Disclaimer: The characters in this story are the property of JKR and her publishers. No disrespect or copyright infringement is intended.
Author's note: This story is set in Hermione's 3rd year (i.e. during PoA, pre-GoF, pre-OoP, pre-HBP) on Christmas Day. It takes a small gap in canon where nothing much happens and fills it with nothing much…
(Detailed knowledge assumed.)
He didn't hear her knock. Her voice, quiet though it was, splintered through the icy silence of the dungeon, making him jump. He exhaled slowly, shaking down the spike of adrenalin that quickened his heartbeat, primed his reflexes. It was only that gratingly precocious 3rd year, Granger. What could she want now? If she had a question, couldn't she have asked it at lunchtime?
"May I come in, Sir?" she repeated.
Snape positioned the knife blade with precision, lined-up to make the next cut, but he stayed his hand, the blade steady, perfectly poised. On the slab before him the bright yellow cross-sections of Mexican Moccasin lay in a row of identical rounds, like slices of golden carrot.
"It is customary to knock, Miss Granger." He spoke without looking up, loath to interrupt his dissection, suppressing annoyance.
"I did, Sir, but…"
It was possible he had not heard. It was a big classroom and he was working at the far end. A big classroom; small, soft knuckles…
"Come in then, if you must. But be quick about it - I'm busy. What do you want?"
It had to be something important. A student wouldn't dare disturb him on Christmas Day for the sake of anything trivial - even his colleagues would think twice. It took courage. She approached, rather diffidently, he thought, and stood in front of his work bench, eying the glistening yellow discs with mingled distaste and curiosity.
"Out with it, girl! I don't have all night."
Her eyes flickered up to his face and then down again. He could see her gathering herself for the leap off the cliff - into cold, deep and rocky waters.
"I've been looking for you, Sir - "
"And now you've found me."
She was very hesitant - uncharacteristically so. Was this the same self-assured, confident child who habitually dominated his classes with her priggish, plucky Gryffindor genius? It wasn't so long ago, he recalled, that he'd had occasion to pick her up on it during a Potions lesson. She'd been less bumptious since then; some of the slower kids had even got a word in edgeways.
With a deft curl of the wrist, he skewered the Moccasin stump on his scalpel and held it aloft. Oily, almond green drops seeped from the exposed circle of flesh and dripped thickly onto the bench. Drip. Drip.
"Do you know what this is?" He launched the question at her. She might as well learn something while she was here - he didn't often get a fresh sample like this to dissect.
"A snake tail, Sir?"
Seven out of ten students would have guessed it was some kind of a sea-slug - a sea cucumber, perhaps - or a Lobalug or a small, pickled Flobberworm. Another couple might have plumped unadventurously for a gherkin… Clever girl.
"The world is riddled with snakes, Miss Granger. A multitude of tails. Species? Genus? I surely do not need to reiterate the necessity of absolute accuracy in the classification of ingredients?"
"A Corn Snake, Sir?" It was a wild guess, and wrong, but not a bad attempt, all in all. She couldn't be expected to know.
"Agklistrodon bilineatus - the Mexican Moccasin snake. Note the pigmentation - " He brought the morsel up closer to her face, noticing the hitch in her diaphragm as her stomach heaved. The rank, greasy, melted-lard smell caught in the throat. "This yellow coloration is only apparent in the immature male…"
"Yes, Sir," she gulped, rather pale now.
She won't forget that in a hurry. Whatever fool's errand she's on, at least she won't have had a completely wasted journey.
"Well, what is it?"
His impromptu master-class had driven her mission right out of her mind, he could tell, but she didn't panic. Instead, her gaze dropped to the floor. When she raised her eyes, moments later, the assertive thrust of the chin was back.
"I wanted to speak to you, Sir."
"I hardly thought you had come to wish me Merry Christmas!"
"No, Sir. I, er, need to ask you something."
"Yes?" He was impatient now, bored with her. She had provided a brief distraction, but now he wanted her to go, to leave him alone. Two hours! Two hours he'd sat in Hall next to that whittering, wispy Trelawney at lunch today, while she wafted her inflated bubbles of doom at McGonagall. Two hours of wincing as Minerva pricked them with her sarcastic, Scottish thistles. He'd had quite enough socialising for one day, even if it was Christmas. The solitude of the dungeon had been his sanctuary, until this infuriating child had come bursting in, tracking him to his lair.
"The thing is, Sir, I signed up to stay at Hogwarts over Christmas…"
Oh, spare me the explanatory preface. Just make the request, whatever it is, then I can refuse - as you undoubtedly expect me to do - and we can both resume our evening's activities.
"But now there's been a change of plan. I'm going home after all. Just for a couple of days. I'm to meet my parents in London tonight."
