The faint sound of ink droplets plummeting their way onto an otherwise faultless parchment brought Hermione out of her distant reverie. Silently, she mouthed a word rather foreign to her lips; her vocabulary usually restricted to academics and the occasional chiding of overly exuberant friends. She exhaled in frustration. These unsolicited digressions had been occurring all too often as of late— her paper proved the fact rather emphatically. Daydreaming was to Hermione a new and unique experience, but she knew such dreams often had their way with the unfocused mind of many a fellow classmate. However, she chanced she was most likely the only student brash enough to succumb to such divergent thoughts while situated in what could only be labeled as the most unpredictable area in the whole of Hogwarts: the dungeons. Or more specifically, the potions classroom. Usually the speed of her quill was in a perpetual race with the machinations of her mind. However, today there was a cog in the proverbial wheel, quill and brain both obviously suffering from an undiagnosed but terrible torpor.
She bit her lip, feeling a slight sting that she hoped would shake her brain out of whatever hole it was currently residing in. Truth be told, Hermione Granger was nervous. It wasn't the type of anxiety that came over her at the thought of an exam, or the fact that she might be only one week ahead of the syllabus rather than two. No, this was a type of tension entirely unto itself. And it was currently driving the Head Girl batty.
For the first few days after what she now identified as 'the incident', she had assumed the haze that had descended upon her was the reaction to seeing a man she had once thought to be immutably rigid acting to such a degree out of character. A docile Snape? Who would have thought it!
But it was more than that, and Hermione eventually had to concede as much. She was ashamed to admit it, but her midnight communion with the Potions Master, almost a month ago to the day, had been the first time in a long while that she had felt any sense of true understanding. When she had seen him sitting there, alone but for his obvious pain, she had set out to comfort him. But somehow during the night she had drawn comfort from him as well; comfort she hadn't known she had needed. For a girl who was often described with terms less kind than the euphemism "enthusiastic" (with which she had fondly been tagged by Professor McGonagall), it had been strangely appealing to her to communicate in absolute silence with this taciturn and brooding man. Priding herself on her memory, Hermione had years of stored conversations between she and her friends and family, from the mundane to that which bordered on the dramatic. Yet at the moment she was hard pressed to find one such instance which equaled the magnitude, in her eyes, of the empathy she had shared with her dark and unlikely companion.
But she had known matters would be altered once daylight came, and with it the approach of the normal school day. She had next seen him the following afternoon as he obligingly gave an unexpecting Hufflepuff the fright of her life. His sneer was back in position, his sadness having been replaced by the more predictable and anticipated fury that was usually exuded- in excess. And in class he had been much the same, stalking back and forth between desks, handing out the random scathing comment before returning to the head of the room to bestow upon all the patent Snape glare.
And it bothered her. For so many reasons. She wasn't sure if it was because she had sensed his desperation, his loneliness that had somehow enhanced her own. Perhaps it was the fact that he had been sitting in the Astronomy Tower for what she knew had been a lengthy amount of time without anyone venturing to find him. Or maybe it was the looks he now gave her; pregnant with indifference, or at times a general sense of displeasure.
She watched him now, sweeping about the room, currently the dark cloud over Neville's shoulder, his voice the thunder that was sending the poor boy into fits of cringing and ineptitude. But for perhaps the first time, this scene, unlike the many that had come before it, did not compel her to fly to Neville's defense. Her tendency to protect was surely directed elsewhere.
Honestly, she didn't know if she could do anything to help him, and she only had vague suspicions about what had upset him that night. But her presence had seemed to soothe him, and for that she was glad. She wanted to be nearby should the opportunity arise once again. She had known for a while now about his double life, and recognized that in all likelihood he was still being summoned to Voldemort's side. And it worried her. A rare mutinous thought concerning the Headmaster floated through Hermione's head. If she were Dumbledore, she thought she might place a bit more importance on the life of a former student and supposed friend. Sending the man into that assembly of monsters was cruel. Intellectually, Hermione understood the reason behind it. But she couldn't help wishing that someone else might take his burden. She wanted someone else to take all the pain, loneliness, and danger. But there was no one. And in addition to all that he suffered, he had no support, except for the man who continued to send him into the midst of the enemy. And Snape didn't deserve that. Because he was a good man, despite all his efforts to appear to the contrary. Of that she was sure.
