"Pritchard," Severus snapped, "have you found that receipt yet?"
His shop clerk hurried over and handed Severus a copy of a shop receipt.
"Here, sir," Pritchard said, slightly out of breath. "As you can see, her only purchase was on Friday last. She came in whilst you were out to lunch."
Severus glanced at the duplicate receipt. Three days ago Granger had made a purchase of two grams of dried cinderweed for a total price of seven Sickles and eight Knuts. He tapped the receipt. "You're certain this was all she purchased?"
"Yes, sir," Pritchard answered. "She wandered about looking at everything, then made her selection and left."
Severus frowned. "And she didn't comment on the price?"
"No, sir." Pritchard shook his head.
Severus handed the paper back to Pritchard, his frown deepening. "Put this one back with the rest, and leave the receipts file on my desk. I want to look through them myself."
At that moment the Floo at the back of the shop flared to life, and Draco Malfoy stepped out, brushing stray ash from his tailored grey robes. He made his way through the aisles to Severus' side.
"What's going on?" Draco asked. "Pansy was out shopping, and when she came home, she said there was a commotion in front of your shop."
"See for yourself." Severus gestured toward the woman marching back and forth.
Draco looked out, and his eyes widened. "That's Granger. What's she doing?"
"Picketing." Severus' expression was sour.
Draco read the signs aloud and snickered. "She found out about the extra Sickle, then?"
"Obviously." Severus turned to look at him, and his tone was pointed. "I wonder how that happened?"
Draco immediately shook his head. "What reason would I have to tell her?" He nodded toward the shop counter. "What about Pritchard?"
Severus lowered his voice. "No. Discreet Legilimency confirms he had nothing to do with this, and we're the only three who know about it."
Draco shrugged. "Then Granger and someone else compared the prices of something they'd both purchased. You know she always loved doing research. And having a cause. I'm sure she thinks she's striking a blow for Gryffindors everywhere." He stared for a moment at the woman steadily marching outside. "Have you talked to her?"
"Don't be stupid. Of course I have. The insufferable woman refuses to listen to anything I say," Severus answered.
Pritchard returned to the window in time to hear Severus' comment. With a sidelong look at his employer, Pritchard leaned close to Draco and whispered, "He means he shouted at her, threatened to hex her, then called the Aurors and demanded they arrest her for causing a disturbance."
Draco's laughter turned into a choked cough at the icy look on Severus' face.
"I can hear you, Pritchard," Severus ground out. "I'm not deaf."
Pritchard ducked his head. "Sorry, sir," he muttered.
"I take it the Aurors wouldn't arrest her?" Draco asked.
Severus scowled. "They said it's a public pavement, and unless she becomes violent or begins using obscenities, there's nothing they can do."
"What are you going to do about her?" Draco asked as his eyes followed Granger back and forth.
Severus turned from the window, his lip curled. "I'm going to do the worst possible thing you can do to a Gryffindor. I'm going to ignore her."
Ignoring Hermione proved to be more difficult than Severus had anticipated. Each time he looked toward the front of the shop, his gaze was drawn to the young woman marching in front of the windows and to the signs bobbing along behind her.
Every customer who came into the shop inquired as to what she was doing and what her signs meant. Severus promptly told them that the poor, befuddled woman had escaped from the Janus Thickey Ward at St. Mungo's and the mediwizards would be along shortly to collect her.
At seven o'clock, Severus went to the front door to lock up for the night. As he flipped the sign on the door from Open to Closed, Granger stopped marching. She caught each sign as it moved past her, shrank them to the size of matchbook covers and put them into the pocket of her cloak. She stood at the window until she caught Severus' eye, waved with a cheeky smile and walked away, leaving him grinding his teeth in frustration. His fingers twitched with the urge to hex her, and he curled them tightly into his palm to reduce the temptation.
He had a throbbing headache and wanted nothing more than to go up to his first floor flat, have a glass of Firewhisky and a hot bath. Instead, he had several potions to brew. He gathered the receipts Pritchard had left on his desk and took them down to the basement with him. The Pain-Away Potion needed to simmer for an hour, and he'd use the time to look through the receipts. Perhaps Pritchard had missed something.