Disappointing. A banal administrative formality. He'd hoped for something more unusual. He adopted a stern expression.
"And you require what? Leave of absence? Floo authorisation? Miss Granger, Professor McGonagall is your head of House. All requests of this nature should be addressed to her, not me. Now, if that is all…"
But instead of slinking away abashed, the girl stood there, blotched with embarrassment, it's true, but resolute, her hands tensed, nervously pressed flat against her thighs, damp (no doubt) with trepidation.
"I've already spoken to Professor McGonagall, Sir," she stated.
And she's palmed you off onto me? Intriguing! What can this child possibly want that calls for my Slytherin expertise?
The girl snatched a glance at her watch.
"I have to leave soon - to meet my parents. And then we're going to stay with my mother's cousin - "
"Your family arrangements are of no interest to me. If you are in a hurry, as you say, then get to the point. Or leave. Stop this shilly-shallying."
He saw the moment of decision, the intake of breath, the straightening of the shoulders, the steel of determination setting her young jaw - this one had the makings of a powerful witch…
"I've come to ask you a favour, Sir," she declared boldly.
Now we have it! That's more the intrepid stupidity I expect from these blasted Gryffindors. A favour, eh? He was incredulous. This was unprecedented.
"A favour?" He soused the word liberally in disparagement, but, to give her her due, she didn't waver. Laying down the knife and pushing aside the utensils and snake slivers, he leaned towards her across the bench, so as to crush her with the full impact of his negativity.
"A favour?" he repeated. This time she did recoil, marginally. "What sort of favour?" He was astounded by her audacity. And quite taken with it too.
"I need someone to - " she faltered, then said it all in a rush. "I need someone to look after Crookshanks for three days while I'm away."
And she stared at him with fierce little eyes, challenging him to refuse.
"Look after your animal?" he sneered. "Out of the question! What do you take me for? A game-keeper? Is this a joke? I thought you had some serious request. Get out. Don't waste my time." He dismissed her coldly.
"But, Sir - "
"Out of the question!"
"Can I just explain? Please, Sir - "
The unexpected note of entreaty made him pause.
"Very well. You may state your case. But be quick about it. Though why you would come to me with such a ludicrous request… Can't it look after itself?"
"It's a cat, isn't it? Doesn't it hunt? Catch mice? Leave it to forage."
"That's not what he's used to, Sir. And, there are things…the Dementors… It might be dangerous."
"So let someone else have the damn cat. Take it with you. Don't come crying to me."
"I would, but I can't, Sir. These friends, um, relatives of my mother - they have this new baby, Sir, and its got asthma… There's no way they can have a cat in the house."
"I see. What about neighbours? Do your parents not have next-door-neighbours who could be entrusted with the animal? I thought that sort of arrangement was common in Muggle communities."
He couldn't see the problem. It was, after all, just a cat. Why was he even bothering to listen to this prattling child and her inconsequential domestic dramas? The truth was, he didn't have anything special to do this evening. The Moccasin could wait. He had only been killing time. And there was a certain novelty in being asked for help.
"Yes, Sir. It is. They do. They would. But Crookshanks isn't like normal Muggle cats - people find him a bit too much to cope with. Muggle people, that is - not you," she added, anxiously, not wanting to undermine her cause.
"A cattery, then," he suggested. "There are Muggle institutions, are there not, to cater for eventualities such as this?"
She fidgeted, plucking at the folds of her robe and twisting them between small fingers.
"Well, yes, there are catteries… but, you see, Sir, they're already booked up for Christmas. And, besides, they won't accept Crookshanks unless he's been inoculated."
"Inoculated?" These Muggles could be more officious than the Ministry of Magic.
"Yes, Sir, against cat Flu, Feline Leukaemia, Feline…"
"Alright, Miss Granger. That will do."
"They're very strict about it, Sir."
"And, I take it, your cat has not received the requisite inoculations?"
"No, Sir. The vet's never managed to get close enough…"
The serious, worried face gazed up at him hopefully.
He'd asked too many questions, damn it. She thought he was relenting, that he was interested in the wretched cat. She was fond of it, obviously. He wasn't familiar with her animal, but he had seen her with it on occasions - he had an impression of matted orange fur and angry, unappealing eyes. He'd always assumed the creature was half Kneazle - the injections probably wouldn't have been effective anyway. This situation had gone too far.
"Miss Granger - "
"I appreciate that you have a problem. It is, however, your problem - deal with it. Why you thought I should wish to concern myself with your animal's welfare is quite beyond me. I have no intention of spending my Christmas holiday cat-sitting. Ask someone else. And, close the door quietly when you go."
She didn't go.
