A STARTLING PROPOSITION

This is a non-profit tribute to the works of JK Rowling who, together with her publishers and licensees, owns the characters and situations elaborated herein.

Thanks to my previewers, Bellegeste and Cecelle, for their helpful thoughts. This is planned as a mentorship/friendship fic, not a romance. The title of the fic comes from the sphinx's riddle in GoF, ch 31, The Third Task.

WARNING: This fic contains HBP-Spoilers. Enter at own risk if you haven't read HBP.

At first, Hermione thought it was her own fault. Returning to school for the sixth year spring term, she'd trudged head down and brooding. Her parents hadn't planned anything special this year, not like their skiing holiday last year, so they'd been delighted but surprised to have her home for Xmas and their questions had been hard to bear. She didn't want to explain why she hadn't stayed with her school friends at Hogwarts, as she had the three previous years. She didn't want to discuss why she hadn't been invited to join her friends at the Weasleys either.

Oh, Ron! She didn't even know what had gone wrong or why, just as he seemed to have finally started to notice her in a romantic way, he'd suddenly been lip-locked with Lavender everywhere she turned. And now they weren't even friends any more, let alone – She gulped and bit the inside of her cheek to keep the shamed angry tears at bay. Stupid, stupid !

No, she hadn't been looking where she was going so, when she cannoned into Professor Snape in the Entrance Hall, she felt his criticisms were deserved. Over-the-top, of course, because he hated all Gryffindors, especially her and her friends, but still deserved. There was nothing to say, nothing at all, until he wound up his scathing denunciation with a startling proposition.

"I believe I should recommend expulsion for an unprovoked attack on a teacher."

Her mouth went dry.

"But, sir -"

"Come along, Miss Granger. We'll see what the headmaster has to say."

He couldn't really have her expelled, of course – only her own head of house or the headmaster had that power and they'd never dream of abusing it like this – but what a horrible start to the term! She could have screamed at the unfairness of everything.

Arriving at the headmaster's office in Snape's wake, she launched into speech.

"Headmaster, it was an accident! I didn't mean to bump into Professor Snape, I just wasn't looking. Please – "

Professor Dumbledore held up his uninjured hand.

"You're not here for a punishment or a reprimand, Hermione. I asked Professor Snape to bring you." He turned to the black-clad man beside her and gave him a steady look over his half-moon spectacles. "We spoke of the necessity for camouflage, Severus, but was this strictly necessary?"

Hermione's jaw dropped. Her eyes flicked back and forth from the headmaster to her smirking teacher.

"I thought it only fitting," Snape said smoothly. "She has previously attacked me more than once without consequence. A few moments of anxiety is a very trifling penalty."

"Nevertheless, it was not an appropriate beginning to our chat. We are agreed on the matter, are we not?"

Black eyes duelled with blue, then surrendered. Thin lips pursed.

"As you say, Headmaster."

Professor Dumbledore motioned Hermione to a chair. Professor Snape strolled to the window and stood, watching the school grounds below, as if removing himself from the conversation.

"I believe you may be able to help me, Hermione," Dumbledore said.

Hermione leaned forward in her chair.

"Of course, sir, if I can."

The younger man snorted.

"Never agree to a request without asking what it entails, Miss Granger."

"Excellent advice, indeed." Old blue eyes twinkled at Hermione. "We've been reconsidering the incident at the Department of Mysteries last June. Professor Snape has helped me with the sequence of events but there are some I'm still not clear about, for instance, why you tried to use Professor Umbridge's Floo to contact the Order. You didn't think of going to Professor Snape?"

She gulped, her face aflame.

"No, sir. It never occurred to us."

"You landed yourselves in very great danger. I'm pleased to say that you all displayed tremendous courage and initiative there. You thoroughly deserved those points Professor McGonagall gave you. Yet the situation could have been avoided if only you'd realised where to get help." He read demurral in her face. "You don't agree?"

Her eyes darted to the straight black back of the man at the window. He hadn't moved.

"I don't think we deserved any points, Headmaster. We were stupid and we got Sirius killed."

"A loss that will be long remembered," Snape muttered with obvious sarcasm.

"Indeed," the headmaster agreed with a hint of steel then turned back to Hermione. "He is sorely missed but, I can assure you, he'd have thought the sacrifice well worth it to alert the world to Riddle's return."

