You find it dark in the woods, dark, cool, and oddly silent. You know that this is not due to you. Sarah has recently passed through the clearing in which you now stand. Looking up, you see autumnally bare branches outlined in the faint, silvery light that is spilling through the clouds. You shiver and look down at the results of your magic: outlines of tiny footprints pulsing green and leading away from you. Your eldest is not far. You follow the path that she's made.
"Wait," Severus calls, softly.
You shake your head. "No time."
"In that case . . . ."
If you weren't so worried, you'd swear, but you are, so you don't.
He holds you more tightly and rises higher into the air.
Looking over her head, you'd seen Hermione lower hers as if to hide the expression in her eyes.
That was the moment, you decide, that you should have become concerned.
No, you think, as you feel your wife's heart beating, hard, against your own, I should have . . . .
You don't permit yourself to complete the thought.
I never should have stopped it, you think, as the absence of your son resting against your bosom aches painfully. I never should have stopped her supplement. "Sarah, where are—"
Severus' hand is warm and firm against your mouth, warm and firm and unyielding. You bite it, then snarl, "Don't do that to me!"
"Then be silent!" Severus insists. "We'll never find her if she knows—"
"She already knows," you tell him, gooseflesh raising on your arms.
She's running. Your daughter is running away . . . from you.
Too little, too late.
You've known for a while, now, that your children . . . the children . . . that it might come to this. You were warned. Poppy—your only colleague, your only friend, who knows—warned you, but you were arrogant enough to believe that you, you, would see nurture triumph over nature.
I wasn't parenting alone, and Hermione has so much love to give, you think, fearing as you do that in this case, there isn't enough love in the world. Or supplemental blood.
You fly faster.
The agent knew what Sarah was.
Of more immediate concern to you, however, is that Severus also knows.
"Stop," you tell him.
"Why? Do you see them?"
"Put us, put us down."
Severus' muscles tighten—in self-control or obeisance, you don't know—as you again find your feet.
"There are no male hags," you say, fighting back tears.
"Hermione, what are you saying?"
Your husband's voice, the anguish in it, runs through your body and down your spine like cold fire. "We never should have brought him to Hogwarts," you tell him.
"Are you suggesting that we sacrifice Alex?"
"I'm not suggesting—I'm just trying to—Severus, they told us. . . . This may well be nature . . . taking its course."
"But Severus, Sarah might have already—"
"No!" You think of your son, for he is your son, and you shout, "I won't let her harm Alex!"
As you do, the memory of the first warning rises in your mind.
"It doesn't do to place two hag children in the same household."
The adoption agent had been quite clear on that point, you remember. Male hag babies placed with human and wizarding families do reasonably well, all things considered—the main consideration being that their own mothers' families tend to eat them in "natural" situations—and female hag babies, so long as they haven't any siblings, of course, do remarkably well. You know that. You accepted that at the time, but your desire for a son, well, you still find it surprisingly powerful.
"Stay here and cry if you must," you snarl at Hermione. "I'm going to save Alex!"
Severus' shove catches you off guard, and you stumble.
"Unlike you," he says, "I don't play favourites! Unlike you, I don't give in to her demands! If you'd not given her human—"
"Human blood? The blood that you find for her?" you demand. "You know it's for Alex! You know it kept, keeps Sarah from—"
Severus looms over you, his face a mask of fear-induced rage. "'Kept'?"
"I'm, I'm weaning, er, I thought perhaps she didn't need—"
"Need it anymore?" shouts Severus, his eyes wild with emotion. "You've been mixing it into her food all this time, telling yourself that everything would be all right—and it has been!"
"Yes," you assert, "which is why—"
"How could you have stopped giving it to her, Hermione? Why, why did I permit you to give it to her at all?"
You feel your nostrils flare in disgust, for you, for him, you don't know. "I don't require your permission, especially as you're doing the same thing for our son!"
Severus straightens and says, "Alex's nutritional needs dictate that—"
"You're a hypocrite!" you interrupt, "and you do play favourites. You wanted a boy. Sarah wasn't enough for you."
"And you were greedy," spits Severus. "One baby wasn't enough for you!"
Shoulders sagging, tears running down her face, she whispers, "We have to find them. They're so little, so lost . . . ."
"No, they aren't," you say, refusing to fail to see things as they are any longer. "Sarah has Alex. She's taken him. She's not lost. Your tracking spell shows us that much."
Hermione draws her wand, and reaching for your own, you say, "You can't mean to—"
"They aren't blood of our blood, Severus, but the adoption ritual made them essentially so."