"I wouldn't have asked you, Sir, but - "
Merlin! She was a persistent brat! Then he understood. He was her last resort. She'd only dared to approach him because she'd run out of options. She had no choice. Her last resort? That stung.
"So you have failed to find a minder for the animal. It has obviously not occurred to you to adopt a wizarding solution to the problem," he sneered. "Why not use your magic - that is what it's for, girl. A Petrificus Totalis would be sufficient. The animal would be safe and unharmed. You could revive him on your return."
He'd anticipated a sizzle of resistance to that one, a sparky spit of retaliation, perhaps. It was always useful to know how far you could push these youngsters before discipline gave way to defiance. But her response, when it came, was a whisper.
"That's a horrible thing to say. Sir." The title was a grudging afterthought.
No tears? Thank Merlin, no tears. She wasn't going to give him that satisfaction. He kicked himself - he repeatedly underestimated how sentimental these Muggle-borns could be about their animals. Not only Muggle-borns… That 'blouse', Hagrid, could turn into a blubbering blancmange over a Blast-Ended Skrewt! Even Dumbledore was soft-boiled when it came to Fawkes.
To hide his discomfiture, he began to clear away, sorting through the snake entrails and dividing the mess into piles of skin, scales, bone and sliced segments, before sliding them neatly into their prepared containers. Somehow he had lost his enthusiasm for vivisection tonight.
She was still standing there, obstinately watching.
"Can't your friends do it?" he exclaimed in exasperation. "You do have friends? Potter? Weasley? They are your friends? They're here - I saw them."
"We're not on very good terms at the moment, Sir," she replied, sounding prim and dignified.
No, he had observed a tension between them over lunch - between her and Weasley, at least. He raised an enquiring eyebrow.
"Ron wouldn't look after Crookshanks anyway, Sir, because he thinks he's trying to eat Scabbers. That's his rat. He keeps accusing Crookshanks of attacking Scabbers!"
Injustice tolled in her voice.
"So, we eliminate Mr Weasley." And, in so doing, safeguard that scabby rat. Should he be humouring them in these childish squabbles?
"And Mr Potter? What's his excuse?" he asked scathingly.
"Hedwig. His owl. Crookshanks has already caught her by the wing once, and bitten her tail. Harry doesn't trust them together."
"The owl should be kept in the Owlery when on school premises. I shall have to have a word with - "
"Sir - " she interrupted. "Hedwig's not really the reason, Sir. I just said that because… Harry does keep her in the Owlery. But… Well, Harry's not very happy with me either, Sir."
"Do enlighten me, Miss Granger."
"It's just a precaution - but it's better to be safe, isn't it? After last time? We don't know who sent it, or anything about where it comes from. Who's to say it isn't jinxed? It seemed the right thing to do."
The girl clearly felt strongly about this. But what was she talking about?
"Harry's new Firebolt, Sir. I told Professor McGonagall after lunch that I thought it should be checked for jinxes, so she's confiscated it. And now Harry's not speaking to me."
Now the tears were there, brimming. But she banished them again. Self-righteous indignation conquered self-pity. This then, Snape saw, was the reason for the last-minute alteration to her holiday plans. Putting Potter's safety before their friendship. Staunch integrity for someone her age. The sort of 'nobility' that Dumbledore would reward with House points. She was learning the hard way - there is always a price to pay for one's principles.
"Professor McGonagall is used to dealing with cats," he suggested, more helpfully. "She should be - after all…"
Hermione shook her head.
"I've tried that, Sir. She was the first person I thought of, after Ron and Harry. But it's no good. Crookshanks won't go anywhere near her. I think he senses that her Animagus is a cat and it scares him. We tried everything to calm him down, but it was hopeless."
Indeed. Cross off Professor McGonagall.
"I would have asked Professor Lupin," Hermione went on, "but at lunch Professor Dumbledore said he wasn't feeling well, so I'd better not disturb him."
"No, better not. It would be inadvisable," Snape agreed quickly. Cross off Lupin. He was mentally going round the Christmas lunch table, checking those present. The most obvious candidate to care for an animal hadn't been at lunch today, but -
"I presume you have already approached Hagrid?"
"I didn't like to, Sir. I can't - he's so upset about Buckbeak at the moment. I really can't expect him to do anything extra. It wouldn't be fair…"
Cross off Hagrid.
"Professor Sprout is staying at Hogwarts this holiday. Does she also have an excuse?" His voice was acquiring a jaundiced tinge.
Hermione nodded and shrugged at the same time.
"I did ask. But she said, 'If that disgusting cat comes anywhere near my seed beds, digging them up and 'doing his business', I'll cut off his tail and feed it to the Mandrakes.'"
She quoted as accurately as she could, still bristling at the memory.
Cross off Pomona Sprout.
