Severus was sat in his chambers, flicking through the standard historiography of the witch burnings with contempt. He wanted to reappraise the standard lies Hermione would have fresh in her mind before tearing through each one with the truth.
The fire in its hearth was
starting to die down, sending flickering shadows about the room and
illuminating his face with a dull glow. With a sigh he set the book aside and stared into the embers. Dumbledore had been to see
him earlier that afternoon to ask him about his continuing
involvement with Hermione's project. He had been on the surface the
same wise old wizard, but he had detected a note of warning in his
voice that being a spy had taught him to look out for. He would have
to tread more carefully if he was to keep in the old meddlers good
books and simultaneously aid Hermione to the best of his abilities.
He had planned to invite her to his secret rooms again that night, but a tip off from Draco had warned him off, Dumbledore had been to the heads common room asking after Hermione. When he had found her not there, he had immediately assumed she was in his dungeons. At this early stage that could be dangerous. I'll have to encourage a friendship between her and Draco, he thought, if the two heads are pleasant to each other it'll make meetings easier.
What made it worse was that she had no idea what she was getting herself into, and telling her just yet could overwhelm her and frighten her off, Gryffindor bravery or not. An alias project was needed, potions based so he still had a reason to work with her. Too much interest had been generated by her projects current title. He had a sudden flash of inspiration and smiled into the dying embers of his fire. Perfect he thought.
Saturday morning dawned bright, clear and cold. But the chill couldn't freeze the student's high spirits as they all donned hats and scarves to wear to Hogsmeade. Hermione had had a few brief words with Ron when he had tried to get her to wear 3 jumpers under her coat as well as thick woolly socks, gloves, hat and scarf. She felt perfectly warm with 1 jumper, and skipped the scarf and gloves. Ron was of course decked out in full winter weather regalia and Hermione had struggled not to poke fun.
The night before had once again been a disappointment to Hermione, as Ron had flat out refused to do anything once he had learned the fate of the roses he had given her. The ash had been left in its vase on her bedside table, and hadn't gone down too well. He had stormed out, then returned half an hour later full of apologies…with a charms essay in his hand. The rest of the evening had been spent by her correcting his work while he scowled across the room at Malfoy who had been mooching around the whole time.
She took a deep breath of the cold air as they stepped past Filch. Autumn was her favourite time of year, but crisp winter days were a close second. Ron grumbled on the ride down to Hogsmeade about the cold, his feet, his fingers and the cold but Hermione was happy. Harry would have news of how the Order was progressing, no news was permitted in letters and she missed being out of the loop after her involvement during the summer. They were meeting him in the Hogs Head, in the Three Broomsticks Harry would be surrounded by curious students. So with Ginny, Neville and Luna in tow they made their way to the outskirts of the village Ron bitching about the weather all the way. Hermione was ready to turn and tell him to shut up and stop being such a baby when Harry appeared around the corner.
With a cry Hermione bounded forward and gave him a big hug. Ginny followed more hesitantly, but Harry held out his hands to her and she sank into his embrace gladly. Neville clapped him on the back, Ron gave him a big grin and Luna solemnly shook his hand making them all laugh. They all turned to enter the pub but Harry shook his head.
"We're not staying in Hogsmeade, you're all invited to an order meeting. Dumbledore's got a portkey and he's getting here any minute."
Everyone else burst into excited chatter, but Hermione couldn't help feeling anxious. Before now Dumbledore had been a friendly face at order meetings, sticking up for her abilities. It was him who allowed her to make the spell disillusioning Harry's house. But he hadn't spoken to her for weeks, hadn't looked her in the eye in the corridor. Feeling Harry's gaze on her, she turned to look at him. He was fixing her with a suspicious glare, but his face cleared immediately so she wasn't sure she had seen it at all.
"How are you Hermione?"
"I'm good thanks Harry, a little frustrated at not being kept in the loop but schools really interesting at the moment."
"Yeah so I heard, Snape's getting involved with your project isn't he."
Hermione was sure she hadn't mentioned it in her joint letters with Ron and felt her heart gird itself against the accusation, without being sure why.
"That's right. None of the other teachers are being very supportive."
"Well maybe you should consider something else if Snape is the only one wanting to help you."
Hermione was about to reply that she didn't care about the other teachers, and the fact that Snape was risking the scorn of his colleagues to help her showed her project was important when Dumbledore appeared next to them.
