The only thing keeping Hermione out of trouble is...
The Professor's Discretion
"Harry, you can't," insisted Hermione Granger with her usual officiousness. "The Order won't let you leave Grimmauld Place unescorted!"
"I don't plan on telling them I'm leaving," said Harry mulishly.
"But Harry, that's so dangerous. There is a reason they've gone through so much trouble to keep you protected," she persisted.
"Er-My-Nee," said Ron, rolling his eyes. "You don't expect us to sit around here and let them keep treating us as children, do you?"
"Of course not, Ron. I'm saying that it's too risky. What will they do if they discover all three of us have gone missing? They'd keep us on an even shorter lead, and use it as an excuse to exclude us from the Order for being reckless and childish. Don't argue; you know it's true. Your mother, Ronald, will use any excuse to get you, all of us, out of danger."
It was true, the Weasley Matriarch had protested violently when at the end of the summer before their seventh year, Harry, Ron, and Hermione had requested to be fully inducted Order Members. Gathered around the kitchen table and Number 12 Grimmauld Place, a heated debate had ensued, ending in a vote being taken. The result being 12 in favour, 4 against, and one abstention.
This surprised them. They had assumed that the Potions Master would have firmly voted against their admittance to the Order, but instead he hadn't said a word, nor voted either way. He simply watched the proceedings with those keen black eyes.
That had been five months ago. Now it was the Christmas holidays and despite their Order Member status, they were still being kept cooped up in Headquarters and given nothing to do but their homework. Well, of course they wouldn't settle for that. They had been secretly working on a project on their own. It had required many late nights under the invisibility cloak reading books from the restricted section. Of course, there wasn't much information at all on Horcruxes, but they were determined.
The current dilemma was getting ingredients for a potion they wanted to try brewing, ingredients that certainly weren't in the student cupboard at Hogwarts.
"I'll have to go get it myself," she announced to the boys. "You two can't leave without being noticed. I can just say that I'm going to visit my parents for a time. Once I'm there, I can Apparate to Diagon Alley and back, then come back to Headquarters next day, or maybe even that night."
"But Hermione, you're a... you know."
"No, Ronald, enlighten me." His last grand pronouncement of that sort had been, 'You're a girl.' She was hardly expecting anything more insightful this time.
"You're a Muggleborn. It's not safe for you to be out on your own these days."
She forbore to roll her eyes. He was 'blood traitor' and best friend to 'The Boy Who Lived.' She wouldn't be in any more danger than he would. What was more, she was no slouch with a wand, better than Ron, anyway. "I'll go under the invisibility cloak while I'm in the alley. I'll just pop into the shop, see if they have it, and if they do, I'll take it off, buy it, and leave again. Shouldn't take more than a few minutes."
"Let Harry or me go with you, Mione," said Ron.
"If Harry comes, they will send another Order member for his protection. If you come, no doubt your mother would come, too, to visit my parents. No, Ron. My going alone is the only way it will work."
"Today, then? It's already getting dark," Harry pointed out.
"The shops will still be open," said Hermione. "I want to get this done as soon as possible."
Actually, Hermione had an ulterior reason for wanting to go that evening and by herself. She was looking for more than just bicorn horn and hellebore (the latter could be found at Hogwarts but none of them had any on them now), but also Runespoor eggs and Re'em blood for her own personal project. The eggs were flat out illegal, and while the Re'em blood wasn't, it was so rare as to be very difficult to find on the open market. A subtle question to Fred and George, as to where they managed to acquire their Instant Darkness Powder ingredients from, gave her the name of a small establishment on Knockturn Alley, along with a wink and a plea not to tell their mother.
The plan went off without a hitch. The mere mention of Hermione missing her mother was enough to set up the floo for a quick visit to her parents.
"Say hello to them for me, dear."
"I will, Mrs. Weasley."
She felt odd. Many Order members were in the sitting room discussing things, and it was clear that they all stopped their conversation while Hermione was there to use the fireplace. For a few brief moments, all eyes were on her. With a dash of floo powder, and a flash of green flames, Hermione was spinning and whirling away from London and back to Kent and her parents' house.
She tumbled forward onto the carpet of the sitting room. (Muggle fireplaces simply weren't built for flooing, too small.) Getting up and brushing herself off, she called, "Mum? Dad? Are you home?"
"Hermione?" came her mother's pleased voice.
"We're in the kitchen," her father called.
She followed the sound of her parents' voices. "Hi, mum, dad."
