No one heard the shrieks that pierced the dawn—certainly not Severus, whose head was being crushed between two strong, trembling thighs. He felt Hermione's appreciation, however, as he stroked her clit with the bridge of his nose and caressed her quim with slow, broad tongue strokes.
If anyone had asked him, Severus would have said that temporary deafness was a small price to pay for the privilege of being between Hermione's legs—after he'd hexed the questioner to oblivion, of course—but there were few people bold enough to hazard such a query, and the wards of the cottage were secure.
Desperately trying not to ruin what he knew would be a good, sound shagging, Severus forbore to frot himself to orgasm against the bed sheet and listed in mental litany the ingredients of a particularly complicated potion, ignoring Hermione's painful tugging of his hair. Stubbornly tensing his neck, Severus revelled in how heedless he'd made her, drinking her in and thrilling to her every squeeze of thigh until the need to breathe became greater than his need to tease.
He gasped for breath as Hermione demanded, "Fuck me!"
"Mmm," he hummed, wiping his face against the sheet and crawling up her body to kiss her. Moaning, she wrapped her legs around his back and ground her heels into him, and Severus could wait no longer. "Yes."
His potion ingredients were forgotten in a hot undulation of muscle.
"Might be sinew," Ron replied, sounding as ill as Harry felt. "This is bad."
"This . . . used to be a person."
Ron tucked away his wand. "Diagnostics say an animal—werewolf, maybe?"
"I don't think a werewolf would've chewed someone up into such tiny—"
"Shoo!" Ron interrupted, waving his arms. "Go on, shoo! You don't want that!"
Harry followed his partner's gaze and saw in the dim light a rabbit nosing a suspicious puddle. "Ew."
"Probably got away from the Magical Menagerie," Ron said, kneeling before the rabbit. "George says they're stocking non-magical familiars now."
Harry raised his wand, casting its faint glow on the creature. The rabbit's blood-tinged nose twitched before it hopped once in Ron's direction, who smiled.
Raspberry tea and oatmeal . . . again.
Hermione enjoyed her mornings and generally spent part of them indulging in experimental cookery; it was odd that she'd eaten the same breakfast for the past three weeks, and a relief to see the platter of more traditional fare sitting next to a dish of stewed nettles with sesame seeds on the table.
Those are new, he thought, as he kissed her before sitting down.
Hermione issued an appreciative sound but didn't stop reading the Prophet. Severus watched her with pleasure as she took a bit of the stewed concoction and chewed it, slowly.
Severus' heart began to beat faster, and he froze in mid-reach for one of the two teapots sitting between himself and Hermione.
"Something wrong?" she asked.
"You're eating nettles. For breakfast."
"And drinking raspberry tea."
"Would you care for some?"
Severus wrinkled his nose at the suggestion; Hermione smiled and then turned her attention back to the paper. Severus stared at it, his mind racing.
Raspberry is good for women, particularly when they're—"
"What is it?"
Lowering the Prophet, Hermione, her brows knitting, said, "They've found another body."
"I thought Potter told you that the DMLE wished to keep these murders out of the paper," Severus replied, reaching for it and scanning the relevant article.
The news was disturbing: Aurors Potter and Weasley had discovered the remains of a mutilated individual in the alley between Fortescue's and Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes. No further details were known, other than that the site of the murder had been secured, one of the members of the secondary Auror team called in had become ill at the sight of the crime, and Auror Weasley had received Healing treatment for a bite wound.
Severus raised his eyebrows at this last item of information. "Perhaps they caught the animal in the act?"
Hermione rose from the table. "I need to fire-call Ron."
Catching her by the arm, Severus replied, "It's an active investigation. He'll most likely still be—"
"But he was hurt!"
Severus released Hermione and glowered at her.
"Don't be stupid," she snapped, proceeding to make her call.
Breakfast forgotten, Severus stormed from the kitchen.
He had no reason to be jealous of Ron Weasley, after all.
She's been reading that Pratchett book again and looking forward to its sequel, he mused, trying to remember its title so that he could pre-order it for her from a Muggle bookshop. Was it Winter Dance? No, that's not righ—
"Headmaster!" Hagrid called, approaching with a large cage on a strap slung over his shoulder.
"What are you planning to do with those rabbits?"
"Keep 'em out o' the school's kitchen garden, fer a start," Hagrid replied. "Winky's that distraught. The whole lot o' them showed up this mornin', it seems."
Severus' frown deepened. "Neutering familiars is a requirement."
"So it is, but these wee buns weren' familiars. They're too young."
"Tender, then. Perhaps you should have had Winky take them into the kitchen."
"Carry on," Severus told Hagrid, ignoring his horrified expression.
Walking towards Hogwarts, he could hear his Care of Magical Creatures professor murmuring comforting sentiments about hutches and hay, pleased that he and Hermione, at least, hadn't fallen prey to the latest fad of keeping "wee buns."
Because the hutch is where I'd be sleeping tonight if we did. . . . Of course, Hermione does like little furry things, and Crookshanks is getting too old to chase them.
He'd still order Hermione the book.
But it would be best to arrive home with an "apology" in hand. "Hagrid!"
As if to underscore Hermione's words, Crookshanks raised his head from the window seat upon which he was sitting and hissed.
"He's not one of the Menagerie's non-magical familiars?"
"Nope," said Ron, "and Lav would kill me if I brought another one home."
"And Gin's got her hands full enough as it is," Harry said. "Please, Hermione? See how much he likes you?"
The black and white bunny, apparently happily situated on Harry's lap, regarded Hermione with a patient stare.
"Severus might not approve, either. He doesn't have to look after Crookshanks when I'm away on research trips, but a bunny would require—"
"It's only one."