"Everyone here? Good. Hold on tight."
He held out a battered quill which they each curled a finger around.
"Three two one…" Muttered Dumbledore. Then Hermione felt the familiar tug as the portkey activated.
A moment later they were outside Order HQ at Grimmauld place. Only Hermione and Dumbledore were still on their feet, everyone else sprawled on the floor in the snow. Hermione gave Dumbledore a smile, but his gaze passed right over her, and he led the way into the house without a word. Crushed, Hermione followed him inside.
It was half an hour before everyone was sat around the table. Some people had arrived late, and it was Snape who had arrived last of all. Hermione watched him enter out of the corner of her eye. She had spent most of the half hour staring into her lap listening to conversations. Molly had given her a brief hug and a stiff hello asking how her and Ron were doing, but everyone else was ignoring her. If Ron had noticed he wasn't letting on, deep in discussion with Harry about Quidditch. He was sat on one side of her, and she was sat at the end of the table, next to the empty space at the opposite head of the table from where Dumbledore sat. But when Snape came in he nodded his head at her in friendly greeting and sat down next to her. Before she could say hello Dumbledore cleared his throat and started the meeting.
"Welcome everyone. I have taken this opportunity to hold an Order meeting while the young members from Hogwarts will not be missed." He gave them all a warm knowing smile, with a twinkle in his eye as ever but Hermione didn't feel his gaze extended far enough down the table to include her. "This will be a general information-sharing meeting, as we haven't met in our entirety since September. Would anyone like to begin?"
"I will." Said Harry.
He sat up straight and took out a dirty and much folder piece of paper and shook it out.
"As many of you already know, I've dropped out of school" he gave Mcgonagall an apologetic sideways look "to look for the Horcruxes that we've not yet destroyed. For those of you who aren't completely sure of the facts, Voldemort had created six of them, each containing a piece of his soul. I destroyed one in my second year, the diary. Dumbledore here got another one, Marvolo's ring. We reckon the others are a locket and the cup of Helga Hufflepuff. Although that still leaves us with two to find, we thought it would be quicker to look for those first before trying to work out what the others are. Since September we haven't found any more Horcruxes, but at this moment we believe we're very close to finding the locket."
He sat back down, and Hermione felt a stab of exasperation. Three months and the only progress they'd made was thinking that they might be close to finding a third Horcrux. Harry did look tired, and more grownup than she'd left him a while ago, but he also seemed very confident and sure of himself. I hope this 'chosen one' business isn't going to his head' she thought mutinously.
"Thank you Harry. Moody, do you have anything to add? You've been assisting Harry."
"Only that all this bookwork and sneaking around is getting boring. I feel we need action, there are people disappearing Albus."
"Thank you Alistair."
Dumbledore smiled and the next person presented their progress on a different aspect of the war. It seemed to take hours, and Hermione listened to every word, long after Ron had gained a glassy eyed stare. From what she tell, all the words were meaningless. Voldemort was running rings around all of them and no progress had been made. They were all grasping at straws and exaggerating claims to boost morale.
"Severus, do you have anything to tell us about Voldemort's plans?"
Snape cleared his throat and began to speak.
"Voldemort is operating in much the same way as he did last time, and his actions and plans can be broken down into a recognisable pattern. He's causing widespread panic and fear with only a few strategic victims. He is great advocate of old fashioned warfare, and as such will not expend much energy during the winter months. He sees the summer as a kind of campaigning season. This pattern is clear of late; he has killed a few muggles and a couple of wizards. The majority of his time has been spent on general mischief. He has broken bridges, disrupted railway lines and used the dark mark a lot to keep himself in the news and spread fear. He won't really be a problem until the spring."
Snape carried on speaking for a while, basically repeating all he had said so concisely before. His tone was reassuring, but Hermione was far from reassured. He hadn't actually mentioned of any plans Voldemort had in the pipeline. The implication was that there weren't any of consequence worth mentioning. Hermione decided not to bring her doubts to the fore, the way everyone was reacting to her she'd just be told to be quiet.
Dumbledore tied up the meeting and everyone started to chat and stretch after so long keeping still. Hermione wandered off into the hall and sat on the stairs, well aware she'd be left out of conversations just as she had been at the start of the meeting. A lone tear made a track down her cheek and she rubbed it away angrily. Snape had warned her this would happen, and she hadn't really believed him. Now that she had been experienced not being everyone's favourite young witch she had no reason to feel sorry for herself. She ought to have seen it coming. Glaring at the front door she prepared herself to sit waiting until everyone had finished chatting before she could return to Hogwarts.
