Severus Snape blew into Hogsmeade as if made of the Southern wind that had warmed the air that day. He danced with it, almost, and walked with speed and grace alongside it. He did not look the part though; the dour potions professor in his overly formal clothing and his ever-fixed sneer were not the embodiment of the summer spirit in the village.
However, whatever spirit he lacked, Albus Dumbledore seemed to be overjoyed to take upon himself. The man was just leaving the book shop, and Snape had never seen such an appalling matching robes set. A bright yellow hat and bright yellow robes, covered with happy imagery of bluebirds, bluebells, and any number of blue summer imagery. The blue pompoms fixed to the points of his bright yellow shoes only made the look marginally more offensive. It must have been transfigured by the Headmaster himself, because Snape couldn't bear to think any sensible person would make the outfit.
"Severus, isn't it a marvelous day for a walk!" Dumbledore called. "Come, walk with me to the castle!"
Knowing it as an order, not invitation, didn't make the desire to resist any less strong. However, the potions master resigned himself to the humiliation of walking next the humiliatingly yellow headmaster.
He was going to ask about the girl he had followed, but as of yet he didn't want to reveal his hand. Severus Snape knew an advantage when he had it, and was going to play his cards carefully to avoid telling too soon. But if anyone could figure out what was going on with the girl, it was one of his two masters. He definitely wasn't going to risk her on the Dark Overlord, not for the world. Not yet, anyways.
As usual, however, Dumbledore was remaining intentionally obtuse in favour of annoying Snape into submission. Prattling on about the new school year, the students all being in Grimmauld.
"The new Defense against the Dark Arts professor will be trouble this year," Dumbledore finally said wearily.
Snape snorted derisively. "As opposed to a Death Eater, a werewolf, a liar, and a Jekyll & Hyde of the Dark Lord himself? I hate to think what the new teacher is to deserve that glowing praise."
"Cornelius has placed this one," Dumbledore continued on, ignoring him. "Undersecretary Dolores Umbridge, one of the most profoundly unpleasant women I've ever met."
Snape was silent, but his jaw clenched.
"I have no doubt the Tom will inform you of how to receive her before term resumes," he continued pleasantly, as if speaking of an old friend. "If he doesn't, bring the matter to him. I want to know every detail of that exchange."
Snape nodded. "The Ministry interfering at Hogwarts . . ." he mused. "Unfortunately, the Dark Lord's interest in the school is not a limited one. If he orchestrated the placement, he'll be dripping with pleasure. But if he did not, and a Ministry lackey holds his coveted position, I believe I will be free to discourage her actions openly."
They continued their walk, but Snape was not doing so peaceably. He was waiting for the words that would open up the issue of Hermione Granger between them. Before they arrived by the Quidditch pitch, Dumbledore struck.
"Did you have something to tell me, Severus?" Dumbledore inquired on their walk up from Hogsmeade. "About a certain trip to the Burrow perhaps?"
"The girl is . . . strange," he summed up. "Very strange."
"Strange in what way, my boy?"
Snape glared at him. "Were you aware she was overusing that time-turner you gave her third year?"
Regarding his spy, Dumbledore saw the side of Severus Snape he'd seen more and more since Voldemort's return; angry, hostile, and full of doubt. Dumbledore know Snape would do what he asked, but at times like these it was best to give Severus as much information as he could. He didn't need to, but there was a part of Dumbledore that just wanted Snape to have a little peace.
"I had my suspicions," Dumbledore confirmed. "How much did she age herself?"
Snape scoffed. "That girl turned 17 a couple weeks ago. She more than doubled the year she had."
There was a pensive silence from Dumbledore.
"That girl is now an adult," Snape continued. "She's the same age as those Weasley twins, and she's been sneaking around so she can practice magic far beyond her educational leve. She learned apparition on her own, Albus."
"We always knew she was exceptionally gifted," Dumbeldore reminded him. "It makes me glad she used her extra time to advance."
"She learned apparition on her own!" Snape exclaimed. "She admitted to doing it the year Sirius Black escaped, Albus! She was practicing in the Shrieking Shack!"
Dumbledore nodded. "Well, she was hardly at risk. Black was innocent, of course. And Lupin had your Wolfsbane."
Snape grumbled under his breath, "You sounds like Miss Granger."
The old man twinkled at his young friend. "I get the feeling there's something more to this story, Severus," Dumbledore admonished. "You wouldn't hide things from me, would you?"
"You will know soon, Headmaster," Snape replied respectfully. "For now, I want you to arrange for Miss Granger to take her NEWTS by the beginning of term."
The look on Dumbledore's face was priceless. A mixture of shock and of a twinkling curiousity that would only look right on the face of a dodgery old man. Finally, a calculative gleam entered his eyes.
"And why would that be required, my friend?" He asked politely.
Snape smirked. "Is it too much to ask that you trust me, my friend?"
Severus Snape's smirk grew as he watched the Headmaster nearly visibly huff at being out of the loop.
"The Ministry would never agree to that, not for a friend of Harry's." Dumbledore was more pensive now. "Although, the testing office does have an Adult NEWTS exam taking place once a month . . . If she were simply to show up for an exam there, and if Cornelius were unaware of it while it was happening, I doubt there will be a hassle."
Snape nodded. "Very well. I'll speak with Miss Granger."
Snape turned to leave, but Dumbledore placed a hand on his shoulder. His face was stern.
"I will need to know why, Severus," Albus reminded him.