And so cute, too. "I know, Harry, but rabbits are social creatures. I'd have to get another one," Hermione told him, reaching out to pet the bunny; obviously encouraged by her gesture, it hopped from Harry's lap to hers. "Oh, aren't you a sweet one," she praised it, as it snuggled against her.
Ron snickered. "What's his name?"
"What's happening with your case?" Hermione asked, her resolve weakening as she petted the bunny's soft fur.
"How's the editing going?" Harry rejoined before Ron could speak, apparently unwilling to discuss the events of their morning.
"I'm behind in my revisions, actually," Hermione answered, mentally making a list of rabbit-related supplies and feeling somewhat relieved in the face of Harry's reticence. I should be avoiding upset now, shouldn't I be? "Forty-One was due to my editor two weeks ago, but there's a lot of new material to include in it, and I've been a bit distracted by, er, by Severus being home so much over the summer hols."
Ron muttered something under his breath that Hermione pointedly ignored, and he snorted good-naturedly.
"He's not here now," Harry noted, "and you could always tell him the rabbit's for additional company while you revise and . . . set this great lot of herbs to dry."
"Interesting project, herb-drying."
Hermione ignored Ron's leading statement—and the screens of dandelion leaves that covered most of the kitchen counters and all of the table. "No, he's gone up to the school to prepare for the Board of Governors' annual curriculum review."
"That's nice," Ron said, smirking at Hermione as she traced one fuzzy bunny ear with her fingertips. "So, what's his name?"
Hermione grinned and rolled her eyes; Ron knew her too well. "Mr Snuggles."
"Gran! He's being mean again!" he exclaimed, shaking a finger.
"Let me see," she replied, stroking Teddy's hair with one hand and taking up his finger in her other. "It's a tiny bite, love, nothing to it."
One murmured spell later, and Teddy was fine.
"But he's still being mean. He won't let any of the other bunnies play with the new girl."
"What new girl?" Andromeda asked, wondering how a wild rabbit could have got into the hutch's run. "And how do you know it's a doe?"
"'Cause everyone likes her."
Damn, thought Andromeda, going to investigate.
"There we are, Mrs Snape," the man said, noticing Severus. "Oh, hello, there, and congratulations!"
Hermione's tone was polite enough, but Severus felt its chill. "I wasn't aware of any expansion plans," he remarked, nodding to the man, who was not, despite his cheery mien, an imbecile.
"Er, Mrs Snape, if you'd just sign here . . . ."
Severus walked the improver out, which Hermione, it seemed, had failed to notice, having turned her attention back to the box. When he returned, she was in mid-explanation.
"—awful at sexing charms! When she started to give birth, I was quite surprised."
Shite. "I . . . that is, Hagrid, found a great number of rabbits in the kitchen garden today, and I—"
"You brought me a bunny?" Hermione asked, turning. "Where is it?"
So it was that Scholars' Cottage came to have its own indoor hutch and run, and six bunnies.
"Didn't Hagrid sex that rabbit?" Hermione asked Severus, who'd come down to find her completing a fire-call to Magical Expansions. "We'll need to keep the litters apart."
"She was pregnant, as well?"
"You see the evidence with your own eyes—and we're not the only ones with unexpected babies. The Prophet ran a story in the morning edition about this unprecedented breeding season. It seems that bunnies are everywhere."
Crookshanks began to growl; Severus felt like growling, himself.
The rabbits were everywhere: Filch had owled the previous day with bitter complaints about "menacing rabbits," his fears for Mrs Norris' safety, and failed neutering charms; the Prophet was full of rabbit-related articles; Ottery St. Catchpole's chapter of Ears and Tails, a rabbit rescue organisation, had reported an increase in the number of abandoned rabbit litters and cruelty cases as the creatures moved into household gardens; groups throughout Britain had begun building shelters for the over-breeding population of the even-tempered, black and white Himalayans; and Severus had heard nothing but bunny lore and rabbit updates from Hermione for the past several days.
She was even ignoring her editor's owls in favour of caring for her new pets, getting up during the night repeatedly to check on the damned things. Her newest preoccupation had left her completely uninterested in sex, as well.
"This is unacceptable."
"What is?" asked Hermione.
"These rabbits breeding so quickly."
"Well, you do know the expression."
"And because of the population boom, I'm not sure to whom we can give our babies. Everyone's keeping bunnies now, it seems."
"Hasenpfeffer would solve that problem."
A knock sounded on the kitchen door. "Come in, George!" called Hermione. Turning to Severus, she said, "He's here to return some books he borrowed."
"Sorry to disappoint you," Percy Weasley answered, upon entering.
"What a nice surprise!"
"Weasley, what is it?" Severus asked, noting the gaunt, exhausted air about the man.
"May I sit?"
"Of course. Is something wrong?" Hermione asked, pouring Percy a cuppa from one of the three teapots on the table and handing it to him. "It's not Ron, is it?"
Severus bit his tongue—a bit harder than he'd intended—and took his place at the table across from Hermione.
"They're everywhere—even the Muggles are having trouble with them. Minister Shacklebolt's ordered some of them tested—the ones that the Aurors have confiscated from people rounding up the damned things so that they can kill them—and it's obvious that they've been interfered with!"
"Yes, Headmaster, the bloody rabbits! They appear to breed twice as often as the normal Himalayans! And who has to deal with it all? I do! I'm besieged by owls day and night. At night! At home! As if it were my fault that—"
"Weasley," Severus interrupted, "what are you doing here?"
"Oh, forgive me. I told Ron that I'd come by to see if the rabbit he and Harry gave you was normal—growing at a normal rate, that is. Is it?"