Late the next morning, Severus once again stood at the window, watching Granger pace along the pavement, her signs relentlessly flashing through their slogans. Behind him, Pritchard bustled through the shop, assisting the customers who'd appeared in droves since the shop had opened at 9:00 a.m.
As Severus watched, Draco crossed Diagon Alley, his black cloak swirling around his legs with every step. The Daily Prophet was folded and tucked under his arm, and he sneered at Granger as he dodged one of the signs and muttered something to her as he passed.
"Good morning, Severus," Draco called out cheerfully as he entered the shop. "Have you seen the Prophet today?"
Draco held the newspaper out to Severus and pointed to an article.
Hermione Granger, Order of Merlin 2nd class, is picketing Snape's Apothecary, charging unfair pricing. Snape's Apothecary, which opened three weeks ago, is located at Number 57 Diagon Alley, and Granger accuses the owner, Severus Snape, of discrimination, stating, "He's charging Gryffindors one Sickle more per purchase. Even though the prices are still cheaper than Bobbin's Apothecaries, that's unfair. Why should Gryffindors pay more than Hufflepuffs, Ravenclaws, and Slytherins?"
Granger went on to comment that "while Snape's Apothecary does provide excellent value, the practice of charging one group different prices from another is insulting and discriminatory, and it should be stopped immediately."
Snape, Order of Merlin 1st class, was once Head of Slytherin House at Hogwarts, and was a spy during the war against Voldemort. The public may recall that he was cleared of any wrong doing in the death of Albus Dumbledore by last minute evidence...
"I read it over breakfast," Severus answered, his tone even. He didn't take his eyes from Granger, but he turned his head slightly as he spoke to keep Draco in his peripheral vision. Severus saw the barest hint of disappointment cross Draco's face, but it was immediately replaced with an inquisitive expression.
"It doesn't seem as if she's managed to hurt business," Draco said, indicating the customers crowding the counter.
Behind them, the fire turned green, and a piece of parchment shot out of the Floo. Severus walked over to it with Draco trailing behind.
"On the contrary, custom has increased dramatically." Severus picked up the parchment and glanced at the order. "If this keeps up, I'll have to spend the entire weekend brewing in order to restock the shelves. Even the people who don't want to be seen crossing Granger's picket line are ordering by Floo."
Draco smiled. "That's brilliant."
"Yes, it is," Severus said slowly. "I'm sure this hasn't worked in the way Granger supposed it would at all."
Draco's brow furrowed. "You don't seem very pleased."
One corner of Severus' mouth quirked up, and he nodded toward the front of the shop and, by extension, Granger outside. "I'm merely curious as to how long she intends to continue this nonsense."
"She'll probably get bored by the weekend." Draco shrugged.
"Bored?" Severus shot a noncommittal glance at Draco. "Perhaps."
Another order fluttered from the Floo.
Severus turned to face Draco. "Was there another reason for your visit?"
"I wanted to make certain you'd seen the newspaper, but Pansy did ask me to remind you that her aunt is here for a visit, and we want to introduce you to her. We'd like you to come to dinner Friday evening."
"I doubt Pansy has any real interest in introducing me to her pureblood aunt," Severus said.
"Well, I do," Draco said.
Severus sighed and rolled his eyes heavenward. "Stop, Draco, just stop."
"Since you and Pansy married, you've attempted to introduce me to three different women. All that connubial bliss invariably turns newlyweds into dunderheads with an annoying desire to play matchmaker for their friends. When I meet a woman who intrigues me, I'll go out to dinner with her. Until then, the shop keeps me very busy," Severus said.
"But--" Draco began, his expression mulish.
"No buts," Severus interrupted firmly. "Give Pansy and her aunt my regrets."
As the day progressed, the temperature dropped steadily and so did the number of customers. The thin winter sunlight faltered and fat clouds lowered, heavy with snow. People gave up their errands to rush home to the warmth of their fireplaces. By mid afternoon, the first flakes were falling; an hour later, the snow was thick enough to impede visibility.
