Chapter 28: Memory

Hermione was in the bath, enjoying her twenty minutes of completely-alone-time. It was the only time she was entirely away from Martin, the boys, and everyone else, and she enjoyed it. So she wasn't at all pleased when the bathroom door opened and Dilly slipped in, closing the door firmly behind her. "Professor Snape is here to see Miss. He is insisting that it cannot wait."

Dilly was usually thrilled to see Severus, but she sounded decidedly dubious this time. Hermione hastily scrambled out of the bath and reached for her dressing gown. She'd long ago gotten used to the idea of Dilly seeing her breastfeeding, in the bath, and so on. The little house-elf acted so much like a motherly middle-aged lady who'd already seen everything that anyone of either gender might have that it just didn't seem like a terribly big deal. "Is something wrong, Dilly?"

Dilly's ears drooped slightly. "Professor Snape is smelling of drink, Miss," she whispered, sounding scandalized. "Dilly thinks he is not quite sober. Professor Snape is hardly ever drinking during the school year, Miss, Dilly is worried that something is wrong."

Hermione was worried, too. She'd only ever seen him actually drunk the one time, and it had impaired his judgement very badly indeed. "I'll go talk to him, Dilly. Please get us some fresh tea."

"Yes, Miss," Dilly said, looking dubious but vanishing obediently. Hermione had long ago worked out that the quickest way to get rid of the house-elf was to ask for something.

She tied her dressing-gown tightly around her, hoping it wasn't too terribly obvious that she was starkers underneath, and padded out into the bedroom on still-wet feet. Severus was standing in the middle of the room, scowling, and Hermione smelled a faint whiff of some heavy, alcoholic smell. "Is something wrong?"

"Yes." His hands were clenching and unclenching at his sides. "I have tried to remember, Hermione. I have tried potions, a Pensieve, lucid dreaming - everything I can think of, but nothing has worked. I know that Draco found me semi-conscious and put me to bed at two. I know I spoke to Arthur Weasley at about ten and that I walked in on Fred Weasley snogging Lucinda Abbot at half-past one. But I can't remember any of it, any more than I can remember... that." He glanced at the cradle. "I need to know, Hermione."

Hermione felt very cold. She was distantly aware that she had reached for the nearest post of her bed, clutching at the carved wood for support. "I've told you what happened. Details aren't necessary, surely."

"My life depended for too long on knowing exactly what I had revealed, when, and to whom. To have an empty place in my memory is..." He shook his head, frowning. "I need to know what happened. For my own ease of mind."

Hermione swallowed hard. "I told you everything that was important. Really." He wouldn't, he couldn't make her sit down and describe the details of... of that. No. Even if he tried, she'd never be able to get the words out.

"I have a Pensieve. I know you know how to remove -"

"No." Hermione felt as if she was shouting the denial, but it came out in a strangled whisper.

"I was there, Hermione, I am entitled to -"

"No. I will not extract one of my own memories so you can watch us... together." Hermione shuddered. Her fingers felt numb and her heart felt as if it were beating far too slowly. She'd never expected this. The one comfort in knowing that he didn't remember any of it was knowing that he didn't know what a bloody lovesick fool she'd made of herself, and that was one thing she never wanted him to find out.

His eyes narrowed. "Miss Granger," he said, in the silky, furious tone that she hadn't heard from him since he'd thought she was having an affair with Percy. "You have admitted already that you forced your attentions on me while I was too damned drunk to give meaningful consent. Moreover, you failed to cast a proper contraceptive charm and then elected to risk exposure for both of us, without consulting me, by carrying the child to term. Every decision that should have been shared you have made alone. A chance to see for myself what happened, rather than depending on your abbreviated and no doubt biased account, is but the least part of what you owe me for what you have done."

The words struck her like blows, and Hermione found herself sitting on the floor, her trembling legs having failed to support her. "I... I thought..." she whispered, watching him blur and waver as her eyes filled with tears. "I didn't think you were still angry with me."

"I wasn't, until you refused to let me see my own past," he said coldly. "What was it, exactly, that you are so ashamed to have me see? Why are you so frightened by the thought that I might know the truth?"

