A week later and contrary to her previous plans Hermione had indeed left Hogwarts. Fortunately, she was not being forced to spend Christmas skiing with her parents, and was instead staying at No. 12 Grimmauld Place with Sirius, Harry and a plethora of Weasleys.
"What are you doing here?" Harry had asked when he first saw her in the kitchen of Grimmauld Place. Hermione tried to ignore the dark circles around his eyes and the worry lines on his forehead as she replied.
"Well as skiing isn't really my thing and as Hogwarts would have been a complete bore without you or Ron there, I decided I'd come and stay here… after Sirius kindly invited me of course." She smiled. In fact, she had a sneaky suspicion that Dumbledore was involved in the aforementioned invitation, as Sirius' letter came only a day after another conversation with Dumbledore where he not so subtly tried to get her to go back to her parents for Christmas and Hermione politely informed him that there was more chance of Madam Pince holding a disco in the school library.
Christmas, despite recent events, actually turned out to be a rather enjoyable affair. Grimmauld Place was for once filled with laughter as the twins entertained the Order guests with jokes and their planned pranks for Umbridge, Mrs Weasley's Christmas dinner had people drooling, and later loosening their belts, and even Mr Weasley was in good spirits when they went to visit him later in St Mungo's Hospital. Overall, the day was almost cheerful enough for Hermione to forget the twinge of guilt she felt at not spending Christmas with her family. Almost.
As the New Year approached, a new gloom descended on Grimmauld Place as the youthful inhabitants began to dread the start of term. Ron and the twins, of course, had never looked forward to the start of term in their lives; it signalled to them the start of another period of academic imprisonment, where they were forced to do homework and wear uniforms. Harry who had never before dreaded returning to Hogwarts was now both reluctant to leave Sirius alone in Grimmauld Place and reluctant to return to Umbridge's tyranny. Hermione, too, was disinclined to start term for the first time in her life. Never before had she been unwilling to return to a place of learning, but staying at Grimmauld Place at least meant the she could avoid Professor Snape's looming presence and scrutinising glare.
At least so she thought.
"Hermione, dear," Mrs Weasley interrupted Hermione as she sprayed Doxycide into some moth-bitten curtains with Ginny. "Could you please go down to the kitchen and ask Professor Snape if he'll be staying for dinner?"
Hermione coughed and spluttered, trying not to inhale any Doxycide in the process. "Professor Snape is here?" She squeaked.
"Yes, dear." Mrs Weasley replied as if it were obvious. "He had a message for Harry apparently. They're in the kitchen." She reiterated.
"Thank you, dear." Mrs Weasley said as she bustled out of the room.
Hermione groaned. Ginny chuckled. "I'm afraid my mother has a terrible case of selective hearing. Have fun with Snape." She teased with a grin.
"You have a hidden cruel streak Ginny Weasley." Hermione griped as she left the room, although she just saw Ginny sticking out her tongue before she left.
As Hermione descended through the old house towards the kitchen she heard raised voices coming from her designated destination. Idiots, thought Hermione, they're going to wake up that bloody shrieking portrait. Hesitantly, she approached the kitchen door. Sirius and Snape didn't appear to be yelling at each other but the tension in their voices was deafening. She heard Sirius calling Snape a Deatheater and, in return, Snape called Sirius a coward. Torn between her desire to walk away from the confrontation and her need of an answer for Mrs Weasley, Hermione remained by the door. It was only when she heard Harry's distressed voice inside that she cautiously pushed the door open.
Despite all she had heard, the scene inside was still a shock to Hermione. Both Snape and Sirius had murderous looks on their faces and both had their wands pointed at the other's head. Harry meanwhile was trying to get between them for the dual purpose of preventing Sirius from doing something stupid and to protect him from any spells cast by Snape.
"What the bloody hell are you doing?" Growled Hermione, closing the kitchen door behind her. Three tense faces turned quickly in her direction and then Snape and Sirius went back to glaring at each other.