She forced a smile, grateful that Professor Snape was watching the world outside. She wondered why he needed to be there and why the headmaster was asking her when he could have asked Harry in any of their meetings. No, that was silly. Of course, he wouldn't want to upset Harry by bringing up his godfather's death, especially not with questions that would remind him of his own part in it. A cold shiver ran down her back, nevertheless. Why bring it up now, almost seven months later? Why bring it up at all?

"Now, tell me," the headmaster continued, "what do you know of Professor Snape's role in the Order?"

She started and cast a nervous glance towards the window.

"Only – only that he's your spy on the other side. And you trust him implicitly."

"Yet, even so, you didn't think of him."

She studied her clenched hands.

"No, sir. He's – not a very easy man to approach. And Harry -"

"Yes, Harry," sighed the headmaster. "It's quite unfortunate that Harry and Professor Snape seem unable to understand each other but it's more useful to learn from our mistakes than to wallow in them, isn't that so, Severus? When one way fails, look for another."

Hermione stared at Snape in embarrassed fascination. His shoulders twitched and she looked away hastily as he turned.

"As you say, headmaster."

"I find myself in rather a quandary," the placid old voice continued. "So often in the past I've been absent when I was wanted. This year, I've been called away even more frequently and I am as well more conscious of my age and mortality." Hermione's eyes dropped to his blackened withered hand. "It's time to make back-up plans for the future. Since I can't link Harry and Professor Snape directly, I need an intermediary that both will trust if ever the time comes when they need to coordinate their efforts. And I believe, Hermione, that you are the best candidate."

"Me? But – That can't be right, Professor Snape hates – I mean, surely there must be someone Professor Snape trusts more than me! I'm a student," he hates students, "and a Gryffindor," he hates Gryffindors, "and – and – he can't want to have to do this with me!" He hates me. And I'm babbling like a fool. Couldn't I Evanesco myself now?

Professor Snape looked down his large nose at her, his thin lips twisted, as Dumbledore carried on.

"You are of age. You're also hard-working and talented, good at keeping secrets and at manufacturing explanations at a moment's notice. No Order member will suit as well as you. You're in Harry's counsels and on the spot. And, correct me if I'm wrong, you plan to continue following him in any extra-curricular," he paused, twinkling, "adventures."

"Yes, of course, but -"

Professor Snape was suddenly looming over her.

"It came down to a choice between you and young Weasley, Miss Granger. I prefer a know-it-all to a know-nothing. At least you listen when I speak – on those rare occasions you can keep your mouth shut long enough."

She glared at him. Ron wasn't a know-nothing! She'd have told him so but in her ears she suddenly heard Ron's indignant voice, "D'you think we've got nothing better to do in Potions than listen to Snape?" When had he said that? Years ago, wasn't it, but his attitude hadn't changed, had it? She chewed on her lip, pushing down the warm feeling in her chest at her first-ever praise – sour and grudging and with a slur attached, but a compliment, nonetheless – from the sharp-tongued professor.

"I can't give you an answer now. Like you said, Professor, I need to know what it entails. What would I have to do? And how do I know you won't use it as an excuse -" she trembled at her daring but continued steadily, "- to put Gryffindor into negative points or get my friends in trouble?"

"Are you insinuating that I would abuse my position?" He leaned intimidatingly close.

"N-no, sir, but you find me so insufferable already I can't help feeling it would be foolhardy to extend the time you have to put up with my presence."

That had been bordering on insolent .She waited for the explosion that might earn her a detention but would surely get her off the hook. Black eyes glowered down at her but his response was measured.

"Very true, but not an insoluble problem. I will, of course, deduct points for disrespect or negligence. If you dispute any, the headmaster will adjudicate before they are removed."

"I didn't think you'd agree to that," she confessed unwarily.

"This is not a game," he hissed. "Personal preferences must be set aside. You know my teaching and I know to a whisker," (she blushed and looked down at her clasped hands) "your capabilities as a student. I'll work you hard, without mercy or respite. You'll receive my private tuition in Occlumency, Defense and any other area of study I deem necessary and you will be allowed, moreover, to ask questions on any subject of your choice." He smirked at the eager widening of her eyes. "However, we'll neither seek to pry into each other's secrets nor discuss them with others. I will require your utmost discretion at all times. No one, absolutely no one, is to know of this but we three. Are you willing?"