Hermione felt the chill of shock ease, just slightly, as she finally noticed his tight, defensive posture and the tremble in his hands. After years of torment at the hands of both sides, of course he would think that her secret must be some hurtful, humiliating thing. It was fear that made him so harsh, it must be. He didn't hate her. He couldn't have been pretending to like her for so long, he was just... afraid. He needed to know. And he would never, ever trust her again if she didn't show him the truth, as humiliating as it would be.

Her hands were shaking so much that it took her several attempts to get her wand out of her pocket. "Get the little bowl on the dresser." He fetched it silently as she touched the tip of her wand to her temple, closing her eyes and focusing on that night. "I want this memory returned as soon as you finish with it."

"I will return it." The bowl nudged insistently against her arm. "Give it to me."

Swallowing hard, tears spilling down her cheeks from under her closed eyelids, Hermione drew out the silvery strand of memory and let it fall into the tiny bowl. It hurt, oh it hurt, to lose that one memory of him that she could never replace, and she could feel the cloudy emptiness in her memory like an open wound. "Take it. Look, if you must."

"I must." She heard footsteps, and then heard the door open and close. She was still huddled on the floor, weeping helplessly, when Dilly reappeared with the unneeded tea.

Severus was still breathing unevenly when he locked and warded his door behind him. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. That hadn't been what he'd wanted to do. If Draco had by some miracle been right, he'd surely killed any affection she might have had for him now.

He hadn't been able to help it. He'd expected her to be reluctant to show him the memory, and he'd even been willing to allow her to leave out the actual act of intimacy. But then he'd made the request and seen the fear and guilt written clearly across her face, and he'd known there was something she hadn't told him. Something she didn't want him to know.

Voldemort. The Death Eaters. The Aurors. The Order. The Marauders. He'd been helpless against all of them, and they'd all used him for whatever purpose they'd thought he could best serve. At the sight of her guilt, years of fear and bitterness and shame had welled up in a great angry rush of what have you done to me and in that moment he'd hated her, wanted her to feel as helpless and frightened as he did.

And it had worked. She'd been curled up on the floor when he'd left her, sobbing as if her heart was broken. Perhaps it was. Perhaps Draco had been right, and she'd begun to care, and he'd destroyed her love and trust in a single spate of angry words.

Severus drew a trembling hand across his face. Maybe it wasn't too late. Maybe if he went back to her now, returned the memory unseen, begged her forgiveness...

But he couldn't. He needed to know what it was she wanted to hide; what could be worse than what she'd already confessed to.

His stomach twisting with grief, he walked to the Pensieve he had set out on the small table beside his chair. Carefully, he tipped the single strand of memory into it, watching it swirl like smoky mercury for a long moment.

Then he entered it.

Severus found himself standing in the grounds of Malfoy Manor, where the celebrations had been held. Weasley fireworks lit up the sky, and bonfires dotted the lawn in front of the Manor. He hadn't been inside the Manor itself until later, he remembered that much, so he looked around for himself.

Some distance away, a group had formed around a bonfire and were dancing to a tinny tune from a small radio. One of the dancing figures broke away from the group, heading towards a great tree that loomed at the edge of the wide lawn.

As she got closer, he recognized the wavy masses of hair and bouncy stride, even though the first was bleached to silver-grey by the moonlight and the second slightly impeded by the dewy grass. She looked terribly young and earnest, the moonlight hiding the ravages of war, and he followed her into the shadows under the tree.

"Professor Snape!" Hermione Granger said brightly, addressing a dark figure who was leaning against the trunk of the tree, apparently watching the cavorting figures on the lawn. "I thought the shadow lurking under the tree must be you." She was holding a half-empty glass, but her feet and voice were steady and she seemed alert enough.

"And, as you see, you were correct," he said, inclining his head slightly. He looked relaxed, or as relaxed as he ever did look, and there was a glass in his hand as well.

"Good!" She smiled up at him, with every appearance of being delighted to be in his company. "Because I wanted to ask you to dance, and that would be difficult if you were not, in fact, you."

