Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction based on the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. No undue claim nor any material profit is expected or intended.
Authors' note: This has absolutely nothing to do with the Time's Riddle series.
The Cat, Bagged
by Alan Sauer and Persephone_Kore
Harry Potter had ended the summer and begun his sixth year at Hogwarts with fierce and intense determination. He would do what it took -- in all areas. But just now, with duty and weariness lying heavily on him and a hissing voice in his ears, Harry was ready to give up.
He laid down his quill and raised his head, looking across the common room table at Ron and Hermione. "...I can't finish this homework."
Hermione looked shocked. "But, Harry, you have to! It's --"
"Late, and if I'm not trying to write half in my sleep, Crookshanks is saying things you'd yell at me for in Parseltongue."
"He's saying things in Parseltongue for which I'd yell at you, or he's saying things for which I'd yell in Parseltongue at you? If that's even possible. Harry, honestly, this is why Professor McGonagall marks your essays down."
"Things in Parseltongue that you'd yell at whoever said them for if it was in a language you understood," Harry replied crossly. "Hermione, honestly, and you complain about wizards not having an ounce of logic."
"I'm just saying, you have to word things more clearly." She grinned. "And I'm teasing you. I do think you need to get some sleep, though, if you think my cat's talking. Not that he isn't quite clever."
"Right, you'd think he would've said something by now if he could." Ron shook his head. "You definitely need to go to bed, mate. Just don't start dreaming about anybody else speaking Parseltongue."
"Yeah...." Harry gave Crookshanks a last incredulous look; the cat had frozen in an odd half-crouch and was staring back at him. After a few seconds of this Crookshanks stretched and ostentatiously made himself comfortable on the book Hermione had been planning to open next. "I think I'll go on up. Good night."
"Good night, Harry." Once Harry had disappeared up the stairs, Hermione turned to Ron worriedly. "You don't think--after last year--he couldn't be hearing Voldemort speaking Parseltongue and just thinking it's Crookshanks, could he? Off the book, please, nice kitty..." She absently brushed a few stray cat hairs off the cover.
"I... wouldn't count it out, if he was really half asleep." Ron frowned. "Crookshanks was hissing, though, which makes imagining it seem more likely compared to that much of a coincidence."
"Well, I suppose..." Hermione eyed the stairway to the boys' dormitory worriedly, then shook her head. "And speaking of Transfiguration essays, your grammar is even more hopeless than Harry's. Only one more year before our NEWTs, you know."
"If I somehow managed to forget," Ron assured her, "you'd remind me sometime in the next five seconds."
"Well, if I didn't you'd put off studying for them until the very last minute. I know you, Ron Weasley."
"And I know you started studying for them as soon as you finished your last OWL."
Neither of them noticed Crookshanks leap silently from the table and wander off.
Harry lay very still and stared straight upward. This was partly because the idea that Voldemort might have been hissing that furiously had occurred to him too, and he wasn't sure how advisable it would be to go to sleep. His mind was definitely not empty. This was also, however, partly because upon going to bed he had realized that he wasn't all that sleepy after all.
Which left him, of course, with the question of why he thought a cat had been cursing in Parseltongue.
The next morning, after Quidditch practice and while Hermione was in Ancient Runes, Harry managed to corner Crookshanks by the library. He scooped the cat up--Crookshanks gave a surprised yowl--and made all speed for the Room of Requirement, currently furnished with a plush pillow, an easy chair, and a selection of gourmet cat food.
Crookshanks stopped struggling for a moment to eye the array with suspicion worthy of Mad-Eye Moody.
Harry flopped into the chair, pulled the pillow into his lap, and set Crookshanks on it. Panting rather, he inspected his arms--considerably fewer scratches than he would have expected--and then concentrated with all his might on imagining that he was looking at a snake. "You can eat whatever of that you like," he said, and caught his breath when the words came out in a hiss, "but I want you to answer me."
Yellow eyes blinked at him with as much innocence as Crookshanks ever managed to muster, which wasn't much. The cat meowed at him and turned to look hopefully at the food.
"I heard you," he continued, still in Parseltongue. It seemed to get easier the longer he did it. "Last night, I heard you, so it's no use pretending."
Crookshanks hissed, but only a cat's hiss with no words in it. Then he made a sudden lunge for freedom -- Harry was only surprised he hadn't tried it before.