"We didn't know you were coming to visit," said her mother, coming over to give her a tight hug. "I thought you were staying with Harry and Ron."
"I missed you," she explained, squirming slightly at this. It wasn't a lie, exactly. She did miss her parents, but had she not needed those potions ingredients, she wouldn't be visiting. "I thought I'd pop over for a little bit."
Her mother hugged her again, making Hermione feel even worse.
Dinner was ready and the Grangers entreated their daughter to eat with them. Hermione agreed but kept a careful eye on the kitchen clock. She wanted to give herself at least a half an hour in Knockturn Alley, so she had to arrive at least thirty minutes before the shops closed. She shovelled down the food (couldn't even remember what it was) and declined pudding, saying that she had to be getting back, but she was very glad to see them, even if only for a little bit.
Apparition was never pleasant. Adding its uncomfortable compression with the slight queasiness of guilt left Hermione practically nauseous as she arrived in Diagon Alley. Lying wasn't something that Hermione usually felt bad about. She had lied many times, to teachers and to the boys when it served her purpose. But using her parents like that did not sit well with her.
Making sure she was still covered in Harry's cloak, she tiptoed down the darkened Diagon Alley until she reached the entryway to Knockturn. She'd obviously never been to this apothecary, nor had she asked Fred and George for directions. Still, Knockturn was only so large, surely she should be able to find it on her own. Under the cloak, she felt safe enough to search the alley.
It took her longer than she expected, as the store front did not face the alley proper, but opened off to the side, where one, in the Muggle world, would leave the dust bins. The window was too grimy to peek through, so she was forced to remove the cloak (when no one was looking, of course) and enter.
Her heart sank when she saw no walls of potion ingredients for browsing, like most apothecaries, but only a small, unkempt reception room with two rickety-looking wooden chairs, and a front desk, behind which no one stood. However, the bell that sounded upon her entry would no doubt bring someone, until then, she'd have to decide on what she'd say.
A man entered, strands of oily hair wisped over in an optimistic (but vain) attempt to hide the top of his bald head. "What d'ye want?" he asked, not at all in a customer friendly way.
"Er... I want... I want potion ingredients," she answered.
The man ("Gump," Fred had told her) sneered at her. "Yeah, yer in my shop, I gathered ye wanted ingredients, love. What. Do. Ye. Want?"
Hermione was horrified by the terrible state of the man's teeth. One look at them would send her parents running for their tools and strapping him to the dentist chair.
"Yes," she said as confidently as she could, (which wasn't very) and pulled out the parchment with her list. The man took it and eyed the items.
His glance left the paper to inspect her, then went back to the list again. Hermione didn't even breathe as she waited.
Finally, he grumbled, "I'll see what I have," and trudged off into the backroom.
Hermione finally let out her breath, and her knees swayed. She clutched the desk to keep her feet.
"Well that wasn't so bad," she said to herself. "At least the worst bit's over."
She waited in dusty silence for well over a quarter of an hour, bouncing slightly on the balls of her feet in an effort to contain her nervous energy. She just wanted to pay for it and get back to Headquarters. Hermione knew she had a reputation for being a swot, a clever-bookish sort who all but worshipped the rule book, but being friends with Harry and Ron for the past seven years she had broken more than her fair share. It was a thrill each time, she couldn't deny it, but never did she break the rules for no reason.
Gump, or whoever he was, returned from the backroom just as the bell from the door behind her chimed the arrival of a new customer.
"Tha's 97 galleons and seven sickles, then," he said, placing a brown paper parcel bound with twine in front of her.
Not wanting to be taken in, she said bossily, "I'd like to see what I'm getting before I pay."
He glowered at her, but with a flick of his wand, the twining began to untie itself, and the paper unfolded to reveal her order.
It was all of surprisingly good quality. He even had the Re'em blood. She'd never seen any before, of course, but from what she read it looked, smelled, and had the exact viscosity as it should. And the Runespoor eggs were as fresh (read: malodorous) as she could have hoped.
Pleased with herself and the quality of the ingredients, she flicked her wand at Harry's money pouch (he wouldn't even notice the gold was missing and she promised she'd pay him back) and the exact total of the purchase flew out in an orderly stream, placing themselves directly into the till.
Business concluded, she said, "Have a good evening," just as her parents taught her to always do and made to leave the shop.
A pair of intently watchful black eyes stopped her in her tracks.