He could almost see the thoughts going through his memory-self's mind. Miss Granger had just asked him to dance. In a decidedly flirtatious tone. Could he be hallucinating?

A single eyebrow rose. "Me, Miss Granger? Dance?"

"Why not? And it's Hermione." She took a sip of her mead, and then set the glass down on a handy tree-root, holding out slender hands to him. "Just one? We can stay under the tree, so nobody sees you doing something so frivolous."

Never in Severus Snape's life had a girl asked him to dance. Certainly not a pretty, headstrong young witch who gazed up at him with a sweetly coaxing expression. Even stone-cold sober he was tempted by her her winsome little appeal.

Severus set down his glass and gravely accepted the offered hands. "I must warn you," he said seriously, "that I am sadly out of practice at this particular activity."

Hermione laughed. "I'm not good at it either," she admitted, moving closer and smiling at him again. "But it's fun all the same. And nobody's watching."

They danced, and although neither did it well, they did appear to enjoy it. Severus seemed to slowly gain confidence, looking down with a wondering expression at the girl in his arms. "It seems strange to be celebrating," he said, after a long pause. "So many have died or been injured..."

"It's like a wake," Hermione said after a moment's thought, tipping her head back to gaze up at him seriously. "We've all been through so much, and lost so many... so tonight we drink and shout and dance until we're happy again."

He watched her hair brushing across his memory-self's hand as it rested decorously on her back, and his own hands twitched, wondering what it had felt like. She was at her most charming when her hair was confined, the better to display her slender neck and delicate features. But seeing it loosened after so long, his fingers twitched with the desire to bury themselves in that waving cascade.

"A logical conclusion," he agreed, gazing down at her. He looked steady enough, he wasn't slurring, but the way his emotions were showing plainly on his face were a definite sign that he'd had much more to drink than he should. "But I am not, in general, inclined to drinking, shouting, or dancing."

"Or being happy, either, I've noticed," she said, arms twining around his neck as she smiled up at him. She pulled his head down, and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "It's a shame. I'd like you to be happy."

Severus could almost feel the warm brush against his own cheek - almost, but not quite. He moved closer still, watching her face eagerly as both pairs of feet stopped moving and they stood looking at each other.

"Really?" He looked a little stunned, gazing down at her as she stood with her arms still around his neck, and his looped around her waist. "Why?"

She touched his forehead, small fingers tracing the frown-line engraved between his brows. "Because you're not," she said simply, and smiled at him, snuggling into what had become an embrace, surely without any intention on his part. "I'm glad you danced with me. I was so nervous about asking you."

He watched himself tense defensively, and then relax. So he hadn't been completely undone by alcohol. At least some of his defenses had still been up.

A small smile quirked his mouth as she snuggled up to him. "As well you ought to have been," he chided, lifting his hand to brush her wavy hair back from her face. "You are being shockingly forward."

Not many defences, though. He would never have risked so blatant a caress sober. Wanted to do it, yes... but he wouldn't have.

"And it's working so well," she said, grinning wickedly up at him. "I think I'll go on being shockingly forward, if you don't mind." Before he could do more than raise his eyebrows, she'd pulled his head down again, kissing him lingeringly.

Had he been sober, he would have pulled away at that point. Probably. But he wasn't sober, and so he froze for a moment and then, tentatively returned the kiss. She made a pleased little noise, wrapping her arms around his neck and proceeding to kiss him thoroughly and at length, a procedure in which he cooperated enthusiastically.

Severus shifted uncomfortably, looking away from their embrace. This wasn't how she'd described the situation at all. She'd claimed to have taken advantage of him, while he was thoroughly inebriated, and he'd expected something more... sordid. A casual matter of 'I'm drunk, and you're here', at best.

Not a request for a dance and a rather charming flirtation leading up to a decidedly mutual kiss. Not seeing her leave a group of younger and handsomer men to seek him out and coax him to put his arms around her. Yes, she was decidedly the one taking the lead, but...