Yet still Granger marched stubbornly in front of the shop.
At half three, Severus sent Pritchard home. The only business now was coming in by Floo, and even that had slowed to a trickle. Severus watched the woman picketing outside and pursed his lips in thought. After a few moments, he went upstairs to put on the kettle and make preparations.
Twenty minutes later, Severus levitated a tea tray to the desk in his back office, stoked the fire in the shop, then went to the front door. He threw it open and pointed to Hermione.
"Come in, Granger," he called out sharply. "Watching you freeze to death might prove entertaining, but I doubt it would be good for business. Let's call a temporary truce due to weather."
Hermione had been marching with her head down and hands tucked into the sleeves of her ice-encrusted cloak. Surprised, she stopped and raised her head, blinking owlishly at Severus. She halted so abruptly the signs floating behind her collided with her back, one after the other, and fell to the pavement, twitching.
"Well?" Severus said. "Are you going to stand there gaping? It's warm in here and very cold out there."
Severus didn't miss the longing look she gave toward the open door and knew she could feel the warm air wafting through it, but still she hesitated, frowning at the signs on the ground.
Severus shook his head. "Leave them. They're charmed, aren't they? They can picket without you."
She nodded once and quickly Accio'd the signs into her gloved hands. A few flicks of her wand, and the signs floated back and forth, barely visible through the swirling snow. She entered the shop, stamping her feet in the doorway to knock off the snow. Severus pointed to the coat tree by the door.
"Leave your cloak there," he instructed. "You'll drip on the floor otherwise."
Teeth chattering, she hung up her cloak and pulled off her gloves, shoving them into a cloak pocket.
Severus gestured toward the back of the shop. "There's tea in my office if you'd care for it."
Her expression was suspicious. "Why are you being nice to me?"
He rolled his eyes. "I'm not an ogre, no matter what you may think. Besides, the sight of a young woman struggling through the ice and snow would only turn public opinion against me. Inviting you in for a hot cup of tea could only work to my advantage."
"You don't think public opinion is in my favour?" she asked, incredulous.
Severus smirked. "Majority opinion? No, I don't. Now, do you want the tea or not?"
She stared at him for a long moment before nodding. "Tea would be lovely, thank you."
She followed him into the office and looked around with open curiosity. The small room held only filled bookshelves, a wooden office desk and two chairs. A tea service waited on the desk amidst ledgers and various papers, and Severus gestured for Hermione to sit down. He took his seat behind the desk and filled both mugs from the teapot, pushing one of the mugs across the desk to her.
"Whilst you get warm, I'll explain the pricing situation to you," he said. "I want you to understand exactly what you're protesting."
Hermione cupped her hands around the mug briefly, clearly savouring the warmth, then added sugar and milk into her tea. She gave him an appraising look. "What's to understand? It's a simple matter. You're charging Gryffindors more than other people."
"Yes, I am," he agreed, and his black eyes glittered with satisfaction. "I call it the Dunderhead Tax."
"The what?" She looked torn between being astonished and amused.
"I hit upon the idea whilst teaching." He took a sip from his mug. "Each evening, I would go back to my rooms after hours of standing on my feet trying to funnel knowledge into the thick heads of hormonal adolescents, and yet instead of being allowed to relax or even sleep, I would begin marking papers." He narrowed his eyes. "And whilst we're on that particular subject, I don't believe I ever properly thanked you for the extra work you caused. You could never simply write the required amount; you always had to add foot after foot of additional information. I had to read all that, you know."
"Oh." She looked taken aback. "I'm sorry. It didn't occur to me at the time that I was causing anyone a hardship."
"No, I'm sure it never occurred to you." He gave a derisive snort. "At any rate, in those fleeting moments I had to myself, I would dream of the day I would have my own business and be free of Dark Lords and of Boys Who Lived. But most importantly, I dreamt of the day I would be free of students. I decided that should I manage to live long enough to achieve that dream, I would impose a tax on every dunderhead who ever annoyed me, caused me extra work or loss of sleep, or who injured or stole from me. By an overwhelming margin, that meant Gryffindors."
