Disclaimer: Everything Harry Potter belongs to our queen, JK Rowling!
She was surrounded by frothing potions. They were bubbling and emitting so much steam that her hair had returned to its natural frizzy state. She looked around the room, consulting the notes on her parchment as she walked past several cauldrons.
The first was bubbling too violently. It wouldn't do. The second? The color wasn't quite right. But the third...?
There was a knock on the door and she jumped, accidentally bumping one of the cauldrons, and causing the potion in it to splash dangerously close to the edge. "Merlin's pants!" she growled, steadying it hurriedly before it fell over, as a familiar voice called though the door.
"Hermione! Haven't you finished yet?"
Hermione walked to the door as she pulled back her curtain of frizzy curls and opened it a crack. She stuck her face out. Harry stared at her.
"Harry. I'm sorry, I was just finishing up a report."
Harry continued to stare at her, nonplused. Hermione sighed and pulled the door open, inviting him in with a nod of her head. He walked into the office, taking a slow look around.
"Well, this has escalated."
Hermione shrugged as she shut the door behind Harry and walked to each of the cauldrons, covering them up for the night.
"What time is it?" she asked.
"It's almost 7:30. Molly has sent me two owls already, promising that if we're not back by eight, they will start the back to school dinner without us."
"How odd. I haven't had any."
"She must think you're more responsible than me," Harry said with a slight laugh. "If only she knew what you were doing... instead of your job, I mean."
"This is very important, Harry!" Hermione said, scandalized. "This is absolutely part of my job. I need to know the components of this potion. If what I think is true, we need to regulate it. We can't have another situation where-"
"Hermione, you're Minister for Magic!" Harry said, exasperated but slightly amused. "Leave the experiments to the Potions lab. Surely you have more important things to focus on?"
"Just a little side project in my spare time." Hermione shrugged as she walked around the room, covering up the rest of the cauldrons, and grabbing a few things from around the office. "The Potions lab hasn't figured it out. They said it's impossible, in fact. That it must have been done some other way. But I'm certain this is it. Besides, I've finished everything else.
"In fact, here you are. I suppose you weren't expecting these until mid next week?"
She pushed a stack of parchments she had taken off her desk at Harry and grabbed her cloak. The parchments were a little damp from the potion steam but otherwise they didn't look worse for wear. Harry shuffled through them, surprised.
"That seems to be in order. I'm impressed as always. "
"Of course you are." Hermione smiled as she pushed Harry out the door. "Now come on. Let's go see off those kids, shall we?"
The Burrow was stretched to bursting as usual. After helping themselves to several servings of Molly's delicious cooking, everyone was too full to move. Hermione, Harry, Ginny, and Ron sat in the garden with James, Albus, Rose, Lily, and Hugo. Lily and Hugo, who were starting Hogwarts the following day, were full of excitement.
"And is it true that we can start transfiguring toothpicks to needles right away?" Hugo asked.
"And what about the Owlery? Can I visit at any time?" Lily asked before anyone could respond to Hugo.
"Yes. And yes." Hermione smiled at the children while Ron, Harry, and Ginny all laughed.
"And Potions?" Lily asked. "When will I start Potions?"
"I wonder every day where you got your interest for Potions, Lils." Harry smiled. "Certainly can't have been from me."
"Hermione, perhaps our babies were switched at St. Mungo's?" Ginny winked. "Oh my gosh, Lily, I'm only joking," she added, as Lily glared at her.
"Of course you are, Mum." The eleven year old rolled her eyes.
"Anyway, Lily, that will depend on your schedule," Hermione said, ignoring Ginny. "You'll find out the day after tomorrow. I hope you're all packed, by the way? Hugo? Rose?"
Hugo and Rose nodded, but Ron wasn't prepared to let the subject drop. "Hermione, you're still quite the potion brewer, aren't you?"
Hermione gave him a warning glance. "I dabble. You know."
"Harry says your office is still full of cauldrons." Ron said, plowing straight ahead. "Still doing all the work of the Potions lab, aren't you?
"Your mum might as well be the whole Ministry," he added, turning to Hugo and Rose. "Honestly, she does everything. "
"Just overseeing all the departments," Hermione said, torn between annoyance that Ron was bringing up her side project and pleasure at the compliment. Ron really had a way with her. "Oversight, you know."
"Are you brewing potions at work, Aunt Hermione?" Albus asked curiously. "Which potions are they?"