Severus drew away from the kiss, frowning a little. "Why did you do that?" he asked, sounding honestly curious instead of suspicious. Another sign that he'd drunk far too much.

Hermione smiled up at him. "Because I'm seizing the day," she said, brushing her fingers lightly over his cheek. "Doing all the things I'm usually too shy or too nervous to do. And it's nice."

"A mild word for it," he murmured, drawing her a little closer. "Seizing the day, hm?"

"Something we should both do more often," she said firmly. "Kiss me again?"

"Gladly." And he did so, burying a hand in that cloud of wavy hair and tilting her face up to his.

He watched jealously as her small hands twined in his hair, pulling his mouth tighter to hers, and his hands smoothed over her back, plastering her body more tightly against his. His stomach twisted sourly - if he hadn't lashed out at her when she sought to keep this secret from him, might he have tasted her kisses instead of watching his other self savour them? After too long for his peace of mind, she drew back, and her warm smile sent another jolt of jealousy through him.

"If you wanted to continue this more privately," she suggested, pointing over his shoulder, "there's a nice quiet little shed over there that seems to be unoccupied at the moment."

Had he been sober enough at the time to see the faint nervousness in her expression? The way her eyes pleaded with him not to reject her? Or had it just been the shock of having a warm, eager young woman in his arms after being alone for too long?

Severus neither protested nor delayed, but lowered his head to nibble on her ear. "An excellent suggestion," he said, voice a little muffled.

There. That was the moment. He saw the sudden doubt in her face - she knew that this was uncharacteristic behaviour for him, and suspected she should draw back.

She did step back, looking up at him... and then she slid her hand into his, twining their fingers together. "Come on," she murmured, drawing him towards the shed.

He'd seen enough. He didn't need to follow them into the shed.

He followed anyway.

He watched himself being seduced with tender kisses and soft caresses, and flushed with shame as he saw himself respond with pitiful eagerness. He must have thought this a dream come true, at the time - to celebrate his release from the Dark Lord with... Well, if not love, then at least tenderness and passion.

He watched as robes were discarded - she blushed, then, as she hadn't before - and as they tentatively explored each other. She hadn't been repelled by him... by his thinness, or his pallor, or his scars. He watched himself enfolded in slender arms, kissed and coaxed out of embarrassment and nervousness.

"I'm... sorry."

"For what?"

"I don't... do this often."

"Neither do I. But this is a special occasion."

He watched them twined together on robes spread on the floor, heard his name whispered lovingly and saw her hands move over his back, clutching him to her. And it didn't take very long, and they were both a little clumsy, and he was fairly sure he could do better; but afterwards she made little contented sounds, holding him close and pressing her face into his shoulder, and when he smiled shyly at her she smiled back.

Severus fled the memory, his throat burning. Free of it, he stumbled away from the table, his vision blurring with what he refused to admit were tears even when they ran down his face.

Draco had been right. She had cared, even then. She'd sought him out and seduced him with a sincerity that more than made up for her lack of seductive expertise. Then somehow they'd been separated, and he'd fallen asleep in the library, and Draco had taken him to bed, and in the morning he hadn't remembered any of it. What must she have thought of him the next morning, when he snarled at her from the depths of his hangover? That he was another Ron Weasley, probably, who had taken what he wanted and moved on.

But she had known, by the time she confronted him with Martin's existence, that he didn't remember that night. Somehow she'd figured that much out. And she'd told him anyway.

Severus scrubbed his face with his sleeve. Sweet, idiotic girl... she'd tried to get his attention with the method traditional among infatuated teenaged girls, by offering him sex. And had he been able to remember it, it probably would have worked. He'd never been seduced, and he probably would have clung to the miracle of her apparent interest with both metaphorical hands. It was still a stupid ploy, though, even if it would have worked, and of course the wretched girl had been more afraid that he'd find out she'd done something foolish than letting him think she'd molested him while semi-conscious.

And then she'd come to him, frightened but determined, to tell him she carried his child. Another attempt to get his attention, or just stupid Gryffindor honesty? Deliberate or not, it had worked. She'd absorbed him utterly from that moment, and while he hadn't loved her when they'd conceived their son, he did now.