"Yes, she is, but why would Ron have sent you? Not that we aren't happy to see you, but—"
Hermione kicked him.
"Ron's overseeing an investigation."
"Harry, as well, but not the same one. I would have fire-called but for needing somewhere to go that owls wouldn't find me for a while, and your wards—"
"Only allow certain owls to pass," Hermione said.
And too many Weasleys, Severus thought, asking, "Two more murders, then?"
"Preliminary reports indicate at least three," Percy replied, sighing heavily. "I trust you'll be discreet. It wouldn't do to cause a panic."
"Because withholding information from the public has always been so very successful in the past."
"Have . . . have you been through the registered werewolves, Percy?" asked Hermione, hastily changing the subject, Severus knew, to prevent a row.
He and Percy Weasley rarely agreed on anything, which was yet another reason that it continued to annoy Severus that Hermione was considered an honorary Weasley by the lot of them. Being part of one big happy Weasley family had never been his goal.
"The DMLE did that first thing, but you know as well as I do that, since the war and Greyback's . . . activities, we've more of them in Britain than are registered."
Percy drained his tea cup and set it down. Hermione, with shaking hands, refilled it.
"Er, what's this? Nettle?"
Summoning another cup, Hermione murmured, "Picked up the wrong pot."
Severus frowned in concern at her reaction. He knew very well that Hermione didn't like to think about Greyback and was annoyed that Percy, who should have known better, had brought the beast up.
Percy accepted the new cup, sipped from it, and then yawned. "Forgive me. I'm not getting much sleep these days. Between the over-breeding situation and these murders . . . ."
Noticing that Hermione had gone a bit too pale, Severus asked, "Isn't it time to feed those rabbits of yours?"
As if she'd been waiting for an excuse to bolt, she nodded and excused herself, not even troubling to glare at him for his sharpness. That was the most worrying circumstance of all.
"Does Mum know? Did I miss the announcement?"
"Leave off the ridiculous questions."
"Perhaps I shouldn't have asked."
Percy flushed. "It's just that Mum always drank nettle and raspberry teas when she was preg—"
"Not one more word," Severus snapped, glancing at the open door of the hutch. If anyone was going to discuss Hermione's condition with him, he wanted it to be her, not a "family" member. "And I'll thank you to avoid mention of Greyback in this house."
"You're right, of course. I didn't think. I am sorry," Percy said, lowering his voice, "but I did want to speak to you alone. We suspect that the rabbits have been manipulated in some manner, as I said, and the Minister thought it might be wise to have an accomplished Potions master—"
"One who doesn't work for the Ministry and, therefore, will be 'discreet'," Severus interjected.
"—analyse the rabbits' blood, a master familiar with the Dark Arts."
He's going to ask you to forgive him for that, as well.
"Forgive me. I know it's an . . . awkward request, but the situation is dire."
"Yes, incipient bunny apocalypses always are."
"If you'd take this seriously, I'd appreciate it. Are you familiar with any sort of spell that might—"
"No, but I'll analyse whatever samples you bring me," Severus told Percy, before sending him on his way.
When George Weasley showed up after dinner, Severus had already removed himself to his laboratory.
No helping the poor things now.
A howl in the distance startled her; she looked at the moon and shivered, hurrying back to the house. When they'd spoken last, Harry hadn't been completely certain that the attacks were being carried out by werewolves, but he'd been sure enough to ask her to remain indoors around the full moon.
"I . . . I'm worried. I've liked feeling safe."
"You are safe."
Hermione felt Severus' embrace tighten around her; it was reassuring, but it wasn't enough to ease her fears.
"The murders have you concerned."
"Yes, it's awful to think about anyone being capable of that kind of violence, and . . . ."
Hermione felt Severus tense and lifted her head from his shoulder so that she could kiss his neck. Deciding that the time wasn't right to tell him her news, she whispered, "I'm concerned about Mrs Snuggles and her litter."
"They don't seem to like Thumper and her litter."
"Hermione, you're not a particularly convincing liar," Severus said, shifting so that he was looking at her. "What's truly upsetting you?"
"What if it isn't safe? Even out here? Even with the wards?"
"It is safe. You're safe. Our . . . family is safe," Severus told her, with unusual hesitancy.
She hated that; it reminded her of how difficult it had been to persuade Severus that he had a right to be happy. He knows. Of course he knows. He just doesn't know how you feel about it, she thought, feeling guilty about not having told him their news sooner. "It was the tea, wasn't it?" Good. A smirk.
"So you are . . . ?"
"Yes," Hermione said, grinning. "I'd been waiting to be certain, but—"
She didn't have the opportunity to complete her thought until well after dawn; Severus tended to demonstrate his joy in physical ways.
It was one of his most endearing qualities.
He even smiled during the luncheon that followed the meeting when the elves sent up, as one of the many courses, Hasenpfeffer.
"My compliments to the chef," Marjorie Banks, one of the governors, emphatically toasted, to much laughter. "My husband's keeping the damned things! They've quite ruined my vegetable garden."
"I had employed someone to remove the vermin from the manor's grounds," Lucius replied, "but we've protesters now. 'EAT', I believe they call themselves."
"Merlin forfend anyone defend himself against the detestable things!"
Severus was only half-paying attention. I'm going to be a fa—
"What was that?"
"I asked if you were experiencing any rabbit-related issues," Lucius said.
"Ah. Yes—that is, no."
Lucius snorted and raised an eyebrow. "That wife of yours is keeping them, as well, is she?"
"Mrs Snape is fond of her pets," Severus said, his tone dropping in warning.
"Of course," Lucius murmured, nodding slightly at Severus before turning to converse with someone else.
