Disclaimer: I do not own the universe of Harry Potter. All recognisable characters, settings etc. belong to J.K. Rowling. This disclaimer applies to all future chapters and I do not feel the need to repeat it every time.
Warning: if you find any mistakes, blame them on the fact that I study English as a foreign language.
Chapter 1 – The Plan
"I really think we should check on him, Albus."
"He's perfectly fine. There are plenty of spells to alert me the moment something goes wrong. However, if you insist, I'll contact Mrs. Figg and see what she knows."
"He may be physically fine, but―"
"Stop worrying, Minerva. It was for his own safety."
She huffed. What she had meant to say was: 'but is he happy?'. Somehow, she had her doubts about that. She'd let him leave the toddler on the doorstep of Number 4, Privet Drive that fateful night six years before, mostly because she had the nerve to say no to anyone but a certain Albus Dumbledore, but still, blood wards or no, she couldn't bring herself to shake off the feeling that it had been a very bad idea. Sure, Mrs. Figg was there to report on Harry Potter's well-being on a regular basis, but Minerva couldn't help but think it wasn't enough, just like she thought a letter couldn't be enough to make the Dursleys understand the true importance of raising such a special child. He was seven by now, and that was a potentially difficult age for a young wizard, as his first outbursts of accidental magic were supposed to start happening around that time, if not much earlier. A family of Muggles was hardly the best environment for him to learn to accept and cherish his powers. Arabella meant well and was doing her very best, but what they truly needed was a good overview of his daily routine, not her occasional tidbits of information, and a mere neighbour couldn't possibly know every single detail of his life. She would have to move in with them for a better picture, and quite frankly, the mental image was laughable. Wait a minute...
It was as though someone had forcefully stuck a wand into her brain and cast Lumos. An idea began to form, but she thought it wiser to focus on something else and file it away for later, lest Albus stop her for whatever Machiavellian reason he had in that dangerously bright mind of his. With a skilled Legilimens in the room, there was no such thing as privacy.
"Very well. If you say so, then I believe this conversation is over. Good night, Headmaster."
"Good night to you too." If he had been the least bit surprised by her sudden hurry or the formality of her words, he didn't show it.
Minerva walked out of the office, briskly but not quite at a run, and allowed herself to begin sketching out more details of her daring plan only when the stone gargoyle was out of sight. It had all the markings of her usual style, for lack of a better term: it required a pinch of Ravenclaw cleverness, but – true to her Gryffindor soul – it was reckless and more than a bit insane, the kind of plan in which so many things could go wrong that she didn't even want to start counting them.
'Research', she'd called it. The excuse she'd given everyone she knew for disappearing for almost an entire summer, with the promise to be back in time to resume teaching the next year, was research. She'd let them believe it was about some obscure point in the theory of Transfiguration that she wanted to study in depth, but it was an entirely different sort of research, one that involved an undercover operation worthy of Severus's best days as a spy, only hopefully less dangerous. Mrs. Figg's fireplace was connected to the Floo Network in case of emergency, thank Merlin, so she simply dropped a handful of powder, stated the address and braced herself for the whirl of emerald flames and sneak peeks into unknown rooms.
Her arrival caused a great deal of surprised meowing, at which she couldn't help but smile slightly. The impressive population of cats residing in that house was actually what had given her inspiration in the first place.
"What's wrong, kitties?" she heard Mrs. Figg call from another room. "Oh, they're cute and all, but they're going to drive me mad someday, making such a racket for noth―Merlin's beard! Professor McGonagall!"
"I'm truly sorry for dropping by unannounced, Arabella, but I'm on a very important... errand," she explained quickly, stepping out of the fireplace and dusting herself off. She'd almost said 'mission'.
"Here, of all places? It wouldn't happen to have anything to do with young Harry, would it?"
"As a matter of fact, it has everything to do with him."
"Oh, dear. But... but... the boy is fine, I can assure you! And such a sweetheart, too, nothing like that fat lump of a cousin of his."
"The rest of his family is exactly what I'm worried about."
"I admit they can be rather unpleasant, but was it really necessary to come all the way here?"
Minerva gave a small, mirthless laugh. "Dumbledore doesn't believe so, but for once I strongly disagree. Now, before I go, I must ask you for something that may be vital to the success of my plan."
"Anything to be of service, Professor, but... what could I possibly do to help you?"
"Don't tell anyone. The Headmaster, above all, mustn't be informed of my little visit, but for good measure, please don't breathe a word of this to anyone, even if you trust them completely."
"Oh. Are you entirely sure?"
"Yes, Arabella, I am, and I'm aware that you probably don't like the sound of this, but if you won't do it as our agent, then do it as a personal favour to someone I hope you can call a friend. I know you can keep a secret, so keep this one as well. Please."
Something in her tone of voice must have done the trick, because the only answer Mrs. Figg could muster was: "My lips are sealed, Professor."