So now she found herself waiting, biding her time until the end of class, when she planned to make her move. She hadn't needed to put much deliberation into her plan, really. She was known as the school's resident bookworm. The NEWTs would be upon them soon. It would seem natural if she should ask him for use of the potions room in the evenings. And from there she could check up on him. If he needed her, she would be there. And even if she wasn't able to help him, she could at least give herself some peace of mind, knowing that he had at least one other person in his corner.
Ah, he was dismissing them now. She could scarcely believe how quickly the time had passed, or how she had managed to fill her paper with such mindless dreck. She knew she must have been glaring at the parchment for the past fifteen minutes at least. Her hands had made the motions entirely of their own accord. Deep down, she was glad that her scowl might be confused with a look of intense concentration. It just wouldn't do to seem careless when she was about to ask her Professor such a 'daring' question. She snorted. Most of the time any question was too daring. But it had never stopped her before.
The class had filed out, leaving the room in the same state of tidiness as it had been when they entered. This was a habit the children indulged in only when surrounded by potions, cauldrons, and cold dungeons walls. Poor Professor Flitwick had daily disarray to charm away come the end of each class.
Books in hand, Hermione warily approached her sitting professor. His arms were a steady blur of movement. He reached for a paper, and a second later gave it a look of unadulterated loathing. With deft, satisfied motions he scrawled what was probably a most wounding assessment at the top, and then dispensed with it, letting the sheet of parchment hover its way gracefully to a stack of papers equally stained in the same shade of red.
Standing directly in front of his desk, Hermione coughed.
Not looking up from the tedium of his work, Snape dryly intoned, "Ah, Ms. Granger. You were particularly quiet today. Please do not tell me this is an attempt to rid me of the peace I attained in your silence."
That was the Snape she knew. Hermione knew how to deal with this Snape.
"Why no, Professor. Or, at least I hope not. Actually, I've come to ask a favor."
Receiving nothing but a raised eyebrow at this, Hermione continued, "The NEWTs are coming up, and I thought I'd rather like to run through some of the potions that we've created over the past few years, just to be prepared." She tried to stifle the bit of trepidation that had made itself known in her voice.
Finally looking up at her, Snape sneered. "So insecure that you feel the need to study months ahead of time? Perhaps if you paid more attention in class, you would not find such overcompensation necessary." He had a glint to his eye, and his voice, now being put to use doing something that he took pleasure in, had a lilt to it that Hermione might have even enjoyed had it not been at her expense. She had forgotten for a moment how he had loved a good confrontation. But no, she wasn't going to let him worm his way out of this one. He was a rather crafty fellow.
"Yes, Professor," she said, ignoring his dig, "you see, if I am to do this, I will need a place to brew the potions, and the proper ingredients as well."
The room was so silent Hermione thought she could hear the echo of her heartbeat reverberating off the dungeon walls. It was silly, really. If Snape's moods were a bit more reliable, she wouldn't be feeling quite as nervous.
"So," she hesitated, "I was hoping you'd allow me to use the potions room, preferably after dinner. By that time I'll have completed my duties as Head Girl, and most of my homework as well." She paused. "I don't think I'll take very long. I should get through the basic potions rather quickly, I should think."
There was another heavy pause. Hermione felt the urge to say something else, but decided against it, biting the side of her cheek to silence the words that had a habit of tumbling out.
He stared at her for a long moment, his gaze driving into her, adding to the tension she felt growing in the pit of her stomach.
Then he sighed, placing his hands on the desk and stretching them, his fingers spanning a good portion of the dark, antique wood. "Very well, Ms. Granger. You may make use of the laboratory after dinner for the next week. If I find this arrangement is working satisfactorily, then we can discuss any long term usage."
Unable to control herself, Hermione's face broke into a glowing grin. "Oh, thank you, Professor! I'm so glad that—"
Standing suddenly, Snape interrupted, bringing his face closer to hers. "There are…conditions, Ms. Granger, to this little arrangement." The timbre of his voice purred in triumph. "You will be silent. You will not disturb my work by any questions you may have, no matter the urgency I'm sure you shall feel to verbalize them. You will work quickly. You will leave when I tell you to. And you will inform me ahead of time what ingredients you will need. I won't have you pilfering through my private reserves." He gave her an especially intense glare then, and Hermione inwardly cringed. "Is that acceptable, Ms. Granger?" For some reason, his words resembled a challenge.
She looked him in the eyes staunchly. This is what she had wanted, after all. "Yes, Professor Snape. Thank you. I'll see you after dinner then." With a quick nod and a pivot of her heels, Hermione made a fair impression of her professor as she hurried from the room, robes billowing in her wake. Severus watched her leave, expressionless, still staring at the doorway a good minute after she had gone.