle, then putting the kettle on the stove.
"Remus and Tonks are close friends of my parents and often visit us. I heard Remus talking to my father about his work with the werewolves who are 'under control'. Their life isn't easy, and many of them give up and surrender to their illness. Well, I know you're one of the few wizards who can prepare the Wolfsbane... I added two and two and... talked to Remus. We finally arrived at a proposal that might be of your interest."
Severus felt torn between his interest in the proposal and a certain disappointment. What was that, after all? A business visit? "What proposal is this?"
"According to Remus, there are about fifty werewolves who are integrated into the Wizarding World, but Remus is in touch with just about thirty of them. You could make an agreement to sell the Wolfsbane to this group at a price inferior to the market price. In exchange, they would pay in advance a part of the total, so that you could buy the ingredients. They would also appoint you as their exclusive supplier."
It was brilliant. Except for the fact that he would have to sign an agreement with... Lupin.
"How inferior to the market price are we talking about?" he asked, taking the kettle off the stove and preparing the teapot.
"Neither me nor Remus knew about the details of the cost. He told me the cheapest Wolfsbane supplier charges 7 galleons a dose."
"That's a daylight robbery. The potion is complex, but the charlatans exploit the werewolves because they don't have any competition."
Her eyes twinkled. "Precisely!"
Severus put toast on a plate and opened the jar of jam Ginevra had brought. Then he poured tea for both of them and joined her at the table. "How much are they willing to pay?"
"Remus told me if you sell it for 4 galleons, everyone will agree
to participate. If you charge more than that, the number of people will
tend to diminish. You know how it is, people don't like to pay in advance."
"Then I'm sure you both can arrive at an agreement!" Ginevra exclaimed, stopping and putting down the knife she was using to spread jam on her toast.
Severus made a few calculations in his head. "I have a problem to solve, though. During a period of about three days before the full moon, I will have to prepare a large quantity of Wolfsbane. For thirty people! Even if I close the apothecary during this time, it's too much work for just one person."
"The first month is going to be tough. But the next month you can hire an assistant, with the money you'll make."
"Nonsense. I will not hire a cheap assistant to work on a complex potion like the Wolfsbane."
"I mean a shop assistant. Someone to attend to your customers. I can help you with the Wolfsbane. The next full moon is in about fifteen days. Until then, you can teach me what I need to learn."
Severus bit his toast and sipped his tea. Things were happening too fast and his head was spinning. He had to think. What did Ginevra want? To be his partner? Severus didn't like the idea of having a partner. He had always been a subordinate, and now he didn't want anyone to interfere with his work.
"I suppose you intend to be my partner," he said, looking straight into her eyes.
She frowned. "Your partner? Hmm... You can call me like, if you feel like. In fact, the partnership I want to have with you is not just a business one."
Severus feared he could do something stupid like smiling, and resorted to irony. "Are you trying to buy me?"
But as soon as he spoke, her expression became sad again, and he realised he had sounded aggressive. He knew what she was doing: she had found a clever way to help him. Her plan might enable him to lead a dignified life and maybe then...
"No," she murmured. "I just gave you an idea. I won't charge for it. If you don't want me to be a part of it, you just have to talk to Remus and..."
He had to do something, so he took her face between his hands and silenced her with a kiss. A kiss that tasted of blackberry and Darjeeling. A kiss that started awkward and ended with a soft brush of lips.
"Oh," she whispered. "You must make a decision, you know."
He took a deep breath. "I will do it."
"You will do... what?" she asked, widening her eyes.
"Anything you want me to do. Have you forgotten that you are my owner?"
"But... This is not like you!"
"Oh. This is not like me. So... who am I like?"
"You're difficult, stubborn, resentful..."
"Ah. Thank you. It's nice to know you have such a high opinion about me," he said, pulling away from her, angry, and pretending to be interested in his tea and toast.
She sighed. "See? That's what you're like."
It would be funny, if it weren't tragic. But he wasn't going to let her escape so easily. "Very well. We need to have a serious talk. I was given the impression that we were talking about marriage. Is that so?"
"I think so."
"What will you do if Potter comes back?" snapped Severus, mercilessly.
She twirled a strand of hair and looked thoughtful. Severus felt hypocritical. His own feelings for the son of James Potter were far from chaste. But those were just hopeless fantasies. Even if they could become real... what existed between Ginevra and him was more significant than stupid fantasies. Perhaps the same thing was true of Ginevra. Perhaps, at that point of their lives, Harry was just a fantasy for her. The fact that she hadn't replied yet didn't mean, necessarily, that she...
Who was he trying to fool? Severus knew that Potter just had to wave and Ginevra would follow him. But Severus wasn't going to let her go without a fight.
"I'm sorry. I don't know," she admitted. "I only know I don't want to lose you."
"What about your parents? They will never accept their daughter to marry a former Death Eater."
"I don't want to fight with my parents, especially now. We lost Fred and George. Percy broke with us. Charlie lives in Romania. Bill and Fleur got married and live in their own home. Ron is back in Hogwarts, finishing his studies. I decided to stay with my mother, because... it's too terrible. I couldn't leave her alone now. But I'm of age, and they will have to accept. They won't have any choice."
"Are you prepared to face the whole wizard society?" asked Severus. "Many people will criticise your decision."
"I don't care. I never cared about what other people thought of me. If you want me, the only other thing I have to know is whether you want to have children. Because, well, this is important to me."
The image of a little Ginevra and a little Severus came to his mind, and his heart skipped a beat. That was part of a world that Severus had long thought he had lost forever. A wife, children, a family. It was unreal. "All this is too new to me, Ginevra. I need time to think it over."
"All right. You don't have to make a decision now. But, about the Wolfsbane, can I bring Remus here to talk to you?"
She just rolled her eyes. "Now I have to go, or my mum might find out that I didn't go to Bill's as I said I would. I want to tell her about us the right way. Anyway, tomorrow morning I'll be back. I'll bring you lunch, and some fruit. It can't be good for you to eat only sandwiches."
Severus was going to protest, but her zeal and enthusiasm were transparent. He would have to get used to the idea that someone cared about him. Of all the tortures he had had to endure, that one would likely be one of the mildest.
Ptyx, August 2006