"Very well. I'll go have a look at the Dursleys with my own eyes, then."
She made a start for the door, but Mrs. Figg cleared her throat, stopping her in her tracks. "No offense, Professor, but you're rather... noticeable. The neighbours will think they're seeing things if they spot an unknown woman in a witch's robes coming out of the house, especially since nobody has noticed her going in."
"But they won't think so if you let a cat out to stretch its paws, will they? You're a known cat lady, who's keeping track of how many you have or what they look like?"
Without adding another word, she swiftly transformed into the tabby that was second nature to her, strolled leisurely to the door with the regal attitude only a cat could have and meowed once, in an almost annoyed tone, as if to say: 'A little help here, please? You see, the real downside to being able to turn into a cat at will is the loss of my opposable thumbs.' As the resident expert in all things feline, she seemed to realise what the problem was and opened the door just a crack, so that the rest of the furry colony wouldn't notice the unhoped-for gateway to freedom.
When she looked at it with the eyes of a cat, the world outside had a lot of greens and blues, with the occasional splash of red here and there. She had been a little put out by the sudden narrowing of the spectrum the first few times, but she was long used to it now: her senses were under every aspect those of what Muggle scientists would call Felis silvestris catus, but her mind remained as sharp as ever. Assuming her other form most certainly didn't deprive her of her ability to read, so she sprinted through Mrs. Figg's garden and across the street and made quick work of looking up at the shiny brass numbers until she found a large 4.
She sat on the very same wall she had been on the first time around and simply stared at the front door, waiting for any sign of life. Her mission was beginning much in the same way as before, but she intended to take it to the next level: her aim was not to keep constant watch on the house, but on its inhabitants, by being taken in as a pet. It was odd, especially seeing as she hated to be mistaken for a common cat, but it was the only way to have a closer look at the everyday life in Privet Drive.
Just as she was beginning to think that none of them had any intention of braving the heat for the day, someone came outside. No, wait―a small correction was in order. This someone obviously answered to the name of Harry Potter. A stinging sensation in her eyes warned her that she was just about to find out whether or not cats could have the very human reaction of being moved to tears. There he was, finally. It couldn't possibly be anyone else: he held no resemblance at all to his other relatives and was instead a younger carbon copy of James, with round glasses, knobbly knees and a proverbially unruly shock of black hair all marking him as his father's son. She had little experience with children under the age of eleven, but her first impression of Harry was that of a very small boy for his age – hadn't she known his exact birthdate, she would have pegged him as younger than he was. Ah, well, he had all the time in the world to catch up. If she wasn't very much mistaken, James's major growth spurts had occurred late, too.
She watched as he industriously set out to work on the once luxuriant flowerbeds that were now suffering from the first great heat wave of the season. His shirt was soon drenched in sweat, but he kept stoically focused on his task for a little while longer before cautiously looking around and finally allowing himself a much-deserved break. Mrs. Figg had apparently been right in saying Harry was a sweetheart: it was admirable for such a young boy to volunteer to take such a burden on his own shoulders. Hot as it was outside, gardening was probably the least wanted chore at the moment.
Minerva took her chance: now that he wasn't busy with anything else, she could make her first attempt to approach him, and perhaps, if she managed to look either pretty or needy enough, he would scoop her up and go back inside begging them to let him keep her. Admittedly, it would be a very cute scene to watch. She walked up to him and made her presence known by meowing discreetly.
"Hey, Mr. Kitty-Cat," he acknowledged her. She cringed internally at the 'Mr.', but kept staring at him the way only cats could. From this distance, she saw something that made her heart flutter for a second: the resemblance to James was indeed remarkable, but it wasn't complete. His eyes were exactly the same startling shade of green as Lily's. Minerva sent her mental thanks to Merlin for being able to see that colour clearly in cat form, otherwise she might not have noticed. Speaking of his eyes, she also noted that his glasses were clumsily held together with a liberal amount of sellotape. That struck her as an odd detail she would definitely have to look into later. Perhaps he'd taken a bad fall that had broken them and had resorted to it as a temporary means to see where he was going while he waited for the chance to get them repaired or replaced. But it was neither the time nor the place for suppositions: she was on a mission, one that started with the very simple act of rubbing against his legs praying it was sweet enough to make him want her as an animal companion.