It was then that Snape detached himself from conversation with Moody and followed her into the hall. She looked up as he lent against the banisters, their faces at the same height as she was sat down on the stairs. "What a waste of time." Said Snape matter of factly.
Hermione could only nod.
"I noticed that everyone was treating you as if you weren't there. How are you feeling?"
Hermione stared at him in shock and he stared right back at her.
"It hurt." She gasped.
Snape lowered his gaze, folding his arms as he looked down at his feet. "I thought it would. Miss Granger, this isn't working."
Hermione smiled sadly. "You want me to change my project."
"Not exactly." Snape turned so he was facing the banisters, talking through them in a soft voice so only she could hear.
"I propose you change your project to trying to brew the potion that stopped the witches from being able to use their magical powers. The instructions have been lost, and only half the ingredients are known. That way you can continue to have private sessions with me to work on your project, and I can tell you the rest of the truth without you being given a hard time by everyone. No one will suspect."
"Why are you investing so much effort in this Sir? Wouldn't it be easier for you to forget the whole thing? I know your colleagues aren't being over friendly to you either for 'encouraging' me."
"I continue 'encouraging' you Miss Granger because I think it's important. Enough said."
"Thank you." Whispered Hermione.
The door to the hallway opened and Ron and Harry walked through, evidently looking for her. Hermione jerked away from the banister rail, away from Snape. Snape just smiled and turned around to face them.
"Potter." He said. "I hope you will take what I said in there on board. Now that you've thrown away your education you will need to achieve something to make your parents sacrifice worth while."
Hermione sucked in a breath. That was harsh, even from Snape.
"You'll soon see what I can do Snape." He snarled. With visable effort he turned from the older man to talk to her through gritted teeth. "Hermione we're going back to Hogsmeade now with the others, we're going to have some butterbeers and chat."
Hermione was about to reply that she'd rather just go back to school when Snape butted in.
"Miss Granger will be accompanying me on a visit to Diagon Alley Potter, so she won't be able to go with you."
Ron went red and turned on her.
"Is that right? You'd rather spend time with him than with us?!"
"It's an educational necessity Mr Weasley, and watch your tone of voice when speaking about a superior."
"I'm sorry Ron, but I've decided to change my project. Its brewing an important forgotten potion now, and I need some potions ingredients. Because I only just decided to change track it's a spur of the moment trip, but still very important. I thought you'd understand."
As she spoke Hermione couldn't help but watch Harry's face. It had been deeply suspicious when Snape had said where they were going, but when she'd said she was going to change her project his face had lit up and he'd smiled at her.
"It's no problem." Said Harry. "C'mon Ron, we can have a manly chat. You know what Hermione's like when she has some work to do, she'd be all zoned out if she came with us anyway."
Ron was still silent with rage and Harry had to shove him slightly to get him to walk away. Snape turned back to Hermione with his eyebrows raised.
"You appear quite proficient at lying Miss Granger. I will have to remember that in future."
"I only lie when necessary Professor, and only now and again with you."
Snape frowned for a second. "Wait here and I will tell Dumbledore about us going to Diagon Alley. I'll also explain about the change in project to allay his suspicions. This will make life a lot easier for the both of us."
Snape strode back into the main room while Hermione put on her cloak and hat ready to leave. She was excited, feeling no shame at deceiving her boyfriend and teachers. And I'll be alone with him again, she thought. Oh shut up Hermione. You're interested only in his intellect.
Snape returned dressed for the outdoors with McGonagall in tow.
"I'm delighted to hear of your change of heart Hermione." She said brightly. "I'm sure this new direction will be better suited to your abilities."
"Me too professor, History of magic isn't the most practical of subjects, I'm sure this will be much more useful for the future." She had to bite her cheek to keep off a grin at how easily she could lie to Mcgonagall. How this woman could call herself an intuitive witch. McGonagall then apparated, presumably back to Hogsmeade.
"Do you not have anything warmer to wear Miss Granger? Diagon Alley will be cold."
"I'm not bothered by low temperatures thank you professor."
"Very well. Shall we?" Snape indicated the fireplace and Hermione took some floo powder. "Diagon Alley." She said confidently into the flames.