Ron scowled into the trees. He understood Harry's concern for his godson; he shared it, but they needed to get back down to the village where the latest murder had occurred, the village not two miles away.
"The thing is, they're safe as houses here. No one even knows where—"
"I don't care! This . . . I have to move them. You know that there's werewolf activity in this area."
"And just where would you move them if she agreed to leave? There've been nine attacks now, each one in a different part of Britain. There's no pattern. We've no suspects. Why do you think moving them away from a house spelled with strong protective enchantments is the safe option?"
"Shh," Harry hissed, as Andromeda walked slowly towards them.
"This is a bad business, boys. What can you tell me?"
"Technically, we're not supposed to say—"
"The dead man was a registered werewolf. He was torn to bits, eaten—while he was transforming, apparently, because there are traces of fur. We've sent them to Headquarters for analysis, but I really wish that you and Teddy would—"
"No, Harry. Thank you, but no. Ron's right. There isn't a safer place for us than here."
Something hopped over Ron's foot. Looking down, he saw a bunny. It was cute, but he wasn't about to pet it, not after the bite that "Mrs" Snuggles had given him.
"These would be Greyback's pack, then, you believe?"
"We just don't know," Harry said, a tone of defeat in his voice that Ron didn't like.
He knows the registered man wasn't the one from this area, he thought, more than a little concerned, himself.
"Well, thank you for checking on us, boys, but I'm sure you have other duties to which to attend. Come for dinner after you finish seeing to them if you like. We're having my . . . special chicken."
"Special chicken?" Harry asked, smiling slightly.
Ron noted the narrowing of Andromeda's eyes as she glanced at the rabbit by his feet before looking up at him, and he swallowed. Poor bunnies.
Addressing Harry, she said, "Yes, dear, special chicken."
"Thanks all the same," Ron said, "but Lav and I have plans—curry—beef curry."
Severus turned off the portable Wireless and rolled over onto his back, looking up at Hermione. She was busily writing, worrying her lower lip as she did so.
It made him want to suck it into his mouth.
"Ridiculous," she murmured, as if in response to the Wireless.
Severus smirked. "Forty-One almost done?"
"Well, then, perhaps a break's in order?"
"Beatrice would throttle me if I took a break."
"Isn't your editor off on holiday now?" Severus asked, drawing the back of one hand up along the outside of Hermione's nearest leg.
"Then she'll never know."
"Oh, but she will. I'm sure she's having me watched at this point," Hermione replied, nodding towards a group of three rabbits in the distance. "The bunnies are all due to her, I'm sure of it. They're spy bunnies."
"Nonsense," said Severus, pushing himself up. "They're 'hare' to provide us with an object lesson."
"Wha—oh! That's the last thing we need. Go on! Shoo! Stop tha—"
In spite of his employment of the appallingly obvious pun, Hermione kissed Severus back with enthusiasm, and leading her into the house, Severus found himself more in charity with the over-sexed creatures.
At least Teddy likes it, she thought, making her way towards the burial site of the doe in expectation of finding Hoppy. For some reason, he often ended up there after rows, thumping the ground.
She'd never known a rabbit to be so vindictive.
"All right, you. Back to dance on her grave, are—"
Andromeda's eyes flew open at the sight before her: where she'd buried the unfortunate doe, a hole appeared; clods of dirt, as if they'd exploded forth, were everywhere underfoot, and the hole, itself, was empty.
What made her catch her breath, however, was the sight of the paw prints that indicated that something had dug itself out of the hole rather than dug the hole up; smaller under the rim, the prints were bigger just over it—and then they disappeared. It was as if whatever had exited the hole had scrabbled out of it and . . . flown away.
"Yes," he said to Hermione, who'd appeared at his elbow without his noticing. "Please," he added, as an afterthought.
Conventional pleasantries were tiresome things, but marital accord was worth employing them.
"Are you coming back to bed, or are you planning to make dinner after you've finished here?"
The soft satin of Hermione's shift caressed his bare upper body as she leant to wrap her arms around Severus' shoulders. "I hadn't thought of dinner. I expected you to sleep longer," he told her, ignoring his prick. And I have to make sense of—
"The bed was cold."
"I covered you with an extra—"
"It was cold," Hermione murmured, nuzzling his ear, "because you weren't in it with me."
Sod the results. "Then let us have another round of dessert."
She knew at once that something was destroying the rabbit house. Looking through the kitchen window, all she could see was a dark cloud, rising and diving in the twilight grey.
A loud thumping on the stairs met Andromeda's ears.
"Hoppy! I'm coming, Hoppy!"
"Die, you filthy bastards!"
"Lavender?" Ron called, running towards the kitchen to find his wife wielding a frying pan and a meat fork.
Lavender's wand, as if it had just been Summoned, smacked the back of his head before continuing past him. Dropping the fork, she snatched her wand out of the air and began casting offensive spells at the odd-looking rabbits surrounding her.
Their fur appeared to boil.
"Duck!" shouted Lavender, sending an Aguamenti Maximus streaming just over Ron's head.
Throwing himself down to the floor and turning mid-fall, his wand now drawn, Ron was in time to see what would have been a perfectly adorable black and white bunny were it not for the wings carrying it towards Lavender, its bizarrely distended mouth opened wide in a display of alarming teeth.
The jet of water caught it in the mouth and thrust it back.
"He's too young to under—"
"Children pick things up early," Ginny interrupted, placing their son with some difficulty into his crib.
"Sorry," Harry said. "I should be doing that," he told her, rubbing her heavily pregnant belly with pleasure.
Ginny smiled and kissed him. "I'm sorry they're being so stupid. You're right. It's not safe now, and the public should know, but—"
"Don't worry about it. Soon enough," Harry said, walking with Ginny back to the kitchen, "they'll have to—"
"—reports that Muggle authorities have banned the sale of rabbits as pets until the virus causing the violent behaviour can be brought under control."
