Disclaimer: I don't own any Harry Potter characters, nor anything else related to them. You can sue me, of course. That is, if you really want a handful of dimes and some really old jellybeans . . .

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"If cats could talk, they wouldn't." ~ Nan Porter

Snape wasn't happy. Granted, this was not a new thing. Perhaps it would be better to say that he was in more of a foul mood than he normally was. It was a new year. That alone normally put him in a foul mood. In his opinion, there was nothing worse in a school than having students. Especially today's students. Fools, most of them, in his opinon, thinking they could get by on the miniscule amount of work they did, or luck, or the family name. Every once in a while you ran into a good one, but they were often overwhelmed by the flood of idiots. Merlin's Bones! He snorted.

Really, though, where else could they go? said a slightly less jaded corner of his brain. Which, he had to admit was true. Far too many of the students were orphaned, left alone to fend for themselves in a world that was quickly becoming far too dangerous. They had to know, and they had to be strong. Unfortunately, one never knew if one was giving a potential Death Eater the knowledge that would kill even more. Not all Death Eaters came from Slytherin. No, there were always those who, disenchanted with their lives, sought more power. Absently, he wondered if any of his former teachers had known what they were creating.

However, risk or no risk, it was the job of the Hogwarts staff to accept any who had the talent for magic. To turn one away was unthinkable. The Headmaster considered it almost a sacred duty. The children would come, and keep coming, no matter what they may eventually be.

But if as if the seven years that the children spent here weren't enough, for some reason, Dumbledore had gotten it into his head that Hogwarts was going to start accepting young wizards who had graduated from their schools and wanted to continue studying for a time before moving out into the real world. Something like the wizarding version of the Muggle colleges. Considering how the real world was nowadays, he did agree with that idea. It was better than releasing a barely-trained bunch of seventeen-year-old wizards to fight in the upcoming war. But why did they have to come here?

The first; and, thankfully, only student this year was coming today. Unfortunately, Dumbledore said she was interested in potions. Which of course meant she would be his student. And he most empathetically did not want some little child hanging around his dungeon. He had let Dumbledore know this, but the headmaster was firm. He recalled arguing with Dumbledore earlier that morning . . . .

"Now Severus, this will be no different than having a seventh-year doing some independent research. She's only about seventeen." Dumbledore said soothingly. "She's been taught well, and she's a very polite young lady."

"Taught well where?" Snape asked, annoyed. After hearing the news, he stormed into the headmaster's office, demanding an explanation as to why he needed to reteach a girl who apparently just hadn't listened the first time. Even after he had gone through her records and seen that she had passed all the requisite O.W.L's and N.E.W.T.'s, he remained annoyed. If anything, it made him more upset because he could find no reason not to allow her in his classroom. His mood was not improved when he was informed that she wasn't one of his previous students. The last thing he needed was a prissy Beaubatons student or one of Karkaroff's brood about. "Not at Hogwarts. And I don't trust anyone from the other schools. I only trust half the students from this school! How do you know she's not from You-Know-Who?"

Dumbledore adjusted his glasses and leaned back in his chair. "She was orphaned at a young age by dark wizards."

"Oh goody. So was Potter. And look how famously we get along."

"She's been with the Aurors since then. They didn't think she would fit in well with other children after what she'd been through."

"Even better. A socially dysfunctional Auror-in-training who probably has instructions to drag me to Azkaban if I so much as move a toe out of line." He buried his head in his hands. "Now all I need is to hear that they've suddenly discovered Harry Potter's long-lost twin."

"Severus." Snape stiffened. He knew that tone of voice, and none of the staff dared to argue with the headmaster when he used it. He lifted his head to see Dumbledore regarding him solemnly over the tops of his glasses. "She is coming here. It is the best thing for her. The world of the Aurors is based on suspicion, and for her-" He paused for an instant, looking thoughtful. "She needs to be here. End of story. And if you need any more proof, I trust her."

And that had been the end of it. He could hardly argue with that anyway. After all, he was here only because of Dumbledore's trust in him. Snape played idly with the hem of his sleeve, his dark mood almost visibly hanging around him. When the first years came in, he nearly sent them into crying fits by glowering at them more than usual. He barely paid attention do the Sorting Ceremony, and glared furiously at the empty chair between him and Dumbledore. The roof could have fallen in on him at that point without him noticing, sunk in his black mood as he was. He worked himself up enough that the coming student could have been absolutely perfect and he still would have resented their intrusion.