He waved his wand at the door, which closed and locked--and then concentrated for a moment, needing something, and a largish cat carrier thumped down next to his chair. "I'm not messing around here, all right? I heard you speaking Parseltongue and I want to know why you can, and you're not leaving until you tell me."
Crookshanks crouched down, squinting, with all his fur fluffing out. Harry glared back until he saw the outline of a cat-sized flap appearing near the bottom of the door--could a cat do that? He thought very hard about keeping Crookshanks in, and the outline blurred and fuzzed and vanished and reappeared in sections for several long, strained moments.
When it disappeared completely, Harry glanced suspiciously around the room for other escape routes -- there weren't any -- and then watched as the cat sank slowly to the floor and appeared to deflate as his fur flattened down. Harry was just considering whether Legilimency was likely to work on animals when Crookshanks hissed and he heard distinctly, "Stubborn boy. And I'm out of practice."
"I did hear you, then. How does a cat speak Parseltongue?"
"Long story. You'll be late."
"If I am, I'll find a Time-Turner."
"Sss. Not anywhere near Hermione, you won't, I had enough trouble with that three years ago. All right. Nudge over some of that food."
"She'd probably object to my dragging you in here." Harry pushed a dish full of something he suspected involved liver and bacon across the floor. "And tell you not to talk with your mouth full. As long as you talk, I don't care."
"Parseltongue's half mental anyway, so that's not much of a barrier." Crookshanks nibbled at the dish thoughtfully for a moment, then regarded Harry steadily. "How much do you know about death? What happens after?"
Harry stiffened in the act of leaning back and gripped the arm of the chair a little too hard. "Not as much as I want to," he said carefully, "but I'm not planning to investigate in person any time soon. And apparently ghosts can't say much."
"No, they exist under certain... restrictions. I don't--or, well, mine are different. But you know, at least, that in the very simplest terms one gets two choices? To go on, or to come back?"
"Nick said something like that." And that Sirius had gone on.
The cat nodded, an oddly human expression. "The choice... is a great deal more complex than that, of course. Depending on how you choose, who you were... other things... there are options. I opted for reincarnation--or perhaps it opted for me; I've never been able to decide."
Harry mashed questions about anyone else down somewhere in the back of his mind. Hermione's cat was claiming to be reincarnated, in Parseltongue; this was probably more urgent. "Reincarnation. So you were a Parselmouth in a past life? Or a snake?"
"'I have been a blue salmon,'" the cat quoted in an odd singsong chant. "'I have been a dog, a stag, a roebuck on the mountain...' Never mind. I was human when I made my choice, as you might expect. Near a thousand years ago now, as best I can tell. The calendars have all changed."
His stomach turned over, at the dog and stag; the rest -- "A thousand...." Harry felt his hair starting to stand on end; the back of his neck prickled.
Crookshanks stretched elaborately and took another nibble at the bowl of liver and bacon. "I have been meaning to thank you for releasing my Ellithen."
"Your what?" Come to think of it, the odd smells from the cat food might not be helping his stomach.
"My Ellithen--although I daresay she'd forgotten the name by the time that..." Crookshanks hissed wordlessly; a mouse popped out of thin air and had claws in its throat before it had time to do more than squeak. The cat batted it out of the way. "Thank you for ending her torment."
Harry swallowed. His imagination might be running away with him, or he might be making conclusions too quickly -- even if they felt solid enough to jump on when he'd rather not -- but then if Parseltongue was half mental (no wonder everybody keeps thinking I'm mad) perhaps the images flickering to mind weren't just his.... "Who were you?"
Crookshanks gave an amused flick of his tail. "Haven't you guessed? Perhaps you really should read 'Hogwarts: A History,' like Hermione keeps telling you to. When I was human, my mother named me Salazar. When I helped build this place, stone on stone, spell on spell, I named myself Slytherin."
"I guessed that when you said a thousand years. I wanted you to answer. ...It still doesn't make any sense!"
"Why not? Stranger things have happened, believe me. And I like being a cat; I very nearly was one anyway, when I was human."
"I thought you liked Hermione."
"I adore Hermione. She spoils me absolutely rotten, which is the way of things for cats and their caretakers. And it's a pleasure watching her learn, alhough I must admit I hoped she would do so faster about the elves."
"I thought you didn't like Muggle-borns!"