"It's nothing very exciting, Albus," Hermione said, trying to steer the conversation elsewhere. "Really, I'm just working on the overflow. Donating my office space, that sort of thing. It's very busy at work these days. "
Ron smiled sheepishly. Hermione was a terrible liar.
"Our Hermione was always a potions whiz," he said, turning back to the kids. "After all, in our second year she brewed a Polyjuice Potion from scratch."
Hermione rolled her eyes as Harry muttered, "Here we go again..."
"We've heard this story a million times, Dad!" Hugo said, while everyone else groaned.
"What, even how she snuck into Snape's back room to steal the horn?"
"Yes, duh," said Rose.
"And how Harry made the Swelling Solution explode to cover it up?"
"Yesss," said Lily.
"And the part where she accidentally turned herself into a cat?"
"Yes, yes, we heard it all!" James said. "Way to go, aunt Hermione."
Everyone laughed. Hermione smiled herself, looking around at their big happy family, her eyes twinkling. At that moment Molly walked over to them.
"Ron, I was hoping I'd have a chance to ask you. Can you look through some of your old things and see if there's anything you'd like to take home. We're converting the attic into a Muggle-themed Arcade for your father, and we need to clear out some things. Ginny, dear, your old things are up there too. "
Ron and Ginny stood up and followed their mother.
"A Muggle Arcade?" Ron said, bewildered, as they walked toward the house. "Has George heard about this? We have some things in the shop that might be good..."
Harry chuckled, stood up, and followed them. Hermione leaned back in her chair, watching them go. Then she turned back to the kids.
"So," she said, her eyes twinkling with a well kept secret that was finally ready to see the light of day. "Do you guys want to hear the real story of the Polyjuice Potion?"
Their intrigued gazes were all the confirmation she needed.
Harry and Ron had taken their tumblers of Polyjuice and left her alone in the stall. It was finally time to see if her work had succeeded. As she reached for the glass of potion, her hand trembled slightly. It was somewhat due to fear, but mostly from excitement.
Hermione picked up the glass full of bright yellow potion and downed it in one gulp. It tasted sweet and had a mysterious aftertaste that she could not place, but overall it was pleasant. In short, it tasted much better than it looked.
It hit her as she was putting the glass back down. A fire was erupting in her stomach and spreading throughout the rest of her body. She could feel it in the very tips of her fingers and toes, and as she dropped down to her knees, she could feel it, literally feel it, stretching through her. Or was it simply she who was stretching?
Suddenly she was on all fours. The stall was growing, the walls and toilet were shooting up, and her claws were digging frantically into the old tile floors as her heavy robes fell on top of her, blocking out everything. She would have cried out but she couldn't speak. She shook herself violently and the robes fell aside. For one terrifying second she was standing on the floor. The colors around her began to fade as the pigments slowly seeped out of her surroundings, while the dark corners of the stall came alive in light. To her right, she could see a boot jerking on the floor, and behind it blurriness. She could smell sweat and mildew. She could smell something alive. The whole world was talking to her. She looked around and the world seemed to move in slow motion. And then, just as quickly, she shot back up.
The stall got smaller and smaller. She could feel herself straightening. Her feet became hands again. Suddenly she was standing in her stall, naked. She was human. She felt human. But as she looked down at her hands, she saw they were covered in fur, and her nails were elongated into claws. Hermione reached up and felt her face, where she could feel her hands (Or were they paws?) brushing against more fur. And on top of her head, she could feel two pointy ears. Cat ears. Hermione gulped.
"Are you two OK?' came Goyle's low rasp of a voice from the next stall.
"Yeah," came the deep grunt of Crabbe from further right.
Hermione didn't trust herself to speak. She continued to stare at her hands, turning them over to look at her palms. Her palms didn't have any fur. She heard the sound of two doors unlocking and footsteps in front of her stall.
"This is unbelievable," came Crabbe's voice. "Unbelievable."
"We'd better get going," said Goyle's voice again. "We've still got to find out where the Slytherin Common Room is, I only hope we can find someone to follow..."
"You don't know how bizarre it is to see Goyle thinking," said Crabbe's voice again, growing louder as it moved closer. Suddenly there was a bang on her door. She nearly jumped.
"C'mon," said Crabbe's voice again, "we need to go..."
