Oh my goodness, two chapters in one week! Very, very proud of myself. This one is probably the second to last, with an ending/epilogue coming next.
I am so immensely grateful to all of you for sticking with me through this crazy adventure, for leaving reviews that make me giggle and smile awkwardly in public places, and for prodding me to write even when life was imploding around me. I cherish every single review and PM. Thank you so much!
And with that, let's get to the good stuff!
Chapter 57: The Fox
"A self-defense mechanism? You're saying that my best friend got turned into a bloody fox by her own magic? And that it's a good thing somehow?"
The voice of the Boy Who Lived (and now the Man Who Was becoming Increasingly Irritated) rang throughout the hospital wing. Molly Weasley and Poppy Pomfrey were a formidable tornado of healing, especially when shouting orders to an uncharacteristically serious Luna Lovegood and an unusually focused Lavender Brown, both of whom were carrying out the older witches' orders with a speed and ferocity that made anyone not currently under their care step back for fear of being flattened or aggressively shushed.
Poppy was dealing with the shattered leg of Seamus Finnegan, who was attempting not to squirm in discomfort and casting furtive looks in Lavender's direction as he did so. Molly Weasley was currently casting a truly alarming number of healing charms at the bloody arm of an exasperated-looking Draco Malfoy who, if her repeated tearful apologies were anything to go by, had stepped between one of the Weasley twins and a fairly nasty cutting curse.
Harry Potter was standing next to a crisp white hospital bed which was currently occupied by one formerly-snarling potions master who was stroking the back of a softly-snoring red fox curled up in his lap.
"There have been some cases where a witch or wizard who has attained an animagus transition has exerted themselves to the point of potentially exhausting their magical core and their magic has protected them by forcing them into an unwilling animagus transformation. A clear case study was done in the Phoenix Writing Journal of Unusual Transfiguration, though that was a much larger animagus form."
Harry was coming dangerously close to resorting to the petulance of his early relationship with the potions master, "but she didn't perform exhausting magic….you did!"
"As I previously explained, Mister Potter," Severus emphasized his name to attempt to calm the clearly-spiraling wizard, with some success as Harry actually had the decency to blush and relax his aggressive pose slightly, "Hermione and I entered into a very unique binding which enabled us to share power across our magical cores. When I needed an extra boost to keep the inferi at bay, for which I have yet to be properly thanked I'll have you know, apparently magic found a way to transfer some of her extra power to me. Poppy has run every scan she can think of and they all say the same thing: that Hermione is currently a very healthy and very exhausted fox. Her magical core is regenerating at a normal rate and, when she has built up enough magical reserve to maintain consciousness and sustain the transition back to her human form, she will do so. So until then, can you please desist your infernal pacing before I have to stun you myself?"
Severus was surprised when this explanation-turned-tirade was met with a small chuckle rather than further resistance.
"What?" the elder man snapped, more firmly than was probably necessary. This only served to elicit a second chuckle from the black-haired boy at the bedside.
"You just sound like her, is all. I knew she had inherited some of your more Slytherin characteristics over the years, but it's fun to see that the transfer goes both ways." Harry punctuated his thought by smiling fondly as he lovingly stroked fox-Hermione's outstretched bushy tail, rendering Severus incapable of creating a scathing retort.
His savior came in the form of a newly-bandaged Malfoy who had apparently escaped the attentions of the elder Weasley matriarch long enough to check in on Hermione and his worried fiance.
"I know this is probably a silly thought, but has anyone thought to contact Hermione's parents? I mean, their daughter has been seriously injured, or at least seriously depleted, and is currently stuck in the form of a fox. I've never been a parent, but it seems like the type of thing I'd want to know about if it was my child."
Severus and Harry both looked at Draco with shocked faces, but Severus was the first to recover.
"That's actually a surprisingly helpful suggestion Draco. Hermione's parents have been in hiding at Spinner's End for over a year now, but, now that the Dark Lord has been vanquished, I'm sure Hermione will be anxious to see them."
It was Draco's turn to look at Severus with raised eyebrows, "You let muggles live in your home? You let people into your home? That's...wow, Godfather. Wow."
