"Read me another one, Uncle Harry," Rose mumbles as she drifts off into sleep.
Harry sets down the storybook, puts out the light, and slips out of the room. Silently he pads down the hall to the next bedroom, and when he reaches the doorway, he pauses.
Hermione is there, facing away from him and leaning over Hugo's cot. Her tangle of hair is falling down around both sides of her face, exposing a small triangle of skin at the nape of her neck. Harry can just see her hand stroking Hugo's auburn curls, softly and slowly, as though entranced. He hesitates, feeling he's intruded on a private moment and ought to go, but so caught off-guard by it that he doesn't move right away.
Unaware of him, Hermione straightens up and cracks her back. She slides a hand under her shirt and rubs at her breasts; as she turns round she's wincing, and then her face turns to startlement when she sees Harry is there.
"Oh! I didn't—" She hastily removes her hand from her shirt, blushing furiously.
"No, no, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have snuck up," Harry whispers back, his face going warm.
"It's all right." She glances back to make sure Hugo is still sleeping, then comes out into the hall, throwing Harry a sheepish smile. "I was just— You know, with nursing, I get sore at times."
"Yeah, I know," Harry says with a smile and a shrug. "Nothing I haven't seen before. Rose is down, too. I can get going; I suppose you'd like some time to yourself."
"Actually, I wouldn't mind some company for a bit, if you've got time to stay," Hermione replies, heading for the living room. "I mean, I almost hate to ask — you've been such a help while Ron's working nights — but with two toddlers in the house, I don't always get as much grown-up conversation as I'd like."
"Of course, it's no trouble," he says, following her. "Ginny and the boys won't be back in town until the week-end either, so it'd just be me twiddling my thumbs if I went home."
"Well, I can't even say how much I appreciate it." She sits down and makes an inviting gesture to the other end of the sofa. "You know how Rose adores you. Having you here all day is her dream come true." A teasing little smile.
Harry settles himself in the corner of the sofa, grinning. "It's my pleasure, really. I love that age. Jamie's already starting to tell me he's too big for bedtime stories."
"I love it too, much as I complain sometimes," Hermione admits. She props her elbow up on the back of the sofa and rests her head in her hand. "The time feels like it's going by so quickly. Sometimes it seems Hugo was born just yesterday. Yet, here I am, already thinking about weaning."
That word — weaning — pings a secret place in Harry's heart, and makes it race for a few beats.
"Is it time, already?" he asks, making his voice sound casual.
"Maybe not quite yet. But soon enough that it's on my mind." She breathes out a small sigh, and gazes past Harry at some distant point outside the room. "You know, I never would have thought I'd feel this way. With Rose and Hugo so close together, I've been nursing for a long time. But I'm actually not sure I'm ready to give it up." Her eyes dart quickly to his. "That probably sounds silly."
He shakes his head, silently telling his twisting stomach to knock it off. "If it's how you feel, it's not silly."
She gives a crooked smile and puts her hand on his knee for a moment, rubbing briefly, as if to say, You're sweet. She's quiet for a moment, giving him an appraising sort of look, as though weighing whether to say anything more.
He stays quiet too, listening. He's known Hermione long enough to know when she wants to talk, and if this is what she wants to talk about, well... he'll get through it, somehow.
After a minute, she goes on. "There's just such an intimacy to it," she says. "Nursing, I mean. It's not like anything else, and nothing like I'd imagined. I was actually a bit stunned by it, when I nursed Rose for the first time."
Each time she says nurse, Harry feels increasingly exposed, half-expecting her to read the thoughts dancing at the front of his mind. "Stunned?"
"Well, maybe that's not the word." She pulls her leg up onto the sofa under her, eyes searching the wall behind him. "I was surprised by the power of it. It's a bit... awe-inspiring, to be entrusted with this tiny, helpless person, to shape their very earliest memories and to nourish them out of your own body." She makes a gesture of holding something in the air in front of her, as though trying to grasp the sublime idea in her hands. "It's very primitive and basic. When I'm nursing, all the complexities of life just fade away. I'm sorry if this is strange," she adds hastily, curbing herself and crossing her arms in a tight self-hug. "It's hard to explain, and I know it's not the most comfortable topic for some men." She looks at him sidelong, vulnerable.