"Professor Flitwick?" Snape was beginning to get the picture. The girl's head was shaking before he'd even said the name.
"Sorry, Sir. He told me that he had 'nothing against cats in general' and he was sure that Crookshanks was a 'splendid specimen of feline felicity' but that since he had suddenly been 'landed with the unexpected extra work of stripping down Harry's Firebolt, he didn't feel able to take on any further responsibilities at this time'…"
"Responsibilities? What does he think he has to do for the animal – become its Godparent? It is merely a question of feeding it and keeping it locked up! Isn't it?" He was amazed to find himself defending the child. Cross off Filius.
"There were three other students at lunch, Miss Granger."
"I know, but Derek and Clarence are first years - I don't really know them. And, Svengal… well, he's… sorry Sir, but he's a Slytherin!"
"And so, by definition, a cat-killer?" Snape spat the retort, resenting the implied slight to his House. These Gryffindors were always so smug in their assumption of moral superiority!
The hope in her eyes had been extinguished by miserable resignation.
"I shouldn't have troubled you, Sir. I'm sorry. I'll go now."
He watched her retracing her steps back down the classroom, noting how proudly she hid her dejection. She'd handled that well. He let her get as far as the door, then he called after her.
"What about Mr Filch? I am aware that he is unpopular amongst the students, but he is reliable. He might, I dare say, be persuaded to oblige - if I had a word with him."
Turning, she smiled sadly.
"Thank you, Sir. Only, it wouldn't work. Crookshanks always fights with Mrs Norris. Filch hates him."
"That cat of yours is more trouble than he's worth! I find it hard to believe that there is not a single animal lover in the castle who is prepared to take him on." Animal lover? He looked at her shrewdly. "I don't suppose you've tried Professor Dumbledore?" The chain of command didn't work that way. It would be insolent of her to approach the Headmaster if she had not first exhausted all other avenues. Yet Dumbledore would never refuse a student in distress.
The wavy brown curls were shaking again.
"It's because of Fawkes, you see…"
"Fawkes? I hate to disillusion you, Miss Granger, but your mangy cat couldn't take on Fawkes if his life depended on it. That Phoenix is perfectly capable of taking care of himself… Ah. It's not Fawkes you're worried about, is it?"
"Professor Dumbledore thought it would be better not to tempt fate. It's the feathers… Crookshanks goes mad for feathers… He can't help himself. It would be bound to end in tears."
And not Phoenix tears. So, cross off Filch, cross off Albus. Don't tempt fate? Why hadn't he thought of her before? What an ideal way to repay her for the unique experience of two hours of her uninterrupted company…
"Professor Trelawney!" he announced triumphantly. "She will inevitably be enamoured of cats - her sort always are. Yet she does not, to my knowledge, possess one of her own. Problem solved, Miss Granger. Or have you already spoken to her?" He felt quite pleased with himself. Scrooge congratulating himself on his act of Christmas charity. He was, therefore, totally unprepared for the look of withering contempt on Hermione's face.
"What's the matter now, girl? Moon in the wrong phase for taking on new challenges? Waiting for a sign before embarking on anthropological enterprises? Will a cat scare away that 'Grim' she keeps seeing in her tea-leaves? There's nothing particularly ominous about an orange - Ginger? - alright, about a Ginger cat… So, what's the problem?"
"No, it's not that, Sir but… But, honestly, Sir, would you entrust Professor Trelawney with anything important? Would you, Sir?"
"Show respect when you are referring to members of staff, or I shall deduct House points for impertinence."
Fine. Cross off - reluctantly - Trelawney. And that leaves…
"And what, precisely, would these cat-sitting duties entail, Miss Granger?"
Dawning comprehension and then gratitude beamed in her face.
"You mean you'll do it? Oh, thank you, Sir! I'll just fetch him… he's in his basket. I've got his things here…"
Retrieved from the corridor, the subject of all their deliberations glowered at Snape through the wire mesh and uttered a low, threatening growl. Hermione happily ran through a list of care instructions, scarcely believing her luck, chatty in her relief, her new-found alliance.
"So, you see," she concluded, "he won't be any trouble. Thank you so much, Sir. I'd better go - my parents will be waiting for me. This is so good of you! Happy Christmas, Sir."
Snape waited until the door of the dungeon clanged shut. Then he walked purposefully to the cupboard, extracted a small bottle and removed the stopper. He undid the straps that fastened the wicker door of the travelling basket. Seizing Crookshanks by the scruff of the neck he held him at arm's length. With his other hand, adroitly avoiding the swiping claws, he prised open the jaws and tipped several drops of cinnamon coloured Sleeping Draught down the cat's throat.
He dropped the limp, ginger body back into the basket.
"No, no trouble at all," he murmured.
End of story.