She stared up at him open-mouthed.

"I'm not interested in the back of your throat, girl. I asked you a question."

"Now, now, Severus, no need for all this heat. Give her some time to think it over," Dumbledore interposed.

Time to think it over? The chance to learn more than she'd ever expected to be taught, by an expert? The chance to pick his brain, to be useful in the war, to help defend her friends and everyone she cared about? Something to do in the long lonely hours she used to spend with Harry and Ron?

"I don't need time," she declared. "Count me in."

Thin lips curled and black eyes gleamed.

"Twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8pm. You may call them detentions for attacking a teacher, if anyone asks." He nodded to her, then to the headmaster, and swished out of the room as she glared at his back. Professor Dumbledore's beard and shoulders gently shook.

"Severus does love his little triumphs, but it won't be recorded against you, of course," he said. "He's just making sure your elevation to the rank of colleague doesn't lead you to forget the proper distance between teacher and student."

Hermione's eyes widened. Was he suggesting? Her and Snape? That was just plain ridiculous.

After leaving Professor Dumbledore, she braved the snow for a half-hour visit with Hagrid before returning to the common room to get warm. When she reached the Gryffindor portrait-hole, Harry, Ginny and Ron were arguing with the Fat Lady, who was still hung-over from a holiday binge. Hermione greeted two friends and ignored the third. What was there to say to him, anyhow? He'd made his choice and now couldn't even be civil to her.

"I've got something for you, Harry," she said. "Oh, hang on – password. Abstinence."

As soon as they reached the common room, packed with other returning students, she pulled out the scroll Professor Dumbledore had given her for Harry. It was for an appointment the following night. Then Ronwent off with Lavender – only she was still calling him "Won-Won", urgh – and Ginny with Dean, leaving her to hear Harry's news alone. They probably already knew. Hurt burned in her chest and up her throat, nearly choking her. Harry didn't understand. He thought she could make it up with Ron. How? She didn't even know what it was about, let alone how to mend it.

"It was the Fat Lady who drank a vat of five-hundred-year old wine, Harry, not me," she said tartly.

Then he started talking and she was almost as speechless as she had been in the headmaster's office. How much she'd missed by leaving Professor Slughorn's party early that last night before the holidays and going to bed! And by not joining them at the Burrow.

Malfoy trying to gatecrash and Snape taking him off for a "word"; Harry, obsessed with proving their villainy (Honestly, if Professor Dumbledore trusted Snape, then why couldn't Harry?), following them and listening in… ('At least he didn't get his nose broken this time,' she sighed to herself.)

Snape wanting to help Malfoy and being refused (Refused!); Snape accusing him of poisoning Katie (Harry had the grace not to say, "I told you so," for which she was heartily grateful. Anyway, Malfoy denied it so maybe it wasn't true.); Snape's Unbreakable Vow to Narcissa Malfoy (He was risking his life to protect Malfoy! His life? She'd always known he liked the blond Slytherin but not as much as that!); Malfoy's Occlumency lessons with his aunt (How jealous she'd have been if she hadn't just been offered lessons with Snape - and not just Occlumency!)

It did sound as if Harry was right, after all. Or maybe just half-right.

Malfoy was planning something shady, but his orders might not have come from Voldemort, not directly, anyway. Harry admitted, when she asked, that neither of them had actually said his name. Snape had referred to "your master", and that might be Voldemort but it might not. Hmm. Pity she couldn't ask the professor without giving away that he'd been followed. He'd know without asking that it must have been Harry under his Invisibility Cloak. And they'd agreed not to "seek to pry into each other's secrets" but he'd told her she could ask questions "on any subject of her choice". She wondered how much he'd let her get away with.

'Nothing, you idiot,' she told herself. 'This is Snape, after all. Nasty, razor-tongued, Gryffindor-hating Snape. It won't be me getting away with things, more like the contrary. I'll have to be on my guard not to let anything slip, especially during Occlumency lessons.'

Yet somehow, every time she thought of starting the lessons her mouth curved into a smile of anticipation. Even news of Lupin's difficulties infiltrating Greyback's pack couldn't dull her hopeful spirits. Questions on any topic of her choice. She couldn't wait.

A/N: A few lines of dialogue are lifted directly from HBP, ch 17, A Sluggish Memory.

Ron's question came from CoS, ch 9, The Writing on the Wall.