If Snape hadn't known any better, he would have thought that this was Dumbledore's subtle way at getting back at the Ministry for inflicting Dolores Umbridge upon them. That infernal woman was sitting on the headmasters other side, looking at the Great Hall with an expression best described as conniving. Defense Against Dark Arts teacher indeed! Fudge was basically declaring Hogwarts a police state by sending a Ministry official here. But, ha ha, they still want to come. One of your little Auror wards wants to come, despite the fact that Dumbledore's here. So there. Nyah.

Snape almost cracked a smile at the picture of the Headmaster saying that to Fudge.

Suddenly, there was a gentle tapping at the doors of the Great Hall. Smiling slightly, Dumbledore stood, cleared his throat, and called, "Come in!"

With a creak, the great door swung open, revealing a black-cloaked figure. Silently, it moved into the room, shying away from the students who were trying to catch a glimpse of a face under the dark hood. The figure stopped in front of Dumbledore who grinned again as he said, "Welcome to Hogwarts, my dear."

A pair of white hands disengaged themselves from the folds of the cloak, and, shaking slightly, threw back the hood. A rather pale, nervous-looking girl peeked out past a few strands of black hair that had come loose from a braided bun at the base of her skull. She glanced around the room, not daring to make eye contact with anyone. The girl made her way over to the empty chair between Snape and Dumbledore, looking more frightened with each step.

Oh, for Merlin's sake! thought Snape scornfully. If you didn't want to be the center of attention, why did you arrive so late?

As she sat down, Dumbledore explained to the students what she would be doing at Hogwarts. Out of the corner of his eye, Snape saw the Granger girl grinning like a fool. Oh yes, she would be happy at the prospect of being able to hang around for a few more years. He yanked his attention back as Dumbledore turned to the girl and said, "Perhaps you could introduce yourself, my dear?"

The girl seemed to grow even paler, if that were possible, but slowly stood and began to speak. "G-good evening, everyone. My name is Kerri Harper. Um . .since I'm as much of a student as the rest of you, I hope you will help me during my time here?" As her last few words came out almost pleading, Snape snorted. Kerri flushed and sat down quickly. "T-thank you . ." she whispered, staring at her hands as they clenched the table. Her eyes remained glued to the table all throughout the remainder of the meal, save for the few times she spoke to Dumbledore.

Once the banquet was over, and the students had filed off to their respective houses, Dumbledore lead the new student over to Snape. "Miss Harper, this is Professor Snape, the potions master at Hogwarts. You'll be doing the majority of your studies with him. I understand you are interested in potions, yes?"

"Yes sir." her answer was barely even a whisper this time. She stared at Snape with huge eyes.

Snape glared back. "Miss Harper," he said curtly, "Speak. Up."

Kerri bit her lip and said, only slightly more clearly, "Yes, Professor. I am."

"Good, good," Dumbledore said heartily, ignoring Snape's annoyed growl, "Professor Snape and I will take you to your room now. Since you aren't really in any of the houses, we had to find you a room somewhere else." As he spoke, he began walking out of the Great Hall, Kerri obediently following at his heels. Snape rolled his eyes and brought up the rear, just catching the end of the one-sided conversation. " . . find it comfortable. The house-elves already brought your luggage there." The girl nodded, while Dumbledore warned her about such dangers/annoyances/surprises as the changing hallways, and Peeves, and the ghosts.

"I-I don't really mind ghosts," Kerri spoke up suddenly. "There were a few back home . . . ." She trailed off and stared at her feet again, refusing to speak for the rest of the walk.

Dumbledore turned down a hallway a short distance from the dungeon door. He pointed at the door at the end. "There's your room, my dear." As she hesitated, he gave her a gentle nudge, "Go on. It's not locked." Slowly, she walked up to the door and pulled it open. Over her shoulder, Snape saw a cheerily lit room with the usual four-poster bed and wardrobe. A few pieces of luggage lay on the bed, along with an enormous, fluffy cat. It greeted the girl with a throaty yowl, and several other noses poked out from under various surfaces.

After a quick count, Snape pulled Dumbledore aside. "What in blazes happened to the 'one pet only' rule?" He whispered fiercely. "This girl has enough cats to supply a small pet store!"

"She has no place to keep them other than here." Dumbledore answered quietly. "Everything she owns is at Hogwarts. Besides," He gestured at the girl, "They're her family."