"It's never bothered me," he assures her, which in some ways is true and in some ways is really, really not. "Actually, I've always found it sort of fascinating." He means that last remark to sound offhand, but it doesn't, and he kicks himself for saying it.
Hermione pauses. There is a moment where her mouth is slightly open and her eyes are full of wonder, as though he's said something that's touched her in a place she did not expect to be touched.
"Oh? Fascinating in what way?" she asks, a small quiver in her voice. He can see the tension in her neck. Hermione has never been good at acting casual.
"Erm, well, I just meant..." His mind is racing for a way to explain that doesn't sound weird, nor anything like the truth, which is definitely weird. "...it's amazing how the body works, giving a baby what it needs, and all." And he really should stop there, but somehow his mouth just keeps going without his brain's permission. "And maybe it's also because... I mean, I don't know if my mother ever breastfed me, and if she did I don't remember it. But of course my aunt bottle-fed me, and I can actually remember..."
Hermione is giving him a look with her lips drawn in like she might cry, and Harry is not even sure how he got into the middle of this sentence, nor how to get out of it without horribly embarrassing himself.
"...I remember her nursing my cousin, and being a bit jealous of him — I guess I feel like it's something I missed out on, and sometimes when I've seen Ginny with the kids I just... erm, yeah." Harry stops. His cheeks are burning, and his palms sweating; he rubs them on his jeans. "Yeah, sorry. I'm babbling." He tries for a laugh, but it comes out sounding sad.
Hermione places her hand on top of his, leaning over and trying to peer into his downturned face. "I'm sorry," she says earnestly. "I'd no idea you felt like that; I didn't mean to upset you. You've nothing to be ashamed of. It's not really surprising — seeing Ginny become a mother, and your friends, too — that it would bring up those thoughts."
He likes her euphemism — the polite fiction that it brings up thoughts rather than feelings. His friend for two decades, Hermione knows him all too well. He puts his other hand over hers, too, and manages a smile.
"It's all right," he says stiffly. "It's just a bit hard to talk about."
"Have you ever said anything to Ginny?"
He shakes his head. "She doesn't feel about it how you do. The... intimacy, and all that. She wanted it over with as quickly as possible."
"I— Well, I won't say I know how you feel," Hermione corrects herself, as though it's a mistake she's made too many times and has been working on. "But I've never been able to talk to Ron about it, either. He always leaves the room when I'm nursing. I think it embarrasses him. And, I mean, it's his right to feel that way, but I wish it were something I could share with him. It's so important and so..." She seems to have to force herself to say the next word. "...so beautiful to me. But he doesn't see it the way I do."
They're still holding hands, and although it's not something they'd ordinarily do, somehow it feels very natural. Companionable. Hermione's touch seems to undo some of the buttons in Harry's heart, making it feel not so frightening to let it come open.
"I've thought about saying something to Ginny," he admits quietly. "But I'm not sure what I'd say. If she felt differently about it, more positively, I might just ask her if I could—" He breaks off, hedges it with a chuckle, armouring himself against being taken seriously.
"Do you mean..." Hermione swallows. "...ask her if you could try it?"
Harry isn't laughing anymore; his mouth is dry, and when he speaks it comes out almost a whisper. "Yeah. Like maybe if I just knew what it was like, I wouldn't think about it anymore."
"Do you think about it a lot?"
"All the time," he says, and it's not until he hears himself say it that it fully hits him how true it is, how many nights he's lain awake watching Ginny sitting with one of the kids on the edge of the bed, wishing.
"Sometimes," Hermione says, her breath going soft and shallow as she leans in closer to him, "sometimes I've thought about asking Ron if he would... But he seems so put off by it all, I was afraid to say it."
As they've sat here talking, the sun has gone down and the windows have gone dark. The two of them are sitting in a pool of lamplight, like a stage where they are the only two performers. The soft glow of it makes Hermione's cheeks look pinker and her eyes look darker.
"Do you," Harry starts to say, and then wets his lips. "I mean, would you ever." He stops again, like an actor who cannot remember the next line.