"Perfect timing," he muttered aloud, because it was. He could not love her more, having just ensured that she would probably never speak to him again.

A loud and peremptory mew answered his words, and because some things were far more inevitable than love or parenthood, he fed the Kneazle a very late supper. She looked decidedly peevish, and snubbed him pointedly while she ate.

"I'll apologize," he told her quietly. "Tonight... no, it's too late. She barely sleeps as it is. I'll go to her tomorrow, early, and return the memory, and I'll try to explain. I'll beg and plead and humiliate myself to her if I have to." He'd hate every second of it, but she was worth it. No matter if it was just a schoolgirl crush or a passing fancy, he would take every moment of it he could have and be grateful. If he could just convince her to give him a chance...

Dear God, she'd been beautiful. Like a statue of pinkish marble, all finely modelled lines and firm curves. A little too thin, perhaps, but they all had been by the end of the war. She probably looked different now, after her pregnancy.

He undressed and went to bed, not expecting to be able to sleep but needing to do something to placate Akilah, who promptly curled up on his stomach and started kneading it with all claws extended. Somewhere between Akilah falling asleep and imagining Hermione as a statue in graceful Greek draperies, his eyes closed and Scotch and exhaustion combined to rob him of consciousness.

Severus woke to the sound of his bedroom door slamming open. Before his eyes were open he'd already yanked his wand from beneath his pillow and sat up. Akilah yowled her discontent at his movement, and he knew even before his eyes focused what he would see. Only one living person could pass through his wards without alerting him. Only that same person would have been able to magically unlock his door without being caught by the trap written into the spell.

Hermione looked exhausted, her eyes red-rimmed and the dark smudges under them the only colour in her pale face. She was, however, impeccably groomed, with her hair pinned up and her robes spotless. She also looked absolutely furious. "Where is it?"

Severus glanced at the memory, which he had returned to its tiny bowl in preparation for returning it in the morning. He'd set it on the table beside his bed - for safety, naturally. "I -"

"I don't want to hear it. Just give me my memory." She'd never spoken to him in that tone before - even Draco at his most arrogant had rarely merited that brittle fury.

He slid out of bed, lifting the bowl carefully and carrying it in both hands to Hermione. She dipped her wand into the bowl as soon as it was within reach, capturing the memory and lifting it to her temple. It sank into hair, vanishing without a trace, and her eyes fluttered closed for a moment before opening to glare at him. "You were supposed to bring it straight back to me."

"I..." It sounded stupid, now, but he'd been exhausted and distraught himself. "I didn't want to wake you."

She snorted. "Did you really think I'd be able to sleep after that?"

"I suppose not." He wished he hadn't, either. He wished desperately that he wasn't standing before her in his shabby, greyed nightshirt. Even exhausted and unhappy, she was beautiful. He had rarely been less so.

"You looked at it." It wasn't really a question.


Hermione's face crumpled, but she lifted her chin proudly. Without a word, she turned on her heel and stalked towards the door.

"Hermione-" He had to say something, had to beg her understanding, but he couldn't find the words.

She stopped, still facing the door. "What?"

Severus swallowed hard. "Why?"

She obviously hadn't expected that, turning to look at him with her hurt expression fading into puzzlement. "What do you mean, why?"

"Why me?" He gestured almost angrily at himself. From lank hair to ugly, beaky face to scrawny body to pallid, skinny legs visible under his nightshirt, he knew what he looked like. What he was. "Why would you... of all the men there, why me? Was it pity?" Was it a crush, was it love, tell me and let me know once and for all.

She shook her head, her eyes softening as she looked at him. "No. Not pity."

"Then why? What could you have wanted in me?" He was almost angry, at that moment, that she had burst into his self-imposed isolation without so much as a by-your-leave, to force hope and its attendent agonies upon him.

"I..." She looked away, her cheeks pink. "I thought you'd have realised, after watching the memory."

"It looked..." His voice wavered, and he swallowed hard to force it back under control. "It seemed as if you were... fond of me," he said, feeling his own cheeks heat at the presumption.