Harry sighed as he turned off the Wireless.
"That sounds like a cover story," said Ginny, as the flames in the hearth flickered and turned colour.
"Auror Potter? It's Banks. You're needed back at Headquarters."
So much for a quiet evening at home. "On my way," he acknowledged, before turning to Ginny—who handed him his work robes. "I'm sorry, love."
Hermione snorted. "Never."
Severus raised his eyebrow in mock annoyance, but before he could reply, Hermione asked, "What did the tests say?"
"I'll have to run them again. It's not possible that rabbits should carry features of lupine blood in theirs."
Hermione's eyebrows rose. "That would be interference."
"What would be?"
"Someone genetically altering the Himalayans with—"
"A human carrying Lycanthropy," Hermione whispered.
"I know. It's a ridiculous notion, but there's something else. Accio lab results," he cast, passing the papers to Hermione once they'd levitated to him.
"Pigs don't fly, but perhaps . . . no. No, this can't be right. I must have—"
"Made a mistake? You? I doubt that," Hermione said, frowning. "Of course, I can't think why any geneticist would experiment with avian, human, and leporine DNA, so that leaves some grotesque form of experimental Transfiguration."
"I doubt that any of Grey—that is—"
"Severus, I'm not a delicate flower. You can say his name: Fenrir Greyback."
"You were disturbed when Percy—"
"I was pregnant, for Merlin's sake!"
"You're still preg—"
"I meant that I was getting used to the idea of being pregnant, and it's dreadful, contemplating bringing a child into the world with a . . . a serial killer running madly through it."
"Is it so much easier to contemplate doing the same with flying 'were-rabbits'?"
"Perhaps you should run the tests again," Hermione said, "but don't worry about me. Awful things happen all the time, have always happened. Some of the things I've read in Dumbledore's papers would—"
"Where are you going?" Severus asked, as Hermione untangled herself from their embrace to rush from the room.
She didn't reply.
Concerned, he followed her without bothering to dress, only to find her pushing boxes out of the closet by the front door. They'd magically expanded it to hold the materials discovered in Albus' private library—a library that had actually been kept by the Heads of Hogwarts since its establishment for future ones—towards the production of a more thorough edition of Hogwarts: A History. There were also records from the Ministry that Shacklebolt had authorised released for comparison and to provide necessary historical context and verification. The school, it seemed, had harboured Dark wizards in more than one generation, and efforts had been made to hide this fact.
"I know it's here. I just had it a month ago when George came by—a record of the spells that Gelwin Gobstone developed during his tenure as Headmaster. I remember that George had heard of Gobstone's experiments before our discussion. Some of them were despicably Dark."
"Transfigurational in nature?"
"Oh, I don't know that there's a proper name for what he did, but . . . aha! Here we are," Hermione replied, emerging from the closet with an ancient-looking scroll. "I'm in there so often that I must have knocked it out of place. Look, Severus, here," she continued, pointing at a passage on the now-unrolled scroll. "This details Gobstone's combination of a merman and an eel through transmogrification. He was obsessed with Merpeople—wanted to 'improve' them—insane, really."
"I haven't got through everything related to him, but I do know that he tried to create new forms through combining other living beings, as well. Do you suppose that someone could have done this with bunnies and birds?"
"That wouldn't explain the lupine—"
A high-pitched shriek emanated through the house.
Severus turned sharply towards the kitchen. "What the—"
"That's coming from the hutch!"
Experimentation's a bitch, he thought, noticing that the Menagerie was half-boarded up. That's odd. Joe didn't say anything about going anywhere when I saw him this morning.
Shrugging, George decided to return after dinner to call on his friend, who'd taken over the Menagerie when his uncle had retired. He wanted to make it to the Leaky before they stopped serving the special, and he knew that Joe hated the inn's food and would refuse to go if he asked him, as he always did.
His loss. Tom makes the best chicken curry, ever—I can smell it from here.
As wing tips began emerging from Thumper's back, Hermione threw herself at Mrs Snuggles, skidding on a slick red puddle as she did so and ending up under the table.
"Accio wand!" she heard Severus cast.
"Your results weren't wrong!" she exclaimed, taking the opportunity to summon her own wand while Severus snatched his from the air.
Mrs Snuggles scrabbled at Hermione's chest in an attempt to climb down her body. "The babies! We need to see if any—"
"They're dead," Severus told her, pulling her up and against him. "Drop that rabbit and hold on!"
"There's nothing wrong with—"
"FUCK!" Severus howled, before the familiar squeeze of Disapparation made Hermione's lungs tighten.
When she could breathe again, she and Severus were standing, nude, in the middle of the Burrow's kitchen, both of them bleeding and surrounded by Weasleys.
"Get it off!" Severus shouted, over the general cries of surprise and alarm.
Everyone moved as one.
"We don't know if that one's safe," Severus protested.
"I think we do, else she'd have changed with the others. No wonder her litter seemed frightened of Thumper's."
"Hermione, the bite isn't quite there," Severus replied testily, shifting to take the bottle and cotton from her. "Here, I'll do it."
Someone knocked on the door, and Severus grabbed the edge of the coverlet and hastily drew it up over himself.
"Just a moment!" Hermione called. "Don't worry. I'll go out. I'm sure that no one—"
"Got a good long look at me standing starkers in the fully lit kitchen with an abomination hanging from my arse? No, of course not."
Sighing, Hermione scooped up Mrs Snuggles and walked unsteadily to the door, opening it wide enough to slip through but no wider.