Hermione glanced down at the backs of her hands again, and at her robes lying on the floor. She was absolutely sure she could figure this out. A cat hair. It must have been a cat hair. She could sort this out. But she needed to buy some time. Ron and Harry would have to fend for themselves.
"I – I don't think I'm going to come after all," she called, her voice sounding strangely high pitched. "You go on without me."
"Hermione, we know Millicent Bulstrode's ugly, no one's going to know it's you," called Crabbe's voice.
"No – really – I don't think I'll come. You two hurry up, you're wasting time."
There was a silent pause. Then she heard Crabbe's voice again.
"That looks more like Goyle. That's how he looks every time a teacher asks him a question."
"Hermione, are you okay?" Goyle's voice called through the door, with an uncharacteristic amount of concern.
"Fine," Hermione called back, "I'm fine! Go on…"
There was a pause and the rustling of robes.
"We'll meet you back here, all right?"
Then there was the sound of footsteps hurrying away, a door opening and closing, and finally silence.
She waited a few minutes to make sure they would not come back, and then she carefully opened the door with her clawed hands and stepped outside the stall. The reflection that greeted her in the bathroom mirror almost made her sink to the ground in shock.
Her eyes were bright yellow. Her whole body was covered in black fur, and now that she was walking, she could feel something banging against her legs. Looking back, she saw that it was a tail. She walked slowly closer to the mirror.
"Oh Merlin," Hermione muttered in her high pitched voice. "I can fix this. I can fix this."
She picked up Moste Potente Potions and pursued the page feverishly. There was one note about animals. 'Do NOT use for animal transformations. This is not a substitution for an Animagi transformation.' There was nothing else. She checked the surrounding pages and the index with no luck. Hermione dropped the book and looked back at the mirror.
"Ok," she said. "Willpower. I can fix this."
She had transformed into a cat, and then she had transformed back. She was sure there were more transformations left in the dose of the potion. She screwed up her eyes, focused on her human self, and imagined transforming back. She willed it with every ounce of her being. She gripped the sink in determination. When she opened her eyes, she still looked like a human cat. She hit the sink in frustration. The sound echoed all around the room.
"Perhaps I just have to wait," she said. "Maybe it will go away."
She started to pace around the bathroom, unable to contain her nervous energy. She imagined what her life would be like if she spent the rest of it as a cat. She imagined lounging around in the sunlight and chasing mice. She shook her head violently.
Suddenly she felt the burning feeling again, and once more the bathroom grew larger. Within seconds, she was a cat. A beautiful black and white cat. The colors intertwined in patches on her back. Her paws and stomach were white. Her nose bright pink. This time she didn't change back. She looked around curiously at her desaturated surroundings. She focused and willed herself to be human, and shockingly she was back to her half cat state. After a few more attempts, it appeared that she could go back and forth between the two at will.
"Well, this is interesting," Hermione muttered, staring in the mirror.
She couldn't shed the cat hair altogether but perhaps in an hour she would be able to. In the meantime it would be awful to waste this time. After all, she may be the first person in the world to achieve this kind of transformation. Perhaps it's not that it wasn't possible, it's simply that no one had tried it before…
Without a second thought, she grabbed her shoe and walked to the door. She carefully opened it a crack and stuck her shoe in the opening. She then turned back into the cat. At least fifteen of the precious sixty minutes they had secured had already gone by. She couldn't know when Harry and Ron might be back, but she had to do something while she waited. She squeezed herself through the hole in the door and crept down the corridor.
She wasn't quite sure where she was heading, but the corridor was lit up despite the lack of light streaming through the windows. The castle was alive and calling her.
She made her way downstairs, with thoughts of sneaking into the Slytherin Common Room, when a moving shadow drew her eye. She froze and turned her head sharply. A tabby cat was prowling along the wall. The tabby froze and looked straight back at her. Without thinking, Hermione jumped.
She lost sense of time as she flew down the corridors. She was only aware of chasing after the other cat, which in turn, ran from her playfully. They chased each other down the staircase, jumping on the banister. At one point they both tried to catch several spiders as they ran away in a straight line. At another they streaked past a doorway behind which Hermione could hear muffled voices and feel the tremors of someone hitting the door. She did not comprehend it.
She had only one mission. She wanted nothing more than to let her inner cat overtake her fears and so she let its desire to play envelop her. The feeling seemed to be reciprocated. At one point, as they wrestled, Hermione discovered that the tabby cat had strange square markings around its eyes. Almost as if it had glasses imprinted into its fur.