"I was." His heart shattered and then was made miraculously whole again when she continued. "I am. Why is that so impossible?"

"It isn't, of course." Severus looked down at himself and then back at her. "The strange thing, of course, is that it took you so long to succumb to my handsome face, muscular form, exquisite manners and vast fortune."

She huffed out a tiny laugh, at that, and met his eyes again. "If I wanted all those, I'd have been trying to seduce Draco."

If Severus had his way, she would never know that that would most likely have succeeded. "Then... why?"

"Because you are... yourself." Hermione shook her head, a small smile curling her lips. "I remember exactly when it happened, you know. The first time you made my knees go all weak. It was just after the attack in Much Benham, when we'd retreated to that horrible boggy field in the middle of nowhere to regroup. You were covered in mud and soot and blood, just like the rest of us, with your robes in shreds and two days' worth of stubble holding the mud to your face. Half of us were injured, and the mud was everywhere so it was hard to see who was hurt. You and Harry were having another fight about tactics, the way you always did - and you were right, like you usually are.

"I wasn't paying a lot of attention, though... I was helping Mrs Weasley with the wounded. Then there you were, kneeling in the mud beside me, still telling Harry off for being too stupid to walk and talk at the same time while you knitted Justin's cuts as fast as I could clean them out. You were being rude and confrontational and brilliant and compassionate and bloody sneaky all at once, keeping Harry busy until someone else could take charge so he couldn't do anything stupid. You smelled like a fire in an abattoir and you looked as if you'd just clawed your way out of your own grave and if there hadn't been so many people around I'd have tackled you right there in the mud and kissed you senseless."

Severus remembered that day, but found he could barely remember Hermione's part in it. His attention had been taken up with the over-enthusiastic Potter brat, and Hermione had been only a silent, steady presence at his elbow, cleansing the wounds with her customary thoroughness. The only thought he'd given her that day was a moment of gratitude that there was at least one person in the group he could rely on to do her job carefully and competently. "Not the most romantic of encounters," he said, cautiously allowing a tiny bubble of hope to well up inside him. If he could inspire such feelings at his very worst...

"No." She smiled lopsidedly. "But there are more important things than romance."

"Mutual respect, for example." He gave her a hopeful look. "Shared interests, and... and so on."

"Getting to know each other really well, so you can be sure it's not just a passing... thing." Hermione had definitely noticed that hopeful look, and was turning him to putty with the yearning look in her beautiful eyes.

"Plenty of conversation." Severus moved a tentative step closer. "Hermione... I'm sorry."

"For what?"

They'd had this exchange before, and he saw her realise it even as he did. "I... don't do this often," he whispered, reaching out to touch her cheek with the very tips of his fingers.

"Neither do I." Hermione didn't draw away.

"You've offered me a place in Martin's life, but not in yours. I couldn't have one without the other." The raw honesty was oddly painless.

"I was hoping the one would lead to the other," she said, her lip quivering a little. "I thought maybe, if you got attached to him first..."

"By the time he was born, the thought of having only one of the two was unbearable." He was closer still now, savouring the dawning joy on her small face. "I was certain that you would never regard me with more than friendship, and that would never have been enough for me."

"Oh..." Her eyes were suddenly awash with tears, but she smiled as she moved closer, covering his hand with hers and pressing it to her cheek. "Not for me, either."

Severus reached for her, then forced himself to step back, withdrawing his hand from her grasp. "Miss Granger," he said formally. "For another week and two days, you are a student."

The momentary hurt was replaced immediately with understanding, and he savoured this new evidence of an intellect well matched to his own. "And while I am a student, we shall of course behave with the utmost propriety," she said, attempting to sound solemn with a small smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. "It would not do for any questions to be raised later about the correctness of your conduct during your time as my teacher."

"Nor about yours." Severus inclined his head slightly, returning her slight smile with one of his own. "Perhaps, when you have taken up residence elsewhere, we might continue to meet occasionally to discuss our planned research... and play chess?"