"Is he all right, dear?" asked Molly.
Hermione stroked Mrs Snuggles, uncertain whether she was trying to calm the bunny or herself more. "I think it will be a while before he comes out. I hope that you don't—"
"Of course we don't mind! Come back down. I'll send Arthur up with some tea for Severus, and you—"
"We don't know. We've tried fire-calling the Wheezes, but he doesn't answer. I'm worried, Hermione. Those dreadful creatures are everywhere."
The kitchen was empty as Hermione followed Molly down the back stair and entered it.
"I made them go into the lounge in hopes we could persuade him to come down," Molly said, with a nod at the stairs.
"Thank you. If . . . could I leave her with you for a moment? I need the loo," Hermione lied. "There's nothing wrong with her," she added, when Molly looked at Mrs Snuggles sceptically.
"Of course there isn't," she agreed, carefully taking the bunny.
"She's just lost all her—excuse me," Hermione said, taking the stairs two at a time and then locking herself in the loo.
Several deep breaths later, she felt calm enough to think straight.
George took that scroll. I know he did, but would he have been reckless enough to . . . .
She didn't complete the thought; engaging in bizarre experimentation was just what George did.
It would have had to have been an accident, his having developed these monsters. He'd never have done something so stupid on purpose—not that it matters. Still, if I can figure out what he did, we might be able to undo it.
There. It was decided. She was going to go after George, Ministry injunction against leaving one's home or no.
He'd seen them transform back into harmless-looking bunnies once dead and couldn't doubt the proof of his own eyes.
The creatures scattered as Harry hit them, but the force of the collision knocked him from his broomstick and into something larger, more solid, and with a deeper growl.
Why here? he asked himself. Why come here?
Scanning the photographs on the Weasleys' chest of drawers, Severus saw a blurred red sea of smiling faces and waving arms before turning away, unable to stand the evidence of so much familial closeness when he was feeling so dejected. Hermione might be an honorary Weasley, but he'd always felt . . . tolerated.
A remonstrative voice, perhaps Hermione's, interrupted his disturbing thoughts to remind him that Arthur had never been anything but kind to him.
Even when he was a Seventh Year and you, a Firstie, and no one's ever treated you badly in this house.
But that had been before he'd given the Weasleys a reason to laugh at him.
He'll know. They'll talk about it, and he'll know, Severus thought miserably.
His son wasn't even born, and already he'd done something to shame him.
Abruptly, Severus stood up and began pacing the room.
I have no business being a father! he told himself, moving to rub his arse. "Damn!" he shouted, withdrawing his hand from his tender flesh so quickly that his arm knocked one of the photographs from the chest.
Severus retrieved it at once, looking around like a scared child who'd done something naughty before turning it over.
His mind blanked.
At the bottom of the picture in Molly's handwriting, it read, "Our Hermione, our Severus, and their happy day."
A lump formed in Severus' throat. He set the photograph down carefully and drew a shaky breath. Smoothing out his—Arthur's—robes and looking at the tea tray he'd brought up, no doubt at Molly's request, he suddenly felt rather childish, indeed.
I came here because it was safe, and because . . . these people are more my family than my own people ever were.
And Hermione loved them, and he loved her.
She loves me, and I'm going to be a father.
It wasn't how he'd imagined his future, but being an honorary Weasley, he decided, was worth the pain of public nudity. He'd survive.
That's right, you ungrateful tosser, he chided himself, remembering Hermione's angry expression as he'd awoken to find her hovering over him in the Shrieking Shack once the Dark Lord had been destroyed, because Hermione would kill you if you died of embarrassment—or anything else!
"George! George Weasley! Open this door!" she shouted, clutching her wand more tightly as a were-rabbit circled overhead.
The door flew open and she leapt inside the shop to close it just before the creature dived for her.
"Merlin, could you have been any slower?" she demanded, striking George hard across the face.
"OW! What was that for?"
"This is your fault, you thieving prat! Why? What reason could you have possibly had to interfere with those rabbits?"
George's eyes flew wide. "The hell I did! What are you—"
"I know you took Gobstone's scroll!"
"Well, sure, but just to read! Hermione," George said, as she attempted to hit him again and he grabbed her arm, "stop it. I didn't experiment on any bunnies!"
"Then how do you ex—"
"But I think I know who did," George interrupted, releasing her.
Startled, Hermione looked at George closely; he was wearing a belt that was hung with weapons and two extra wands. "You're surely not thinking of going out there?"
"It's that wanker, Joseph Hill—the bloke who runs the Menagerie? He's a . . . a mate, and he told me about Gobstone's experiments months ago, before I borrowed—"
"You borrowed an ancient, sensitive document to impress a shag?" Hermione asked, disgusted.
"He was a great sha—"
"Would you listen? He's not who I thought he was."
"No, I mean Tom says that old Hill never had a nephew."
"He had a niece," George continued, his eyes narrowing, "called Joanna, who Hill disowned for her connection to a known member of Fenrir Greyback's pack."
Hermione's blood ran cold—just as something large came crashing through the front window.
"Is that a man, Gran?" Teddy whispered.
His voice seemed terribly loud in the relative silence.
"It was, my dear. Come, we need to return to the house. It isn't—"
"Hoppy!" Teddy cried, rushing forward to his rabbit, who'd emerged from the undergrowth and was "dancing" on the remains of the other rabbits.
"Scourgify," Andromeda cast on both bunny and boy, before taking Teddy by the hand and leading him quickly back to the cottage.
The Wireless was turned off as Severus entered the lounge, and all eyes turned to him.
"Come, we 'ave tea and stronger libations," Fleur Weasley, who was sitting on the sofa with Bill and their children, said.