Hermione's mouth opened, and Severus arched an eyebrow. "Before you disagree, remember that I taught Fred and George Weasley for five years, and they were just the tip of the iceberg."
She tilted her head in rueful resignation and drank her tea.
"The tax is, of course, largely symbolic," he continued. "It's only one Sickle per purchase, and Gryffindors will never flock to my shop to do business. However, it's my right as a shopkeeper to set prices as I see fit."
"Just because it's your right, that doesn't mean it's fair," she pointed out.
"I never claimed it was. By its very nature, life isn't fair." He shrugged. "If it were, a great many things would happen differently for all of us."
She finished her tea, and set the mug on the desk. "Why do you think public opinion isn't in my favour?"
"In their arrogance, Gryffindors forget they actually make up less than one quarter of the population. The rest is composed of people who either didn't go to Hogwarts at all or were members of the other houses. For years, Hufflepuffs, Ravenclaws and Slytherins watched while Gryffindors were blatantly given preferential treatment. Rules were ignored, points handed out, and house cups taken away at the last moment."
Hermione coloured at that, a guilty expression crossing her face.
Severus nodded. "Even today, Gryffindor bias prevails. The Minister for Magic is a Gryffindor, and most of his advisors and appointed department heads are Gryffindor. That's not a coincidence. Though you didn't intend it, your protest has revealed to the members of the other houses that, by shopping at my apothecary, they can receive preferential treatment."
Her mouth dropped open, and he smirked.
"It's still not fair," she finally murmured, but it was a half-hearted effort, and they both knew it.
He smiled faintly. "Now, before we discuss the details of your campaign against me, I must ask you a personal question. You weigh about eight and a half stone, correct?"
Surprised, her eyes flew up to meet his. "Yes, why?"
He sat back in his chair, still wearing that faint smile. "I wanted to make certain I hadn't given you an overdose."
In the next instant, her wand was in her hand and pointing at him, but Severus didn't flinch.
"An overdose of what?" she snapped.
Scowling, she looked from her mug to the teapot and then at him. Her jaw clenched, but she lowered her wand. "How did you manage it?"
"Two drops swirled along the inside of your mug and allowed to dry before I invited you inside."
"You're not an Auror. Using Veritaserum is illegal."
Amused, he shook his head. "I'm licensed to produce Veritaserum for the Ministry. Under their regulations, I'm required to test each batch before submitting it. Consider yourself a test subject." He leaned forward and clasped his hands in front of him on the desk. "Now, why are you picketing my shop?"
She tried to match his smirk. It was a decent effort, he thought, but it lacked his style.
"Because you're charging Gryffindors more than everyone else for the same products," she said. She tipped her head back slightly. "I should just get up and walk out of here, you know."
"Yes, I know," he remarked, "and yet you haven't, something I find very curious." His eyes narrowed. "Now, Granger, who told you about the Dunderhead Tax?"
He watched her struggle to resist the Veritaserum, opening and closing her mouth like a fish. Her hand crept up to her throat, but it wasn't until she began to choke that he felt the first stirrings of alarm. When she began turning purple, he realised something was very wrong.
Severus picked up his wand and snapped out, "Finite Incantatum."
When Hermione continued choking, he leapt to his feet and jerked a small phial of antidote from his pocket. He leaned across the desk and pushed it into her hands. "Drink it," he ordered. "It's the antidote to the Veritaserum."
She put it to her lips and drank. For a moment, he worried that her throat had closed off entirely, but she finally managed to swallow. Instantly, she stopped choking and drew in shuddering gulps of air.
He stared at her in shock and sank back down into his chair.
"I didn't know that would happen," she gasped out. "You almost killed me."
"You're under a geas," Severus said, frowning. "I hadn't expected that. Little else will thwart Veritaserum in that particular fashion. I initially thought it was the Imperius Curse, but if that were the case, you would have stopped choking when I ended it."
Her face was still blotched red, and he winced slightly.
"Would you like a glass of water?" he asked.
"No." She glared at him. "I think I'm all right now. Just... Don't do that again."