Crookshanks shut his eyes in evident exasperation. "Yes. One thousand years ago, when I was a radically different species, I distrusted the Muggleborn. Why do you assume that attitude was frozen in stone, when the very point of reincarnation is to learn? In this life, I'm a crossbred Kneazle, the closest to a Muggleborn that a cat can be; I spent my first three years unwanted in a shop, hunting rats for my dinner and the price of my shelter. What do you suppose I learned, and am learning, from that?"
Harry stared at him for a moment and then sat slowly back in his chair. "You left a basilisk," he said. "Your... Ellithen?... nearly killed her."
"She was not meant to kill students. Any students. I distrusted Muggleborns, yes. I was not an idiot, and no more was she, when I knew her. My bloodline has thinned. And I don't mean Voldemort's father."
"Then why --?"
"Why did you have her here? And why did you distrust Muggleborns?"
"I had her here because I loved her. I held her in the egg. I washed the eggshell from her scales, and heard her first words. I taught her to hunt. She was as much my child as any of the children of my body, and although the others did not always understand, they respected my decision, as I respected hers to remain when I left." Crookshanks sighed. "As for the Muggleborns... it was a different time. The Muggles seemed... like ants. Powerless, individually, but impossibly strong in their numbers. I was afraid. Better to leave them ignorant, I thought, than risk their hatred."
"Is that why it's Godric everybody says you fought with?"
"Well, and because it was. About that, at least most often. We were all fighting toward the end."
"The Sorting Hat... mentioned something about that."
"And about history repeating itself, and the need to stop it."
Harry thought this was a slightly loose interpretation. "I don't think your house is interested."
Crookshanks flicked an ear back. "Are the rest of you?"
"They were on Umbridge's side from the start, and have you heard what Malfoy says about Hermione?"
"Yes. I've pissed in his trunk any number of times, but it doesn't help." Crookshanks shook his whiskers. "Have you made any effort to see how much of that is Slytherin, and how much Malfoy? And please remember I've been here for three years, so that was mainly a rhetorical question."
"Then maybe you counted the Inquisitorial Squad."
"Ah, yes. Made of the entirety of Slytherin House, was it? Not a single firstie left out, every upper-classman accounted for, the whole dungeon rotten to the core and aching for a bit of recreational fascism?"
Harry didn't answer for a moment. He didn't know all of Slytherin House. "...I don't know."
"No, you don't. Did you think the Hat wasn't talking to you?"
He glared at the liver. "Wouldn't be the first stupid thing it said."
"It tried to put me there." Harry eyed the cat. "And I doubt you're exactly unbiased about it either!"
"Less biased than you might think. I'm not Salazar Slytherin any longer." The cat eyed him critically. "You... we would have argued about you. All four of us, to varying degrees, I think. We always did, about the promising ones."
Harry rubbed his hands over his face. "I'm not promising. I'm famous for something my mother did and I've got that bloody prophecy telling me I get to die or commit murder. And I don't care if I 'would have done well in Slytherin,' I haven't seen anything about it that would make me want to." That was probably being a little too rude to the house's Founder, he thought a bit distantly. He might scratch.
"Which is why you're in Gryffindor. Although I strongly suspect Godric would have won the argument in any case. As for promising... whatever fate has decreed for you, whatever the reasons for your fame, I remember a night when you did not kill Sirius Black, even though that was the thing you most wanted to do in all the world."
The world closed down very sharply to a pair of yellow eyes, and then Harry didn't see anything at all for several seconds. When he remembered how to breathe again, he said hoarsely, "Get out of here."
"You didn't kill him the second time, either, Harry."
"He came looking for me."
"Yes, and? He made that choice freely because he loved you. But it was his choice, not yours. His death was a tragedy--and not least because he knew just where to scratch my ears--but it was not your fault."
"I wasn't supposed to be there. And he's still gone." Harry shut his eyes; they ached, even if for once the scar didn't.
Crookshanks hopped up into Harry's lap and bumped his head into the boy's chest. "I know how that feels. Don't let it suck you under, please; you do have people who still love you."
Harry started and opened his eyes again, but he rubbed them hard first. "You --" He stopped for a moment and swallowed, and thought about that. He didn't usually put it in those terms... but.... "Yeah," he finally said roughly. Then, a little challenging, "And somebody I have to kill."