Finally, they both sat back on their haunches, their tails straight in the air and flicking back and forth, as they eyed each other. The tabby cat licked its paw casually.
As Hermione lazily mimicked the motion, she felt a burning start in her claws. As she focused her yellow eyes on her paw, she saw her claws slowly start to retract. The tabby watched her curiously, pausing mid lick.
Hermione jumped up with a loud meow and tore off down the hallway. The tabby watched her go curiously but didn't move. Once she disappeared, it slunk away toward an open office down the hall.
Hermione raced towards the bathroom as she felt herself getting bigger and clumsier. Her steps became uneven as her front feet turned back into hands. Her tail became longer and longer and dragged behind her. By the time she reached the door, she was almost running upright. She could only hope, as she ran, that she had beat Harry and Ron here. She had no idea how she could possibly explain running naked through the halls. She hit the door with her shoulder and pushed herself inside the bathroom, kicking her shoe into the room with her foot in the process. And came face to face with Moaning Myrtle.
Hermione had never seen Myrtle look so shocked. Her mouth dropped open and she didn't say a word as her eyes took in Hermione and what she could only assume was her lack of clothes. They stared at each other for several full seconds.
"Not a word, Myrtle!" Hermione finally managed to choke out. "Please! Not a word!"
And then she turned to the mirror, fully expecting to see her naked human self, and fully convinced that she was an utterly brilliant witch who had just figured out a potion for animal transformations, and saw her furry face and glowing yellow eyes staring back at her.
There was a second where she managed to convince herself that it was only because she had not willed it so. Not yet. She closed her eyes and focused on being human. She imagined it more strongly than she had ever imagined anything. She waited for the burning feeling but it did not come, and when she opened her eyes, the face that stared back at her was like an anchor on her heart.
She broke down in tears as the waves of disappointment washed over her. She had failed. She had failed, and she could not face Harry and Ron. Her face was living proof of her mistake. She whirled, ran into the stall, and slammed the door behind her, sobbing in earnest.
This cheered Myrtle up a great deal.
"Wherever did you get those cat ears?" she called. "I don't know if they rather suit you. And was that a tail?!"
"So as you can imagine, I was a bit disappointed with how that all turned out," Hermione finished, watching their spellbound faces in amusement. "And then Ron and Harry came back, and I imagine you know the rest."
"So, Aunt Hermione, you spent an hour playing with a cat," James finally asked, after a shocked silence. Hermione nodded.
"A tabby cat?" Another nod.
"With square markings around its eyes?"
"But in our first transfiguration class last year, Professor McGonagall came by to demonstrate-" James paused, then started again, "Are you saying... Are you saying that Professor McGonagall spends her spare time running around the hallways at night in cat form, playing with other cats?!"
Everyone who had not yet attended a third year transfiguration class stared at James in shock. Albus and Rose burst out laughing. Hermione smiled wider.
"I couldn't claim to know, James. She certainly never mentioned it."
"And I suppose you didn't either?" He winked.
"I suppose it may have slipped my mind," Hermione said, smiling wider all the while. "And I imagine this will stay our little secret?"
The garden erupted in laughter.
Harry and Ron walked back down to the garden, both holding several bags of Ron and Ginny's old things.
"So there were five incidents," Ron asked, as they made their way down the stairs.
"Yes, and it was very strange. Goblin made family heirlooms missing. Galleons gone. All magical security systems frozen or disabled. But no other signs of a break in. No attempts to disable magical locks. No damage. And nothing to connect the families either. The Magical Law Enforcement Patrol was at a loss. They tasked the investigation to us. "
"Right, and then you found him escaping from the Thomas house, didn't you?"
"Well, not quite," Harry said, pausing at the door to the backyard. He turned to face Ron, shifting the bag he was holding to his other hand. "Dean is a muggle-born, you know? They have those muggle security cameras set up around the house. They record everything to a hard drive."
Ron looked at him blankly.
"Come on, Ron!" Harry said, rolling his eyes. "You're married to Hermione for Merlin's sake. Maybe you should go back to Hogwarts this year and take a Muggle Studies class.
"Anyway," he continued, ignoring Ron's amused reaction, "Dean set up the cameras to keep an eye on his dog when no one is home. The dog has access to the backyard through the pet door, and when the door opens, the camera is activated and Dean gets a notification so he can take a look.