He nodded and propped one elbow on the table, tracing his upper lip with a forefinger whilst he thought through the facts as he knew them. He waited until her colour returned to normal before he spoke again.
"You're no longer under Veritaserum, so you should now have no difficulty answering my questions. Have you been forbidden from telling me who revealed the Dunderhead Tax?"
"Yes." That word was said easily enough, and she breathed an obvious sigh of relief.
"Were you given a specific explanation to recite to me should I question you regarding your protest?"
"Yes." She smiled at that.
"That I'd talked to someone else who'd bought the same ingredient, and I learned they'd paid a different price."
He nodded. "Is there a schedule set for your protest?"
She was still smiling, but when she opened her mouth, no words came out. Chagrined, she frowned.
"At least you're no longer choking," Severus said. "But as you were smiling, I'm going to presume your answer would have been yes. That would explain why you didn't walk out when you learned about the Veritaserum. You're on a specific schedule. You must be required to picket whilst the shop is open, and if you left now, you'd have to go back out into the snow. Don't worry, I'll close up when we're through here."
"You could close up now," she pointed out.
"I could." He nodded. "But then you'd be free to leave. Right now, your choices are staying here whilst I figure out what's going on, or going back out into a snowstorm. I prefer you stay here for the moment."
"Prat," she muttered.
"I've been called far worse and with better reason," Severus said dryly. "Now, there shouldn't be any prohibition against your listening to my speculation about what has occurred."
"All right, but may I have more tea?" She nodded toward the teapot. "It's safe to drink, isn't it? And the milk and sugar, too?"
"Yes, the Veritaserum was only in your mug," he said.
Hermione Scourgified her teacup and poured her mug full again. Whilst she was adding the sugar and milk, he began his speculation.
"My first clue was the fact that you've never appeared angry about the matter," he said. "In fact, you smiled and waved at me that first evening. That's not the act of a woman incensed over unfair business practices."
Severus looked at her, but she merely stirred her tea. Then she tilted her head in an unspoken gesture for him to go on.
He settled more comfortably in his chair and warmed to his subject. "The cinderweed was the next clue. Unlike most ingredients, which can be used in several potions, cinderweed has only one use. A pinch of ground cinderweed acts as a binding agent in a potion to relieve haemorrhoids. While Gryffindors and pain in the arse do seem to be an inevitable combination, you purchased enough to treat every sore bottom in the wizarding world." He smirked. "In addition, it's the least expensive item in the shop. Which led me to presume that Draco didn't give you specific instructions on what you should purchase and neither did he provide funding."
Hermione widened her eyes dramatically, and her expression became one of exaggerated innocence.
He snorted at that. "Don't bother," he said. "It had to be Draco. You're the only person who's purchased cinderweed since the shop opened. If you were comparing pricing notes with someone else - as Draco claimed was likely, I might add - they would have purchased cinderweed, too. As no one else did, either Draco or Pritchard told you about the Dunderhead Tax."
Severus watched her closely, but other than wearing a slight smile, she didn't react. "Legilimency confirmed that it wasn't Pritchard, and so that left Draco, no matter how much he might protest."
Hermione's smile turned wry.
"The final thing to convince me was the newspaper article in the Daily Prophet. Draco loaned me the funds used to purchase this shop. On more than one occasion, he's suggested I use adverts to draw in custom. I consider them to be unnecessary; a good apothecary needs no advertising. It could hardly escape my notice that the article was little more than a recommendation to shop here as opposed to Bobbin's Apothecaries, who is my biggest competitor."
"I'm afraid I can't comment one way or the other," she said, sipping her tea.
He nodded. "I will admit the geas surprised me. Although, in hindsight, I should have realised. It's most likely the result of the life debt you owe Draco. He saved your life during that last battle, and he came to you, demanding payment."
"I didn't think you knew about the life debt," she said, surprised.
"He mentioned it to me." Severus thought it best to refrain from telling her that Draco had bragged about saving Granger's life and about her owing a life debt. Nor did Severus think it would be wise to mention the language he used during said bragging. Not if Draco wanted to keep his genitals intact, at any rate.