Hermione beamed at him. "I would enjoy that very much," she said, as demurely as Narcissa Malfoy at her most devious. "And I will return to my room immediately, the better to practice my propriety."

"Good." If he were Draco, he would have bowed or said something suave and charming. But she hadn't wanted Draco, she'd wanted HIM, and Severus flipped his fingers at her as if she were an errant first year. "Shoo."

Her delighted laughter seemed to hang in the air after she left.

Hermione floated back up to her room in a happy haze. The only person she encountered was a sleepy-looking Professor Vector, sneaking back into her room. She and Hermione pretended not to see each other, and Hermione drifted into her room, closing the door behind her carefully.

"Is Miss all right?" Dilly squeaked anxiously.

"Miss is fine," Hermione said dreamily, going over to Martin's cradle and picking him up. "Mummy and Daddy had a little talk today," she told him, kissing his sleepy little face. "I think things are going to work out just perfectly for us."

Dilly sighed. "Dilly is very glad that Professor Snape is seeing sense," she said happily. "All the house-elves is hoping that he and Miss will be settling down properly."

"Miss is hoping so, too," Hermione said, cuddling her drowsy son happily. "Dilly, I could really use some coffee. Strong coffee. And breakfast, if there is any this early."

Dilly looked scandalized at the very thought that there might not be food for a hungry person in a kitchen run by house-elves. "Dilly is getting plenty of breakfast for Miss," she said, vanishing with a louder crack than usual.

Martin started to grizzle, and Hermione smiled, unfastening her robes obligingly. "Your Daddy isn't exactly Prince Charming, but I love him very much," she said softly. "I think you will, too - ow!" Martin had latched on with rather painful enthusiasm. "I'm going to be so glad when you're old enough for solid food, young man."

Several gummy bites, two cups of strong coffee and one minor regurgitation of milk later, Hermione had lost her blissful float entirely; but she was still happier than she quite dared to think about. They had... an understanding. And if he was thinking about future examinations of their conduct, it meant he thought someone might at some point know about this.

"Miss?" Dilly had disposed of the cloths they'd used to wipe up Martin's little incident, and was now standing in front of Hermione, looking nervous again. "Dilly would like to make a request, Miss."

Hermione blinked in surprise. Dilly had never asked her for so much as a tissue, although she'd issued a lot of orders on the subject of proper meals, sleep, and so on. "Of course, Dilly. What is it?"

"The Headmistress has spoken to Dilly. She says she wishes to give Dilly to Miss, so she can still help Miss to look after the baby when she goes away. But the Headmistress thinks Miss will not agree, and Dilly knows Miss has a nasty habit of leaving clothes about." Dilly twisted her ears anxiously. "Dilly wants very much to belong to a proper family, but Dilly does not want to be given clothes."

Hermione hung her head. S.P.E.W. had seemed like a good idea at the time. After months of dealing with a house-elf first-hand (and doing some extensive reading on the subject, which she really should have done earlier), it seemed short-sighted and cruel. While a house-elf as mistreated as Dobby might want to escape, for a happy elf it would be like a child being disowned from his or her beloved family for no reason at all. A house-elf left alone would pine away and die from sheer loneliness, and they were only really happy with lots of people around them to be fussed over. Hermione suspected that house-elf 'enslavement' was really a clever ruse they'd come up with to ensure that their chosen families couldn't run away. "I would never give any elf clothes unless they were wanted. I know better than that now."

"Good." Dilly gave Martin a doting look as he kicked his legs happily. "Dilly is very fond of Miss and the baby. Dilly has never had a family of her own."

Hermione nodded, deeply touched. "Then if the Headmistress does decide to give you to me, I will accept gratefully." She managed a slightly wobbly smile. "I honestly don't know what I'd do without you. I've never had to look after him all by myself."

Dilly bounced excitedly, her big blue eyes moist. "Thank you, Miss. Dilly is telling the Headmistress right away!"

Hermione smiled, and tickled her son's toes as Dilly vanished with a crack. "Well, dearest, in a few hours I think I've secured a Daddy and a house-elf. Our little family's starting to look quite respectable."