"Hey, that tickles!" For the sake of the strict mask she usually wore, she would never admit it, but eliciting a tiny laugh from him warmed her heart. "Aww, you're very cute, you know that?" He reached down to pat her head, his eyes alight with the joy of the surprise encounter, but just then another thought wiped the smile off his face. "But you really should go away. Aunt Petunia doesn't like animals at all, she always says they're dirty. Maybe Mrs. Figg will keep you, but I don't think I can make it to her house and back before they get mad at me. I'm fast, you see, but not that fast." Had she been human, she would have laughed at the chatter that was flowing freely from the child's mouth, but it was to be expected, after all: sometimes they were the most open when they thought their very quiet listener couldn't understand them. What he'd said didn't bode well for her at all, though: while Petunia's dislike for animals made her reasonably sure the Dursleys didn't have any other pets that might have been an argument against her becoming a part of the household, it also made her task of being accepted more than a little harder. And why was Harry so worried about his relatives getting angry at him anyway? From what she had seen six years before, his aunt didn't have a very firm hand when it came to discipline, but seemed to cave to her son's every desire. Had she been an extremely strict parent, his worries would have been more justified, but what was there to fear from a woman who let a one-year-old kick her and scream at her for sweets? Perhaps it was her husband, instead, who usually meted out the punishments that appeared to scare him so much: she would just have to wait and see.
"Well, I'd better finish. Uncle Vernon's already in a foul mood as it is," he sighed, getting back to work. Minerva sat and watched, hardly twitching her tail, as he expertly removed the weeds one by one and distributed much-needed water to all of Petunia's plants (at least, she assumed they were hers judging by the reoccurring tradition of giving all the girls in the family flower-inspired names). Her feline mouth curled into a much too human smile: Professor Sprout would have been proud. Being used even to the simplest gardening tasks could be a huge help in Herbology: she'd seen plenty of pampered little princes who, having been raised as wizards, knew all the theory by heart but screamed in disgust at the sole thought of getting a bit dirty. Harry sure didn't have a problem with that: he ignored the mixture of sweat and soil and simply worked on to the best of his ability until he deemed his job done. There was definitely some Hufflepuff in him, though the stalking operation (Merlin, it sounded horrible when she put it like that) would have to go on to see if any other House traits emerged.
He made to walk back into the house, but not before shooting her a glance. "Still here, huh?"
He shrugged and went inside (or rather attempted to), only to be welcomed by a shrill warning: "If you dare bring those filthy shoes inside, you'll regret it, boy!" It seemed Petunia really did have a few issues with what she believed Muggles called germophobia. Harry sighed almost inaudibly and bent down to unlace his shoes, thus leaving the door open a little longer than strictly necessary: it was now or never. Minerva sprinted as fast as her paws would let her, slinking in before anyone could do anything to stop her. The woman's surprised shriek meant nothing to her: she'd conquered her goal and nothing would remove her now. She'd come back even if they kicked her out by force. Victory!
What happened next appalled her: Petunia grabbed Harry by his ear and pulled him inside, all the while spouting venom: "So now you're bringing in animals too? That thing could be infected! What do you think you're doing, letting such filthy beasts in at your leisure as if you owned the place? Now, listen here, boy: you dirty it, you clean it!"
"So what else is new?" said Harry defiantly, trying not too successfully to loosen her grip on his poor ear.
"What?" Her voice was getting dangerously loud. "Repeat that, if you've got the nerve!" Thankfully for him, she had to let go because her hands were suddenly busy gesticulating in anger. Harry surreptitiously rubbed the offended part.
"I-I meant that I'm supposed to do all the cleaning anyway, cat or no cat. And besides, it came of its own accord. It wasn't my idea to let it in."
"Well, it wouldn't have happened if you had the sense to keep that blasted door closed!"
"I was just―"
"Not a word, boy! The cat has to go."
"Sorry, Mr. Kitty-Cat," said Harry as he tried only half-heartedly to grab her with the obvious intention of taking her back outside. With a mental It's I who should be sorry, Minerva dug her claws into his arms the moment he touched her and managed to squirm away.
"Ow! What was that for?" He quickly checked the scratches to see if he was bleeding. The marks were an angry shade of red and looked like they hurt, but he shrugged it off and tried again, only to see her escape his grip at the last second and hide in a corner. What he'd said before was true: the boy was very fast. Not fast enough for a cat, though.
"So now you're talking to it too?"
"Why not? Mrs. Figg talks to her cats all the time."
"Maybe so, but she's... she's... not at all like us. Now catch that thing, for Heaven's sake!"
"It's a cat, not a thing. And it looks like it wants to stay."
"Do as I say!"
"I'm trying, Aunt Petunia! Isn't that good enough for you?"
"Well, try harder! I want it out of my sight this instant!"
Harry sighed and walked very slowly to the corner where Minerva was still cowering, his empty hands in plain sight. "Please, I won't hurt you. I just really need to take you outside."
She weighed her options: stay and watch despite all of Harry's efforts, at the risk of earning him a severe punishment, or spare him whatever was to come for his so-called disobedience at the cost of postponing her mission a little? With the feline equivalent of a defeated shrug, she hopped voluntarily into his now outstretched arms and allowed him to carry her back into the garden and close the door behind her. She would try again, that was for sure; in the meantime, she had a lot of new information to ponder about, and none of it was good.