A cat is there when you call her - if she doesn't have something better to do.- Bill Adler
"Skating? You're going skating! Have you forgotten that there is a potion to brew?"
"W-E-E-K-E-N-D, Professor. You know, a relaxing, two-day break from classes? Saturday and Sunday?"
"It's reassuring to know that you can both spell and name days of the week, but I fail to see how this applies to the topic at hand."
"Excuse me, Severus…"
"What!" Both Kerri and Snape rounded on the Headmaster who jumped a bit despite himself.
"I think that it's wonderful that Miss Harper is going with the students to Hogsmeade. Let her go out and have some fun."
"She doesn't need fun. She needs to stir a potion that she has already started brewing."
"Severus, you can't keep her cooped up in the dungeons all the time!"
Dumbledore gave him a look, and Snape sighed. "Fine, fine. But," he turned to Kerri, "if the potion is ruined because of this, you are responsible for all ingredients lost. And for Merlin's sake take this." he shoved his cloak into her hands. "You'll freeze solid out there without something, and I don't want to explain to the Aurors why I'm returning their ward to them as an ice cube."
"Thank you, Headmaster!" Kerri beamed and ran out of the teacher's lounge. The two men heard her call out, "I can come! I got permission!"
"Why, you're most welcome for the cloak, Miss Harper. No need to thank me." Snape's voice dropped to a growl. "Obviously."
"Oh, hush, Severus. She was excited. But it was very nice of you to lend her your cloak. She has a lovely smile, doesn't she?"
Snape grumbled and threw himself into one of the chairs by the fire. The Headmaster carefully seated himself in the other and pulled a bag of lemon drops from somewhere in his robes. He popped one in his mouth and began sucking happily. Snape rolled his eyes.
After a few minutes of sitting and sulking and sucking, Snape jumped back up and began pacing the room like a caged jaguar. Dumbledore watched as he stalked his way from the chair to the window and back again.
A few more minutes of pacing.
The carpet was definitely beginning to look worse for the wear.
"New Potions assistant?"
The look on Snape's face could have curdled water. For several miles. In all directions. After several moments of clenching and unclenching his fists, he growled out, "Do you have one that follows directions, doesn't talk back, and doesn't go gallivanting off just because Potter and his friends are?"
"Do you want her return to the quiet, subservient little girl she was when she came here?" Snape's face cleared somewhat, and he glanced out the window at the retreating students. Dumbledore leaned forward and continued. "You realize, she's made remarkable progress in the last few months, and most of that is thanks to you."
"What? Albus, I've done nothing-"
"No, you have. You've pushed her and made her face things that she didn't want to face before. You've started to pull her out of the prison she was creating in her own head, just by not letting her retreat to it whenever things got difficult." Dumbledore rested his chin in his hand and blew a sigh through his beard. "Now if we can just keep her out." he said softly, almost to himself.
Snape leant back against the window frame, a tall, imposing, silhouette, his face in shadow. "She changed because she found out what I really am." he chuckled bitterly. "Hate is a powerful emotion isn't it?"
"Hmm." The headmaster made a non-committal noise as he popped yet another candy into his mouth.
"You've never been skating? Ever?" Dillon goggled at her incredulously. "Never ever?"
Kerri hung her head and fidgeted with embarrassment. Despite her best effort to get Hermione, Ginny, or even one of the boys to come along with her, she'd ended up out on the pond all by herself. She'd of course lost the letter he had sent her, so she had no idea where the pond even was, and she was too terrified to ask for directions.
Once she'd gotten there and somewhat over the fact she was alone with a strange, if nice, man, it hadn't been so bad. Then she realized that she actually had no idea how to skate. "Well…when I was little, I-I never really had the chance. I-I mean, I was never anywhere near a pond, and-"
"Ah." chuckled Dillon. "A city girl, huh?"
She smiled back, relieved that she didn't have to outright lie to him. "Something like that, yes."
"Well, I'll just hafta teach you then!" he announced. "Stay right there, I think one of my sisters left her skates here when she went off to school, she's 'bout your size…" He ran off as Kerri settled down on a bench beside the pond, pulling Snape's cloak around her. As much as she hated to admit it, the familiar scent of the cloak had done much to calm her nerves today. She ran her fingers over the edge and was somewhat surprised to note that it was embroidered.
