Quick note:  Many of the canon characters in this story that only play minor roles are based on Clio's interpretation of them in her story, Eight Ways From Sunday which can be found in the Schnoogle section of FAP at www.fictionalley.org.  As most of her characters only appear as cameos here (apart from Hermione who is totally different in this story), I don't feel too bad about borrowing them.  However, I wanted to acknowledge her influence on my work.  (As one of the betas for Eight Ways From Sunday, I guess it was inevitable!)  Anyway, please go and take a look at her wonderful story as it's very well written, very hip and packed with canon character romances.

This Present Darkness

"For we fight not against flesh and blood but against Powers and Principalities – the rulers of this present darkness."

Ephesians 6:11-13

Prologue

"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."

1 Corinthians 13:12

It was Hermione's final term at Hogwarts and she was tired and burnt out.  There was only a few weeks left to go before final exams and she wondered if she'd make it without collapsing in a fit of exhaustion.

She sighed as she added her carefully ground Grindylowe bones to the potion.  The potion turned a clear green much to her relief.  She needed to wait 5 minutes before adding the dragon scales.

Her eyes roamed around the room and came to rest on Snape, her disliked and feared Potions Master.  He was preparing some ingredients for a complicated looking potion brewing on his lab bench.  He was absorbed and frowing darkly, not an unusual expression.  His dark, greasy looking hair fell in clumps around his lean, boney face.  His eyebrows were heavy and as pitch black as his hair.  A line of concentration was cut deeply between them.  His nose was large and hawkish, and his pale lips thin.  His skin had a sallow tinge but his hands were as blue white as skim milk and beautiful; strong, slender and long-fingered.

Hermione turned back to her potion, checked her timer, added dragon scales and reset the timer once more.  It was now another 5 minutes until she added the Griffin feathers.

Her eyes went back to her Potions Master for lack of any other distraction.  His mouth was pursed slightly in concentration and his black eyes were intense as he added an ingredient and adjusted the tempreture.  He went back to finely chopping something.  Whatever he was brewing, it must be important for him to be neglecting the class.  Usually his prowled around them, sneering at their efforts and deliberately un-nerving them.

She noticed a sulpherous steam coming from the cauldron.  It must be a very potent potion.  She frowned.  She hoped he often didn't brew such nasty substances.  Being around fumes like that constantly had to be bad for your health.

She checked her potion and carefully snipped in some of the feathers into it.  It turned a golden brown – perfect!  She set the timer again and glanced around the room.  Other students were frantically chopping and grinding but she'd prepared her ingredients before beginning so her timing could be exact for adding each ingredient.  Her spider venom had been exactly measured and needed to be added in a few minutes.

Once more she examined Snape, speculating on what on earth drove the man.  He was such a nasty, evil git.  Once, he'd been a Death Eater – hated and feared by the wizarding community.  Now, he was teaching at Hogwarts!  It was a bit absurd.  Most of the Death Eaters ended up in Azkaban.  What was it that had saved him from the Dementor's Kiss?  It hadn't been his ability to spy, Dumbledore had only asked that of him at the end of her fourth year.  Why did Dumbledore have such faith in him?  He didn't even look trustworthy.  He looked dangerous, cunning, secretive and vicious.

She checked on her potion again and added the venom drop by drop.  Slowly is changed colour to a navy blue.  She stirred it with some holly bark quickly, then poured it into a goblet ready for testing.  It needed to stand for ten minutes, gently smoking before she could try it.  She extinguished her flame, cleaned her cauldron efficiently and packed up her equipment while she waited.

By now, Snape was peering into his cauldron, his expression tense.  He is breathing in those fumes, Hermione thought with a frown.  Why did he do it?  She knew he didn't use charms to protect himself because she'd never seen him used one in the 7 years she'd been at Hogwarts.  He'd taught the students how to use them and ensured that they did, so why didn't he?  Unaware she was doing it, her gaze grew more intense as she puzzled over this new question.

Maybe it was a form of self-punishment, she hypothesized?  Or maybe he was self-destructive?  Maybe he did feel guilt over his activities as a Death Eater and he really did despise himself.  Maybe he simply didn't care what happened to him anymore and he'd given up on life in a way.  In that case, the only thing that could possibly drive him was loyalty to Dumbledore and the possibility of being useful to him.

As though Snape could feel her eyes on him, he glanced up suddenly and looked right at her.  There was a dark frown of anger and annoyance on his face until he realized her stare was in no way hostile.

Hermione was so deep in her ponderings that she was no longer really seeing him even while looking right at him.

Snape felt odd.  He didn't like being looked at let alone stared intensely at.  He didn't like the shrewd intensity of her gaze but there was something more he couldn't name immediately because it was foreign to him.  He couldn't take his eyes off her face for a full minute.  Fortunately, the other students were frantically trying to finish their potions before end of class to notice their Potion Master's sudden stillness or obvious distraction.