"No, thank you. What happened to its body?" Severus asked, looking at Bill, who'd killed the creature that had attacked him.
"I burnt it. It seems as though there are plenty of them around—and killing them down at the shelter would have been made much easier if we'd known about this new spell," he continued, explaining what they'd learnt from the Wireless.
Sounds of an argument drifted into the room from the direction of the kitchen.
"—mad! I won't allow it!"
"The Ministry's . . . attack. I have to—"
"Ron brought Lavender here," Ginny Potter said. "They had similar . . . bunny issues."
Severus was startled to see her so close to term; it had been weeks since he and Hermione had last seen the Potters. He hoped that Hermione would deal as well with her pregnancy as Ginny had done with hers.
"The Ministry's under attack?"
"Werewolves," Arthur said. "Orders are to remain at home."
Severus scanned the room, frowning. "Where is Hermione?"
"Look out!" Hermione shouted, still gasping for breath from having run the gauntlet that Diagon Alley had become and shoving another shelf against the cracking window. "They've all found us now, it seems."
They'd made it to the Menagerie while George had explained how he'd discovered "Hill's" perfidy and were now busily fully barricading it over the hoots and calls of various alarmed magical creatures.
Hermione added protective enchantments to their cages while George applied a Sticking Charm to the pile of furniture they'd just made against the un-boarded windows.
When they'd finished, George said, "I figured his interest in transmogrification wasn't to do with getting me into bed after all, which is why I wanted to come here. We might find something useful. You weren't scratched or anything, were you?"
"Where are the non-magical familiars?" Hermione asked, looking around by wand-light.
"There's a room below," George said, leading the way down a back stair behind the counter. "I imagine that Joe released all his transformed rabbits, so—"
"Shh!" Hermione hissed, grabbing George's arm.
The light from her wand only illuminated part of the stair, but just out of sight, there was an odd milling sound—and that of flapping.
"Fuck me," said George. "I was wrong."
The Homorphous Charm didn't last long and could only be cast a handful of times against any one werewolf in a twenty-four-hour period, so he knew he hadn't much time. Staring at the naked man, who was bound to a chair in an empty office—one the other werewolves hadn't yet found—he tightened the grip of the hand around the bastard's throat and shoved his wand in a little deeper.
"I knew Gideon Talbot. He was registered—and I found what was left of him between Fortescue's and Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes not long ago." Removing his wand and releasing his grip upon the werewolf's throat, he demanded, "Tell me who you really are—and what you're doing here—or I'll conjure silver and jam it up your arse!"
The man's eyes widened. "You wouldn't. You're an Aur—"
"I'm the Boy Who Sodding Lived, you stupid fuck! I killed Voldemort. Do you think I'll have any qualms about killing you?"
Harry hated invoking his "title," but sometimes it worked faster than anything else, and he didn't fancy actually shoving a handful of silver up the bloke's arse.
"But Ron, dear, that would require—"
"A lock of her hair," Lavender spat, interrupting Molly. "He's got one, I imagine."
Ron flushed. "Yeah, I do," he replied, Summoning a small silver box.
It didn't take long. "Why would she have gone to Diagon Alley?" Severus demanded, suddenly remembering the conversation he'd been having with Hermione before they'd had to Dispparate to safety. "Fuck."
"What is it?" asked Arthur.
"She believes that the were-rabbits are to do with George."
"What? But that's—"
"Later!" Ron exclaimed. "We need to go after—"
"Like hell you do."
"Lavender," Ron began, while his father and brothers stood up and walked towards the fireplace.
"We need more Floo powder," Arthur said, running into the kitchen while Bill Summoned broomsticks and Lavender insisted, "You can't go—not without me!"
"Don't be ridiculous! You're pregnant!"
"Ron, Lavender, that's wonderful news," said Molly, "but now's not the time to argue."
"Who's pregnant now?" Arthur asked, returning with a full pail of Floo powder.
Ron put a finger to Lavender's lips. "I'd die if anything happened to you. You have to stay here, and Hermione's pregnant, as well—with our godchild."
"What?" a chorus of voices demanded, including Severus, who glared at Ron in surprise.
"What are you just standing there for?" Lavender shouted, turning to Severus, as if she hadn't just been as jealous as he moments before.
Seizing a handful of powder from Arthur's pail, Severus threw it into the fire and said clearly, "The Leaky Cauldron," before leaping into the flames. As the Floo took him, he thought, No reason to be jealous, at all.
The door had refused to open, and they hadn't been able to destroy it, as the were-rabbits had flown at them.
"Got any better ideas?" George demanded.
"I'd rather—oof! Not die because of a Maximum Engorgement spell, thank you very much! And I can't raise my wand!"
"It's better than being eaten to dea—"
A sickening, gory stench filled the air, causing George and Hermione to gag.
"Oh, no. Oh . . . George! They're eating through—"
An earsplitting crack rent the air, and Hermione found herself snatched up and onto a broomstick as the door behind them split open, smoking from whatever spell had broken it.
"Hold on!" Severus ordered, as George was similarly rescued by Ron before all four of them flew through the Menagerie and out of the spell-charred remains of what had been its storefront.
Hermione held her breath as the sound of hundreds of wings beating the air followed them, releasing it as the several riders surrounding them cast a spell with which she was entirely unfamiliar: "AGUAMENTI ARGEN—"
"—TUM MAXIMUS!" another group of riders shouted.
Aurors, Hermione thought, squeezing her eyes shut and clinging to Severus as he chased after and killed more of the creatures.
"DO YOU HAVE HER?"
The broom lurched sickeningly as Severus turned sharply—Hermione supposed to show Harry that she was safe—and then it swooped towards the ground. Once standing on her feet, Hermione staggered backwards, only to be caught up in an embrace by Severus.