"Very eloquent, Draco. I see your wordsmith of a fiance is rubbing off on you."
"Hey," Harry stuttered indignantly.
"My point exactly," said Severus with a smirk. "However poorly elocuted, your idea remains sound. Draco, since you are the only one keyed into my wards, do you mind retrieving the parents Granger and bringing them back here? I'm sure Hermione would love to have her family here when she is able to transition."
Draco nodded resolutely and apparated away.
After an hour, Draco still hadn't reappeared, which was doing nothing for Harry's or Severus' nerves, so Severus decided to take matters into his own hands.
"Frick!" Severus called out, without leaving the hospital bed. The stately elf popped in, looking strangely unperturbed at the vulpean creature in his lap.
"How may I be of service?"
"Can you pop over to my house and see what is taking Draco so long? I sent him to get Hermione's parents over an hour ago and he still hasn't returned."
Frick nodded resolutely and popped away. Severus and Harry sat in silence, both mindlessly stroking the fur of Hermione's unconscious form as they waited.
When Frick apparated back in, he brought with him a worried pair of Granger parents and a sheepish-looking Draco Malfoy.
"What happened?" Severus asked the blond wizard as the Grangers rushed to their daughter's bedside.
"Shepunchedme," Draco mumbled under his breath, carding his hand embarrassedly through his blond hair and looking at the floor.
"I'm sorry?" Severus asked in shock, his eyebrows dangerously close to his hairline.
"She punched me," Draco said, a little clearer this time but no louder and with no less embarrassment. This statement was, however, loud enough to draw the attention of Narcissa, who had come over to wait for her son with Severus, and the Weasley twins, who seemed to have declared Narcissa some kind of devious deity and often trailed after her at Order meetings.
As Severus' eyebrows had yet to descend and Harry seemed to be losing a battle with an impending fit of uncontrollable laughter, Frick saw the need to step in.
"It would appear Miss Hermione's impressive right hook is an inherited condition. Young Draco didn't think to remove his Death Eater robes before apparating into Spinner's End and the Lady Granger evidently took it into her own hands to defend herself from the perceived attacker. Well, her own fist, more accurately. I had to revive the Malfoy Scion and explain to the Doctors Granger that the danger had passed before they would allow me to apparate the three of them back to Hogwarts," he finished eloquently.
Harry was now gasping for breath and even Narcissa was losing the ability to maintain a neutral facade.
"...got knocked out…"
"...by a muggle."
The Weasley twins looked like Christmas, their birthdays, and April fool's day had all come at once.
"...you are officially…"
"...our new hero."
They finished and collapsed onto each other in a fit of laughter.
"What precisely did you expect me to do when a black-clad figure apparated unannounced into our well-warded safe house?" Mrs Granger said with a familiar eyebrow raise, eyes leaving the her daughter's fox form for the first time since arriving in the infirmary to level Fred and George with a silencing glare.
The twins quickly silenced their laughter into adoring nods of approval, allowing the Granger matriarch to direct her attention back to Severus.
"Frick filled us in on the basics of what happened, although I do wish Hermione had seen fit to mention that she was capable of turning into such a cuddly animal. I've wasted years looking for an obedient breed of dog, when I could have just been bonding with my daughter in fox form all this time."
"I'd hold the obedient for a bit," Richard Granger said, eyeing his daughter skeptically, "I think this might explain what happened to our attempted chicken coop the last summer we spent at the house."
"No! Hermione!" Helen exclaimed, casting a disapproving look at her daughter. "Those were really expensive chickens, you silly girl. We could have gotten you some proper kibble or…something." She finished dejectedly, still stroking her daughter's soft ears. After a few seconds of awkward silence she glanced up to see the entire assemblage of wizards (and her highly amused husband) staring at her.
"What? They were!" she declared with a laugh, as the whole group settled into an easy banter as they waited for Hermione to wake up.
"Severus?" Hermione's human eyes fluttered as she squinted against the bright light of the infirmary.
"I'm here, my love, welcome back," Severus' voice held a level of fondness that would have shocked anyone who had ever taken a class with him as professor.