Hermione's mouth works silently, her eyes pleading. He can feel her tension in the touch of her hand upon his. "I— I can't say it."
"I can't either," he breathes. "You have to."
They both laugh, both trembling.
"Okay. Erm." She looks as frightened as a third-year about to ask her crush to the ball. She shakes her head as if to clear it — nonsense, this hesitation! — and then says rather matter-of-factly: "Would you like me to nurse you?"
"This isn't a dream, is it?"
Hermione lets out a burst of laughter. She pinches herself, and then turns up her hands, looking round as if to say — well, here we still are.
Harry is grinning uncontrollably and some of the dreadful knottedness has gone out of his stomach. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, if you want to. I want to."
"I want to," she says.
"Right now?" He asks it half in alarm, half in desperate hope.
Hermione bites her lip, and answers in a way that sounds like it's coming from the most honest part of herself: "I'm afraid if we don't do it now, we'll talk ourselves out of it and we never will."
He has a feeling that she's right.
"Let's do it, then," he says, trying to let himself believe it could be that easy. "I mean, it's all right, isn't it?" he adds, already starting to fulfill her prophecy. "It's not like we're going to..." He trails off, unable to say what it is they're not going to do.
"No," she says firmly.
"No," he echoes, relieved. He loves Hermione, and he wants to do this with her more than he's ever wanted anything, but he doesn't actually want more than that. He wants her in a way that he has never wanted anyone before.
"It's all right," she assures him, hand on his shoulder. "We'll make it all right."
He believes her. He swallows, and nods. "Okay. How should I...?"
Her breath is coming more quickly now. "You could, erm... put your head in my lap."
Can he? He's not at all sure that he can. In fact, he is sure that he can't, right up until the moment when he does it.
There isn't much room on the sofa, and he has to draw up his knees, resting his head on Hermione's thigh. His heart pounding, he looks up at her, wanting her to tell him again that it will be all right.
At this angle, the light is behind her, and it illuminates her hair like a halo as she gazes down at him, angelic. Her face is half-shadowed, but he can see that she is smiling.
"I'm so nervous," she says in a shaky laugh. "I've got butterflies." He can feel the rise and fall of her body as she breathes. "But I really want this."
"Me too," he says. "All of those things."
She lifts her shirt. The cotton brushes against the tip of Harry's nose. She's wearing a nursing bra that opens with a snap in the front; Ginny has the same kind.
She unsnaps it — a blunt metallic sound he's heard a hundred times, but this time it is different. It feels like a signal, a snap of the fingers that tells him it is finally time. A curious sort of calm descends on him.
They're not saying anything, and in the quiet room, the rustle of the fabric as she pulls it to the side is loud in Harry's ears. This is the first time that Harry has seen Hermione's bare breast, but with his face only an inch away from her, it is very unlike what he'd think of as seeing her breasts. What he sees are the bumps and wrinkles of her areola. What he sees are the wide pores around it. What he sees are a few faint little freckles on her skin that he'd never have noticed from any further away.
Her hand is trembling as she takes her breast and presses it softly forward, offering it to him. That motion feels like another signal, awakening a primal craving that declares itself in his head, loud and deep and plain:
I need to nurse.
His mouth opens, and he cranes his neck, reaching. She leans forward and raises her thighs a little, giving his head a boost.
"There you go," she whispers, as though unaware she's saying it, and she directs her nipple in.
At first his instincts fail him — he sucks shallowly at the tip, as if pleasuring her, and nothing comes out. Gently she corrects him. She shows him how he needs to take more, her whole areola. It fits differently in his mouth, his lips splayed out against her skin.
When at last he latches on properly, Hermione's milk dribbles out easily onto his tongue, warm and creamy and more than he'd expected. He swallows and it breaks the latch; he gasps for breath and glances up at her, embarrassed at his failure.
The most wonderfully kind smile is beaming down at him, supportive and encouraging. "You're doing fine," she murmurs. "Just breathe through your nose."
He nods — as much as he can from this position — and catches a glimpse of a white droplet at the tip of her nipple before she guides it in again.