"Did he tell you exactly how he saved my life?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.
"No. Although, he did say that you were facing Bellatrix, and he stopped her from killing you."
Hermione snorted and set her mug on the table. "That's typical. The expanded version is that Malfoy had dropped his wand and was running in a blind panic from Alastor Moody. Malfoy was looking over his shoulder, and it was sheer dumb luck that he barrelled into Bellatrix Lestrange and sent her arse over teakettle. She went rolling down a hill and knocked herself unconscious. Malfoy claims otherwise now, but I don't believe for an instant he had any idea she was about to kill me."
Severus couldn't help himself; he threw back his head and laughed. The truth was far from the picture painted by Draco of a cunning and daring act committed to redeem himself in the eyes of the Ministry.
He recovered to find Hermione looking at him with a strange expression.
"I've never heard you laugh before," she said. The barest hint of a blush rose in her cheeks. "You have very nice laugh."
He was suddenly self-conscious and shifted awkwardly in his chair. "I've had little reason to laugh, and certainly not where you would have had an opportunity to hear it. I'm not a man given to frivolity. You should know that from your schooldays, if nothing else."
"Never frivolous, no, but you can't be sour all the time." She gave an impish smile. "You've been relatively pleasant this evening - your version of pleasant, anyway - and even at school, I knew by my fifth year that you surely had to act differently toward the adults."
His eyebrows raised. "Why would you believe that?"
"Once I finally realised there was a world past the end of my own nose, I took a good hard look at Minerva and Pomona and Poppy, and I realised that you had to treat them differently. It was inconceivable that you would regularly be rude and ill-tempered toward those strong, capable women and live to tell the tale. They would have banded together and hexed you into a quivering puddle of goo until you agreed to behave properly."
One corner of his mouth quirked up briefly. "Most likely they would have done far worse."
"I knew it." She smiled.
His nod was approving. "Other than the Slytherins, few people bothered to notice. Most only saw what they wanted to see."
Hermione looked pleased at the implied compliment, then tilted her head. "Hypothetically speaking, if what you've proposed is actually what's happened, then what do you intend to do about Malfoy?"
"Nothing." Severus shrugged. As her expression grew mutinous, he continued. "Draco tried to ensure that my business was a success. If it caused you a little embarrassment along the way, there was no lasting harm done. Would you expect me to punish him for that?"
"You wouldn't care that his motivation was probably less about concern for your personal success and more about ensuring the repayment of his loan?"
"I'd be disappointed if it wasn't. Draco surely inherited at least some of Lucius' business acumen."
She huffed out an exasperated breath and muttered, "Slytherins."
Severus just smirked briefly at her and changed the subject. "I'm curious how you've managed to be here during business hours. I recall hearing that you work for the Ministry now."
"Yes, for the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes." She nodded. "I took holidays."
He latched onto another clue. "Then that means you won't have to picket much longer. You can't have accumulated a great number of holidays."
She spread her hands wide and smiled. She couldn't answer, and they both knew it, but it didn't matter. They sat in comfortable silence for a moment. Severus felt oddly content, but finally, he reluctantly stood.
"It's after six. I'll close the shop a little early and allow you to go home."
Hermione nodded. "Thank you." She rose, and they walked together to the front. She put on her gloves and cloak and reached out to open the door. Her hand hovered over the doorknob for a moment, and then she turned abruptly to face Severus.
"Would you like to go out to dinner with me on Friday?" she asked.
He blinked. Surely she wasn't suggesting...
"You want to discuss this situation further?" he asked cautiously.
"No, I'm asking you on a date," she said, smiling.
Well, that was clear enough.
"Why me?" he finally asked.
"Why not? You're intelligent. You're interesting to talk to, and you have a unique sense of humour. Admittedly, it's rather black, but that suits you. I'm certain now that you can be pleasant company, and I'd like to know more about you. A date seems the next logical step."
"I'm twenty years older than you." His protest sounded automatic, even to his own ears.
"Are you saying you're too old?" Her smile became mischievous, and she took her time looking him up and down. "I disagree."
For the briefest moment, his lips twitched. "I thought you were seeing Ron Weasley."