"Black thread on black wool," she muttered. "Now really, what's the point in that? I like dark colors as much as the next girl, but he takes it to the extreme."
The sound of feet crunching across snow caught her attention and she looked up to see Dillon hurrying back towards her, a pair of skates dangling from his hand. Beaming, he handed them to her.
She took them, examined them closely, and then looked back up at him. "How do I put them on?"
"You sure she'll be fine on her own?"
"I'm positive, Ron. Now do stop fretting, you sound like a mother hen." Hermione set her butterbeer down with a thud. "Last time I checked, Hufflepuffs don't bite."
"If you say so-"
"-Can't be too sure, though-"
"-Some of them can be pretty nasty." Fred tapped Susan Bones on the shoulder and asked, all innocence, "Say, do Hufflepuffs bite?"
It took fifteen minutes to charm all the butterbeer out of his sweater.
"How long are they going to be gone?" Snape muttered, still standing at the window. "If the potion is ruined because of this, I'm going to hang that girl by her thumbs!"
McGonagall glanced at him over the top of her glasses. "You know, Severus, you could just go stir it yourself."
He glared at her. "That's not the point. The point is, she started a project and now, is not around to continue it."
"You could be a little more grateful after what she did for you. If it wasn't for her, th-" Snape hissed softly between his teeth and shot an almost imperceptible glance at the open door of the lounge. McGonagall caught herself and continued smoothly, "-ose centaurs may have hurt you badly. What were you thinking, gathering ingredients near one of their stargazing spots?"
Snape rolled his eyes, half at the lie and half at the suggestion that he be grateful to Kerri. McGonagall moved closer to him and said under her breath, "I don't know how much of our conversation you overheard that day, but she blames herself for what happened to you."
He stared coldly at her for a moment then said, "Why should I care?"
Draco kicked viciously at a drift along the side of the road. That girl. That little bitch. Nearly two weeks later, and her question still infuriated him. How dare she, in front of the entire class!
Just as suddenly as it had come on, his fury was spent and he slumped against a wall, digging his hands into his pockets. What did it matter, anyway, he thought. No. It was his duty as a pure-blooded Slytherin to-to… What did it matter?
What did it all boil down to anyway? Another sleepless night for his family? Another day of bowing and scraping in front of him?
The anger boiled up again and he slammed his fist into the brick wall behind him, feeling the skin grate off his knuckles, welcoming the pain as a distraction. Hearing, even as he felt blood run down his fingers, his father's voice in his head. Control, Draco. No matter what else, never let them take your pride. Never let them see you lose control.
And she had seen him. Not in a moment of anger, oh no. The anger he didn't mind showing at all. She had seen him in a moment of weakness, which was infinitely worse. He lifted his hand to his face, licking the blood off as he reflected. He should talk to Snape. He'd spent far more time with this infuriating girl than he could ever bear to. Surely he had an insight into her, some kind of control over her.
He wondered briefly if she disconcerted Snape as much as she had him, but dismissed the thought as ridiculous. The man had more strength than any other he had met. He had no cracks to gain a foothold in, no weakness like he did. His façade was flawless, made impenetrable by years of practice. It would take far more than an unfortunate, if probing, question from a young girl for him to break. Once again, he cursed his mistake.
A noise in the alley behind him made him flatten himself against the wall. Peering around the corner, he could see a small pond beyond the other end. His lip curled as he recognized one of the figures on it. The figures in the alley, however… His eyebrows rose. He recognized them too, from distinctly different company. And he was fairly certain that they were not supposed to be here.
Moving silently back to the front of the wall, he tapped his bruised knuckles against his lips. He ought to be certain. And he knew just who to tell. There was at least one person in this world he still felt loyal to.
He walked slowly away, making a little noise as possible until he was sure he was out of earshot. Then he strode, quickly and purposefully, towards The Three Broomsticks. He needed to call someone, and fast.
"What do you suppose that nasty little ferret is up to? He went running through here like his tail was on fire."
"Ah, who cares? The important thing is-"
"-whether or not-"
"-I'll ever be able to take this sweater off. Look, I think it's permanently fused to my wrists."
"Well, it's not like you didn't ask for it."
"Eek!" Kerri let out a shriek as her legs shot out from under her for the umpteenth time. She flailed about for a moment before getting a grip on Dillon's arm. Gasping for breath, she tried to pull herself upright only to lose her balance again. Only his arm around her waist kept her from adding to the half-a-dozen bruises she already had. "And people do this for fun?" she demanded.