"This is none of your concern, Granger." Snape bit at her.
"It is my concern when you're about to wake up that bloody portrait! You may enjoy her shrieking profanities, but quite frankly if I wanted to get called a mudblood every 5 seconds I'd have spent Christmas with Malfoy, at least I wouldn't have to de-Doxy the curtains!" Hermione hissed back.
At this, Sirius at least looked a bit sheepish. "Yeah, sorry about that kid. I still haven't found a way to remove the old hag yet."
Severus, meanwhile, had maintained an impassive expression, though on the inside he felt a twinge of guilt. Not about the portrait, but that, despite being his head of house, there was still sod all he could do to stop Malfoy using that word.
Hermione brushed off Sirius' apology. "It doesn't matter. Now will you two lower your wands?"
"Not until he does." Said Sirius childishly.
"Not going to happen, Dog." Snape snarled back.
"Oh you are both ridiculous!" Hermione cried. "For God's sake. Professor you know full well that Sirius isn't a coward. He's doing the right thing by following Dumbledore's instructions. He hates staying cooped up in here but he stays because it's safer and we need him. The same way Harry stays with his awful relatives all summer, even though they treat him like crap, because it's safer for him."
Snape remained unmoved, although he privately stored away this information about Potter for further reflection later.
"And Sirius," Hermione turned to the half charismatic, half dishevelled wizard opposite. "You have to start trusting Snape. He's not a Deatheater anymore. Dumbledore trusts that he's on our side and… so do I. He hasn't done anything since Voldemort returned to suggest that we can't trust him. Once, in first year, he even tried to save Harry's life."
"Really?" Sirius asked in disbelief. Unfortunately, Hermione had yet to persuade him to lower his wand but she was pleasantly surprised to see Snape's wand arm falter. He still had it pointed at Sirius but his aim had moved from his head to the slightly less lethal chest area. It wasn't anything to do with Sirius, but more a symptom of his shock that Hermione Granger had just defended him to Sirius Black. She had said that she trusted him.
Harry spoke up. "Yeah, that's true actually. I was flying in a Quidditch match and someone was bewitching my broom to make me fall off and plunge to my death. Hermione and Ron saw Snape muttering and not breaking eye contact with my broom so naturally we thought he was trying to kill me. Anyway, it turned out it was actually just Voldemort trying to kill me and that Snape was, in fact, trying to…save me."
"What do you mean I 'tried' to save your life? I succeeded, did I not?" Snape ground his teeth in irritation.
Hermione and Harry exchanged a discreet, nervous glance. "Sure…If you say so." Hermione said delicately. There was absolutely no need for Snape to know that Hermione had started the flames that had inadvertently distracted Quirrel.
At this new revelation, Sirius began to lower his own wand and gradually both men dropped their arms to their sides.
"Good. Now what I actually came in here for was to ask on Mrs Weasley's behalf whether you'll be staying for dinner, Professor?" Hermione said with false brightness.
"Not for all the fire-whiskey in Scotland." Snape stated rudely. He then proceeded to stow his wand and sweep out of the room, stopping only to loom over Hermione, raise a satiric eyebrow and drawl nastily, "I thought you had studying to do?"
After he was gone, Sirius went upstairs to speak to Mrs Weasley and Harry and Hermione dropped into chairs around the kitchen table.
"Thanks for that." Said Harry genuinely. "I think Ron might have mentioned this before but, you're bloody brilliant Hermione. Scary. But Brilliant."
"I expect Dumbledore wants you to stop having those dreams about Voldemort, Harry." Hermione said to him after dinner, when the three of them were safe to talk in the privacy of Harry and Ron's room.
"But what is this Occle-thingy-majig?" Asked Ron.
"Occlumency, Ronald. And it's the art of blocking your mind to external forces, like Legilimency, when people try to read your thoughts or see your memories."
"You've heard of it then?" Harry asked
Hermione nodded. "Mad-eye – or Mad-eye's impersonator – mentioned it briefly in class last year, so I went and did some research."