"Well, yes. But not by yourself."
"Do you know more about that prophecy than I do?"
All things considered, that wouldn't be the biggest shock of his day.
"No, but it stands to reason, doesn't it? Even if you have to deliver the final blow, as it were, that doesn't mean everyone else in the world can't take a nice hard whack at the bastard first."
"If they get the chance, maybe." It was an oddly satisfying thought, even if he still didn't like the idea that he had to kill him. Though he did think he'd rather like to tell Voldemort that the ancestor he idolized so much had suggested it. And had a thing for catnip. Though that might spoil the effect.
Crookshanks held up one paw and unsheathed a rather impressive set of claws, eyeing them contemplatively. "Note that I'm mainly suggesting this because I'd like dibs. And maybe I'll do the stereotypical pet cat thing and bring home a dead rat one of these days."
"You spent half that school year trying, didn't you. Now I wish you'd said something. ...As far as I'm concerned, if you want Voldemort, you can skin him."
"I couldn't, or else things would have gone much easier. And with less kicking. I wasn't able to manage coherent Parseltongue until last year. And thank you, I will certainly try to make the most of that offer."
"Just tell him who you are. Or were." Harry smiled grimly and watched with some surprise as his hand evidently developed a mind of its own and gave Crookshanks an automatic rub down over the ears and back of his neck. "If that doesn't freeze him in shock...."
"An excellent plan... ahhh, a little to the left please... try not to leave me behind next time if your record for end-of-year festivities continues."
"It's not always something I exactly get to plan." Harry determinedly ignored the fact that knowing Crookshanks had been Salazar Slytherin really ought to make scratching his ears as surreal as doing the same thing to, say, McGonagall in cat form and moved his hand slightly to the left. "Should be interesting to explain to Hermione though. 'By the way, your cat told me he wants a crack at Voldemort, so I think I should probably take him everywhere this June....'"
"Do we have to tell Hermione? I'm not sure how well she'd take it."
"I suppose not. She'd probably want to know if the elves are your fault."
"They aren't. Although I have to say that if this system weren't being abused, it is a lot simpler than the one I had to deal with. I will grant you I still see that many bowls of milk in my dreams, but they're much more entertaining dreams now."
"Bowls of milk?" Harry echoed, feeling he had missed a connection somewhere.
"If we wanted the elves to do our housework, we needed to put out milk for them, among other things. One bowl per elf."
"I can't quite picture Dobby.... Never mind, yes I can. You know, you actually might make the conversations about them a lot more interesting."
"That's a point in favor of letting her know about me. I'm ungodly tired of being told I'm a naughty kitty for trying to keep her from giving them well-meaning deadly insults."
"I know Dobby said they were annoyed, but...."
"It's not as if she could even free them that way either! She's not their master!" Crookshanks shook himself. "Sorry. I've been living and breathing elves for almost two years now, and for such an intellligent young woman Hermione is entirely irrational on the subject. She should listen to Ron more, much though I can't believe I'm saying that about Mr. My Shoes May Be Hand-Me-Down But They'll Still Dent Your Ribs."
"I thought he stopped that after we found out about Pettigrew. Now telling him would probably get interesting...."
"He did. I'm just bitter. That rat was so bloody obviously evil I'm amazed none of you could smell it. He very nearly had 'How's My Evil?' bumper-stickered to his tail." Crookshanks sighed and flicked his own tail. "I suppose we would have to tell him, if we're telling Hermione."
"Well, yes. Either way...." Harry glanced up at the clock that might not have been on the wall before. "My free period's almost up, and if I don't want to ask the Room for a Time-Turner I probably ought to go." He paused. "I can leave you here with the cat food if you like, of course."
"No, I think I feel like taking a nap in the sun, and I'd rather not find out how the Room would manage a window. I'll be around if you want to talk again."
"...Thanks. I might."
Crookshanks hopped down, shook himself again, then suddenly winced. "Hermione'll probably want homework help once she gets used to the idea."
"Homework help? She'll probably want to rewrite Hogwarts: A History. And I've got Binns next, I didn't need that thought."
"Nor did I; that's my nice nap down the drain. Oh well."
"I was thinking it'd help put me to sleep. I suppose we still don't have to say." Harry shook his head. "Anyway, I'd better go. ...Bye."
Crookshanks slipped past his feet as he pushed open the door.