She shook her head. "Not for over a year now. Ron's a good friend, but childhood romances rarely last. We both recognised that we're better off as friends."
Severus hesitated. "I still don't like Potter."
"Then it's a good thing Harry's not the one asking you out to dinner. That would be terribly awkward for both of you."
"And if we went to dinner, that doesn't mean I'll get rid of the Dunderhead Tax," he said, firmly.
She snickered. "I promise I'm not asking you out to save a Sickle. So, will you go to dinner with me?"
There were probably a thousand reasons why he shouldn't go to dinner with her, but he couldn't think of a single one at that moment. He found himself nodding slowly. "Yes, I think I'd like that."
She moved forward, and before he could figure out what she was doing, she rose up on tiptoes and brushed a kiss against his cheek.
"I'll talk to you tomorrow after I've finished picketing," she said. "We can work out the details then."
She stepped back and opened the door, shivering at the blast of frigid air. Then she turned back to him.
"You could bring me a cup of tea in the morning, you know," she said, teasing. "It's still going to be cold."
Then with that same cheeky smile and wave, she was out the door.
On Friday morning, Draco came through the Floo at the Apothecary. He nodded to Pritchard, who was attending customers at the counter, and glanced out the front window. As expected, Granger was outside, picketing. Her task would be over tonight when the shop closed, and he would consider her life debt paid in full. All in all, it had been a successful venture. The Daily Prophet article had acted as an effective advert, Severus' business had increased, and Granger had been publicly embarrassed. He didn't think it could have gone any better.
Draco made his way through the shop and found Severus in his office, pouring tea into a mug. He raised an eyebrow as Severus added sugar and milk.
"I thought you took your tea plain," Draco said.
"I do, but I'm taking this out to Hermione." Severus stirred the tea.
"Hermione? Wait, what?" Draco said, gobsmacked.
"She and I had a long talk a few evenings ago." Severus gave Draco a pointed look. "A very interesting talk."
Draco's expression went blank.
"Don't worry," Severus said. "The geas held, but it wasn't difficult to figure out what's been going on."
"I really don't know what you're talking about," Draco said in his most supercilious tone.
Severus smirked. "Hermione has grown into a rather intriguing woman. In fact, we're going out to dinner tonight. I should thank you; your efforts at matchmaking may have finally paid off. Although, I suspect it's not quite in the way you'd hoped."
"You mean that you and her... Oh, that's just wrong," Draco burst out. "I meant for you to meet a nice woman, a suitable woman. You can't be serious about that--"
Draco closed his mouth abruptly as Severus stiffened and his eyes went cold.
"Draco, as much as I appreciate your efforts on my behalf, it would be unwise to interfere in things that are none of your concern."
Draco's shoulders slumped, and Severus walked out of the office carrying the mug of tea. After a moment, Draco gave a mental shrug. Severus would probably tire of Granger eventually, and even if he didn't, at least he could tell Pansy to send her aunt home.
Draco went out into the shop. For the moment, the shop was empty of customers, and Pritchard was standing at the window. Draco joined him, and together they watched Severus hand Granger the mug of tea. As picket signs encircled them, she leaned up and pressed a kiss on Severus' cheek.
"That's happened every morning since that big snowstorm," Pritchard whispered. "He takes out tea in the afternoon, too." He nodded toward Severus and Granger, who were smiling and talking. "I wonder how that relationship came about?"
Draco sighed and reached into his pocket to pull out a Sickle. He flipped it to Pritchard, who caught it with a puzzled look.
"Don't ask," Draco said. "Just don't ask."
Author's Note: This was written for the Summer 2007 sshgexchange LJ community for Moaning Myrtle, who requested: "Prompt #1: Severus witnesses Hermione doing something completely unexpected and winds up involved. Whether he's involved with Hermione, involved with the situation or involved in something else entirely is up to you. That means HG/SS romance is optional but preferred. Humor -- the drier the better -- if you please. HBP compliance is at the writer's discretion." Thanks to Whitemunin and Knight0fswords for the betas and to Shiv5468 for Britpicking.