"Snape said it was a rare type of magic."
"Oh yes. There are very few Occlumens or Legilimens in the world and it's different from the everyday magic we learn at Hogwarts. You can't just learn it like a spell or a potion; you have to have a certain mentality in order to protect your mind."
"So then how will I be taught it?" Harry asked.
"I'm not sure exactly how Snape will go about it. I would imagine it would involve having you practise Occlumency against real Legilimency."
Harry looked aghast. "You mean Snape will try and read my thoughts?!" Hermione nodded solemnly. "But – how am I supposed to stop him seeing – stuff?"
"Well, the textbooks suggest simple mental exercises to help you clear your mind."
"So do you know how to do this stuff then?"
"I'm not sure…I mean I've practised some of the technique, just in case I ever need it, but it's hard to know how helpful it would be in protecting against real Legilimency."
"Oh God." Harry dropped his head into his hands in a sign of despair. Extra lessons with Snape, what am I going to do?"
"Rather you than me, mate." Ron offered, patting him on the shoulder.
"That's not helpful, Ronald." Hermione chided, although, if she was honest, she felt rather the same way.
"Looking forward to the start of term, Severus?" Albus offered him a lemon drop.
"Like sticking pins in my eyes, Albus." Severus replied, waving away the offending sweet dish.
The old headmaster chuckled softly. "Oh you don't fool me for a minute, Severus. You adore both the pursuit and passing on of knowledge."
Severus huffed. "Was there something in particular that you wished to speak with me about, Headmaster?" He asked, exasperated.
"Oh I just wanted to catch up, Severus; discuss lesson plans, that kind of thing."
Severus frowned in suspicion; Albus Dumbledore always had an ulterior motive.
Suddenly, Albus' face grew serious. "I can't stress enough how important it is that your Occlumency lessons with Potter are a success."
"I am perfectly aware of the importance of the task." Snape growled.
Dumbledore nodded and his face softened slightly. "And what of your other charge, Severus? How is Hermione doing?" Dumbledore watched as something flashed briefly across Severus' face, but his expression remained unreadable.
After a moment of silence Severus slouched down in his chair and sighed. "How the hell should I know? I'm clearly the wrong person for this task, Albus."
"Nonsense! I think you'll get through to her. You're both intellectuals – you think the same way."
Severus made a small noise in the back of his throat that was somewhere between a scoff and choking, but he didn't say anything. Dumbledore frowned at Severus' troubled expression. "What is it Severus? What are you not telling me?"
"She confuses me!" Snape blurted out.
Dumbledore was rather startled by this sudden outburst. "Miss Granger confuses you?"
"First off she hates me – which isn't in itself unusual. Most of the student body hate me. Most Slytherins only admire me; few would actually go as far as to say that they like me. But even then her attitude is a step up from last year when she was always respectful at the very least." Snape drew in a deep breath. "But now she…she…"
"Yes?" Dumbledore urged.
"She said that she trusts me." Snape finished in one heavily exhaled breath.
"Do you think she is wrong to trust you?"
"No, but I don't see why she should."
"Did she say this to you?" Asked the headmaster.
"Not to me exactly, but she knew I was there."
Dumbledore frowned slightly behind his spectacles. "Please, explain what happened."
"When I went to speak to Potter, there was a slight altercation with Black." He said the name as if it was bitter on his tongue and Dumbledore sighed in disapproval and exasperation. Severus continued, "As Miss Granger attempted to diffuse the situation, she told Black that he shouldn't call me a deatheater. She said, 'Dumbledore trusts him and so do I.'"
"I see." Said Dumbledore, thoughtfully. "And this causes you confusion, how?"
"Why would she say it?"
"I would imagine it was because she meant it. Hermione Granger is not the type of person to say something of such gravity if she didn't really believe it."
Severus remained silent as he appeared to ponder this. Albus, having nothing else to say, picked up the silver dish on his desk.