"How long have I been out? Did you get him? Is Harry safe?" Hermione's rapid-fire questions were ceaseless as ever, even before her eyes were fully opened, occasioning a huff of laughter from her raven-haired mate.
"I'm right here as are your parents, Voldemort is dead, and every Death Eater that entered Hogwarts was either killed or is in a cell in Azkaban awaiting a trial. We did it. You did it." Harry spoke quietly yet firmly. When his green eyes met Hermione's chocolate ones, both fought back tears at the idea of finally being free of Voldemort.
"We did it?" she asked meekly.
"We did it," he replied, stroking her hair.
"Then why...why was I unconscious? I remember I was talking to Remus and then...everything went black. What happened?"
"When we were in the Manor, Voldemort had lined the room they were in with cages of inferi. When we entered he released all of them. Severus was quick with a containment spell, but it was cyphoning too much of his power to hold-"
"The bond!" Hermione exclaimed in sudden understanding.
Harry nodded, "apparently whatever you two crazy kids got up to last night saved all of our hides. He was able to draw from your power to maintain the containment spell until I was able to kill Voldemort, but it forced your body to take measures to protect your own core until you recovered."
"What do you mean measures?" Hermione asked uncertainly, "And why is Mom looking at me like I'm four years old and I accidentally got marker on the walls again?"
"Let's just say she connected the dots as to what happened to our prized chickens last summer," Hermione turned to see the amused grin of her father at the other side of her bed. It took a second for her to connect the dots, but as soon as she realized what he was insinuating her cheeks flushed red and she slunk down in her bed.
"How long was I stuck in fox form?" she asked sheepishly.
"About four days," Severus answered. "Just long enough for the rest of the Order to finish their healing and start the trial process for all of the captured Death Eaters."
"All of the Order? Were there any casualties?" Hermione asked.
"Poppy and Molly were up to their ears in blood replenishers and healing spells for a good two days. Justin Finch-Fletchley lost a leg that cannot be magically regrown and Hestia Jones was hit by a killing curse at the beginning of the battle, but other than that every one of our fighters is either healed or healing. We did it, my love." Hermione instinctively grabbed his hand as he was talking, but her eyes then widened and flickered up at her mother.
"Oh don't hesitate on my behalf," Helen Granger huffed an amused laugh. "I knew that you two were something before you did. I'm a little bit put out you didn't think to include us in your bonding ceremony, but Severus here has promised we could hold a traditional muggle ceremony once things died down, so I let it slide."
Hermione's eyes now darted to Severus, who had a perplexed look on his face and just shrugged back at the petite witch.
"Don't worry, Hermione. I volunteered to take care of all the plans," Narcissa's voice floated across the room, at which point Hermione's eyes became comically wide.
"You let Narcissa, queen of wizarding finery, befriend my mother, the woman who has been planning my wedding since before I was born?" she asked incredulously. Taking Harry's snort of amusement as affirmation enough, Hermione flopped backwards back onto her bed.
"We'll never hear the end of it now."
In the days that followed, the members of the Order all seemed to find a similar sense of peace within the chaos and massive change following the fall of the Dark Lord's attempted regime. The Order members who were also aurors had the unpleasant duty of sorting through all of the bodies, both at Hogwarts and Malfoy Manor to create a truly Hermione-worthy list of what Death Eaters had survived to await trial, which had been killed, and which had evaded capture. Fortunately, due to Draco's and Severus' stints as double agents, they had already assembled a pretty comprehensive list of all the main Death Eaters, so each time they processed one of the captured survivors of either the battle of Hogwarts or the invasion of Malfoy Manor, they questioned them thoroughly under veritaserum about any and all known associates, whether marked or simply financial contributors. They were then able to cross-reference testimony across Death Eaters to gain a thorough understanding of Voldemort's entire network of supporters and bring it to its knees.
Suffice it to say, Amelia Bones, the DMLE, and the Wizengamot would have full holding cells, courtrooms, and Azkaban transfer orders for quite some time to come.
