"You?" Hermione hesitated. "You would help me?"
For the first time in a long while, she observed the Potions Master with more than just trepidation. He did give off an imposing figure, but that was more the way he looked down on everyone from his 6'5" stature and the black robes he wore. He had a completely expressionless face, but not in a bad way; it just meant he had no blemishes, wrinkles, or other distinguishing or emotive feature when his face was blank. His most emotive features were his eyebrows, which were now quirked in either amusement or mischief, she couldn't tell.
"I did say there would be a price, didn't I?" Snape reminded her. "And I have very selfish tendencies, Miss Granger. It will not be an easy trade."
Suddenly extremely self-aware, she nodded. "I expect that. What do you want?"
Severus was pleased with the fish-like gaping he'd elicited from the young Gryffindor. "You want me to take preventative measures for two people, to save two lives. Only seems fitting you bequeath your whole life to me, doesn't it?" he smiled his practiced grin at her. "I have no use for money or anything else you can offer, Miss Granger, so there will be no other options. You have one thing I want, and it is your . . . adequate brain.
"Someone who can do the busy work of being a Potions Master while I actually try to win the war would be the only thing you can offer me," Severus continued as if she wasn't still refusing to answer. "I would determine the course of your education, I'd plan your every day, dictate your secrets . . . I would be responsible for training you in these new talents you're developing in light of the trace removal. I realize the history of apprenticeship contracts is a little dark, with the propensity of Masters to abuse their charges, but that's just a risk you'd have to take, isn't it?"
He observed the girl coolly, watching as her eyes flitted all over the place as she obviously thought through the consequences to agreeing with him. If she was a true Gryffindor, she would agree in her next sentence. If she were a Hufflepuff, she would promise to help regardless of an apprenticeship contract. A Ravenclaw would jump at the chance to be the renowned Potions Master's first apprentice, the chance to learn what made him one of the few Masters of the subject. And a Slytherin would demand to see the contract first. Her reaction was curious, for she was doing none of the above. She was still thinking it through, her eyes flitting uncontrollable.
He decided to give her more time. Moving to the stove, he quickly put on the kettle and gathered to mismatched mugs for tea. Still nothing from the girl.
"How can I apprentice to a Master if I still haven't taken my OWLS or NEWTS?"
Ah, so she was going through semantics. "Am I correct in presuming the first thing you did with the extra time your Third Year is work through all the content for the remainder of your Hogwarts curriculum?"
She had the nerve to giggle behind him. "I guess you're right."
He nodded, pouring the now boiling water into the mugs. "Are you capable of performing your NEWTS, Miss Granger? You are, after all, of age to do so."
There was no reply. Severus waited, pulling sugar and cream from their hiding holes around the kitchen and keeping their near until his tea steeped.
"Let's rephrase, then," Professor Snape continued, "and ask which subjects you couldn't take your NEWTS for right now without a sure Exceeds Expectations."
He barked a laugh involuntarily. He couldn't help it. "Of course not. It's the one subject where theory and books do nothing if you can't apply them. You haven't had the chance to brew the seventh-year potions yet, and so don't know if you can, correct?"
He eyed the girl. "Well, how fortunate it is to have a Potions Master offering to train you, isn't it?"
Severus watched in amusement as the girl's smile returned. Of course she'd be thrilled to not be judged unworthy of learning from him, the girl had always feared being looked down upon. He'd need to train her in controlling those fears. With confidence, she'd perform wonders in Potions.
"So, besides your apparent inexperience, any other reservations?"
He watched her expression shift, yet again. Goodness, she may be good at Occlumency, but her face betrayed everything. That needed to get under control. It was plain as day she was scared to ask her questions.
"This is a choice, Miss Granger," he reminded her. "I do not want you fighting the choice you make, so I will answer your questions as honestly as I can. You should not fear rebuke for your queries."
The girl nodded, accepting his comfort.
"Sir, apprenticeships often have clauses of unreserved obedience," Miss Granger began. "It's like an Imperius Curse. What if someone finds out? Vol-"
"Don't say his name!" he exclaimed.
"He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named," Hermione amended cautiously, "finds out, and you will be ordered to use me, or bring me to him. I can't be unwaveringly obedient, Professor Snape."
He thought on her concern. There was opportunity for a leak to occur, he agreed, if anyone in the Order were to be untrustworthy. But to have her being obedient was the perk of apprenticeship. He would be able to control her, finally, and get unopposed aid. To order her not to ask question in class, or to help him silently when he returned from a revel. Her silence . . .
Silence. That was the solution.
Severus looked on Miss Granger with a gleam. "Then we'll have to change the clause, won't we?" he drawled. "I think a consequence for disobedience will suffice, don't you? Maybe for every time you disobey me the contract will take your voice for a couple of hours. It would save me some headache, most likely. Would that suffice?"
It was fascinating to see her so obviously considering this. You could see her brain working behind her eyes, trying to think of everything before she agreed.
Severus took out the teabags and stirred the tea easily as she thought.
"How do you take your tea?" he asked Miss Granger.
He stirred in the cream carefully, pretending to be attentive to his task and unbothered by her reticence. In truth, he was clenching and unclenching his jaw as he thought of the contract he would pull from the Ministry tomorrow, and the changes he would enact on it. If the girl agreed.
He brought the mugs to the table and placed the garish maroon knitted patterned mug before his student, and sipped from his own plain white one.
"If you accept, you should know I take my tea with three sugars," he said lightly, trying to irritate her into acknowledging the power in his hand here. She seemed unperturbed by his insinuation, and sipped her tea with no look in his direction.
"Who can I tell?" she asked finally, looking at him.
"After you have signed the contract and we've moved your parents, we will both be informing the Order," he replied sternly. "And you may feel free to tell the Weasleys and Potter, I suppose. No one outside of the Order and their spawn is to be told, though, understood?"
They both sipped the tea in silence again.
She knew she had no choice. Hermione Granger was nothing if not logical, and she knew that the man across from her was her only chance to get her parents to safety. He was willing to hide it from Dumbledore until it was already done and over, an impressive commitment. That also meant they needed to work quickly, she knew, and tell them as soon as possible.
But to do it, Lady S.P.E.W would need to submit to becoming a veritable house-elf to Professor Snape. At his beck and call, obeying him or suffering punishment, with no way out until he released her. Oh, it was under the guise of finishing her apprenticeship, but she knew he wouldn't let her go until the war was over, at least. Having her in his corner was an advantage he would use to the fullest.
So it came down to whether or not Hermione could trust Severus Snape, Dungeon Bat, Double Agent, and Potions Master.
She drew a calming breath of her tea and took a final sip. "So, when do we get started?"