"Are you all right?"
Something sticky oozed down Hermione's face, and she rubbed it furiously into Severus' robes. "I . . . I need a bath. How did you—"
"You need a bath? You . . . you foolishly endangered—you told Ron Weasley that he was to be our—a bath?—child's godfather, and that's all you have to say?"
"Snape, you're babbling. Look to Hermione," Harry ordered, having landed nearby and turned his wand on her. "No wounds," he told her, appearing immensely relieved.
"A bath?" Severus repeated, his eyes wild as he clutched Hermione's shoulders, hard.
Suddenly incensed, Hermione raised a foot and brought her heel down on Severus' instep—harder.
Hermione glared at her, shaking, and saw that Lavender's angry expression faded immediately, which was why she didn't protest when Lavender knelt by the bathtub and brushed her hair back.
"It's all right. You're safe. And whatever he said to upset you, I'm sure it was all down to his concern for—"
Having held them in for too long, Hermione burst into nervous tears.
"Hermione!" Lavender exclaimed, drawing her into a hug. "Goodness, it's all right, really. Everything's fine," she soothed, rocking her gently.
Hermione clung to Lavender, feeling stupid and sick and tired, but unable to stop crying.
"It was a shock, I know, but—"
"He can't . . . don't . . . tell him," Hermione choked out, through her sobs. "He's never . . . before."
"What hasn't he 'never', love?"
"Seen . . . seen me cry—but I was so scared." It felt good to admit, even to Lavender. "Oh, Merlin! I am a . . . a silly cow."
"You're no such thing! I only said as much because Severus is downstairs drinking himself into a stupor and arguing with Ron and Percy about everything under the sun. He's worried about you—and when did you know you were pregnant?" Lavender asked, gently pulling a bit away.
Wiping her nose, Hermione hiccoughed and looked down. "Towel."
Lavender handed her one.
Standing and wrapping the towel around herself, Hermione accepted Lavender's hand as she stepped out of the bathtub.
"You're allowed to cry in front of your husband, you know—and congratulations," Lavender added, smiling warmly.
"I know," Hermione said, feeling rather stupid.
As if there hadn't just been an embarrassing emotional scene, Lavender continued, "And in case Ron hasn't told you, we're pregnant, as well."
"I don't think you'll still be saying 'we' a few months from now," Hermione replied, smiling slightly.
Grinning, Lavender said, "Perhaps not, but for now, I think tea would do very nicely, don't you?"
As Lavender left the room, Hermione found herself feeling much better, and she was surprised to discover that she'd had a friend in Lavender without realising it.
But then, that's only because I told Ron no, she thought, snorting.
As much as she loved Ron, had been in love with him, there had been something too compelling about Severus to ignore—and they'd got on so surprisingly well while she'd worked at Hogwarts to rebuild the library while he'd directed the rebuilding of the school that it hadn't come as much of a surprise as it should have, falling in love with him while Ron was training to be an Auror.
"I knew there was a reason to hate that git," Ron had said, when they'd parted as friends.
It was just that Severus was so accomplished, and Hermione had never been able to stand the thought of appearing weak to his eyes. Severus, she knew well, despised weakness.
But he loves you, she told herself, staring into the mirror, so stop your . . . your bovine whinging and go take care of him!
Almost all of Greyback's werewolves had been captured, and the altered bunnies would die, Ministry researchers had verified, after three cycles of the moon. In the interim, Aurors had been dispatched all over Britain before the last full moon of the cycle to put the were-rabbits down in Muggle areas—and keeping rabbits had fallen out of fashion with most people.
Hermione, now just into her second trimester, was waiting for Severus under their tree. Mrs Snuggles slept on her lap, and Crookshanks, by her feet. Feeling sleepy, herself, her notes on Chapter Forty-Two forgotten, she was just dozing off when she heard the sound of approaching footsteps.
"What's this? Napping on such a momentous occasion?" he asked, leaning down to kiss her before sitting down, himself.
"What's that?" she asked, nodding at the parcel that came to rest upon her other side. "And what occasion?"
"It's the twenty-eighth of September," Severus replied, nodding at the parcel.
"Oh!" Hermione exclaimed, taking up the package and opening it. "You brought me Wintersmith!"
Severus didn't smile, but his eyes glowed with pleasure as he said, "Not just that. While in the bookstore, I saw something else by the author that I thought might—"
"Severus! Oh, you're wonderful!" Hermione cried, throwing her arms around his neck and kissing him soundly. "This is perfect."
Hermione's new books were on the table, and Severus smiled to see them. He didn't understand her fascination with the Discworld—beyond the Night Watch books, not that he'd ever admit to Hermione that he borrowed them, of course—but when he'd learnt that Where's My Cow? was good enough for the stalwart Samuel Vimes' son, he'd decided to add it to the growing library that he and Hermione were building for their child.
Children picked up knowledge early.
And it's never too soon to learn about the world in which one lives, Severus thought, picking up the book and leafing through it. It's not safe, but it doesn't have to be frightening. "That's not my Daddy," he murmured, grinning as he imagined tailoring the reading of the book for his own son. "That's hunched old Tom!"
Yes, Vimes had got it right, and so had he: they both had found good, brave, loving women, and learnt the importance of family before it had grown too late to make one for themselves.
A fine book, Severus told himself, well-satisfied with his purchase as he carefully set it aside, not least because it doesn't feature a single rabbit!
"See that?" she whispered, rubbing her belly, "your father's just a big softie."
Of course, she had no intention of ever letting on to Severus that she knew; the tongue-lashing he'd give her for the very suggestion of such a thing wasn't the kind at which he was best.