When it came to the members of the DA, the thing that engendered the greatest amount of relief from most in the group was that the secret dynamics between many members could now be brought into the open. Other than Ron and Pansy's much-gossipped-about romance (because when had Ron Weasley ever been able to do anything quietly), there were many facades between DA members that could now crumble away.
The most obvious of these was the relationship between Draco and Harry, which transitioned from public jibes and sneers to hand holding and casual kisses the second the Manor invaders crossed Hogwarts' anti-apparition wards. While this was met with antagonism by a small minority of students (primarily skeptical Slytherins and confused Gryffindors who knew of the parties involved but weren't close enough to be in their inner circles), but there were enough DA members to serve as an accepting social lubricant that the general Hogwarts populace seemed to shrug their collective shoulders and accept the new status quo.
Hermione and Severus' relationship potentially posed a more serious threat, but when Hermione dropped her de-aging glamours and publically deposited her not one but three ministry-certified masteries at Dumbledore's plate at breakfast one morning, shortly followed by Severus Snape's letter of resignation, most simply watched in shock as the most enigmatic couple ever to grace the Hogwarts halls left, arm-in-arm.
As the days progressed, most of the student body resumed life as usual. Hermione and Harry often spoke of the fact that so much of their lives had been lived in the pursuit of a goal (namely, Voldemort's demise) that wasn't even on the radar for a majority of the populace.
They were interrupted by an amused snort from Severus, who didn't pause or even look up from his potions notes until Hermione's conjured water droplet hit him in the face. Harry, who had seen the escalation of their play duels before and knew the standard operating protocol, simply conjured a full-body bubble-head charm and sat back to watch the show.
The first morning after term ended, Hermione was awoken from a pleasant sleep by an unruly head of black hair and a set of worried green eyes.
She and Severus had been staying at Grimmauld place until the proceeds from the sale of Spinner's End got out of escrow. Apparently Hermione's parents, having nothing else to do while in hiding, had done some fairly impressive renovations on the house and it was now worth an impressive sum. The realtor had said something about jump-starting the gentrification of the old mill town. Severus simply nodded and signed whatever papers were thrown at him, more than happy to finally be rid of the last remnant of his unhappy childhood.
Severus had had an early meeting at the ministry that morning to secure the appropriate licensure to start a privately-held apothecary and potions research group in Diagon Alley, so Hermione had planned to take the day to do absolutely nothing. (And by absolutely nothing, she usually meant an ungodly amount of reading while she waited to hear back from several potential avenues of employment, all of which were in the midst of what turned out to be a fairly intense bidding war over the Brightest Witch of Her Age.) That said, a tussled-looking Hermione immediately vacated all thoughts of a lie in at the look of worry in her best friend's eyes.
"What happened, Harry? Is it Death Eaters? Is anyone hurt? Should I call-"
The beginnings of a worried storm of what surely would have been many, many questions was silenced by a burst of laughter and a huge, familiar smile from the Chosen One.
"It's okay, Hermione. We kicked their asses, remember? It's over. I am allowed to have non-Death-Eater-related thoughts now."
Hermione hit him with a pillow in response, but her visible sigh of relief was not lost on Harry.
"So, Mister, if there hasn't been a Death Eater attack, then what has your face all…like that?" She made a circular gesture in the direction of Harry's frown lines.
"I've been thinking about the Elder Wand," he said quietly. "I don't think it's something that should really exist. I mean, what's the muggle quote you're always saying about ultimate power corrupting...ultimately...or something?"
Hermione huffed in amusement, "Only you, Harry, would break into my bedroom at 6 in the morning to misquote Lord Acton. But I do see your point. And I tend to agree, but by the looks of it you seem already to have devised a plan….which judging from that look I'm probably not going to like."
Harry laughed at how well the formerly bushy haired witch knew him.
"I want to snap it and then donate the pieces to the London Wizarding Museum."
Hermione narrowed her eyes at Harry, "well that's actually quite reasonable, which means it's not what you're worried about. What are you planning to do with it before you snap it?"
Harry took a deep breath, "will you come somewhere with me?"
Hermione could never for the life of her figure out why the healers in St. Mungos had to wear such atrocious lime green robes. She had asked around several times, but could never get to the bottom of it. However, that was not the foremost thought on her mind as she and Harry got off the lift and entered the fourth floor.