"Then I suggest we call an Order meeting," Severus remarked as impassively as he could. "We'll let them know the situation with the Ministry and Hogwarts, and whatever news I bring from the Dark Lord. Friday will suffice. If you wish, I'll share more of what happened with Miss Granger at that meeting. Otherwise, I must keep her confidence."
Not to mention the fact that it would give Severus the chance to reveal Granger's age in a public setting and force Dumbledore's hand on the matter. It would be a nice time to tell about Miss Granger's family and reveal his new apprentice as well.
"An excellent idea, my boy," Dumbledore agreed, suspicion marring the otherwise friendly tone. "Friday it is. I expect to be informed then."
"Harry needs to be here," Hermione griped to her friend. "He keeps writing us, and we can't even tell him we're here! He's going to hate us by the time summer's over."
It had been 3 days since Hermione had signed away her freedom, but Snape hadn't once come to collect or talk to her. Mrs. Weasley had no problem forcing her indentured servitude though.
Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger were working through the old Grimmauld Place training room with wands, cleaning supplies, and a fair bit of Doxie Anti-Venom on their person. Still, wands or not, the filthy room was a mess not easily cleaned.
Ron tossed another petrified rat carcass in his garbage bag with a grimace. "If I were him I wouldn't want to be here," he pointed out. "I'd rather be bored than cleaning out doxie droppings from a haunted mansion."
"But he doesn't even know that's what we're doing!" Hermione fretted, moving towards a wardrobe balanced precariously on three feet. "He must think that we're ignoring him, or that we hate him. Oh, what if he got the Prophet and thinks we believe it?!"
"Harry knows we believe him!" Ron protested. "He's not just some bloke, 'Mione, he's Harry."
"I know!" she snapped. "But we've also never kept so many secrets from him."
Hermione had repaired the fourth leg of the wardrobe, and went to open it. In the wardrobe, she saw none other than Professor Snape. She yelped in surprise, bring Ron to her side in a second.
The fake-Snape stepped from the wardrobe dramatically, looking at her carefully. He had his wand out, and Hermione raised hers defensively.
"Did you really think I was good, stupid Mudblood chit?" Snape sneered at her. "You can't have really believed I would help you, some insignificant child? You are nothing but a pawn, Miss Granger, and your usefulness had expired."
"It's a boggart, 'Mione!" Ron told her. "Just think of something funny! Neville's Gran's clothes!"
"I'm going to bring you to the Dark Lord," Snape purred, reaching for her frozen figure. "I will be honoured, revered . . . and you? I doubt you'll even entertain him for five minutes, but you can hope, Miss Granger. There's no shame in wanting to be the best at everything. You should aim to be as entertaining of prey as you can, really; it may help you to last longer. I do enjoy watching the victims squirm and scream beneath his wand."
Hermione was frozen. She cou;dn't think, couldn't laugh. This scenario had run through her head briefly when she had first agreed to be the man's apprentice, but she had dismissed it before it could paralyze her.
"And young Mr Weasley and Potter, they don't even know how I got to you, do they?" Snape kept moving forward dangerously. "I could tell them. I could let them know how-"
She had to stop him. "Expulso!"
The Boggart flew back into the cupboard suddenly, and Hermione ran up to it to lock it. Her hands were shaking, and the boggart was fighting for its release, so it took a good moment before she could stop and breathe.
"Blimey," a voice came from behind them both.
Sirius Black, looking much more pink and clean then he ever had before, was in the doorway. He looked upon Hermione gently.
"Snape is a scary man, isn't he?" He asked. "Still, at least your Boggart wasn't a dead body of one of your friends, I suppose."
He sauntered into the room with a sad but aristocratic air.
"Molly wanted me to get you two into the kitchen," Sirius told them. "Lunch is ready, and the twins are apparating in and out and stealing all the rations. You best get in there before all the lunch is mysteriously in their room."
Ron ran at the news, yelling, "Leave some for me, wankers!" at the top of his lungs. Hermione on the other hand turned back to her cleaning.
"I'm not hungry," she lied. "You better head back, Sirius."
A chuckle let her know she was not believed. "Kitten, come on. I promise, it's no big deal. You handled it well. That expulsion charm put it in its place, so I say we leave it until we get Remus back from his full moon haunt to get rid of it and you forget about whatever it was about what old Snapey said that frightened you. What do you say?"
Hermione had to roll her eyes at his clearly puppy-esque charm. So, without hesitation, she took the friendly hand and was escorted quickly to the kitchen. Or, she would have been, if Mrs. Black hadn't started shouting curses at the top of her lungs indicating someone's arrival.
When they reached the first floor, Hermione found herself face to face with the man that was her boggart, sneering at her.
"What're you doing her, Snivellus?" Sirius ground out at the spy. "I thought you would be more against visiting – what was that charming phrase you used again? Ah, yes – my repulsive kennel."
Severus Snape glared at the Animagus in obvious loathing. "I take no pleasure in this visit, mutt," he barked at the man. "However, Dumbledore wanted me to tell you and the Weasleys that there is going to be an Order meeting a 6PM on Friday."
"Fine," Black agreed. "You've delivered your message like a good owl. Now go."
"Sirius, behave!" Hermione said, affronted. Turning to her now-Master, she smiled a small smile at him. "We were just about to have lunch. You can join us, if you'd like."
Snape looked down at his apprentice with shrewd eyes. "I'd best be going, Miss Granger," he declined. "But it is nice to see you have remembered your manners, living here among dogs."
Snape swept his robes around him and made for the front door. Before he made it though, he turned and looked at the little Miss Granger, still looking at him with disappointed eyes.
"Miss Granger," he called maliciously, "we will be discussing your punishment at this meeting. I would make yourself available to attend as well."