Suddenly, Hermione snapped out of her compassionate reverie to find Snape staring fixedly back at her with a peculiar expression.  It was at once intense, perplexed, resentful, stunned and a bit bemused – almost hypnotized.  It was obvious he had no idea what to make of his top student staring steadily at him and he had been unsettled for once in his life.

"Miss Granger," he said, recovering immediately.  "I take it you have finished your potion?"  He said with characteristic contempt.

"Yes, sir."  She replied coolly. 

Snape hated her arrogant coolness.  "Is it ready to test?" he asked coldly.

She checked her timer.  "Just, sir."  She confirmed, gazing back at him unblinkingly.

"Well, I suggest you try it Miss Granger," he said sarcastically.

With a shrug, she drank it.  It tasted foul as all potions did.  She waited.  The potion was designed to reveal your animagus form by creating a pattern on your skin that lasted only 5 or so minutes.  Part of their homework had been to study common patterns that resulted from drinking this potion so they could recognize their own.  Most people would get common mammals, birds or reptiles of some type.

In a few seconds a pattern began to emerge.  Good. The potion worked, she thought.  Now Snape can't sneer.  She frowned at it.  The pattern looked nothing like any of those she'd studied.  She bit her lip.  She'd fail, if she couldn't identify it.  Frantically, she began to sketching it in her notepad.  It didn't look like fur or feathers or even scales.

Snape waited until the potion should have begun to take effect, then stalked over to her bench and took her arm in one ice-cold hand.  The pattern showed best on the transparent skin of the inner forearm.  He turned her arm over and examined the pattern expertly.  His eyes narrowed and a strange look flittered over his face.

"You'll have to do research on this one, Miss Granger.  You have until end of exam week to give me the answer," he said, dropping her arm and going back to his own bench at the front of the room.

She gritted her teeth.  She was sure he knew what it was but he wasn't going to tell her nor was she going to ask for a hint or a clue.  She pressed her lips together and went back to sketching.  To her surprise, the pattern didn't go entirely.  She was sure Snape would take marks off her final grade because of that.

Meanwhile, thanks to Hermione's help Neville found out he was a rabbit.  Harry was a dog like his Godfather.  Draco was a ferret, much to her amusement.  Ron was a fox.  Crabbe was a toad and Goyle was a lizard.  Hermione sighed.  What the hell was she?

Hermione didn't feel Snape's gaze as they filed out of the Potion's lab after class.

* * *

Later that day Snape went back to his potion and brooded over it, missing dinner.  As he watched it bubble he suddenly remembered Hermione's stare earlier that day.  It had been pushed to the back of his mind with the startling revelation of her animagus form.

What was it about her gaze that had paralysed him?  He added some dragon's blood to his potion and it fizzed.  He struggled for an answer.  Then it came to him.  She'd looked at him with compassion and empathy!  He nearly dropped too many dried fish eyes into his potion.  He frowned deeply.  When was the last time someone had felt compassion for him?  Dumbledore had of course; he had his deathless loyalty now but before that?  No-one.  Not ever.  Now this annoying school girl had and it changed something in him toward her.  He scowled.  He didn't like it.  He didn't want to feel… warmth or…. or gratitude towards her.  What did she really know about him anyway?  About what Death Eaters did?  The murders, torture and humiliations they had inflicted on their enemies.

Snape's hands trembled as he added wormroot to his potion.  Stupid girl, he thought savagely.  She would soon lose her compassion if she knew the full extent of his crimes.  His black eyes glittered in the half light of the dungeons as he stirred the potion.  He hardened his heart toward her.  Her knew full well that if she knew the whole truth, she'd hate him.  Just like everyone else did; even those who didn't know the full truth.

He tossed some ground unicorn horn into the noxious mixture and sneered.  Where did Hermione find compassion for him so suddenly?  There had never been any evidence of it in the 7 years he'd been her Potions Master.  He deliberately ignored the memory or her sympathetic gaze or how it had seemed to burn a trail of warmth and comfort through him and nestle somewhere in the region of his chest.  He didn't want to remember the strange feeling.  It was alien and confusing and a distraction.  He had important work to do.  He glanced down into the murky depths of his cauldron.  Human sympathy was not a part of his life and never had been nor was it likely to become so.  Best not to explore the thought any further.

He stared sightlessly into the distance.  His eyes were empty of expression.  Still, he thought, I don't think I can stand this half life much longer.  His eyes wandered to the potion.  Half a goblet of it would finish him off, he calculated.  He could never bring himself to do it.  He was a lot of things but a coward, he wasn't.

His lips thinned.  Somehow, he'd have to find a way and a reason to continue living.