They had not gone so far as glamouring themselves, but both were under the strongest notice-me-not charms they could muster, and were left undisturbed as they slipped into the room at the end of the hall.
As had been the case when they visited back in fifth year, Alice Longbottom came walking up to them with a vague smile on her face and a gum wrapper in her hand. Frank was sitting on a chair looking aimlessly out the window.
"Who should we do first?" Harry asked nervously. When he was telling Hermione about his proposed plan he had felt so sure of himself, but now that they were actually there he wasn't quite sure what he was doing. As always, he was grateful when Hermione's logic and calm manner (not to mention teacherly manner) kicked in.
"Mrs. Longbottom is always more responsive, so we should try her first. We'll have a better chance with her and then if it works we can try her husband too. Have you decided what spell you're going to use?"
Harry was taken aback, a little embarrassed that he hadn't actually thought to research any mind-specific healing spells.
Hermione giggled and rolled her eyes, but looked at him with enough fondness that Harry couldn't manage to be properly offended.
"Well, not what I would have chosen, but I guess it should work. Technically the Elder Wand can't fail, so the theory is sound...if a little unorthodox. It's definitely something the healers won't have tried. Are you ready?"
Harry squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, and nodded, turning towards the woman in front of him.
"Mrs. Longbottom? I'm going to try and help you, but I need to cast a spell on you first. Is, erm, is that okay?"
Her vacant smile did little to reassure Harry, but Hermione caught his eye and nodded. Harry pulled out the knotted wand and pointed it directly between the woman's eyes.
"Reparo," he said firmly.
It was as if someone had shocked her with electricity. Her whole body jolted as her eyes jerked shut. She stayed absolutely still for a few seconds, but, just as Harry was weighing his options of whether to call a healer or make a run for it, she opened her eyes. A look of knowing intensity had replaced the formerly-vacant gaze.
"Where am I? Is Neville okay? Who are you two? Did someone catch the Lestranges? What-"
Harry put a calming hand on the woman's shoulder and snapped into what Hermione and Severus had jokingly called "leader mode".
"It's okay, Mrs. Longbottom. You're safe and inside St. Mungo's. Neville is also safe and will be very happy to see you. My friend here will send a Patronus for him if that's okay with you?"
Her eyes darted from Harry to Hermione, clearly attempting to piece together what was happening, but she nodded slowly and Hermione slipped out of the room.
"What happened? Why are we in here? And what's wrong with Frank?" she asked, looking worriedly at her husband.
Harry couldn't help but smile at the woman's barrage of questions.
"Another intelligent woman with endless questions. When we all get to know each other better I fear you and my friend, the one that's getting Neville, are going to get along a little too well. Now, before Neville gets here, let me explain a few things, and then we'll try to help your husband."
By the time Neville had gotten out of the greenhouses and to St. Mungos Harry had managed to heal Frank and explain the situation to both of them. Hermione met Neville at the front door of St. Mungos and surprised him with the same notice-me-not charm she and Harry had used earlier. She had briefly explained that Harry had had an idea to do with his parents and that Neville would see when he got there. The formerly-shy boy had been tentative when he opened the door to his parents' room, not sure what to expect, but had immediately started crying when he was bum-rushed and nearly tackled by his mother the second he walked in the door. His father had followed, much more calm and reserved but none the less emotional and had wrapped his sobbing son and still-jabbering wife in a huge embrace.
After Harry briefly explained what had happened to Neville, who had yet to be released from his mother's embrace, he and Hermione slipped out of the room to let the new family get reconnected.
They now sat on the side of a different hospital bed, looking down on its unconscious inhabitant. Harry pointed the elder wand down one last time.
For a few seconds nothing changed, but soon the familiar dark grey eyes opened and Harry almost lost the battle to tears when he saw a familiar craggy smile beam up at him.
"Hey there, pup? How did you get so big? And when did Hermione get hot?"
Harry burst into laughter and dove on top of the man to give his godfather the first of what promised to be many, many hugs.
"It's kind of a long story."