Hermione's heart started beating rapidly, knowing that now their entire project would fail. Professor Snape stood by the door, having witnessed the whole thing. He would yell at her, tell the Order, take away her ingredients (and use them himself, the Slytherin) and no doubt somehow bring Harry and Ron down with her. They'd never get to even start their potion and she (at least) would never be treated as an adult in the Order now that she'd been discovered sneaking out.
Frozen like panicked deer in the light of an approaching vehicle, Hermione merely stood, gaping at her defeater.
To her immense astonishment, he politely stepped aside, leaving the path to the door unblocked, as any stranger might.
She didn't question this seeming windfall, but hightailed it out of there (as decorously as possible.) Perhaps he just hadn't wanted to make a scene in a public (if disreputable) establishment. 'Of course,' Hermione thought as she threw the cloak over her. He couldn't very well bawl her out about leaving Order Headquarters in the middle of Knockturn Alley and reveal his own position as spy.
Hermione cringed, thinking of what would await her back at Grimmauld place, what would happen when Professor Snape returned. What could she do? She could hide the ingredients, protect them against confiscation. He was the most brilliant Potions Master of the day. Would he have noticed what she had been buying? Would he know of their illegality?
Which left her and her plan thoroughly, entirely, and inescapably bollixed. She'd be lucky to escape Azkaban, let alone severe tongue lashing from him, Molly Weasley and Minerva McGonagall.
Refusing to cry, she thrust her chin into the air and strode (invisibly) into Diagon Alley, ready, or nearly so, to accept the inevitable consequences of her actions. She began planning defences in her head that would free Harry and Ron from any traces of complicity, or guilt by association. Having composed her argument methodically in her head, she entered the Leaky Cauldron, sans cloak.
She'd left by floo, so naturally they'd expect her back by floo. Well, there was no way to tell from which fireplace a person had come, so she decided that she'd borrow some powder from the Leaky Cauldron and go from there.
The first thing she noticed (because she was looking especially) was that Professor Snape was not in the living room when she arrived. More or less the same group was gathered around, drinking their evening tea or coffee (though she suspected that Moody was drinking stronger stuff from that hip flask) and discussing things.
Seeing as they didn't immediately start to chide her for her dangerous and foolhardy behaviour, she deduced they didn't know... yet. Deciding that there was no point in simply walking up and taking her place on the pillory, she made no effort to confess.
"My parents send their regards, Mrs. Weasley, Mr. Weasley," she said with a small smile and a slight incline of her head at each of them. They smiled back and Hermione left the room, going instantly to her own bedroom to hide her Re'em blood and Runespoor eggs before anything else. She didn't give the boys the other ingredients they were waiting for. It would only incriminate them. She didn't even tell them she was back. Once she'd hidden the ingredients as best she could (though if anyone made a concerted effort to find them, if they knew precisely what they were looking for, it wouldn't be much of a challenge) she went back into the kitchen and made some tea in effort to calm her overwrought nerves. As she sipped nervously, she listened for the sound of the front door opening, and the arrival of the Potions Master and her doom.
She almost wished he would just come and get it over with. The waiting was torture. She thought she'd explode when Professor Snape finally came in, accompanied by Professor Dumbledore, who instantly began loading up a plate with biscuits. It was a marvel the man had no cavities, what with all the sweets he consumed.
"How are the Doctors Granger?" asked the Headmaster solicitously.
"They're well. We had a nice dinner." Both statements were true. She carefully avoided looking at Professor Snape, who said nothing to contradict her story. Did the Headmaster already know? Was he testing her, tormenting her, giving her the chance to confess first before he called her out? She thought that was his ploy, but once he'd collected what he'd wanted, both he and the Potions Master left without another word.
She let out a vast exhalation when the door closed behind them as relief washed over her. He hadn't said anything. Of course it could be that the Order's spy had more important things to discuss with the Headmaster just then than the recalcitrant behaviour of one girl, but she was willing to accept this as a boon.
She left the kitchen to find the boys and report the (dubious?) success of her mission. She didn't mention the Potions Master.
Hermione mostly hid in her room for the rest of the holiday. Although Professor Snape was hardly ever seen around Headquarters (despite having a room there), she was afraid of running into him. Though by the continued lack of anyone coming to bawl her out for her excursion in Knockturn Alley, she gathered that he still hadn't told anyone. The few times she hadn't escaped the kitchen or library quick enough to avoid him, he hadn't acknowledged her at all. He acted as if nothing had happened.
She wasn't inclined to think that Severus Snape was doing it out of kindness, but all the same, she was grateful for the Professor's discretion