"Casting a Calling, a wizarding spell, on hag children could seriously dam—"
Hermione casts it before you can finish your sentence, and in the distance, you hear an eldritch shriek shiver through the trees. The very air seems to bend around you, and then suddenly, you see your girl appear before you.
"I wasn't done, yet!" you shout, stamping your feet. "I still need to—"
You recoil from Mummy's slap as she screams, "Where is he? Where is your brother?"
"Daddy, please. I've got to—"
"Where," says Daddy, more quietly than you've ever heard him speak, "is Alex?"
"A hag has him! She took him! She made herself Thin and took him and I poked her with the big needle, but it wasn't enough! I have to poke her more so she'll stop because she has him!"
You collapse, exhausted and terrified, to the ground. Mummy's hands are balled into fists. Daddy's eyes blaze with black light. That stronger hag has the baby, and you failed.
"I'm the big sister, but I couldn't stop her," you sob.
"Merlin!" exclaims Daddy, pulling you into his arms as Mummy searches your face, all your you, for hurts.
"Oh, baby, Mummy's so sorry. I never would have—I'm so sorry!"
You struggle down. "Didn't you hear me? She has him!"
Severus' Apparation behind the hag startles you, but you run, arms outstretched for Alex as the hag falls limply to the forest floor and Sarah, bearing an Engorged knitting needle, stabs at her still form.
You realize that you don't know what else to do. "I don't have anything! I don't know what to—"
Severus begins to sing. You don't know the words, but you see what they mean as Alex begins to cry and his flesh begins to knit. You hold him. You cradle him and cry. You listen to Severus' voice and the vague squelching of your brave girl stabbing the hag. You're so overwhelmed, you don't even notice when you lose consciousness.
"But what about Mummy? She won't wake up." You're worried. Mummy never sleeps.
"Your mother has been taking most of the feedings, you know."
"I do know that, Daddy. I don't think it's fair," you tell him, because oddly enough, Mummy hasn't. "Oh, and I've been helping."
Daddy gently raises up your chin with his free hand. "Sarah, my little She Bear," he says, with the hint of a ghost of a smile, "taking care of her brother cub."
You like that. You like bears. Daddy knows that very well.
"It doesn't hurt anymore," you say, meaning your face. Mummy's slap had stung, but not as much as knowing that your home, even as close to the castle as it was, wasn't as safe as you'd always believed. "She used magic, too."
"Do you mean the hag?" asks Daddy.
You nod. "When she climbed through the window, I tried to scream, but . . . ."
You know now that you couldn't have harmed your daughter even if she had acted according to her supposed nature. She's yours. The first time she'd squeezed one of your fingers and gurgled up at you, she'd been yours. With Alex, well, it had been a vomit-related moment, but the effect had been the same; you'd taken him from Hermione, and he'd "projectiled" all over you—but all you had been able to think about was how strong your son was.
"I didn't get the hag, Daddy. You did."
"If you'd not stayed with Alex and distracted the hag with that knitting needle, when we found you, things might have been very different," you say, in a rare attempt at delicacy.
"You mean she'd have eaten him, I know!" insists Sarah. "That's why you killed her. Am I allowed to tell people?"
Without a word, Severus passes you your son.
"He'll live, Mummy. Daddy did the thing for hurts—but the spell you cast made me feel all hot and prickly and pulled."
"I'm so sorry. I just had to find you. I'm so sorry I struck—"
"Oh, it's all right," Sarah says, with the affected casualness of someone quite older. "Daddy told me that you were not yourself."
You bite your lip. "I'm . . . I'm your mother. I shouldn't have—"
"I forgive you, Mummy," Sarah tells you, wiping away a tear. "Oh!"
"Where are you going?" you ask, but before Sarah can answer, she's back and pressing a lachrymatory to your face.
"This one's new. Daddy broke my old one. Keep crying."
Severus snorts. You giggle. Sarah collects. Alex sleeps.
Soon, you're all dozing together, listening to the sounds of your collected breathing as the dawn stretches itself slowly into the room.
It's warm, and you're all safe.
The nightmare is over.
"Even after all that, you still feel safe with me, don't you?"
The baby kicks his fat little legs. He makes noises that sound like laugh-filled burps as you safely cradle him.
Mouthing one of his sweet-smelling feet, you think, I'll never, ever let some other hag steal you again.
You know it's more than your duty to protect the baby. You feel it. You feel it deep inside the hurting part of your tummy.
The baby gurgles. The noise sounds almost like a question.
"Yes, that's right," you whisper. "You're mine, baby boy. You've always been mine."