"Well, they're usually better a' it before they do it for fun." Kerri glanced at him suspiciously, but his face was scrupulously straight. "You're holdin' your feet too straight, it's more like this. See? One, two, one, two, one-" He skated backwards, holding her hands firmly as she wobbled along. "-and two. There, see? You're getting' it! No, no, don't look down."
"I'm g-going to break my-yeeek!" Her toe caught in the ice and pitched her forward into his arms. She could feel his chest vibrating with laughter and muttered, "I think I've got a button up my nose."
"You almost had it that time, really." He smiled at her encouragingly. "Sometimes the ice just works against you. Try again, and remember t' bend your knees. That's right. Good!"
"You really think I'm doing well?" the girl asked, tearing her nervous gaze away from her feet. "You're not just saying that?"
Dillon's smile grew wider and he whispered, "Of course I mean it." He leaned towards her. One hand came up to stroke her hair. She stiffened at the touch, but he didn't notice. Before Kerri could say or do anything, she felt his lips brush gently against hers.
She made a strangled noise and tried to jump backward, only for her feet to fly out again. She ended up buried in a snowdrift, too shocked even to whimper at the cold.
"Are you all right?" asked Dillon, crouching in front of her. When she mutely shook her head, his face creased in honest worry and he stood, running his gloved hands through his hair. "I'm sorry. That was stupid of me…stupid! I don't know what came over me. Kerri, I'm awfully sorry."
He held out a hand to help her up but she shook her head again and struggled to her feet. Ignoring his continued questions about her, she wobbled over to the bench and curled up into a damp, cold ball of misery. "I'm all right," she whispered. "I'm j-just-just-I never…I'm an idiot." She rubbed at her eyes, crying despite herself. She laughed bitterly through her tears. "I don't even know why I'm crying." Stupid! What made you think you could be normal? What made you think you'd let someone close?
Dillon, in the time-honored male tradition of having no clue what to do with a weeping female, stood helplessly in front of her. After a moment, he put two and two together. "Y'mean that was your-! Ah, no-! I though, a pretty girl like you-" He hunkered down in front of her again, peering up at her tear-stained face. "Would y'like t' slap me? I understand that's what girls do when men do somethin' stupid." She giggled wetly and he patted her hand. "If y'still want to look at me after all this, I'll take it slower from now on. I promise. We'll just be friends 'til then, okay?" Kerri nodded and he grinned, relieved.
So caught up in their own personal drama were they, Kerri and Dillon never noticed the pair in the alley.
At some point, the annoyance of letting a potion go to waste overwhelmed the desire to teach Kerri a lesson, and Snape stormed down to the dungeons to take care of it. When he finally emerged again, the sun was setting and the students were retuning from Hogsmeade. He watched them straggle in, in groups or pairs, from his vantage point above them. Most ignored or never noticed the dark figure watching them, though some sent him quick glances before turning away. Draco gave him a particularly piercing look, and Snape found himself wondering what the blond boy was thinking.
As the last few came in through the main doors and continued on to the Great Hall for dinner, a warning bell went off in his brain. His student had not been among them. He strode down the stairs and confronted Flitwick, who had been the chaperone for this weekend's trip. The little man told him, quite cheerfully, that there hadn't been any students left on the train. No, he was quite sure, He'd even checked the luggage racks after the last time.
Snape rubbed his eyes, decided not to give in and ask about "the last time", and headed to the Great Hall. If she was there, fine. If she wasn't, he could bring the matter to Dumbledore's attention and leave it to him to sort out. No use starving himself because she'd missed the train.
As he slid into his seat at the table, Dumbledore beckoned him over. "You didn't send Miss Harper down to work on that potion of yours during dinner, did you?" he asked.
"Hardly, the girl is scrawny enough without missing a few meals." Snape's lip curled as he glared at her empty chair. Damnit. He quickly explained that he hadn't seen her return with the rest of the students.
Dumbledore stroked his beard as his face creased with worry. "We'd best check this out," he finally said. "It may be nothing, and then again, she may be in grave danger. Go get Willow, Severus, and meet me in my office."
Snape stood, looking sour, and swept out of the hall. As he passed her, Umbridge smirked and whispered, "Curses, like chickens, come home to roost."