"Well, he saw something rather interesting. Something was going through the door all right, but it wasn't Sparkles."
"He has a six year old, mind you," Harry said. "Anyway, it was a fox! A fox was entering through the door. Dean was worried about Sparkles so he ran home straightaway. He ran into MacMillan on the way and grabbed him in case he needed help with the fox. They Apparated straight over."
"So where does Andrews come in? Was he in the house when Dean and Earnie showed up?"
"That's what we're trying to figure out," said Harry, moving the bag back to his other hand.
"When they got there, the dog was frozen with the Petrificus charm, and the fox was in the living room. There was a brown bag on its back, which looked full, and the fox was holding a tiara in its mouth. When it saw them, it dropped the tiara and hightailed it out of there, right through the pet door and over the fence."
"So Andrews is using foxes? Or what was it?"
"Well that's the question, isn't it?" Harry said. "They chased after the fox and there was no sign of it. But five blocks away they saw a half naked man dart out of an alley. He was holding the same bag the fox had had on. They tackled him and he tried to Disapparate but MacMillan just managed to grab hold of his arm. They found several items stolen from the Thomas house in the bag, of course."
Ron whistled. "So, what, he's an unregistered Animagus? I don't imagine he's on the registry."
"Well, no," said Harry, pondering his answer. "We performed the Animagus Force Spell on him but he never turned into a Fox. There's no other way for a human to become a complete animal. Not unless someone else transfigures them, and this would have to be someone incredibly skilled since this isn't something the average wizard can do. But regardless he would have needed a partner to transform him back, and we found no one else in the surrounding area. And if he had had a partner, surely they would have escaped together. It was all very peculiar. Andrews denies everything, of course. "
"So what does he say happened?"
"Apparently he was jogging and he found the bag on the ground. He tried to Disapparate because he was scared of Thomas and MacMillan running after him."
"Can't you just Veritaserum him?"
"No can do, mate," Harry replied. "The use of truth potions is strictly controlled, and anything he says under its influence would have to be thrown out from the case. It could even invalidate his whole testimony if we bring him to the Wizengamot. He is our only suspect after all.
"And so far, we've got nothing. We even got a warrant to confiscate his wand and there is nothing suspicious on it. He hasn't been casting any transfiguration charms. We had to let him go. At least the Thomas family got their property back."
"So Hermione-" Ron began but Harry cut him off.
"Hermione's convinced he's hiding something, yes. But you already know what she's trying to prove. The Potions Lab vetoed the idea, and I think this one might be too much even for our Hermione."
"Don't tell me you're losing faith in her abilities?"
"Of course not." Harry sighed. "But, Ron, come on. Do you really think this Andrews kid can do something our Hermione can't figure out? He's barely out of Hogwarts. And he didn't exactly get twelve outstanding NEWTS."
"I dunno." Ron shrugged. "But if Hermione says she can do it, I suspect all she needs is a little time."
Harry shrugged and pushed the door to the garden open. Together, they walked out into the night to collect their families.
It was late at night. Very late. Everyone else was long gone.
They had dropped the kids off at King's Cross that morning and there was nothing to stop Hermione from staying at the office all night.
They were probably at their start of term feast right now. Or maybe they had long finished it, she really couldn't be sure. She had lost track of time hours ago. But how could she blame herself? What she was doing here was just as exciting as the start of any new year at Hogwarts could ever be.
She took a deep breath and picked up a tumbler of potion. It was glowing with a soft golden light and bubbling softly. She raised it halfway to her lips, paused, and then drank it quickly before she could change her mind. It tasted like the sun.
It was a minute before a nostalgic burning feeling erupted in her stomach. But this time, it enveloped her gently, like an old friend. It coursed through her, and she embraced it with an open heart.
After a minute's pause, a cat was standing where Hermione had stood. The cat paused, looked around, and then turned back into a human. There was no fur on her hands this time. A cursory glance in the mirror revealed that her eyes did not glow yellow. They were an ordinary human brown.
Hermione smiled. She turned back into the cat.
Tomorrow, there were many things for her to do. Tomorrow, she could revel in her achievement. Tomorrow, she could write up her guide to the animal transfiguration potion she had created. And tomorrow, she could have Andrews brought in again and question him thoroughly.
But tonight? Tonight was for exploring.