Snape rolled his eyes again, but had to admit that Dumbledore had a point. The girl finally looked like she was starting to relax as she greeted all of her cats. Besides the huge tabby on the bed, there was a calico emerging from under the wardrobe, a glossy black one on the bedside table, a gray one wrapping itself around her ankles, and a tiny bluish ball of fuzz that made a flying leap from on top of the wardrobe to her shoulder. He would bet his wand that there were more, too shy to come out.

Dumbledore cleared his throat, and was immediately regarded by six pairs of eyes. "Your studies start tomorrow, so try to get a good night's rest. Come to my office in the morning before breakfast, and I'll show you about the grounds. Do you have any questions before you turn in?"

The girl stared at the ground for a minute, and then asked hesitantly, "Um . . Is it alright if Willow, um . . " Here she pointed at the tiny cat on her shoulder, "If Willow comes to my studies with me, sir? He hates to be away from me." She bit her lip again and blurted, "I promise that he'll be no trouble! He's very quiet, and doesn't shed, and I . . I . .er . .feel safer when he's around . . ."

Dumbledore held up his hand. "It's perfectly alright with me, as long as he doesn't disturb the other students. But you should really be asking Professor Snape. He is the one you will be studying under."

Kerri looked as if she would faint at the very idea, but she turned to Snape and stuttered, "P-professor, may I have permission to bring Willow to my studies?"

Now, normally Snape would have shot such a idiotic request down in flames without a second thought, but Dumbledore has already given his permission, and Snape never had been one for kicking puppies unless they deserved it. Or kittens, as the case may be. he thought sourly. Gritting his teeth, he muttered. "I see no reason to disagree with the Headmaster. But he is to stay away from my potions, understood?The first hint that he is going to be underfoot or a distraction to the students, and both he and you are out of my classroom, is that clear?" Kerri nodded furiously. Gods, she really does look like a kicked kitten. . .

"Thank you very much, sir." She dropped a curtsy, to Snape's surprise, without even dislodging the fuzz ball on her shoulder. Dumbledore smiled, wished her a good evening, and left. Snape nodded curtly at her, and followed. As they walked around the corner, Dumbledore sighed. "Severus, please try to make her feel a little more welcome? Can't you see the poor thing is absolutely terrified?"

Snape glanced over his shoulder at the receding hallway and scowled. "Albus, you know me too well for that."

"Hmmph." Snape looked quickly up at the older man and could have sworn he saw the tail end of a smile, but he decided not to ask.

***

Kerri dropped down onto the bed. "Well. That went well." She groaned as she flung her cloak into the corner. "What am I going to do, Willow?" She leant back on the pillows and buried her head in her hands. "I'm scared . . ." Rolling over, she looked at Willow and the big tabby, now snuggled together, and sighed. "At least I have all of you here."

The little cat gave her a smug look, as if to say, Of course. Did you think we would let you make a fool of yourself alone?

"Little smart-aleck." She had planned to look around her new home for a bit, but the stress from the day suddenly struck her and she realized exactly how tired she was. Any exploration would have to wait until tomorrow.

As she stood up to unpack and prepare for bed, she clicked her tongue against her teeth, calling the cats. Furry shapes emerged from their hiding places and scurried up onto the bed until there were seven in all. Absentmindedly scratching a few behind the ears, she pulled on her nightgown, and hung up her other clothing. She carefully picked up her cloak, returning a few items to its numerous pockets.

About to lie down on the bed once more, she stopped, remembering something. She reached into her trunk, pulled out a tarnished picture frame. She held it for a moment, running her fingers carefully over the peeling gilt.

"I'm here at Hogwarts now, Mom and Dad," she whispered to the two in the photograph. "I-it's very different. I feel a little lost. But I-I hope I can make you proud of me here." She rubbed at her eyes, brushing away the threatening tears.

Hugging the picture to her chest, she set it carefully by her bed. Only then did she shoo a cat off her pillow while attempting to wedge her feet between the half-a-dozen furry mounds on her bed. She pulled the covers up to her chin and settled back into her pillows. "It's better than the Aurors, though . . ."she murmured before drifting off to sleep, cats already curled up and snoozing around her.

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Author's Note: Just so you all know, Kerri is in no way related to Harry. I didn't realize that their names rhymed until the fifth chapter. And there is no way I'm going back to change it. Besides, I like the name Kerri.

P.S. Please Review!!