It takes a minute to learn the pattern of suckling, breathing, and swallowing. The taste surprises him: It's absolutely nothing like the blank cold whiteness of what he'd once thought of as milk. Hermione's milk is not that. It is rich and sweet, warm as her body, and raw as a mother's love. After only a few swallows, it seems to intoxicate him, making him sleepy, like drinking the most beautiful dream.
Hermione cradles his head in her hand, propping him up as he nurses. He has felt her touch ten thousand times, but never as gentle as this. Their bodies fit together like slipping into a worn and comfortable jumper, his cheek against her leg and his hands against her hip. He feels himself empty of every worry, every awkward thought — a vessel to be filled by her.
His eyes fall shut, and nursing is his entire world: All he hears is the sound of his own wet, rhythmic suckling; all he smells is the soft scent of her skin — her body smells like family, like home. All he feels is the rightness of her, and all he tastes is love.
It feels like he nurses forever, yet when her fingertip breaks the seal at the corner of his mouth, it feels like it's been no time at all. When he stops, he realises how warm and full he feels, and that he might not have been able to drink much more. Eyes still closed, he curls up more tightly round her body.
The word slips out of his mouth in a tiny whisper, lips brushing against her skin: "Mum."
She draws in a small, startled gasp. Then she draws him closer into her arms. Protecting.
"Yes," she says, a quaver of heartbreak in her voice. "Mum's here."
When she says those words, when he hears them, it is like a jigsaw piece falling into place, precisely filling up an empty space he has lived with so long that he almost forgot it was there.
From out of that filled-up space radiates a pleasure like none he's ever known, which grows until it's everywhere inside him, happy and safe, curling his toes and making him snuggle closer to her. He grasps at the hem of her shirt. Mum is here, at last, at last, at last.
She cradles him in her lap, and her fingertips stroke his hair, gently tucking it back behind his ear. He feels more than hears the hummed lullaby that thrums through her body, promising a heaven of boundless and unwavering love.
He might have fallen asleep that way, except that after a long time lying with his head in her lap, Harry's neck begins to twinge. At first the pain feels distant and irrelevant, but in time it grows stronger and starts to draw him back to himself.
As though sensing his discomfort, Hermione whispers, "Harry?"
He stirs, and starts to sit up. She helps him, holding his shoulders and looking at him with intent concern. His head is fuzzy, like waking up from a long and deeply needed night's sleep. With some difficulty he brings his gaze into focus on her. Her eyes are brimming with tears.
"Are you okay?" he asks automatically.
"Yes," she says, wiping her eyes with the back of her wrist. "I'm sorry," she half-laughs. "What about you, are you...?"
"I'm fine," Harry says, and it's more true than it has been in a long time.
"I don't know what to say," she says, a stray tear sliding down her smiling cheek. She takes his hands in hers and squeezes them. "Thank you. For letting me see that part of you."
He feels heat come to his face; he glances aside. "Oh, well. Thanks for... erm... not minding."
"Minding," she echoes, laugh-crying and flicking her gaze to the ceiling. Minding, he says.
"Well, you never know," he says, a bit defensively. "Some people might not understand."
"I suppose not," she says, looking down at their intertwined hands. She hesitates, then says, "This may sound premature, but..." She clears her throat. "I was thinking, while you were lying there, that I don't want this to be the last time we do this." She meets his eyes, an edge of fear in her look.
There are so many ways he wants to say yes, yes, please let us do this again, please please please that they crowd for space in his head and for a moment he can't say anything at all, slack-jawed. "I don't want it to be the last time either," he finally manages.
Her face relaxes into relief. "Good. But..." She rubs her palm against his knuckles, looking at him a bit squinty-eyed. "...if it's not going to be the last time, I think we should talk to Ron and Ginny about it. I think they'll understand — I'm sure they will — and I wouldn't feel right keeping it secret, even if we're not really... you know."
For a moment Harry is caught between a feeling of fierce affection for Hermione being so Hermione, and a gut-sinking fear that perhaps Ron and Ginny won't understand at all. But all the same, he nods. He trusts her — more now than ever.
"Good," she says again. "Because I think I'd really like..." Her cheeks flush, and a smile curls her lips. "I'd really like to be your mum, sometimes."
Harry's heart is bursting, bursting, bursting with how much he wants that.
"I think I'd really like it too," he says.